Sunday, January 30, 2011

Poetry Review: Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats

Buy it from The Tower: A Facsimile Edition

Yeats is one of my Top 5 favorite poets, and while I don't really have a favorite collection of his (overall, I stick to his Selected Works to get a wide range of his writing), The Tower is special because it contains "Sailing to Byzantium," one of the loveliest and most well-known poems he wrote. It's 4 stanzas of ottava rima, rhyming ABABABCC (young, trees, song, seas, long, dies, neglect, intellect), and it sticks pretty close to iambic pentameter.

"Sailing" begins with that famous line, "That is no country for old men," and it becomes clear that the poem is from the POV of an old man. Yeats himself was in his 60's when he wrote the poem, so the concerns of old age weren't far removed from him. Stanza 1:

     "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."

So he's complaining, basically. "That" country seems to be the one he's currently living in, or the one he is leaving or has just now left. It's a land of youth where all the attention is placed on young lovers and on the animals, birds, and fish that live exuberantly and then die without any sort of advancement. Old men aren't commended even if their wisdom is "unageing"--they don't fit into this country. Stanza 2 shows how he proposes to get past his biologically-obsessed environment:

     "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."

If physical forms are what we're celebrating, then senior citizens aren't much to talk about. An old man is valuable for his wisdom and his soul, and he should learn to appreciate the battle scars of life or tatters in his "mortal dress". Still, to gain this sort of appreciation he'll have to study art, the "monuments of [the soul's] magnificence". And it's for that purpose that he has has arrived in Byzantium, an ancient city known for its art and culture. I personally think he's only in Byzantium in his imagination, not simply because Byzantium's not really around anymore, but because the last two stanzas seem even less like reality than the first two. Stanza 3:

     "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."

He seems to be asking figures in a paining to come out of their artwork and teach him how to appreciate his condition and his soul. He's really done with his broken-down body and wants to be removed from it. His language is very rough at this point, comparing his body to a beast on the verge of death. He wants to belong to the world of eternal art.

     "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."

In Stanza 3 it seemed like the speaker was in Byzantium, talking to the mosaics, but now it seems like it was all in his imagination, because he's still not where he'd like to be. More than just being dissatisfied with his own weak body, he has decided that if he ever has another form, he'll want to be something finely crafted and unnatural (most scholars say that this signing gold object is a mechanical bird). It's so unusual that this is the speaker's ideal self: a beautiful, permanent piece of interactive art who has access to information about the future. As a reader, what do you even do with that? It sure keeps English teachers busy, diving into the possible interpretations.

The speaker is totally wrapped up in reaching that other country of Byzantium, whether it's supposed to be a literal place where old men are revered, a symbolic place representing the artistic imagination, or a depiction of the afterlife. It can be all three or something else entirely, as the reader likes--the main point is that in whatever way we interpret the specifics, we are listening to a speaker who is longing to be reprieved from decay and old age. And aren't we all? This is a beautiful poem that's very pleasing to the ear and it bears up under endless classroom discussion--if I'd written this review on a different day, I probably would have made entirely different points. It's a favorite poem of mine because it's hinting at something important, but it's just unnerving enough to make you wonder if the speaker's philosophy isn't quite as perfect as he thinks. Grade: A

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