NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: MIND AGAINST BODY IN “SAILING TO BYZANTIUM”

Today I would like to discuss one of the “fantasy” poems by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium.

To grasp the meaning of this poem one must know two things: first, the speaker is a man who has grown old; second, he is dealing with the inner conflict that old people often have.  Their minds — their sense of self — feel to them no different than when they were young, but when they look in the mirror, the body of course is very different.  So in this poem the poet thinks, “Why not give this mind a body that does not age, an artificial body?”  Of course it is a concept that has occurred to many science fiction writers, but Yeats approaches the problem in a way that is not quite so modern in its technology, as we shall see.  I will take the poem part by part, as usual.

As it begins, the poet has already made a sea voyage.  He has sailed from Ireland (which we can here take in a wider sense as the world of youth and sensuality) and he has arrived in Byzantium (Constantinople), the great city (now Istanbul) that was the capitol of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire, which fell to the invading Islamic Turks on May 29, 1453.  For Yeats, vanished Byzantium with its skilled arts was an ideal city of the mind, of the intellectual.

English: The Deesis mosaic in the Hagia Sophia...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we know from these facts that the poem is a fantasy, because Byzantium as city or as empire has not existed for centuries.  But in this poem we are meant to concentrate on the contrast of body versus “soul,” which is used here as a synonym for the mind, the intellect.  And this poem itself is largely a poem of the intellect, a fantasy that takes place in the mind:

Let’s begin:

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.

The poet says “that is no country for old men.”  He is speaking of the place he has already left, which as said earlier, is first Ireland, but also in a wider sense the sensual world of the young, which is a world of impermanence; it does not last.  It is a country of “the young in one another’s arms,” that is, of romantic lovers, which of course leads to procreation, the giving of birth, the continual being born, growing old, and dying that characterizes our sensual world.  It is a land of birds singing in trees, but those, the poet tells us, are only “dying generations,” their singing lives are short, their death soon.  He points us to the “salmon-falls,” the salmon jumping the falls to return to upstream pools to spawn and die; he gives us the image of “mackerel-crowded seas” in which we see only more reproduction and quick death in multitudes.

The poet summarizes this part of the poem dealing with continuous birth, reproduction and death by saying,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

So he tells us that whether it is fish (salmon, mackerel), flesh (young lovers in one another’s arms) or fowl (the birds in the trees), all summer long all creatures “commend” having sex, which leads to birth, which leads to death — the whole round of endless birth and death in our world.  “Commend” is used here to mean that they draw our attention to and urge one to follow their pattern, as in the Oxford English Dictionary definition:  “To present as worthy of favourable acceptance, regard, consideration, attention, or notice; to direct attention to, as worthy of notice or regard; to recommend.”

So all of this sensual world of creatures being created through sex, being born, aging, and dying is frustrating to our aging speaker.  He tells us,

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

Everyone and every creature is so wrapped up in sex and romance and reproduction (“that sensual music”), in being born and dying — all things of the flesh, of the body — that they neglect the mind, they have no use for the minds of old men whose bodies are no longer sensual or interesting, no matter how fine those minds may be.  We may also think of such “monuments of unageing intellect” as being what is created by such minds.

Given this profound sense of alienation that the old poet feels in this world of sex, romance, sensuality, birth and death, he tells us:

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,

He feels not only alienated but completely unappreciated in his old age.  “An old man,” he tells us, is only a “paltry” (insignificant, contemptible) thing, like a worn out old coat (the body) hanging on a stick (the skeletal frame),

unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…

That, the poet tells us, is the only thing that saves an old man from being insignificant — if his soul, his intellect, claps its hands and sings, by which he means unless it creates, as a writer writes novels, as a poet composes poems, as an artist paints or sculpts – that is the singing of the intellect (not the brief singing of sensual, mortal birds) — the creation of “monuments of unageing intellect.”  And the more the body — the “mortal dress” — ages (tatters), the more the mind should sing (be emphasized, be creative).

But where does an old man learn to do this?  He tells us:

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.

The soul learns to sing, that is, learns to create, by studying the products of other such minds, “monuments of its [the mind's] own magnificence,” that is, monuments by and to the creative mind.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

For that reason, the poet tells us, he has left the sensual world and has sailed away to what here is used as a symbol of the ideal environment of the mind and intellect — “the holy city of Byzantium.”  Of course, as already noted, this voyage is only a fantasy of the mind — but that is what this poem is — a fantasy of the mind.

Now in Byzantium, the poet calls on the wise men of Byzantium, the “sages.”

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.

He calls on these sages, whom he views as standing in the holy fire of God (the direct influence of supreme Intellect) like saints standing amid the golden color of Byzantine mosaics on a wall.  He tells them to come to him from that fire of the mind, to “perne (turn) in a gyre (circle),” that is, to surround him in a turning, spiralling circle, and become the “singing masters” that will teach the aging poet’s “soul” (his mind/intellect) to sing, that is, to create works of the mind.  To Yeats, the spiralling motion of a gyre was representative of the soul (see the excerpts at the end of this article).

But the poet wants even more; he wants to get rid of all traces of his aging body, all traces of the sensual world he has left:

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.

He wants the sages of Byzantium to “consume” (cause to disappear) his heart (his emotions) away, because it is sick with desire (with the desires of the sensual world that an old man can no longer enjoy or fulfill), and “fastened to a dying animal,” that is, his emotions are tied to his aging, tattered, mortal body that is (like all created things) subject to death.  He wants to be “gathered into the artifice of eternity,” that is, made immortal by being given an artificial body that will house his mind forever.

Then he foresees what that new life will be like:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

Once he is free of the emotions and free of his aging body, he will not take his new body from any “natural” thing, that is, not from any flesh and blood creature of the sensual world subject to the same emotions, aging and death;

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.

Once free of emotions and the aging, dying body, the poet will have his intellect, his mind, placed in an artificial body, one such as the Greek goldsmiths formed in Byzantium out of hammered gold and enamel (melted, colored glass used as surface ornament) to amuse a drowsy emperor.  This part of the poem, Yeats himself once explained, came from his reading:

I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang

So the poet wants his mortal body and emotions removed, and he wants his mind housed in an artificial body, like a shining golden, artificial bird in the palace of an emperor at Byzantium, a bird that sings on and on (creates perpetually), never aging, never dying; a bird that sings

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

That is, it sings of the past, the present, and the future — eternity.

So that is the poem.  Again, it is just a fantasy created by an old man (Yeats wrote it at age 63, which in his day was considered older than we think it to be now) who can no longer participate in the sensual romance of youth, and so turns to a fantasy of his mind taken from his aging body and put into an artificial body, so that it can go on creating works of the intellect forever, untroubled by human sensuality and emotion.

The flaw in his poetic plan, of course, is that in reality rather than fantasy, even artificial birds wear out.  We learned that as children by reading Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Nightingale.  There is no such escape of the mind from the senses, from aging, from death, not through any material body, though authors of science fiction keep working on the notion.

We should take this poem for what it is, the expression of an old man’s conflict between an aging body and a mind that still seems young and potentially creative, even though the old tend to become gradually more and more insignificant and invisible to the young, and consequently often feel they would like to get away to some refuge where they are again respected and considered significant and useful. Old people really do begin to feel that our world is the world of the young, and that it is “no country for old men.”  That is perhaps even more true today, with the magazine and television cultural emphasis on youth, beauty, and vitality, than it was in Yeat’s time.

This poem always reminds me of an aging college professor walking through a university campus, seeing the young people sitting and nuzzling one another or playing their guitars and laughing, going about the usual pursuits of the young.  I used to call my local university “the land of perpetual youth,” because its inhabitants were always young and never grew old (of course because they were replaced by new young students every year). But the same, of course, was not true of their instructors remaining year after aging year, many of whom could have written a poem such as this, had they the skill.  Many of them no doubt sailed to their own Byzantiums by devoting their old age to study and writing, locked away in their studies or a quiet corner of the university library, trying to enter into the “artifice of eternity” through their publications.

By the way, if you noticed that I write “aging” while Yeats writes “unageing,” it is the difference between American (aging) and British (ageing) spellings.

That will give you what you need to understand this poem, so you may stop here.  But if you would like a bit more background on the fascination Byzantium had for Yeats, he wrote in his book A Vision:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia [537 c.e.] and closed the Academy of Plato [529 c.e.]. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image, and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.”

In the same work, Yeats wrote on the nature of the “gyre” and excerpts enable us to see that he considered the gyre representative of the soul, which is no doubt why, in the poem, he tells the sages of Byzantium to perne (turn) in a gyre (circular, spiral motion):

Swedenborg wrote occasionally of gyrations, especially in his “Spiritual Diary,” and in “The Principia” where the physical universe is described as built up by the spiral movement of points, and by vortexes which were combinations of these; but very obscurely except where describing the physical universe. perhaps because he was compelled as he thought to keep silent upon all that concerned Fate.  I remember that certain Irish countrymen whom I questioned some twenty years ago had seen Spirits departing from them in an ascending gyre….

Line and plane are combined in a gyre, and as one tendency or the other must be always the stronger, the gyre is always expandng or contracting.  For simplicity the representation of a gyre is drawn as a cone.  Sometimes this cone represents the individual soul, and that soul’s history — these things are inseparable — sometimes general life.  When general life, we give to its narrow end, to its unexpanded gyre, the name of Anima Hominis [the Soul/Spirit of Man] and to its broad end, or its expanded gyre, Anima Mundi [the Soul/Spirit of the World].

David

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