Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing,
- Remember the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz? That’s the image that our speaker seems to be going for here.
- In fact, the Scarecrow’s problem reminds us a lot of what our speaker is trying to say. In The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow spends a whole bunch of time wandering around and muttering, "If I only had a brain…"
- Notice the similarities? Our speaker couldn’t agree more. Once you get done with all that lovin’ and livin’ that young people do, you’re nothing more than a bunch of clothes on an old, wrecked frame. It’s not a pretty picture – unless, of course, you have a brain (or, in this case, a soul).
- Using personification to allow the soul itself to "clap its hands and sing," Yeats introduces a teeny tiny bit of distinction between the soul and the body.
- The body, remember, is just a stick with some clothes on it. The soul, however, seems to almost have a body of its own. It’s just a figurative body at this point, of course. The soul doesn’t actually have hands to clap. That would be awkward.
- Keep this soul-body in mind, though, as we move though the poem. It’ll come up later. We promise.
and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
- What do people usually sing about?
- Well, love probably tops the list. Lost love, love gone wrong, love that hasn’t happened yet, loving somebody so much that your heart’s going to break…we’re guessing that you can continue this list on your own. Check out the top forty pop songs for some hints.
- Our speaker, however, doesn’t seem to be interested in songs that celebrate love.
- When he (or she) thinks about the soul and its singing, he’s focused on the way that songs come out of aging and suffering. In other words, the older you get, the louder you should sing.
- We’re guessing that this is metaphorical singing here. After all, it’d be a bit weird if everyone walked around humming all the time. Our speaker’s talking about living out loud – letting your soul stay alive and kicking, even if your body’s a "tatter," or disintegrating.
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
- Hmm. We’ve got to admit, these lines are confusing.
- Where exactly is there no singing school? Based on our speaker’s previous thoughts, we’re guessing that he’s still talking about "that country."
- The overall geographical vagueness of the first lines seems to be repeating itself here.
- Perhaps the speaker means that in his old country nobody really valued the life of the mind or the soul. Perhaps he’s trying to make a broader claim about people in general, the world over.
- What we do know, however, is that the speaker seems pretty upset about the fact that folks spend most of their time talking and thinking about how great they are. Sculptures and monuments = good. Sculptures of yourself = bad.
- Self-indulgence in general isn’t something that our speaker’s too keen about.
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
- Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re getting to Byzantium, as a matter of fact.
- Notice how line seven starts with, "and therefore." The entire poem up until this point has been a preface to the actual heart of the action.
- If you’re in student government (or you just happen to read congressional resolutions for fun), you know that bills tend to have lots and lots and lots of prefatory information before they actually get around to stating what the bill is actually about.
- Here’s an example: "I think you smell nice and I like that you've helped me with my homework all year and I really like that shirt you’re wearing, and therefore I’m going to ask you out on a date."
- Similarly, our speaker’s offered a whole lot of reasons for why he’s sailing before he even mentions the fact that he’s hopped onto a boat. Luckily, the poem’s title clues us in…otherwise, we’d be very, very confused by now.
- Now the speaker has actually arrived at Byzantium. It’s a holy city. Today we’d call it Istanbul In 1928, Yeats would have called it Constantinople. Confused yet?
- Byzantium was once the center of Greek art and culture.
- Interestingly, Yeats chose to use the ancient name of the city, Byzantium, instead of its Roman name, Constantinople.
- What’s the big deal? A name’s a name, right? Well, using the Greek name for the city allows Yeats to affiliate his speaker with Greek arts and values.
- The quick and dirty distinction between Greek and Roman cultures goes something like this: both Greeks and Romans liked bloody battles. They were both actually pretty good at fighting. The Romans, however, didn’t really have a culture of their own. They went around picking up bits and pieces of culture from all the folks that they conquered. The Greeks, on the other hand, were highbrow culture. They valued "arête," or excellence.
- Let’s put it this way: the Romans had about as much culture as your local strip mall. The Greeks had some serious game. It’s no wonder that Yeats decided to hang his hat with the Greeks!