Sailing to Byzantium Essay - Critical Essays

Sailing to Byzantium, William Butler Yeats

Introduction

“Sailing to Byzantium” William Butler Yeats

The following entry presents criticism of Yeats's poem “Sailing to Byzantium” through 1998. See also, William Butler Yeats Criticism.

“Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928 as part of Yeats's collection, The Tower, contains only four stanzas and yet is considered to be one of the most effective expressions of Yeats's arcane poetic “system,” exploring tensions between art and ordinary life and demonstrating how, through an imaginative alchemy, the raw materials of life can be transformed into something enduring. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the artist/speaker transforms himself into a work of art, and, in so doing, obscures the distinction between form and content and the artist and his work. “Sailing to Byzantium” is widely admired for its inventive, evocative imagery and masterfully interwoven phrases. Literary critic Frank Kermode calls the poem “a marvelously contrived emblem of what Yeats took the work of art to be.”

Biographical Information

A leading figure of the Irish Literary Revival, William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865 to Anglo-Irish parents. His father was a lawyer and a well-known painter. As a young man, Yeats was drawn to mysticism as well as the cause for Irish independence. Yeats was further politicized in 1889, when he met and fell in love with the beautiful Irish nationalist and actress, Maud Gonne, who had leading roles in his plays and to whom he addressed much of his early love poetry. Together with Lady Gregory, Yeats founded the Irish Theatre, later called the Abbey Theatre. Yeats's plays, which reflect his interest in Irish legends as well as his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism, include The Countess Cathleen (1892), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and Deirdre (1907). In 1917, at the age of fifty-two, Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees, with whom he shared an interest in spiritualism. They had two children, Anne and Michael. In 1922 Yeats was appointed to the Senate of the newly formed Irish Free State, where he served until 1928. He was awarded the Novel Prize in Literature in 1923, mostly on the merit of his plays. However, it is Yeats's later poetry, especially The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928) (in which “Sailing to Byzantium” appears), and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), that made him one of the most influential and important twentieth-century poets writing in English. He died in France in 1939.

Plot and Main Characters

“Sailing to Byzantium,” a lyric poem, has neither conventional characters nor plot. The poem consists of four open-form stanzas and features a speaker who may be thought of, as Richard Ellmann suggests, as “a symbol of Yeats and of the artist and of man.” The action of the poem concerns the problem of immersing oneself in life and at the same time striving for permanence. The opening stanza describes a state of youth, a sensuous, sometimes violent, life with emphasis on productivity and regeneration (“That is no country for old men”), and then contrasts this sensuality with the intellectual and the transitory with the permanent: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.”

Acknowledging both his mortality and desire for transcendence, the speaker prepares his soul for the body's death by “studying / Monuments of its own magnificence” and “sail[s] the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” In Byzantium, the speaker hopes to fuse the “sensual music” with the “monuments,” that is, the passing pleasures with transcendent art. In 1931, Yeats wrote that he chose to “symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city” because “Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.” In Byzantium, the speaker encounters a world of timeless art and spirituality, represented by sages and “God's holy fire” with flames and smoke twisting like a “perne in a gyre,” an allusion to Yeats's cyclical theory of history and transcendence. The speaker wishes to lose his heart, “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” and have his soul gathered “into the artifice of eternity” so that “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.” In the last stanza, the speaker imagines himself transformed into a work of art that transcends the passing of time, a Byzantine work of art, a golden bird that is animate in that it sings to the Emperor, but inanimate as a work of art that will survive generations.

Major Themes

The source of several major themes in “Sailing to Byzantium” can be found in Yeats's 1925 work, A Vision (1925), in which he develops his cyclical theory of life, based in part on Yeats's understanding of the Hegelian dialectic and his reading of Blake's prophetic poetry. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats used the concept of the spiraling gyre to suggest that opposite concepts—such as youth and age, body and soul, nature and art, transient and eternal—are in fact mutually dependent upon each other. Yoked together by the gyre and the poem itself, the mutually interpenetrating opposites—thesis and antithesis—resolve in such a way as to produce a synthesis that contains a larger truth. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the golden bird contains elements of transitory nature—namely, its music—with the transcendent qualities of timeless art.

The tension between art and life is an essential dichotomy in Yeats's poetry. Yeats envisioned the artist as a kind of alchemist, whose transformative art obscures the distinction between “the dancer and the dance,” as he wrote in the poem, “Among School Children.” For Yeats, only through imagination could the raw materials of life be transformed into something enduring. Thus “Sailing to Byzantium” has at least two symbolic readings, both mutually interdependent upon the other. The poem is both about the journey taken by the speaker's soul around the time of death and the process by which, through his art, the artist transcends his own mortality.

An important symbol in “Sailing to Byzantium” is the ancient city of Byzantium, which in the fifth and sixth centuries was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the center of art and architecture. Byzantine art did not attempt to represent human forms, and so, for Yeats, Byzantium symbolized a way of life in which art is celebrated as artifice. Furthermore, Byzantium represents what Yeats, in A Vision, calls “Unity of Being,” in which “religious, aesthetic and practical life were one” and art represented “the vision of a whole people.”

Critical Reception

By 1928, the year he published “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats was, in his own words, “a smiling sixty-year-old public man” with a senate career and the Nobel Prize behind him. With the publication of that poem in the volume The Tower, Yeats's contemporaries noticed a change of style and maturity, as the poems in that volume not only reflected Yeats's satisfaction with a long, fulfilling life but also, according to A. Norman Jeffares, a “sharpened apprehension, brought by Ireland's civil war, of approaching conflagration in the world, and, by approaching age, of ruin and decay.”

Yeats's contemporaries generally agreed that his technique was stunning, but viewed his ideas on poetry and history to be eccentric. An early critic, T. Sturge Moore, told Yeats in 1930 that he found the first three stanzas “magnificent” but believed the fourth to “weaken to an ineffective and unnecessary repetition of ‘gold’ four times in as many lines, … implying that the contrast between artificial and natural forms is fundamental, which is obviously not the case.” In 1931, Harriet Monroe, the publisher of the influential Poetry magazine, likened the emotional quality of the poem's language and imagery to that of Shakespeare's drama, especially the monologues of Lear.

Since its publication, critics have agreed that “Sailing to Byzantium” masterfully marries structure and content. For Yeats's biographer, Richard Ellmann, “Sailing to Byzantium” represents a poetic “climax” for Yeats, “creating richer and more multitudinous overtones than before.” He writes that Yeats attempted “to evoke a symbol—in the poem as a whole and also in the symbolic bird spoken of in the poem—which would have a life of its own into which he could put himself.” Not only does “Sailing to Byzantium” have “as many levels as the Empire State Building,” writes Donald A. Stauffer, but its “lyrics are inexhaustible […] Every new reading adds a new pleasure or a new thought.” James Lovic Allen likewise applauds the “consummate mastery of multiple-leveled symbolic structures” that demand reading “on both the spiritual level and the aesthetic level simultaneously.” Since its publication, critics have recognized “Sailing to Byzantium” to be an important poem by a leading modernist poet.

Principal Works

The Wanderings of Oisin 1889

The Countess Cathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (poetry and plays) 1892

The Wind among the Reeds 1899

The Green Helmet and Other Poems 1910

Responsibilities 1914

The Wild Swans at Coole 1919

Michael Robartes and the Dancer 1921

Seven Poems and a Fragment 1922

“The Cat and the Moon” and Certain Poems (poetry and plays) 1924

October Blast 1927

The Tower 1928

The Winding Stair and Other Poems 1933

The Collected Poems 1933

The Variorium Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats [edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach] 1957

Byzantium 1983

John Sherman (autobiography) 1891

The Table of the Law (fiction) 1904

The Shadowy Waters (play) 1900

Discoveries: A Volume of Essays (essays) 1907

The Unicorn from the Stars and Other Plays (plays) 1908

Cutting of an Agate (nonfiction) 1912

Per Amica Silentia Lunae (nonfiction) 1918

A Vision (nonfiction) 1925

Autobiographies (autobiography) 1926

Criticism

Harriet Monroe (essay date January 1931)

SOURCE: Monroe, Harriet. “Comment: ‘Sailing To Byzantium.’” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 37, no. 4 (January 1931): 208-13.

[In the following essay, Monroe considers ways in which she has “sailed to Byzantium” through her experiences with the theater and literature.]

“And therefore have I sailed the seas, and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”

Because I am much preoccupied, perhaps rightly, with modern poetry, I must now and then sail the seas back into the past, and find once more the holy city where great poets have built their long-enduring pyramids and towers. That city is full of voices uttering magic phrases, and some of these float...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)

Howard Baker (essay date winter 1941)

SOURCE: Baker, Howard. “Domes of Byzantium.” The Southern Review 7, no. 3 (winter 1941): 639-52.

[In the following essay, poet-scholar Baker examines the symbolism of Byzantium, suggesting that for Yeats, Byzantium “stands primarily for modes of expression in which conscious design supersedes natural florescence.” Baker maintains that Yeats uses the idea of Byzantium to argue that consciously-produced culture endures whereas nature-and ourselves-grow old and pass away.]

On receiving the Nobel prize, Yeats, who was sixty, observed the youthfulness of the poet and muse who decorated the medal presented to him, and he remarked to himself that when he was young his...

(The entire section is 4109 words.)

Richard Ellmann (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: Ellmann, Richard. “‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In Yeats: The Man and the Masks, pp. 252-56. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1948.

[In the following essay, Ellman examines the poem's history, dramatic structure, and symbolism, and shows how the poem builds upon Yeats's earlier work and experiences.]

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats reached the climax of this period by creating richer and more multitudinous overtones than before. He attempted here to evoke a symbol—in the poem as a whole and also in the symbolic bird spoken of in the poem—which would have a life of its own into which he could put himself:

“SAILING TO...

(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Frederick L. Gwynn (essay date January 1953)

SOURCE: Gwynn, Frederick L. “Yeats's Byzantium and its Sources.” Philological Quarterly 32, no. 1 (January 1953): 9-21.

[In the following essay, Gwynn explores the multiple meanings of Byzantium in “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Byzantium,” and A Vision, and identifies sources as diverse as Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Grimm's fairy tales, and Shakespeare's King Lear.]

“‘Sailing to Byzantium,’” Ellmann points out, “is full of echoes of Yeats's other works, of his reading, and of his experiences. In a sense he had been writing it all his life.”1 Ellmann gives us a half-dozen sources of phrases in the poem,...

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Harry Modean Campbell (essay date December 1955)

SOURCE: Campbell, Harry Modean. “Yeat's “Sailing to Byzantium.” Modern Language Notes 70, no. 8 (December 1955): 585-89.

[In the following essay, the author refutes the interpretations of the poem as magical rather than religious and as an assertion of immortality through art as “fabricated thing,” and suggests instead that Byzantium is Yeats's “devoutly religious version of the New Jerusalem” where “the poet, the 'dying animal,’ is primarily concerned, not with the art, but with the spiritual life visibly represented by the art.”]

The numerous analyses of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” seem to fall into two main groups: a minority of critics...

(The entire section is 1714 words.)

Curtis Bradford (essay date March 1960)

SOURCE: Bradford, Curtis. “Yeats's Byzantium Poems: A Study in their Development.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 75, no. 1 (March 1960): 110-25.

[In the following essay, Bradford examines Yeats's creative process by comparing early and later drafts of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium.”]

1. BACKGROUND

Yeats's interest in Byzantine art and civilization began in the Nineties and continued through his life. The first issue of “Rosa Alchemica” (1896) refers to the mosaic work at Ravenna (“mosaic not less beautiful than the mosaic in the Baptistery at Ravenna, but of a less severe beauty”),1 work which...

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L. C. Parks (essay date October-December 1963)

Source: Parks, L. C. “The Hidden Aspect of ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ Études Anglaises 16, no. 4 (October-December 1963): 333-44.

[In the following essay, the author shows that “the form of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ closely follows the form of a Rosicrucian initiation into an ideal order of reality” and that “by means of this poem, Yeats achieves his lifelong goal: a fusion of his esthetic with an occult idealism.”]

Yeats' “Sailing to Byzantium”1 is deceptively plain and promises far more meaning than it will yield the unaided reader. I hope to make clear some of the hidden aspect of the poem by relating it to its genesis; that is, to its...

(The entire section is 6178 words.)

A. Norman Jeffares (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Jeffares, A. Norman. “The Tower: ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, pp. 211-16. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Jeffares identifies geographical, historical, literary, and religious sources and allusions found in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]

Yeats's change of style and his maturity were probably not generally recognised until the publication of The Tower in 1928. This volume was a collection of poems which reflect the richness of his life: marriage, a family, senatorship of the Irish Free State, the Nobel Prize for poetry, A Vision published, the...

(The entire section is 2759 words.)

David Eggenschwiler (essay date March 1971)

Source: Eggenschwiler, David. “Nightingales and Byzantine Birds, Something Less Than Kind.” English Language Notes 8, no. 3 (March 1971): 186-91.

[In the following essay, the author argues that Yeats's bird of “hammered gold” in “Sailing to Byzantium” and Keats's nightingale represent more “different ideals of art” than prevailing criticism suggests.]

The nightingale of Keats's ode and the golden bird of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” are usually considered to be close kin. As ideals of unchanging art, opposed to natural creatures born for death, they seem to coincide in the dialectics of the two poems. Of course, they are not identical, for Yeats's...

(The entire section is 2203 words.)

Stanley M. Holberg (essay date December 1974)

SOURCE: Holberg, Stanley, M. “Sailing to Byzantium’: A New Source and a New Reading.” English Language Notes 12, No. 2 (December 1974): 112-16.

[In the following essay, Holberg examines a new source of inspiration for Yeat's poem.]

In a note concerning the golden bird at the end of “Sailing to Byzantium,” “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enammeling,” Yeats wrote: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang.”1 In their efforts to define that vague “somewhere,” scholars have turned to historical accounts of the palace...

(The entire section is 2097 words.)

Simon O. Lesser (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Lesser, Simon O. “‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Another Voyage, Another Reading.” In The Whispered Meanings: Selected Essays of Simon O. Lesser, edited by Robert Sprich and Richard W. Noland, pp. 128-48. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, the author argues against the generally accepted interpretation of “Sailing to Byzantium” that the “I” of the poem considers that “engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privations of old age,” and against the critical approach of paying “as little attention as possible to the emotional content of literature and to our emotional responses to...

(The entire section is 9725 words.)

Epifanio San Juan (essay due 1979)

Source: San Juan, Epifanio. “William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.’” Poetics: The Imitation of Action: Essays in Interpretation (1997): 56-77.

[In the following essay, San Juan presents how other critics have analyzed Yeat's poem and then goes on to offer his own analysis.]

In spite of the rigorous and systematic methods skillfully applied by critics and scholars in the interpretation of literary texts today, we have grown more sharply aware that all such methods possess intrinsic limitations. The neo-Aristotelians have of course candidly announced their pluralistic orientation in matters of theory. But in the realm of practice, the result seems far from...

(The entire section is 7172 words.)

William H. O'Donnell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: O'Donnell, William H. “Poems 1922-1926: ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In The Poetry of William Butler Yeats: An Introduction, pp. 89-92. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell considers “Sailing to Byzantium” as an attempt at escaping the decay of aging—the impermanence of mortal life—through a separate world of art.]

In “A Prayer for my Daughter” Yeats was concerned with physical threats from storm and warfare as well as cultural threats from the deterioration of traditional, aristocratic values. Those external threats continue to be an important concern in the poems that Yeats wrote in the mid-1920s,...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

J. L. Kerbaugh (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Kerbaugh, J. L. “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘The Tower’: Dialectic of Body and Intellect.” Yeats Eliot Review 10, no. 4 (fall 1990): 90-4.

[In the following essay, Kerbaugh compares the subject matter of two of Yeats's poems.]

The common subject matter of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Tower”—making one's soul, and coming to terms with old age and death and with the relationship between old age and art—explains clearly enough why Yeats printed the two poems side by side in The Tower, a matter which has nevertheless occasionally puzzled critics.1 Some question may remain, however, as to why Yeats printed...

(The entire section is 4139 words.)

Jonathan Allison (essay date 1990)

Source: Allison, Jonathan. “The Last Line of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: A New Source.” Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies vol. 8, Richard J. Finneran, pp. 319-21. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Allison examines the source for the last line of Yeats's poem.]

The source of the last line of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium”—”Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (P 194)—is usually attributed to Blake or Shelley, though there are also several possible sources of the line in Shakespeare's plays.1 A more recent possible source, however, may be found in a lecture delivered by John...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Michael Steinman (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Steinman, Michael. “Yeat's ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” The Explicator 52, no. 2 (winter 1994): 93-4.

[In the following essay, Steinman examines how the source of Yeat's poem may have come from Shakespeare's King Lear.]

In “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” W. B. Yeats asserted that his images “[g]rew in pure mind” (630). But the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” may make us feel that “pure mind,” although compelling, is not sufficient explanation. Where did that singing bird come from? Yeats's creative eclecticism, blending the morning's conversation with philosophical abstractions, makes the notion of one and only one source for any...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Edward Larissy (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Larissy, Edward. “Yeats the Poet: Golden Wall.” In Yeats the Poet: Measures of Difference, pp. 170-76. Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

[In the following essay, Larissy regards “Sailing to Byzantium” as Yeats's metaphorical escape from Ireland, which he associates with youth and conflict. The author considers the poem to be influenced by Asiatic literary journeys by Byron, Blake, Keats, as well as by historical accounts of early Celtic experiences in Constantinople.]

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (VP [The Variorium Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats] 407-8) offers an extreme version of bitterness towards Ireland: escape....

(The entire section is 3374 words.)

William Franke (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Franke, William. “The Dialectical Logic of Yeats's Byzantium Poems.” Yeats Eliot Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1998): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Franke examines the symbolic unity of Yeats's two Byzantium poems, and demonstrates how the poems structurally and thematically rely on dialectical tension. In a dialectical perspective, the author argues, the distinctions between things break down as all forms flow beyond their boundaries and interpenetrate their opposites.]

Yeats is unusual, if not unique, among poets for having formalized his subject matter into an extra-poetic system.1 Although certainly poetry always remained his final aim, its...

(The entire section is 5222 words.)