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.
I won’t attempt a technical analysis of this endlessly interpretable poem, but will content myself in making a short interpretation of it.
The Fear of becoming Old and Irrelevant, and the Intense Yearning to become Eternal
In an old man’s eyes, the current world in which he lives in, despite its beauty, has become ephemeral. It belongs to the young, who cannot recognize him. His life and the life that sustains it are temporary; he’s come to the end of it, and he must travel on into agelessness. This new world is not natural but invented, and to succumb is to abandon his natural life. The timeless world he longs for is really the ancient world, the holy city of Byzantium, inhabited by worthies greater than himself. He hopes that by becoming a monument himself, he will be able to defeat the human condition.
Something I would like to share…
I first heard of William Butler Yeats in my 3rd year of high school, from this new English teacher whom I thought was rather arrogant. His name’s Glen. He was one of those fresh-out-of-college types – proud, rather egotistical, and yes – overflowing with this intense passion for teaching and terrorizing.
I hated him for childish reasons (naturally). First, he replaced my favorite teacher (who had to leave the school for greener pastures); second, he was too uptight. Short guy, but with quite a tall standard for everything. Perfectionist, yes.
I hated him more because ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ happened. Now before you say anything harsh, you have to consider the fact that I just turned 15 that time – I didn’t know who the fuck W.B. Yeats was or where Byzantium really was. Lit-Mus Week was arriving and we had to come up with a poetry-in-motion piece.
He chose that fucking thing, and told me to choreograph it. FML
A mind of a teenager, and Sailing to Byzantium – what the hell. Well yeah… I was considered smart in high school. Not always topnotch-smart but I was consistently on the honor roll; did some extracurricular activities here and there (including the dance team), and was a contributor for the school paper.
Long story short: I didn’t know how I did it or what the fuck happened, but we won. Like the asshole he was, he didn’t congratulate me. However, what he told me became the turning point of our teacher-student relationship.
With curious eyes and slightly raised eyebrows, he said, “You really know your shit, don’t you?”
The word of choice shocked me, but I knew it was a compliment. We pretty much hanged out since then. I remember he had Rage Against the Machine mp3s on his computer and we would rock out during breaks. We’ve gotten really close that I was first to know he got himself a pretty girlfriend, now his wife.
I was 18 the last time I saw Glen – at the local park with his wife, and their cute as a button son.
We didn’t talk. He waved hello and just passed right by me. But the look in his eyes was all I ever needed. That knowing look – that even though we may or may not see each other again, we’ll always be friends.
Thanks for Yeats, bud.