“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.
—William Butler Yeats
Wells stood on the bridge with the wind off the river tousling his thin and sandy hair. He turned and leaned against the fence and raised the small cheap camera he carried and took a picture of nothing in particular and lowered the camera again. He was standing where Moss had stood four nights ago. He studied the blood on the walk. Where it trailed off to nothing he stopped and stood with his arms folded and his chin in his hand. He didnt bother to take a picture. There was no one watching. He looked downriver at the slow green water. He walked a dozen steps and came back. He stepped into the roadway and crossed to the other side. A truck passed.
—Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and McCarthy’s
No Country for Old Men: Art and Artifice in the Novel
McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men will certainly elicit much discussion, especially regarding the notable stylistic departure from his previous works. The new novel is lean, sparse, at times terse, arguably vivid and evocative in terms of language and scenes. Some readers may find merit and even innovation in this approach to narrative. Others may note a lack of the complexity, lyricism, and beauty we often associate with McCarthy’s prose. However, there is likely to be little disagreement that McCarthy’s latest novel is quite dissimilar to those that precede it. The reason for this departure may be simple. Perhaps McCarthy has run his artistic course, and No Country for Old Men (2005), sadly, represents the diminution of his artistic powers. Or it could be that the author’s motives are simply mercenary and careerist, insofar as we know that the novel was previously scheduled to be adapted into film. The first explanation seems implausible, since the shift in style is so studied, precise, and seemingly intentional, displaying still a strong sense of artistic control. The second motive partially explains, but only partially, since McCarthy’s storied willingness to remain reclusive and to leave promotion to others makes a complete sell-out seem unlikely. Historically, he has simply valued the integrity of his art too highly. I want to at least explore the possibility that his selection of the title is not incidental, that his use of the first line of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1983) bears in significant ways upon the meaning of the book. This poem contrasts the prosaic and sensual world of the here and now with the transcendent and timeless world of beauty in art, and the first line, “That is no country for old men,” refers to an artless world of impermanence and sensual pleasure. I want to posit, somewhat tentatively, that the title is at least one key to the stylistic departure that characterizes the novel and that perhaps, if the novel is read in the context of the title,we might discover a motive behind its distinctiveness. The main narrative displays it seems (in contrast to the interior monologues of Sheriff Bell) a deliberate lack of artifice, or at least the appearance of such, and an intentional eschewing of the overtly lyrical and poetic qualities of the prose we associate with McCarthy. We might assume, then, given the themes and contrasts posited in “Sailing to Byzantium,” that McCarthy is toying with the idea that an overly aestheticized prose is a problematic way to characterize a commonplace, transient, death-strewn world. On the surface this might seem to be an argument against the aesthetic that defines his previous novels, but McCarthy is ever the experimentalist, testing new ideas and approaches to see how they work. His experiment with a less lyrical style may in fact be a deliberate attempt to bring this style into line with his world. Given the Yeats poem’s ultimate celebration of the fruits of artistic creation, we might also tease out some of the same contrasts in No Country for Old Men, which appear in the intimation of a realm outside the harsh country, and in a tonality of hope that is less present in his other works, especially in those preceding the Border Trilogy.
To explore these possibilities, we must first begin with the Yeats poem, in an attempt to clarify McCarthy’s motivation for borrowing the title from the first line. The poem begins,