Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Yeats--"Sailing to Byzantium" (1927)

I am breaking my usual pattern by doing two literary posts in a row, but I am not in the right frame of mind to address anything having to do with contemporary life this week, so much so that books and even literary theory appear to become attractive again. Sometimes my mood is the other way around, usually because I have for a time taken to approaching the books in the wrong spirit rather than that I feel any great affinity with actual life. While poetry is, in its finest manifestation, an attitude meant to be absorbed by and live through the actions of a vital spirit, the person who undertakes to read it and attempt to grope his way to an understanding is clearly seeking some intimacy with this type of vital spirit greater than that accessible to him by other means. My attitude towards anything is pretty much determined by my perception of the current degree of this accessibility. For some reason that I cannot make out right now, I am better disposed towards poetry this week than I have been in some time, and I want to take a shot at exploring therein.

As I noted in my rather flippant last post on Yeats, I have found in the past that I am not as stirred by him as I perceive many other people are. Since his reputation for high greatness does not seem to be going away, I think I owe it to myself to try harder to see what is there, and at least examine why his brilliance has failed upon me so far. That means I am going to have to take this line by line and tease it out for myself.

Title--There is a note in my edition which reveals that, as Ruskin did 14th century Venice, Yeats considered Byzantium circa 535 A.D. to have been perhaps the era in history when human beings were most wholly developed in all of their aspects, when ordinary craftsmen were able un-self-consciously to create artistic masterpieces such as would be beyond the capacity of the most celebrated geniuses of the present, when religious and aesthetic understanding were both perfectly realized and widely shared. Man in general could almost have been said to be an admirable creature. The "Sailing" I believe, is an appeal to the muse to convey us towards some insight as to what this rich intellectual and artistic atmosphere must have consisted of.

That is no country for old men.

This line, of course, has become very famous and frequently alluded to. Old, I am assuming, refers to anyone who has allowed the vital elements of his humanity to remain undeveloped or to wither and die within him, regardless of chronological age. The modern world is frequently spoken of as a place where would be men remain figuratively children until they are 30 or 35 and then progress immediately to old age without any period of capable dynamism in the prime of life. Many of the early modern poets and novelists seem to have been obsessed by this debasement of life.

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.

Images of fecundity, obviously. So much that death ceases to be haunting, or dreaded, because the life that preceded it was a full and worthy one. The reference to seas teeming with fat fish also conjures up images of a younger period of human history before nature's abundance had been depleted, and men intellectually and spiritually exhausted by increased understanding of the implications of his thought.

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

I take this to mean that in such an environment present life is so vital that one lives in the moment, without nostalgia, or lament, or incomprehending idolatry of past mental achievements far beyond what is accessible to oneself.

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;

Soul here I take to be an assertion, as it were, of one's essential dignity as a human, in spite of the obvious drawbacks (constant threat of mortality physical and spiritual, etc). The "singing school" reference I suppose means that this soul is not something that is transmitted through formal lessons and training from a master but is an intuitive response to one's surroundings if one is sufficiently alert (and of which the actualization in fact can be hindered by over-intellectualization).

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

The symbolic importance of sailing the seas and coming to a 'holy city' ought not to be overlooked in these otherwise primarily functional lines.

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.
First, two notes. The gold mosaic image was inspired by the frieze of the holy martyrs in the church of San Apollinaire Nuovo at Ravenna, which Yeats had visited 20 years before he wrote this poem (at which time he had been 42. These kinds of biographical/chronological facts are not relevant to any art object's importance as an object of art, of course, but I am personally curious about them). I should try to find a picture of this. I think this is part of it.
The second note is that the word "perne", which is a kind of spool, means here "to spin round".
I like the Blakean conceit of the 'holy fire', fire being ordinarily being considered as being a defining characteristic of God's main enemy and all of that, though Yeats is never quite convincing (to me) that this is something he really perceives in his soul. I suppose this is why he is calling on the martyrs to reveal its sense to him however.
Consume my heart away;
The heart as mortal symbol and weak point of the human superstructure is not a radical concept, but the sense in which it is cited here, as utterly disconnected from and unnecessary to the refinement of man's higher parts, I have not often seen asserted so decisively.
sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is;
The "dying animal" line is the other really celebrated one in this poem. That said, you need the contrast with the martyred saints appealed to previously for it to have its intended effects. If you don't believe there is anything to the saints, or even in the concept of something like saints, you don't really have anywhere to go. Which I guess is why you have to figuratively go to Byzantium, or medieval Venice, because they accepted these more ennobling (and therefore, the poet suspects, more true) conceptions as the terms of life, which modern people are largely incapable of doing.
and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Artifice is the important word here. Do we take this to mean that there is no objective sense of reality other than that which men make for themselves, and that they have, in a broad sense, some choice in the matter? He is expressing a preference for what he takes to be the Byzantine world view, which, however, he cannot believe in. He is thus a man not in harmony with his understanding of the world, which was certainly the dominant motif of his age, and would be of ours if we bothered to care about such things any longer; it is ultimately a serious and pretty insuperable problem for a poet however, I think.
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;
An assertion of the primacy of (good) art/imagination/cultivation over man in his natural uncultivated state? Yes, assuming the cultivation is bringing out truly extraordinary human qualities. My general impression of Yeats is that he was inclined to be a true believer in the desirability of truly high culture. Hence his desire to set up respectable cultural institutions and promote the flourishing of semi-official artistic movements in his own country.
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To Lords and Ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
It is a little bit of a confusing metaphor to see a poet express a desire to be a goldworked bird in some potentate's collection, but I suppose that is what even a poem such as this ultimately is--a glittering, speaking ornament that in its way defies the normal material and imaginative limitations of existence.
I haven't even touched on things like the meter and other matters of form. I am not really good at that. The poem I think reads very nicely, there are no awkward transitions or anything. Likewise there is nothing in the language that stands out as off, or not quite right, or forced. Still, Yeat's language, even where it impresses, never does excite me. Never is there an instant in these poems where I find myself saying, 'Yes, that is it, that is just what it is', or 'I love the way this is laid out, the means of expression, and the point to be expressed'. I think for one thing I find him too strident in his poetic nature. At the same time despite the theme developed in this poem he commits the double sin of having a tendency to over-intellectualize while not really having the pure intellectual habit--the chops, as it were--to do this in the convincingly natural way a poet must have. He lacks humor entirely. This is perhaps not a serious problem, but I am very partial to the sort of humor, even unintentional humor in the service of rhyme, that the likes of Byron and most of the 18th century poets inserted into their verses. I find his poems to possess neither the brilliance of conception that I admire in Wallace Stevens, the outrageousness that I find interesting in Pound, or the understated modesty of presentation that is attractive in the work of R. Frost. He is a good poet, certainly, but he leaves me cold.

No comments: