Seventy-five years ago today—on January 28, 1939—William Butler Yeats died at a boarding house on the French Riviera. He was 73 years old, at the height of his fame and glory. “Mr. Yeats frequently let his mind roam far afield in the realm of fancy,” gushed the New York Times obituary, “and it is for the gentle beauty of such works that he was hailed by many as the greatest poet of his time in the English language.”
But there was no gentle beauty in the three poems by Yeats that appeared in The Atlantic in January 1939, the month the poet died. All of them are brutal pieces of deathbed reckoning. In “Man and the Echo,” the poet stands in front of a blank cliff face, racked by guilt over his role in the 1916 Easter Rising:
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house was wrecked?
And all seems evil until I
Sleepless would lay down and die.
The echo advises him, “Lay down and die.”
In “The Circus Animal’s Desertion,” the poet mocks his entire career as a writer. “My circus animals were all on show,” he writes, bitterly describing how he tried and failed to live up to his purest visions. By the end, he’s lying in a garbage pit filled with broken, hideous things: “Now that my ladder's gone, / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”