Sailing to Byzantium Introduction
by William Butler Yeats

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(Poetry Criticism)

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“Sailing to ByzantiumWilliam Butler Yeats

The following entry presents criticism of Yeats's poem “Sailing to Byzantium” through 1998. See also, William Butler Yeats Criticism.

“Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928 as part of Yeats's collection, The Tower, contains only four stanzas and yet is considered to be one of the most effective expressions of Yeats's arcane poetic “system,” exploring tensions between art and ordinary life and demonstrating how, through an imaginative alchemy, the raw materials of life can be transformed into something enduring. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the artist/speaker transforms himself into a work of art, and, in so doing, obscures the distinction between form and content and the artist and his work. “Sailing to Byzantium” is widely admired for its inventive, evocative imagery and masterfully interwoven phrases. Literary critic Frank Kermode calls the poem “a marvelously contrived emblem of what Yeats took the work of art to be.”

Biographical Information

A leading figure of the Irish Literary Revival, William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865 to Anglo-Irish parents. His father was a lawyer and a well-known painter. As a young man, Yeats was drawn to mysticism as well as the cause for Irish independence. Yeats was further politicized in 1889, when he met and fell in love with the beautiful Irish nationalist and actress, Maud Gonne, who had leading roles in his plays and to whom he addressed much of his early love poetry. Together with Lady Gregory, Yeats founded the Irish Theatre, later called the Abbey Theatre. Yeats's plays, which reflect his interest in Irish legends as well as his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism, include The Countess Cathleen (1892), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902) and Deirdre (1907). In 1917, at the age of fifty-two, Yeats married Georgiana Hyde-Lees, with whom he shared an interest in spiritualism. They had two children, Anne and Michael. In 1922 Yeats was appointed to the Senate of the newly formed Irish Free State, where he served until 1928. He was awarded the Novel Prize in Literature in 1923, mostly on the merit of his plays. However, it is Yeats's later poetry, especially The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928) (in which “Sailing to Byzantium” appears), and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), that made him one of the most influential and important twentieth-century poets writing in English. He died in France in 1939.

Plot and Main Characters

“Sailing to Byzantium,” a lyric poem, has neither conventional characters nor plot. The poem consists of four open-form stanzas and features a speaker who may be thought of, as Richard Ellmann suggests, as “a symbol of Yeats and of the artist and of man.” The action of the poem concerns the problem of immersing oneself in life and at the same time striving for permanence. The opening stanza describes a state of youth, a sensuous, sometimes violent, life with emphasis on productivity and regeneration (“That is no country for old men”), and then contrasts this sensuality with the intellectual and the transitory with the permanent: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.”

Acknowledging both his mortality and desire for transcendence, the speaker prepares his soul for the body's death by “studying / Monuments of its own magnificence” and “sail[s] the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” In Byzantium, the speaker hopes to fuse the “sensual music” with the “monuments,” that is, the passing pleasures with transcendent art. In 1931, Yeats wrote that he chose to “symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city” because “Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.” In Byzantium, the speaker encounters a world of timeless art and spirituality, represented by sages and “God's holy fire” with...

(The entire section is 1,425 words.)