Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

A second analysis: Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats was composed probably in 1927, and published in his collection of poems titled The Tower in 1928. The poet in this poem wishes to sail and go to an imaginary world (or country): Byzantium, where the artist, almost impersonal, manages to reflect this vision of a whole people. This world (or country) had a culture so integrated as to produce an art which could have the impact of 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” (line 3) of the world’s birds sing songs to the body, songs which distract all people from the contemplation of “monuments of un-ageing intellect” (line 8) which alone can justify an old man’s existence and which cannot be produced in modern chaotic times.”


Sailing to Byzantium Analysis

Stanza One

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.

That is no country for old men = old men will not find that country to be 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 lines, “The young ………… and dies” the poet has given the description of Ireland, the country of physical and sensual life. The young people in that country enjoy the pleasures of love, Birds, Fish and all other creatures lead animal, physical life spent in procreation. All kinds of creatures there are born, procreate and then die. Waterfalls are crowded with salmon fish; the seas are full of mackerel fish. 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.

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 an intellectual life is awaiting him.

The stanza says in the country the young people enjoy the pleasures of love. 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. The waterfalls of ‘That country is crowded with salmon fish. 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. 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. Obviously the reference is to things of beauty which are joy forever.

Stanza Two

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 second stanza says that the poet, as an old man, is sailing to Byzantium from Ireland. In the first stanza, he poet has described the country which he is sailing away from. 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. The aged man acquires some merit or value only if old age is accompanied by a spiritual recognition by admiring the great works of art.

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 own power and magnificence.

The soul of the old man must be strong to seek that which is neglected by youth. In order to do this the old 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.

In the line 9, 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 an old age as an old worn out coat hung upon a bamboo pole or stick. In line 10 to 11, 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 it mortal dress, he means that the more worn out is bodily dress, the louder the soul sings. Lines 13 to 14: Nor is there………….. own magnificence, he says that the best music for the sold of an old man is the study and appreciation of the grand monuments of immortal intellect.

Stanza Three

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.

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

In line 1 of the poem, 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 Revanra. The word ‘mosaic’ means the artistic pattern that is formed by placing together precious stones of various colors. By 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, which 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 own reality. By “Sick with desire,” he means that his heart is sick as it is full of dross of earthy desires.

Stanza Four

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.

In the first stanza of the poem, 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 re-born in the same or in any other earthly shape. He will reject all physical incarnations because all living beings are subject to mortality and death. 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 (of 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.” And then in the shape of singing golden bird 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.

Personal Comments

The poem, Sailing to Byzantium by W.B. Yeats, has been commented several times by several critics. Giving his remarks on Sailing to Byzantium, John Unterecker says, “The poem prepares the way for a whole group of comments on the passionate old man as 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 for he ‘believes that the vision of this poem as well as its repudiation of nature is more Shelleyan than Blakean.’

About William Butler Yeats

Born on June 13, 1865 at Sandymount near Dublin in Ireland, William Butler Yeats published a 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 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, Neo-Platonism and Rosicracianism.

To view the first analysis of this poem, please click ‘Previous’ or page 1 below.

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  • Avatar Aaron says:

    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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