Tuesday, August 23, 2011
This still-dense poem by W. B. Yeats is nevertheless a majestic and beautiful work. It's about the eternal spiritual quest for meaning, for wholeness, for unity -- the whole "Is it better to travel hopefully than to arrive?" debate. The first line, of course, gave Cormac McCarthy the title for his novel which then became a box office hit in movie form.
Other phrases and lines stick in my head, too: "the mackerel-crowded sea," for example -- I will never forget standing on faraway West of Ireland piers with my dad, watching nets and crates of mackerel being brought to dry land, silvery arrows still locked in a shoal, even though expiring. My mother too, would be there sometimes, and she always delivered the generally-agreed-upon judgment that mackerel were "too oily" to be enjoyable to eat, though one of my brothers still eats them to this day, in the form of sardines (also known as pilchards).
Also as stirring as scripture, the couplet: 'And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.'
Sailing to Byzantium
By William Butler Yeats
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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