Monday, 30 May 2011

I Can't Go On, I Will Go On

A reading of "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B. Yeats.

What is your Byzantium? What is your passion?

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 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 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.


  1. "There is a strong tendency to reduce art to the question of taste. And the question of taste is kind of dangerous because it always goes down to the question of narcissism. There is something profoundly narcissistic in the judgement of preference. ‘I prefer this, I am a connoisseur, I prefer the late Beethoven quartets against symphonies.’ The difference which means difference as such and which means that you are distinguished and that you can distinguish yourself from the common lot of people by being the man of refined taste, to see all these differences that the others don’t see.

    I have this conception of art, which is that art has to do with universality and infinity. It introduces something into the continuity of being, into the continuity of our survival. A break. Which is a universal break. A break to universality. It can speak universally. What is important in art is not a question whether it is an expression of a certain individual or whether it is an expression of a certain ethnic group or nation or of a certain age.

    I think that the break is such that it makes the universal out of particularities.

    But the problem is how to do this with the subjective means at your disposal, within the nation to which you belong, or language, or culture, within a particular type of civilization, within this historic moment – which are all very finite and singular things. How to produce universality and infinity out of this? And this I think is the moment of art. This is not a production of spirit, this is a material production of the break. I like very much this saying, which is on t-shirts like: “Art is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it“. You have to get your hands dirty. This is a very material thing. You produce the idea with the material, with the matter. Art has always worked with the sensual. If one tries to get immediately to universality or the infinity of a beyond, an idea, the sublime or whatever – this is, I think, a big mistake. You cannot do this. You just have to produce it the hard way. But it depends on being able to produce a break.

    And this sets the standard by which it can be judged. I don’t think it can be judged on the basis of taste, it’s not just a question of whether I like it or not. It has the power to produce universality. It creates a potential virtual audience which goes far beyond this audience here. And I think the awareness that it goes beyond this, beyond my particular taste and reaction, is what makes good art."

    (from an interview with Mladen Dolar)

  2. Awesome write. Thanks for posting this, dude. Art, best expressed... with us, catching its break. (*applauding now)

  3. Brilliant post! Thank you! :-)

  4. I need to follow the thread of this thought:) to the metaphorical Byzantium! Thanks for reading!

  5. Beautiful thoughts, Okei. Thanks so much for sharing.

    What is my Byzantium? Will have to think long & hard on that.

    Do you think that the poet is imagining Paradise? How do you understand the poem, Okei?


  6. I've read and listened to this poem many many times, and it's not easy to understand, and I'm not a literature student, but the skills of the literature student are in order when trying to read this kind of stuff, i.e. a lot of patience and perseverance! I do my best...

    Byzantium I understand as symbolic of a dream-world, a magical far-away place, a Byzantium of the spirit, with a quality of the eternal, of gold, of paradise perhaps, where the author as an old man is seeking, perhaps to be re-born, then later in the poem he seems to be there already, but he feels very out of place, yearning for that non-natural eternal form that perhaps as an artist he might attain through the art of his poetry... he is old, and he is coming to terms with age, and yearning for that which is beyond time, eternal... but what is it, and how to get there?

    The quote below by Mladen Dolar, I found interesting also... he suggests it's a messy business, producing out of particularities, "a break to the universal"... a material production, because art works on the sensual. Like mindfulness of bodily sensations, art is hard work...