That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Form and content work productively against each other in the first stanza of ‘Sailing to
Instead, in a charmingly diplomatic gesture, he discreetly tucks the phrase ‘Those dying generations’ as a kind of warning aside into his otherwise alluring portrait of the young, the birds and the fish. The punctuation of the first five lines of the stanza has the effect of placing all these items on the same level. This suggests an equation between the erotic young and the birds and mackerel, which is scarcely much of a compliment to the former. Once again, then, there is a delicately muted criticism: human beings are really just as helplessly caught up in an endless biological cycle as salmon, which may be one good reason to sail off to Byzantium. Even so,
Yeats is not the kind of writer who explores nature in Keatsian or Hopkinsian detail. There is nothing lavish, profuse or sensuously detailed about the birds in the trees, the salmon-falls and the mackerel-crowded seas. ‘Fish, flesh, or fowl’ sounds more like a grocer’s terminology than a poet’s. ‘Mackerel-crowded’ is a fine stroke, and ‘mackerel’ (if the pun may be forgiven) a splendidly mouth-filling word; but ‘the young in one another’s arms’ and ‘birds in the trees’ are deliberately bare and notational. It is as though Yeats is just touching them in on his poetic canvas, without the least intent to lend them complex, convincing life. They are little more than emblems, like (for the most part) the swan in ‘
Yet the poem’s achievement is to create the effect of lavishness and profuseness from these few meagre, economical items, an effect which would have taken Gerard Manley Hopkins at least another dozen lines. The stanza generates a cornucopian sense of abundance out of the sparsest of materials. And whereas one feels that
It is as though the chain of brief phrases, with its rapid, cumulative buildup, generates a sense of mounting excitement, one those young lovers might find familiar. Its grammatical open-endedness suggests that this copious piling of life-form upon life-form could in principle go on forever, creating just the sense of exuberance and prodigality that the verse is after. But that clinching main verb, not to speak of the beautifully intricate rhyme scheme, is on hand to assure us that everything is under control. It is as though Yeats’s breathing-in, in preparation for the delayed arrival of the main verb, has been deep enough to allow him to voice one brief phrase after another (‘the salmon- falls, the mackerel-crowded seas. . .‘) without things getting out of hand. So the intellect is not just in
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
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
- William Yeats