General Question

cyn's avatar

I need help with an English problem.

Asked by cyn (6808 points ) August 19th, 2009

“An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick…an
ancient pair of shoes hanging from a rack.” – W. B. Yeats
How would you interpret this quote?
I’m having problems and I simply do not understand what it means.
what does “is but” mean?

I tried to google it; it doesn’t work. :(

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

17 Answers

Facade's avatar

“is but” could be “is only” “is just” “is nothing but” etc

Ivan's avatar

You can safely substitute ‘is but’ for ‘is’ or ‘is merely’.

marinelife's avatar

I would substitute the word only here to help you understand.

cyn's avatar

So the quote is negative, as in…it is insulting the aged man?

marinelife's avatar

@cyndihugs Yes. If you look up paltry if you don’t know that word. Then think about the image of a tattered coat on a stick. Then think about pictures of old men that you have seen, you will get what Yeats is saying.

janbb's avatar

The poet is using metaphor to compare an aged man to ancient clothing. It is somewhat denigrating when he says “a paltry thing” and uses the negative images of the clothing. You probably want to interpret it in the context of the rest of the poem.

AstroChuck's avatar

It’s basically a metaphor saying that an old man is just a loose sack of skin hanging on spindly bones.

cyn's avatar

@everyone. Thankyou so much. I really appreciate your helpfulness. :)

filmfann's avatar

Make sure you pronounce Yeats correctly. It rhymes with Kate’s.

gailcalled's avatar

Sailing to Byzantium. Spoiler

Read the entire poem several times. It is a mistake to take several lines out of context. The hint is “an aged man”...

The “is but” keeps the iambic meter intact.

An AG ed MAN is BUT a PAL try THING, etc.

This is one of the most famous poems in Engish and does treat youth as the apotheosis of life.

cwilbur's avatar

You need to read the whole thing in context:

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.

The whole poem sets up the contrast between the enthusiasm and artlessness of youth, and the mastery of artifice that comes with age. Yeats is basically saying that an old man is basically worthless unless he creates art out of his experiences.

@gailcalled: I read it exactly the opposite: Yeats admires the young, but his real admiration is for the monuments of unaging intellect and the sages standing in God’s holy fire, not for the young in one anothers’ arms. He doesn’t want to be young again (at least not in this poem), but he wants his body burned away so he can join the sages.

gailcalled's avatar

@cwilbur : I love the complexity of the poem; every sentence can be brooded over. And what about the last stanza? It negates both youth and old age and opts for artifice (or art).

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.

Shegrin's avatar

Art imitates life, and the other way ‘round.

trailsillustrated's avatar

it means , reduced to the smallest sum, in language, “but for”, “all but”, its a reduction thing, see?

Zen's avatar

It isn’t insulting to old men, it is an observation. It saddens Yeats that we treat the elderly this way.

Zen's avatar

We mock the thing we are to be.

zensky's avatar

Hmmm.

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