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Give me the general meaning of "Sailing to Byzantium" by the poet W.B. Yeats.

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starjahlan | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 26, 2009 at 6:12 PM via web

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Give me the general meaning of "Sailing to Byzantium" by the poet W.B. Yeats.

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kc4u | College Teacher | Valedictorian

Posted October 26, 2009 at 1:22 AM (Answer #1)

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Much like Keats's Nightingale Ode, W.B. Yeats's poem "Sailing to Byzantium" is also a transcendental journey poem. Yeats's own mystical orientation that always creates in him a double-bind involving Irishness and Greek antiquity is operative here, once again. The journey from Ireland to Byzantium is a journey of perfection, from sensualist pleasure of unthinking youth to the sublime meditation of intellectual maturity. There is almost a cynical tone of renunciation of the 'bodily form' of a mere pleasure-principle in the first stanza. The youthfully arrogant Ireland disowns the paltry old man, reducing him to nothing but a collection of fragile bones, tending towards mortality.

On the other hand, Byzantium signifies for Yeats a holy Paradisal place, a transcendence from the Fallen state as it were, a land of beauty and joy, culled through rigourous study and the flight of reason coupled with imagination. It is like womb of human culture, art and architecture, a land of the mystical, the "Promised Land" where the gyres of history start to move again as opposed to a temporal stand-still as in the Irish world. On the verge of death, the old poet finds in Byzantium , the signifying epiphany of life as well as a spiritual liberation. But as in Keats's poem, there is a tinge of irony in the realization that the golden bough will only have a divine song-bird, which is made up of gold and it is only an "artifice of eternity." The ironic Keatsean choice is between natural and dynamic mortality and artificial and stagnant immortality.

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suzhannah | College Teacher | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 26, 2009 at 9:58 PM (Answer #2)

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"Sailing to Byzantium" is akin to many other travel poems, it uses symbols of course: i.e you could compare Keats and his poem "Ode to a Nightingale" to ask is this the opposite of Yeats? Both poems use birds as symbols. The journey of course was never taken by Yeats, Byzantium would be what we know as Constantinople today or Istanbul as it has been renamed. What Yeats is trying to argue is that Byzantium in the centuries past would have been a perfect environment for the budding artist. You have to identify the admiration he holds for the old wise men and masters of art etc. This poem comes from a collection called The Tower written in 1926. It is really the onset and creeping of old age that he feels can be renewed only in the lively, artistic city of Byzantium. Yeats sees this as a kind of past present and future existence but not in the time reality that we understand. The journey itself is imagined but one but one could argue that Yeats portrays it as an actual journey to enrich the soul of an old man. This is the only book at the moment that I would recommend: The most superb explanation and body of work that sets out to uncover and discuss Greek themes in the work of Yeats can be understood by reading Professor Brian Arkins book Builders of my Soul (1991).

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marygronan | College Teacher | Honors

Posted May 3, 2009 at 8:41 AM (Answer #3)

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WB Yeats spent a lot of his life searching for meaning in life.  This is reflected in many of his poems especially "Sailing to Byzantium."  In this poem the poet is saying that in order to be happy in old age we should abandon the pleasures of the world and turn to the spiritual and eternal instead.  This is achieved through a metaphorical journey the poet takes us on to the city of Byzantium.  Byzantium was in the 5th and 6th centuries the artistic and cultural centre of art and architecture in Europe.  In this poem it calls up enduring images of extreme beauty such aas golden mosaics and carved birds that pleasure an Emperor.  It is also symbolic of a heavenly place.  In the poem we are asked to abandon the pleasures of the world for eternal things.  We are told that an old man is but a scarecrow unless his soul takes over.  When that happens he is at the shores of Byzantium.  The poet prays that after he has been cleansed by the 'holy fire' (line 16) that he will be gathered into "the artifices of eternity" (line 24).   When this happens to him he will be just as timeless as the golden monuments of Byzantium.

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