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In "Sailing to Byzantium," how are themes of mortality and immortality developed?

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jelenat5 | Student | eNotes Newbie

Posted February 2, 2011 at 4:40 AM via web

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In "Sailing to Byzantium," how are themes of mortality and immortality developed?

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mshurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 2, 2011 at 10:26 AM (Answer #1)

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Here is the text of 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.

The poem has invited a great deal of literary analysis and interpretation. Clearly Yeats develops a contrast between mortality and immortality and between flesh and intellect. These are established in the first stanza. The young embrace "in one another's arms. Caught up in the "sensual music" of life, they give no thought to "[m]onuments of unageing intellect." They glory in their mortal existence, giving no thought to immortality. Yeats' reference to "monuments" can be inferred to mean works of art born from intellect. Through these, the artist becomes immortal; his intellect, the unique part of his being, will not age and therefore will not die. All that is "begotten, born" dies in "dying generations." Flesh is mortal; through art, however, immortality can be achieved.

The remainder of the poem expresses Yeats' thoughts and feelings about this contrast. Byzantium becomes symbolic; it is an immortal place of artistic and intellectual culture where creativity can flourish. By choosing to sail to "the holy city of Byzantium," he wishes to gain immortality through his poetry.

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