Sunday, June 13, 2010

W.B. Yeats: The Artifice of Eternity

In honor of today’s 145th anniversary of renowned Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats’ birthday, below are links to two interesting videos featured on the New York Times site (hence, not embedded here) from the National Library of Ireland’s current exhibition.

The first is a 4-minute segment on Yeats’ life as a public man and as an “authentic genius.” It concisely emphasizes the majesty of Yeats’ literary achievements – typically viewed with regard to his poetry, but also including his nationally-defining plays, noteworthy essays and criticism – as well as his artistic ambition and willingness to change and reinvent himself throughout the course of his life.

The second is a 10-minute video detailing the creation of one of the poet’s most famous verses: Sailing to Byzantium. The clip highlights Yeats’ routine of repeatedly revising even his most famous works and sheds light on the complex, multi-level symbolism of the piece.

The 1926 poem in full ...

Sailing to Byzantium


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 unaging 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 enameling

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.

Further interpretative notes on the poem are available here.

Happy birthday, Willy!

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