Sailing to Byzantium (1927) by William Butler Yeats

The poem “Sailing to Byzantium” was written by William Butler Yeats in 1926, and it was part of a collection called Tower. The title of the poem refers to the ancient city of Byzantium in Turkey that is presently known as Istanbul. It is the first of two poems known together as the Byzantium series. The poem has four eight-line stanzas that are metered in iambic pentameter (Brittanica, Para 2). The poem is prismatic in nature and viewed in the right angle reveals a spectrum of meanings and emotions.  It is through the use of many literary devices that the poet is able to convey these multiple meanings. Yeats, drawing from his personal life experiences, effectively dwells on the themes of escape from the world’s troubles and a search for immortality. Through his meticulous choice of words Yeats brings out the frustration and intense need for escape and immortality that many people feel in their moments of desperation (Ensminger para 1).

The poem opens with the line: “That is no country for old men.” Thus the poet expresses his deep concern for ‘old age’ while in a subtle manner; he also implies that it is a country that is meant for the young and lively things. These youthful things and abundance of life are well brought out by the poet by references to the ‘the young in one anothers arms’ ‘birds in the trees” ‘the salmon-falls’ and ‘the mackerel crowded seas’ (Yeats 2-4). This is followed by the line “Whatever is begotten born and dies.” This shows the frustration of the poet at the inevitability of mortality. Yeats rues the fact that the society tends to focus only on the sensual things of the present world and ignores more substantial things such as wisdom and intellect: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect/Monuments of unageing intellect” (Yeats 7-8).

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The second stanza begins with the description of an old man as “a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats 9-10). These lines seem to reflect the poet’s own physical inability and old age. The poet says that the only thing that can give life to such an old man is the ability to sing through his poetry. The poet holds that poetry is the magic potion that can He believes that his poetry can help him to overcome the transience of time and old age. “For every tatter in its mortal dress” (Yeats 12)refers to the human body that is suffering from many physical inabilities. The poet reflects that there is no ‘singing school’ implying that poetry cannot be taught. It needs to be studied and that is why the poet travels across the seas and decides to arrive at the “holy city of Byzantium”: the holy city is a sort of paradise that the poet holds in his mind (Kennedy and Gioia 866-67). Here, the writer uses symbolism. His reference to sailing to Byzantium seems to be metaphorical voyage to a land where art and intellect are valued as things of magnificence and permanence.

The third stanza expresses the intense plea of the poet to the divine sages of Byzantium to save him from death. He calls out to them “O sages standing in God’s holy fire” (Yeats 17). He wants them to come from the holy fire and allow him the gift of creating poetry. This is what the poet expresses through the lines: “Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre/And be the singing-masters of my soul” (Yeats 19-20). He wants poetry to rule his heart which has no identity of its own: “It knows not what it is;” (Yeats 23) At this point, the poet once again refers to his aging body and his desires trapped in the aging body through the lines “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal. Through the gift of poetry, the poet firmly believes, the sages can save him from mortality and enter the “artifice of eternity” (Thorndike 1852).

In the final stanza, the poet says that once he has escaped mortality, he will not desire to take any natural form as all natural forms are bound to die one day or other. Instead he desires to be a beautiful gold bird. This gold bird would be one like those made by “Grecian goldsmiths/ Of hammered gold and gold enamelling” (Yeats 25-26). He might in the form of this beautiful golden bird would then enjoy the power “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;” He might also be “set upon a golden bough to sing/To lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (Yeats 31-32). In this final stanza the poet refers to the fact that true immortality can be acquired only through an intellectual permanence of poetry. The poet feels through his poetry “the golden bird”, he will be able to “sing” to many people about “the past, the present and the future”. This reference to the past, the present and the future indicates the permanence and timelessness the poet believes can come through poetry.

The poet uses symbolism widely in this poem. He refers to a bird in each stanza and the meaning of the bird as one that represents immortality and freedom from physical inabilities is found in the last stanza. The bird is not a natural bird but rather a golden bird and one that is artistically made. This means that the bird is not mortal and cannot die. The fact that it is artistic shows that only through poems – considered works of art in literature- the poet can achieve that immortality. The metaphor of singing that the poet uses throughout the poem refers to the ‘music’ in poetry.  In the opening stanza the song is that of the birds in the trees, in the second and third stanzas, it is about a ‘singing school’ and finally the poet refers to the song of the golden bird. According to him, only by reading poems he can learn to step into that world of immortality (Thorndike 1853).

It has been found that Yeats has used personal experiences to color his poem in a brilliant manner. He was exposed to Byzantine art twenty years prior to writing “Sailing to Byzantium”. He has described Byzantine mosaics for imagery in the third stanza.  When Yeats was nearly sixty years old, he saw Mediterranean mosaic works that compared the permanence of art with the transience of nature. The impact can be felt in the lines: “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing, / But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make” (25-27). Yeats, during that period was suffering physically and was old. His depressed feelings at home made him desire travel.  It is probably this desire that is expressed through the metaphoric voyage in the poem. (Allen 3728). In the third stanza, the poet refers to a particular painting he saw in a Ravenna church, which shows martyrs being burned for their faith. The phrase “perne in a gyre” (Yeats 19) refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo.

Yeats refers to the words associated with mortal life in monosyllables such as “fish, flesh, fowl” and “aged man”. But he uses polysyllables to express the permanence of intellect such as “Monuments of unageing intellect” And “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling.” This technique allows an undercurrent of the superiority of art over human life to flow through the poem.

The poem can be taken as a metaphor for the poet’s journey to an ideal afterlife, or as a commentary on the permanence of artistic achievement or both. However, one finds through the use of metaphors, and symbolic language, the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is kaleidoscopic and offers multiple ways of interpretation. Moreover, it has become a poem that can be included in comparisons with other poems in the realm of travel, age, nature, birds as symbols and afterlife.  It is mostly due to its multiple interpretive capabilities that this poem has reached the permanence and timelessness the poet sought during his lifetime.