WB Yeats ❧ Sailing to Byzantium

  • Updated Nov 8, 2010
  • Updated Dec 2, 2010
  • Updated January 22 2012 TYPO. Changed  “command all summer long” to “commend all summer long”
  • Updated September 29 2013 Updated definition of pern or perne.
  • Updated October 1 2013


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 unaging intellect.


MS of Sailing to Byzantium

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.

[Sometime later today I’ll try my hand at reading this poem.]

Two Minds

I’m of two minds when it comes to Yeats. On the one hand, he’s an indisputably great poet, on the other, the universality of his greatness is, in my opinion, sometimes mitigated by his arcane and idiosyncratic spiritual beliefs. There was a time when I tried to grasp them but, frankly, I  find them arcane and unrewarding. Most critics, in my experience, more or less throw up their hands (gloss over) Yeats’ specific beliefs – as, for example, their explanations of Yeat’s gyres. I haven’t found any online resources that makes the subject interesting or straightforwardly comprehensible. The spiritual subject matter of  A Vision, Yeats’ collection of essays on “philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics” (which deeply informed his later and greatest poems) bores me silly. If you want to know what, specifically, Yeats might have been thinking when he wrote his late poems, you can try YeatsVision.Com. However, my opinion is similar to that of John Unterecker’s who wrote in his Readers Guide to W.B. Yeats:

Though almost everything Yeats wrote after 1922 and a good deal that he wrote before that date is linked to A Vision, one can read the poems without knowing the system. “Leda and the Swan” makes a different kind of sense if one sees it as a poem that examines the beginnings of the cycle that preceded ours. Seen in this light it becomes a neat companion poem to “The Second Coming,” which examines the genesis of the cycle that will follow ours. But both it and “The Second Coming” can stand by themselves. [p. 29]

How they “stand by themselves” is how I read them. Would it be interesting to know what Yeats had in mind (when writing this or that poem) as it relates to his philosophy and spirituality? Possibly. Would it be meaningful to the reader? Possibly not.

The First Stanza: Scansion


The Form: First to be mentioned: All unmarked feet are Iambic. If these terms, or the terms that follow are unfamiliar to you, check out the post Iambic Pentameter: The Basics. The meter of the poem is Iambic Pentameter. The stanza, based on the rhyme scheme ABABABCC, is called ottava rima. The effect of the rhyme scheme is similar to that which closes the quatrain and couplet of a Shakespearean Sonnet. Interestingly, Yeasts uses the form to the same effect as the closing sestet of the Shakespearean Sonnet.. The first six lines set forth an argument and the closing heroic couplet arrives with an epigrammatic summation:

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

It’s a very Elizabethan way of writing poetry and connects Yeats’ poetic thought with a much older tradition. It’s also interesting that Yeats is more conservative with this poem, metrically speaking.  By choosing ottava rima and a more conservative technique, Yeats may have wanted to concentrate the power and effectiveness of the poem’s argument through its meter and rhyme. Whether the rhymes are half rhymes or full rhymes doesn’t matter so much. Perhaps (in Yeats’ Irish accent) young and song were a much closer rhyme. Yeats’ style of reading was affected, to say the least. (For a taste, check out my post on Long Legged Fly. You will find a recording of him reciting The Lake Isle of Innesfree.) It could also be that Yeats was perfectly content with off- and  half-rhymes.

What’s it about?

The first thing to be said about Sailing to Byzantium is that it is considered one of Yeats’ greatest poems (and one of the greatest poems of the English language). The second is that few can agree on what Yeats meant by the poem. The poem can seem self-contradictory and many readers would not share Yeats’ desire (if we take him literally) to end up on an emperor’s night stand as a prophetically squawking parrot (bird), be it ever so golden and finely wrought. Reductio ad absurdum, I admit, but this is the symbolism with which Yeats glorifies his vision of the afterlife.

Yeats did not age gracefully. It seems that he idolized youth (and youthful beauty). The older he became, the more bitter he was — possibly aggravated by his marriage, at the age of 51, to Georgie Hyde-Lees, then 24 (Yeats may have suffered  from impotence). In the 1930’s Yeats was asked, on visiting a brothel, what the experience was like. He replied, ““It was terrible, like putting an oyster into a slot machine!”  But even if impotence was at the root of Yeats disgust with aging , he put his despair to the service of a larger spiritual argument.

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 poem starts as though in mid-conversation, as though Yeats were in the midst of an argument. No! he says. No, that is no country for old men. The initial trochee effectively emphasizes the vehemence of his refutation. Other close readers will tell you that “that country” is Ireland (Yeats originally wrote this instead of that.) But it doesn’t matter except to those interested in Yeats’ biography. That is, he could have written Ireland but in choosing not to he deliberately left the matter to the reader. So forget I mentioned it and forget anyone else mentioned it. Yeats could be talking about your country. His descriptions are universal.

Birds in the trees” probably stems from the age-old proverb concerning birds and bees – though birds in the trees are also usually associated with spring and fecundity. What’s curious, however, is that Yeats then labels these very symbols of renewal and rebirth those dying generations. On the face of it, the appellation makes little sense. Is the emotion expressed due to bitterness and envy?

The most thorough analysis of this poem (that I know of) is by Helen Vendler, found in her book Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She remarks that the comment is that of an impotent man, she calls the phrase “a sour note”. Possibly, but one needn’t be impotent or bitter to observe that the phrase is also true. The seemingly eternal youth celebrated “in one another’s arms” and by the “birds in the trees”  is only an illusion. In the very act of  pro-creativity are the seeds of decay and death. Vendler writes:

Frustrated by not being able to join in the secular choir of the pastoral “country” of the young, he has fled to the “holy city” of Byzantium (concealing his desperation by rendering his progress in stately and orotund iambics…” [p. 31]

That’s certainly one way to interpret the opening stanza (and not without reason). The interpretation threatens to reduce the entirety of the poem to the bitter sandbox-tantrum of an old man. If I can’t play then I’m going to Byzantum! So there! That said, I don’t get the sense (from the poem at least) that Yeats, if offered the opportunity, would return to the sensual abandonment of youthful flesh (which is what Vendler seems to suggest).


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 unaging intellect.

The description of salmon and “mackerel-crowded seas” extends the imagery of life, fecundity and fertility. This is the world of “flesh”, of whatever “is begotten, born and dies”. This world, caught in the sensual music of procreation (read sex), will  care little and have little time for “monuments of unaging intellect”, be they literally monuments or, more figuratively, art, music or poetry. And yet…  isn’t that exactly where  poetry and music are most appealing? –  within the realms of passion and love? Vendler takes Yeats’ assertion at face value. Me? I’m not so sure. If, by monuments of unaging intellect, Yeats’ is figuratively referring to art, poetry or music, then (by implication) Yeats considers art (in all its forms) to be dry and lacking sensuality. In other words, it’s not something those generations”at their song” will heed (which makes one wonder what, exactly, Yeats thinks art, poetry or music are good for). Maybe Yeats means something else by “monuments of unaging intellect”? If so, then the phrase sounds dismissive if not outright contemptuous. Monuments aren’t normally meant to appeal to our sensual senses (no matter what their subject matter) and monuments of unaging intellect don’t sound fun at all.

  • The image at the upper right is of Atlantic Salmon. Every year they return from the ocean, swimming upstream to spawn (breed). They make a powerful image and represent nothing if not a “dying generation”. Not long after spawning (some Salmon climb over 7,000 feet, from sea level, to spawn) they will die – never returning to the ocean.)

“mackerel-crowded seas…”

The poem already begins to feel laden with contradiction.

If one reads Yeats’ references to youth as betraying bitterness (read envy), then he seems equally contemptuous of the alternative. In other words, why use the word monument? Among the meanings of monument are burial vault. Monuments don’t age because they are often associated with death.

The Second Stanza: Scansion

A modern (or inexperienced) reader might be tempted to read “aged” as a monosyllabic word. The meter, however, strongly favors a disyllabic reading: agèd. The blue in the final line indicates an anapestic foot – not unusual in Yeats’ practice, but the first in this poem. Notice the effect of the spondaic foot Soul clap. It’s a nice effect and typical of poets able to unite meaning and meter.

What’s it about?

Yeats separates each stanza with a Roman numeral. Why not simply publish the poem without them (separating each of the stanzas with a space instead)? Perhaps we’re not meant to read the poem as a continuous narrative but  as four (sort of) separate poems – different treatments on a common theme. (This is Vendler’s argument.) Nevertheless, the second stanza seems to proceed directly from the first. Having described “that country”, the second stanza describes “old men”.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

What does paltry mean? It means “not worth considering” or “contemptibly small in amount”. Since the old man is being compared to the young (who Yeats describes on the basis of their “sensual music” – their pro-creative song)  the implication is that an old man is paltry because he can no longer pro-create – he cannot partake in the “song” of the young. Since an old man may impregnate a young woman as effectively as a young man, impotence is again implied. If Yeats’ judges the value of a man to be a measure of his virility, then an impotent old man would indeed be a paltry thing. He would be a tattered coat upon a stick – the implication being that sticks are barren. (Having been cut or broken from the sap, no stick will leaf, blossom or fruit.) This is the usual way to read the opening of the poem – Yeats feels cast off, useless and paltry because of his age.

Who wouldn’t want to be young again? (Such is the assumed question behind many interpretations.) But maybe Yeats is who. In this sense, an old man is only a paltry thing if he attempts to remain in “that” country – the country of youthful lovers. In this way, the argumentative sound of the poem’s opening isn’t so much bitter as dismissive. Dismissive of the very assertion many interpreters bestow on Yeats.

In other words, try to imagine what Yeats might be responding to. Someone could have said to him: Just because you’re an old man doesn’t mean you can’t love as passionately as the young. ‘Hardly!’ says the imagined Yeats. ‘That is no country for old men and no country for me. Such an old man could only be a tattered coat upon a stick.’

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;

The song of the first stanza is illusory – the false song of a dying generation who is too “caught in the sensual music” of its love-making to recognize the ephemeral vanity of its sensual music. The song of the aged man should be the song of the soul. The song of the soul is unique to each soul. Hence, there is no “singing school”. In other words, Yeats’ assertion is a refutation of religion, religion being a “singing school”. (Part of Yeats’ spiritual belief was the notion that there is no single truth or spiritual truth. The soul must create its own truth.)

…the guiding principle unifying Yeat’s spirituality is “the philosophia perennis” which “in all its branches holds that not matter but mind — consciousness — is the ground of reality as we experience it… [Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, Volume XIII, 1995, Volume 13 by Richard J. Finneran p. 69]

In the world of what is begotten, born and dies, the old man can only be a tattered coat upon a stick. Let the old man rightly turn his intellect to “unaging intellect” (the work of eternity later symbolized in the artifice of Byzantium) and he will be transfigured.  The soul must study monuments of its own magnificence. This  modifies the “monuments of unaging intellect” from the previous stanza. The appellation magnificent adds a little more burnish to monument. What are the monuments of its own magnificence? This is less clear but will be suggested by Yeats’ vision of Byzantium – it’s culture, art and literature. The soul’s monuments to its own magnificence are the products of its intellect and artistic creativity. It’s a creativity of a different kind. In Yeats’ mind, it’s eternal, not like the dying procreativity of flesh.

In A Vision, Yeats describes the appeal of Byzantium:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I cold find some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers — though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract — spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books. were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, patterns, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image…

What’s most important in this description is his phrase “show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. This will be important when judging the final image of Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats was to further write of Sailing to Byzantium that “When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making the jewel-led croziers in the national museum Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy. I symbolized a search for spiritual life by a journey to that city.” This isn’t bitterness but a desire for a different kind of passion.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

No longer capable of (or responsive to) the “sensual music” of the world (partaking in its song), he sails to Byzantium for a new kind of life and revelation.

The Third Stanza: Scansion

  • The following is only for the connoisseurs of metrical poetry:

The scansion of the third stanza reveals a 20th century poet writing traditional meter. No poet prior to the 2oth century would have written the second line of the stanza or the sixth line the way Yeats wrote them.

Although I scanned the second line as follows:

As in |the gold| mosa|ic of |a wall,

I only did so because Yeats was probably giving a nod to metrical regularity. One could read mosaic as a trisyllabic word and Yeats possibly did, but most readers (including myself) pronounce it as a  disyllabic word. That would make the line scan as follows:

As in |the gold| mosaic |of a wall

This makes the line Iambic Tatremater rather than Iambic Pentameter (four feet instead of five) and makes the final foot anapestic. This would make the line a variant line and is well within Yeats’ practice, but since mosaic can be pronounced as a three syllable word I’ve opted to scan it as an Iambic Pentameter line (given that Yeats has been fairly conservative in his other lines).

The sixth line:

And fast|ened to |a dy|ing an|imal

Would have been censured by readers and critiques prior to the 20th century. Few poets would have dared end an Iambic Pentameter line with a pyrrhic foot. It would have been considered inept and amateurish. In all of Milton’s Paradise (several thousand lines) there is not a single example (though some “scholars” have failed to take into account the changing pronunciation of words).

What’s it about?

Procession of saints: mosaic in the Basilica of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall…

In the first stanza, Yeats defines the country which has rejected him (or he, it) and in the second stanza, Yeats describes the old man (himself or his art). In the third stanza he moves the reader to a new stage – Byzantium. Although he doesn’t tell us specifically, the reader can safely assume that he is standing before a mosaic. Helen Vendler suggests that Yeats drew his inspiration for this passage from mosaics he saw in Ravenna. The iconography of the gold background is meant to suggest God’s holy fire – a symbol of eternity.

Interestingly, and because so much of Vendler’s interpretation is predicated on Yeats’ sexual impotence (which is reasonably suspected but not a certainty) she goes on to make the following observation:

Yeats’ vision of joining the company of the sages is what we might call, in the larger Freudian sense, a homosocial and sublimated resolution to the speaker’s exclusion–by reason of impotence–from the country of heterosexual intercourse. There are no women in the heaven of sages. There is no time in the fiery eternity symbolized by the gold background of the mosaic. [Our Secret Discipline p. 34]

This is a curious assertion given the mosaic on Sant’Apollinare Nuoba’s North Wall.

The bottom row portrays a procession of female Saints. That’s right, women. Clearly, the Byzantine artists beg to differ. There are women in the “heaven of sages”.  Vendler got it wrong. The clerestory (middle row) depicts the prophets which, presumably, Yeats referred to as “sages”. Vendler’s reference to Yeats’ imagery as homosocial  leads me to think she’s much too wedded to the notion of impotence in Yeats’ poem. (Not everything in the poem need be read through the lens of impotence.) At worst, her reading threatens to somewhat diminish the sublimity of the poem – it goes from being the expression of spiritual desire to a reactionary and bitter rant.

However, what nevertheless remains true is that there will be no sex in Yeats’ heaven.

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.

Yeats’ plea is not for a restoration of his potency, just the opposite. If read literally, he wants to be liberated from the “sickness of desire”. He seeks liberation from the desires of flesh – “consume me heart away”. Liberate him from the dying animal (a phrase that hearkens back to the “dying generations” of the first stanza. Refine him. Let the sages be the singing-masters of his soul. Figuratively, the stanza bespeaks his readiness to turn from the song/poetry of flesh to the song/poetry of the soul – to the clarity of the soul’s intellect.

Perne in a gyre…

The phrase “perne in a gyre” is frequently “explained” but never convincingly.

Sept. 29 2013: Yeats’ own comment on the word pern was recently brought to my attention by an attentive reader. The Norton Critical Edition includes passages from Per Amica Silentia Lunae. In Part XXI of Anima Mundi (a part of Amica Silentia Lunae) begins (by Yeats):

“When I remember that Shelley calls our minds “mirrors of the fire for which all thirst,” I cannot but ask the question all have asked, “What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the perne again.”

In the footnote to this passage, The Norton Critical Edition makes the following comment:

“Yeats recalled being told as a child that pern “was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound.”

And here’s the full quote (from a different book):

“When I was a child at Sligo I could see above my grandfather’s trees a little column of smoke from “the pern mill,” and was told that “pern” was another name for the spool, as I was accustomed to call it, on which thread was wound. One could not see the chimney for the trees, and the smoke looked as if it came from the mountain, and one day a foreign see-captain asked me if that was a burning mountain. — 1919″ [Later Poems]

I wish that Norton (and other sources for that matter) had included this helpful footnote with the poem (page 80) rather than footnoting an essay that maybe three people will read (page 289).

‘Case closed’ say you? Well, here’s the same quote from four other sources:

“What or who has cracked the mirror?” I begin to study the only self that  I can know, myself, and to wind the thread upon the pern again.”

What do these sources all have in common? They all quote Yeats with the spelling pern, not perne — the latter being the spelling of the Norton “Critical” (air quotes) edition. Since I trust the Norton Critical Edition about as far as I can throw its editor, James Pethica, I’m thinking that Norton got the quote wrong. Interestingly, in Norton’s footnote, they quote Yeats as spelling it pern. So, where does this leave us? Read on.

In the poem, the “Shepherd and the Goatherd”, you will find the following lines:

Jaunting, journeying
to his own dayspring,
He unpacks his loaded pern
Of all ’twas pain or joy to learn,
Of all that he had made.

The idea here is of unwinding a spool. Here though, the spelling is also different: pern instead of perne and it’s not clear, in Byzantium, that Yeats is using the word in the same sense.

Caveat Empor: I remain baffled by why this quote from Yeats doesn’t footnote a poem like Byzantium in more collections of poetry and in a book like The Norton Critical Edition (whose editions I don’t hold in high esteem). Why does John Unterecker, author of A Reader’s Guide to Yeats (see immediately below) not even mention this quote as a possible explanation? My best guess is that Yeats spells the word differently in Byzantium than in Shepherd and the Goatherd, his explanatory note, and his essay (according to sources other than Norton), and perhaps this makes scholars think that Yeats intended a different meaning (or an altogether different word). So, I haven’t entirely removed the portion below, much of it may still pertain. Once again, you the reader now know as much as I do (and hopefully a little more).

Vendler writes that “a ‘perne’ is a cone-shaped bobbin”. Really? Says who? She doesn’t tell us. In truth, her off-the-cuff explanation is so uncharacteristically perfunctory (for a “close reader” who never misses a chance to extenuate) that I don’t think she knows. She probably isn’t sure of its meaning and so doesn’t spend any time on it.

Perne could also refer to a pern, another name for a honey-buzzard. This would make considerable, thematic sense. Yeats repeats themes, words and ideas throughout the poem, especially as regards birds and song. Also, consider the opening lines to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The imagery of the falcon in the gyre isn’t far removed from the imagery of a pern in a gyre. Could Yeats have misspelled pern (spelling it perne)? If one thinks of the pern as a bird of prey, then Yeats’ might be comparing the sages to birds of prey. He is inviting them to descend in an ever-more focused, fiery gyre until they find and consume his heart, the heart of a dying animal. (The idea of the gyre is doubtless a reference to Yeats’ spiritual beliefs concerning the cyclic nature of human evolution – to which he devoted an entire book, A Vision. Feel free to read it.)

On the other hand, here’s another interpretation from the following site:

The phrase “perne in a gyre” refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo. Yeats is referring to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool, a movement that is so fast that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. The point that Yeats is highlighting is that each individual strand of thread is submerged by speed into one continuous piece, similarly each successive human life is a mirror image of a previous one, but that taken together there is a continuation, a permanence.

This is a fabulously compelling interpretation. It sounds knowledgeable. It’s poetic. I love it. I want to believe it. (I notice that this interpretive nugget has been copied and pasted throughout the web.) But, thematically, it doesn’t fit. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. If the interpretation implies reincarnation, “successive human life”, then this is emphatically not what Yeats is proposing in Sailing to Byzantium or, for that matter,  in the later, companion poem Byzantium. If the interpretation is not a reference to reincarnation but, simply, successive human lives, then what do these successive lives have to do with the sages? They live in eternity (in the holy fire). “Come from the holy fire,” writes Yeats, and “perne in a gyre”. Why would he compare the sages (coming from eternity) to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool if, as the author suggests, the imagery is meant to suggest temporal and successive human life?

And if perne is another name for a spinning wheel (like the kind Yeats would have seen in Sligo) why would he write (in effect):  come like a ‘”spinning wheel” in a gyre’? Images of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz spring to mind – a house, a witch and a spinning wheel. It would make more sense if perne referred to the yarn.  At least to me, the author’s analogy falls apart. Lastly, the author doesn’t give us any reason to believe him (or her). A perne is a “spinning wheel”? Says who? Where are the author’s footnotes? What about Vendler? She thinks its a bobbin. Clearly, the two of them don’t agree on what it is.

And did you read to the bottom of the Wikipedia article on Honey Buzzards? As of Nov 6, 2010, you will find the following:

An alternate name for the bird is the pern[1]. It has been argued by some (e.g., Smith[2] or [3]) that the lines “perne in a gyre” in William Butler Yeats poem Sailing to Byzantium have an alternate reading as referring to the circling flight of a honey buzzard. This conjecture is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary which treats perne as a verb meaning “to spin”.[4]

Really? Here are the notes:

  1. ^Pern, Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Stan Smith, W. B. Yeats, a Critical Introduction, Chapter 3.9, “The Gyres”, p. 205, Palgrave Macmillan, 1990; ISBN 033348066X
  3. ^[1]
  4. ^OED Online, s.v. pern, v. http://dictionary.oed.com/ Accessed 21 Oct 2008

As it happens, I own the Oxford English Dictionary and I’m not seeing it. What’s not supported is the word perne itself (let alone a definition). It doesn’t appear in the dictionary. Not only that, but there’s no reference to pern or perne as a verb meaning to spin. The word pern, as a reference to honey-buzzards, is in the OED. The Wikpideia footnote is either a complete fabrication or the  online edition of the OED is different than the hard copy. But you can verify this for yourself. There are editions of the OED available at Google Books. I searched through two different editions and they also don’t contain the word perne.

  • I can’t find the word perne in any dictionary.

Nevertheless, let’s say one accepts Wikipedia’s claim, then we now have a third definition of perne. 1.) It’s a cone-shaped bobbin (Vendler). 2.) It’s a spinning wheel (author unknown). 3.) It’s a verb meaning to spin,  which makes Yeats’ phrase clumsily tautological: spin in a spin.

Odd. A word with so many meanings and no dictionary knows about it…

Can all the definitions be right? Possibly. But I get the feeling each scholar is repeating variations on the same urban myth (each of them having heard it from each other). None of the scholars tell us where their information comes from and that, to me, doesn’t do them any favors.

For the record, John Unterecker, author of the aforementioned Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, casts his lot with those who (like myself) think Yeats’ perne is actually a pern – a honey-buzzard.

There, flame-wrapped sages can (bird metaphor only modestly disguised) like immortal phoenixes rise from their holy fire, “pern in a gyre,” and — “singing masters” — consume his heart away as, returning to the fire, they gather him into “the artifice of eternity.” [p. 173]

But you be the judge.

If you’re Irish and you know what a perne is (and you know what Yeats meant) explain it to the rest of us and e-mail us a picture of a perne. (I’ll forward it to the editors of the OED for inspection.)

Update: I may have gotten to the root of the matter. This is from The composite voice: the role of W.B. Yeats in James Merrill’s poetry by Mark Bauer. Bauer writes:

Yeats likely chose the variant spelling “perne” for “pirn” to allow the allusion to a kind of hawk as well as the winding motion as of thread into a spool (or “pirn”), but the meaning that Kimon Friar emphasizes in his notes to this poem… is “to change” — “after Dr. Perne, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-8-, who changed his opinions adroitly” (Modern Poetry 555)… [p. 217]

We can now add a third possible meaning to perne (which would be spelled correctly). Here are the relevant definitions from the OED.


Pirn: Now Sc. and dial. Forms: 5-6 pirne, pyrne, 8 pyrn, 6 – pirn, (9 dial. pirm) 1.) A small cylinder on which thread or yarn is wound, formerly made of a hollow reed or quill, but now usually of turned wood or iron, with axial bore for mounting on a spindle when winding; a waever’s  bobbin, spool, or reel. [Several examples of usage are given, all with an –i rather than –e. 2.) transf. The yarn wound upon the pirn (ready for the shuttle); also, as much as a pirn holds, a pirnful. ? Obs. rare. 3.) Any device or machine resembling a reel, or used for winding; esp. a fishing-reel. 4.) An unevenness or ‘cockle’ in the surface of a piece of cloth, caused by difference in the yarn composing it. Obs. rare. 5.) attrib. and Comb., as pirn-winder, -winding; pirn-cage (see quot.) ; pirn-cap, a wooden bowl used by weavers to hold their quills (Jamieson); pirn-girnel, a box for holding pirns while they are being filled; pirn house, a weaving shed; pirn-stick, a wooden stick or spindle on which the quill (pirn) is placed while the yarn put on it in spinning is reeled off; pirn-wheel, a wheel for winding thread on bobbins; pirn-wife, a woman who fills pirns with yarn.

Pirn: sb. 3 dial. Also purn. A twitch for horses.

Pirn: Found only in ps. pple. and ps. ppl. adj. . Pirned interwoven with threads of different colors; striped; brocaded.

And here are the definitions for pern:

Pern: sb. [ad. mod. l. pernis (Cuvier 1817), an erroneous adaptation of Gr. (…) A bird of the genus Pernis; the Honey-Buzzard.

Pern: Also 6 Pearn. trans. To deal with after the manner of Dr. Perne. Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, 1554-80, who changed his opinions adroitly; to change (a profession, creed, etc.) for some ulterior end.


Now you know as much as I do and as much as the next scholar.

First, we know the following: Vendler engaged in some truthiness. A perne is not a cone-shaped bobbin. That’s what a pirn is (and even then there’s no mention that it need be “cone-shaped”). She neglected to mention that the two words are spelled quite differently and didn’t offer us a reason as to why we should adopt pirn as Yeats’ intended meaning. I can see substituting an -i for an -e, but what about the extra -e?

Second, we know that the unknown author who told us that a perne is a ‘spinning wheel’ was wrong. Interestingly, my speculation that his interpretation would have made more sense if ‘perne’ actually referred to yarn turns out to have been prescient. According to OED, one of the meanings of pirn is yarn (see above).

Third, the Wikipedia article which states that ‘perne‘ means to spin isn’t reflected by my hard copy of the OED.

The question remains, why pirn? Why are so many scholars married to the idea that perne might have been a mispelling for pirn.

I don’t have an answer. In fact, their interpretation seems arbitrary (or wishful thinking) but maybe more information will turn up? Why not a twitch for a horse? As it is, Yeats’ spelling is closer to pern than to pirn. The possibility that Yeats was referring to a hawk seems more likely both in its spelling and thematically.  Lastly, the only appearance of perne, with the extra -e, is in reference to the good Dr. Perne, but no scholars (I notice) are rushing to insert Dr. Perne into Sailing to Byzantium.

Again, you be the judge.

Update December 2 2010

The following is thanks to a conversation with Phyllis Katz, a classics professor at Dartmouth College.

Being a Latin scholar (which I am not), Mrs. Katz recognized another possibility for perne. It turns out that perne is the imperative singular of the latin verb perneo, declined: perneo, pernere, pernevi, pernetum; and means — to spin out, to spin to an end. The word was used in reference to the Fates by the Latin poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (known as Martial in English). The definition she provided comes from A Latin Dictionary rev. by T. Lewis 1879 (1996).

The possibility that Yeats was using the Latin imperative of the verb perneo is compelling because it would fit with the imperative tone of the verse.

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.

All these verbs are imperatives. However, this fact alone doesn’t clinch the argument. Yeats might also have been using anthimeria to create a verb out of the noun Pern (for Honey-Buzzard). In this sense, it would be the equivalent of saying, for example: He hawks his prey. Hawk is normally a noun, but anthimeria (a favorite rhetorical figure of, among other poets, Shakespeare) transforms it into a verb.

The question that needs to be asked, if Yeats was hauling a Latin verb into English (neologizing), is whether there’s precedent elsewhere in his poetry. The answer is that I don’t know. I’m not a Yeatsian scholar. However, of all the poems I have read, I’ve never noticed such a neologism before. By comparison, the Elizabethan poets and dramatists (Shakespeare especially) were constantly coining new words based on Latin and Greek. We expect that sort of thing from the Elizabethans, but Yeats? It’s possible. Mrs. Katz provided the following in support of her own supposition:

art of the achievement of writers like Yeats and Joyce in their use of English lies in their appropriation of the Greek and Latin… One facet of Yeats’s imperial sway over the English language is to use with abandon words derived from Latin, words that tend to be long, abstract, and supposedly less expressive than their short, concrete Anglo-Saxon counter-parts. Yeats, however, moulds English so that these Latinisms are strong, powerful, imperious, suggesting both the old fact that the Romans ruled England and the new fact that an Irishman, from a country never ruled by the Romans, can reimpose Roman dominion over the language of his conqueror. Consider, for example, the violent Latin verb (which is framed by initial Greek and final Old English nouns) in “News for the Delphic Oracle”: “nymphs and satyrs copulate in the foam.” And so it happens, time and again: “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”; “all that lamentation of the leaves”; “Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied”; “The wine-dark of the wood’s intricacies”; “And all complexities of mire or blood.”25 What is happening in Yeats, then, is that the Latin of the Irish hedge schools, of Hugh, Jimmy Jack, and the others, has now entered great poetry…  [The Role of Greek and Latin in Friel’s Translations p. 8]

The only point I would make is that these aren’t neologisms – these are recognized English words which are derived from Latin. They are no longer read or spoken as Latin words. This doesn’t mean that Yeats did not (in one poem and in the entirety of his career) take a verb straight from Latin, but it does make the argument less certain

More along these lines can be found in the article “Passionate Syntax: Style in the Poetry of Yeats“. Again, while Yeats’ use of Latin-derived words is pronounced, there’s no mention of Latin or Greek neologisms.

I had one more qualm about Mrs. Katz’s suggestion and that concerns the seeming redundancy of “perne in a gyre” (if Yeats intended the Latin verb). In effect, Yeats is saying: spin in a spin. However, Yeats seemed untroubled by such redundancies. In the opening to the Second Coming, he writes:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre…


Will there be yet more to write about Perne? We’ll see.

…gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

The word artifice is curious. It means (dictionary.com):

  1. a clever trick or stratagem; a cunning, crafty device or expedient; wile.
  2. trickery; guile; craftiness.
  3. cunning; ingenuity; inventiveness: a drawing-room comedy crafted with artifice and elegance.
  4. a skillful or artful contrivance or expedient.

It’s an odd description of the mosaic if Yeats means to glorify it. Yeats was probably referring to the cunning and ingenuity of the artwork. Even so, the other meanings remain. The effect is to both praise the mosaic but to also acknowledge its artificiality. Yeats’ plea to be gathered up by the sages simultaneously acknowledges the impossibility. The sages are not going to be perne(ing) in a gyre; and the holy fire, the gold mosaic-work, is just that, mosaic-work. It’s artifice. It’s artificial. The line reveals something about Yeats that I like. He hasn’t drunk the kool-aide. He’s telling us, with a kind confidentiality, that he’s like us – he’s not portraying the afterlife as though his vision were an unquestioned truth. His plea is that of the suffering and doubting man, and that makes it all the more poignant. ‘Make the artifice true,’ he seems to plead. ‘Gather me into the beautiful illusion of great art, the soul’s intellection. The illusion of “the young in one another’s arms” has made me a paltry thing.’ His is the cry of a man who feels as though he is trapped in illusion but whose only refuge remains illusion.

But there’s another way to interpret his lines and that comes next.

The Fourth Stanza: Scansion

The scansion is fairly straighforward. I chose to slur bodily and natural to read bod’ly and nat’ral. This keeps the meter fairly regular and reflects how most of us would read the line.

What’s it about?

Vendler considers the fourth stanza a refutation of the  third stanza. She writes that Yeats can’t be both absorbed by the golden eternity of the sages (which is timeless) and be the temporal contrivance of a secular Byzantine goldsmith (for a drowsy emperor) singing of the past, present and future. (There is no past, present or future in an eternal now.) But Vendler seems to overlook the word artifice. Yeats, himself, acknowledges the artificiality of his vision. It’s a symbolic, metaphorical, artistic (hence artifice) transfiguration.  So, I see the third and fourth stanza somewhat differently – the third flows smoothly into the fourth, not a contradiction but allowing for the possibility of the fourth stanza. In the third stanza, Yeats is pleading for a kind of symbolic rebirth where he will be freed from the illusory mire of fish, flesh and fowl. (Mire is the word he will later use in the poem Byzantium.)  Once he has been transfigured and transmuted (once the sages, like alchemists, have transmuted his being into the eternal gold of god’s holy fire) he will be ready for the artifice (the art work) of the Byzantine gold smith. The word gold will reappear again and again in the fourth stanza. (To me, the repetition sounds like the repeated hammer blows of the gold smith beating the gold into shape.) Bear in mind that gold is the only metal which does not corrode.

Once out of nature…

“Once my form has been transmuted by the alchemical transfiguration of the sages into the spiritually eternal gold of god’s fire…”

I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing…

Yeats rejects reincarnation. We might expect a sexually impotent man to desire a return to nature (if that’s truly his gripe), but Yeats’ doesn’t or doesn’t believe its possible. And this makes me think that the focus of so many analysts on sexual impotence is overcooked. Yeats impotence can be treated figuratively rather than literally. His impotence is of an artistic, spiritual and temperamental kind. He no longer emotionally responds to the passionate poems of youth, desire and sexuality; but finds himself drawn to a new kind of passion – eternal and spiritual. In this light, the poem can be read as a kind of artistic and poetic transmutation and manifesto. He is turning away from the poetry of his youth and past, having no more feeling for it (his impotence refers to the figurative loss of his interest and emotional response to youthful concerns). He’s not unhappy to see it go. As mentioned before, what many readers interpret as bitterness may be, to Yeats, anything but.   He’s not bitter. Rather, he’s  all too ready to be done with the illusory preoccupations of youth.

…But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Would any of us desire such an afterlife? – to be a mechanical bird?

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. In the poem Byzantium, he will write:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems). His poetry, transfigured by his new found spirituality, will not speak to everyone, but only to those who have themselves been transfigured, who have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium. (We will have left  behind that country of “the dying generations”.) We will  be the “lords and ladies of Byzantium”. We will be able to hear and understand his songs/poetry of “what is past. passing, or to come”.

  • The image above right gives an idea of some of the beautiful and extraordinarily wrought Byzantine metalwork that might have inspired Yeats’ imagery.

Vendler interprets the drowsy emperor as symbolically representing Yeats’ desire to return to sensuality. She writes:

Something has indeed been lost to the human speaker in his reincarnation-within-artifice:the golden bird has no mate, and cannot sing “sensual music.” But the bird does have a bodily form (even if artificial) and continues to inhabit a profane heterosexual environment, while he chronicles in song — with an omniscient,, almost divine, view — the broad panoramas of time. As he sings to the Emperor, or to the lords and ladies, he will be Hellenic, not Hebraic. As the poem ends, he is back in a place where there is an imminent sensuality in the drowsy Emperor (there is an Empress as well as the Emperor in the worksheets, and “drowsy” is always, in Yeats, a sign of the sensual).

I’m not buying it, and I certainly don’t accept her contention that “drowsy” is always a sign of the sensual. If she is going to make such a sweeping generalization then she should back it up. She doesn’t. She puts it out there and, presumably, assumes the reader won’t question her. Me? I say, prove it. With that proviso aside, Vendler’s interpretation is interesting, valuable and allows the likes of me to bounce ideas off it.

However, I think she misses the forest for the trees. If one is drowsy, there’s nothing sensual about being kept awake. I interpret the Emperor and empress as being, like the lords and ladies, us. The Emperor of Byzantium is the spiritually transfigured soul/reader who uniquely hears Yeats and can see into the mystery of things. He (and she) is awakened from drowsiness because they recognize in Yeat’s song and poetry a kindred truth. The Emperor (and Empress of the rough draft) will want to be awake. This, I think, is what Yeats means. His new poetry will keep them (and you) awake. This, at least, is how I read the poem. Like Robert Frost’s “For Once Then Something‘, Yeats is characterizing his spiritual identity in his poetry. He is spiritually remaking himself in his poetry. The impotence isn’t sexual but imaginative. No longer aroused by the passions of youth, he renews his passions in the golden city of Byzantium.

The Lords and Ladies of Byzantium are us.


(If you want  to learn more about how Yeats arrived at the final version, the New York times has provided an excellent video discussing the poem’s composition – as of writing this the video and article are  still free.)

Yeats’ Two Byzantiums

A nice reading on Youtube, if a little depressing.

Final Thought:

And that’s that there’s much that I didn’t discuss. One could almost write a book on the poem. Please comment and we’ll see what else comes up.

The old man becomes the soul.