Thursday, November 07, 2013
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 or ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
- William Butler Yeats
This poem is one of the "signature poems" of Yeats. It is often republished and taught in English classes. In it, the speaker is lamenting the onset of age, the time of bodily decay and destruction. Everything around him seems alive with life and its processes. Yet these too are subject to death and degeneration.
He longs to escape into the realm of art, where there is constancy, not decay. He mentions specifically an "artifice" of a golden bird which will sing for the amusement of
the "lords and ladies of Byzantium." Actually, such a bird had been crafted in ancient Greece--but it seems odd that he would choose what is, in effect, a toy, a diversion of the
leisure classes, rather than some monument or work of art of more serious significance.
Note: the phrase "to pern in a gyre" derives from Yeats having seen the spindles in a local factory, in which the twine twisted first one way, then another. These "gyres" became for him a symbol of the great cycles of time, which move now in one direction,
then reverse into the opposite. Interestingly, he felt that our own time was one in which such a major transition would take place.
If you have ever seen the mosaics of the saints on the church walls of the middle east, you recognize the reference to the "fires" which surround them (the gold of the background.) He asks these holy ones to come forth from the created image and "become the singing masters of my soul." In Yeats' day, there were such "singing masters" to help others learn the art of singing.