(John Dugdale’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/24.)

“Who rests under Ben Bulben?” asked the Irish Times’s front page last weekend, referencing WB Yeats’s poem eerily looking forward to his grave in a churchyard beneath a crag in Co Sligo. “Not Yeats,” was the paper’s blunt answer. “Papers confirm bones sent by French were not poet’s.” Yeats died in Roquebrune on the French Riviera in 1939, which prevented the return of his remains to Ireland and his widow until after the war. The letters recently unearthed confirm speculation that his bones were inexplicably disinterred and mixed up with others in 1946; the skeleton sent back for reburial in Sligo two years later, with the “tacit acceptance” of the Yeats family and the Irish foreign minister (who happened to be Maud Gonne’s son), was probably assembled from “the remains of several people” in the Roquebrune church’s ossuary. What this illustrates is that great poets’ remains can be objects of reverence to the same degree as those of saints, charismatic political leaders or rock stars, but this very preciousness entails a recurring grisly comedy of graves being dug up, coffins opened, relics purloined and tussles over ownership.


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