“Sailing To Byzantium ” by William Butler 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 unageing 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.

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

http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/1575/

 

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.

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