WB Yeats ❧ Byzantium

william_butler_yeats_2So, I’ve been reading more Yeats. In particular, I’ve been trying to get a foothold in Byzantium.  Whereas Sailing to Byzantium has the feeling of conviction, Byzantium reads more like a hoary Rand Mcnally triptych having no relevance to anyone but Yeats. In her book, Our Secret Discipline, Vendler spends 11 full pages explicating Byzantium without eliciting the least desire to read it. Thankfully, unlike  her analysis of Sailing to Byzantium, she seems to have gotten over her obsession with Yeats’ penis. She doesn’t write such chestnuts as “[Yeats] hopes to regain respect by emphasizing the power of the rigid Byzantine “monuments of unageing intellect. [p. 31]” (The italics are mine.) Which, when one thinks about it, is a little odd.

Anyway, what’s the point of Byzantium? Is it really just the description of souls arriving in some concocted city by a fevered poet drunk on his own “spiritualist” kool-aid? Is it just spiritualist naval gazing? Was Yeats really trying to communicate anything relevant? John Unterecker, in his Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, has this to say about Byzantium’s inception:Yeats wrote “Byzantium” in Italy after his Malta Fever collapse. The first notes for the poem are recorded in his 1930 diary under the heading “Subject for a Poem” and are dated April 30:

Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purefied, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to paradise. [p. 217]

And that’s that. It really does sound like the note taking of an aspiring tour guide. But Yeats must have had something more in mind. Unterecker mentions a letter from Sturge Moor, to Yeats:

“As Ursula Bridge notes, Yeats was almost certainly goaded into this stanza by Sturge Moore’s April 16, 1930, letter which had attacked the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” as an essentially natural thing: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as as man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing to to come to Lords and Ladies.”

And here’s the relevant exchange, from here, in its entirety:

[From T. Sturge Moore to Yeats, April 16, 1930] Have you read Santayana’s Platonism and the Spiritual Life? He thinks the Indian philosophers the most spiritual, but his arguments leave me skeptical as to whether mere liberation from existence has any value or probability as a consummation. I prefer with Wittgenstein, whom I don’t understand, to think that nothing at all can be said about ultimates, or reality in an ultimate sense. Anyway I can say nothing that approaches giving me satisfaction, nor am I satisfied by what others say. Your “Sailing to Byzantium,” magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.

[Yeats responds, October 4, 1930] My dear Sturge Moore,

Yes, I have decided to call the book Byzantium. I enclose the poem, from which the name is taken, hoping that it may suggest symbolism for the cover. The poem originates from a criticism of yours. You objected to the last verse of “Sailing to Byzantium” because a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else. That showed me that the idea needed exposition.

Matthew Schultz, in his essay Aestheticism in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats: The Two Byzantium Poems, goes further , writing that the disagreement was “the point of departure for “Byzantium”. Yeats own words would seem to underscore this assertion. Was Yeats really so taken aback by Moore’s critique of a single image that he was prompted to write Byzantium — a kind of refutation? This suggests two thoughts: First, that the image of the golden bird is central to Sailing to Byzantium, and that this is the image/idea around which the second poem is constructed. So, let’s take a look at the poem. I’ve tried to type it in without typos and have used the Richard J. Finneran edition of Yeats’ poetry:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

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.

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Scansion

Yeats follows a fairly strict metrical pattern in the poem,  suggesting a more formal or serious tone. The underlying pattern is iambic and the underlying meter of the longer lines is iambic pentameter.2nd Byzantium 1rst Stanza

But for the first stanza, in which the sixth line is dimeter, the overall  pattern for the sixth and seventh lines are iambic trimeter, Any explanation for why Yeats chose this  pattern is going to be subjective (lest it come from Yeats). My own thought is that the short lines give the stanzas a sense of momentum and succinctness, especially where Yeats wants to focus the reader and listener on the content. That’s the way, at any rate, I myself tend to think of shorter lines, especially rhyming lines. Based on the rhyme scheme, one could think of the stanza as being comprised of two quatrains. The second quatrain is an Italian Quatrain, four lines that enclose a couplet. In this case, the couplet is:

All that man is,
All mere complexities…

The short lines combined in a couplet draw the reader’s mind to a central assertion: man is mere complexities. Yeats is already drawing a contrast between the temporary ambitions of man and the eternal artifice of Byzantium. Vendler states that the rhymes and rhythms of the poem change unpredictably. I’m not seeing it. Each of the stanzas follow the pattern established by the first. This is hardly unpredictable. The rhyme scheme remains the same from beginning to end. How is this unpredictable?  If she’s only going to consider the first stanza, then by that measure every poem is unpredictable until we read it.

The stanza’s that follow all follow the same pattern and so, if only to make less work for myself, I haven’t scanned them. Just ask, however, if you have any questions concerning the others.

The First Stanza

Byzantium is a sequel or continuation of Sailing to Byzantium and I don’t see how it’s possible to interpret Byzantium without reference to the first poem (though Vendler seem untroubled by such exigencies). Vendler tells us that “‘Byzantium’ gains by being read together with ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” [p. 47] yet makes no effort to connect her interpretation of the first poem to the second. The first poem, she tells us, is an expression of Yeats’ “self-disgust” and his “exclusion—by reason of impotence—from the country of heterosexual intercourse” [p. 34]. By the second poem, Yeats is completely over it (or Vendler is). Surely, given that the two poems are so obviously connected, one would expect her to find evidence, or hints at least, of the same thematic material in both.  She doesn’t, not as far as Yeats’ “impotence” goes.

For my own part, I interpreted the first poem somewhat differently. To be brief, I interpreted Byzantium as Yeats’ argument for a new art. The poetry of youthful song and passion no longer captivated him. Such country is no place for old men. Instead, he turns his art to a more eternal kind—purified by the goldsmiths hammer—and for the spiritually transfigured reader, lords, ladies, Empress and Emperor (which I interpreted as meaning us). Byzantium isn’t so much a poem announcing Yeats’ departure from the world of “blood and mire”, but an invitation for readers to join him in his—a purified and eternal world.

How does this interpretation hold up in lieu of Byzantium?

Yeats doesn’t really describe Byzantium in Sailing to Byzantium. He suggests. He wants to be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Perhaps the atmosphere is suffused with god’s holy fire “as in the gold mosaic of a wall.” There will be a golden bough on which a bird, the artifice of Grecian goldsmiths, will sing to Lords and Ladies. The reader can easily be forgiven for imagining a stately, beautiful, and eternal city full of art and accomplishment.

Well.

You would be wrong. Yeats clears up that little misconception right from the get-go:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

Now, and this is the thing that gets me every time I read the poem: What in the hell are drunk soldiers doing at the gates of paradise—an eternal world of fixity? Obviously, the mistake is in thinking that Byzantium is meant to be interpreted as heaven or eternity. It is however, in Yeats’ imagination, a destination for the dead  (or souls), as well as the living. They arrive “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood”. And what’s with dolphins? It only gets weirder from there. We have a moonlit dome that “disdains /all that man is,” (though apparently not the drunken soldiers tasked with guarding it — from what, we don’t know—and not that they could anyway, being drunk).  In the second stanza, Hades’ bobbin shows up, bound in mummy-cloth, and look, there goes Abbot and Costello, running for their lives, from the mummy and from the “miracle bird” that’s crowing like a cock out of Hell  (or Hades rather).

What are we supposed to make of this place?

Having read various interpretations on the web and in critical books, I have to say (and this is only my impression)  almost nobody has a clue. Vendler puts up a pretty good front, treating the poem with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, but I’m not convinced. To me, the one critic/reader who comes closest to teasing out what Yeats might have had in mind (and it’s not like I know) was William Empson. Empson’s article, in the critical  journal Grand Street, was published in 1982 and much of the “material” that follows is drawn from the article–but the observations are largely my own. In order to pull off his feat of Yeatsian-cryptography, Empson referred to Yeats’ drafts, along with letters. He states from the outset that it’s not something he usually approves of (and neither do I) but Yeats’ Byzantium calls for desperate measures. The first question to be dealt with is why Byzantium? Here’s a city that, far from being considered a mecca of culture and civilization, inspired the word Byzantine.

Synonyms:

Machiavellian, artful, balled up, calculating, canny, collusive,
complex, complicated, confounded, confused, connivent, conniving,
conspiring, contriving, convoluted, crabbed, crafty, cunning,
daedal, designing, devious, elaborate, embrangled, entangled,
fouled up, foxy, gordian, guileful, implicated, insidious,
intricate, intriguing, involuted, involved, knotted, knotty,
knowing, labyrinthian, labyrinthine, loused up, many-faceted,
matted, mazy, meandering, messed up, mixed up, mucked up,
multifarious, pawky, perplexed, plotting, ramified, roundabout,
scheming, screwed up, shrewd, slick, sly, snarled, sophisticated,
stratagemical, subtile, subtle, tangled, tangly, twisted, up to,
wily

At the height of its infamy, Byzantium was famed for political intrigue, decadence, corruption, despotism, assassination and unrivaled venality. And this is where Yeats wants to go? Yeats’s was obviously aware of history’s verdict (hence the drunk soldiers), but the city’s artistic legacy appears to have assumed, to him, mythical proportions.

“There is a record of a tree of gold with artificial birds which sang. The tree was somewhere in the Royal Palace of Byzantium. I use it as a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctive joy of human life.” [Yeats and Byzantium p. 69]

In 1932, lecturing in America, Yeats elaborates:

“Aristotle says that if you give a ball to a child, and if it was the best ball in the market, though it cost but sixpence, it is an example of magnificence; and style, whether in life or literature, comes, I think, from excess, from that something over and above utility which wrings the heart. In my later poems I have called it Byzantium, that city where the saints showed their wasted forms upon a background of gold mosaic, and an artificial bird sang upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor; and in one poem I have pictured the ghosts swimming, mounted upon dolphins, through the sensual seas, that they may dance upon its pavements.” [Ibid p. 70]

Empson then references a first draft but, for whatever reason, doesn’t follow up on the really (in my opinion) revealing “second stanza”.

Now the day is come I will speak on those
Loves I have had in play…That my soul loved
That I loved in my first youth
For many lovers have I taken off my clothes
For some I threw them off in haste, for some slowly and indifferently
and laid down on my bed that I might be…
but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone
O let me be enfolded in my …
and how shall we ever grow every…

As Empson notes, the handwriting is hard to read.  What interests me is how Yeats draws a fascinating parallel between taking off his clothes to make love, and taking off his body for an unspecified (in this extract at least) spiritual union. In other words, Yeats is sexualizing the spiritual union. That is to say, the pleasurable, naked decadence Yeats experienced as a youth when making love is comparable to the pleasure of spiritual union in old age.  And to really drive home my point: Yeats’s longing for spiritual union isn’t that of the ascetic [rigid in self-denial and devotions; austere; severe] but that of the decadent, pleasure seeking lover. Now, you’re obviously asking yourself, where might Yeats find a place that represents both pleasure seeking decadence and transcendent spiritual art? Yeah. Byzantium.

So, with this mind, let’s revisit the first stanza. Once again, the opening lines:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night’s resonance recedes; night walker’s song…

We now know that this Byzantium is not meant to be interpreted as a sexless, spiritually cleansed stand-in for paradise. Yeats liked women, liked sex, and liked sensuality. To him, it would seem, a spiritual realm without its own sexual and sensual parallels was decidedly not heaven.  And yes, this flatly contradicts Vendler’s suggestion that “there are no women in the heaven of sages,” (besides being contradicted by the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare).  Empson, having access to the drafts of Yeats’s Byzantium, reveals the extent to which Yeats originally wanted to emphasize the not-to-be-confused-with-Paradise nature of his Byzantium:

“…it turns out that the earlier drafts made the point much more strongly: “all that roaring route of rascals,” “the emperor’s brawling soldiers,” “the last benighted robber or assassin fled,” “the drunken harlot’s song.” Critics who still insist that this town is Paradise must be struggling to hush up a scandal.” [Ibid. p. 86]

So, the drunken harlot’s song became the nightwalker’s song. Not only is there beer and sex in Byzantium, but both are for sale. What’s not to love? And what does “The unpurged images” mean? One way to to understand this is by examining Yeats’s spiritual belief system (which I find tediously arcane and can’t be bothered with). The second is through the context of the poem.

Here’s how I interpret the matter. Yeats, when referring to life as we know it, uses words like complexity, and phrases like mire and blood ; the fury and the mire of human veins; complexities of mire or blood; complexities of fury.

  • Mire  1. To cause or permit to stick fast in mire; to plunge or fix in mud; as, to mire a horse or wagon. [1913 Webster] 2. Hence: To stick or entangle; to involve in difficulties — often used in the passive or predicate form; as, we got mired in bureaucratic red tape and it took years longer than planned.

So, given this not-so-subtly negative summation of life, it stands to reason that it’s these complexities which are to be purged. And what does he mean by complexities? We get some idea by the words and phrases he uses to describe the “opposite”. In Sailing to Byzantium, he writes: “…gather me Into the artifice of eternity”.

In Byzantium he writes:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is

…bird or golden handiwork,
[Can] scorn…
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,

  • Aside: Just for a moment, I want to point out a sexual crosscurrent that may or may not be present in Yeats’s choice of imagery. While Yeats liked women, liked sex and liked sensuality, one might be forgiven for also pointing out that, like many men, Yeats may also have been conflicted. Use of words like blood, mire and complexity all suggest the female body, sex, and reproduction. It’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that a woman’s reproductive organs could be construed as “a mire” — a damp and heated swamp  Sex, menstruation, child-birth, all involve bodily fluids (and a variety of complexities) that might have alternately attracted and repelled Yeats. I wouldn’t call it misogyny, just “issues” (if you know what I mean). In that respect, it wouldn’t be a coincidence that Yeats uses the word “beget”. He is, after all, referring to physical life when he refers to “Those images”, and the necessity that it procreate/beget new life (fresh images) in the mire—the womans’ body—of her blood, fury and complexity. If this surmise is true, then it makes perfect sense that he would write (in an unpublished sketch): “now I will take off my body”. In other words, Yeats wants sex without the blood, mire and messiness of sex. Perhaps Byzantium reveals Yeats’ conflicted attraction and repulsion to sex and women (if subliminally), and not just his spiritual aspirations. It’s not that he wants to escape the pleasure of sexuality, it’s the blood and messiness that repels him. He wants an idealized world of sensuality that is “clean” and changeless.

So, getting back to purging, it stands to reason that purging involves cleansing the soul(?) of the mire and blood that is the transient body. What remains? Right. This is what every criticism and analysis of the poem merrily glosses over. Either that, or we are referred to Yeats’s ‘cones’ (which also  does nothing to explain what Yeats had in mind). Frankly, I don’t even think that Yeats knew. He may coyly distinguish an image from a shade, but that still doesn’t tell us what they are —a soul? – a speck of consciousness? – a disembodied body? What?  All we know is that whatever remains, once we are “purged”, is not mired in blood, fury or complexity. We are presumably “purified”. We exist (whatever that “we” is) in an Aristotelian(?) and sensual realm (art/artifice of eternity?) that is changeless, permanent and ‘not-complex’. If one thinks of it figuratively (which is much easier) then one might say that what remains (of Yeats for example) is to be found in the changeless perfection of his poetry. But Yeats took these matters literally and I doubt that immortality on a bookshelf was what he had in mind – even if he flirted with the notion in his poetry (see my previous post). And frankly, I don’t know that any of this matters. It may simply be enough to assert that Yeats is contrasting the ever-changing, transient realm of the furious physical with an idealized, unchanging, intellectual/sensual realm of art and artifice. In order to get there, you have to be purged. As in Sailing to Byzantium, this purgation involves acknowledging the purer, more permanent song of the miracle bird (hammered by the Emperor’s goldsmiths) and leaving behind the song of “The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/— Those dying generations”.

Think of it this way, perhaps: To be purged is to surrender the sensuality of the body to the sensuality of the mind.

So, getting all the way back to “unpurged images”. By images, Yeats is referring to physical/bodily life. They are unpurged because they still sport in the blood and mire that is bodily life, that is beer and paid sex.

After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

The first of twelve strokes announces the window in which “images” may be purged. The dome, an image of changelessness and perfection (appealing to the sensuality of the mind), disdains the bodily, Like the miracle bird’s song, and like Yeats’s poetry, the bell is a call to purgation. Vendler very nicely describes what Yeats might intend with the dome:

“…the dome stands for that which is purged of such complexities, that which harbors within itself ideal images already purged and pure.” [Our Secret Discipline, p. 39]

The Second Stanza

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Now. Things are going to get really interesting because I’m going to shock the world (or get myself lynched) by proposing a way to interpret these lines that, to my knowledge, has never been offered before. Here’s the thing: Every critic and close reader who has read this poem (and not without good reason) assumes that Yeats, in the poem as it was finally published, was referring to a mummy (and that’s tied every last one of them into interpretative knots). Yeats himself, before he even began drafts of the poem, wrote:

“Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners…” [the emphasis is my own]

However, I argue that Yeats changed his mind. As Empson himself stated, we must be wary when consulting a poet’s drafts and perhaps even avoid doing so. The reason is that the drafts not only give us clues to what the poet intended (in the course of working out the poem), but also reveal what he decided to change and leave out. I can’t stress that enough. Really. The ultimate arbiter of a poem’s meaning must remain the final, completed poem.

In Byzantium, in the poem as we have it, there is no mummy.

Let that sink in.

Every critic, Empson, Vendler, Bloom, Unterecker, et al… (because, in my opinion, of decades of misreading) have assumed that the mummy of the drafts made it into the final poem. They all read the poem the same way. However, the obvious observation is that Yeats’s final draft never actually states that the image/shade is a mummy. In fact, it’s possible to read these lines in a wholly different way and in a way that’s not self-contradictory.

Here we go:

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

That’s a complete sentence and it ends in a semicolon. Even Yeats was aware that a mummy is not a man, no matter how beautiful the Pharaoh’s linens. A mummy is a skeleton encased by dessicated flesh. Yeats must also have realized the absurdity of his initial drafts.  He tried the following:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
(May better sommon me) Can merrily summon me
To adore…

But rejected them. Merrily? A Mummy? Even Empson found this imagery absurd, writing:

“Merrily” carries a strong suggestion that we have not heard the whole story. Even without this unnerving detail, it would be probable that if we had the science fiction long-short we would find the mummy at least giving some gruff directions to the poet. But, even so, it would be quite unsuitable, and extremely unlike what happens to Virgil…”  [Yeats and Byzantium, p. 88]

Clearly, this was going nowhere. My reading is that Yeats changed the mummy — the guide — to a shade, “shade more than man, more image than a shade”. He also, I think, realized that it made more sense for him to summon the guide, rather than the other way around. But, you protest, what about the next line?

For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;

Here’s the thing: Whose to say these lines are referring to the shade? I think this is fundamentally misreading the lines. It seems to me that Yeats liked the material but recognized the inherent contradictions (and absurdities). A better idea struck him. He didn’t spell it out in the drafts because he didn’t have to. That’s not what drafts are for. He used/reused the imagery of the mummy and the winding cloth to suggest a much cleverer association. What is a bobbin? A bobbin is like a spindle. And what did ancient Egyptians wrap around spindles? Papyrus and linen. And what did we end up with? Scrolls. And what might ancient Egyptians have been writing on a scroll? — that Yeats’ might have been very interested in?

“The Book of the Dead was most commonly written in hieroglyphic or hieratic script on a papyrus scroll, and often illustrated with vignettes depicting the deceased and their journey into the afterlife.” [Wikipedia, September 25th)

732px-Weighing_of_the_heart3“The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE.[1] The original Egyptian name for the text, transliterated rw nw prt m hrw[2] is translated as “Book of Coming Forth by Day”.[3] Another translation would be “Book of emerging forth into the Light”. Though, book is the closest term to describe the loose collection of texts[4] consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife and written by many priests over a period of about 1000 years.” [Ibid.]

Viola!

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For [because] Hades’ bobbin [The Book of the Dead] bound in mummy-cloth [a scroll’s linen wrapping or book]
May unwind [like a scroll] the winding path [by summoning or by the knowledge contained therein]];
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath [the written word]
Breathless mouths [the man that is shade, more image than shade] may summon
I hail [summon] the superhuman [the man or shade];
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

This, readers, in my opinion, is Hades Bobbin. Hades Bobbin is not a mummy. “Hades Bobbin” is The Book of the Dead. Hades Bobbin is a scroll. There is no mummy in Byzantium.  Yeats came up with a much better idea and recycled/re-imagined the imagery of the drafts. Hades Bobbin, the scroll, literally and figuratively unwinds the winding path. Thousands of years later, what did this scroll become? A book. It was “bound”, possibly like the scroll itself, in mummy-cloth — the linen that covers the hard-cover of a book. Yeats uses the very word — bound — to describe it.  So, am I suggesting that every other critic and close reader might have missed the farm (maybe even got it wrong)?

Yes.

  • It’s also worth noting that scrolls were sometimes “bound” or wrapped in linen. Was this something Yeats would have known when writing Byzantium? I don’t know.

C heck out this website, where you will find this:

 “Robert Moss’s ambition to give us a Western Book of the Dead has been fully realized in this captivating and inspiring guide to the land of the dead.  Moss shocks and thrills by revealing the hidden truth — that the other world is in fact the famliar landscape of our dreams, where we go every night.  There we can, if we intend it, meet up with our lost loved ones and encounter the great mentors of the past.   His own mentor is the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats with whom he has involved and meaningful conversations.  Moss reminds us that by our night dreaming and waking dreams we prepare for the great journey of the world beyond the mists the Celts called the Blessed Isles. Our dreams are the measure of what we aspire for, and it is in this life, through practicing our imagination, that we can draw our roadmap and our destination. For a better death and life beyond death — but also for a better life in the world of the living — do not miss this classic from a true Western Master.”

And now, the next lines make perfect sense:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

What is a mouth that has no moisture and no breath? A scroll or a book — perhaps even a poem. With Hades Bobbin — the scroll or The Book of the Dead — Yeats is able to “hail”, summon, the superhuman — the man, the shade, the image — his guide. Readers and critics have always assumed that it was the “mummy”, the “shade” or the “guide” who was summoning Yeats, but this makes no sense. Yeats, or the speaker of the poem, is not a breathless mouth. As far as we know, he’s still alive. Furthermore, Yeats never actually writes that he (or the speaker of the poem) was summoned. That’s simply how readers have chosen to interpret the lines. (And if he was summoned, then it was the cathedral’s gong that summoned him.) If interpreted correctly (in my opinion) its the breathless mouth of a book, The Book of the Dead, that has summoned the breathless mouth of a guide or shade. Yeats calls this guide: death-in-life and life-in-death. Be cognizant, also, that The Book of the Dead is filled with spells, incantations and chants that probably appealed to Yeats’ imagination for their nearness to poetry. If my interpretation is correct then, in a sense, Yeats is all but stating that it’s poetry that summons the superhuman.

  • superhuman/ death-in-life and life-in-death This terminology has been subjected to hundreds of pages of scrutiny. I think most readers will instinctively grasp their meaning within the context of the poem (though possibly not, precisely, what Yeats had in mind). If you’re interested to know what exactly Yeats might have meant (and that means having a familiarity with A Vision and Yeats’s esoteric writing) then resources are available.  I say might because nobody knows for sure. To me, the summoning of the superhuman is analogous to the summoning of a poem or a great work of literature. An interpretation near to my own, by Richard Ellman, remains my favorite:

“Gradually the master-image of Byzantium must have assumed dominance of the scene. The completed poem has often been taken as a representation of the afterlife, and Yeats wished this interpretation to be possible; but to him, it seems safe to say, ‘Byzantium’ was primarily a description of the act of making a poem. The poet, who is imprecisely identified with the Byzantine emperor, takes the welter of images and masters them in an act of creation. This mastery is so astonishing to the poet himself that he calls the creation of his imagination superhuman. The image of the golden bird, ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork,’ may be understood to represent a poem; the bird sings, as do Yeats’s poems, either like the cocks of Hades of rebirth — the continuing cycle of reincarnating human life, or with greater glory of the eternal reality or beatitude which transcends the cycles ‘and all complexities of mire or blood.’ Never had he realized so completely the awesome drama of the creative act” (Richard Ellman. Yeats: The Man and the Masks 269).

So, in the first Stanza Yeats has arrived in Byzantium, and in the second stanza, as I read it, Yeats uses Hades Bobbin, the “bound” Book of the Dead, to summon a guide.

The Third Stanza

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.

The guide, presumably, has taken Yeats to see the miracle bird — the “artificial bird [that sings] upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor”. Many critics assume that the guide is meant to take “Yeats” to the afterlife. Not so, in my opinion. Why would such a guide be merry (or be a Mummy)? I think it more likely that the guide is pleased because he has been summoned to take the poem’s narrator to something of profound beauty and elegance. Interpreting the poem this way clears up another conundrum that has troubled readers since the poem’s publication: Why does the narrator need two guides — the mummy and a miracle bird? The answer is that the conundrum  arises from misinterpretation — neither the guide nor the bird are meant to guide the narrator into the afterlife.

The third stanza, in the middle and heart of the poem, brings us back to the comment that apparently prompted Yeats to write Byzantium: “…a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.”

The first thing Yeats tries to clarify is that the bird isn’t just a “goldsmith’s bird”, but a miracle — a bird imbued with not just mechanical wonder but something akin to life and intelligence. In analyzing Sailing to Byzantium, I wrote:

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. (…) 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).
 ·
The miracle, perhaps, is in the bird’s (Yeats’s poetry) being able to continue speaking, intelligently voicing his dreams and visions. In this sense, and in keeping with Yeats’s own spiritual ideas, the guide is showing him both his future and his past. The bird speaks to the purged soul of all men and women — hence the miracle. The bird, embodying Yeats’ poetry, speaks to the undying truth of our natures. Admittedly, resting so much symbolism in a mechanical bird will probably strike readers as eccentric, and it is.
 ·
“It is hard to say just what “exposition” Yeats had given to the idea of the bird by writing the poem; perhaps he would answer that his treatment had brought out more of the inherent beauty of the “image,” and that anything so beautiful must adumbrate the truth .He was quite capable of teasing his correspondent with a mystery, in a grand manner, and it seems plain that could have chosen a more impressive example of the good which may be done by exalted works of art, if that was all he had required.” [Ibid. p. 81]
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  • Note: Interestingly, Empson goes on to discuss what may have inspired Yeats’ golden bird. He remarks that mechanical, singing birds were, in fact, available and for sale during Yeats’ childhood and that his own (Empson’s) great-Aunt used to bring out “exquisitely preserved toys of an antiquity rivaling her own. Chief among them was the bird of Yeats in its great cage, wound up to sing by a massive key; a darkish green tree, as I remember, occupied most of the cage, and a quite small shimmering bird, whose beak would open and shut while the musical box in the basement was playing, perched carelessly on a branch on one side.” [Ibid. p. 83] Empson didn’t recall seeing a golden bough, but that’s surely Yeats’s imagination at work. [The image, above, is of an actual Victorian Mechanical bird with a music box. I couldn’t find a larger version of this image. It sold for $795 dollars. The attached audio file is of the singing bird — the very one pictured in the image.]

Nevertheless, Yeats tries to drive home the argument that this isn’t any ordinary bird or work of art. In can crow like the cocks of Hades and in “changeless metal [can scorn]/ Common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire or blood.” In other words, the mechanical bird is self aware; is alive, intelligent and changeless. When it is “embittered” by the changeless beauty of the moon, surpassing any transient work of man, it can add scorn to its song — something no, mere, mechanical bird can do.

 ·
hadesAnd what of the “cocks of hades” and their crowing? This may be a reference to iconography of Hades, which is often accompanied by a sheaf of wheat and/or the rooster/the cock (both of which were traditional sacrifices to Hades). What Yeats has in mind by this comparison isn’t clear to me. Possibly Yeats intends us to think that the cocks of Hades, having all been sacrifices, would (when crowing) possibly give voice to the desires of those who sacrificed them (presumably, the sacrifice was meant to appease and possibly to win favor or win “a favor”). In that sense, the golden bird on the bough, when crowing like the cocks of hell, would give voice to your innermost hopes and desires. The mechanical bird would speak your own truth (or hidden truths) back to you.
 ·
So, if we continue to follow Yeats’ narrative, it’s possible to read Yeat’s progress like that of Virgil’s. Yeats has been brought by his shade/image guide to the miracle bird which speaks to him of his innermost hopes, desires and truths.
 ·
  • Hades is also a god of fertility and wealth, including precious metals. Being that the miracle bird is beaten out of precious metal, this too effectively makes it Hades’ cock.
The Fourth Stanza
 ·
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
 ·
After the shade has shown the poem’s narrator the miracle bird, and once the narrator is presumably filled with that bird’s revelation (like the revelation of poetry) he is taken to the Emperor’s pavement where he himself is purged or, more certainly, he watches the “images” of others be purged. Why so hedging? The narrator/narration never states that the narrator was purged. Since one assumes that purging is reserved for the dead or dying, and since the poem never actually states that the  narrator is dead,  we can’t assume too much. The narrator might, like Virgil, just be visiting and witnessing. In this sense, the poem is more like Dante’s inferno — a Yeatsian version of it.
 ·
Vendler characterizes the narrator as “the mortally ill poet” [p, 44], but there’s nothing in either Sailing to Byzantium or Byzantium to suggest that she’s right, which is to say, her opinion doesn’t reflect anything intrinsic to the poems. I do read a narrator who is turning away from the trimmings and frolic of youth, but that hardly makes me leap to the conclusion that he’s mortally ill. I mean, for God’s sake, we can be fed up with the pastimes of youth — bodily, mentally and spiritually — without being mortally ill. In fact, putting such habits behind us usually tends to make us much healthier. I read Yeats as remaking himself. His journey to Byzantium is akin to an awakening — a spiritual journey that could be compared to the visions of the American Indians. He is en-souled.
 ·
It’s easy, I suppose to speculate on the deeper metaphysical implications of every line (you can read Vendler for this) but I think most readers will instinctively grasp the meaning of the fourth stanza. These aren’t actual flames, these are spiritual flames (the kind that “cannot singe sleeve”). The agony is not the agony of being burned alive, but the agony of purification, spiritual awakening (perhaps), of a new awareness, knowledge and attainment. These spiritual flames will purge the “blood-begotten spirits” of the complexities which are the ensnarement of blood and mire — lust, physical sexuality and life’s begetting of life. As mentioned earlier, what’s left behind after this purging isn’t exactly clear, but we know what it’s not. My interpretation? I think the Emperor’s pavement is like the page on which poetry is written — perhaps Yeats’ poetry. The flames “that no faggot feeds” are the flames of knowledge. Just as flames are “begotten of flame”, so too is knowledge begotten of knowledge. The inevitable turning from youthful pleasure to knowledge and wisdom is inevitably a kind of agony. In keeping with my reading of Sailing to Byzantium, I’m tempted to read this passage as symbolically describing our awakening to art, poetry, music and the timeless wisdom therein.
 ·
The Fifth Stanza
 ·
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
 
 ·
Whether the narrator turns, or his attention is turned by the guide, is left to the imagination. Yeats doesn’t say. Given my own interpretation of the second stanza, I like to think that the man, “shade more than man, more image than a shade” is still with Yeats and has turned his attention to the gong-tormented sea. There, the narrator sees spirit after spirit arriving in Byzantium. It’s my own opinion that these can be interpreted both literally and figuratively — as the recently dead or as the recently awakened. John Unterecker, in A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, writes:
 ·
“All spirits, in Yeats’s system, are of course purified before being reborn; but in “Byzantium” Yeats is offering the final purification by which the elemental patterns of the dancing floor “break” the cycle of birth and rebirth, the bitter compulsive necessity of the spirits to live their lives over and over, begetting image after image.” [p.219]
 ·
There you have the official, informed by Yeats’s Vision, interpretation of this stanza. Again, there’s no mention of what exactly, remains once all this has happened? — which is why I find this kind of explanation so unsatisfactory. What is left of us? What is left of the spirit? What are we once we’ve broken the cycle of birth and rebirth? The only hint that I’ve found so far is in the draft quoted by Empson:
 ·

but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone…

Being the remnants of a draft, we can only guess at Yeats’s meaning, but perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that just a little of that complexity, love, remains, just a little of that sensuality and yearning for pleasure. It’s this that makes me think we probably shouldn’t too closely apply Yeats’s Vision to any interpretation of the poem. That is, I think it’s a mistake to read either of the Byzantium poems as a footnote to the Vision. Though I can’t back up my assertion (and may well be wrong) I’m of the mind that Yeats the poet didn’t always jibe with Yeats the spiritualist. He was obviously a man of conflicting emotions and desires. In his own poetry, arguably the poetry of the Vision, we find a poetry of sensual beauty, words that physically delight in their melody and repetition, and a powerful intellectual complexity. Personally, this is what I really think Yeats imagines  as the outcome of the purgatorial dance. It’s a youthful desire for beauty, drama, and sensuality that is transformed by age and knowledge into a more awe-inspiring and en-souling beauty, drama and sensuality.

But that’s just me.

The golden smithies of the emperor — figuratively the poets, artists and musicians — await us at the shores of Byzantium, that crazy city of both decadence and enlightenment, ready to transform us, ready to “break the flood” of our arrival.

  • One of the questions lovingly discussed by close readers is this: What’s with the dolphins? If nothing else, the imagery is striking and dramatic, also beautiful. Vendler remarks  that  the dolphins are “symbols of resurrection on Roman sarcophagi” and I’m perfectly content to leave it at that. Makes sense to me.

The Marbles of the dancing floor, for some reason (and without reason) I’ve always imagined as being black and white. And this has always lead me to think that Yeats is alluding to the black and white appearance of words on the page; and this brings me back to my assertion that the “Emperor’s pavement” might be thought of as the page on which poems are printed. In other words, the  “blood-begotten spirits” (you and me) dance on the poet’s page (the Emperor’s pavement) where the black & white marbles (the black and white words on the page) “break bitter furies of complexity” (our confusion). We die in a dance (the act of reading), in a trance (the act of reflection), in the agony of flame (the poet’s imparted knowledge) that “cannot singe a sleeve”. See? This is purely interpretative and I make no claim that this was Yeats’ intention (though I know he would have enjoyed it). Take it or leave it.

  • I say I know that Yeats would have enjoyed it because, in correspondence, he stated that he resisted interpreting his own poems lest others be constrained.

1-sarcophagus-dolphins-rome-335x263

The poem’s final line: “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is among the most resonant in all poetry. Why is the sea “gong-tormented”? Other close readers have argued, and I’m inclined to agree, that the entirety of the poem takes place during the twelve peals of midnight. The “torment” is possibly a reference to the meaning of the peals. The great cathedral gong is a never-ending call and summoning. (It’s the cathedral gong that summons, not any mummy or miracle bird.) The cathedral gong, perhaps, can be understood as the voluble voice of Yeats’ vision, calling us to share in the awakening of his poetry. And it’s in this sense that my current interpretation, builds on my interpretation of Sailing to Byzantium.

The first poem declares his desire, the second is a Dante-esque vision of its fruition.

Other References:

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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

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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

sailing-to-byzantium-first-stanza

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).

“salmon-falls…”

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.’

….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;

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…

So…

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.

Resources:

(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.

W.B. Yeats & Long Legged Fly: Meaning & Meter

Some Good References

I’ve been wanting to study some Yeats.

Many of his greatest poems are written using regular metrical patterns like blank verse, where the metrical pattern doesn’t vary from line to line, but many more aren’t. These poems are like Emily Dickinson’s – poems based on ballad meter. Ireland is famous for its ballads and folk songs and Yeats must have heard them frequently – if only on the evidence of the forms he used. Here is the poem before my own annotations. A scansion of the poem follows later.

That civilization may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.)

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

I’ve ordered a book by Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,  but haven’t recieved it yet. vendler-on-yeatsI’ll be interested in seeing what she says about Long Legged Fly. Her book has recieved some mixed reviews, some bad, one reviewer finding the book as “dry as chalkdust”, but she’s the only critics, to my knowledge, that has tackled Yeats’ use of form. John Unterecker’s A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats is useless in regard to Yeats’ formal practice. His book is more of a biographical overview of the better poems – their inspiration, meaning and symbolism. A very good book if that’s what you’re looking for (if you can get past the god-awful cover – below left).

So… I’m going to take a stab at the form Yeats used in Long Legged Fly. If reading Vendler persuades me I have missed something or gotten something wrong, I’ll make a note of it.

On the Poem

The poem is written in three stanzas and the metrical form of each Stanza is cut from the same cloth –  though each is more freely varied than would have been acceptable by the generation of poets immediately preceeding Yeats (the Victorians).  While contempories were veering off into free verse, YUnterecker on Yeatseats was content to continue working flexibly within the varied forms he had inherited. It was said that he would sit and hum to himself as he shaped the meter and rhythm of his lines.

In each of the stanza, Yeats folds his poetry around the creative spark – the genius of  mind. In the first is Ceasar, in the second Helen, and the third Michelangelo. Interestingly, Yeats doesn’t confine himself to artists – Ceasar wasn’t; neither was Helen. In one sense, Yeats could be celebrating the genius creativity as being more than just the province of the artist. On the other hand, Yeats could also be suggesting that all human endeavors, whether Ceasar’s territorial, empire-building ambition which Yeats frames as “civilization” (perhaps man’s greatest collective accomplishment), or Helen’s physical grace and beauty, are expressions of artistic genius and creativity. The meaning could be either or could be both. Unlike some analysts, I like to think that the goal is not to guess at what Yeats intended,  but to offer the possibilities presented by the poem itself.

The dog and pony are tethered far from Caesar’s hearing. The work of man, and by extension mankind, will not tolerate the presence of animals. Helen, for her part, represents a nexus through which history will move because of her beauty and grace. Without her, history cannot act on human events and cannot inspire Homer, Virgil or Christopher Marlowe to write about them. With this in mind, it may be deliberate that Yeats paraphrases Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus.

FAUSTUS. Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless  towers of Ilium–
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.–
[Kisses her.]
Her lips suck forth my soul:  see, where it flies!–
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wertenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

Perhaps Yeats is suggesting that it is through her, symbolically a woman’s beauty, that art is made possible – that Marlowe’s lines were made possible. But, like Caesar, that creative act of her self-making, the making of her beauty,  cannot be disturbed – needs quiet, needs silence for her genius to express itself. But perhaps Yeats intends another sense too. Describing her as three-parts child, one part woman, Yeats describes her innocence. She thinks that nobody looks. Her creative act is pure, without guile, without knowledge of the lascivious observer. Like the long legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

The reference to her picking up  a tinker shuffle on the street, could be a reference to the poem itself – a poem based on ballad meter, one  that Yeats could have picked up on the street. In this sense, Yeats could be treating  Helen as the muse of poetry, shaping a simple rhythm into a poetry that will shape history and men’s thoughts. She becomes a sort of patron Saint of poetry.

In the final stanza Yeats suggests Michelangelo’s creation of David but is a reference to the supine, awakening Adam of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo is the indisputably great artist – the only Artist of the three. But Yeats writes about more than Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s art will inspire a sexual awareness such that “the girls at puberty may find the first Adam in their thought”. It is, like the creative act of Caesar and Helen, a nexus of through which history will act, through which their will be further creation – procreation of the girls and their lovers – the single most profound and powerful act of creation which mankind is capable of.

So it is that Yeats moves from the creation of civilization through arms, the creation of art in symbolically graceful and beautiful Helen, to the great procreative act – the creation of ourselves. In this guise, perhaps, Yeats might have intended Michelangelo to symbolize God’s own creation of man, or better, man’s own re-creation of himself.

But keep the children out.

Curiously, Yeats must have known there would be no children in the Pope’s Chapel – no girls. I’m inclined to think that, by children, Yeats was referring to the Pope, (along with his attendant Bishops, etc…) This would imply a criticism of religion. The Pope and his attendants, the “children”, would presumably interfere with Michelangelo’s creative genius. That is, Michelangelo’s work was not meant for them, the unimaginative and spiritually naive “children” of the church, but for the pubescent girls – who would immediately, if instinctively, comprehend the meaning (the creative power and genius) of Michelangelo’s work. They, the girls, would understand what the children, the Pope and the Bishops, could not.

The supreme act of creation, the genius of mind, moves outside its own awareness – becomes like the long legged fly that moves upon the stream or the the source of being and mind. It must not be observed lest the mind too, become aware of itself, and so slip from the supple surface of its contemplation. The beautiful metaphor of the fly upon the stream is Yeats’ expression of true genius – the state in which great art is produced.  Though the maps are spread before him, Caesar gazes on nothing.

The Meter of the Poem

To me, the meter of the poem is the most interesting part of it. I love to study how poets vary their lines.

Here is a first scansion. This scansion guesses that Yeats was varying not just metrical feet, but their count within each line.

Anapests are in blue. Trochaic Feet are red. Feminine Endings are Green. Anapestic Feminine Endings (of which there are two) are marked with blue and green. Headless feet are orange. Phyric feet are yellow. (The color coding is my own scheme. As far as  Iknow, I’ m the first to ever try it. I think it helps readers to see how poets varied meter.)

Scansion: Long Legged Fly


Unless there’s some Regular Irish ballad meter I don’t know about (I’m hardly an expert on Irish literature) I would say that the form is Yeats’ own creation (though based on ballad meter). The first four lines are similar to ballad meter (as opposed to Common Meter – see my post on Dickinson). The syllabic count of Common Meter is strict 8/6/8/6 and Iambic . The rhyme scheme is ABAB. Ballad Meter is less strict. Syllables count less. What matters is the number of metrical feet per line 4/3/4/3 – generally Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. Variant feet (anapests) are common in Ballad Meter and the rhyme scheme of Ballad Meter is also looser – ABXB (which is the rhyme scheme Yeats uses).

There are actually some recordings of Yeats reading his own poetry. Here’s one of him reading The Lake Isle of Innesfree.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And here is Yeats defending his chant-like readings (for which he was sometimes criticized).

To be honest, I don’t know what Yeats intended. It was clear, however, that he took meter very seriously.  What’s hard is discerning, in the case of Long Legged Fly, which meter he was taking seriously. If he was hearing ballad meter (and varying the feet on that basis) then one ought to scan the lines as alternating between Tetrameter and Trimeter (rather than Dimeter) – since the number of metrical feet per line is what matters in Ballad Meter.

That civilization may not sink,
Its | great bat|tle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To | a dis|tant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where |the maps |are spread,
His |eyes fixed |upon no-thing,
A hand |un-der |his head.

(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

This scansion reads the variant lines as having headless lines, rather than anapests. The first foot of the respective lines would be interpreted as iambic feet missing an unstressed syllable (headless). The advantage to this reading is that it retains the underlying metrical alternation (between tetrameter and trimeter) of a recognized ballad meter (at least in the first four lines). The next four lines 4/3/3/3 before the refrain are of Yeats’ own creation. (The whole of it, in fact, is probably a nonce form – meaning that the form was created to suit the poem.) Still, there is an underlying pattern, and regularizing the number of metrical feet is a recognition of it. And there’s also Yeats’ rhyme scheme. The rhyme scheme is typical of ballad meter, so why not the meter? All in all, the second scansion assumes a regular pattern from which Yeats varied. The readings regularizes the number of metrical feet per line. Here is the alternate scansion in whole:

Long Legged Fly - Ballad Meter Scansion

The metrical foot pattern of each stanza (as opposed to the syllabic count) is as follows:

4/3/4/3/4/3/3/3

Followed by the Refrain:

5/2

Note: I could also read the final line of the refrain as:

His | mind moves | upon si-lence

This, to me, stretches credibility. But then again, listening to Yeats read, it’s possible. He was nothing if not eccentric. It would make the refrain a 5/3 pattern, in keeping with the other Trimeter lines.

That said, the scansion is probably the least important element of this poem. Altering the scansion doesn’t alter the poems’s meaning but does alter the emphasis within the respective lines. Either way, Yeats’ modern sensibility, his willingness to flex regular metrical patterns almost beyond recognition, is apparent. His ear for the elegantly varied metrical line was part and parcel of his unique genius.

Be sure and comment if you found this interesting!