“Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B.Yeats

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 unaging 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.

The poet uses powerful visual and auditory imagery to convey the timelessness of art in a natural world which is subject to decay.

Broadly the imagery used revolves around :

The birds image -Birds in the first stanza represent the dying generations viz.the natural world .They are also the “fowl” “caught in that sensuous music” of life.In the second stanza the image of the “perne in a gyre” is taken from falconry -an extension of the bird image.In the third stanza the bird becomes a golden bird set upon a golden bough singing to keep the drowsy emperor awake .The transformation is from the singing bird of the dying generations in the first stanza to the artifice of the golden bird which is timeless art against the dying bird of the natural world.

The music image- in the first stanza the music is of the natural world which sings of “whatever is begotten,born and dies” and “fish,flesh or fowl”are “caught” in that sensuous music .In the second stanza “An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing “.Here music is soul-uplifting ,immortalising human existence through art .In the third stanza the music takes the form of the golden bird singing to the Lords and Ladies of Byzantium /Of what is past ,or passing or to come”

The old age or dying image- the most powerful metaphor used in the second stanza is that of a scarecrow.(A tattered coat upon a stick) .The comic absurdity of an old man’s existence is poignantly brought out in the image. The redeeming quality of art raises the human existence from its absudity to immortality. The scarecrow image has another connotation -the scarecow scares away the dying generations of the young world caught up in the sensuous music of the natural world.There is another minor image of the same connotation in the third stanza -that of the soul being “fastened to a dying animal”

Visual imagery in Shakespeare’s plays

I have always been fascinated by the stunning visual imagery in Shakespeare’s plays .While Shakespeare uses all the sensory effects in imagery very effectively the fact that the plays are essentially meant to be acted out on the stage and not to be read in the study makes the visual imagery a necessary ingredient of the plays .The sheer beauty of the imagery might have gone over the heads of the essentially plebeian audience of the Elizabethan era but to the discerning reader the beauty continues to captivate.

The following lines from “the Tempest”
have some of the most enthralling visual imagery that one comes across n Shakespeare’s plays :

…of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth change
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange…”

The most fascinating aspect of the above lines comes from the “ethereal” quality of the lines as they are spoken by an essentially aerial creature “Ariel”. Here is what the poet conveys about the evanescence of human existence ,at the same time bringing out the superiority of art over an organic existence. The noble Prince is supposed to undergo a spiritual transformation from an essentially flesh-and-blood existence into an infinitely beauteous natural existence,pure and pristine like a pearl to be found in the depths of the ocean.