Harriet Monroe (essay date January 1931)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Monroe, Harriet. “Comment: ‘Sailing To Byzantium.’” Poetry: A Magazine of Verse 37, no. 4 (January 1931): 208-13.

[In the following essay, Monroe considers ways in which she has “sailed to Byzantium” through her experiences with the theater and literature.]

“And therefore have I sailed the seas, and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.”

Because I am much preoccupied, perhaps rightly, with modern poetry, I must now and then sail the seas back into the past, and find once more the holy city where great poets have built their long-enduring pyramids and towers. That city is full of voices uttering magic phrases, and some of these float...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)

Howard Baker (essay date winter 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Baker, Howard. “Domes of Byzantium.” The Southern Review 7, no. 3 (winter 1941): 639-52.

[In the following essay, poet-scholar Baker examines the symbolism of Byzantium, suggesting that for Yeats, Byzantium “stands primarily for modes of expression in which conscious design supersedes natural florescence.” Baker maintains that Yeats uses the idea of Byzantium to argue that consciously-produced culture endures whereas nature-and ourselves-grow old and pass away.]

On receiving the Nobel prize, Yeats, who was sixty, observed the youthfulness of the poet and muse who decorated the medal presented to him, and he remarked to himself that when he was young his...

(The entire section is 4109 words.)

Richard Ellmann (essay date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellmann, Richard. “‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In Yeats: The Man and the Masks, pp. 252-56. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1948.

[In the following essay, Ellman examines the poem's history, dramatic structure, and symbolism, and shows how the poem builds upon Yeats's earlier work and experiences.]

In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats reached the climax of this period by creating richer and more multitudinous overtones than before. He attempted here 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:


(The entire section is 1476 words.)

Frederick L. Gwynn (essay date January 1953)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Gwynn, Frederick L. “Yeats's Byzantium and its Sources.” Philological Quarterly 32, no. 1 (January 1953): 9-21.

[In the following essay, Gwynn explores the multiple meanings of Byzantium in “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Byzantium,” and A Vision, and identifies sources as diverse as Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Grimm's fairy tales, and Shakespeare's King Lear.]

“‘Sailing to Byzantium,’” Ellmann points out, “is full of echoes of Yeats's other works, of his reading, and of his experiences. In a sense he had been writing it all his life.”1 Ellmann gives us a half-dozen sources of phrases in the poem,...

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Harry Modean Campbell (essay date December 1955)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Campbell, Harry Modean. “Yeat's “Sailing to Byzantium.” Modern Language Notes 70, no. 8 (December 1955): 585-89.

[In the following essay, the author refutes the interpretations of the poem as magical rather than religious and as an assertion of immortality through art as “fabricated thing,” and suggests instead that Byzantium is Yeats's “devoutly religious version of the New Jerusalem” where “the poet, the 'dying animal,’ is primarily concerned, not with the art, but with the spiritual life visibly represented by the art.”]

The numerous analyses of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” seem to fall into two main groups: a minority of critics...

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Curtis Bradford (essay date March 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bradford, Curtis. “Yeats's Byzantium Poems: A Study in their Development.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association 75, no. 1 (March 1960): 110-25.

[In the following essay, Bradford examines Yeats's creative process by comparing early and later drafts of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium.”]


Yeats's interest in Byzantine art and civilization began in the Nineties and continued through his life. The first issue of “Rosa Alchemica” (1896) refers to the mosaic work at Ravenna (“mosaic not less beautiful than the mosaic in the Baptistery at Ravenna, but of a less severe beauty”),1 work which...

(The entire section is 11972 words.)

L. C. Parks (essay date October-December 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

Source: Parks, L. C. “The Hidden Aspect of ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ Études Anglaises 16, no. 4 (October-December 1963): 333-44.

[In the following essay, the author shows that “the form of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ closely follows the form of a Rosicrucian initiation into an ideal order of reality” and that “by means of this poem, Yeats achieves his lifelong goal: a fusion of his esthetic with an occult idealism.”]

Yeats' “Sailing to Byzantium”1 is deceptively plain and promises far more meaning than it will yield the unaided reader. I hope to make clear some of the hidden aspect of the poem by relating it to its genesis; that is, to its...

(The entire section is 6178 words.)

A. Norman Jeffares (essay date 1968)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jeffares, A. Norman. “The Tower: ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, pp. 211-16. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Jeffares identifies geographical, historical, literary, and religious sources and allusions found in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]

Yeats's change of style and his maturity were probably not generally recognised until the publication of The Tower in 1928. This volume was a collection of poems which reflect the richness of his life: marriage, a family, senatorship of the Irish Free State, the Nobel Prize for poetry, A Vision published, the...

(The entire section is 2759 words.)

David Eggenschwiler (essay date March 1971)

(Poetry Criticism)

Source: Eggenschwiler, David. “Nightingales and Byzantine Birds, Something Less Than Kind.” English Language Notes 8, no. 3 (March 1971): 186-91.

[In the following essay, the author argues that Yeats's bird of “hammered gold” in “Sailing to Byzantium” and Keats's nightingale represent more “different ideals of art” than prevailing criticism suggests.]

The nightingale of Keats's ode and the golden bird of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” are usually considered to be close kin. As ideals of unchanging art, opposed to natural creatures born for death, they seem to coincide in the dialectics of the two poems. Of course, they are not identical, for Yeats's...

(The entire section is 2203 words.)

Stanley M. Holberg (essay date December 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Holberg, Stanley, M. “Sailing to Byzantium’: A New Source and a New Reading.” English Language Notes 12, No. 2 (December 1974): 112-16.

[In the following essay, Holberg examines a new source of inspiration for Yeat's poem.]

In a note concerning the golden bird at the end of “Sailing to Byzantium,” “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enammeling,” Yeats wrote: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang.”1 In their efforts to define that vague “somewhere,” scholars have turned to historical accounts of the palace...

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Simon O. Lesser (essay date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lesser, Simon O. “‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Another Voyage, Another Reading.” In The Whispered Meanings: Selected Essays of Simon O. Lesser, edited by Robert Sprich and Richard W. Noland, pp. 128-48. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, the author argues against the generally accepted interpretation of “Sailing to Byzantium” that the “I” of the poem considers that “engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privations of old age,” and against the critical approach of paying “as little attention as possible to the emotional content of literature and to our emotional responses to...

(The entire section is 9725 words.)

Epifanio San Juan (essay due 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

Source: San Juan, Epifanio. “William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.’” Poetics: The Imitation of Action: Essays in Interpretation (1997): 56-77.

[In the following essay, San Juan presents how other critics have analyzed Yeat's poem and then goes on to offer his own analysis.]

In spite of the rigorous and systematic methods skillfully applied by critics and scholars in the interpretation of literary texts today, we have grown more sharply aware that all such methods possess intrinsic limitations. The neo-Aristotelians have of course candidly announced their pluralistic orientation in matters of theory. But in the realm of practice, the result seems far from...

(The entire section is 7172 words.)

William H. O'Donnell (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Donnell, William H. “Poems 1922-1926: ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” In The Poetry of William Butler Yeats: An Introduction, pp. 89-92. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.

[In the following essay, O'Donnell considers “Sailing to Byzantium” as an attempt at escaping the decay of aging—the impermanence of mortal life—through a separate world of art.]

In “A Prayer for my Daughter” Yeats was concerned with physical threats from storm and warfare as well as cultural threats from the deterioration of traditional, aristocratic values. Those external threats continue to be an important concern in the poems that Yeats wrote in the mid-1920s,...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

J. L. Kerbaugh (essay date fall 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kerbaugh, J. L. “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘The Tower’: Dialectic of Body and Intellect.” Yeats Eliot Review 10, no. 4 (fall 1990): 90-4.

[In the following essay, Kerbaugh compares the subject matter of two of Yeats's poems.]

The common subject matter of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Tower”—making one's soul, and coming to terms with old age and death and with the relationship between old age and art—explains clearly enough why Yeats printed the two poems side by side in The Tower, a matter which has nevertheless occasionally puzzled critics.1 Some question may remain, however, as to why Yeats printed...

(The entire section is 4139 words.)

Jonathan Allison (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

Source: Allison, Jonathan. “The Last Line of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: A New Source.” Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies vol. 8, Richard J. Finneran, pp. 319-21. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Allison examines the source for the last line of Yeats's poem.]

The source of the last line of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium”—”Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (P 194)—is usually attributed to Blake or Shelley, though there are also several possible sources of the line in Shakespeare's plays.1 A more recent possible source, however, may be found in a lecture delivered by John...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

Michael Steinman (essay date winter 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinman, Michael. “Yeat's ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’” The Explicator 52, no. 2 (winter 1994): 93-4.

[In the following essay, Steinman examines how the source of Yeat's poem may have come from Shakespeare's King Lear.]

In “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” W. B. Yeats asserted that his images “[g]rew in pure mind” (630). But the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” may make us feel that “pure mind,” although compelling, is not sufficient explanation. Where did that singing bird come from? Yeats's creative eclecticism, blending the morning's conversation with philosophical abstractions, makes the notion of one and only one source for any...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Edward Larissy (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Larissy, Edward. “Yeats the Poet: Golden Wall.” In Yeats the Poet: Measures of Difference, pp. 170-76. Hertfordshire, England: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

[In the following essay, Larissy regards “Sailing to Byzantium” as Yeats's metaphorical escape from Ireland, which he associates with youth and conflict. The author considers the poem to be influenced by Asiatic literary journeys by Byron, Blake, Keats, as well as by historical accounts of early Celtic experiences in Constantinople.]

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (VP [The Variorium Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats] 407-8) offers an extreme version of bitterness towards Ireland: escape....

(The entire section is 3374 words.)

William Franke (essay date summer 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Franke, William. “The Dialectical Logic of Yeats's Byzantium Poems.” Yeats Eliot Review 15, no. 3 (summer 1998): 23-32.

[In the following essay, Franke examines the symbolic unity of Yeats's two Byzantium poems, and demonstrates how the poems structurally and thematically rely on dialectical tension. In a dialectical perspective, the author argues, the distinctions between things break down as all forms flow beyond their boundaries and interpenetrate their opposites.]

Yeats is unusual, if not unique, among poets for having formalized his subject matter into an extra-poetic system.1 Although certainly poetry always remained his final aim, its...

(The entire section is 5222 words.)