“Sailing to Byzantium” is a short poem of thirty-two lines divided into four numbered stanzas. The title suggests an escape to a distant, imaginary land where the speaker achieves mystical union with beautiful, eternal works of art.
“Byzantium” is a loaded word for William Butler Yeats, a word rich with meaning. “Byzantium” refers to an earlier Yeats poem by that title and to the ancient name for Istanbul, capital of the Byzantine empire of the fifth and sixth centuries. In his prose work A Vision (1925), Yeats wrote that Byzantium represents for him a world of artistic energy and timelessness, a place of highly developed intellectual and artistic cultures. It represents a perfect union of aesthetic and spiritual energies; Yeats wrote, “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one.” To historians of art, Byzantium is famous for its multicolored mosaics inlaid with marble and gold. Often the mosaics depict Christ or other religious figures in symmetrical arrangements with two-dimensional, impersonal facial expressions.
The first stanza describes a country of “sensual music,” presumably Ireland, but representing any place dominated by living for today. As an old man, the poet at once celebrates the fertility and joyful images of teeming fish, birds, and people but despairs of their temporal ignorance. Caught in the endless cycle of birth and death, these living beings overlook certain “monuments of unageing intellect” that the poet seeks to explore.
The old man reflects on himself in the second stanza, calling himself a scarecrow on a stick without much physical vigor. What he lacks in body he compensates for in desire to express himself through singing. Singing (his poetry) will allow him to transcend old age. The spirit of his poetry will carry him to Byzantium, a magnificent and holy city.
The third stanza presents the speaker standing before a golden mosaic, pleading for the Byzantine sages and “God’s holy fire” to illuminate his soul. He realizes that his heart is trapped inside a fleshly creature that will soon die; the poet wants to leave this world and enter the world of timeless art through his song—poetry.
The fourth stanza develops the contradiction that a human being cannot leave this world while occupying a body. The poet desires to merge with the elaborate, gold-inlaid Byzantine mosaics and become like a bird perched on a bough, serenading sleepy emperors and nobles for all eternity. Preserved in this mythic form, the poet can observe past, present, and future, rejoicing in his artistic immortality.
“Sailing to Byzantium” follows an ottava rima stanza pattern, which usually consists of eight eleven-syllable lines rhyming abababcc. Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio is credited with inventing the form. Sir Thomas Wyatt and George Gordon, Lord Byron, popularized it in England. Yeats, however, modifies the form to suit his own purposes, using ten syllables instead of the original eleven and using slant rhymes instead of exact ones. In lines 1 and 3, for example, different vowel sounds prevent “young” from rhyming exactly with “song.”
Yeats constructs his poem around one major opposition: the mortal world of the flesh versus the golden world of eternal art. One of Yeats’s major themes in poetry is that no one can make a choice of absolute certainty between precise opposites. The two realms depend on each other for what they mean, as in the case of Ireland with its teeming animal life and the medieval imperial city of Byzantium. Yeats juxtaposes a natural, mortal world driven by the cycle of life and death, with an impersonal, immortal...
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world of art. The speaker yearns to detach himself from the temporal world of his body to find himself inside “the artifice of eternity.”
Two metaphors running throughout the poem—birds and singing—point to the differences between Ireland and Byzantium. The bird has long been a spiritual symbol, as in the dove from scripture. The birds in the trees in stanza 1, references to a bird’s flight in stanza 2, and the bird “set upon a golden bough to sing” in stanza 4 emphasize the difference between a sensual, physical world of spiritual ignorance and a timeless world of spiritual revelation. The image of the bird in flight in stanza 3 is a pervasive gyre symbol appearing in many of Yeats’s later poems. The whirling, coiling motion and the use of the verb “perne” are Yeats’s adaptations of the noun “pirn,” a small cylinder originally made of a hollow reed or quill on which thread or yarn was wound. Yeats means to imply the merger of his soul with the spiraling bird’s flight, just as the poet wishes to lose his soul in the eternal world of art.
The metaphor of music-making and song as poetry establishes Yeats’s desire to make his own Byzantine mosaic in verse, where his spirit might be preserved for all eternity. The poet looks at one gold mosaic in stanza 3 and pleads for the sages to “be the singing-masters of my soul,” to teach the poet how he might be similarly able to step out of his aging body.
Elements of song pervade Yeats’s poem. The old man dreams of the songs he will make if, by merging with voices of sages and Byzantine art, he can transcend the restrictions of mind and body. The reader should note the alliteration of g, s, l, and p consonants and the assonance or recurring vowel sounds in stanza 4 that reflect the music of language.
References to folk legend, myth, and symbol abound in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Throughout his career, Yeats worked symbols into his poetry, giving a universality to ostensibly topical poems. The bird images stand for transcendence, immortality, and the spirit. As another example, the “golden bough” of stanza 4 may refer both to Sir James George Frazer’s work in comparative mythology, The Golden Bough (1890), and to classical Roman poet Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), in which Aeneas plucks a golden bough in order to descend into Hades.
In “SAILING TO BYZANTIUM” the aging poet confronts his own mortality and describes the triumph of art and the soul over the decaying body.
In the first two sections of the poem, the poet tells of his quest for a song of the soul rather than the body, an eternal song rather than a song of what is passing. He hopes to learn that song in Byzantium because, for Yeats, ancient Byzantium represented a culture whose various arts were the product of a single idea, a single image, and thus contributed to one vast and eternal design.
Part three of the poem is an invocation to the sages of Byzantium, calling upon them to instruct the poet in the song of the soul. Finally, Yeats presents an image of the poet removed from nature, his soul no longer “fastened to a dying animal,” his song encompassing past, present, and future at once. The poet is now an emblem of eternity, a golden figure hammered into shape by some ancient, anonymous craftsman.
“SAILING TO BYZANTIUM” becomes a richer poem when placed in the context of Yeats’s other writings, both poetry and prose. Rather than standing as any final statement on the nature of the poet, it represents one stage in a conflict that lies behind many of Yeats’s best poems. And no summary can do justice to the poem’s principal virtue, the grace and vitality of its language, which combines conversational ease with lyric intensity.