Introduction

“Sailing to Byzantium” William 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 flames and smoke twisting like a “perne in a gyre,” an allusion to Yeats's cyclical theory of history and transcendence. The speaker wishes to lose his heart, “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal,” and have his soul gathered “into the artifice of eternity” so that “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.” In the last stanza, the speaker imagines himself transformed into a work of art that transcends the passing of time, a Byzantine work of art, a golden bird that is animate in that it sings to the Emperor, but inanimate as a work of art that will survive generations.

Major Themes

The source of several major themes in “Sailing to Byzantium” can be found in Yeats's 1925 work, A Vision (1925), in which he develops his cyclical theory of life, based in part on Yeats's understanding of the Hegelian dialectic and his reading of Blake's prophetic poetry. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats used the concept of the spiraling gyre to suggest that opposite concepts—such as youth and age, body and soul, nature and art, transient and eternal—are in fact mutually dependent upon each other. Yoked together by the gyre and the poem itself, the mutually interpenetrating opposites—thesis and antithesis—resolve in such a way as to produce a synthesis that contains a larger truth. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the golden bird contains elements of transitory nature—namely, its music—with the transcendent qualities of timeless art.

The tension between art and life is an essential dichotomy in Yeats's poetry. Yeats envisioned the artist as a kind of alchemist, whose transformative art obscures the distinction between “the dancer and the dance,” as he wrote in the poem, “Among School Children.” For Yeats, only through imagination could the raw materials of life be transformed into something enduring. Thus “Sailing to Byzantium” has at least two symbolic readings, both mutually interdependent upon the other. The poem is both about the journey taken by the speaker's soul around the time of death and the process by which, through his art, the artist transcends his own mortality.

An important symbol in “Sailing to Byzantium” is the ancient city of Byzantium, which in the fifth and sixth centuries was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the center of art and architecture. Byzantine art did not attempt to represent human forms, and so, for Yeats, Byzantium symbolized a way of life in which art is celebrated as artifice. Furthermore, Byzantium represents what Yeats, in A Vision, calls “Unity of Being,” in which “religious, aesthetic and practical life were one” and art represented “the vision of a whole people.”

Critical Reception

By 1928, the year he published “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats was, in his own words, “a smiling sixty-year-old public man” with a senate career and the Nobel Prize behind him. With the publication of that poem in the volume The Tower, Yeats's contemporaries noticed a change of style and maturity, as the poems in that volume not only reflected Yeats's satisfaction with a long, fulfilling life but also, according to A. Norman Jeffares, a “sharpened apprehension, brought by Ireland's civil war, of approaching conflagration in the world, and, by approaching age, of ruin and decay.”

Yeats's contemporaries generally agreed that his technique was stunning, but viewed his ideas on poetry and history to be eccentric. An early critic, T. Sturge Moore, told Yeats in 1930 that he found the first three stanzas “magnificent” but believed the fourth to “weaken to an ineffective and unnecessary repetition of ‘gold’ four times in as many lines, … implying that the contrast between artificial and natural forms is fundamental, which is obviously not the case.” In 1931, Harriet Monroe, the publisher of the influential Poetry magazine, likened the emotional quality of the poem's language and imagery to that of Shakespeare's drama, especially the monologues of Lear.

Since its publication, critics have agreed that “Sailing to Byzantium” masterfully marries structure and content. For Yeats's biographer, Richard Ellmann, “Sailing to Byzantium” represents a poetic “climax” for Yeats, “creating richer and more multitudinous overtones than before.” He writes that Yeats attempted “to evoke a symbol—in the poem as a whole and also in the symbolic bird spoken of in the poem—which would have a life of its own into which he could put himself.” Not only does “Sailing to Byzantium” have “as many levels as the Empire State Building,” writes Donald A. Stauffer, but its “lyrics are inexhaustible […] Every new reading adds a new pleasure or a new thought.” James Lovic Allen likewise applauds the “consummate mastery of multiple-leveled symbolic structures” that demand reading “on both the spiritual level and the aesthetic level simultaneously.” Since its publication, critics have recognized “Sailing to Byzantium” to be an important poem by a leading modernist poet.