An Irishman's Diary
“He disappeared in the dead of winter,” wrote W.H. Auden. “The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,/ And snow disfigured the public statues;/ The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day,/ O all the instruments agree/ The day of his death was a dark cold day.”
Presumably Auden was writing about conditions in England at the time. The weather can hardly have been as bleak on the Côte d’Azur, where the subject of his poem, W.B. Yeats, died 70 years ago today. In fact, as well as enjoying the benign winter of Roquebrune, the great man breathed his last in the charmingly named Hotel Idéal Séjour, which sounds like as good a place to go as any.
Two days later, The Irish Times carried a report of his demise – courtesy of Reuters – that was also not without charm. Mr Yeats had been in Roquebrune since December, it noted.
“His health was very delicate, by reason of a heart affection [sic], and he was seen out frequently in a bath chair, but walked occasionally in the garden of the hotel or in the little park adjoining it. Last week, however, he took to his bed, and since Tuesday he had not been able to get up.” For a man who, in Under Ben Bulben, had been careful enough to dictate both his final resting place and his epitaph, Yeats seems to have taken a more relaxed attitude to such arrangements near the end. He told his wife George: “If I die, bury me up there [on the cliff-side cemetery of Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”
It is to be hoped he would have seen the funny side of the muddle that followed. In the event, it took nearly 10 years, rather than one, for the exhumation to be arranged. And his official “planting” in Sligo took place on a typically grey Irish day in September 1948, with rain driving in from the sea and soaking the Tricolour on the coffin that had been escorted from the south of France by a Naval corvette.
At a ceremony before the cortège left France, a local lawyer, paying tribute to the poet, joked that he had chosen to spend his final days in Roquebrune to catch a preview of “paradise on earth”. But already by then there were whispers that his relationship with the village had taken on a more permanent quality.
The rumours reached a wider audience four decades later when a book published in 1988 claimed that the hallowed grave near Ben Bulben probably contained the remains of one or more unknown Frenchmen, rather than Yeats, since the latter had inadvertently ended up in a paupers’ grave at Roquebrune, from which the bones were beyond identification.
Soon afterwards, a competing version of events emerged: that the Sligo re-burial had been of an Englishman called Alfred Hollis, who had died in Roquebrune the same week as Yeats and been buried next to him; and whose remains had since disappeared.
Central to the second claim was a leather and metal corset Mr Hollis was known to have worn. When, after learning of the Yeats exhumation, the Hollis family made inquiries in Roquebrune, they discovered that the doctor certifying the poet’s remains had identified just such a corset among them.
The poet’s surviving family intervened at this point with a letter to The Irish Times, expressing their certainty that both these claims were unfounded. Yeats’s body had been moved from its original burial place in Roquebrune at some point, it was true. But the identification of the repatriated remains had been meticulous, aided by the poet’s unusually large bone structure and by the fact that, because of a hernia, he had worn a truss.
Despite the family’s certainty, the argument did not end there. It still resurfaces occasionally – in this column among other places. Describing a pilgrimage to Roquebrune a few years ago, novelist Fred Johnston attributed some of the confusion surrounding the issue to a well-intended cover-up mounted in 1947 by the poet’s friend, the artist Edmund Dulac, when he visited the cemetery and discovered to his horror that the bones had been consigned to a communal ossuary.
Whatever the truth about the remains, the mix-up can be attributed to the unfortunate timing of the poet’s death. The “year” he told his wife to wait before bringing his body home had not elapsed when events in Europe suddenly made such arrangements much more difficult. And the debacle in Roquebrune cemetery might be blamed at least partly on the tumult through which France subsequently passed.
It wasn’t just the weather that was bleak when Yeats died, although his death coincided with a short-lived sunny spell in European politics. The report of the funeral was carried on page 1 of this newspaper under a story about Germany’s latest major foreign policy statement: “Only war-mongers think there will be a war,” read the banner headline, quoting the German chancellor.
The sub-heading was: “Hitler expects many years of peace.”