No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men

This week’s choice is Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats, a reflection on ageing.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song

W.B. Yeats (1865—1939)

Poem 212. 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.

The first stanza paints a picture of a country where youth is prized “That is no country for old men” and everything benefits the young: “the young/In one another’s arms”, “The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas”. Seduced by the glittering prizes, young people disregard the counsels of the aged: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect/Monuments of unaging intellect”.

In the second stanza, the narrator contrasts the benefits enjoyed by the young with the contempt in which the elderly are held: “An aged man is but a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick” and he travels to Byzantium (another name for Constantinople or Istanbul) in the hope of finding some solution to this conundrum.

In the third and fourth he feels that there he will transcend his aged frame (“gather me into the artifice of eternity”) and become a pure spirit, eschewing his mortal form or any corporeal substitute in favour of something beautiful—“such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/Of hammered gold and gold enamelling”—and adopting the immortality of art.

I like this poem because Yeats begins with the feeling of uselessness that grows as we age, especially as bodily infirmities increase and the world changes around us, generally to the benefit of the young, and becomes steadily more incomprehensible and threatening but he progresses from the decline of the physical form to the rise of the spirit: as we age we resort to introspection and consider our transience and how we might achieve immortality (through artistic works in the case of the poem’s narrator).

The first line of the poem is the name of a novel by Cormac McCarthy which became a film starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem. The story reflects the theme of the poem as Sheriff Bell considers the nature of his ‘afterlife’ once he resigns.