Sailing to Byzantium

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Sailing to Byzantium was first published by William Butler Yeats in a poetry collection titled The Tower in 1928. Four stanzas comprise the poem, each stanza made up of eight lines that in turn are made of ten syllables. It depicts a portion of an old man’s journey to the Eastern city. Through this journey, Yeats explores his thoughts and musings on how immortality, art, and the human spirit may converge. Through the use of various poetic techniques, Yeats' “Sailing to Byzantium” describes the metaphorical journey of a man pursuing his own vision of eternal life.


[edit] The 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.

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.

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.

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.

- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

[edit] First Stanza

As a literal paraphrase, the first stanza consists of the speaker describing his former country. The country is not appropriate for the old. Here, the youthful denizens embrace one another, perhaps in young love (I.2). The birds, termed “dying generations” (I.3) by the speaker, perch and sing in the trees. Lines four through six repeat a similar combination of the natural world and the natural cycle of life and death; rivers and streams teeming with fish, birds, and all life recognize and accept anything that is born and must die. With the closing couplet of the first stanza, the speaker summarizes why he mentions these observations about the natural world. This world of circulating life and death blinds the enraptured mortals from the immortal realm of the artistic and spiritual (DISCovering).

Most of the first stanza describes a romantic picture of the natural world. The simple images of the “young / in one another’s arms” (I.2), birds singing (I.2-3), and the lively seas (I.5) are filled with a bright vitality, yet a conflict frames this seemingly beautiful world. Before even mentioning the young, the speaker proclaims, “That is no country for old men” (I.1). Closing the frame, the speaker calls the world nothing but “sensuous music” that distracts people from the eternal things in life (I.7-8). Yeats uses the word “caught” in line seven to describe the trap-like nature of the natural world. Its luring quality must be avoided and resisted to focus on things the speaker believes to be of much greater consequence. These mysterious things are objectified as “monuments of unaging intellect” (I.8), conjuring images of majestic manmade objects that outlive their creators.

The speaker’s described country may also be Yeats’ Ireland. Britannica writes, “[The poem] is grounded in literal meaning as well, for in 1924 the ailing Yeats left Ireland, ‘no country for old men,’ to view Byzantine mosaics in Italy” (Britannica). Yeats’ mentioning of the salmon falls and the mackerel seas is also interesting because while both are images of fertility, the act of salmon swimming upstream may be interpreted as an act against nature, defying the natural flow of water (DISCovering). The salmon are a metaphor of the speaker who desires to resist the forces of the natural world; he explains his desire in the next stanza.

[edit] Second Stanza

The second stanza describes elderly humans as thin and frail (II.9-10). This undesirable state can only be eliminated through the efforts of the soul. The soul must sing louder than any fiber in its “mortal dress” (II.12). The song is not learned through any school but rather through studying the aforementioned monuments. With this reasoning, the speaker has arrived outside Byzantium.

Elaborating on the “old men” (I.1) mentioned in the first stanza, the “aged man” (II.1) is described as “paltry,” fading into insignificance. Yeats’ use of the phrase “tattered coat upon a stick” (II.10) alludes to the image of a scarecrow (DISCovering). This image provides another link to the first stanza. Where the first stanza grouped the singing birds with the love of youth, the pitiful scarecrow, also related to birds, represents aging. In order to leave the scarecrow’s body, the soul must clap its hands (similar to a bird’s flapping motion) and sing, an activity attributed to birds in the first stanza. Yeats also instills the auditory sensation of singing using strong consonance found from lines ten through thirteen. With words like “unless,” “soul,” “hands,” “sing,” “dress,” “singing school,” and “studying” (II.10-13), frequent use of “s” sounds form a whispering quality that represent the ascension song desired by the speaker.

The song is learned from another object previously mentioned in the first stanza, the monument of line eight now found again in line fourteen. Previously attributed to “unageing intellect” (I.8), this similar monument is attributed to “its own magnificence” (II.14). Yeats considers the relics of the intellect – the arts – magnificent and beyond time. How the speaker plans to become just as timeless as these monuments is addressed in the final stanza.

With this plan in mind, the speaker, identifying himself as the aged man, comes to Byzantium to learn how to sing and separate his soul from his scarecrow of a body. Concerning Byzantium, Britannica writes, “For Yeats, ancient Byzantium was the purest embodiment of transfiguration into the timelessness of art” (Britannica). While Byzantium has historically been known to be the art and cultural successor of Rome, the speaker also refers to this place as a “holy city” (II.16), attributing not only cultural significance but spiritual significance as well (DISCovering).

[edit] Third Stanza

Having arrived at Byzantium, the speaker in stanza three begins a prayer to the sages within the city. The speaker asks these wise men to step from their “holy fire” (III.19) and teach his soul to sing. He asks them to consume his worldly body, his soul bound to the earth and incapable of understanding its true potential. With these bindings removed, the speaker hopes to be cleverly assimilated by the continuum of eternity.

Twice attributed to the sages, the “holy fire” (III.17,19) links the third stanza with the “holy city” (II.16) of stanza two. This fire represents the power of the city to cleanse the speaker. The fire, coming from God (III.17), is as timeless as its source, and the metaphor continues with the speaker praying for this fire to consume his “heart away” (III.23). The fire also alludes again to bird imagery in the form of the Phoenix, a legendary creature whose body is engulfed in flames and is reborn within its own ashes; so too does the speaker wish to be reborn in like manner (DISCovery). Yeats also uses in this stanza the image of the spinning “gyre” (III.19) of fate to describe the cleansing fire (Britannica). Once processed by this gyre, the speaker will attain the eternal presence he seeks. Britannica writes, “The old man of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ imagined the city’s power as being able to ‘gather him into the artifice of eternity’ – representative of or embodying all knowledge, linked like a perfect machine at the center of time.” This “perfect machine” is the embodiment of the speaker’s heaven.

[edit] Fourth Stanza

Stanza four continues the speaker’s prayer. Once transformed by the gyre of fate, the speaker vows to never return to not only his body but “any natural thing” as well (IV.26). He instead would choose to be a gold mechanical bird, singing to the emperors, lords, and ladies of Byzantium of “what is past, or passing, or to come” (IV.32).

Once again, “the form as Grecian goldsmiths make” (IV.27) is bird imagery, alluding to the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus who had made for himself mechanical golden birds that sang upon the branches of a golden tree. Taken literally, the speaker’s goal is to become a mechanical bird capable of entertaining the ears of mortals with the song of time itself. This eternal form may seem more like a curse than a worthy life pursuit since the speaker’s soul now resembles something metallic and inhuman. However, this singing metal bird connects with the singing natural birds in the first stanza (DISCovery). The speaker’s desired form may be interpreted as a balanced synthesis of the natural world and the eternal world. The speaker could sing his soul without the constraints of time, singing of past, present, and future. The synthetic quality of his form may also represent the works of art left for future humanity. The art of the goldsmiths (IV.27), the mosaic (III.18), and the monuments (I.8, II.14) all have an eternal quality. Either by art or by spiritual ascension, the speaker would defy the death mandated by the natural world (Britannica).

[edit] Theme

The poem’s theme, Parker writes, is “the perfection of the human soul in a city of perfect and eternal art” yet he goes on to say “it soon becomes clear that the old man, who has but ‘come / To the holy city of Byzantium’ in the first two stanzas, merely implores in stanzas III and IV the powers of the city and imagines what will happen when his desperate prayer is answered” (Parker). “Sailing to Byzantium” deals with the nature of the human soul. As Karl Parker writes, the fate of the soul of the speaker is never confirmed. His soul may never reach into eternity. The hope in his fate lies in the monuments of art that inspired his journey. Others have succeeded before him; his task is not an impossible one. If he does succeed, then his promised song may inspire others to make the long journey as well.

[edit] Works Cited

  • Parker, Karl. “‘Gather Me Into The Artifice of Eternity’: Yeats and His Two Visions of Byzantium.” 30 April 2006. [1].
  • “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Britannica Guide to the Nobel Prizes. 1997. 30 April 2006. [2].
  • “Sailing to Byzantium.” DISCovering Authors 3.0. Gale Group. CD-ROM. 1999.

Sailing to Byzantium

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