The golden bird
William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of my favorite poems. So I’m going to write about it. I don’t promise anything original, and what is original is probably wrong, but perhaps what I’ll say will be recombined in a way you haven’t seen before, and that’s something, at least.
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.
If I can begin by making some broad generalizations: Yeats has a great talent for evoking in the reader a sensual intuition of the poetry’s meaning before even a basic literal sense is understood. I’m opposing him here to, say, T.S. Eliot, whose poetry resonates emotionally only once the literal sense of the words becomes clear. If a line of poetry can be divided into sensual, sense, and concept, Eliot works mostly with the upper two, while Yeats works at the lowest level in a way few other poets can.
So on reading “Sailing to Byzantium,” we feel the power of his raw language, and are moved, and then recognize the images he is using, and begin to understand the poem; but because we are struck so powerfully, it becomes difficult to come to reason in a mature way about what Yeats is doing, and it can feel almost sacrilegious to dissect the poem’s literal sense looking for conceptual meaning–again, as opposed to Eliot, who almost invites such dissection. Eliot introduces poetic difficulty through making such dissection tricky; Yeats introduces difficulty by forcing us to work on all three levels at once, and not dissect one to get to the one above it.
Our initial attempts to do so are feeble, unable to go beyond a relatively simple reading, perhaps something like this: “Yeats contemplates how life is for the young, and he’s getting old, so life is not for him, and he can find fulfillment only through art.” That’s not wrong, it’s just insufficient; to go deeper, we have to have a more organized approach, but we shouldn’t start by dissecting it. We can still look at its different parts, but should do so gently, from the top down.
So: there are four stanzas, and it stands to reason we should consider the poem to have four basic parts. Note that four is the number of meditation; this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, obviously, but I think generally works with four parts don’t describe changes, they offer four different tableaus and ask us to find the connections between them (as opposed to a five-act tragedy where each part shows how the main character moves from A to B, B to C, etc).
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” then, the first stanza offers a view of nature as that which “is begotten born and dies,” and we get a sense of seething turmoil in which Life is constant but each life ends abruptly; the second shows an old man like a scarecrow, “a tattered coat upon a stick,” and warns that soul will become that unless it studies art in Byzantium; the third shows us the singing school as a place where the body is burned away by sages who stand in “God’s holy fire” as in “a gold mosaic”; the fourth shows the poet as golden bird in a world of “gold and gold enameling” that seems decadent and stagnant, “drowsy.”
The connections are for the most part implicit; Yeats does not begin a single stanza by saying how he got where that stanza begins, and each stanza ends just short of where the next picks up. But there is still a story to be told. The poem even has a literal narrative to it, though it’s easy to forget that, since the story is told mostly through imagery, not events. The second stanza shows the problem inherent in the situation of the first; the third shows how to negate that situation; the fourth shows what that negation would look like in the terms of the first.
Once we have this understanding, I think, we can do a thorough investigation without desecrating the poem. We can even dissect it; I don’t think such dissection should begin our attempt to understand the poem, but I generally hold to the principle that investigating a thing, per se, cannot be an evil act, even if it it sometimes evil for other reasons. I’m not going to go through the entire poem, but here are some notes on the first stanza:
- The antecedent for “that” is extremely unclear; when normal people do this a mistake, but Yeats means it, and rightly so. We’re supposed to intuit that “that” refers to the world we live in, but which the speaker of the poem has left behind, having sailed to Byzantium, the ideal city in which art, religion, and philosophy are perfectly integrated. (Also, note that this is the origin for the title of Cormac McCarthy’s ninth novel. I suspect McCarthy has similar artist-worship tendencies, though ultimately I’d argue he doesn’t agree with Yeats.)
- The birds in the trees look forward to the final stanza, where we get a different bird in a different tree. Thus the poem ultimately comes full circle–as things with four parts tend to do. If the bird is the body and its song the activity of the soul, Yeats doesn’t want to have no body, he wants an immortal one, and he will get it through the works of Grecian goldsmiths. It’s almost transhumanist.
- This body/soul issue is introduced in two steps. Here, the emphasis on death comes out of nowhere, and drastically changes the tone of the first stanza. After this there’s no way to read the rest of it as at all idyllic; the sensual music is the music of death, and not just physical death, but oblivion, the worst thing imaginable.
- And then, the salmon-falls, however a certain beauty in nature that Yeats doesn’t ignore. This is why he doesn’t become a scarecrow, as the old men in the second stanza. Keep in mind that even golden birds don’t mix well with scarecrows. (Incidentally, Cormac McCarthy also uses the image of salmon-falls in The Road. I remember reading somewhere that Yeats is McCarthy’s favorite poet.)
- “Commend” is a strange word to use here. I’m not sure what Yeats means by it. Perhaps it indicates that not only is immortality not naturally occurring, but nature is hostile to it, the sensual music praising the circle of life and thus denying the need for immortality.
- “Whatever is begotten born and dies” just doesn’t work grammatically. Great line, but doesn’t parse.
- Yeats doesn’t write “All who are caught in the sensual music neglect.” The “all” here is not qualified. I don’t think he’s saying failing to heed monuments is wrong; he thinks it’s impossible, at least if approached straightforwardly.
- In a sense, the rest of the poem is about finding a work-around–and that workaround involves the monuments being not to the unaging intellect of abstract philosophy, but to the artistic, almost mythological, monuments of art and poetry. I know from other poems that Yeats distrusts philosophers, so perhaps I’m reading that in here, but I think it’s there; Byzantium with its golden birds is great mostly because it integrates the concrete and the metaphysical in a way the old man scarecrow philosopher does not. And the ambivalence in the final stanza I mentioned earlier–the sense of stagnant drowsiness–seems mostly to come from how everything is smothered in gold; so Yeats is unsure even the golden bird is concrete enough to be worth living as.