What is the theme and the tone of the poem "Sailing to Byzantium"?

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thanatassa's profile pic

thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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William Bulter Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" is one of the most beautiful and complex poems in his oeuvre. Its main theme is the triumph of art over death. The suggestion that "this is no country for old men" suggests that old age is, in ordinary life, a misfortune. The old, who in Yeats often figure as beyond the age of love and romance, cannot participate in the romantic lives of action of the young. Therefore, the poet sails to Byzantium, portrayed as a city where art and religion predominate, and aging sages and poets and musicians can make works of everlasting beauty, such as the mechanical nightingale. In contrast with the frail, impermanent, and decaying body is the soul because of its creative abilities and links to the eternal.

The tone is simultaneously elegiac (in its treatment of age) and triumphant (in its praise of art).

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teachersage | (Level 2) Educator

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In "Sailing to Byzantium," the aged speaker, "a tattered coat upon a stick," explores mortality. Like Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Yeats contrasts works of art that last through time to the natural world that ages and dies—and decides he would prefer to be a work of art, a golden bird that can "sing ... of what is past, or passing, or to come."

In the opening stanza, the speaker sees all around him what is "no country for old men." He observes youth, love and fecundity, "the young in one another's arms, the birds in the trees." He describes the living world, the world of "whatever is begotten, born and dies." Death is there, in the cycle of life, but this is a world of liveliness, of "the salmon falls, the mackeral crowded seas," an earth teeming with the rush of the living. 

The speaker is old, and says what keeps him going is for his soul "to clap and sing." So he sails for Byzantium, and there hopes his "dying animal" body can become part of the "artifice of eternity." He wishes not to be a "natural thing," but instead yearns to be a golden, mechanical bird "of hammered gold and gold enamelling," for the mechanical bird will not age and die.

The poem's tone is meditative as the speaker searches for answers, and it has a tone of longing, for he is "sick with desire."


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