Saturday, December 01, 2007

Poem of the Week 11/26/2007: Sailing to Byzantium

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.

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.

William Butler Yeats 1927

*the country of animal pleasures

from, Yeats, William. William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Plays. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996., a note on Yeats:
"Byzantium" in Yeats' poetry refers specifically to the capital of the Byzantine empire, in the fifth and sixth centuries, when there was "substituted for Roman magnificence, with its glorification of physical power, an architecture that suggests the Sacred City in the Apocalypse of St. John. I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity... I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending near to him than Plotinus even. ... I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one ... The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design..." (A Vision, pp. 270-280). Thus, Byzantium, in addition to its exotic Eastern connotations of a romantic nature, and of a stylized art and orientalized Christianity, represents a perfection of aesthetic and spiritual imagination to which the old man who is the protagonist of Yeats' poem wishes to turn.

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