The first line of Yeats’ poem, Sailing to Byzantium will be familiar to movie fans as the title of a very fine, and very violent movie that came out a few years ago, No Country for Old Men. But it also sets the tone for the rest of this poem and explains the title and conclusion of the poem. The everyday hustle, bustle, energy and commerce of life in one of western Europe’s big cities, I guess Dublin in Yeats’s case, is no place for an old man, who has no more need to earn a living or raise a family, and indeed it is easy for the old to be marginalised. So Yeats advises going to a place where contemplation and reflection on timeless wisdom are possible, and, for him, this is symbolised by sailing to Byzantium, to live with sages and priests, wise men who will welcome him.
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.
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.
The poem is made up of four stanzas, each of 8 lines. The first sets the context, the second deepens the dilemma and introduces the resolution, the third explains what the poet is seeking and the fourth brings the poet to his eternal destiny. So there is progression and resolution in the poem.
The first stanza begins with the notion that the poet’s home is no place for old men and goes on to describe features of the Ireland he knew, a place for the young, enjoying nature and caring little for the intellect and experience of the old.
The second stanza homes in on the status of the old, withering away, neglected, but wanting to sing in a place where their song is not heard. And so the poet resolves to sail away to Byzantium, to a place where wisdom, art, beauty and experience are honoured and valued.
The third stanza greets the sages and priests of Byzantium and implores them to liberate his soul from the prison of a dying body and set him free to sing for eternity.
The fourth stanza has the poet transformed into a golden bird able to sing for ever to the Emperor, the lords and ladies or any passer by. The songs are Yeats’s poetry – and we can imagine him singing to us from Byzantium as we scan his words off the page.
The Poetry Dude