Sailing to Byzantium

This poem was written by Yeats in 1926, marking a point in his maturity, it was part of a collection called Tower, when Yeats stayed at the home of Lady Gregory in Coole Park near Gort in Co. Galway. The title of the poem refers to the ancient city of Byzantium, capital of the Byzantine ruled by the Turkish Sultan, the city is now called Istanbul.

Stanza I: In the opening line of the poem Yeats states-: "That is no country for old men." A reference both to ancient Byzantium and post 1922 Free State Ireland. The mention of old men provides our first example of Yeats' preoccupation with old age. The stanza continues by painting a picture of teaming life, the sensuous world of youth, vitality, reproduction, decay and death. The opening statements are quickly checked by the phrase- “Those dying generations”, a recognition by Yeats of the transience of life. He suggests that despite their apparent happiness, each is condemned to death, their mortality is inescapable -: “Whatever is begotten born and dies.” This contrasts the sensual world with the world of art, best represented by the magnificence of Byzantium -: “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one.” In 1912 he had visited the city of Ravenna, in northern Italy and had seen there some examples of early Byzantium art. He recognised that many generations of people had witnessed the pictures, but that the pictures themselves had maintained their vitality and freshness, they it seemed were ageless, the figures portrayed in them also achieved a permanence that was not possible in reality. The predicament facing Yeats, is what he perceives to be a growing dicotony between his ageing body and his still youthful mind or intellect. He offers, in the opening stanza, the contrast between those who concentrate on the sensual world and those who are preoccupied with the permanent world of art.

Stanza II:, Yeats discusses an old man as something of little consequence -: “An aged man is but a paltry thing.” He uses the analogy with a scarecrow, to represent the lifelessness of someone old. It is as if the marrow has been sucked from the bones, the blood and flesh of the living have been removed, leaving behind a lifeless shell. This for Yeats is the inevitability of old age,unless- “Soul clap its hands and sing.” Unless one concentrates on the intellect of soul and by doing so seek to escape from the constraints of the human body. Consequently he has resolved to attempt such a journey, a metaphorical voyage-: “I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.” Which is for him the symbol of artistic magnificence and permanence.

Stanza III: He begins by referring to a particular painting he saw in a Ravenna church, the painting depicted martyrs being burned for their faith. Yeats interpretation suggests that these martyrs were sages and that the flames represent the Holy Spirit, in other words that the moment of their deaths, was equivalent to moving from the mortal life to the immortal life and achieving a permanence through both the life of the soul and the Byzantine painting. The phrase “perne in a gyre” refers to a spinning wheel such as those Yeats would have seen during his youth in Sligo. Yeats is referring to the movement of thread through bobbin and spool, a movement that is so fast that it is imperceptible to the naked eye. The point that Yeats is highlighting is that each individual strand of thread is submerged by speed into one continuous piece, similarly each successive human life is a mirror image of a previous one, but that taken together there is a continuation, a permanence. The figures in the Byzantine mosaic have been viewed by successive generations in that Ravenna church, but have not themselves succumbed to the ravishes of time. Yeats now calls on these figures, to be his guides on his voyage to Byzantium, to help him break free from his decreped body which he now sees as a “dying animal”. The poet wants to be subsumed into the world of Byzantine art, to be like the figures in the gold mosaic. Yeats sees gold as representing an untarnished brilliance and permanence that best reflects his opinion of art.

Stanza VI: In the final stanza he begins by declaring that in this world of art, he would not take on the form of any natural thing, which like the images of the opening stanza, would be susceptible to the ravages of time, decay and death. Instead he would take the form of a golden bird - an image based on golden birds that adorned trees in the palace of the Byzantine emperor. Yeats has finally broken with the sensual mortal world, he has rejected life as we know it, in favour of an intellectual permanence produced by a work of art. However he has not fully succeeded, the use of the word drowsy, rekindles the sensuous overtones of the poem, suggesting that the poet’s intellect is limited by his human condition, that in seeking a perfect existence his intellect is unable to avoid that which appeals to his senses. This becomes more obvious in the final lines of the poem, in line 30 is the voice of the golden bird that Yeats highlights again, contradicting his purpose in the poem. It is not the beauty of the hammered gold that Yeats now refers to, but the beauty of the birds voice which cannot come from a golden bird in a painting. The final line of the poem -: “Of what is past passing or to come.” reflects the line from the opening stanza-: “Whatever is begotten, born and dies.” In an effort to represent permanence and timelessness, and in achieving a resolution to his quest, the poet, paradoxically completes the poem by dividing time into past, present and future, suggesting that his intellect remains within the bounds of his human condition. Although the poem is ostensibly about Yeats' attempts to achieve an artist’s permanence, through -: “Monuments of unageing intellect.” represented by Byzantine art. Some critics suggest that Yeats is far more concerned with his loss of sexual potency, his references in the opening stanza to “the young in one another's arms etc.” are perhaps indicating a jealousy of the young and perhaps his concentration is as a direct result of his recognition of his physical failings. The image chosen by Yeats to represent the ideal artist states that the golden bird, was only introduced to the poem in the final drafts. Earlier drafts of the poem show Yeats wishing to take on the form of Phideas - a statue in Byzantium which represented the perfect like Adonis. This shows that at least during the writing of the poem, Yeats was wishing for physical perfection. This theme is also continued in “Among School Children”, where Yeats refers to “Golden-thighed Pythagoras”, and refers to the virility of Pythagoras. Yeats juxtaposes contrasting images of the sensuous world and the world of art, thereby creating a tension and conflict which he hopes to resolve by the end of the poem. In the opening stanza, the images of the sensuous world are depicted by the phrases in a staccato-like rhythm e.g.-: “The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born and dies.” In contrast the image which he associates with artistic permanence -: ”Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect.” is written in a flowing style, perhaps a sense of timelessness and permanence in contrast to the transience of the previous image. There is also a noticeable contrast in the syllabic used by Yeats in the words representing the sensual and the intellectual. It is noticeable that many of the words associated with mortal life are monosyllabic or at most are composed of two syllables e.g. (a) “fish, flesh, fowl.” And (b) “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” By contrast many of the words used to reflect the permanence of the intellect are polysyllabic e.g. (a) “Monuments of unageing intellect.” (b) “Of hammered gold and gold enamelling.” The poem sets out to display the superiority of the world of art, to show that permanence can be achieved through art as in Byzantium and that human life by contrast is transient. Yeats uses symbolism throughout the poem to represent this contrast.

Symbolism: The use of symbolism is very important throughout the poem. The title of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” contains 2 important symbols-: (a) Sailing which depicts a metaphorical journey and gives substance and a physical aspect to what Yeats is trying to achieve. (b) Byzantium symbolizes a world of artistic magnificence and permenance, conjuring up in the mind of the reader, a rich and inclusive culture such as that associated with the Byzantium empire. The images of birds, fish and young lovers used by Yeats in the first stanza symbolises transience and mortality. Yeats highlights this aspect of the world he lives in, so that the world which he seeks i.e. Byzantium, becomes more clearly focused. In the second stanza Yeats uses the symbol of a scarecrow to represent the decrepitute of old age. The scarecrow is a repulsive lifeless image symbolising everything that Yeats wants to reject in his mortal existence. The symbol of music and song runs through the poem providing a unified motif between the worlds of intellect and sensual worlds. In the opening stanza the song is that of the birds in the trees, a sensual though transient song. In the second stanza he projects an image of “a singing school” a suggestion that the joy experienced in this artistic paradise is more comporable than the joy of song. This idea is again repeated in stanza three. In the final stanza the song of the golden bird which entertains the lords and ladies of Byzantium represents the intellectual joy to be experienced by Yeats. The golden bird of the final stanza is a chosen image of the permenant form Yeats wishes to take, in essence it represents durability which one associates with the untarnishing quality of gold, by virtue of it’s physical permenance there is the understood contribution of its song, thereby providing what Yeats hopes will be the representation of the artistic existence he yearns for.

Home : W.B. Yeats (1865 - 1939) : Among School Children : No Second Troy : The Circus Animals' Desertion : The Fisherman : September 1913