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Tuesday, October 05, 2010

William Butler Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

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.

The title of a remarkable book (and an unforgettable movie: I'll talk about it in its due time) is the first verse of this poem; it's No Country For Old Men.

A poem as obscure as so many of Yeats's poems. They have the charm of obscurity, their meaning is for the happy few.

the poem read by David Hart
(video by paparotzie)

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.

Sailing to Byzantium is Sailing to Nowhere: eternity, far away from our past, and present, and future. The Holy City far away from death, because far away from time: from birth, from any movement.

textual analysis of the poem
(National Library of Ireland - video by dibyajyotighosh)

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.

A perne is a spindle or spool, a gyre a whirling dance; hence spin in a dance (Stephen Fryer).

Wrong, though. Yeats uses gyre a lot. He's talking about that precession of the equinoxes thing again. The gyre is the constant turning of yin and yang. And the perne? The voices he hears (Hugh Clary).

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.

As long as you live, you can only foresee Byzantium, through artifice, by approaching the gods and heroes frozen in the golden frescoes, asking them to allow this artifice. You foresee Eternity through Art.

(William Butler Yeats)



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