The Poem

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“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.

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“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.

Forms and Devices

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“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 world of art. The speaker yearns to detach himself from the temporal world of his body to find himself inside...

(The entire section contains 1253 words.)

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