The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 427 words.)