Analysis of the Poem "Sailing to Byzantium" by W.B.Yeats

Updated on May 22, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.B.Yeats

W.B.Yeats
W.B.Yeats | Source

W.B.Yeats And A Summary and Theme of Sailing To Byzantium

Sailing To Byzantium is a poem that focuses on Yeats's later obsession with the search for ideal spirituality in art and life. It is related to a sister poem Byzantium.

Yeats himself said this about his Byzantium poems in a BBC interview in 1931:

I have been writing about the state of my soul...When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making jewelled croziers...Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation...so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.

Being a romantic, an occultist, a politician and a dramatist, he had worn many masks during his lifetime but it was through poetry that he sought to escape the death and decay of the natural world.

The metaphorical journey to Byzantium, his dream city, consolidated this aspiration. The speaker's wish is to be 'out of nature' and to become an eternal form, a crafted work of art. Yeats wrote:

I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang.

Yeats had many reference books in his library, including publications by O.M.Dalton, Byzantine Art and Archaeology and W.G.Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodore, (Constantinople in the Sixth Century being the first chapter, heavily annotated by Yeats).

In 1926, the year he wrote this poem, Yeats, a successful person and Nobel Prize winner at 61, still sought a creative solution to the problem of physical deterioration in old age.

  • So this poem has as its main theme that of transcendence - escaping the body and the mortal life and reaching a new spiritual state. Specifically, the speaker (Yeats) wants to become an artifice, in the form of a singing golden bird.
  • The poem is a mix of the personal and the allegorical.
  • The structure/form of the poem is an ottava rima, each stanza having eight lines with a rhyme scheme. We'll explore in more detail a little later.

Yeats had a long interest in the art and culture of Byzantium (originally a Greek colony that grew into the city of Constantinople, later Istanbul) being inspired to do research by friends and colleagues such as William Morris, the cultural commentator and designer.

Visits to such places as Ravenna (1907) and Rome (1925) in Italy gave him the opportunity to see some of the Byzantine art at first hand, in particular some of the early Christian mosaics with their refined golds and exquisite craftsmanship.

As Yeats grew older the idea of Byzantium as a spiritual and artistic ideal increased in importance. His aging body brought some frustration into his life, both physical and sexual, and these two poems allowed him a form of expression and escapism.

  • Sailing To Byzantium is Yeats's creative answer to the question of mortality - flesh and blood are but a cover for the eternal spirit and for Yeats, Byzantium was the place where the spirit could rest and secure a legacy in eternity.
  • The poem seems to be set initially between two worlds, that of inevitable death and immortality, mid-voyage so to speak. The speaker leaves the country he rejects and reaches the destination he longs for.

It was first published in October Blast from the Cuala Press in 1927, and appeared in the later book The Tower of 1928.

Sailing To Byzantium

I

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.


II

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.


III

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.


IV

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.

Analysis of Sailing To Byzantium Stanza By Stanza

Sailing to Byzantium focuses on the journey of the soul, allegorically expressed by Yeats placing the speaker on a sea-going vessel, about to reach Byzantium having left behind a country that is not for old men. This could be Ireland or life lived as a mortal, in the real world of flesh and blood.

Stanza 1

The first line is well known in the poetry world and is also the inspiration behind a novel and a film that borrows directly from it - No Country For Old Men.

Yeats's speaker is leaving because he feels too old; there are too many young people around doing what young people do - with their lack of inhibitions and sensuality.

Nature too cannot help but express itself in song and abundance: the cycles of life...conception, birth, growth, fertility, sickness, death.

There's so much going in that 'sensual music' what chance have the Monuments of unaging intellect - timeless and harmonious Art.

Stanza 2

Again, age is the initial focal point. The speaker emphasises the worthlessness of an old man - he is nothing but a tattered coat upon a stick scarecrow-like.

What needs to happen is for soul music to take precedence but there are no such singing schools. There is only study of materialism, of things that are subject to decay and death.

The speaker has journeyed away from all of that and is now approaching, or already in, Byzantium, this paradisical place.

So these two stanzas set out the reason for the journey - an escape from the cycles of mortality.

Stanza 3

Here is a direct plea to the divine, for the sages to perne in a gyre (perne or pirn is to weave a thread on or off a bobbin or spool so this is an action of spiralling)….the speaker is requesting the sages to spiral down through the gyre (a conical shape which is the cyclical symbolic view of history, from Yeats's occult viewpoint) and make his soul sing.

This is quite an image, a mix of Byzantine art (gold mosaic) and occult philosophy (gyre) - a burning away of the dying animal (flesh and blood, corruptible) in order that the eternal can be reached.

The speaker is clear - he's sick of the flesh and blood existence, he wants to be like a god and live forever. This idea isn't new of course but Yeats was able to express this basic human need afresh, poetically package it for the modern person.

And it is still relevant today. From those individuals who pay to have their dead body kept frozen in the hope that in years to come cryogenic technology will have advanced so far their bodies will be 'resurrected' into life, to the transhumanists who want to live forever as androids or robots - humans crave immortality of one kind or another.

Yeats wanted an eternal existence as a work of art; art and spirituality were for him intertwined.

Stanza 4

This final stanza reaffirms the desire. The speaker doesn't want anything to do with the natural world, he prefers the imagination (of a Grecian goldsmith) to conjure up a all-knowing, prophetic creature, a bird, which will sing for all time, a golden legacy indeed.

Literary/Poetic Devices In Sailing To Byzantium

Alliteration

When there are two or more words close together in a line beginning with the same consonant they are alliterative, bringing texture and interest for the reader:

Fish, flesh or fowl...begotten, born...singing school but studying...sages standing...Grecian goldsmiths...lords and ladies...past, or passing...

Assonance

When words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:

salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded...clap its hands...gold mosaic...

Caesura

When a line has punctuation roughly midway and the reader has to pause - for example:

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Enjambment

If a line runs on into the next with no punctuation and the sense is maintained, it is enjambed. The reader is encouraged to carry on as if there is no line break at all. In the third stanza there are three lines all enjambed:

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.

Metaphor

The whole poem is a metaphorical journey to the ideal city of Byzantium. Specific metaphors:

dying animal - the physical body.

tattered coat upon a stick - an old man.

country - reality, the real world.

Personification

Human traits or actions given to objects or things:

unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

What Is The Form/Structure of Sailing To Byzantium?

Sailing To Byzantium is an ottava rima poem, that is, the stanzas have eight lines and traditionally a rhyme scheme of:

abababcc

Some of the rhymes are full - song/long...thing/sing...whilst some are slant - sees/dies...dress/magnificence which brings both harmony and dissonance to certain parts of the poem.

The rhyming couplets are full rhyme: neglect/intellect....me/eternity bringing definite closure and solidifying expectation.

What Is The Metre (Meter in American English) of Sailing To Byzantium?

Sailing to Byzantium is supposed to have basic iambic pentameter lines, as is traditional in the ottava rima form.

However, many lines break this steady daDUM daDUM beat, where the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed.

Let's look closer at certain lines:

That is / no coun / try for /old men. / The young

In one / anoth / er's arms,/ birds in / the trees

The first line begins with a trochee foot (first syllable stressed, second unstressed) with emphasis on that first word. An iambic foot follows but then there is a pyrrhic (no stresses) and a spondee (double stress) which reinforces the old men. The final foot is iambic.

Enjambment carries this first line on into the second, which has three iambs before the caesura (pause, a comma), a trochee and then another iamb. So this second line has a more steady beat, broken only by the comma and trochee.

And there / fore I / have sailed / the seas /and come

To the ho / ly ci / ty of / Byzan / tium.

First is a pure iambic pentameter line, with that regular unstressed stressed pattern, a rarity, followed by a line that begins with an anapaest (dadaDUM) and ends with a quiet pyrrhic (no stresses) plus that extra beat of the eleventh syllable, which makes the line fade away.

It knows / not what / it is; / and gath / er me

Into / the art / ifice of / eter / nity.

Again a pure iambic pentameter line precedes an eleven syllable line that alters the steady plod of the iambic with an anapaest and a pyrrhic. This brings a pronounced rise and fall to the line.

Sources

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

www.poetryfoundation.org

www.jstor.org

www.poets.org

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

Comments

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      4 weeks ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      A pleasure. Sailing to Byzantium although nearly a century old still inspires.

    • The0NatureBoy profile image

      Elijah A Alexander Jr 

      4 weeks ago from Washington DC

      Andrew, thanks for your Bio of W.B.Yeats, it made it easy to comprehend the poem even without your analysis although I appreciate it also.

      Being that I enjoy interpreting metaphors, allegories, parables and symbol-types (MAPS) I immediately recognized the poem to be about going to the general social concept of heaven since I read it before going to the bio or your analysis of it.

      Thank you for sharing it, it was a delightful read.

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