Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

– – –

Perhaps I’m too young to be drawn to Yeats’ older poetry. Perhaps every once in awhile one gets preoccupied with growing old, even when one is young and shouldn’t be considering such inevitabilities yet. Either way, I rest assured that I have an equal fascination with the poetry of Yeats’ younger years, the poetry that is so accurately described in the first stanza of this poem.

Like the previous Yeats poem I presented, this poem provides a sharp contrast between the poetry of his younger days and of his elder days. However, the sentiment is reversed: in “Wild Swans” Yeats yearns for his youth and laments what has befallen him through the years. In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats is hardened; he dismisses youth – his own youth and youth in general – as fanciful, singing and embracing each other, listening to music and reveling in the sunshine. “This is no country for old men,” he intones, almost like a commandment or a biblical verse. He feels mocked by the younger generations. He feels useless, “a tattered coat upon a stick,” and so he decides to leave.

He heads to Byzantium, a city he studied and revered. He believed that Byzantium in the sixth century was the perfect time and place to be an artist, and so he wishes to be gathered into Byzantium’s “artifice of eternity,” where his useless body and heart will be stripped away and he will become an unnatural being of pure art (drawing on the root of the word “art” which is “artifice” or “artificial”), a golden bird placed on a golden bough, singing of past, present, and future.

As he grew older, Yeats became more and more preoccupied with death, and with his own death. “Sailing to Byzantium” is a slap in the face to death, his way of outsmarting nature and its inevitabilities. Nature cannot kill something that is not natural; becoming art/artificial is Yeats’ formula for immortality. And it worked, for here we are reading and discussing him.

Naturally, Yeats chooses a solid, artificial style to enhance his theme. The poem is in iambic pentameter, which is generally accepted to be the meter closest to normal English speech. But it is not the same as normal English speech – anyone who has seen Shakespeare performed knows that. The relationship is much like a bird on a treebranch compared to a golden bird on a golden bough. The meter is quite old as well; perhaps Yeats feels a kinship with it.

I’ve enjoyed reflecting on this poem after reading the novel No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and seeing the movie. The connection is a philosophical one. Both texts have at their base one broad idea: the rejection of nature. Yeats sees sorrow in nature; there is fun to be found in youth, mockery to be found in old age, and death waiting at the end. McCarthy’s vision of nature is essentially the same, although he outlines it in a much more violent manner. In the book a serial killer named Chigurh roams the Texas border country; his goal is to kill one particular man, Llewelyn Moss, who has stolen a couple million dollars from the scene of a drug deal gone bad, but Chigurh ends up killing another dozen or so people along the way, some of them simply for guessing wrong on a coin toss. The sheriff tracking Chigurh muses toward the end of the novel that it’s not Chigurh who’s evil, but the land itself. Nature is the spring of violence. The sheriff, Bell, is an old man too; like Yeats he sees recklessness in youth, marveling as he reads the paper and walks down the street at the things kids these days think up to do to themselves (piercings, pink hair) and to others (murder for fun). As the narrator for the book, Bell becomes the novel’s golden bird, singing out the times, and he lives on as art. I like to imagine Yeats and Bell hanging out in ancient Byzantium, trading stories and feeling, at last, some freedom.

Twenty Oh-Eight!
Lines Written: Leo Tolstoy

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