Sailing to Byzantium Summary
by William Butler Yeats

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Sailing to Byzantium Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“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...

(The entire section is 542 words.)