Across the sea to Byzantium

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a poem written by W.B.Yeats comparing the lifetimes of both art and nature, and contrasting the two parallel to youth and old age. Youth is a very creative time, and as you grow older you learn the truths of nature, you become “tattered” “aged” “old men”. Yeats dismisses Ireland, nature and the living world as they offer no consolation for “old men” like him. He sails to the mythical city of Byzantium in his mind, almost worshipping the idea of immortal art in comparison to mortal nature and mortal men. He realises that art has a life beyond the limits of nature, and thus consigns himself to visiting his creative imagination.

The roman numerals to number the stanzas give a sense of formality, that reflects the ancient civilization of Byzantium, which seems like a formal place, with “Lords and Ladies”. The rhyme scheme starts off formally but ends up with half rhymes dispersed to show the fall of Ireland, how at the time of writing Ireland had fallen apart. The rhyming couplet at the end of stanzas suggest completion after the suspense offered by alternate rhymes. The enjambment emphasises the idea that this is all taking place in Yeats’ imagination.

The poem is like an impassionate plea for some form of life through art, saying goodbye to Ireland, the city he visits representing the best of a high ancient culture and classical civilisation. Yeats likes to link his poetry to the classical world through small references or even more blatant references like rewriting myths (‘Leda and the Swan’). Byzantium also represents a revered ideal, a place where art is treasured and lasts. The fact that his poetry may last almost makes up for the fact that his mortal self must die.

The first stanza shows the need for a new song/person in Ireland.The “young” are distracted by sensual music, creative new ideas, and thus Ireland “is no country for old men” as they have no voice. This shows Yeats’ pessimistic look to the future. The phrase “old men” shows the human condition and the truth of age, time passes. A cascade of images to represent nature take over Yeats thoughts, showing nature’s true beauty, as if he is arguing in his mind over whether mortal nature or immortal art is better. The alliteration and punctuation, “fish, flesh and fowl’ force the reader to swiftly pass from one snapshot to another. The reference to summer gives the idea of nature’s energy and abundance, this coupled with the “sensual music” shows the vivid physical world that Yeats desperately wants to reject.

In stanza 2 Yeats uses the image of a scarecrow to describe old men, “tattered” and “paltry”. Yeats’ opinion seems to be that old age is unnecessary. The phrase “Soul clap its hands and sing” shows the celebration that life can be, to add to the pastoral natural images in the first stanza. At the end of this stanza he has left Ireland and politics behind completely as he has “sailed the seas”. 

In stanza 3 Yeats craves spiritual release, almost giving a prayer-like plea to go from the ephemeral to the immortal, from nature to art. He asks for the sages to “come from the holy fire” and be the “singing masters” of his soul. Singing and songs are important in this poem. In the first stanza Yeats refers to the song of the dying generation, and in the second he refers to the singing soul. These songs give the idea of regality and tradition. The idea of the soul and heart being “fastened to a dying animal” reflects the idea of the spiritual attached to the physical, the “animal” reflecting the true nature of the human body, which is animalistic in design, however the thing that makes us human is the spiritual aspect of us, our soul. Yeats accepts the idea of death, “gather me into the artifice of eternity”, he has realised that the body isn’t important.

In the final stanza Yeats admits he will not return to the mortal world after death “I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing” and looks around the richness and wealth of eternity. He almost seems to want to live in nature but he chooses to live through his art, as the lure is too strong. Gold is frequently mentioned throughout this stanza, a metal that is cold, hard, and doesn’t tarnish or change naturally. The mention of “Lords and Ladies” seems odd, as Yeats is striving to get to this place, whereas Ireland had been striving for centuries to get rid of the class system that supported those ranks, this truly shows how Yeats wants to get away from Ireland by completely defying what they fought for.

There is a contrast between the worlds of art and nature, and a constant sense of opposites. Great art lasts forever, whereas nature physically can’t. Nature is represented in two ways, negatively as a “dying animal” and positively as vivid “salmon-falls” showing both the rewards and punishments of living. Art is shown consistently as the opposite, an unchanging ideal, the city of Byzantium, a “monument of un-aging intellect”. Yeats also shows paradoxes, such as the “holy fire”, “holy” being synonymous with heaven and God, and “fire” having connotations with hell and the Devil. Yeats contrasts the opposites of old and young, that can’t share the same country; “no country for old men”. The old are presented as weak and feeble, “tattered”, “aged”, “paltry”, whereas the young are presented as energetic and vibrant, “sensual”.

There are also ambiguities in the poem. The “birds in the trees” represent the pastoral and natural mortal life and also the freedom that Yeats longs for. They could also represent stability, another thing Yeats desires, as they are up high in the trees. The line “no country for old men” is also ambiguous, as it could suggest that Yeats is nearing the end of his time and must soon die and leave life, or that there are young people taking all the attention and providing all the ideas. 

Thanks for reading,

Jack

 

 

 

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Songs to conjure up MORE images!

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Gyres

The concept of gyres is the idea that lives are intertwined with eachother and that one life feeds into the next. This concept is reflected in many songs in the musical ‘The Lion King’. The song “Circle of Life” really shows the concepts of lives feeding into each other, the show begins and ends with this song. The baby Simba at the beginning is presented to the herd, and yet at the end the adult Simba is presenting his child to the herd a generation later.

The child Simba gets a lesson from his father, Mufasa, about how the ‘circle of life’ happens. Mufasa describes how the kings of the past live in Simba through the song “They live in You”. Later on in his life, Rafiki the monkey (much like a spirit guide) reminds Simba of this fact, and especially how Simba’s father lives within Simba himself in the song “He lives in You”. 

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The Cat and the Moon

When reading this poem by Yeats I would like to say I was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’. Yet I was (being a musical theatre nerd) obviously drawn to the similarities between the poem and Webber’s CATS. The musical is based on the book by Eliot, so there’s obvious similarities. 

The three elements of the poem, dance, cats, and the moon are very prominent in the musical. The ‘Jellicle Cats’ dance at a ball every year ‘by the light of the Jellicle Moon’. The name ‘Minnaloushe’ is also very similar to the names of Cats in the book/musical, which are all very odd: Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie, Mr Mistoffelees, Skimbleshanks etc. The song “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats” introduces the cats and the principle ideas:

This song is the song of the Jellicle Ball, and whenever I read the poem I imagine this song as the song Minnaloushe is dancing to:

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Thanks for reading,

Jack

 

 

100 years ago…

‘September 1913’ is a poem written and set 100 years ago by W.B. Yeats.

This poem was written as part of the ‘Responsibilities’ collection and is in essence comparing the Ireland of 1913 to ‘Romantic Ireland’ – the Ireland that he loves. The poem itself is a reaction to the apathy of the Irish at the time, many were involved in the bigoted Nationalist movement that Yeats hated. It contains four regular stanzas and has a regular rhythm, this could be interpreted to represent that he wants stability and regularity in Ireland. The language of the poem is very simple and mainly monosyllabic, this is so that the whole country could read and understand it, and Yeats’ message could be heard by all.

The first stanza starts with a direct address to the reader, “What need you,” – the use of the first person means Yeats is talking directly to the greedy Nationalists at the time, it is very personal. In this stanza Yeats mocks the Catholics for being overly pious and actually stealing. They may add “prayer to shivering prayer” but they are actually fumbling in a “greasy till”, taking all of the money. Yeats accuses them of taking the money, and thus the life out of Ireland:

“You have dried the marrow from the bone?”

This is a very vivid image that gives the reader a real sense of how these people are killing Ireland. 

Yeats ends every stanza with:

“Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,

It’s with O’Leary in the grave”

This phrase is a contrast to the rest of the stanza as it describes the good times. Its repetition emphasises how upset Yeats is and it’s a constant reminder of the past. O’Leary was a politician who was a hero of Ireland that inspired Yeats, and was also a father figure to him. The line suggests that because O’Leary’s dead Ireland is too, as O’Leary isn’t there to guide it.

In the second stanza Yeats immediately differentiates between the people in 1913 and the people in “Romantic Ireland” – “a different kind”. He then references those who fought before as “names that stilled your childish play” which could suggest that the fighters were taught about in school or even sung about in nursery rhymes.  Unfortunately these people and what they had fought for have been forgotten, “They have gone around the world like wind”. Yeats then condemns the pious Catholics by saying that the fighters had “little time” to pray, as they were fighting for Ireland, basically saying that they actually did something, not just act holy. Yeats also implies that the Catholics should be ashamed for hiding behind their faith and being greedy, as the Saints and heroes they look up to were martyrs who died for what they believed in:

“For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,”

Yeats then suggests that what they did couldn’t save Ireland, “what, God help us, could they save?” – this makes me think that the Nationalists were ruining the great reputation of Ireland.

In the third stanza Yeats references the men who fought abroad, “the wild geese spread” and questions why they fought, as nothing was achieved, and so many died “all that blood was shed”. Yeats also mentions three heroes “Edward Fitzgerald”, “Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone” who died for Ireland, and in Yeats’ opinion died in vain. He then suggests that all that effort was for nothing, “All that delirium of the brave?” as the people of 1913 haven’t learned from what the brave men of the past had suffered.

In the fourth stanza Yeats changes his stance. Yeats says that he doesn’t want the past to come back, he doesn’t want the fallen dead, Fitzgerald, Emmet or Tone to return because they’d be disgusted to see what had happened to Ireland after all the “loneliness and pain” they went through. Yeats suggests that they would think “some woman’s yellow hair” had distracted all the men – as everything had gone so badly downhill. He ends the poem on the lines:

“But let them be, they’re dead and gone,

They’re with O’Leary in the grave”

This makes the reader realise that even though he loved the past, he doesn’t want to think about it too much as it saddens him when he returns to 1913. 

Thanks for reading,

Jack