Poetry Corner: “Sailing to Byzantium” by W. B. Yeats.

“Sailing to Byzantium” by W. B. Yeats.

Socrates, speaking to a friend, once asked, “Is life harder at the end?” W.B. Yeats’ meditation on adolescence and what it means to grow old is a salve for world-weary souls. Writing near the end of his life, Yeats confesses that, although his body wastes away, his desire for what is good will not cease. Yeats’ vision for what is “true, good, and beautiful” reminds us that youth and vitality are ultimately about how one sees the world and not about age. Filled with beautiful imagery, “Sailing to Byzantium” offers a corrective to our modern obsession with chasing the phantom of eternal youth.

Here’s the poem:

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.

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