The speaker, presumably Yeats himself, is regretting that he is too old to make love! He does not, by any means, disapprove of those who still can and do make love -- "The young in one another's arms" -- although he cannot help thinking that they too -- members of "those dying generations -- are destined to grow old and die. Since he can no longer obtain pleasure and meaning in life from that kind of activity, he is trying to lose himself in his own branch of art, in poetry, as a solace and an escape. When he writes, "That is no country for old men," rather than "This is no country for old men," it indicates that he has already left that other country behind him and is already on his way to Byzantium, which is a metaphor for the world of art and artifice.
One of the most familiar forms of artwork we see in pictures of ancient Byzantium is its mosaics depicting holy men standing in lines, whom Yeats describes as sages standing in God's holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall..." Most of the sages in these mosaics are depicted against a background of brilliant gold mosaic tiles, which to Yeats suggest "God's holy fire." Evidently the poetry Yeats intends to write, including "Sailing to Byzantium," are to be a form of religious worship.
It is possible to escape from worldly cares and lose one's self in artistic creation. This is what Yeats is actually doing and how he plans to spend the rest of eternity. He may be a genius and a great poet, but his feelings are not much different from those of most men when they grow old. They would like to have something to do with their time. They would like to forget about the fact that they will soon have to die. They would like to forget their weak and tired bodies and the wrinkled faces they have to look at in the mirror each morning. They would like to feel that they are still useful to the world and are not just taking up space.
"Sailing to Byzantium" bears a strong resemblance to "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, written when Tennyson was eighty years old and had only a few more years left to live. "Sailing to Byzantium" was written in 1926, when Yeats was sixty or sixty-one, entering a decade which has been described as "the youth of old age."
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.
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.
"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).