Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

Finitude is the natural state of things. All things, things in general. All things end, and leave only the faintest of memories behind, detritus of history. Good old Ozymandias, whose grand statues were famously reduced to a mere fragment and an imperative to despair, serves as a reminder of this: even the largest, most elaborate constructions fade into nothing, given time. Nature reclaims every thing.

This is the proper mindset to be in when reading Sailing to Byzantium. On an intertextual level, it responds to Shelley’s famous poem, not least in the quite unsubtle byz/oz pairing. For poets, this is what passes for being on the nose. On a thematic level, the two poems both poke and prod at the passage of time and the inherent futility of all attempts to resist or reject it. Time will come, and it will claim its due; it is the nature of things.

Given this starting point, a reader might be surprised to find out that Yeats goes full cyborg. Ozymandias is comfortably familiar in its fuzzy particulars – nothing remains except this one fragment, and we are left to infer all manner of ancient civilizations once inhabiting the sand-swept nothing that remains. Fantasy provides us with all the necessary details, free of charge. It is familiar, safe, cozy. And then, wham! Yeats hits us with the following motherlode of exposition:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing

Careful readers will notice the two mentions of nature: first as a negative, being out of it, and second as a refusal to adopt its forms. It is not specified just what exactly it means to be “out of nature”, but somehow during the course of the poem, this natural state of things has been escaped. No longer bound by finitude, post-natural beings can take any shape they so please, and it would appear that some hitherto unimagined unnatural form is desired. We have left nature and embraced cyborghood, without regrets or remorse.

Indeed, regret and remorse are precisely the things left behind. These are narrowly focused states of mind, which contemplate what has been done and how it has affected things relating to the limited time between life and death of natural entities. “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”, and from the perspective of those unburdened by death, it all amounts to naught. Finitude is the natural state of things, and thinking about it only makes it worse; we did not effort hard enough to overcome the passage of time. Everything will be forgotten, no one will remain to remember.

Thus, the imperative to get out of nature. This whole death and oblivion business is not the cheeriest of outcomes, prompting the desire to evade it. What if we just skipped that part and kept going, went on, stuck around for the aftermath and transcended into a point of view that didn’t have to feel all those pesky death-related feelings? Just say no to nature and do something else, forever. Stop being “fastened to a dying animal” and instead transmogrify “into the artifice of eternity”. Level up both physically and metaphysically.

An unintended side-effect of stepping out of nature is also stepping out of time. Mortals organize everything around time, even when they do not think about it – the mortal body itself is scarred by each passing moment, every breath a tiny movement towards death. Oxygen, the very thing that powers our bodies, also ever so gradually degrades it. Oxygen-based metabolism is life, but it is also death; such is the nature of these things. Stepping out of nature would, presumably, involve a transition into something more comfortable and permanent – once out of nature, metabolism becomes sustainable. Whatever unnatural form it might take, it will be able to keep at it indefinitely, orthogonal to the passage of time.

This raises the question of what to do with all the extra time allotted. Merely existing in general seems a waste of potential, but just what exactly one does upon attaining immortality is not an easy question to answer. Indeed, there is not even any particular rush to answer it – doing anything now is as good as doing it later, seeing as there is no existential time limit to contend with. Everything, in the most general of terms, will still be there whenever the decision to spring into action is made. Having stepped out of time means not being in a hurry. Ozymandias may come and go many times before the first move is made. But just what might this move be?

Yeats, seeing this coming, invokes Byzantium for this very reason. Byzantium is old news, history, long since faded from contemporaneity. When the future becomes an indifferent extension of the present, the only remaining temporal direction worth mentioning is the past. History becomes the building material of the present, but not in the same way as for mortal beings. Mortals have to deal with being situated in time by virtue of being mortal; it goes with the territory. Immortals, however, can pick and choose their time period at will, regardless of grammatical tense. Thus, Byzantium will do just as well as any other point in time – the future is indifferent, the present arbitrary, and the past a catalogue of equally compelling available options. Thus, aloof, disinterested, Yeats’ cyborgs contend themselves to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

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