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Sailing to Byzantium

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English Literature

'Sailing to Byzantium' is a poem by the poet William Butler Yeats. 'Sailing to Byzantium' is, at its core, a poem concerned with mortality and the frailty of the human body as we age. William Butler Yeats wrote this poem in 1928, when he was 62 and beginning to grapple with the realities of mortality.

'Sailing to Byzantium': Overview

Publishing'Sailing to Byzantium' was initially published in Yeats' collection The Tower in 1928.
Written ByWilliam Butler Yeats
Form / Style'Sailing to Byzantium' is a four-stanza poem, divided into four distinct parts, and takes the shape of the ottava rima.
MeterIambic pentameter
Rhyme Schemeabababcc
Poetic Devices

Alliteration, allusion, apostrophe, irony, metaphor, symbolism

Notable ImageryAn elderly man as a tattered coat on a stick, monuments, holy fire, mosaics of Byzantium, the body as a dying animal
Key ThemesImmortality, spirituality, adventure and liveliness, art
Meaning'Sailing to Byzantium' considerers the constraints of the human body as the speaker attempts to find fulfillment and immortality through a journey to the ancient city of Byzantium, an allusion to a powerful seat of Christianity. The poem comes to the conclusion that in order for true peace and immortality to be achieved, the soul of the speaker has to "dance and sing" or be joyful. In this way, old age is fought off.

An ottava rima is a poetic form, commonly used in epics, composed of stanzas of 8 lines that contain 10 or 11 syllables and rhyme in an abababcc pattern.

In 'Sailing to Byzantium' the ottava rima also creates irony. Because the ottava rima is commonly used in epics, the readers would be likely to expect a long tale of adventure, hubris, and youth. Instead, 'Sailing to Byzantium' is about a frail old man trying to maintain his legacy and youth through a spiritual journey. In this way, the plot of 'Sailing to Byzantium' is a shortened version of an epic, but this could demonstrate the shortened remainder of the speaker's lifespan. The irony of the ottava rima is subtle, but powerful, reminding us that the speaker aches to be young again, but is ageing as we all do.

'Sailing to Byzantium': Analysis

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 (5)
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 (10)
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 (15)
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. (20)
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 (25)
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 (30)
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The context of the poem

When poet William Butler Yeats wrote 'Sailing to Byzantium' he was 62 and had been married less than a decade to Georgie Hyde-Lees, a much younger woman. William Butler Yeats and Georgie Hyde-Lees were both deeply spiritual. Hyde-Lees was a youthful, intellectual and spiritual counterpart to an ageing Yeats who hadn't yet had children at age 52. Yeats married Hyde-Lees in part as a result of her youth (she was 25 when they were wed). Yeats as a poet is concerned with a kind of existential dread about ageing and continuing legacy in much of his work. Yeats' preoccupation with his age began nearly a decade earlier as his lifelong lover Maude Gonne, as well as her daughter, consistently rejected Yeats' proposals and he moved onward to Hyde-Lees, looking for a companion in his old age that would keep him feeling young and intellectually engaged.

'Sailing to Byzantium' calls back to Yeats' Protestant Ascendancy background and references some other spiritual beliefs such as the soul being separate from the body, and an afterlife. Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople and then later Istanbul) was a place that was a strong seat for Christianity and Christian belief systems early on in the religion.

'Sailing to Byzantium': Summary

We will try to summarize the entire point of the poem and the author's ideas

Ephemeral bird with trees 'Sailing to Byzantium' William Butler YeatsBirds flying away from tree. 'Sailing to Byzantium', William Butler Yeats. Pixabay.com

Stanza I

William Butler Yeats opens the first stanza of the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' with a world in which there is no place for the elderly. The speaker is one such elderly individual.

We see images of young people in one another's arms and birds in the trees, and see other animals (fish, flesh, or fowl) going through the summer blissfully and joyfully unaware of their mortality.

In the last three lines of the stanza, the speaker states that all things that are born die, and none of these young creatures take time to explore the things that keep the soul lively.

Stanza II

Stanza two begins with a description of an old man as "a tattered coat upon a stick", something akin to a scarecrow, unless the soul is a lively thing that claps and sings to keep itself young. The speaker goes on to state that despite the necessity for a singing soul, there is no one that can teach the soul how to do this except the speaker himself.

Every person's individual soul must be maintained through the person's own study, as opposed to a "singing school". Therefore, the speaker says, he has gone on a quest to the ancient city of Byzantium to study how to keep his soul singing.

Stanza III

Stanza three is critical for the speaker. The speaker has arrived in Byzantium and begins the stanza with an apostrophe, calling out to the sages or saints in the holy fire of God to teach his soul how to sing.

Even though he says in the second stanza that there is no "singing school" to teach his soul to sing, he begs the sages in the mosaics to burn his heart up, as it is weak and cannot accept its own mortality. He then asks to be gathered into the "artifice of eternity", referring to the eternal nature of art- as it lives on past the mortal "dying animal" that is the body.

An apostrophe in poetry is similar to other traditional uses of apostrophe in grammar; the device is still referring to something that is left out – perhaps a character, symbol, place, or object. It can signify a shift in the speaker's voice or attention away from the rest of the poem and towards something that is absent.

They are commonly identified by a direct address or the word O' (or Oh). A common example is the opening line and title of 'O Captain! My Captain!' written by Walt Whitman and popularized in the film Dead Poet Society.

In 'Sailing to Byzantium', stanza three begins with the line "O sages standing in God's holy fire". "O sages" is an apostrophe where the speaker turns towards external forces that are absent from the poem.

We never see the sages address the speaker, and their absence is significant as it further demonstrates the distance that the speaker is experiencing between his mortality and the immortal artifice he wants to experience.

Stanza IV

In this final stanza, the speaker muses about the decisions that he'll make in the afterlife. He says that once he has passed, he'll never again take the form of a "natural" thing. Rather, he wants to be as the golden art made by the Greeks – housed in a room entertaining an emperor or, perhaps, a bird made of gold sitting on a branch.

The speaker, in these lines, desires to immortalize himself so that he doesn't have to tolerate the ageing of his natural form. He wants to give wisdom to those trying to make their souls sing as the sages can, knowing all that has passed and what is yet to come.

Sailing to Byzantium: Themes

While 'Sailing to Byzantium' is a dense poem that interrogates many central themes of humanity and the nature of life, here are three to get you started on your poem analysis.

Mortality

'Sailing to Byzantium' is, at its core, a poem interested in the mortality of the human body. The speaker opens the poem by noting that elderly people are more attuned to the process of ageing and the concept of mortality than the young or the ignorant creatures of the world, such as fish or birds, and references the body as a "dying animal". The poem is, in part, an homage to the difficulties of ageing from a very personal speaker, who uses a first-person pronoun "I". There is a universality in this fear of ageing and old age. As the poem continues, there is an exploration not only of what it means to be mortal, but what it means to be immortal like the sages in the mosaics in Byzantium.

Byzantium is an ancient city, and symbolizes, in many ways, the desires of the speaker to become immortalized. The symbol of Byzantium is explored further later on. The preoccupation and obsession that the speaker has with his own mortality is plainly stated in lines 21-22 when the speaker says:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal"

The speaker implores the sages to take away his fear and preoccupation with death in their holy fire.

The speaker manages to continue his exploration of achieving immortality, despite his increasingly frail body, by trying to enrich his mind and soul. The lack of a "singing school" indicates a lack of spiritual fulfilment for the speaker, and no community or guidance for him to learn from. The "singing" of his soul is likely a metaphor for the confidence and spiritual fulfilment that is so commonly associated with youth.

The speaker says that he will not age as long as he keeps his soul singing, but there is no place for him to learn how to do so, as it is such a personal and individual process. He goes to visit the ancient sages to plead for wisdom and clarity, he also wishes for them to take away his fear and purify his heart to make it an immortal and long-lasting thing. Despite all this, he believes he can overcome his mortality if only he can maintain the music of his soul.

Spirituality

William Butler Yeats was a poet who was also deeply spiritual in many ways. He participated in automatic

Sailing to Byzantium, Mosaic of Christ in Byzantium, StudySmarterMosaic of Christ located in Istanbul, the modern location of Byzantium as in William Butler Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'. Pixabay.com

writing and spiritual exploration in communication with spirits with his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees.

Yeats is recorded as having stated in his book The Vision that he believed that in early Byzantium, "aesthetics and practical life were one". The Vision itself is a collection of automatic writing that he and Hyde-Lees composed under the influence of spirits. 'Sailing to Byzantium' is clearly interested in spirituality, religion, and afterlife.

Byzantium as the chosen location for the speaker's spiritual journey was a seat of power for the Christian religion, and the speaker's connection to making his soul "sing". As the soul is not something connected to the body in this poem, the distinction between the soul and the body is a spiritual leap. A majority of 'Sailing to Byzantium' takes place in the mind or soul, outside of the body, including the journey to the city and then pleading with the sages once in Byzantium.

Art

Art is another theme that plays a central role in 'Sailing to Byzantium'. Not only does the speaker spend the latter half of the poem speaking to sages represented in mosaics, the goal of the speaker is to make his soul sing, clap, and make music. The speaker aches to be a golden monument, mosaic, or piece of "artifice" decorating a lavish dwelling. He does not want to be stuck in his mortal body, but wants to be expansive as art is, and as long-lasting.

As art is something that preserves the past and extends into the future, it continues to "speak" to future generations, long after the artist has passed. The speaker wants to make a transition from his mortal body to artistic body to continue passing wisdom on to others, and maintain his own immortality in that way.

The poem itself is also very music-centric, with his iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme that is known to give poetry a lyrical or musical quality. This brings some lightness into an otherwise terrifying poem. Without the presence of the art in the poem, it would simply be a piece concentrated on existential dread, but with the added color, lightness, and philosophy that art brings to the poem, it uplifts the speaker a little bit and, by extension, the reader.

Symbols used in 'Sailing to Byzantium'

Yeats was a well-known symbolist poet and packed a lot into his work with a few short words. 'Sailing to Byzantium' certainly contains more symbols than the three listed here, but listed below are a few that are particularly crucial.

Byzantium

Byzantium itself is a symbol in the poem. There are quite a few cities that have existed over the course of human history that could have been used as a spiritual destination for the speaker, so why Byzantium?

The speaker desires to be as the sages are in the holy city of Byzantium but, more than that, Byzantium is used as a place of peace and higher contemplation. The speaker cannot find any human teachers to aid in breathing music into his soul, so he seeks out a traditionally Christian city, one full of long-lasting artistic works that depict all kinds of sages and wise people.

Yeats' poetry was known to reference Christianity as a peaceful force that provided salvation, and Byzantium holds that energy as well. The speaker goes to the city of Byzantium as a symbol of his own spiritual journey to inner-peace and sanctuary as he makes comes to terms with his mortality.

Golden art

The final stanza of 'Sailing to Byzantium' is very concerned with Grecian artifice, gold art in particular. In the

Justicia goddes greek sculpture 'Sailing to Byzantium' William Butler Yeats The goddess Justice rendered in a golden-hued statue as in 'Sailing to Byzantium'. Pixabay.com

poem, we see both nature and artifice, nature being ephemeral and short-lived and artifice being a man-made higher contemplation of the self.

Within the difference between the short-lived natural self (the human body) and the desire for an immortal, gold-smithed body, lies the central obsession of the poem: what happens after death, and how can we become okay with the process leading up to it?

The gold art in 'Sailing to Byzantium' symbolizes the 'unattainable' for the speaker, the deepest desire. He wants to have all the knowledge of the past, present, and future, immortalizing himself through becoming art, but also immortalizing himself through making art.

For a poet and artist such as Yeats, this can be a comforting thought – that we live on after death through pieces of poetry or art that we create while we're alive.

Holy fire

The holy fire in 'Sailing to Byzantium' symbolizes the cleansing and purifying nature in traditional Christian imagery. The speaker pleads with the sages in stanza three to cleanse his mortal body and heart through the use of holy fire and "gather [him] into the artifice of eternity" (lines 23-24).

This fire symbolizes the removal of the mortal unknowing and existential dread that comes with ageing, and, by extension, symbolizes the knowing and purifying certainty that would come with living eternally as the same immortal creature in the same immortal body.

'Sailing to Byzantium': Meaning

William Butler Yeats' poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' is an exploration into the psyche of an elderly speaker. In part, the poem is concerned with the difficulty that comes with mental and physical ageing. The poem is interested in a solution that comes with having a lively soul that is joyful and sings with certainty and knowing. In this way, the speaker claims, much of the frailty and fear can be avoided. As the speaker sets off on a spiritual journey to the ancient city of Byzantium, he begs for clarity and immortalization through artifice, and comes to the conclusion that once he sheds his mortal body, he will not come back as another natural or decaying body, rather he will know the past, present, and future, and be included in the artifice of immortality.

Sailing to Byzantium - Key takeaways

  • 'Sailing to Byzantium' is a poem by the poet William Butler Yeats, written in 1928.
  • 'Sailing to Byzantium' is, at its core, an exploration of the mortality of humanity. The speaker's voice is that of an elderly man who is seeking ways to keep his soul jovial and youthful.
  • There are a few key themes in 'Sailing to Byzantium', including, but not limited to, mortality, spirituality, and art.
  • Some symbols that 'Sailing to Byzantium' is known for include the ancient city of Byzantium, gold art, and holy fire.

William Butler Yeats, The Tower 'Sailing to Byzantium', 1928.

Sailing to Byzantium

'Sailing to Byzantium' is an exploration into mortality and what it means to be a human who ages and experiences death. 

William Butler Yeats

The speaker of 'Sailing to Byzantium' presents himself as an elderly man who is coming to terms with death and aging. 

The elderly are described as "a paltry thing / a tattered coat upon a stick" meaning, an old person is like a scarecrow unless they keep their souls spry and young through music and joy. 

The speaker wanted to be an immortal piece of art with knowledge of the past, present, and future in 'Sailing to Byzantium' as opposed to a human who ages and dies. 

Final Sailing to Byzantium Quiz

Question

Who wrote 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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Answer

William Butler Yeats

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Question

When was 'Sailing to Byzantium' written? 

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Answer

1928

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Question

What is 'Saling to Byzantium' about? 

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Answer

'Sailing to Byzantium' is an exploration into mortality and what it means to be a human who ages and experiences death.  

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Question

How does the speaker of 'Sailing to Byzantium' represent himself?


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Answer

The speaker of 'Sailing to Byzantium' presents himself as an elderly man who is coming to terms with death and aging. 


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Question

How does Yeats describe the elderly in 'Sailing to Byzantium'?


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Answer

The elderly are described as "a paltry thing / a tattered coat upon a stick" meaning, an old person is like a scarecrow unless they keep their souls spry and young through music and joy. 


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Question

What did the speaker want to be in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 


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Answer

The speaker wanted to be an immortal piece of art with knowledge of the past, present, and future in 'Sailing to Byzantium' as opposed to a human who ages and dies. 


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Question

What are some themes present in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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Answer

Immortality, spirituality, adventure and liveliness, art


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Question

What are some literary devices used in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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Answer

Alliteration, allusion, apostrophe, irony, metaphor, symbolism


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Question

Was Byzantium a real place? 

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Answer

Yes. Byzantium was renamed Constantinople after it was taken over, but was an ancient city with strong Christian ties. 

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Question

What piece of art does the speaker look at in Byzantium that causes him to cry out to the sages for wisdom?

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Answer

A mosaic. 

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