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The golden bird

September 4, 2011

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.

The poem:

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. “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.
  6. “Whatever is begotten born and dies” just doesn’t work grammatically. Great line, but doesn’t parse.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 12:57 pm

    I like the review of the Yeats poem, but being the j-po aficionado of Eliot that I am, I would have to cavil at the contrast you suggest at the beginning. I was an avid reader of Eliot even way back when the Shakespearean sonnet was an enigma to me; that is, back when I didn’t get poetry at all. Reading the Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, and the Four Quartets, I definitely didn’t search out the references or dissect the vocabulary, but it’s anything but the case that his “poetry resonate[d] emotionally [for me] only once the literal sense of the words becomes clear”. The phrases themselves, enigmatic as they were, were powerfully evocative, and the “emotion” of each poem was felt as clearly upon a first reading as it was on the night before my j-po panel.

    That’s something Eliot was anxious to do, too. He felt that a poem should be difficult, sure, but not difficult in the sense of “this needs to be dissected to be understood.” He gives credit to his earliest influences, Jules Laforgue, and the other (better) symbolists for having taught him how to choose and juxtapose vocabulary synaesthetically, such that the senses and emotions are conjured with or without logical comprehension. Despite his reputation, he felt strongly about the need for poetry to be accessible to all levels of learning (even if he may have been overly optimistic about the ability of everyone to access even the emotional resonance of his works). Thus his poetry can be unfolded much as Yeats’ can, even, as you say “dissected” and leave the reader with a deepening respect for the amount of thought put into every word choice and with a confirmed knowledge that the original emotion is the “appropriate” one, but also like Yeats’ can be enjoyed without such erudition.

    Sure, Eliot’s poetry is tricky to “dissect”, but that’s precisely why I’d prefer to call what it invites “unfolding” rather than dissection. He detested the notion that poetry should be a puzzle. Though it can, as the Metaphysicals realized, revolve around a witty conceit that can make the process of interpretation rather like solving a puzzle, emotion is primary, and the “puzzle” doesn’t exist for its own sake, but rather as a means of heightening the emotional stakes of the poem. Eliot, however, draws less on the Metaphysicals than on the symbolists when it comes to his actual writings, so that in interpreting him its important to realize that his references are in place primarily as evocations, not as clues to some neat “answer” –his poems never have an “answer”; rather, they unfold to reveal layer after layer of meaning, not all of which is interior to the poem (many layers down the meaning begins to rest upon the historical-cultural resonances of his imagery), but which is far too complex and even debatable to really be dissected and schematized.

  2. September 9, 2011 4:51 pm

    Always good to get called out by someone who knows more about Eliot than I do. Still, I’m not willing to entirely concede the argument.

    First, I will grant Eliot didn’t want his poems “dissected,” and would have preferred “unfolding.” But I do think his poetry (which is not necessarily a perfect implementation of his poetic theory) sometimes makes dissection a too-attractive option. It may still be the reader’s fault for succumbing to that temptation, and there are better ways of reading Eliot, but I do think it a (perhaps minor) fault of his poetry that it’s so easy to slip into “find all the references” detective-work reading, especially with The Wasteland (this seems less of a problem with his other poetry).

    And in any case, whatever we make of dissection vs. unfolding, it’s of secondary importance to the issue of sensual experience versus sense. You say Eliot wanted to “choose and juxtapose vocabulary synaesthetically, such that the senses and emotions are conjured with or without logical comprehension.” I agree that he did so, depending on how you mean the word “synaesthetically.” But this isn’t the same thing as operating on a sensual level, which I said Yeats does and Eliot doesn’t.

    A line of Eliot’s poetry resonates because we’ve heard those words before, because their use resonates on the level of the Jungian subconscious (if such a thing exists), and because he’s combining them in syntactically odd ways. It doesn’t have much to do with the sound of the words themselves. The meaning of the words may call to mind sensory experiences–“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land” calls to mind images of dead flowers called back to life by rain, and tinges our sense of their meaning with cruelty and animal baseness (“breeding”), disturbing us with the thought that this usually pleasant image is somehow perverted–but that experience still comes entirely from the meanings of those words and the unconscious resonances of those words’ meanings. The poetry works without us understanding those resonances consciously, but they’re still the determining factor. The actual sound of the words–the patterns of alliteration and assonance and rhythm and rhyme–don’t matter that much, though of course they still matter, since it’s still poetry.

    With a line of Yeats’ poetry, on the other hand, I feel moved by the mere way a line sounds, before I even recognize what the words mean, and it is the sound, not the sense, that sticks in my mind. I don’t remember off the top of my head all the words of “Leda and the Swan,” but I remember the jarring rhythm and the nauseating feeling it brought with it, and through it I can remember the meaning and call to mind the words. I remember Eliot’s poems through the placement of significant words like “memory” and “desire.” Or: Eliot seems more translatable than Yeats. If translated into a language with the same literary heritage, words with the same meaning would have roughly the same resonances, so the way Eliot embeds meaning would still work. But words could not be in the exact same order and in any case would not sound the same, so one of Yeats’ greatest tools would become useless. Or: remember the father’s lecture in Dekalog I, which we watched in Senior Novel last year? He speculates about a machine that had read everything, got all the references, and thus understood the emotional resonance of every word–but still doesn’t know what poetry sounds like. Such a computer, I think, could understand Eliot much more than he could understand Yeats.

    Does that do a better job of explaining it? If so, would you agree with such a characterization, or would you also dispute this less-obnoxious way of saying Yeats is better in some respects?

    P.S.: Shakespeare sonnets, while obviously excellent, still leave me somewhat disappointed. Maybe I’m too used to the over-the-top language of Hopkins.

  3. September 9, 2011 11:24 pm

    Yes, contrasting the sonic qualities of The Waste Land with Yeats’ poetry clarifies it a lot. And yes, I was understanding the resonances in Eliot’s poetry to be importantly intellectual. Although, “better” …I think that if by better you mean “more sensual”, perhaps, but this kind of misses what Eliot is trying to do, in “The Waste Land” and the earlier poetry at least. I think a declaration of superiority would have to be based upon a claim that there are certain things it is proper for the poet to try and accomplish and that dissonance and jarring the reader out of apathy, that making the reader uncomfortable are not proper.

    Insofar as the sonic elements of Eliot’s poetry are concerned however, there is more than both your previous comments and mine really acknowledged. The meaning even in “The Waste Land” is certainly not purely “Jungian” (or cultural, as Eliot might prefer) if rhythm is considered, despite my previous focus (and I don’t want to downplay the importance of that, either). For one thing, sensory deprivation is crucial to “The Waste Land”, which is the one to which you refer throughout, as you note. The poem is supposed to “sound” something like the title as well. This absence of alluring musicality (though this is not consistently the case even in “The Waste Land”) is not, however, an absence of emotionally-resonant sound, I would argue. Your recollection of “placement” of certain words in Eliot’s poem is importantly a remembrance of one aspect of rhythm (and sound more purely): that is, of where the particular words with their particular stress patterns are placed in a line–placement is absolutely crucial when you are working out the rhythm and melody of a piece of music. I find, as you say, that certain words will recur in my memory without my being able to recollect the entire line, but they always recur within a very definite rhythm, which I will be attempting to fill in with the correct words. Just to point to one example, reading the first two verse paragraphs of “The Waste Land” is like reciting an incantation of sorts, and the abrupt switch to the rhythms of (approximately) ordinary speech in the third is a perfect example of how that sensual aspect of the poem is crucial to the reader encountering it…You don’t have to be a scholar to feel the change, either. It’s accessible and moving, the latter being even more the case in passages like “Death By Water,” the near-ending of “The Fire Sermon” or the opening of “What the Thunder Said”… So musical that the critical default to describe certain paragraphs terms them “songs”.

    As for vocabulary, another example might work; there is a profusion of rich vocabulary used in the opening of The Chess Game (“Huge sea-wood fed with copper / Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,/ In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam… ” that sort of thing) However it doesn’t resonate all that compellingly sonically because it’s not supposed to…we don’t want the vapidity of the social setting he’s portraying in the section to allure us the way Yeats’ rich language does.

    Of course, while Eliot’s striking use of rhythm (not so easily translatable) does in my opinion absolve him of that horrible fate of being “read” by one of the Dekalog’s theoretical computers, it doesn’t prove that he’s attuned to the sound of vowels and consonants to the extent that Yeats is. His deliberate employment of dissonance in “The Waste Land” and Prufrock certainly suggests that he is aware at least of the opposite. But he does go beyond rhythmic complexity (although that is his forte, certainly–not just my opinion, either) in poems such as “Marina” or “The Four Quartets,” where each line is really quite beautiful and memorable…and where the sonic beauty only compliments the intellectual evocations of the juxtaposed images.

    Of course, this would be getting into a totally different topic, but what you said also brought up the question of the extent to which the sound of words affects us emotionally vs. the meaning…Phrased that way it sounds totally obscure, of course. But what I am referring to is, more precisely, the question of whether our “good associations” as a culture with a particular word or rhythm are based upon the sound itself or on the meaning it has historically been associated with? I bring this up because I think it’s interesting, not because I have any definite opinion. But the reason I might find to justify the idea that the meaning informs our perception of certain sounds is the fact that quite different sounds and rhythms have quite different emotional resonances in other cultures. I know you speak German, so you would probably agree that many words and sentences that sound quite harsh and brutal (typical stereotype) to English speakers don’t sound like that at all to German speakers. Rhythms are more consistent within a larger area, it seems, but if you listen to Eastern-style music at all, it’s immediately apparent that different rhythms are appropriate for different situations in those cultures than in ours. I don’t want to suggest that you were saying that “sound” has an objective, fixed relationship to “meaning”, of course. I’m simply wondering if those differences in the emotional response to sensory aspects of art (it might be extrapolated to visual arts, of course) might be very much historically-culturally-rooted after all…

  4. September 10, 2011 2:53 pm

    You’re right that we’ve both been downplaying Eliot’s sonic abilities, mostly to make a stronger contrast with Yeats, and it’s good of you to remind me of what exactly are his sonic excellences. I hadn’t meant to suggest Eliot isn’t paying attention to what he’s doing sonically, but rather that Yeats seems a richer poet in that respect; Eliot does a lot of cool stuff with sound, but Yeats more consistently amazes me. This is, of course, a somewhat subjective opinion, and in any case Eliot of course surpasses Yeats in many other respects–coherence, for example. Don’t think I’m suggesting that Eliot is not a great poet.

    Perhaps what it comes down to is that whether or not Yeats’ sound is better, it’s indisputably richer, if by that we mean “more saturated.” I often think of poets’ styles in terms of what colors they call to mind, and while Yeats makes me think of extremely full golds and greens and reds and almost-black blues, Eliot calls to mind calmer, more logical and almost artificial colors, black and white and the red and blue of LEGO bricks. (Someday soon I’ll draw up some palettes for all the poets I’ve thought enough about.)

    The question of nature versus culture w.r.t. the sensory effect of language is one I find rather fascinating. Linguistics for the last hundred years has taken for granted that there’s no inherent connection between signifier and signified, that it’s all historical-cultural context, but many poets treat words as if they do somehow embody what they represent, and my instincts are to side with the poets on this one, in practice and tentatively in theory as well. (I actually saw an interesting article on this recently, which I talked about here: )

    Actually, while this is a gross oversimplification, it seems like a lot of the differences between Eliot and Yeats that we’ve been talking about have to do with the poets’ own views on this question; I don’t know for sure, but I suspect Yeats had a somewhat mystical view of the connection between linguistic meaning and the sound of words, while Eliot from what I remember would have agreed with Saussure. Which would suggest that which poet one favors probably comes down to which side one takes in that debate.

  5. September 10, 2011 5:48 pm

    Incidentally, there’s an article in The Nation about Eliot you might find interesting: . It maybe focuses a bit too much on his personal life, but that stuff isn’t always pointless. Thoughts?

  6. September 10, 2011 11:10 pm

    Yes, it does seem most of the differences do have to do with the poets’ views…Regarding Yeats, you might also be interested in looking into Mallarmé or Valéry if you can find a good translation. The whole poet-as-mystic/priest deal is kind of suspect to me, but definitely intriguing, and if I knew more about Yeats, I’d really be interested to see how they related–I don’t even know if there was any actual influence (possibly similar sources? the barrier between English and French literature from the beginning of the 1800s is very fluid…), but the theory would be interesting to compare. I’ll have to check out this article when I have more time, but I’ll let you know what I think!

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