No Comment, Quotation — August 31, 2008, 7:51 am

Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium

christ_and_empress_zoe_in_hagia_sophia

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.

[More...]

William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium first published in The Tower (1927) in: The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats vol. 1, pp. 197-98 (R. Finneran ed. 1983)


Is this yet a country for old men? As Republicans gather in the Twin Cities, prepared to nominate their oldest first candidate for president ever, 72-year-old John McCain, that’s a question hovering in the background. A question of poetical introspection turned into Realpolitik. Indeed, the desire to avoid or negate this question may underlie the surprising decision to pick 44-year-old Sarah Palin as his running mate.

But the plight of being an old man in a country that values youth is just one of the many strands of this complex, sentimental yet transcendant poem by Yeats, surely one of his truly great efforts.

Examined alone from the perspective of geography, this work is a marvel. It describes a voyage to Constantinople, or does it? The salmon-falls and mackrel-crowded seas surely speak of an island between Britain and the North Atlantic, and not the calm and turquoise waters of the Bosphorus and Aegean. Can we doubt where this voyage begins? But it begins with a recognition of the frailty of human existence–”an aged man is but a paltry thing,” the poet writes, a “tattered coat upon a stick.” Yes, the voyage begins in Ireland, but it is more precise to say that it begins at an age, a point of consciousness of human decay, of proximity to death.

This voyage is a journey in time at least as much as space. It is a voyage backwards, a search for a golden age whose memory radiates like those gold-coated mosaic stones. Byzantium is the perfect image not least because it is a lost culture. It ceased to be before the dawn of the sixteenth century. It was supplanted by something alien–in the hysterical cries of its last leaders, by the onslaught of murderous barbarians. With its fall, a culture was extinguished. Or was it in fact? Byzantium was lost, but it remained a vision, a beacon for civilizations in the East and West. A new Byzantium was born, a city in the realm of ideas.

Does Yeats seek out the traces of this lost culture? They are woven through the poem, but they surely are not his ultimate object. Is it not instead the “artifice of eternity”? Typical of Yeats, the images here are Christian, and the words themselves suggest a theology of sorts. But it seems that Yeats’s meaning must lie elsewhere, in the quest for a homeland for old men. The voyage that Yeats has undertaken surely is an internal one, a search for resolution at the end of a life devoted to art. Was this a life well spent? And will his labors provide guidance, sustenance, meaning to those who follow in his wake? Is this not also the ultimate question put by the muted voices of those lords and ladies of Byzantium, the question of what is past, or passing, or to come?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2016

American Idle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My Holy Land Vacation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The City That Bleeds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

El Bloqueo

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Vladivostok Station

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ideology of Isolation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
"We all know in France that as soon as a politician starts saying that some problem will be solved at the European level, that means no one is going to do anything."
Photograph (detail) by Stefan Boness
Post
Tom Bissell on touring Israel with Christian Zionists, Joy Gordon on the Cuban embargo, Lawrence Jackson on Freddie Gray and the makings of an American uprising, a story by Paul Yoon, and more

Freddie Gray’s relatives arrived for the trial in the afternoon, after the prep-school kids had left. By their dress, they seemed to have just gotten off work in the medical and clerical fields. The family did not appear at ease in the courtroom. They winced and dropped their heads as William Porter and his fellow officer Zachary Novak testified to opening the doors of their police van last April and finding Freddie paralyzed, unresponsive, with mucus pooling at his mouth and nose. Four women and one man mournfully listened as the officers described needing to get gloves before they could touch him.

The first of six Baltimore police officers to be brought before the court for their treatment of Freddie Gray, a black twenty-five-year-old whose death in their custody was the immediate cause of the city’s uprising last spring, William Porter is young, black, and on trial. Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing.

Artwork: Camels, Jerusalem (detail) copyright Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
[Report]
How to Make Your Own AR-15·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Even if federal gun-control advocates got everything they wanted, they couldn’t prevent America’s most popular rifle from being made, sold, and used. Understanding why this is true requires an examination of how the firearm is made.
Illustration by Jeremy Traum
Article
My Holy Land Vacation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"I wanted to more fully understand why conservative politics had become synonymous with no-questions-asked support of Israel."
Illustration (detail) by Matthew Richardson
Article
The City That Bleeds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Here in this courtroom, in this city, in this nation, race and the future seem so intertwined as to be the same thing."
Photograph (detail) © Wil Sands/Fractures Collective

Average speed of Heinz ketchup, from the mouth of an upended bottle, in miles per year:

25

After studying the fall of 64,000 individual raindrops, scientists found that some small raindrops fall faster than they ought to.

The Playboy mansion in California was bought by the heir to the Twinkie fortune, and a New Mexico man set fire to his apartment to protest his neighbors’ loud lovemaking.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today