SAILING TO BYZANTIUM
May 9, 2023
A (pro- or anti-) science-, mathematics-, technology-, space-, apocalypse-, dehumanization-, disenchantment-, and/or future-oriented poem published during sf’s emergent Radium Age (c. 1900–1935). Research and selection by Joshua Glenn.
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
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer
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
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
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
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.
— Written 1927; collected in The Tower (1928).
Here we find Yeats in a gnostic mode, yearning for the eternal verities concealed behind the sensual, natural, and impermanent.
In the SFE, we read:
[Yeats’s] importance to sf is relatively narrow, though the critic William Empson suggests, in “The Variants for the Byzantium Poems” (1965), that a literal ‘science fiction’ reading of the journey to Byzantium — and of the post-metamorphic but gong-tormented artefact of creative peace there enjoyed by artists aspiring to unchanging excellence, perhaps as singing birds — might avoid the efforts of some Christianizing critics to treat Byzantium as Heaven or Paradise, and the Emperor as God. Within a cautious understanding of this sf approach, it is colourable that the two poems, “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” (written 1930; in 1932’s Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems), which intensely alembicate the orientalism of a poet like James Elroy Flecker, do in fact convey some sense of a world not entirely remote from the Dying Earths created around the same time by manqué poets like Clark Ashton Smith.
In a 1982 Grand Street essay, Empson returned to the point of his 1965 essay — after having read a collection of Yeats’s drafts of the poem:
What was ripening in his mind would have made a good science fiction long-short, but he took for granted that he had to compress it into one or two Symbolist poems.
English and American critics interpret Yeats’s poems as implying Christian doctrines whenever that is possible, and when they find it impossible they treat the passage with a tactful sigh as merely a lapse, because they cannot conceive of a good man, with a good heart, holding any other religious belief. He may often, they feel, be a skeptic, but he cannot really believe in Theosophy; at best, that would be a kind of play-acting.
The poem treats Byzantium not as Heaven, Empson argues, but rather “as a type of the unity of aesthetic and religious experience” (the sort of thing Yeats seeks in 1924’s A Vision).
Fun fact: A science fiction novella by the same name by Robert Silverberg was published in 1985. The story, like the poem, deals with immortality and includes quotations from the poem.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF POETRY: Stephen Spender’s THE PYLONS | George Sterling’s THE TESTIMONY OF THE SUNS | Archibald MacLeish’s EINSTEIN | Thomas Thornely’s THE ATOM | C.S. Lewis’s DYMER | Stephen Vincent Benét’s METROPOLITAN NIGHTMARE | Robert Frost’s FIRE AND ICE | Aldous Huxley’s FIFTH PHILOSOPHER’S SONG | Sara Teasdale’s “THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS” | Edith Södergran’s ON FOOT I HAD TO… | Robert Graves’s WELSH INCIDENT | Nancy Cunard’s ZEPPELINS | D.H. Lawrence’s WELLSIAN FUTURES | & many more.