William Butler Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” begins with a lament. The speaker is an old man (as was Yeats when he wrote the poem), and he senses that his country no longer has a place for him. “That is no country for old men,” he proclaims (line 1). He can no longer engage in the physical pleasures of the young, which apparently occupy the dwellers of his country. They are focused on the things of the world—birth, physical love, death, mere “sensual music” (line 7)—that no longer interest the speaker. He is searching for something more, something beyond the physical and the worldly.
Yet he cannot complete such a quest where he is, in a country focused on youth, sensuality, and “monuments of its own magnificence” (line 14), where “an aged man is but a paltry thing” (line 9), something unimportant, insignificant, and meaningless, just “a tattered coat upon a stick” (line 10). Therefore, he must symbolically leave his country and go elsewhere, to Byzantium, to pursue his quest, to teach his soul to sing once again, and to rediscover the meaning of life in his old age.
Byzantium, the holy city, symbolizes the realm of spirituality and beauty where the speaker can encounter “sages standing in God's holy fire” (line 17), saints who can become “the singing-masters” of the speaker's soul (line 20) and teach him to move beyond the world, to let his soul fly free, and to come to the true knowledge of himself that he is currently lacking.
The speaker encounters these sages through the beauty of art. He sees their images “in the gold mosaic of a wall” (line 18), in the colorful, fantastic mosaics for which Byzantium is famous. In these works of art, the speaker glimpses something beyond this world. His senses draw him up beyond themselves and into the higher plane of the spiritual. He moves into the “artifice of eternity” (line 23). The word “artifice” here does not refer to a deception or something merely contrived but rather to the highest level of skill, cleverness, and craftsmanship. This is what the speaker is seeking, the highest and truest art, and he will find it only in eternity.
In fact, the speaker himself longs to become a fine work of art when he is finally removed from nature, from his decaying, dying body. He hopes that his soul will be like the little animated golden birds that once perched upon golden boughs in the courts of Byzantium and sang to entertain the noble lords and ladies. Perhaps then his refined, beautiful soul will sing to the drowsy souls still in the world and teach them “of what is past, or passing, or to come” (line 32), of what is truly important and truly beautiful.