Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

I’d like to make this post as simple as possible, and will therefore give the poem, a standard interpretation (Spark Notes) and then a line-by-line analysis.

Poem

I
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.

Standard Interpretation (Courtesy Spark Notes)

The speaker, referring to the country that he has left, says that it is “no country for old men”: it is full of youth and life, with the young lying in one another’s arms, birds singing in the trees, and fish swimming in the waters. There, “all summer long” the world rings with the “sensual music” that makes the young neglect the old, whom the speaker describes as “Monuments of unageing intellect.”

An old man, the speaker says, is a “paltry thing,” merely a tattered coat upon a stick, unless his soul can clap its hands and sing; and the only way for the soul to learn how to sing is to study “monuments of its own magnificence.” Therefore, the speaker has “sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of “Byzantium.” The speaker addresses the sages “standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall,” and asks them to be his soul’s “singing-masters.” He hopes they will consume his heart away, for his heart “knows not what it is”—it is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” and the
speaker wishes to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity.”

The speaker says that once he has been taken out of the natural world, he will no longer take his “bodily form” from any “natural thing,” but rather will fashion himself as a singing bird made of hammered gold, such as Grecian goldsmiths make “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” or set upon a tree of gold “to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Or what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Analysis

Stanza I

That is no country for old men.

Why That? Is it a country the poet has left, Ireland, or the country of the young, to which he doesn’t belong? Or is it a distancing device, advising the reader that we have already left the country he is describing? Probably all the above.

 The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

It’s a country of the young, a sensuous, loving country. Birds in the trees. An allusion to ‘birds and bees’, perhaps, or that the country is thickly populated. And/or an introduction to ‘singing’ and the bird of Byzantium.

— 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.

Generations inevitably die and pass away. They’re singing as they do so, when the falls and seas  — do what? Nothing; these are descriptive phrases that simply emphasize the crowded state of the natural world of all living things (fish, flesh, or fowl).   All these commend every passing thing (whatever is begotten, born and dies). But commend is a transitive verb: to praise or recommend someone to something. To what or whom are the fish, flesh, or fowl commending? The poem doesn’t say.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect. Caught in the delighted physicality of their world (described as sensual music) the animal world is unaware of  Monuments of unageing intellect. What are these monuments? Contra the Sparks notes above, they can’t simply be the old, obviously, as the elderly age like anyone else, and their mental faculties decay. Indeed the next stanza describes an old man as a paltry thing. Are we being introduced to some esoteric and everlasting intelligence, outside the growth and decay of living things? If so, what is it exactly, and why is it called monuments? So far the poem is one of beautiful but enigmatic fragments.

Stanza II

Enigmas continue in stanza two. 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.  An old man is a negligible thing unless his soul celebrate his miserable body state. Why? It is one thing to wean ourselves away from the passing temptations of the flesh, but quite another to celebrate bodily decrepitude. And an unlikely one. Singing reappears:  Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence; But is the poet saying that singing is natural to the living world, i.e. doesn’t need schools? Or that it should be studied, but isn’t because replaced by the study of  Monuments of its own magnificence? And what are these monuments, by the way? If magnificent, they are clearly not old men. Are they something to do with Byzantium, when we have already left the sensual world of that country? That’s possible but jumps the gun of the next two line (the only fully comprehensible ones in the stanza): And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.

Stanza III

Matters are a little clearer in stanza III, at least in overall drift. We can picture the mosaics of Byzantium catching the sunlight, mosaics which at Ravenna and elsewhere show God the Father and the holy saints. Could these be the sages in O sages standing in  God’s holy fire /As in the gold mosaic of a wall,? Possibly, but in what sense could they be the singing-masters (singing, again!) of my soul? Quite easily, since we have learned from stanza II that soul must sing if man is not to be a paltry thing, and here the sages are to help, to consume the heart (presumably the affections or physicality). Good.

But the next phrase — perne in a gyre  — is a perplexity to everyone, despite extensive commentary: not only what it means (probably a double cone, etc. (7)) but what purpose it serves. The next phrase — It knows not what it is;  —seems innocuous, until we ask what the It is — the heart, the dying animal, the aged man? The artifice of eternity I have looked at in the previous post: it bristles with problems.

Stanza IV

The last stanza is easier to understand, but not why the statements are made.

Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing,

Obviously: this is merely tautological.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

My form is taken from something beautifully crafted. All right, but why? It is bodily form that is being described, note, not the poetry Yeats writes.

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

It seems unlikely an Emperor would be kept awake by looking at or handling such artistry.

Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Byzantine artists (to the best of my knowledge) did not make mechanical birds, certainly not ones that imitated bird song. Nonetheless, perhaps the poet does envisage himself playing that role, and singing

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

About everything, presumably. How? What knowledge or insight does the poet possess that the lords and ladies would want to hear? Just Yeat’s poetry, perhaps? Then why all the foregoing rigmarole?

Assessment

I find this very dispiriting. For ninety years, Sailing to Byzantium has been accepted as a major poem by a major poet, without the obvious questions being asked. Early commentators did have reservations about Yeats, his affections and special ‘poets’ dress’, etc., but with his canonization under Modernism came a reluctance to properly examine his thought, which in this poem boils down to intellectual sleight of hand, playing fast and loose with concepts that are important to occult studies but are here merely alluded to. One can call the poem a mosaic of beautiful but enigmatic images. One can talk about the imaginative invocation of matters that were real to Yeats’ concerns with Neoplatonism and the like. But the plain truth is that the poem doesn’t make sufficient sense. Ideas are toyed with, but not given sensory form, or handled properly, i.e. investigated, integrated and/or built upon. Whether Yeats properly appreciated Neoplatonism, or astrology, or anything else of the occult world beyond needing them as pegs on which to hang his legendary gift for phrasing is an open question, and it is not, as one critic said, that ‘he believed rather easily’ but that he seems to have lacked the qualities required to enter the occult world and work back to insights that revitalize the ‘real world’ again. When the phrase —  ‘rose of the world’, etc. —was part of a traditional image, all was well: the sense and the connotations were readily appreciated. But when, as here and often in the later work, no such traditional associations existed,
there was only obscurity, which would pose as profundity.

Unfortunately, it’s a strategy common to Modernism, which today has not only relinquished the need to say anything intelligible, but the equal need to say it beautifully, which Yeats did at least achieve.

End Notes and Further Reading

1.    Sailing to Byzantium: William Butler Yeats – Summary and Critical Analysis

http://www.bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/sailing-to-byzantium.html#.WCiWQ8lECic

2.    Sailing to Byzantium. Spark Notes.

http://www.sparknotes.com/poetry/yeats/section6.rhtml

3.    Sailing to Byzantium. Shmop. http://www.shmoop.com/sailing-to-byzantium/stanza-1-summary.html
4.    Sailing to Byzantium. Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailing_to_Byzantium

5.    W.B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium PoemShape.

https://poemshape.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/wb-yeats-%E2%9D%A7-sailing-to-byzantium/

6.    Neoplatonism. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoplatonism
7.    Overview of A Vision. YeatsVision. http://www.yeatsvision.com/Overview.html

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