That is no country for old men. The young

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

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.

From <;

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

Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado

This sonnet from Garcilaso is about that typical theme of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of the suffering of the poet in love, because his lover scorns him. There are numerous variations of this topic, from Garcilaso to Shakespeare and many in between. Although a bit convoluted, there is a lot to admire in the clever sequencing, language and ultimately impeccable logic of these pieces.


Cuando me paro a contemplar mi estado
y a ver los pasos por dó me ha traído,
hallo, según por do anduve perdido,
que a mayor mal pudiera haber llegado;

mas cuando del camino estoy olvidado,
a tanto mal no sé por dó he venido:
sé que me acabo, y mas he yo sentido
ver acabar conmigo mi cuidado.

Yo acabaré, que me entregué sin arte
a quien sabrá perderme y acabarme,
si quisiere, y aun sabrá querello:

que pues mi voluntad puede matarme,
la suya, que no es tanto de mi parte,
pudiendo, ¿qué hará sino hacello?

From <;

The first four lines put the poets own state of mind at the centre of the poem, saying basically that he was heading for ruin, but things haven’t got as bad as they could be. But the second four lines are in direct contrast with the opening of the poem, saying that the poet is on the path to ruin and nothing he can do will stop it. Note that at this point the poet’s lover has not yet entered the picture as the explanatory variable. She comes in the first group of three lines when the poet admits he fell for one who could lead to his ruin if she wanted to, and she will surely want to. And the poem ends with a Baroque paradox – if he can end his own life through his own will, how much more likely is it that his lover will end it for him?

It quite makes your head swim, but that’s OK, the poem does a good job of retaining your interest.

The Poetry Dude

Flatter un créditeur, pour son terme allonger,

We know that many of du Bellay’s poems were written while he spent several years in Rome, as part of a diplomatic mission to the Papal Court. There are poems where he bemoans his absence from France, poems where he reflects on the glories of ancient Rome and its decline to a state of decadence, and more personal poems, like this one, where he shares some of his own experiences of living in the Eternal City. But in fact the bulk of this poem could be summarised as du Bellay’s lessons for life, wherever anyone happens to live. It is only in the last two lines of the sonnet that he reveals that these are the lessons he has learnt from living in Rome for three years.

Flatter Un Créditeur, Pour Son Terme Allonger,

Flatter un créditeur, pour son terme allonger,
Courtiser un banquier, donner bonne espérance,
Ne suivre en son parler la liberté de France,
Et pour répondre un mot, un quart d’heure y songer :

Ne gâter sa santé par trop boire et manger,
Ne faire sans propos une folle dépense,
Ne dire à tous venants tout cela que l’on pense,
Et d’un maigre discours gouverner l’étranger :

Connaître les humeurs, connaître qui demande,
Et d’autant que l’on a la liberté plus grande,
D’autant plus se garder que l’on ne soit repris :

Vivre avecques chacun, de chacun faire compte :
Voilà, mon cher Morel (dont je rougis de honte),
Tout le bien qu’en trois ans à Rome j’ai appris.

Joachim du Bellay

From <;

All of the 15 or so pieces of advice which the poet gives seem sound to me, and of universal application. I particularly like the one about thinking for a quarter of an hour before replying to someone – this is very relevant in the age of Twitter. And I love the last one, which I interpret as rub along with everyone, take their views into account, don’t ignore people – this is very human and the world would certainly be a better place of we could all follow this advice.

I would happily spend three years in Rome, if it meant I could truly internalise all these great lessons in life. What a pity Paul Gascoigne didn’t follow du Bellay’s example.


The Poetry Dude

Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,

This is one of those poems that seems incomprehensible in hindsight, bit which was probably quite mainstream in the 1930s. There are some in this vein by Neruda, for example. It is a poem written on the death of a Russian Communist official, probably murdered on Stalin’s orders, who has himself been responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities. Today we would think it is probably good for the world that such folk get bumped off, but at that time there was still the notion of Communism as a force for good and the personalities of Communist leaders were almost venerated.
So the death of Kirov would have seemed a natural subject for a gifted English poet with Communist sympathies, as was John Cornford. And there is some pathos in the subject matter when we know that Cornford went on to be killed in the Spanish Civil War as a very young man, not quite 21, fighting against Franco’s forces.

Sergei Mironovitch Kirov

Nothing is ever certain, nothing is ever safe,
To-day is overturning yesterday’s settled good.
Everything dying keeps a hungry grip on life.
Nothing is ever born without screaming and blood.
Understand the weapon, understand the wound:
What shapeless past was hammered to action by his deeds,
Only in constant action was his constant certainty found.
He will throw a longer shadow as time recedes.

Rupert John Cornford

From <;

The poem only refers to the incident which inspired it in the title. The body of the poem describes the constant turmoil, instability and violence of a revolution such as Kirov was a main player in. It accepts that people suffer and die to bring about the new world, “nothing is ever born without screaming and blood”. The poem also seems to recognize that action itself, with all its destructive power, could become an end in itself, such that the cycle of violence is self-perpetuating. Despite this bleak and terrible message, the poem Is clearly meant to be in praise of Kirov and his like, with the last line implying that his legacy and reputation will grow as time passes. This is the tragic illusion of that generation. I wonder what would be the equivalent today? Poems in praise of Osama Bin Laden, perhaps?

The Poetry Dude

Durant el llarg estiu hem vist cremar molts boscos

Here is a poem in Catalan by Salvador Espriu. Espriu is usually held up as an example of a poet toiling in obscurity, motivated only by his art and with no desire for reward or recognition. He was a menial clerk in either a law firm or an accountants office, I forget which, a sort of Bob Cratchit figure earning a pittance. But he was published and anthologised in his lifetime, so I guess he actually did get a good deal of recognition.

This is a poem written for the wedding of some friends of his, at Sinera, an imaginary town on the Catalan coast. The title is also suitably tentative – “Possible Introduction to an Epithalamion”, which is a poem written especially for a new bride at a wedding. When you add the reclusive and obscure condition of the poet to the tentative nature of the title, and the reference to an imaginary place in the sub-title, you already get an air of mystery worthy of one of those French New wave films, where no-one can quite figure out what it all means.

Bodes d’uns amics, a Sinera

Durant el llarg estiu hem vist cremar molts boscos
al nostre vell país tan desarbrat.
Quan tramuntava el sol, de l’incendi del vespre
s’alçaven foc que lentament obrien
les amples portes de la desolació de la nit.
Ronden garbí o migjorn: sempre, sempre
el sec alè del vent damunt els camps.
L’eixut estroncà dolls, arrasava collites,
endinsa en el record fressa de pluja
per vinyes i rials, camí de mar.
Però segueix, tristesa enllà, el designi de vida,
car fou escrit que l’amor venceria la mort.
Ara un home i una dona joves resolien casar-se,
i nosaltres acollim somrients el coratge
dels qui confien que hi haurà demà.

From <;

And then we get into the content of the poem which is quite unusual for a wedding poem. The scene is a desolate landscape, the trees burnt down by forest fires, fed by the dry wind blowing over the fields relentlessly. This does not seem like the setting for a wedding or happiness or fruitfulness. But the last three lines introduce the young bride and groom, surrounded by the poet and his friends admiring their courage that there will be a brighter tomorrow. Of course, the whole thing might be an allegory of the status of minority languages and cultures in Franco’s Spain, when the Catalan language was effectively suppressed for forty years.

Whatever the meaning, we can all hang on to that one line “car fou escrit que l’amor venceria la mort.” Hear, hear.

The Poetry Dude

A quatre heures du matin, l’été,

Arthur Rimbaud wrote all his poems as a very young man or as a teenager, but this poem shows how self-aware he was and how he could capture a moment and a feeling in the turbulent life of a young man. It is morning, and presumably the poet has been out carousing through the night, maybe he is not quite sober, but as the morning comes what does he notice but the handsome workers beginning the early shift. So the poet’s good thought of the morning is to fantasise about the charms of the muscular manual workers going to begin their labours.

So, perhaps more of a lust poem than a love poem, but beautifully written all the same.

Arthur RIMBAUD   (1854-1891)

Bonne pensée du matin

A quatre heures du matin, l’été,
Le sommeil d’amour dure encore.
Sous les bosquets l’aube évapore
L’odeur du soir fêté.

Mais là-bas dans l’immense chantier
Vers le soleil des Hespérides,
En bras de chemise, les charpentiers
Déjà s’agitent.

Dans leur désert de mousse, tranquilles,
Ils préparent les lambris précieux
Où la richesse de la ville
Rira sous de faux cieux.

Ah ! pour ces Ouvriers charmants
Sujets d’un roi de Babylone,
Vénus ! laisse un peu les Amants,
Dont l’âme est en couronne.

Ô Reine des Bergers !
Porte aux travailleurs l’eau-de-vie,
Pour que leurs forces soient en paix
En attendant le bain dans la mer, à midi.

From <;

The progression of the poem goes from abstract thoughts of love in the first stanza, following a night of partying, perhaps; through growing awareness of the physical charms of the workers in the middle stanzas; and ending up in the final stanza the thought that he can perhaps go and meet them at mid-day when they go to bathe in the sea at mid-day after their shift ends.

Maybe he got lucky…

The Poetry Dude

Well, son, I’ll tell you:

This poem from Langston Hughes is a really good evocation of human hope, aspiration, the passing on of values, all positive aspects of human experience, but the context is a reminder that poverty is all around us and the struggles of the poor make everything in their lives difficult and complicated. I like it that poetry can take on questions like this and make an impact on us all to at least open our eyes and be aware of other people’s poverty and struggle.

The poem is in the form of a mother talking to her son about life, what she has experienced and what to expect.

Mother To Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Langston Hughes

From <;

The metaphor for life is climbing the stairs, which works pretty well. The mother has never climbed a crystal stair – she is in a completely different world from the one-per-cent. The stairs of her life have been rickety, a bit dangerous, precarious, shabby. There are few options for the poor. But she has a message of hope – she never stopped climbing that stair, difficult as it was. And this is the message that she wants to pass on to her son – never stop climbing, never stop trying, striving for something better. Keep in school, stay out of trouble, get a job, claw your way up the stair and you can get closer to a more comfortable life. For the mother it is probably too late, but she is transferring her hopes and dreams to her son and exhorting him to carry on the struggle.

Powerful stuff…Maybe some parallels here with Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” if you wanted to make an existentialist reading of this poem.

The Poetry Dude