When he was old and dying he wrote great poems. Early in January of 1939 he wrote his last poem. He did not know that he had written his last poem, and on 4 January he began a letter:

‘I know for certain that my time will not be long. I have put away everything that can be put away that I may speak what I have to speak … In two or three weeks — I am now idle that I may rest after writing much verse — I will begin to write my most fundamental thoughts … It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put it all into a phrase I say, “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” … The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence …’

Three weeks later Yeats died — instead of writing his ‘most fundamental thoughts’. But he had done it all along, and he had done it because he never thought he had done it. It is the best possible death, still to pursue the desire of a life, into the grave.

Donald Hall

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