William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
102 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 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.
- In A Vision, the book wherein he outlines his personal philosophy, Yeats identified sixth-century Byzantium (present-day Istanbul in Turkey) as his idea of Utopia. The unity of purpose among citizens from all walks of life to create a city that revealed their reverence for art, poetry, music, and architecture was, for Yeats, a model all nations, especially Ireland, should follow. ↵
- Ireland. ↵
- One of Yeats’s favourite poets was William Blake (1757-1827), who claimed he saw the soul of a brother who had just died, rise out of his body and ascend to heaven, clapping its hands for joy as it did so. Here Yeats says old age is “a paltry thing” unless we can renew our spirit. ↵
- To “perne” means to spin; the gyre is the ever-widening spiral, Yeats's favourite symbol of the progress of life and civilization. The “sages” on the Byzantium mosaics approach the poet in this manner to symbolize his spiritual rebirth. ↵
- In Yeats’s own note to this poem, he references the golden mechanical birds which sat in a tree in the emperor’s palace in Byzantium and sang. Yeats wants to be reincarnated as one of these birds, to end the cycle of birth and rebirth, once he is “Out of nature.” The singing echoes his own profession as a poet. ↵