Sunday, January 21, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

The book that I was reading last week referenced this poem and so I had to go back to the source and read it once again. I had first read it long, long ago in another lifetime in my English literature class. It didn't have a lot of meaning for me then; it was just words. These days it is a lot more relevant to me.

Yeats wrote it when he was around 60 years of age and he was, perhaps, beginning to feel some of the aches and pains of "old age." He was writing metaphorically about the spiritual journey of one seeking eternal life and the work of the imagination that is required to continue as a vital individual even when the heart is "fastened to a dying animal" (the physical body). He says that aging is "no country for old men," or as a modern philosopher has stated it, "Aging is not for pussies the fainthearted!"   


Sailing to Byzantium


by William Butler Yeats


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. 


II 

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. 


III 

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. 


IV 

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.

4 comments:

  1. I'm not sure I caught the whole essence of the poem, but I liked stanza III particularly.

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    Replies
    1. His meaning is not at all clear and straightforward. You have to dig for it, and like all poetry, in the end, the meaning is somewhat individual to each reader.

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  2. Yes, I make more sense of it at my current age.
    Do you suppose Cormac McCarthy took the title of his book from that first line?

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