Sailing to Byzantium By William Butler Yeats by Bijay Kant Dubey SignUp
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Sailing to Byzantium By William Butler Yeats
by Bijay Kant Dubey Bookmark and Share

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
— Alfred Lord Tennyson in Morte d’ Arthur

Before we read the poem, there grows a desire to know, where does the poet want to go, where this Byzantium is, why does he wish to be away from here? Has he aged? What is it in Byzantium? Is it the Brindavan he is dreaming about? Is it not the spiritual quest taking him there? Perhaps the remnants of Hindu thought and mysticism have not left him behind. Did he write Meru or Byzantium first? When did he study the Upanishads? These are but the questions which appear to be relevant while determining the idea behind the writing of the poem and the accomplishment of it. Had he been to India, it would have been great, but he did not nor did the Indians then. A myth-maker, an occultist, a symbolist of the first order, Yeats is first an Irish poet then an English poet and poetry comes to him as symbolical versions of poesy so full of depth and sobriety, myth and myth-making. Written at the age of 60 or 61, the poem was done in 1926 but it appeared in The Tower in 1928. Even in a BBC talk, he referred to the shaping of his thoughts culminating in the writing of the poem, Sailing to Byzantium and it is not a poem of going to Byzantium, but to think of a new order, to dream and repose in the golden past where he with an artistic bent of mind can think of toning up with undying spirits and poetic vigour. Is it classicism or the imagery of the golden times he wants to revert back to? Why does he want to escape to just like the Keats of Ode to a Nightingale? Where does he like the Wordsworth of Strange Fits of Passion and Lost Love and A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal? Where from the Ireland of political upheavals and repercussions, turmoil and tribulation, strife and struggle to? The position is one of The Ship of Death and Shadows written by D.H.Lawrence.

Sailing To Byzantium, as a poem of rejuvenation, resurrection and transmigration with so much vigour and embellishment muted in, transports us into an old world pervaded by immortality, art and spirit. But what is it immortal? Classicism too has an end of its own. Such a thing it is in The Scholar Gypsy of Matthew Arnold.

Starting with that is no country for the old men, the poet talks of the younger generation in the thoughts and broodings of their own so deep in sensuality and pleasure as if were in one another’s arms, birds in the trees while the dying generations have nothing to say to as the lack lustre itself is picturesque of all that taking place or happening as the things of dust, clay and mortality return back to baser stuffs in due course of time which is again but a natural process.  The young have just the sensuality to talk to and repose in rather than intellectuality, good thought and idea drawing their flavour from classicism and classical times. What is it that sustains us, is intellect. What it is born, begotten and living will but cease to exist one day when their time will be over. The present generations lost in the thoughts and ideas of their own have not time to think about the other men so after marking their sensuality, so much engrossed in lust, infatuation with and gratification for, the poet wants to sail and drift to Byzantium where the things age it not and the times too seemingly to be beyond the clutch of mortality and degeneration.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick and the mortal dress is not his own so embroidered with mythology which the soul is wearing on for so long. So, what can the soul do except taking the name of the Lord and clapping the hands in His Praise or Glory? It has its own monuments of magnificence. So, where to repose in, where to gather strength, calm and composure from this tumult, clamour perturbing the soul and spirit?

Where the sages standing by the side of the Holy Fire of God? Where do they lie in watching the ceremony? Why do they consume his heart away sick with the desire of man?

Out of sight out of mind, the thing is, once gone from here; never will he be back to. But the Grecian goldsmiths make the things which appear to be everlasting and perennial, never appear to be corroding as such is their artistic beauty, craftsmanship, goldsmithery and casting.

Sailing To Byzantium

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

Sailing to Byzantium as a poem is so much symbolical, artistic, mythical and spiritual at the same time we read and go through it as it corroborates the personal and individual thoughts and ideas, images and views of the poet laced with a strong symbolist approach adding depth, meaning and poetic verve to the poem and he wishing to be away from Ireland, from his bodily presence, somewhat shaken in body and strength to an artistic kingdom where death maligns it not, where the golden and classical things hold their sway over and get it not marooned for moral, spiritual and psychic restoration just like as the Hindus think of Vrindavan and the golden bird that was India in the past and so his Byzantium, the Byzantine emperors and the mosaic palaces of it and the immortal artisans, craftsmen, builders building and decorating it. The poem has a mythic base of it, historical, personal and legendary enough to sway the readers to a make-believe story to escape from the harsh realities of life and the world and here lies the distinction between the world of art and dreams and the gap in between the two when contrasted with the realities grounding in elsewhere.

Sailing to Byzantium from Yeats’ The Tower and The Ship of Death from Lawrence’s Last Poems tell a comparative tale to be taken into contrast as the idea is almost the same a shift from the present scenario, a drift from to sail away from here, but Tennyson explains it best by saying it that change is the law of Nature and the things change it here and if they not, as Arthur says it, things will not appear to be congenial. Let us take into consideration the pensive mood of Lawrence here in this poem entitled The Ship of Death where he coaxes to build the ship and to be ready for the journey to undertake. The same escapism it is there in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale.

I

Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.

The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.

And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one’s own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.

II

Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.

The grim frost is at hand, when the apples will fall
thick, almost thunderous, on the hardened earth.

And death is on the air like a smell of ashes!
Ah! can’t you smell it?

And in the bruised body, the frightened soul
finds itself shrinking, wincing from the cold
that blows upon it through the orifices.

— D.H. Lawrence in The Ship of Death

Where Byzantium? Where the emperors with palaces and mansions, where the golden birds chirping? Where the scholars holding parleys? Where Brindavan? Where Krishna flirting? Where the Vedic, Upanishadic sages chanting? Where Eliot chanting the santih mantras?

An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick and the mortal dress needs to be changed. This can happen only if the soul can sing the song of the Lord, singing and rejoicing in His Glory. Nothing can happen without His Mercy and Grace. Here the impact of the Bhagavad-Gita and Adi Shankaracharya can be felt in, the immortality of the soul as discussed in the former while eternal birth and eternal death, the cycle of it in Bhaja Govindam of the latter. The imagery is beautiful in the sense it is picturesque of an old man with a torn coat lying on a stick.

The holy fires of God and the sages standing and praying to, keeping them as the witness of and invoking the Celestial Spirit and the Celestial Fire he says it all. The Mystical Flames of the Mystical Fire can ordain and purge it all what it ails human flesh and spirit if sought from. But how to lift to higher domains and realms? How to be Shelleyian in spiritual illumination? If they turn into the singing masters of his soul, what it to worry?

What does the poet mean to say it here? Why does he say to, ‘That is no country for the old men.’? The poet W.B. Yeats, though sick of ageing, times in flux with the order of things, thinks of replacement, regaining of lost vigour and strength after shifting the scenery to Byzantium and its old classical times full of myth and art symbols so golden and undying in spirit.  The young in the arms holding one another’s arms, flanking each other are submerged into the thoughts of their own. Birds in the trees, fish into the waters, all those have their heyday for some time. What it is bodily, physical and material will not last it here. None can escape the dying generations.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,

Whatever else see we, be that the salmon, the mackerel or anything else is but subject to meet its end. The things which beget and the animals which are born are but destined to meet their ends. The mackerel is a greenish blue sea fish while the salmon too is a ray-finned fish.

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 of bonding, affection, lust, infatuation, sympathy, relationship story, we all neglect the monuments of unageing intellect.  Lost in attachment, we forget it the reality waiting for to take us by surprise. What we must discard we fail to do it and so the younger generations lost in affection and attachment, amorous thoughts and ideas keeping their minds engaged. But mankind knows it the pathway end.

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

What is an aged man? To the poet, Yeats, the aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. The old man not with the stick, but a tattered coat lying on a stick, basking in the sun as he says in An Acre of Grass, strike us beautifully. Every tatter too is in mortal dress and the soul cannot do but sing the songs of his as there is way for redemption. Human life is also as such that the coat gets changed from time to time, life to life. The covering is as such, nothing permanent here, everything but short-lived and transitory. An aged man, a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, etc. are but images.

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;

That is why he has made up his mind to sail for Byzantium and has dawned at:

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

But where the pilgrims? Where the Chaurcerian pilgrims? What about the pilgrim’s progress? Is Byzantium really golden and classical? Does pain not maroon it the self? Is it free from human worries, cares and anxieties? Can it really give eternal pleasure?, is the thing of deliberation.

Here the poet speaks about the sages standing in God’s holy fire, the gold mosaic of a wall and the singing-masters of his soul. He invokes them to be his guide, the singing-masters of his soul. The perne, we mean the whirl in a gyre, the vortex, the Holy Fire, etc. are add to the phraseology of the poem which are no doubt Christian, theological and so on.

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.

Here the poet speaks about the heart sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal as it knows it not what it is, how the pathway end. So, he invokes the holy sages to give him strength to be into the artifice of eternity. A man is as long as desire is and when bodily weak, desire too starts leaving him and even if he desires, he will not be able to fulfil them.

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.

The artifice of eternity here stands for something as everlasting, ever beautiful, perennial, immortal and indelible. Byzantium has been used as a myth, a motif and a symbol and the poet seeks to transport us into a make-believe artistic world fostered by classicism and golden times. Art for art’s sake or didactic purpose is the thing under our discussion. If this be, why does he ask to strike at the root of desire? Why is the heart sick of desire? If romanticism is a flight of imagination, fancy, dream, colour and their representation and classicism has always stood for intellectuality, restraint, discipline, didacticism and moral ethics. But here in it the dreams of Byzantium symbolize the journey end leading to artistic perfection.

Once out of physical form, never will one be back in that attire is the accepted truth which but we cannot deny it. But the Grecian goldsmiths make such a thing that it astonishes in giving perennial beauty and art form, a source of everlasting pleasure always after hammering gold and enamelling them.

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

These are as such which will keep emperors awake and let them not sleep as for the wonder and splendour to be seen in craftsmanship bejewelling and decorating. The beauty of the golden bird is as such so beautifully crafted and made that it would never corrode easily.

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.

Sailing to Byzantium is a journey of the soul; a spiritual development of the self engrossed in materialistic pursuits going on a pilgrimage to Byzantium. It is an attempt to escape to re-invigorate and re-make oneself spiritually, morally and aesthetically; it is an explanation of immortality at the expanse of morality and to understand what it lasts for here. The historical background gives a befitting mythical pattern to the poem which tells of transmigration from here to the old ancient city of Byzantium. But what glory is extant therein? None knows it. The golden bird of the golden times singing the golden notes, a source of lasting youth and gaiety, artistic image and imagery, as cast and moulded and framed by the artists take us away from the world of mortality and transience for a make-believe shift for a solace to be thought about temporarily, a Keatsian escape taken with the nightingale’s song and he hearing the sweet notes just like as Wordsworth and Shelley heard the skylarks. But here the design is one of craftsmanship and molten gold cast and embroidered and the palace so full of perennial imagery and decoration, mechanical and artificial seemingly looking natural with the extensive miniature work golden and ornamental. Yeats has aged, but his heart has not, is the thing of deliberation, as an artist never gets old.

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13-Dec-2020
More by :  Bijay Kant Dubey
 
Views: 672      Comments: 1

Comments on this Article

Comment Excellent analysis of the beautiful poem !
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this wonderful write-up Bijay Kant Dubey ji!

Giti Tyagi
12/19/2020 03:03 AM




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