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

The theme of "Sailing to Byzantium" is a complex one, which might best be described as "the way in which civilization acts as a counterforce to the ravages of time." The old man in the poem feels the need to become part of something greater than himself before he dies. The tone changes from elegiac to celebratory over the course of the poem.

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The theme of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” broadly speaking, is old age, but the speaker is a man who has acquired considerable wisdom and perceptiveness as a result of his long years on earth, so this broader theme also encompasses ideas about “artifice,” eternity, and the nature of the body.

At the beginning of the poem, the old man notes that the country he is currently living in is not “for old men.” For this reason, he has decided to make the journey to Byzantium because he knows that he is going to die. The tone of the poem as the speaker describes this journey is at first melancholy; the speaker observes that an old man is “paltry” and useless unless there is somebody to sing his praises in his old age and as he dies. The speaker seems to prize the art and dedication of the Byzantines and wishes them to be his “singing masters” in his final days.

As the speaker reaches Byzantium, however, the tone of the poem changes and becomes hopeful and contemplative. The speaker disregards the “animal” parts of himself and takes heart instead from the great golden works produced by those in the beautiful city of Byzantium. It is as if he is pleased to be dying in such a beautiful place; he acknowledges that no part of his living body will follow him into “eternity.” Instead, he is able to dream that his form in the afterlife will be the kind “Grecian goldsmiths make.” He will be remade in the next world to be beautiful.

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"Sailing to Byzantium" is a poem which blends together several themes with such skill that one might say either that it has many themes, or that its theme is a complex one which, though it will probably resonate with readers, is very difficult to define. At least some of the many themes are as follows: old age, knowledge, wisdom, civilization, art and artifice, meaning in life. A single, more complex theme might be described as "art and civilization as a counterforce to the damage caused by time."

The speaker decides, in old age, to leave the backwater in which he lives and travel to Byzantium, the center of the civilized world. He contrasts the natural world of "fish, flesh, and fowl" with the golden world of the holy city, where even the birdsong is the sound of intricate mechanical birds, created by master craftsmen. This contrast is very much to the advantage of the latter. The speaker is tired of his immortal soul being "fastened to a dying animal" and sees the civilized artifice of Byzantium as a glimpse of eternity.

The tone of the poem changes from elegiac and melancholy, as the old man contemplates the teeming world of nature in which he no longer participates, to encomiastic and celebratory, as he considers the potential for regeneration offered by the beauty, artistry and complexity of the holy city.

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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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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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