Dr. D. B. Gavani
W. B. Yeats : “Sailing to Byzantium”
The speaker, referring to the country that he has left, says that it is “no country for old men”: it is full of youth and life, with the young lying in one another’s arms, birds singing in the trees, and fish swimming in the waters. There, “all summer long” the world rings with the “sensual music” that makes the young neglect the old, whom the speaker describes as “Monuments of unageing intellect.”
An old man, the speaker says, is a “paltry thing,” merely a tattered coat upon a stick, unless his soul can clap its hands and sing; and the only way for the soul to learn how to sing is to study “monuments of its own magnificence.” Therefore, the speaker has “sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” The speaker addresses the sages “standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall,” and asks them to be his soul’s “singing-masters.” He hopes they will consume his heart away, for his heart “knows not what it is”—it is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” and the speaker wishes to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity.”
The speaker says that once he has been taken out of the natural world, he will no longer take his “bodily form” from any “natural thing,” but rather will fashion himself as a singing bird made of hammered gold, such as Grecian goldsmiths make “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” or set upon a “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of Yeats’s most inspired works, and one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Written in 1926 and included in Yeats’s greatest single collection, 1928’s The Tower, “Sailing to Byzantium” is Yeats’s definitive statement about the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital individual even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” (the body). Yeats’s solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics (completed mainly during the sixth and seventh centuries) could become the “singing-masters” of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity.” In the astonishing final stanza of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past (“what is past”), the present (that which is “passing”), and the future (that which is “to come”).
A fascination with the artificial as superior to the natural is one of Yeats’s most prevalent themes. In a much earlier poem, 1899’s “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart,” the speaker expresses a longing to re-make the world “in a casket of gold” and thereby eliminate its ugliness and imperfection. Later, in 1914’s “The Dolls,” the speaker writes of a group of dolls on a shelf, disgusted by the sight of a human baby. In each case, the artificial (the golden casket, the beautiful doll, the golden bird) is seen as perfect and unchanging, while the natural (the world, the human baby, the speaker’s body) is prone to ugliness and decay. What is more, the speaker sees deep spiritual truth (rather than simply aesthetic escape) in his assumption of artificiality; he wishes his soul to learn to sing, and transforming into a golden bird is the way to make it capable of doing so. “Sailing to Byzantium” is an endlessly interpretable poem, and suggests endlessly fascinating comparisons with other important poems—poems of travel, poems of age, poems of nature, poems featuring birds as symbols. (One of the most interesting is surely Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” to which this poem is in many ways a rebuttal: Keats writes of his nightingale, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down”; Yeats, in the first stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium,” refers to “birds in the trees” as “those dying generations.”) It is important to note that the poem is not autobiographical; Yeats did not travel to Byzantium (which was renamed Constantinople in the fourth century A.D., and later renamed Istanbul), but he did argue that, in the sixth century, it offered the ideal environment for the artist. The poem is about an imaginative journey, not an actual one.
W. B. Yeats: ‘Easter 1916’
The poem is written in response to the Uprisings against the British Rule in Ireland during World War I. Irish grievances were many, varied and longstanding; dating from the time of William the Conqueror and most involving brutal oppression and deprivation from the English. Before WWI, England had agreed to Home Rule for the Irish but because of the war England reneged on this promise. Many of the Irish did not support England in the European war. Yeats’ position is ambivalent; his preference is for order and tradition and at first does not identify with the rebels who wanted to overthrow the English. Some of his closest friends were involved in the 1916 uprising and Yeats grudgingly came to accept their cause.
Though successful at first when 1500 men took over Dublin, proclaiming an Irish Republic on the Steps of the General Post Office, the British, despite its commitments of WWI, brutally and ruthlessly put down the insurrection with the loss of over 300 lives. As well eleven leaders were summarily executed within a month.
Much of Yeats’ treatment of life is detached, global and general; however in this poem he reluctantly and somewhat grudgingly delves into a specific event and ponders its significance in the scheme of our existence. As is usual he reveals his compassion; yet counters this with his misgivings, his ambivalence – the poem fails to resolve the contrariness of life. He reveals historical events can easily morph into legend and even myth.
Yeats is a notable poet worthy of study, not because he provides objective historical answers we might ask about this period, nor does he provide an accurate detailed account of the historical process, but because of his brilliant yet singular visionary insights in our western culture and because of deep sympathy he expresses for the tragedy and pathos of human life.
The poem begins with close personal observations and the presence of the poet permeates the rest of the poem with the repetition of the first personal pronoun “I” seven times and “we” once. Initially the persona indicates his distance – his disconnection with the cause, however as the events unfold his empathy is induced. His condescending attitude to the masses (horror of the mob – Ochlocracy) has an aristocratic aloofness that is challenged by the supreme sacrifice of his fellow countrymen. His patronising attitude is revealed by his perfunctory greetings, “polite meaningless words”, the dismissive “mocking tales or a gibe…..Around the fire at a club” and the judgemental, misguided “ignorant good will” (a reference to Countess Constance Georgina Markiewicz). Yeats had misgivings of populism of democracy; he preferred the order, authority and restraint of the aristocracy (oligarchy).
Yet this poem concedes a reluctant admiration and develops into a stirring memorably tribute to the people who by giving their lives for the insurrection have been “utterly transformed” into national heroes.
So the tone of the poem modulates from a dismissive critical one to that of esteem and commemoration for acts of supreme sacrifice for a noble cause. Perhaps Yeats has regrets about his lack of conviction and participation? His self-deprecating admission of admiration goes some way to absolving his passivity.
T. S. Eliot: Journey of the Magi
"Journey of the Magi" is the monologue of a man who has made his own choice, who has achieved belief in the Incarnation, but who is still part of that life which the Redeemer came to sweep away. Like Gerontion, he cannot break loose from the past. Oppressed by a sense of death-in-life (Tiresias' anguish "between two lives"), he is content to submit to "another death" for his final deliverance from the world of old desires and gods, the world of "the silken girls." It is not that the Birth that is also Death has brought him hope of a new life, but that it has revealed to him the hopelessness of the previous life. He is resigned rather than joyous, absorbed in the negation of his former existence but not yet physically liberated from it. Whereas Gerontion is "waiting for rain" in this life, and the hollow men desire the "eyes" in the next life, the speaker here has put behind him both the life of the senses and the affirmative symbol of the Child; he has reached the state of desiring nothing. His negation is partly ignorant, for he does not understand in what way the Birth is a Death; he is not aware of the sacrifice. Instead, he himself has become the sacrifice; he has reached essentially, on a symbolic level true to his emotional, if not to his intellectual, life, the humble, negative stage that in a mystical progress would be prerequisite to union. Although in the literal circumstances his will cannot be fixed upon mystical experience, because of the time and condition of his existence, he corresponds symbolically to the seeker as described by St. John of the Cross in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Having first approached the affirmative symbol, or rather, for him, the affirmative reality, he has experienced failure; negation is his secondary option.
The quest of the Magi for the Christ child, a long arduous journey against the discouragements of nature and the hostility of man, to find at last, a mystery impenetrable to human wisdom, was described by Eliot in strongly colloquial phrases adapted from one of Lancelot Andrewes' sermons of the Nativity:
A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, "the very dead of winter."
Also in Eliot's thoughts were the vast oriental deserts and the camel caravans and marches described in Anabase, by St.-J. Perse. He himself had begun work in 1926 on an English translation of that poem, publishing it in 1930. Other elements of his tone and imagery may have come from Kipling's "The Explorer" and from Pound's "Exile's Letter." The water mill was recollected from his own past; for in The Use of Poetry, speaking of the way in which "certain images recur, charged with emotion," he was to mention "six ruffians seen through an open window playing cards at night at a small French railway junction where there was a water-mill." In vivifying the same incident, the fine proleptic symbolism of "three trees on the low sky," a portent of Calvary, with the evocative image of "an old white horse" introduces one of the simplest and most pregnant passages in all of his work:
Here are allusions to the Communion (through the tavern "bush"), to the paschal lamb whose blood was smeared on the lintels of Israel, to the blood money of Judas, to the contumely suffered by Christ before the Crucifixion, to the soldiers casting lots at the foot of the Cross, and, perhaps, to the pilgrims at the open tomb in the garden.
The arrival of the Magi at the place of Nativity, whose symbolism has been anticipated by the fresh vegetation and the mill "beating the darkness," is only a "satisfactory" experience. The narrator has seen and yet he does not fully understand; he accepts the fact of Birth but is perplexed by its similarity to a Death, and to death. Were they led there for Birth or for Death? or, perhaps, for neither? or to make a choice between Birth and Death? And whose Birth or Death was it? their own, or Another's? Uncertainty leaves him mystified and unaroused to the full splendor of the strange epiphany. So he and his fellows have come back to their own Kingdoms, where, no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods (which are now alien gods), they linger not yet free to receive "the dispensation of the grace of God." The speaker has reached the end of one world, but despite his acceptance of the revelation as valid, he cannot gaze into a world beyond his own.
T. S. Eliot: Hollow Men
In the first section of the poem, a bunch of Hollow Men are leaning together like scarecrows. Everything about them is as dry as the Sahara Desert, including their voices and their bodies. Everything they say and do is meaningless. They exist in a state like Hell, except they were too timid and cowardly to commit the violent acts that would have gained them access to Hell. They have not crossed over the River Styx to make it to either Heaven or Hell. The people who have crossed over remember these guys as "hollow men."
In the second section, one hollow man is afraid to look at people who made it to "death's dream kingdom" – either Heaven or Hell. The Hollow Men live in a world of broken symbols and images.
The third section of the poem describes the setting as barren and filled with cacti and stones. When the Hollow Men feel a desire to kiss someone, they are unable to. Instead, they say prayers to broken stones.
In the fourth section, the hollow man from Section two continues to describe his vacant, desolate surroundings, in which are no "eyes." The Hollow Men are afraid to look at people or to be looked at.
The fifth and final section begins with a nursery rhyme modelled on the song "Here we go 'round the mulberry bush," except instead of a mulberry bush the kiddies are circling a prickly pear cactus. The speaker describes how a "shadow" has paralyzed all of their activities, so they are unable to act, create, respond, or even exist. He tries quoting expressions that begin "Life is very long" and "For Thine is the Kingdom," but these, too, break off into fragments. In the final lines, the "Mulberry Bush" song turns into a song about the end of the world. You might expect the world to end with a huge, bright explosion, but for the Hollow Men, the world ends with a sad and quiet "whimper."
W. H. Auden: The Unknown Citizen
“The Unknown Citizen” is a poem by W. H. Auden. Auden wrote it in 1939, shortly after moving from England to the United States, and the poem gives evidence of his culture shock when suddenly confronted with American-style chaos and consumerism. It is an ironic poem and the poet intends his satire against a society which kills a person’s individuality.
Significance of the Sub-title:
The sub-title to the poem “To JS/07/M/378/ This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State” alludes to the concept enforced by the government that every human being must be classified by a alpha-numeric tag to distinguish who they are, rather than being able to have their own personal identity. The poet scoffs at humans being given alpha-numeric names when they’re already struggling for their own personal identity in a world clustered with the advancing technology.
His Office Life and Social Life – Analysed:
The Bureau of Statistics has found that "no official complaint" has been made against the unknown citizen. He is also described as a "modern" saint, which means that he always served the "Greater Community." He worked in a factory before the war and he never got fired, as he satisfied his employers always.
Now the poem shifts from his employment to his social life. Even in his socialising with his friends, the unknown citizen acts with a lot of moderation and restraint. He likes "a drink," but he doesn’t drink too much and isn’t an alcoholic. Even the news media is convinced about the credentials of this citizen because he bought his newspaper every day. Moreover, he also had ‘normal’ reactions to advertisements in the newspapers. In short, he is a good American consumer.
His Insurance and Consumer Statistics – Analysed:
The government’s statistical coverage on this citizen now turns to the insurance sector. He was fully insured, because he was not a risk-taker. And, even though he had insurance, he only went to the hospital once, which means he wasn’t too much of a burden on the health system. He left the hospital "cured".
Consumer statisticians like Producers Research and High-Grade Living have done a little research and learned that the unknown citizen used "instalment plans" to buy expensive things. The phrase "fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan" is an ironic comment on the average citizen’s love for buying things and paying for them over a period of time.
Auden seems to criticise the modern man’s concept of living wherein we always think we need more than we really do. In the opinion of the speaker, the following lines“[He] had everything necessary to the Modern Man, A phonograph, a radio, a car and a Frigidaire”, we get the impression that the unknown citizen’s greatest accomplishment was buying things, which defines the modern man’s predicament.
The Unknown Citizen – A Conformist:
The "researchers into Public Opinion" find him a conformist, which means that he believed what the people around him seemed to believe. He was like a weather vane, going whichever way the wind blew.
The fact that “He was married and added five children to the population,” is a great achievement from the perspective of the State because a growing population usually helps a nation’s economy and also ensures that there are enough soldiers in case of a War (remembering the fact that this poem was written in 1939, just ahead of World War II). At the home front, the Bureau of Statistics finds him to be a good parent because he never interfered with the education of his kids which was a State-sponsored education.
Was he free? Was he Happy?
The poet ends by asking two questions – "Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” This statement shows that even though the government knows each and every statistics and facts going on in one’s life, they don’t know the actual feelings or meaning to one’s life. In other words, from the perspective of the State, it is much more important that people are not unhappy, and it does not matter whether they experience personal fulfilment or not.
In conclusion, the world today is constantly progressing to be more technology efficient but on the other side of the spectrum, humans are striving to have their own personal identities and to be different from one another. On the contrary, the “Unknown Citizen” is in fact just following the very typical, normal, and average life style instead of being different and striving for individualism. The poem is thus a satire of standardization at the expense of individualism.
W. H. Auden: Refugee Blues
As the title suggest, this is a poem about political refuges and is in the form of a blues song. Its subject is the Jews who in 1939 had to flee from Germany to the U.S. and other European country, because of Nazi persecution. Auden uses the blues tradition, which developed among the black people of the United States and has its origins in slave songs. Though composed under improvisation, the blues has a rigid pattern concerning the use of repetitions and a simple rhyme scheme.
The poem is divided into tercet whose first two lines rhyme while the third present a repetition. Through the whole song there is a refrain as the author always repeat the words “My dear”. Almost every stanza starts with a verb and this device helps to convey in the text the idea of improvisation and common speech. The structure of the text is carried on through the use of contrasting images: the mansions and the holes, expressing the gap between normal rich people and Jews, the Jews' condition, hanging between legal death and biological death, the treatment of the Jews, who can't partecipate anymore to social life.
The language used is common, colloquial, informal, while the tone is sad, resigned and melancholic. The hypothetical speaker, a German Jew, is concerned about Jews' conditions, regarding in particular homeless people, bureaucracy, social differences and imagination. There's an analogy of the Jews with all suffering and persecuted races in history, though here there are no cotton fields or whips, but rather passports, committees and public meetings. Those make the song no less ominous. Death is present throughout and the poem ends with the image of the soldiers looking for the Jews. At the moment when the poem was written, in 1939, this was becoming a common situation in Europe.
“Refugee blues” is one of the poems written by W H Auden. It is about a sad and terrible plight of being a Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obviously, as a refugee, the couple has lost their home, their country and their identity. The melancholy feeling comes through strongly in the blues - a sad song. Though the poem is about two people at a particular time in the past the thoughts and feelings of the poem’s narrator might be similar to situations in any part of the world today. This poem is set in Germany in 1930’s when the Jewish people were being persecuted by the Nazi regime.
The poem begins by introducing a city with 10 million people in it. Some have the luxury of living in a mansion; this is directly contrasted with the rest who are living in most disgusting conditions, 'holes'. There is not even a 'hole' for this couple - they are beneath the usual poverty line, the repetition of the sentiment, of having no room for 'us', makes it sadder. “Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us”. The next stanza shows how they are exiled from their own country and cannot return. They can see it in a map, can look at it in an atlas - but cannot return. They are resigned to this fate when they say 'We cannot go there now'.
The tree is an interesting symbol in the next stanza. The tree can go through nature's cycle and seem dead at certain times of the year but can be re-born, can grow again. It's natural for things to be given a new chance every year in nature, to bloom again. However, this is contrasted with man-made documents that, once lost, can never be recovered: 'Old passports can't do that, my dear'.
They then go to three places where they need help. The consul, presumably at an Embassy, treats them badly and violently bangs the table and makes a ridiculous statement: 'If you have no passport you're officially dead!'
Philip Larkin: Church Going
The speaker of the poem sneaks into a church after making sure it's empty. He lets the door thud shut behind him and glances around at all the fancy decorations, showing his ignorance of (or indifference to) how sacred all this stuff is supposed to be. After a short pause, he walks up to the altar and reads a few lines from the notes that are sitting on a lectern. After this, he walks back out of the church and slides an Irish sixpence into the collection box, which is basically like donating an old shirt button.
The speaker thinks that the place wasn't worth stopping to check out. But he also admits that he did stop, and that this isn't the first time he's done so. He can't help but wonder what he's looking for when he keeps coming back to this place, and also asks himself about what will happen to churches when there are no more believers left in the world. He wonders if they'll make museums out of the churches, or if they'll just leave the buildings' doors open so that sheep can hang out inside them.
Nearing the end of the poem, the speaker asks what will happen to the world when religion is gone altogether. Then he wonders what the very last religious person will be like. Will they be an obsessive compulsive, who just can't stop wanting to smell incense? Or will they be more like the speaker, someone who's bored and ignorant about the church, and just passing by without knowing what they're looking for?
Finally, the speaker just comes out and admits that he's pleased by the church because it's a serious place for serious questions. Humanity, he concludes, will always have a hunger to ask those big questions like "Why are we here?" and "Where do we go when we die?" And for this reason, the kind of urge that created religion in the first place will never go away, even if organized churches do. Sorry, atheists. If you were looking for a poem that just trashes religion and calls spiritual people stupid, you'll have to look someplace else.
Philip Larkin: Going Going
The title ‘Going, Going’ is the key to the whole poem. In Larkin’s view, what is ‘going’ is the landscape of England as a green and pleasant land. It is being replaced by shoddy development, summed up by the auctioneer’s excited cry of ‘going, going’ as another piece of the old heritage falls under the hammer. Going, going, but not yet quite gone. Larkin once thought it would ‘last his time’. Now he doubts that.
The poem has a disarmingly conversational tone, which belies the bleakness of what Larkin is saying. This tone is partly contrived by the rhyming pattern of each six line stanza: A B C A B C, which makes for a more open quality than couplets, for example, would have done. Right from the start he has a disillusioned air about the future of England. ‘I thought’ – past tense – ‘it would last my time’. There is a comfortable public belief, which he once shared, that traditional England will not be overwhelmed by ‘development’; there will always be an England that even ‘village louts’ – not just those with special discernment – can enjoy. Note the play on the patriotic song: ‘There’ll always be an England’. But already Larkin signals danger in the words ‘such trees’ as were not cut down. He knew there’d be alarms, but thought them false. It is important that this line ends the first stanza, as it ties in with Larkin’s half apologetic acknowledgement that he was wrong in what he thought. The second stanza, continuing the sentence, names some of what is being lost to ‘progress’. The reader is surely getting nervous about what is happening, but Larkin ironically dismisses concern; after all, ‘we can always escape in the car’, a reference that prepares us for the impact of the car, later in the poem. Larkin then continues to outline the modern belief in development; that we aren’t doing any real damage, that things are tougher than we are. This is followed at the end of the line with another ironic usage; ‘just’ belongs with the next line, but qualifies the one it is on. Larkin has been talking about manufactured or built things, in contrast to the earth and the sea. These, it is said, will always adjust to whatever rubbish is thrown at them. But suddenly at the end of the third stanza, Larkin moves from this comfortable belief to what – doubt? Coming at the end of the line, this has added impact.
Or is it simply age? Here ‘age’ refers to his own advancing years, and also to the deterioration of things, as in the spirit of the age. Is this gloom merely a private reaction? The rest of this stanza is devoted to a sharply hostile vision of the ‘new England’ in which people want more, an adjective that Larkin uses five times in this stanza, giving an effect of dreary repetition. He clearly feels no affinity with the people who use cafes on the M1. But he equally despises those in society who promote and profit from development; ‘spectacled grins’ is a clever summary of the new businessmen and technocrats. ‘More’ is also being used to great effect here; its repetition builds a sense of urgency as more houses, pay and parking, and more profit, combine to ruin what was previously unspoilt. And escaping in the car just leads to gridlock at the beach. Here again is that conversational tone; you know what the traffic’s like. His lack of dogmatism, his air of bemusement – ‘it seems, just now, to be happening so very fast’ – give an added weight to his statement, as if after all, everyone must see that it is true.
Larkin is beginning to think that it is all up with England. I take the word ‘boiling’ to mean ‘the whole damn thing’, but would welcome other interpretations. Think of streams, diverted into concrete culverts, and paved over. He fears that what he thinks of as England will become just another theme-park for tourists. There is real bitterness in his dismissive reference to England’s leaders as ‘crooks and tarts’. The idea that ‘first slum of Europe’ is a title that might be won is a reference to the sort of game show mentality that Larkin sees demolishing traditional culture.
And then he outlines what will be lost. ‘The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,/The guildhalls, the carved choirs.’ In just a few words he paints a picture of what he thinks is valuable about England; I think this is a wonderful selection. He’s probably wrong about the books (and don’t forget he was a librarian); there will just be e-readers. But what there will be most of is the sort of parking lots around shopping centres that our reliance on the car demands.
Larkin isn’t really blaming anyone for this. It just happens. Weary fatalism is the over-riding mood of the poem. Greed and garbage – note the alliteration – go together; each causes the other and neither can be easily swept away. ‘Too thick-strewn to be swept’ is also highly alliterative. The rhyming of ‘greeds’ and ‘needs’ is particularly clever, as turning what people want into what they think they need is a feature of the consumer society that Larkin is bewailing. The last line gets its punch, I think, from the comma after ‘happen’, leaving ‘soon’ as the full stop.
This poem is forty years old. So much of what Larkin feared then, has happened. Nevertheless, I’m slightly uneasy about this poem. Decisions about where people live, and what their built environment looks like don’t in my view, just happen. They are a product of a set of choices made by people who control the resources of a society, with more or less input from the people who live in that society. Larkin despises both the young people in the M1 cafe, and the financial types with ‘spectacled grins’. But I don’t think they bear equal responsibility.