“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.

Online text © 1998-2012 Poetry X. All rights reserved.
From The Tower | 1928



This one was my favorite in the undergrad years, especially the second stanza which is so musical. Say it aloud “An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick…”.It was beautiful. But it is only in the later years that I realized the beauty of the imagery here. “An aged man is but a paltry thing” is such a precise image, in such clipped words.

An aged man is a mature phenomenon .Contrast it with the size “paltry”: The more a thing grows the bigger it becomes. Here the more it ages the lesser in size it becomes. The paltriness is in the diminutive physique as it ages but also in the loss of respect and dignity that an old man undergoes as he withdraws from an active working life. The old man is now a thing, a paltry thing.

The image of the tattered coat upon a stick refers to the physical wear and tear of the aged body as the body withers and the flesh is subjected to the ravages of disease and the bones stand out like a stick holding the tattered coat of a scarecrow.

But I thought the talk of sailing to Byzantium was totally out of sync with the beginning of the poem with an old man’s griping. Here the old man is saying all the youthful guys are wasting away their time in sensual music and neglecting the monuments of unageing intellect like the beautiful Grecian artifices in the magnificent city of Byzantium. So an old man sets out to sail to Byzantium to appreciate the beauty of its artifices. The old man is also having a quiet dig at the youth for neglecting the old men who may be tattered coats upon a stick but are monuments of unageing intellect. Clever old man,isn’t he?

But the old man is not only a monument of unageing intellect. He has a soul that can sing and clap for every tatter in his coat .Like the old sages in God’s holy fire on the walls of the golden mosaic he too can be drawn into the artifice of eternity. Once out of his natural form he too shall take birth in a form the Grecian goldsmiths make to keep the drowsy emperor awake. Beautiful.

The last lines are worth their weight in Grecian gold:

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 Magpies – Denis Glover

When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Tom’s hand was strong to the plough
Elizabeth’s lips were red,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Year in year out they worked
While the pines grew overhead,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

But all the beautiful crops soon went
To the mortgage-man instead,
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

Elizabeth is dead now (it’s years ago)
Old Tom went light in the head;
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations
Couldn’t give it away.
And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

I love this piece for its lyrical simplicity and the music of the lines. Legend has it that Denis Glover had set out to visit his poet friend Alfred Curnow he stopped his Austinmobile on the way for a pee and heard the magpies there squawking qardle oodle ardle wardle doodle repeatedly and the sounds stuck in his mind .As the friend sat down to write his own iconic poem Wild Iron that would later become equally famous, Dennis went repeating quardle oodle…to himself and discovered he was writing a poem with the refrain. The poem was The Magpies ,that would become an iconic poem of New Zealand, a poem that gave the New Zealand  magpie an immortality and even brought tourists to New Zealand.

The wonderful thing about the poem is the undercurrent of irony that runs in the poem.It is not a nature poem .It is not about magpies.It is about the terrible economic conditions prevailing then in New Zealand , post- Depression when farming had become so difficult yielding so little after paying off debts and the land fell into the hands of the mortgage man .

The magpie was a sarcastic bird, squawking its unique refrain quardle ardle…again and again about Tom and Elizabeth, who, the hard working farmer couple they were, soon became victims of the crippling economic crisis . Tom went light in the head and a red-lipped Elizabeth went quickly dead on the bracken bed. The beautiful crops went to the mortgage man but the farm land could not be given away and the magpies are now its owners .

Celestial Music By Louise Gluck

Excerpts from “Celestial Music” , a poem by Louise Gluck

 “In reality, we sit by the side of the road, watching the sun set;

From time to time, the silence pierced by a birdcall.

It’s this moment we’re trying to explain, the fact

That we’re at ease with death, with solitude.

My friend draws a circle in the dirt; inside, the caterpillar doesn’t move.

She’s always trying to make something whole, something beautiful, an image

Capable of life apart from her.

We’re very quiet. It’s peaceful sitting here, not speaking, The composition

Fixed, the road turning suddenly dark, the air

Going cool, here and there the rocks shining and glittering-

It’s this stillness we both love.

The love of form is a love of endings.”


A very beautiful poem by Louise Gluck. The poet’s friend wants her to listen to the celestial music. The music is of a moment of dying of a caterpillar surrounded by the life of the ants crawling over it , a drawing of a circle in the dirt, a fixing of the composition. The circle is drawn around  a beautiful image capable of life apart from her. A moment is enacted for solitude and ease with death.It is a stillness both the poet and her friend love. The very fact you love form is a love of endings.

The stillness is experienced by a series of images that convey a calm, a solitude, a wholeness;

Sit,  watch,  in reality,

silence  pierced by a bird call  from time to time: 

inside the caterpillar does not move

an image capable of life apart from her

It is peaceful sitting here

There is no tragedy to the death, no drama about it. You draw a circle and look at the caterpillar’s death as something beautiful and whole , capable of life apart from you.

“Autumn”- By Rainer Maria Rilke

English: The Old Raron Church where the German...

English: The Old Raron Church where the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke is buried Français : L’ancienne église de Rarogne où est enterré Rainer Maria Rilke, poète (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Paula Modersohn-Becker. Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling. 

I love this little Rilke poem about autumn- for the unique and fresh vision of the poet. The poet is not writing a usual nature poem about autumn but much beyond it.

The leaves are not of terrestrial space but  of trees  in the higher space, where orchards are dying, each leaf falling as if motioning “no”. Each leaf is dissolution,a reluctant life dying,its fall signifying a refusal to tear away from the fabric of life. Whatever is falling is no golden harvest of autumn leaves to make way for new green leaves.Autumn is no celebration but a death.

From the leaves of the space the poet moves on to the larger cosmic stage of the earth falling from the space of the stars in its astral loneliness. And when the earth falls we all fall including the poet and the his this hand that is pointing at the stars and the earth falling. The grand spectacle of fall is here seen in the way the poet’s hand falls from whatever it is supporting, the life of the body it is supporting.

The last lines are of unsurpassed beauty and so musical too.Please sing aloud  the song of Rilke’s magical tribute to the Creator whose hands are “holding all this up” from falling:

And yet there is Someone,whose hands

Infinitely calm,holding up all this falling

Someone is with a Big capital “S”

His hands are infinitely calm

He is holding up all this falling

Contrast  falling hands of the poet to His holding hands, calm hands

Look at the other one, its is in them all, in the fallen things.

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An evening full of the linnet’s wings

The lake isle of Innisfree
A poem by William Butler Yeats

I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

One of the more popular poems of Yeats, the poem shines for the pure pleasure of reading aloud,with all the alliterations and the music of the words. The imagery is simple but very evocative, arising from single words:

Arise : The visual picture of a poet arising from slumber
And Go :A physical act of moving away from the city’s hubbub to the tranquility of Innisfree
Now : Go is space,now time
Alone: Noise-free in bee-loudness, general silence highlighting the buzz of bees, substituting the city buzz with bee buzz
Nine: Why nine? because it rhymes with hive, buzzing with “n” s in “nine”,”bean”,”honey”, “alone”
Loud: All the noise is x’ed out except the bee buzz, that is loud in the glade, the “d”s coming on top of the “n”s
Lake water lapping with low sounds:
Close your eyes and hear the gentle lapping of the lake waves against the shore, aided and abetted by “l”s repeated

Sensory experiences:
“evening full of linnet’s wings” :auditory experience of the flutter of wings aided by “n”s repeated
“peace comes dropping slow” :An abstract idea of peace described as dropping, like a bird feather gently dropping, not whoosh sound but a quite slow descent
“I hear it in the deep heart’s core” : an auditory experience of listening to one’s own heart-beat in a perfectly sound-free environment