“Sailing to Byzantium”: Where, or What, is Yeats’s Country?
My freshman Literature and Composition class was discussing Yeats’s strange, beautiful, and very intellectual poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.” (Click here to read it first.) We were just starting on the first stanza, tackling these lines:
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.
There is a lot of life-filled imagery packed into these lines—lovers, waterfalls full of fish and trees full of birds—as well as a huge serving of abstract language (see Step 4) that covers absolutely everything alive: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” But where are we? I asked my class, “What is the country that is not for old men? What does Yeats mean here?”
No one would speak for a few beats. Clearly they had no clue. Then suddenly a daring young woman in the back row looked up with a light in her eye: “I’m not sure—but is it Paris?”
There were some problems with her theory, but how could I explain? They do say that Paris is for lovers, so perhaps Paris might qualify as a place where Yeats would think that “old men” are not comfortable. But are there salmon? I have read that salmon are making a comeback in the Seine river, though I’m not sure whether they can be glimpsed swimming along the Left Bank.
But the mistake this student made in her interpretation was not simply choosing the wrong geographical location. She was failing to distinguish between literal and figurative language. To understand poetry, or indeed, any text, readers have to distinguish between words that mean exactly what the dictionary would say they mean, and language that means something very different from what it literally says. Continue reading