Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium (1928)

The opening poem of Yeats’ volume The Tower (1928), which marks the transition to Yeats’ later phase. The volume spends a lot of time worrying about death and aging. The poem has four ottava rima stanzas (link to heroic or epic). The opening stanza introduces the cycle of birth, death and reproduction through the lens of of poetic song derived by natural beings (“fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long / Whatever is begotten born, and dies.”) The fragmented opening of of discordant images cedes to a rhythm of natural decay (and renewal?). The song of nature has no care for manmade “monuments of unageing intellect.”

The second stanza toggles to the personal in classical Yeatsian fashion: “An aged man is but a paltry thing.” Th opening “That is not country for old men” binds together with this to contrast biological man with the “unageing” monuments. The human body is a part of nature, it cannot be made eternal by means of poetic or ar artistic creation. The speaker arrives at Byzantium at the end of this stanza. Byzantium symbolizes the convergence of East and West [why important?]

The third stanza is an invocation of the divine–a call to be ritually purified of physical dross:

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.

Of particular note, is the location of desire within the animal apparatus. Ambiguous whether or not the desire is physical (purge me of desire) or spiritual (purge me of my body do that I can achieve my desires). Also, the reference to Christ effectively takes the biblical story of sacrifice and locates within the individual subject. That eternity is an artifice points to the “artificiality” of the following stanza.

Having achieved his wish, the poet imagines himself in the form of a Grecian sculpture encrusted in gold (gold repeated four times), able to entertain a drowsy emperor with songs about past, present, and future. The fantasy of a transhistorical (ahistorical) viewpoint is won at the price of desire an relevance. The reinstantiaton of an aristocracy (“lords and ladies”) also points to the economic underpinnings of making such a role for a poet possible.



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