Sailing to Byzantium Summary and Analysis: William Butler Yeats

Read below our detailed study guide on the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. Our guide covers Sailing to Byzantium summary, introduction, themes, and analysis.

Sailing to Byzantium Introduction:

This poem was written in 1927 and published in ‘The Tower’ in 1929. This poem represents a picture of voyage from the material world to the holy city of Byzantium. The poem is about the spiritual quest. The poet faces old age and wishes to forget his decaying. He, thus, wants to educate his soul for immortality.

Sailing to Byzantium Summary:

Stanza 1:

There is no country for old men

The poet says that Ireland is not the right place for old men, anymore. Here we can see the aging poet in this stanza.

The young

In one another`s arms,

It means that all the young people including men and women have engrossed themselves in the sexual and amorous activities.

The birds in trees,

The birds are celebrating their existence in the parchments of the trees. All of them are involved in love and fun making.

Those dying generations- at their song,

Those dying generations refer to the idea of the reproductive process and sexuality among men and women. The poet wants to say that all of them are indulged in such activities happily.

The Solomon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh or fowl commend all summer long

He says that all of these men and women, water falls, fishes, birds and all beings are enjoying the summer with all its bliss. They are singing the songs of senses and beauty and joy.

Whatever is begotten, born and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

The poets says that all the creatures are bound to born and death, and they are unable to escape this cycle of life death. But the idea of the poet is that they all have neglected this cycle because they are into the sensual joys of beauties and activities.

Stanza 2:

An aged man is but a paltry thing

A tattered coat upon a stick.

The poet says that old man is only and only a mere thing having no real importance in the business of life. He compares the old man to a worn out coat which is hanging on the stick having no use. Similarly the old man has no use in this life and only destination that awaits him is death.

Unless soul clap his hands and sing

The poet says that the only available option for the old is that his soul be educated. Once his soul is educated then he will sing and sing louder because he will get the vision and true essence of life.

And louder sing,

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

The poet says that this old man once his soul is educated has to be happy and sing louder and louder because has no physical strength and the death is also to arrive. So, even, his soul get educated, yet, his survival becomes difficult.

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

He says that the education of soul is difficult in this Ireland because there is no proper school in the country to educate the soul because they are no indulged in such great works rather they study their own importance. He laments over the lack of education given to soul.

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium

Yeats says that he could not find any school for soul education in the country so he has moved to the holy city of Byzantium which is across the seas.

Stanza 3:

O sages standing in God`s holy fire

The poet has entered to the holy city of Byzantium and he sees that the sages are standing in the holy fir so he addresses the sages.

As in the gold mosaic of a wall

He tells that these poets are standing in the holy fire as a figure stands in the gold mosaic work.

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing-masters of my soul.

The poet asks the sages to come from the holy fire and spin in the gyre so that his soul can get the education. He wants these sages to be the leader of his souls and to guide him for purification. Gyre means a circular or spiral motion of form. Yeats in his ‘A Vision’ says that history is a series of opposing gyres of historical change.

Consume my heart away, sick with desires

And fastened to a dying animal

The poet prays to the saints to come and purge his heart of all the materialistic and sensual desires. He says that his heart is all sick with these worldly pleasure so these saints can come and purify his heart. The poets clearly tells that his is overwhelmed by the animal instincts and all his desires are animalistic in nature. He wants to be a purified man.

It knows not what it is

The poets refers to his heart and says that my heart does not its reality and essence. He says that the worldly affairs have corrupted my heart and now it is unaware of what to do.

And gather me

Into the artifice of eternity

He then says the purge him so that he becomes a sort of immortal art. Here the poet wants to escape the cycle of birth and death. He wants to be permanent.

Stanza 4:

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing

The poet says that once he get purified and escapes from the cycle of death and birth he will cut of his relations from all the worldly things because they corrupt his heart.

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enameling

To keep a drowsy king awake

Or set up on a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The poet says that once he gets purified, he will become the gold bird. The gold bird was made by the ancient goldsmith so that it could sing to the king and make him awake. He wants to be such a piece of art as golden bird. Then he says he would be like the golden bird to awake the king or he would sit in the golden bough to sing the stories of past, present and future to the people who would come to the holy city of Byzantium.

Sailing to Byzantium Themes:

Transformation:

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. He wants to transform his own consciousness and find mystical union with the golden mosaics of a medieval empire. “Sailing to Byzantium” explores many levels of aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual transformation through which the poet’s journey starts far beyond his native land.

Sailing to Byzantium Analysis:

  • ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ takes the form of the ottava rima, an Italian verse form of eight lines rhymed abababcc.
  • The title suggests an escape to a remote and imagery land where Yeats achieve mystical union the pretty eternal work or art.
  • Byzantium may refer to the ancient city of Istanbul which was the capital of Byzantine Empire in 5th and 6th
  • Byzantium also refers to the historical holy city of Eastern Christendom, the poet makes it a secular city of poetic imagination.
  • Herald Bloom in his book Yeats 1970 says; “ God`s holy fire in this poem is not a state where the creator and his creation are one, as in Blake, but rather a stale where the creator has been absorbed into his creation, where the art work or artifice draws all reality into itself.”
  • The 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.
  • Why Byzantium? Yeats made its significance clear in a script he wrote for a BBC radio broadcast in 1931:

I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”