I know, I know, this is a blog about American literature, and so I ought to focus on American poets. But some of these guys are just too good. 1928, among other things, was the year W. B. Yeats published The Tower, a little book that contains many poems of real note—“Leda and the Swan”, “A Prayer for my Son”, “Meditations in a Time of Civil War”—but perhaps none more moving (for me) than the following piece. As we head for Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and beyond it, Easter, I think it’s a good night to envision a journey to a holy city—W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”:
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.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.