Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve heard the name. Maybe you know it’s based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. Did you know he cribbed the line from a poem by Yeats? I’ve read the poem a number of times over the years but didn’t recognize the source until I heard Helen Vendler read it again and explain how such a perfect line depends on the poem’s carefully-crafted lyric form.
Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats
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 unageing 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.
If this poem whets your appetite for William Butler Yeats, listen to Helen Vendler’s deeply insightful close reading of Yeats on Open Source. Vendler is author of Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form.