Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Yeats’s poem offers fertile ground for inquiry into the realms of language, structure, imagination, myth, and symbol. Many critics have written about “Sailing to Byzantium,” and the poem seems almost inexhaustible in its supply of ideas. Yeats published “Sailing to Byzantium” when he was sixty-three, so the theme of the life cycle and the differences between youthful exuberance and sterile old age certainly inform the poem. Yet to suggest that Yeats’s only concern is his approaching death seriously undervalues the richness of the poem’s symbols.

The poem’s major theme is the transformative power of art: the ability of art to express the ineffable and to step outside the boundaries of self. Some concrete details of the poem might be read autobiographically, such as the speaker’s desire to leave his country, references to himself as an old man, “a tattered coat upon a stick,” and having a heart “sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal.” Although an old man, the speaker still feels the desire to sail to Byzantium and metaphorically to transcend the sensual music of Ireland. He wants to transform his own consciousness and find mystical union with the golden mosaics of a medieval empire.

The poet pleads with the sages in the mosaic to open the door and allow him entry into their world, where he might reflect on past, present, and future. With his body discarded, the poet’s concept of time changes. He is no longer the victim of a biological cycle but has liberated himself into a new world, capable of reaching over all eras. The poet leaves behind a temporal world of ignorant lust and physical celebration to gain the perspective of eternity.

Another of the poem’s broader meanings is the paradox of consciousness and the body. Yeats entertains the idea that consciousness might continue outside the restrictions of mind and body. The poet’s body falls apart, yet his faculties of imagination, soul, and spirit are still passionate and alive. Individuality fades away as the body dissolves in old age, and the poet finds himself reincarnated as a golden bird. This new form exceeds the realms of individuality because it merges with eternal art, the Byzantine mosaic.

While one may be tempted to read “Sailing to Byzantium” as only about the division between mind and body, Yeats’s theme of transformation goes far beyond this simple dichotomy. The poem also represents the idea that art supersedes nature. The poet avoids the necessary return to dust by joining “the artifice of eternity.” Great works of art, poetry, and song whose spirit expresses great desire have the power to overcome nature. In another poem, “Byzantium,” Yeats discusses the relationship between transcendent art and the human hands that made it. “Sailing to Byzantium” explores many levels of aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual transformation through which the poet journeys far beyond his native land.

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