How would you characterize the speaker?

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The speaker is old and weary. He wishes to escape from the material world, in which he can no longer live a meaningful existence, and ascend to a higher, more spiritual plane. Byzantium represents everything that this "tattered coat upon a stick" can no longer enjoy in his day-to-day existence. It is a world of art, beauty, and timeless joys. In this realm of the spiritual and the aesthetic, the old man can gain a whole new perspective that is denied him by his decaying mortal life upon this earth. Life is short, but art lasts forever. And the old man yearns to make a grab at immortality by becoming a golden mechanical bird in Byzantium's royal palace. There, and only there, will he be able to sing, to proclaim his true nature as an artist and as a human being.

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The speaker is feeling melancholy about getting old. He dislikes the physical aspects of aging. He says:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick . . .
He is, however, a person who is not about to capitulate to aging, at least not in his mind. He says an old man is paltry "unless" his soul rises up and sings. The speaker, therefore, makes a distinction between his outer form, which is tattered, and his inner self, which "can louder sing" than his tattered body.
Because of the anguish he feels at aging and dying, the speaker dreams of sailing to Byzantium, which represents for him the world of art and artifice. There, he will trade his aging body for the ageless body of a golden bird that can sing forever.
In sum, the speaker is an old man, depressed about the way his body is decaying and wishing he could be an ageless and beautiful work of art. He is full of longing for what cannot be, and yet he dreams.
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The speaker, whom we naturally take to be Yeats himself, wants to escape from his depressing thoughts and feelings about old age. Reality is "no country for old men."

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.

It is possible to escape mental anguish through creative work. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's famous poem "In Memoriam A.H.H." is an excellent example. According to the eNotes Summary of that poem:

In Memoriam, unquestionably one of the four greatest elegies of English literature, records the intellectual, emotional, religious, and aesthetic changes Alfred, Lord Tennyson underwent in the sixteen-year period following the early and tragic death of his closest friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, in Vienna, on September 15, 1833.

Tennyson deliberately undertook the task of ridding himself of his grief by composing his long poem over a long period of time. Another famous poem written to get over painful feelings is John Milton's famous "Lycidas," written as an elegy to his classmate Edward King who was drowned at sea. Another of the many poems in this category is Victor Hugo's "A Villequier," written while he was still trying to recover from his grief over the death of his nineteen-year-old daughter by accidental drowning, which had shattered his religious faith. Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night," addressed to his dying father, is another of many examples in poetry. Yet another would be Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais" commemorating the death of John Keats. Then there is Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee," which obviously applies to the death of his child bride Virginia. Ernest Hemingway once said of himself: "If he wrote it, he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them."

In "Sailing to Byzantium" Yeats seems to be saying that he feels depressed and even ashamed about growing old. He wants to escape from himself completely by immersing himself in his creative writing, a desire which he symbolizes as sailing to the ancient city of Byzantium, just as Tennyson expressed his depressing thoughts of old age and death in his "Crossing the Bar." Art can serve as a distraction from mental torment. The many technical problems involved in creative self-expression can help the artist to forget the real motive for becoming engaged in the work in the first place.

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