What are the sailing to Byzantium?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the poem "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats describes the natural world as "no country for old men." It is a fertile place, full of birds and crowded with salmon and mackerel, but also a land where living creatures are born, grow old, and die. The narrator, who rebels against death, dreams of sailing to Byzantium, the world of the arts, where beautiful objects, because they are made rather than born, never age and die.

The narrator says that because an aged man is a "paltry" (insignificant) thing, he has decided to sail for Byzantium. He cries out to the gods of that "holy" city to turn him into an art object that will last for eternity. He dreams of being a mechanical bird made of gold and ivory that will sit on a golden branch and sing forever, never dying, out of time (eternal), and able to sing 

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Like Keats in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the narrator, knowing he will die, longs fervently to be an art object that will never change, grow old, or perish.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sailing to Byzantium is a poem by Yeats. In it, Yeats describes what it is like to grow old. The first line states that the country in which he currently lives “is no country for old men”  but rather a place where:

   Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
   Caught in that sensual music all neglect
    Monuments of unaging intellect

There was recently an award-winning movie whose title was based on this line. The entire poem is a metaphor for a spiritual journey that the speaker embarks upon to the imaginary land of Byzantium:

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium

He has sailed to this city because there, he can be taken out of the natural world where his body is decaying and be transported to a more spiritual world. Most scholars believe that this poem is not so much about another world as it is about the beauty of poetry that is so profound that it is able to transport one’s soul to another world, in a figurative sense.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial