Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
Stanza I Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
That is no country for old men.
- We’re off to a strange start here. Besides the fact that the first line of this poem reminds us of a rather gory movie that’s recently come out (see "Why Should I Care?" for more on this), it’s a bit confusing.
- We’re told that "that" country isn’t so great for the old folks. But which country is "that" country? England? The United States? Ireland? Uzbekistan? Well, we’re not going to get any help on that one from the poem itself.
- All we can say for sure is that it’s not "this" country: that is, it can’t be the place where the speaker is now.
- Huh? All these pronouns are getting confusing! Where the heck are we? Well, think about it this way: if you’re talking about the crummy fast food restaurant you’re eating in right now, you might say something like, "This place is a dump." If you’re cracking jokes about the restaurant across the way, you’d say that "that place" is even worse.
- Here’s the problem, though: if all we know so far concerns that country over there, then we’re…nowhere. Like we said, this is getting confusing.
- So, let’s focus on what we do know. "That" country sucks for old people. As far as we can tell, then, our speaker must be an old person. After all, if it’s so good over there for the young ‘uns, then why would our speaker leave?
- More importantly, the first line of the poem lets us know that our speaker seems to be a pretty opinionated sort of guy. He seems perfectly happy to let us travel down the road of his thoughts…just don’t expect too many signposts along the way!
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
- Aww. We’re talking about "that" country again. It actually seems pretty nice, right? It’s full of lovers "in one another’s arms" and birds in the trees. In other words, it’s got all the makings of a delightful romance.
- Frankly, our speaker seems a little bit bitter right now, doesn’t he? After all, who starts hating on lovers? Seriously.
- Line three takes a bit of a sharp detour, though.
- First we’re reading about young things and pretty birdies. Suddenly, however, our speaker tosses in a casual reference to death.
- Not just one death: lots of death. Whole flocks of birds and generations of young lovers.
- Sure, birds may be singing right now…but that’s just because they don’t know how crumby the winter’s going to be. Anything natural must also be mortal: you may be young now, but one day you’ll wake up with grey hairs and wrinkles.
- It’s not all fun and games in this life, folks. At least, that’s what our speaker seems to be suggesting.
- We want to take a quick break to insert a minor Shmoop historical analysis: Yeats’s use of the word "generations" in line three is particularly provocative.
- Want to know why? Well, the poem was published in 1928. It’s smack in the center of a literary movement called "modernism." Here’s why that’s important to us, though: modernism was partially born out of the devastating losses and tragedy of WWI. After 1918, the world changed. Disillusioned by the senseless violence and seeming futility of war, the generation of young men and women who came back from the battlefields became pretty cynical about the whole state of their society. After all, pretty much everyone living in Britain lost somebody they knew in the war.
- A certain group of early twentieth-century thinkers and modernist writers was even known as "The Lost Generation." The group usually included only American writers, but the term was a popular one.
- Back to our poem, then: line 3 seems to be deliberately invoking the language of wartime losses. After all, it’s not just a couple of folks who are dying. Generations are dying.
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
- Hmm. We’re back in nature again. Lots of fish…and then some more fish.
- Before you start thinking about supper, though, we should point out that the same pattern that occurred in lines 1-3 repeats itself here. Things live and then they die. Got it?
- Our speaker insists upon the natural world in this stanza. Humankind (that would be "flesh" here) is sandwiched between "fish" and "fowl." We’re just like the birds and the fishies. We live, and then we die.
- What distinguishes people from animals? Well, in "that country," at least, not much.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
- Here’s the zinger of this first stanza. Want to know why our speaker is so down on "that country"? Well, here we have it. Folks there live in the moment.
- That’s a good thing, right?
- Well, sort of. Unfortunately, they’re so caught up in all that "begetting" and living and dying that they completely forget to think about things that might outlast their own brief lives.
- Yeats weaves a deliberate set of artistic references into this line.
- He wants to compare living in the moment to thinking about something long-lasting (and even immortal). To do so, he compares music to sculpture. (He actually compares music to "monuments." But aren’t most monuments sculpture of some kind?) Music sounds really great…for about three minutes. Maybe even five. Sculptures, however, are around for a looooong time.
- (Remember, Yeats lived a long time before iPods. There wasn’t any "repeat" button for him to press. If he wanted to listen to a certain song, he had to wait until his local D.J. got around to playing it on the radio. Music, in other words, wasn’t nearly as permanent as other art forms.)
- Comparing life to "music" may sound sweet, but it’s actually a pretty damning critique. If you’re too absorbed in the here and now, you’ll never be able to think about things that might matter more than your petty little problems. How can you fight for world peace if you’re obsessed about that date you’re going on this weekend?
- At least, that’s what our speaker thinks.