Poem: Sailing from Byzantium

June 2019

    In honor of William Butler Yeats, who wrote:

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 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.


                      Dearest Yates,


This indeed is no country for old men,

And you have also taught us that

‘Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,

Sheer anarchy is loosed upon the world.

The best lack all conviction,

while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’

Today, these words ring true but cannot conquer,

The gigantic Puff, the Magic Dragon;

Who lives in depths of the seas of civilizations;

Perhaps the sacred rituals

On the quest for the Holy Grail


We see through the fog wrapped shoals and cliffs,

And those who are not Prince Hamlet,

Where others have sung:

 ‘this is the way the world ends; this is the way the world ends,’

Not with a bang but a whimper—’

But the old men see beyond the sensual music and the empty lives,

As you so rightly sing,

Binding humankind to a fate worse than death.

They see beyond the whimper of death,

They can see the future, the divine-human upsurge,

Of freedom in the cosmos. Beyond the endangerment of empty forms,

the collapse of civilization, and climate,

and blinding light of nuclear war.


This soul knows not what it is, indeed,

But it knows that 13.8 billion years

 have brought this tattered frame to consciousness.

And conscious burning desire for freedom,

For the emergence of astonishing responsibility,

Astounding moral principles, universal right and wrong,

And astonishment itself—that the world exists—

 severe, uncompromising, unsayable.


Like you, dear Yates, we build our ship of death,

Our little bark with all provisions,

Necessary for the journey,

But there is another role for old men and women,

Not a form to keep a drowsy Emperor awake,

Not a form to bind us to eternity,

Those Grecian goldsmiths had it wrong,


They did not dream the civilizational journey,

Gigantic Freedom,

A form to embrace all forms,

 bringing Freedom forth from the Earth,

from the mechanistic sod, from

iron-clad destiny, determinism, and destruction;

Shouting new ecstasies to the sky—

A form emerging from the unknown,

 and flying high into the unknown—

Yet we feel it link to eternity,

We know it binds us to humanity beyond the death of each.


We sing the immortal song of civilization,

With Tagore, with Goethe, with Rilke, with Whitman, with Shelley,

And the holy William Blake;

With Blake, who had to create his own mythology,

Lest he be enslaved by that of another.

We live in the light of the utopian horizon,

Without myth, no ideology, no dogma, no religion—

A creative now dynamically embracing past and future,

Pointing to glories greater than the stuff that dreams are made on;

We sing the glories of life— the mystery of freedom;

Story with no dénouement, perhaps just ‘broken myth,”

Without explanation, perhaps no “common sense” at all.

We sing of integrative mysticism, one and many, unity in diversity;

The gentle rain on the roof in the black of night.


The way up and the way down are one and the same,

But are they really, dear Heracitus? 

What is up is ahead, a fulfillment, an eschaton of ripe fruit,

Perhaps one summer of ‘fully ripened song’.

We dance the dance of Shiva,

riding skyward on the emanations of Plato,

We sing Kant’s ‘starry skies above and moral law within;’

We sing the song of life and death,

The song of painful suffering existence, and the ecstasy and joy,

As living conscious flesh in the magnificent here and now of life,


We sing of a present moment that ‘is rectified—

but never refuted,

 by the mere power of that which is.’

‘The once, and once only,’

Of human existence, of Daring Freedom,

Is our ‘high requiem’ beyond that ‘undiscovered country,’

To a new country,

emerging within the horizon of our ship,

Not sailing to Byzantium,

But sailing forth onto unknown seas,

Not a drowsy Emperor,

But living in the fullness of the exploding present moment,

With the light of a dancing utopian imagination,

 And the Time-enraptured Quest.

*     *     *     *     *     *

[Back to Poetry table of contents]