William Butler Yeats was an odd duck. In a world full of Modernism, he stuck closely to traditional forms. While contemporary poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were busy breaking down the entire history of poetic form, writing poems that jammed all sorts of forms together into a poem that started to work like a great big set of Tinker Toys, Yeats stuck to the classics. He returned again and again to age-old traditional forms (like ballads or Irish folk tales or even, in this case, ottava rima). Heck, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Yeats wasn’t just an old curmudgeon, though. He truly believed in the ability of old forms to modify themselves for the new challenges and possibilities of his modern world. After you read "Sailing to Byzantium," you’ll see that this was a pretty huge theme in his poetry, as well. Where Eliot and Pound broke down poetic form completely, Yeats tried to breathe new life into an aging shell.
Folks in his day seemed to respect the man for his attention to poetic tradition, too. He wrote most of his famous work (including this poem) after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. In fact, he was just a young ‘un when the top literary prize committee in the world decided that he was their man. He continued to write poetry for almost two decades after winning the Nobel. "Sailing to Byzantium" is one of the very popular poems from his later collections. It came out in The Tower, a book published in 1928.
By the way, 20th century authors love snagging lines from Yeats's poetry for the titles of their books. We can think of at least two books that steal their titles from this Yeats poem alone. The American novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote a novel called No Country for Old Men (since turned into a Coen Brothers movie). Another famous American novelist, Philip Roth, titled one of his books The Dying Animal.
Well, if you’re not personally interested in joining Yeats’s cult of symbolism (What? You’re not interested in joining a poetry cult?), there are still some good reasons for paying attention to Yeats's weird, cryptic language. If you’ve never heard of Yeats's personal cult of symbolism, by the way, you’re in the right place. Believe us, it’s weird enough to impress even the most angst-filled dreamer. Check out our discussion in "Themes" for the scoop on his strange, strange world.
But back to our discussion: reading "Sailing to Byzantium" may not make you famous. But it will allow you to win friends and impress your teachers. Want to know why?
Well, for starters, the opening line of Yeats's poem, "That is no country for old men," sounds an awful lot like that Coen brothers movie…you know, the one that swept the Oscars in 2008. It was called No Country for Old Men, and it was based on a novel by the American writer Cormac McCarthy. Notice the similarity? McCarthy sure did. He intentionally used the title as a shout out to the good ol’ W.B. (Yeats, that is), which then became the title of the movie. Javier Bardem and a captive bolt pistol? That, friends, is action enough to make even W.B. Yeats seem ridiculously cool.
Western thrillers aside, however, Yeats's poem dives head first into the craziness of living. After all, despite all of the genetic testing and medical miracles that we read about everyday, we still have to deal with the fact that our bodies are, well, a big heap of flesh and bones. Even Botox can’t keep you young forever. We’re still one day closer to dying at the end of each day. How’s that for a happy thought?
OK, so Yeats wouldn’t be featured in a Disney movie. But that’s probably the reason why one of the greatest writers of our time (that would be Cormac McCarthy) and two of the greatest directors of our time (the Coen brothers) use his work as a starting point. Life isn’t always Disney. It’s often gritty and dirty and…real. Sort of like Yeats's poem.