Monday, January 28, 2019

W.B. Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium

photo © Mark Butkus 2019
And therefore I have sailed the seas...

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.

— William Butler Yeats

Died on this day in 1939, William Butler Yeats is considered one of the best poets of the 20th century. A native of Dublin, Ireland, W.B. Yeats was one of the co-founders of what came to be known as the Tragic Generation. Comprised of a dozen London-based poets the poets of the Tragic Generation sought to create art that documented the mood of Victorian London. Also known as the Rhymers' Club the collective would publish two anthologies of poetry in quick order — first in 1892 and again two years later.

A fervent Irish nationalist, Yeats also had a strong interest in mysticism — an interest that appears throughout his writings. In 1923 Yeats was awarded, "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation" the Nobel Prize in Literature. The recognition of the Nobel also brought Yeats financial security for the first time in his writing career and some of his best works were produced after his win including The Tower in 1928 in which Sailing to Byzantium appears. 

Composed in ottava riva, Sailing to Byzantium tells the story of a spiritual journey to Constantinople. Written when the author was in his early 60s it was first published in the 1928 collection, The Tower. The opening line of the poem was used as the title of the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy.


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