Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

Yeats’ poems are continually referenced in popular culture, including the poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. Its first line, “That is no country for old men…” was used for the title of Cormac McCarthy’s popular novel, “No Country for Old Men,” later adapted for the big screen.

W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ has been commented on several times by several critics. Giving his remarks on this poem, John Unterecker says, “The poem prepares the way for a whole group of comments on the passionate old man as a symbol for the tyranny of time.” About the possible literary sources of this poem, the other critic says, “The poem itself embodies Blake’s proposition that eternity is in love with the productions of time.” But Harold Bloom does not agree with him. As he “believes that the vision of this poem as well as its repudiation of nature is more Shelleyan than Blakean.”

Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

 

Summary

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ by W.B. Yeats tells the story of a man who is traveling to a new country, Byzantium, a spiritual resort to him.

Byzantium was an ancient Greek colony later named Constantinople, which is situated where Istanbul, Turkey, now stands. While the speaker does take an actual journey to Byzantium, the reader can interpret this journey as a metaphorical one, perhaps representing the journey of the artist. In the poem, the speaker feels the country in which he resides is no place for the old—it is only welcoming to the young and promising. The speaker thus decides to travel to Byzantium, and later, to eternity, where age is not an issue, and he will be able to transcend his physical life.

Discover more William Butler Yeats poems.

 

Meaning

The speaker in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ wishes to sail and go to an imaginary world (or country), Byzantium. There the artist, almost impersonal, manages to reflect this vision of a whole people. This country had a culture so integrated as to produce art that could have the impact of a single image. The world that the poet wants to leave to sail to Byzantium is transfixed by the “sensual music” of its singing birds which is represented by decaying multitudinous bodies – fish, flesh, foul. These “dying generations” of the world’s birds sing songs to the body, songs which distract all people from the contemplation of “monuments of unageing intellect.” Those alone can justify an old man’s existence and cannot be produced in modern chaotic times.

 

Structure

The poem is broken into four stanzas, each containing eight lines. There is a set rhyme scheme throughout the poem of abababcc. Yeats wrote the poem in iambic pentameter, and there is a rhyming couplet at the end of each stanza. Such a rhyming scheme of stanzas is known as the ottava rima. As the poem is in iambic pentameter, it means that there are a total of five iambs in a line. The stress falls on the second syllable in each foot. Hence, giving the rhythm of the poem an uplifting notch. Besides, the poet’s journey to Byzantium is also an elevating step towards eternity. The sing-song-like structure makes the mood of the poem optimistic, though the poet touches on the negatives of worldly life.

 

Literary Devices

This poem contains several literary devices. The title of the poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a reference to the metaphorical journey of an old man toward the center of classicism. Besides, “Byzantium” is a metonym for the art of ancient Byzantium. Apart from that, the poem begins with a litote. There is an alliteration in the phrase, “Fish, flesh, or fowl.” Thereafter, the last two lines of the first stanza contain irony. The second stanza begins with an epigram. The poet also uses onomatopoeia in this stanza. Thereafter, one can find the use of an apostrophe at the beginning of the third stanza. Here, the poet uses some metaphors such as the “singing-masters of my soul” and “artifice of eternity.” The last stanza contains an allusion to the classical art of Byzantium.

 

Themes

Yeats presents several themes in this poem. First of all ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ presents the theme of spirituality. Here, the poet refers to a different kind of spirituality that does not center on the concept of asceticism. The speaker is more concerned with the study of artworks that elevates the intellectual capacity of the soul. Thereafter, one can find themes of old age vs youth, culture, art, and eternity. This poem deals with the contrast between old age and youth. Youth, according to the poet, is a time of enjoyment of worldly pleasures. While old age is all about how one utilizes one’s wisdom for the betterment of the soul. Moreover, the poet talks about the dying culture of his time. Lastly, Yeats also talks about the role of classical art and its magnificence that can last for eternity.

 

Analysis of Sailing to Byzantium

Stanza One

Lines 1–2

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,

In the first stanza, the poet says that he is sailing to Byzantium from Ireland because the country is not suitable for old people to live there. Old men are shut out from that kind of life that is available here because life there is all physical and sensual. From this life, he is sailing to the city of Byzantium where intellectual life is awaiting him.

The poem begins with a declarative sentence in the first line, “That is no country for old men.” Straightaway, the reader senses the importance of Yeats’s diction, for instead of using “this” to mean the country the speaker is currently in, the speaker instead says “that,” which gives the reader the sense that the speaker is looking at his former country from a distance. Perhaps he has already started his journey to Byzantium as the poem opens.

That is no country for old men. They will not find that country suitable for them to live in. “That Country” means Ireland where the old poet is living at present, from where he sails to Byzantium. The country he has left for sailing to Byzantium is described in the remaining lines of the first stanza. In the lines, “The young… and dies” the poet has described Ireland, the country of physical and sensual life.

The rest of the stanza is the speaker’s explanation as to why his former country is not a welcoming place for those who are older. In the second line, Yeats writes, “The young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees.” The speaker’s former home sounds idyllic. As the young lovers are wrapped in each other’s arms, and the birds are singing in the trees. It means in the country, young people enjoy the pleasures of love.

 

Lines 3–4

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Here, the speaker seems to be commenting on the creatures who inhabit his former land. Instead of concentrating on the things that will last forever, they instead only enjoy what is right in front of them at any given moment.

The natural imagery of the previous lines continues as the speaker details all of the beautiful creatures that are in his former home. Here, the speaker bitterly tells that all of these creatures will one day grow old, as well. Birds, fish, and all other creatures lead an animal, physical life which is spent in procreation. All kinds of creatures are born, they indulge in sex, and they procreate and in due course die. They do not lead intellectual and artistic existence. Therefore, all the creatures of that Country lead animalistic, physical life spent in procreation. All kinds of creatures there are born, procreate and then die.

 

Lines 5–8

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.

The waterfalls of “That country” are crowded with salmon fish. Besides, the seas there are teeming with mackerel fish. All these creatures (birds and fish) listen to sensual music and do not indulge in intellectual or artistic activity.

In lines 7 to 8, the poet says these creatures listen to sensual music without caring for intellectual activity, which (intellectual activity) is ageless and so of a permanent value. Great works of art never die. Sensual music is that which appeals to the senses as distinguished from the mind or the intellect. The intellectual achievements are supposed to be ageless and immortal and so of permanent value. The reference is to things of beauty which are a joy forever, an allusion to ‘Endymion’ by John Keats.

 

Stanza Two

Lines 1–2

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

The second stanza is more of the same. Readers cannot dismiss the bitter tone that is present in this stanza; Yeats’s diction is particularly telling, comparing an old man to an insignificant, small thing. He infers that there is nothing left to an old man: he is simply a stick wearing a worn and torn jacket. Yeats seems to be commenting here, however, that just because one is old, it does not mean he has an old soul, for the soul of the old man is clapping and singing loudly.

Apart from that, the second stanza can be interpreted differently. Here, the poet, as an old man, is sailing to Byzantium from Ireland. In the first stanza, he has described the country from which he is sailing away. While, in the second stanza, the poet portrays the benefits of the country of his arrival for an old man like him.

The poet begins by saying that an aged man is worthless. With a tattered coat upon his weak and thin body, the old man looks like a scare-crow. In the first line of this stanza, when the poet says, “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” he means that an aged (old) person is paltry (an insignificant thing), while in line 10 of the poem, when he says, “A tattered coat upon a stick,” he makes use of a metaphor, which presents old age as an old worn-out coat hung up on a bamboo pole or stick.

 

Lines 3–4

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

In lines 3 to 4, when he says, “Unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing,” he means to say that unless the soul feels thrilled, claps its hands and sings a happy song, that is, a state of spiritual exaltation. By “and louder sing/ For every tatter in its mortal dress,” he means that the more worn out his bodily dress, the louder the soul sings.

Here, the speaker informs the reader that the more tattered in dress one is, the louder he should sing because certainly, the aged have earned their song. Besides, a man merely old is worse off than youth; something positive must be added. If the soul can wax and grow strong as the body wanes with advancing years, then every step in the dissolution of the body (“every tatter in its mortal dress”) is cause for a further increase in joy. But this can happen only if the soul can rejoice in its power and magnificence.

 

Lines 5–8

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.

In this section, he says that the best music for the soul of an old man is the study and appreciation of the grand monuments of immortal intellect. An aged man acquires some merit or value only if old age is accompanied by a spiritual recognition by admiring the great works of art.

The soul of the old man must be strong to seek that which is neglected by youth. To do so, the older man must sail to Byzantium, which the poet describes as the holy city of Byzantium. Byzantium is the symbol of the ideal, aesthetic, and transformed existence, and suggests a far-off, unfamiliar civilization where art is for its own sake and whose religion is in an exotic form.

Moreover, the couplet in the second stanza clearly announces that the speaker has left his home to visit the “holy city of Byzantium.” Throughout its history, Byzantium, later Constantinople and then Istanbul, has been known as a center for the arts and intellectualism. The speaker feels he will be much more appreciated in such an area.

 

Stanza Three

Lines 1–2

O sages standing in God’s holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

The third stanza represents a shift to the most ethereal and metaphysical. Once the speaker arrives in Byzantium, he addresses the sages or wise people, he finds there. In the first two lines of the third stanza, the poet now appeals to the sages who stand in “God’s holy fire” and who have thus been purged of the last remnants of sensuality. These sages look like the figures represented in “the gold mosaic of a wall.”

In line 1 of this stanza, when the poet says “O sages”, he addresses the saints. By “standing in God’s holy fire,” the poet refers to the figures of sages (saints) standing in the holy fire of God to purge themselves by this performance of penance. In line 2, by “As in the gold mosaic of a wall,” the poet means the figures that were represented in the gold mosaic in Apollinare in Ravenna, Italy. The word ‘mosaic’ means the artistic pattern that is formed by placing together precious stones of various colors.

 

Lines 3–4

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

In line 3, coming out of the holy fire shown in the mosaic is the “pern in a gyre”, which means a column of smoke in a circular motion. The poet wants them to come out of the “holy fire” and to descend upon him with a hawk-like movement. He wants them to become the “singing masters of his soul,” and to purify his heart. In other words, to teach him to listen to his spiritual music as distinguished from the sensual music (which the poet has mentioned earlier in stanza one).

The speaker seems to almost be conjuring these people to him in an attempt to become the “singing-masters” of his soul. Yeats’s use of assonance with the long “I” sounds in “fire” and “gyre” lend an almost sing-song, mystical quality to the speaker’s conjuring. One can almost picture the speaker calling forth the spirits in Byzantium, pleading with them to inspire and awaken his soul.

 

Lines 5–8

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.

The last half of the third stanza continues this thought. By “And fastened to a dying animal,” he means that his heart is tied to a dying body and does not know or comprehend its reality. By “sick with desire,” he means that his heart is sick as it is full of the dross of earthly desires. The speaker admits here that he feels lost and “sick with desire.” The ostracizing he experienced in his former home has sickened his heart, and he is begging the wise sages to cleanse him. He begs for immortality, longing to live and be appreciated forever.

Moreover, the poet has yet not been able to get rid of his sensual desires which still cling to him. He, an aged man on the verge of death, is unable to understand his reality. Only those sages can purge his heart of all impurity, and give him the permanence that great objects of art possess.

 

Stanza Four

Lines 1–4

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

In stanza four, the speaker makes his pronouncement: he wants to forego his body and live forever, immortalized the way the Greeks would have intended: through their art. Here, the poet presents his dislike for the physical and sensual life in Ireland; in the second stanza, he talks about what of spiritual life the poet would lead in the golden city of Byzantium, and the third stanza is addressed to the sages of Byzantium to make his soul purged of all remaining sensuality. But in this last stanza of the poem, the poet says what kind of form he would like to be born in his re-birth.

Once he has renounced his early body, he would not like to be reborn in the same or any other earthly shape. He will reject all physical incarnations because all living beings are subject to mortality and death. Therefore, the speaker announces that he would like to take his form in Grecian urns or enameling, handcrafted by goldsmiths, so that an emperor could spend his nights admiring him in the artwork. The past, present, and future, will all be one because the speaker will live for eternity.

 

Lines 5–8

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.

He would like to be in the shape of a golden bird, the kind of bird which Grecian goldsmiths are believed to have designed for the pleasure of an emperor. As a golden bird, a work of art, he would be beyond decay or death and would therefore be unlike the “dying generations” of real birds mentioned in the first stanza.

As a golden bird, he will be placed on a golden bough and will appear to be singing songs of all times, the past, the present, and the future, to an audience of the lords and ladies of Byzantium. In the shape of a singing golden bird, his song will be that of spiritual ecstasy which will be shown by the soul “clapping its hands and singing.” Moreover, he will be surrounded, not by young lovers and other animal creatures of the sexual cycle but by an audience that would be elegant and abstract. In Byzantium, he will have no age, past, present, or future.

 

Historical Context

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ by W.B. Yeats was composed probably in 1927, and published in Yeats’ collection of poems titled “The Tower” in 1928. This poem fits in nicely with the literary movement in which it was written, Modernism. Modernists often rebelled against tradition and celebrated self-discovery, which this poem does. It is also interesting to consider when Yeats wrote this poem. He wrote it fewer than ten years before his death, which means he was an old man. This is important since the speaker in this poem feels he is not appreciated in his homeland due to his advanced age. Perhaps Yeats was feeling alienated from his society for the same reasons.

 

About W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats, a proud Irishman, is known for such works as ‘When You Are Old’ and ‘The Second Coming’. Yeats was strongly influenced by his native country, and much of his poetry is a reflection of that influence. Born on June 13, 1865, at Sandymount near Dublin in Ireland, Yeats published prose called “A Vision” wherein he sought to furnish a comprehensive philosophy of history. He perceived history as recurring cycles of similar epochs, each of five hundred years duration. While he had a keen interest in poetry, he too wrote a few plays, which had fanatic and incoherent plots. However, the play-writing could not interest him for long, therefore, later in his life, he started exploring theosophy, Platonism, Neoplatonism, and Rosicrucianism. Yeats died in 1939, but his legacy lives on even today.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of poems that are similar to the themes present in W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.

You can also read the best poems of W.B. Yeats and the best classic poems.

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Jamie Jenson
About
Jamie joined the Poem Analysis team back in November, 2010. He has a passion for poetry and enjoys analysing and providing interpretations for poetry from the past and present.
  • As a person living in Istanbul back then Byzantium, this poem has always enthralled me but now i like it the better thanks to the secret meanings revealed by this forum. Great job!

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I’m really glad you have got a lot from it!

  • This is a rather superficial reading of the poem. It misses the Catholic and mystical aspects of the poem. Byzantium was the center of the Christian world until the Moslems conquered it and transformed it irrevocably forever. They turned its churches into Mosques.

    To not mention this important aspect of the poem is to meet its deeper resonances and meaning.

    • Emma Baldwin Emma Baldwin says:

      Hi Aaron, thank you for your comment. You’re quite right that the historical background provides a whole other dimension to ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ This is especially clear when Yeats’ speaker discusses the comings and goings of things. The whole poem reads a eulogy for a time that is on its way to irrevocable change.

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