Study Guide

Sailing to Byzantium Old Age

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Old Age

That is no country for old men (1)

Yup. It sucks to be old in the country where our speaker is from. The emphatic tone of this first line frames the entire poem as a search for everything that the old country isn’t.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, (9-10)

Although the first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" emphasizes the natural world, the start of the second stanza seems to be strangely unnatural. Age strips the very flesh from people’s bones, leaving nothing but the clothes they once wore.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; (21-23)

Yeats seems to be distinguishing the heart of the speaker from the mere animal nature of the speaker’s body. Stuck in a body, the heart can’t achieve its true potential – as art.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing, (25-26)

The speaker’s given nature a try. Now it’s time to move on. Art, he thinks, doesn’t have to deal with the same fears of aging and decay that living creatures do. Maybe being a painting isn’t so bad, after all.

and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress, (11-12)

Bemoaning the fact that folks seem to give up as soon as they grow older, the speaker angrily reflects that "souls" should sing all the more strongly once their bodies start to deteriorate. For one thing, they’ve got a lot more to say now than they did years and years ago. For another, they don’t have much time left.

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