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An Analysis of “Sailing to Byzantium”

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The poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of the most substantial pieces included in W.B. Yeats’s final book “The Tower”. Created in the later years of his life, many of the poems in The Tower deal with the issues of old age and leaving the natural world, but none so strongly as “Sailing to Byzantium”. Byzantium itself symbolized eternity to Yeats; it was an ancient city that represented a place of artistic and intellectual permanence. Yeats believed that “”in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architects and artificers… spoke to the multitude in gold and silver.

The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.” (Yeats 279-280) The eternal existence of both those worlds together, intellect and art together as one without being effected by an aging body and natural surrounding, was something that Yeats desired as an older man (perhaps earlier in life too). “Sailing to Byzantium” is evidence of that main theme that is present in many of the poems in The Tower; the growing contradiction between Yeats aging body and his still youthful mind, and his ideas on the contrast between the constantly fading natural world and the ever constant world of art.

The immediate issue brought forth in the first stanza of the poem is the impermanence of the natural state of the world, and the fact that everything living must one day meet an end. “That is no country for old men” means both Ireland and the natural world in general, where “fish flesh or fowl, commend all summer long/whatever is begotten born and dies.” The fish, birds, and “those dying generations” all represent natural entities that will one day pass, even though they are caught in “that sensual music” of the song birds (which is a symbol for life and the sensual world) and appear to be living most happily. Yeats suggests that despite their apparent happiness, each is condemned to death; their mortality is inescapable, and that they are neglecting “monuments of unaging intellect”, the artistic world or a world of permanence and the mind.

The next stanza focuses on the aging process of life, and how the ideal of keeping artistic permanence and a youthful mind cannot be achieved by having a connection with anything natural. “An aged man is but a paltry thing/a tattered coat upon a stick”, the image of a tattered coat resting on a stick represents the idea of a scarecrow; something that is lifeless and hollow, with no blood flowing through its veins; an object that is inanimate and lacking in anything that makes it truly human. If someone is human only in mind, than they are a “paltry thing”, someone that is of little importance unless their soul can “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/for every tatter in its mortal dress”. Yeats conveys here that the soul can only be liberated from the constraints of the human body by somehow connecting the mind with a greater power. “Therefore I have sailed the seas and come/to the holy city of Byzantium”, which Yeats believed to be not only the city of artistic permanence, but also “a holy city that was the capital of Christianity, meaning it was closely connected with God” (Jeffares 252). Yeats essential idea is that in order for the soul to achieve such a spiritual connection, it must leave behind all things in the sensual world.

In the third stanza, Yeats describes how one can leave behind the natural world to enter the immortal world of Byzantium. Yeats recalls golden mosaics he saw in the church of Saint Apollinaire Nuova when he visited Ravenna, Italy in 1907 (Pethica 80) of the “sages standing in God’s holy fire, as in the gold mosaic of a wall.” The picture of these “sages” was in actuality a picture of martyrs being burned for their faith, and it can be seen as the ultimate way to make a transition between the natural world and Byzantium; to be burned by God’s holy fire and let the intellect of the soul leave the human form. A key fact about the figures in the Byzantine mosaic is that they have not themselves succumbed to effects of time because they are made of gold. Yeats saw gold as representing an untarnished brilliance and permanence, and later in the poem requests to become hammered into a golden bird with golden enameling so that he can withstand time as well.

Because these “sages” have made the perfect transition between these two worlds, he calls on them to be his guides on his voyage to Byzantium, to be the “singing masters” of his soul and to help him break free from his decrepit body which he now sees as a “dying animal”. “Terror and content, birth and death, love and hatred, and the fruit of the Tree, are but instruments for that supreme art which is to win us from life and gather us into eternity.” Yeats wanted to leave his human form and become “gathered into the artifice of eternity”, and believes that this can only be accomplished by leaving behind the sensual world.

The final stanza of the poem is where Yeats approaches the unrealistic side to finding Byzantium; the truth behind the desire to obtain access to this permanent world of art. In the first line, Yeats says that he would not take the “bodily form of any natural thing” once reaching Byzantium so that he would never be susceptible to time and would never age, similar to how art never decays or ages. He wanted to take the form of a bird, a bird made “of hammered gold and gold enameling” like the mosaics in Ravenna, so that he would never age and would always be permanent. However, as the last stanza continues, Yeats contradicts himself and his belief that the world of artistic permanence is the ideal world. Yeats writes that he would be a golden bird made to sing and “keep a drowsy emperor awake” (an image based on golden birds that adorned trees in the palace of the Byzantine emperor) (Petica 81); one has to wonder why an emperor would be drowsy in a perfect world, and why he would have to be kept awake by the song of a bird.

Also, the fact that Yeats’ golden bird would be singing and rousing the emperor and the lords and ladies of Byzantium is contradictory, because then it is the natural beauty, the sensual beauty of the singing that keeps them awake, not the timeless golden enameling of the birds. This is the first clue that the imagination always remains within bounds of mortality. The final line of he poem cements this belief, because though Yeats has still written line after line about making the transition to a world of artistic permanence where time does not exist, his closing line “of what is past, or passing, or to come” reflects the line in the first stanza “whatever is begotten born and dies”, showing that separating the intellect from the body, and the natural world from the world of artistic permanence is something that is nearly impossible, or completely impossible to achieve.

“Sailing to Byzantium” sets out to display the superiority of the world of art; to show that permanence can be achieved through art as in Byzantium, and that human life by contrast is temporary. Yeats uses contrasting images of the sensuous world and the world of art throughout the poem, such as the singing fowl and the golden birds, the “young dying in each others arms” and the “sages”, creating a tension and conflict which he hopes to resolve by the end. Though the main idea the poem is to resolve that such a state can be achieved, it can be interpreted as the permanent artistic world is almost an impossible place to reach instead of an attainable one. Yeats sets out to prove that humans can transcend the natural world, but in his closing stanza, leaves us to believe that there is no world of artistic permanence without the presence of nature or without the influence of natural entities.

Works Cited:

1) Jeffares, Norman A. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1979.

2) Pethica, James. Yeats Poetry, Drama, and Prose. New York: W.W. Nortan & Company, 2000.

3) Yeats, William Butler. A Vision. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1966.

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