Poetry Break: “Sailing to Byzantium”

I haven’t seen and may not see No Country for Old Men, the Tommy Lee Jones film wrested from Cormac McCarthy’s novel. From what I’ve read of it, the film’s hellish moral and physical landscape makes it no country for any men, women, or dogs, for that matter.  The title does remind me of two things, however:

1. It’s been a while since we had a Poetry Break here, and

2. I had promised to mention one of those “life imitates art” incidents from our recent trip to New York City, but then, as so often happens, I got caught up in the passing show–Mailer’s death, the Hillary Pile On Incident, etc. I’ll give you the poem today and the New York story tomorrow.

McCarthy’s  novel takes its title from the opening lines of William Butler Yeats’ superb poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here it is:

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.

 To me, this is Yeats at his best, writing what may be the greatest of the great valedictory poems of the Christian Age,  along with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,”  and Phillip Larkin’s “Church-Going.”  I first read “Byzantium”  in college when I was about 19, and it seems to reveal something else every time I read it. If you have a few minutes to ponder this poem, it will reward you.

Tomorrow I’ll explain how I saw this poem, or some of it, played out in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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