Last week my wife and I went to visit the wise old man at Bright Leaf assisted living center near Atlanta. He had left a bunch of books at my house and called to ask for them, especially the volume of Yeats. We boxed up all the books he had left behind and placed the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats on top of the pile.
He seemed very glad to see us and patiently went through the greeting and visiting decorum before he reached for the books. At length, he took out the Yeats tenderly, as if he were handling a small child, and opened it reverently.
“You know, I met and visited with Senator William Butler Yeats in 1936 in Dublin.”
“No, I did not know that. How old were you? Didn’t Yeats die around the time of World War II?”
“He died in January of 1939. Isn’t that the year of your birth, Dan? Interestingly, Yeats was about your age now in 1936 when we sat with me, a teenager, on the park bench for a bright afternoon. My, he was a brilliant man and a great conversationalist if you could keep him away from political discussions.”
“What did y’all talk about?”
“Well, Dan, I asked him which of his poems he counted as his best. Right away he said it was ‘Sailing to Bysantium’ because of its meta-literary qualities. Not being much of an aesthetic kid, I asked him what he meant. He said I should surly know John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn.’ I told him I had read it. He said, that the ode is a poem about poetry. That’s what he meant about meta-literary. Art about art. He said he did not try that much in his own work, but ‘Sailing to Bysantium’ is one of those.”
“Sir, isn’t that the poem that starts “That is no country for old men?”
“Yes, that is where the Coen brothers got the title for that chilling movie. But the poem concludes with the desire of the persona of the poem to be reincarnated as a work of art made by a Grecian goldsmith, a permanent work of art that would be able to represent all of time—of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
“So, sir, that is why it is meta-literary? Because it is art whose subject is the function of art?”
“Yes, just like in Keats’s ode, that piece of bas relief art called an urn stands as a friend to generations other than the one in which it was created in a friendly stance saying something about the nature of beauty and truth.”
“Wow, I guess we will have to re-read Keats’s ode as well as “Sailing to Bysantium.”
“Well,” the wise old man said in his raspy bass voice, “Let me read it to you now.” And he held forth in the most astonishing way. When he got to the conclusion of the work, the scales fell off our eyes and we both saw that the best art is about art itself.