Sailing to Byzantium

by Terence MacNamee

This weekend is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Yeats. Ireland’s greatest modern poet, patriotic though he was, did not believe his country was the centre of things, as we find in his late poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. The poem begins:

“That is no country for old men.”

He is talking about Ireland. He himself is an old man by now, and all he sees around him is

“The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song…”

He wants to get out of the cycle of birth, love and death and enter the immutable sphere of the intellect. He announces the destination of his journey:

“And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”

Byzantium is a name to conjure with, and it brings up other names. Byzantium was the New Rome, founded or re-founded by the first Christian Emperor Constantine to be the centre of his dying Empire, uniting the Roman provinces east and west. After him it was named Constantinople. Then at the end of the Middle Ages, after a few centuries of precarious survival as the bastion of the late Byzantine Emperors, it fell to the Turkish Sultan, who made it his capital. In modern times the Turkish Republic renamed it Istanbul.

Of course, Yeats calls it Byzantium, situating it in the ancient past, he doesn’t call it Constantinople, still less Istanbul. There is a whole series of contrasts here, but the basic one is between Ireland and Greece, which Yeats presents, not as two similar peripheries (which they are), but as two unalike poles. He is just being the Northern European deploying the trope of wanting to go to the South to learn. He has to get away from Ireland to experience the sources of religion, the classics, and so on – the Greeks do not, they are right there.

Yeats is looking for the centre, the holy city, yet in more than one way, the search is an ironic one. As a matter of historical fact, he never got there; the poem was inspired by Byzantine mosaics he saw in Italy. What is more, Byzantium is no longer the centre of Empire, it’s an imperilled outpost that no longer even exists, for it has fallen to a  conqueror.

As myth, Byzantium remains a mediating presence straddling Europe and Asia, uniting Greece and Rome, and uniting the Christian world with the pagan classical world – and now it belongs to the Moslem world, supposedly not a part of Europe any more. For today’s Greeks, Byzantium, or Constantinople as they call it, is a lost centre. It is a Forbidden City that should be theirs but where they do not, cannot go. It does not belong to them any more, but to Turkey.

As Yeats found, the search for the centre of things leads us from one periphery to the other. And even beyond the periphery. The search for the core of Europe ultimately leads us to Asia.