Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

Sailing to Byzantium
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 unaging 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 enameling
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.

My idea as an accompaniment to my summer riding this year is to photocopy random poems from my Immortal Poems of the English Language anthology received from Mom back in 1984 (I can’t believe this edition is still in print, same cover and all).

With a poem taped to my handlebars to keep me company, my aim is to spend time reading and reflecting while cycling the seacoast.  As a kid I loved reading poetry, memorizing favorite ones.  As an adult I find it difficult to make space for poetry, so why not carve out time while doing something equally rewarding.  Or in our modern idiom: kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

So a couple days ago I cracked the volume to Yeats and thumbed to the intriguing title Sailing to Byzantium which starts “That is no country for old men.”  Perfect for my first pedal of the season!

I struggled with the first two stanzas, reading them over and over again, practically memorized.  In the first we hear the speaker departing a living place, with images of vitality, community, motion.  Animals and people, each and all “caught” in quotidian rhythms.  The poet is aware that all this is ephemeral, limited, bound by birth and death.

The second I found more plaintive, the speaker an “old man” not conforming to this world of youth and energy.   His body reduced to worn out clothing; it is tattered, collapsing.  He searches for an inner voice, music to transcend these physical constraints.  Now we learn the reason for his journey to Byzantium — to release his soul with the “song” of wisdom found in the ancient and sage metropolis.

By stanza three the speaker shifts to address these ancients, imploring them to guide his spirit towards the permanent magnificence of his art.  The poem shines with words of “gold” and “fire” with the speaker, now among the city’s monuments, inspired.

He concludes in the fourth stanza that his objective is to realize immortality through his art, as do the masterpieces of Byzantium.  In departing the natural, temporal world, the speaker must leave his artistic creations to live on, inspiring future generations forever.  To him the great and gilded monuments of ancient Constantinople are a model, representing the eternity of beauty and life without limits.

Sailing to Byzantium is about the journey, not just from one place to another, but imagined as the speaker approaches the end of his life.  He attempts to transcend death by finding immortality through his art.  But this is a difficult journey of transition from the physical to the artificial, and by immersing himself in the artistic marvels of Byzantium this becomes possible.

Yet there is an imbalance, a trepidation in this quest. Because his body is limited physically he must confront the inevitable — the poet accepts leaving the known and social world on earth. In doing so he consciously embarks on the path towards eternity through his art.  And to that end the speaker is hopeful and confident, as the brilliant and permanent ancient monuments of Byzantium prove possible.

On a more direct level, Sailing to Byzantium speaks to me as a traveler.  Travel is often more imaginative than physical.  I find myself attracted to the inspirational greatness of other cultures, other times, and it provides major impetus to my wanderings.  The ancients in Europe, the Americas and the Asian landscapes fascinate me and exploring their creative heritage is central to my travel.  Contemplating these lost but living worlds provides context and comparison to my own world and insight to my own self.  How these people see beauty, science, language and society is preserved in their monuments, which live on to this day and continue to marvel and mystify the errant modern.

How lucky and coincidental that this first poem would find such welcome in me!  Yet I should not be so surprised — the words “sailing” and “Byzantium” alone press my mind to wander…

Sunset, Long Sands Beach, York, Maine

Sailing to Byzantium at sunset
Long Sands Beach, York, Maine

Ride Details:

Wednesday, May 5 2010, 6:30 PM, ~ 20 miles

Beautiful spring evening, 60’s F, flowers in bloom, high tide, empty roads.  Strong SW headwind heading home, a real workout so not much patience for poetry by this point in the ride!

Home — York Village via Seabury Rd (Rt 103 bridge still under construction) — coastal Rt 1 past Long Sands Beach — Short Sands (Fun-O-Rama) — return same route

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