I owe two people whose names I don’t know fully for their comments and thoughts on this poem – without them, this commentary might have been even more cryptic and misleading.
Sailing to Byzantium
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 enameling
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.
Our speaker is old and learned, pointing back at the country he’s leaving while on a ship to Byzantium. His first words are bitter and seem confused – he starts by listing the “young,” “birds,” “salmon” and “mackerel.” But then he immediately changes that list to “fish, flesh or fowl,” placing the fish first instead of last. “Whatever is begotten, born and dies” corresponds easily to the second list: fish are made as the Incarnation was, we humans use the word born to mark our own birth, and our lives fly away much like birds do in winter.
But the first list also corresponds to the cycle mentioned. That fish die in the same place they are born and live is most telling. If the flight of the soul marks death, it can also mark birth. And so what does it mean for the “young” to be begotten?
Typically we would say a lineage is implied, and there must be a descent of some sort in the poem. But there is no descent. There is only this cycle of “sensual music” in which all “natural” things are caught. All who breed are young, all who are bred are young.
In stark contrast to the first stanza stands the second: “a coat upon a stick” is all that is left of the flesh. This “aged man” celebrates his mind growing at the expense of body. The “singing school” reminds us that while fish are produced, fish produce nothing. They just move. Mind has created a monument, however, and can study what is within itself. Finally, as birds migrate, so does our speaker.
We must wonder, in the second stanza, why we are given yet another order for the list of the first stanza: now the order is flesh, fish, fowl. A suspicion I have is that the various permutations of the list mark time in the poem: the cycle never changes in essence, but what comes last in the ordering tells us what defines a particular moment. When musing on the “sensual music,” he first ended with “fish,” countless as “generations.” He moved to “fowl” to suggest the temporality of such creatures, and that resulted in “dying generations.”
Now he has ended with fowl/fish (“sailed the seas”), his own singular moving away from a country, after beginning with a flesh/fowl confusion (“louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress”). Where can he possibly end up finally?
The third stanza is a prayer, but a prayer to “sages,” not God. In fact, it looks like God’s holy fire preserves the sages. Furthermore, there is music here, but the music is internal, a harmony consonant with the destruction of desire. His prayer might as well be a Stoic prayer – even though eternity is made (“artifice”), it seems like the Maker serves our speaker.
Our speaker is learned and religious, and in this day and age those things are in tension, and back in Socrates’ time those things were in tension. He could be a monk; he disdains “nature” in the fourth stanza for the sake of being a perpetual servant. And certainly, “monuments of its own magnificence” need not imply egotism: like anyone who creates, one has to wonder where one’s audience truly lies.
If one creates something near perfect, has one not attested to the existence of divinity? Of eternal forms that can indeed be recalled, a music of the spheres that animates the soul? What we are seeing in this aged man is a particular point where intellect and religion can converge: both do disdain sensuality, and make the soul their chief concern. Perhaps all true intellectuals are secretly religious, believing that they are giving something lasting.
That logic is a trap, of course: nature is explicitly rejected in the final stanza, as if the intellect never had anything to do with nature. It was always about making and that implied a Maker. The flesh is taken away and our speaker is a bird – one which does not fly but awakens and sings, and one has to wonder with “flesh” and “fowl” where “fish” has gone to. The movement from the salmon-falls to the mackerel-crowded seas implies a river, and knowing that life is that river we can never step into twice, there is an irony at work here. Our speaker is finally happy, and the anger of the first stanza has fallen away as he sings for the many. Unfortunately, he is singing about the whole of life from outside of life. The journey the soul wants to take implies that Heraclitus perhaps understood the truth better – escaping becoming is a wish that ends our being, even as it defines our being.