“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.
Literal and Figurative Language in Everyday Life
In everyday speech and conversation, we make this distinction between literal and figurative language very easily. If we hear someone say that Fred is a couch potato, or that Helen drives people up the wall, we don’t envision Fred as a large potato lolling on the sofa, or people scrambling up walls like frightened human spiders to escape Helen’s presence. We have heard these phrases so many times that our minds jump to their well-known meanings without much pause to picture the imagery in them. True, we might have flashes of large lazy potatoes or scrambling people. Those image flashes are exactly what make figurative phrases so powerful and enjoyable in everyday conversation.
In poetry, however, we run into figurative language we haven’t heard much, or even never heard before. We have to figure out which language is for depicting the literal dramatic situation within the poem, like the man stopping by the woods in Frost’s poem, and which language is meant as figurative, language that is there to illustrate ideas. Figurative language is not in the poem for its literal meaning but for its meaningful qualities. Characteristics brought to mind by the figure, like that flash of a lazy potato or people climbing walls, enlarge our ideas about the literal topics the poet wants to talk about.
Back to Dover Beach: Literal or Figurative?
We’ll get to Yeats’s “no country for old men” in a minute, but now let’s look back at another poem we discussed in an earlier post, Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” As I pointed out in Step 2, when I ask students to write about their interpretations of this poem, many students write that the speaker seems to be in the middle of a nighttime battle that is going on along the beach. Then I noted that these students were failing to keep the dramatic situation of the poem clear in their minds. Now we can also see that they made the same error as my student who thought Yeats’s country was Paris. They interpreted the last three lines of Arnold’s poem as literally true, instead of understanding them as figurative language:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
How is a reader to know that Arnold’s speaker is not in an actual battle, but merely describing the idea of a battle to explain something about how it feels to be human in the world? In this passage, we are lucky, because the speaker signals plainly that he is drawing a simile, a direct comparison, when he uses the tiny but very important word “as.” He is not saying “We ARE on a darkling plain” with this army, but we are “AS” on a darkling plain. This description of an army fighting in the dark shows what it is like to be human in a world with no religious faith–not literally, but figuratively. When reading poems, we can’t overlook little words! Every word matters.
But what if the poet is using a metaphor, an implicit comparison, rather than a simile, with no “like” or “as”? Or some other figure that is not announced by any word, however tiny?
Three Signs that Language Might be Figurative
There are multiple signals to readers when language should be read as figurative, not literal:
1. CONTEXT of the language.
We judge a lot by the context where we find the language—that is, we take into account the other information we have gleaned from the poem about the situation, era, title, author, and topic.
Even in everyday speech we decide if language is figurative from CONTEXT, not from the literal meaning of the words. How do you know if someone who says “nice going!” is praising you or making fun of you? If you just dropped a bowl of spaghetti on the floor, you can be fairly sure it’s not literal praise that you’re hearing; you interpret the phrase as ironic, a type of figurative language. In reading a poem, context helps you do the same thing.
2. Abstract Language is often nearby.
Figurative language is often accompanied by abstract language. We have already seen that abstract language in a poem can be a signal for readers to begin looking for larger meanings (Step 4). In the last stanza of “Dover Beach,” we find piles of abstract language right before the battle is mentioned. The speaker has just been emoting about the sad state of the world in the most abstract of terms: joy, love, certitude, peace, and more.
It should not be surprising to find figurative language near this string of abstractions. Poets use figurative language to give readers a more tangible sense of how people experience abstract things like hopelessness or confusion. Arnold feels that living in this world where religious faith is draining away FEELS like being in the middle of a battle at night where people can’t even see whom they are fighting.
3. Figurative language is startling, surprising, or unexpected.
Figurative language delights, startles, or makes us think, because it provides a new or unexpected way to see something. Think about Mohammed Ali, master not only of the fight but of metaphor, and his many famous uses of figurative language:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”
“I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail, I’m a bad man….Last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”1
Signs of Figurative Language in “Dover Beach”
Going back to the more somber “Dover Beach,” this poem knocks us off balance at least a couple of times. For one thing, the poem’s beginning shows us a beautiful, tranquil, moonlit scene, which would make most people feel peaceful or tranquil. But soon we learn that contrary to most people’s experience, the sound of the waves makes this poem’s speaker feel sad. He actually compares the outgoing tide to the retreat of religious faith from the whole world—an unexpected comparison, indeed.
Then he bemoans the lack of certainty and peace in the world, in spite of its beautiful appearance, hoping that at least his lover will be true to him. And then comes the vivid description of the battle on the “darkling plain,” —startling, shocking even, for such images to appear in the middle of a description of a peaceful night at the beach. The shock in itself should give warning to look for figurative language. It challenges us to re-examine our assumptions, not only about what the poem means, but about the world itself. Here, the figure communicates powerfully how it feels to the speaker to be human in the modern age, without religious faith to cling to.
How We Know Yeats’s Country is Figurative
Back to Yeats’s “country” in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Can we find any of the three clues that this “country” that is bad for old men is figurative, not literal? Let’s look for the three signals of figurative language:
Since this is only Stanza 1 of the poem, using context cues is difficult; but that is one reason it is important to read shorter poems all the way through, two or three times, before trying too hard to interpret every line. We need to place each part into the context of the whole poem. Thinking of the poem as a whole makes it easier to perceive that this “country” must represent an idea—it must be figurative, not a literal place like Paris.
2. Presence of abstract language:
Concretely, we do have salmon and mackerel, and a bunch of undescribed young lovers, but abstractly we have “the young” (a large abstract category), “fish, flesh, and fowl,” “monuments of unageing intellect,” and even more abstract words. With abstractions piling up, we can guess that figurative language is likely to be nearby.
3. Figurative language is startling, surprising, or unexpected:
Easy one. This whole stanza is startling, surprising, or unexpected, signaling that we are not in a literal realm. It is clear that we must engage in interpretation of elaborate, abstract, and figurative language right away. Let’s examine the language of the stanza to see what qualities and ideas Yeats is focusing on.
So What About this “Country”?
Let’s start with my original question: What is this “country” where old men don’t belong? Other language in the stanza describes it as a country full of life–of fish, flesh, or fowl, birds in the trees, and lovers enjoying physical love. I think that this “country” could actually be anywhere, everywhere in the human world where life and love abound, Paris, or Philadelphia or Geneva, or Alaska, or anywhere. Yeats is talking about how happy, healthy young people, in the “summer” of their lives, experience life.
The trouble with this seeming paradise is very apparent to an old man in the winter, not summer, of life: all of these things will die. Sensual pleasures, even life itself, are passing away. An older person must look to something that does not grow old and pass away like the body does. Yeats calls them “monuments of unageing intellect,” whatever part of the human mind and soul that will outlast their bodies and loss of sensual pleasures.
The rest of the poem will explore how an old person nearing death can best respond to a world that focuses on sensual experience, and ponder what aspects of humanity’s productions are most valuable. Yeats seems to prize both beautiful art and poetry as things more lasting and more excellent than natural objects and experiences that will pass away quickly. He thinks of the ancient kingdom of Byzantium as a place where art, religion, and philosophy were all in harmony; it represents the culmination of human artistry , a monument to aspects of humanity that do not age. That is why , as an old man, he wants to sail there–not literally, but figuratively, of course.
In the next poem you pick up, remember that some of the language is probably literal, but not every country you come to is just a country.
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1Muhammad Ali quotations from this CNN report.
*Muhammed Ali By Ira Rosenberg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.