Who’s Buried in Yeats’ Grave?

William Butler Yeats is widely regarded as one of the greatest modern poets. He's also my favorite poet (and we happen to share a birthday!). When I spent a semester studying in Ireland fifteen years ago I made a special trip to visit his grave located just outside of Sligo. It's well worth a visit, even if you couldn't care less about Yeats, because the scenery there is stunning. But now I find out that Yeats may not occupy that grave. Instead, it may be a random Englishman named Alfred Hollis who's buried there. According to this article on Eircom.net it's very likely that a mix-up occurred when Yeats' remains were moved from France to Ireland in 1948. So now I have to make a completely different trip to France if I want to say that I've been to Yeats' grave. Though unfortunately, even if I do make it to his real grave, I'm sure that I still won't have any clue what Yeats meant by his epitaph: "Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by."

Death Literature/Language

Posted on Wed Oct 27, 2004



I am an American graduate student completing my MA at Trinity College Dublin.
WB Yeats is also one of my favorite poets and has remained so since I first began writing poetry at the age of fifteen. I was quite fortunate to have attended a Yeats Seminar with an excellent scholar named Prof. Fred Grab when I was an undergraduate at Bard College. I also studied Yeats at University College Dublin for my first MA.
Yeats epitaph is simply admonishing the horseman to continue on his journey. Traditionally travelers would stop at gravesites and reflect on tombstone epitaphs to remind them of their own mortality and the importance of life. Yeats is saying don't waste your time by stopping because life is to be lived in the moment and one should cast a cold eye on it as well as death, etc.
Hope this helps.
Erik Vatne
Posted by Erik Vatne  on  Mon May 15, 2006  at  09:39 PM
But why a horseman? Why not 'Stranger, pass by"?

Is he referring to one of the horsemen of the apocalypse? Or just any old horseman?

And if he says 'Cast a cold eye on life', how does that mean to live in the moment? It sounds to me like he may be saying to be skeptical of life and death (cast a cold eye on them), because they're just an illusion. Of no ultimate value.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Sat Jul 08, 2006  at  10:43 PM
We have to read the poem Under Ben Bulben in which Yeats leads up to these words. Not that I yet understand his meaning, but he says: Here's the gist of what [all these scenes] mean; then he talks about the artist's role in relation to God, both creators; then he adjures Irish poets to "learn your trade" so that "we in coming days may be/Still the indomintable Irishry." So I'd say he's telling the horseman not to stop because he, Yeats, has done all he can for life and death in his art. The "cold eye" is the eye of art.
Posted by Mari  on  Fri Jun 01, 2007  at  06:35 PM
Yeats lived a fairly long life for his time so it is safe to assume that he wrote his epitaph, when he was preparing for his own death. In my opinion, it seems as Yeats facing his own mortality as he draws near, was giving the following advice to his readers:
Posted by Helene Brigitte Crowley  on  Sat Dec 29, 2007  at  12:16 PM
Yeats is addressing "Death" directly. He describes him and then commands him to move on.
Posted by James Gallery  on  Sun Jan 04, 2009  at  10:52 PM
I don't think Death is the Horseman. Why would he be telling Death to cast a cold eye on itself? I think the Horseman is a metaphor for the reader.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Mon Jan 05, 2009  at  08:45 AM
I choose to think he is describing how "Death" relates to both, life and death, with a cold eye, (no emotion or compromise). I believe that the horseman is a metaphor for death, as said above the horsemen of the apocalypse.
Posted by James Gallery  on  Mon Jan 05, 2009  at  01:09 PM
"William Butler Yeats is regarded as one of the greatest modern poets" So starts the blurb above. Yet when he writes his own epitaph, which we presume he regards as his most important statement and the counsel of wisdom which he leaves to mankind,his followers and admirers haven't a clue what he's talking about. Would somebody please explain to me what it is that makes a 'great' poet.
Is it incomprehensibility?
Posted by Ian  on  Fri Aug 14, 2009  at  12:26 PM
You presume to much.

Here's another of his poems, seems timeless and quite clear.


TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of i{Spiritus Mundi}
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Posted by James Gallery  on  Fri Aug 14, 2009  at  03:01 PM
Well, duh.... for most of Yeats' life riding a horse was how people travelled if they did not want to walk.
Posted by Ferdi  on  Mon Mar 29, 2010  at  05:59 AM
Sorry, being far from a Yeats expert, can his epitaph be somehow related to some alchemical/oriental/occult philosophies quite in vogue around europe at that time? It is said that he had a life-long interest in that matters and -i repeat im not an expert, not even irish :D- and I recall having my mind blown as a teenager reading a book by him named "Rosa Alchimica"... describing occult rituals and symbols. That many people was into occult at the time should not be understood in a "danbrownesque" way -lol 😊- its history. Yeats himself was part of a "Ghost Club" and probably some pseudo-masonic organization...

As for the horseman, i read a review from the book " Yeats' Epitaph
A Key to Symbolic Unity in His Life and Work
by James Lovic Allen" - strongly suggesting horseman as a symbol of the body-soul couple.

Excuse my poor english, see ya! :D
Posted by Doctor Mabuse  on  Wed Mar 31, 2010  at  06:21 PM
W B Yeats is indeed buried at Drumcliffe: if he wasn't, his wife George would not have remained in the grave.
Posted by Declan Foley  on  Tue Apr 13, 2010  at  05:09 AM
I rather think it doesn't matter if he's buried there or not, although it's certainly an inspiring place to visit, and once inspired, to move on and continue to live life to the full if that is your fancy.
Posted by peter kozak  on  Wed Jun 09, 2010  at  07:25 PM
The best interpretation of "Cast a cold eye..." is in the book "Anam Cara" by John O Donohue.

I am organising the Fourth John Butler Yeats Seminar at Trinity College Dublin September 10-12, 2010
visit http://www.johnbutleryeatsseminar.com for information
Posted by Declan Foley  on  Sat Jul 10, 2010  at  06:45 PM
I always like to think of it meaning it doesnt matter if someone lives or dies life still goes on, as in if I live or I die cars(Horsemen) will still pass by my grave. So dont worry about it! Of course I could be completely wrong but that is what I take from it.
Posted by Aaron  on  Tue Aug 24, 2010  at  06:13 PM
Yeats lived through the most turbulent years of Irish history and spent years being tortured by his passion for Maude Gonne. His epitaph seems to be the hard learned wisdom of a long life. Look on life, and death, with some detachment--some sense of perspective. If you are moving along, Horseman, keep on going.
Posted by Chileristras  on  Tue Nov 09, 2010  at  09:48 PM
I stopped by Drumcliff in September and have puzzled over the epitaph too. But I completely agree with Aaron from Roscommon. This was my very first impression on reading the words.
Posted by Stacy Ward McAdams  on  Wed Nov 24, 2010  at  01:46 PM
Stacey and Aaron are correct, Yeats was saying that life is a matter of putting one foot of front of the other. "Horseman pass by. "
Posted by Chiletistras  on  Sun Nov 28, 2010  at  07:54 PM
"Chileristras" is my internet name. I love my IPAD but it facilitates mistakes. A "chileristras" is that colorful welcoming braid of chiles that you see on New Mexico houses and in New Mexican kitchens.

Yeats lived long and hard. Not physically, but hard emotionally and intellectually. He watched his fast friends turn shrill during the Irish Revolution and cause harm by their zealotry. He would have had the same critici.losms of the 60s.

He came to look on life as requiring more equanimity and judgment than just following the hard passions that can seize
you in youth.

His epitaph looks not for passion but for constancy with perhaps a touch of cynicism.
Posted by Chileristras  on  Sun Nov 28, 2010  at  09:00 PM
for me, yeats verse is a simple advice, how to live.
cast a cold eye on it and even on death too.
and then let the horseman travel on to more important destinations, where the cast of a cold eye will surely not be enough.
life is part of a longer journey; you and your will, your fate, your believe are the 'horseman'. they tell him/ should guide you to your final goal.
yeats might have been unasure where the journey will end.
therefore he just tells the horseman to pass by.
life and death as an episode, the final destination point unsure ?
(not for me, i hope for the mercy of an almighty god and a kind of paradise after life and death.)

gods mercy for a bloody german
Posted by Scheintot  on  Tue Aug 28, 2012  at  03:31 PM
Much like the musicians of today who write verses more for their ability to rhyme than to mean anything,Yeats probably did a lot of the same. He certainly had the ability to put words together in a rhythmic scheme that leave a lot to interpretation. Who knows what kind of a creative stupor he was in at the time. The more obscure something is the better the debate over the meaning. Anyway it's probably the coolest inscription on a grave marker anywhere. I agree with most of the comment's who think that he is telling the passerby's not to look for answer's to life's journey in a grave yard but to keep moving in a forward direction.
Posted by Russ Fitton  on  Sun Mar 10, 2013  at  04:30 AM
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