Another poem from one of my favorites, William Butler Yeats. Why do I favor him? Two reasons: First, I’m Irish, and so was he. Second, he was one of the greatest poets of the Twentieth Century. Possibly the greatest. Here’s the poem:
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 longWhatever 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.
So Yeats was a cyberpunk! He wanted to upload his body into a machine! Well... not quite. He was a mystic, remember. So here, Byzantium isn’t just the ancient center of empire that stood where Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) now stands but a poetic, elated, Paradisial state. Byzantium is “no country for old men.” You can see that Yeats is feeling old and sorry for himself. Here, he’s saying that he wants to be young and live forever. Sorry, Bill, not allowed. BUT once he’s passed “out of nature” (which is to say, when he’s dead), he wants to be an artificial, beautiful, and undying bird, singing “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Which is to say, he wants to live on in his poems.
You know how rappers get up and brag about themselves in their songs? Yeats is doing the same thing here, in a subtler way. “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, “ he says, “unless Soul clap its hands and sing.” Which his does here.
Yeats also had a weakness for archaic words. Take “perne in a gyre,” for example.
Perne is the Gaelic (or, as they call that language in Ireland, Irish) for bobbin and gyre is a circular or corkscrew motion. The phrase thus means spinning bobbin and probably refers to one’s life spinning itself out. (Keeping always in mind that Yeats – busy man! – was also a mystic and gyres figured prominently in his occult theories.)
Oh, and one last thing. That reference to “mackerel-crowded seas” is a poetic epithet. A poetic epithet is a descriptive tag commonly applied to a thing or person. Homer used lots of ‘em: “Swift-footed Achilles, earth-shaking Poseidon, rosy-fingered dawn, wine-dark sea,” to name but four. Originally, they were conveniences for aural poets who had to memorize hundreds and even thousands of lines and make them scan. After the establishment of print, they became a way of evoking the ancient poetic past.
More on epithets next.