Monday, April 14, 2008

Sailing to Byzantium — a National Poetry Month post

I'm in the mountains of New Hampshire at a writing retreat. The mountains appear to be snow-dusted from a distance, but having bent to feel the snow on the ground, I can assure you that it has the texture of ice pellets. It is sunny here, and warm enough (above 40) that the runoff continues at a rapid pace. This morning, I put in nearly 4 hours of solid work, with infrequent breaks to score a beverage or take a potty break.

At present, I am on a tea break. After a walking break. After a lunch break. But I digress.

There are some iconic poems that spawn references across genres and for years to come. Such is today's selection, "Sailing to Byzantium". The first line was borrowed for the title of Cormac McCarthy's novel and the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture: No Country for Old Men. Mark Knopfler invokes the poem (consciously or unconsciously, but I suspect the former)in his song "Sailing to Philadelphia", which is in turn based on his reading of Thomas Pynchon's book about Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon's travels and the drawing of the Mason-Dixon line.

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.

*perne: an alternate spelling of "pirn", an Irish word taken from the Scots meaning "spool". Yeats may be using it as a verb here in conjunction with one of his favorite words/concepts, "gyre" to mean the unwinding of a spool in an expanding and outward circular fashion.

About the Form: This poem is in ottava rima, a form consisting of eight-line stanzas written in iambic pentameter, and with a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC. Ottava rima was favored by Yeats in his later years, but hearkens back to Italian epic poems such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, when it entered the English language in translation. Byron wrote his epic satire, Don Juan, using this form. Yeats used it in another poem I've already featured, "Among School Children". Also repeated in this poem (from "Among School Children") is the image of the poet as an old man, and, more specifically, the image of the old man as a scarecrow.

About the Poem: Yeats, with his interesting ideologies about God's interaction with man and references in other poems, including another of his widely-referenced works, "The Second Coming" ("Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold"), again makes reference to a gyre (part of his cyclical theory of history). Byzantium represented an ideal state. The country that the speaker leaves is most likely Ireland, with its complicated politics (of which, you may remember, Yeats was well-aware, being enamored as he was with an Irish revolutionary named Maud Gonne). Although his body is old, he seeks to remain vital by making noise with his soul (rather a bit of a "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" sort of take on things, in a slant way).

The speaker sails to the shores of Byzantium, and asks the priests there to commune with him in a way that strengthens his soul. How I love the lines "Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/It knows not what it is". But that is not the end point of the poem. Rather, Yeats asks that his soul be fortified so that he may be rendered immortal, and may never again have to take a mortal shape or form.

I would argue that through his soul's noisy poems, Yeats accomplished his goal: immortality in the form of continued relevance and reference both in intellectual circles and popular culture. But I could be wrong.

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