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."