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“Sailing to Byzantium” was first published in Yeats’s 1928 collection, The Tower. Critics generally acknowledge that Yeats produced some of his best work after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923; certainly, “Sailing to Byzantium” demonstrates the power of that later work.

The poem is comprised of four stanzas of eight lines each. Both rhyme and meter are regular, following an abababcc rhyme scheme and an iambic pentameter metric pattern throughout. In the first stanza, Yeats speaks of a place that is “no country for old men.” In this country, the young, along with “fish, flesh, or fowl” engage in the procreative, generative energy of summer. Caught up in “sensual music,” the inhabitants of this country do not consider intellectual or spiritual concerns. Rather, they are caught up in life itself, not considering that which is eternal. Yeats reminds readers, however, that whatever is “begotten” and “born” ultimately dies. This is the country of fleshly incarnation, the country of life, but also a place where the joy of life opposes the certainty of death. A country such as this is no place for an old man moving inexorably toward death.

Yeats continues his exploration of old age in the second stanza, presenting an image of an old man as a scarecrow, “a tattered coat upon a stick.” This empty vessel is no more than a “paltry thing” without the singing of his soul. Through the soul’s singing, Yeats believes, he can create art, something that will survive physical death. He says, therefore, that he has sailed to Byzantium, a place where he will be able to learn the art of singing. Byzantium, now known as Istanbul, serves an important symbolic function in this poem and in some of Yeats’s other works.

In the third stanza, Yeats requests the “sages” of Byzantium to come and teach his soul to sing. He uses the phrase, “perne in a gyre” to describe the way the sages will come from the “holy fire.” Yeats uses the word “perne,” literally a spool, as a verb here; gyre means a circular course. The sages thus spin in a spiral of holy fire, a fire that will burn away the poet’s heart, allowing Yeats to enter the “artifice of eternity.” The transformation from fleshly incarnation (the “dying animal”) to the eternity of art becomes a kind of eternal life for the poet.

In the final stanza, Yeats asserts that once he escapes nature (the natural world of fleshly creation), he will never again be incarnated into the world of nature. Rather, he will assume an artificial form, that of a golden bird. For Yeats, “artificial” does not carry a negative connotation; rather, he connects the artificial with art and with artifice as an improvement on the natural. With this image, Yeats alludes to both “The Nightingale” (1844) by Hans Christian Andersen, as well as to John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819). Unlike these writers, Yeats finds the artificial bird to be superior in that it offers the singer a form of immortality. The bird can sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” For Yeats, the transformation from natural, mortal human being into artificial, immortal singer is a fate to be highly desired.

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