In responding to a post by Invisible Mikey, I quoted the epitaph of Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 to 1939). Yeats is buried in Drumcliff churchyard, Sligo, Ireland and the inscription is engraved on his simple tombstone. It is taken from the last lines of his poem Under Ben Bulben.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
[Tombstone of W. B. Yeats]
I’ve read numerous explanations of the interpretive meaning of these words – you can read more, for example, at http://ireland.wlu.edu/landscape/Group4/analysis6.htm – but what interests me is the literal derivation. The only explanation that I remember – and it may be apocryphal – of this brief ending to Yeats’ poem came from William F. Buckley. I am now paraphrasing from faulty memory.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, at the entry to fortifications, everyone who was not among the landed class was stopped and questioned by the gatekeeper. It was also the time of the bubonic plague that claimed lives of all ages suddenly and indifferently. The gatekeeper, who determined whether or not a person gained entry, was suspicious of anyone who did not belong or who was ill.
Hence “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death.”
Anyone on horseback was considered a member of the gentry – knights, priests and noblemen – and did not need to be questioned. They were allowed to pass without stopping.
Thus “Horseman, pass by!”
The interpretive meanings I leave to others.
[Drumcliff churchyard courtesy of 2c..’sphotostream https://www.flickr.com/photos/2cme/ ]