I once heard an apocryphal story that half the population of Scotland’s Isle of Skye can play the fiddle. And the other half play the accordion. By the same token it wouldn’t surprise me if half the population of Ireland were poets or would-be poets. Poetry envelops Ireland like mist over bogland, and to have the occupation “poet” in your passport is as natural as having “sheep farmer” or “property developer”. As part of a postgraduate Librarianship course I did in the 1970s, I had to compile a bibliography of modern Irish poets and their work. The list went on for ever. Ireland has always punched above its weight in poetry and playwriting. The last century produced not one, nor two, nor even three, but four Irish Nobel Prize winners in Literature: Yeats, Shaw, Beckett and Heaney. And every village, bar and pub has its own storytellers (I hope I’m not falling into the trap of false “Irishry” here).
I’m sure that every poet writing today in Ireland would acknowledge his or her debt to that towering figure of early twentieth century Irish poetry, WB Yeats (1865-1939). I love Yeats, but he’s not an easy poet (some of the early Celtic Twilight poems aside) to get to grips with in one sitting. You have to put some work into reading him, and find out a little about his personal life, his use of symbolism, his “mythology”, about Ireland’s political background. This poem is the first in his collection The Tower, which was published in 1929. Many of the poems deal with advancing old age and its relationship to sex, friendship and creativity.
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 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.
I won’t attempt an analysis of this endlessly interpretable poem, but will content myself with making just a few comments about it. Firstly, the second stanza about old age recalls the first section of the collection’s title poem, The Tower:
What shall I do with this absurdity —
O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?
Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible —
No, not in boyhood when with rod and fly,
Or the humbler worm, I climbed Ben Bulben’s back
And had the livelong summer day to spend.
It seems that I must bid the Muse go pack,
Choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend
Until imagination, ear and eye,
Can be content with argument and deal
In abstract things; or be derided by
A sort of battered kettle at the heel.
Secondly, what a wonderful description of the contrast between careless, romantic, sensual youth, and old age with its concerns about declining energy and approaching death. Yet the intellect need not rust; indeed, it can create a “singing school” of its own, a Byzantium of the imagination. The flesh may weaken but the soul may still sing, and eternity may be fashioned, even if it’s only an artifice.
And thirdly, I sure hope that soul claps its hands and sings in my own future advancing years, and that my imagination remains excited, passionate and fantastical.