Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sailing to Byzantium

~William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~

I first read this one a couple of months ago and like way it sounds and the imagery of it. I couldn't find a copy of Yeats reading it, but I did find him reading "Innisfree" and a couple of others. It's very interesting -- he's chanting the poem, almost Gregorian style.


  1. I recognize the first line from pop culture (movie title?), but even after reading through twice, I wasnt sure I liked it.

    Sad about dying and getting old?

  2. Sad about getting old, yes, but I think it's because of the culture we live in that idolizes the young and innovative and doesn't honor the aged.

    In the second stanza he says that physically aging is terrible and it's even harder because we don't have living examples of how it's to be done well. "Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence."

    After that I'm not quite sure what he's saying, but I think he's retreating into his own private world of myth and symbol.

    If you have I'll Take my Stand, Donald Davidson's essay "A Mirror for Artists" describes the phenomenon. Up until Milton's time the artist always spoke on behalf of his culture, but since the Industrial Revolution "he is no longer with society.... He is against or away from society, and the disturbed relation becomes his essential theme."


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!