In his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats addresses his view of old age. He speaks of a place that is “no country for old men”. This is a place he is leaving, as it is barren of spiritual and intellectual concerns.
One of the unique characteristics of the practice of law is that there is no mandatory retirement requirement. Thus, we witness practitioners continuing well into their maturity. Perhaps the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the law remain compelling.
In the poem, the speaker is journeying to a new city. Throughout its history, Byzantium, later Constantinople and then Istanbul, has been known as a center for the arts and intellectualism. Like Byzantium, the practice of law provides stimulation to an aging lawyer.
At 105, William Jackson Vaughn is the oldest active member of The Florida Bar. He was born in the cotton fields of Dooly County, Georgia. Mr. Vaughn moved with his family from Georgia to Florida when he was nine, he suspects because of the economy. They spent a year in Orlando before settling in Melbourne in the early twenties.
His father attended Emory College in Atlanta, but did not go to law school. Instead, he studied at home and learned the law with the help of local attorneys. The law firm started by his father is the same one that Mr. Vaughn works at today.
He says that attorneys should have high ethics, have pretty high standards, they should be looked up to, and they should be well thought of in the community.
“Back then, when I started, there were a limited number of attorneys in Brevard County, and we helped each other. There was competition, but it was with respect.”
When asked about his definition of professionalism, he stressed that it is important that attorneys be honest and never mislead people. “If you can’t help the client, give the case to someone else.”1
Older lawyers have something to offer society and the profession. For example, on July 16th 2019, former United States Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens passed away at the age of 99. Justice Stevens retired on June 29, 2010. At age 90 when he stepped down, he was the third-longest serving Justice in the Court’s history. Since retiring he authored two books. In 2014, Justice Stevens testified before a Senate Committee to criticize recent Supreme Court decisions that weakened spending limits in political campaigns. Even in retirement, Justice Stevens remained an active participant in the formation of Supreme Court decisions.
Older lawyers provide a balance and a counter weight to the newer generations of lawyers. Without them, the profession would be out of balance.
The poet William Butler Yeats captured this sentiment in his poem. The poem addresses the idea of a balance and coherence in a society’s religious, aesthetic, and practical life. This was Yeats’s ideal.2 Older lawyers like William Jackson Vaughn and John Paul Stevens provide this needed balance.
It is unfortunate that the speaker in this poem feels he is not appreciated in his homeland due to his advanced age. Perhaps poetry can open our eyes and our mind to an appreciation of the wisdom and experience of a preceding generation.
Here is a segment of Yeats’ poem:
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
2 Yeats, W.B. “A Vision: The Revised 1937 Edition: The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volumn XIV” ed. Catherine E. Paul and Margaret Mills Harper, New York: Scribner, 2015. ISBN 978-0-684-80734-8. Note: This is a book-length study of various philosophical, historical, astrological, and poetic topics by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.