Sailing To Byzantium: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      That (Ireland) is not the right place for old men because all are caught in a sensual music which makes them neglect the ageless artistic achievements of the intellect. In the country of dying generation of birds and young lovers celebrate things which are a slave to the natural cycle of birth and death. The young lovers who are in each other’s arms, the birds who are in the trees and the salmon-foils and the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, and fowl all sing only one song—the song of the senses. All these at the same time, are creatures who are very much subject to death.

Stanza II

      That country (Ireland) not being the right place for an old man who is otherwise a petty thing with his physical powers decaying continuously, the only alternative available for the old man is to have his soul educated in such a way that it starts to clap its hands and sing. In this state of robust joy, the soul has to sing louder with every tatter in its mortal dress. In other words, the newly learned song of the soul has to become louder and louder as the physical powers of the old man go from bad to worse. The only hurdle in this way is getting the right school where the soul can get educated which is difficult to find in that country because every singing school, instead of caring for monuments of unageing intellect is busy studying monuments of its own significance. As a result of the difficulty in finding the right school for his soul to be educated in that country, the poet decides to sail across seas and go to the holy city of Byzantium.

Stanza III

      Addressing the sages standing in god’s holy fire in Byzantium, the poet says: “O sages who are standing in God’s holy fire in the same way as a figure stands in the gold mosaic work (inlaid work of small pieces of different colored marble, glass etc.) of a wall, climb down from your position in a spiritual movement and be the educators of my soul so that my soul can learn the right kind of song—the song which becomes louder as the body decays more and more. The first thing you. will have to do will be to purify my heart because it is tied to the animal instincts of my body and is sick with physical desire. Once you have purified or consumed my heart away it will be easier for you to do what I most desire-gathering me into the artifice of eternity. In other words, I want to become part of those things which are beyond the cycle of birth and death.”

Stanza IV

      Once I am out of this circle of nature (being begotten, born, and dying) I will break all contact with natural things i.e., with the physical world. Instead of taking my bodily form from any natural thing I shall take a form like that which was hammered into golden shape and golden enameling. This was done by Grecian goldsmiths to form a golden bird who could sing to sleepy Emperor and keep him awake. I also want to be a golden bird gathered into the artifice of eternity so that I am set upon a golden bough in the court of Byzantium, that alone would enable me to sing of all times—past, present and future (of what is past, or passing or to come) to the Lords and Ladies of Byzantium. This song of mine will be different from the sensual music of dying generations and will sing of monuments of unageing intellect.

Explanation: L. 9-14

      An aged man is but.....magnificence: Sailing to Byzantium is one of Yeats’s most notable and beautiful poems about old age and ininiortality through art. The poem begins by stating that an old man has no place in the world of the young people who are all caught in sensual music. The usual meaning is that in the world of the young and the loving, ‘monuments of unageing intellect’ stand neglected. Yeats says that unless the soul is capable of singing evermore joyously an aged man is something very insignificant. Without the soul being able to sing in this way, an aged man is like a tattered coat upon a stick i.e, a scare-crow figure. The only trouble is that getting a school which can teach such singing is very difficult because all the existing schools of singing are busy singing and adding importance to monuments of their own insignificance. In this atmosphere of self-praise, ‘monuments or unageing intellect’ are naturally neglected.

Critical Comments

      These lines give expression to Yeats’s belief that in order to get immortality through art it is necessary to move away from the songs of the senses to songs celebrating ‘monuments of unageing intellect.’ These lines also tell us that the best way to counter-balance physical decay is to go on for spiritual things. The lines are remarkable for their manipulation of rhyme for poetic effect and for their economy of phrasing.

Critical Analysis


      Byzantium is the old name of Constantinople or Istanbul which was the capital of the Roman Empire. Byzantium, the Christian civilization which dominated the scene after the fall of Rome, seems to Yeats, as an ideal of culture and wisdom.

      In Sailing to Byzantium Yeats faces old age with the wish to forget his decaying body and educate his soul for immortality. To Yeats, whose life had been devoted to attempting to create lasting works of art, the immortality of magnificent artifice was appealing, and he imagines his soul after his body’s death, as a golden bird in the Emperor’s palace.

      The world to which Yeats wants to sail is a world in which the artist almost manages to reflect the vision of a whole people in a culture so integrated as to produce an art that will have the impact of a single image. The world he leaves transfixed by the sensual music of its singing birds is compounded of and celebrates decaying bodies. Unlike the golden bird which Yeats himself would like to be, the dying generation of the world’s real birds sing hymns distract all from the contemplation of that sort of art. It alone can justify an old man’s existence and the monuments of unageing intellect, which cannot be produced in modem chaotic times. The poem is a ritual to transform death, representing it as immortality and not denying the fact but creating it, transforming it and turning it into subjective purpose.

Development of Thought

      The First Stanza is full of the sensuality of the country which is not meant for old men. The young men and women are in close embrace, birds in trees, singing out of the excitement of the mating season and fish like salmons and mackerel swimming in the waters of the river and copulating as they move about. Fish, flesh and fowl are all caught in the sensual urge of the generation, which is only a process ending in death. In this universal preoccupation of sex and complete inversion is the flux of life. They can spare no thought for those masterpieces of art which are the product of ageless intellect.

      In the Second Stanza, the poet says that an aged man who looks like a scare-crow is quite out of place here. In such a situation that soul must clap its hands and sing its song, must grow louder as the outer garment gets more and more tattered.

      The Third Stanza sees the poet already in the whole city, Byzantium which with its church of St. Sophia is also the city of art suggesting permanence, perfection and form. The poet asks to be received into the order of the sage's in god’s holy fire and to be made all over to ‘consume my heart away’ which Yeats says is troubled with desire and united to an animal decaying body.

      In the Fourth Stanza Yeats yearns for freedom that Byzantium promises. He now comes to specify the artifice of eternity into which he wishes to be transformed. He will not take as his new form of any natural thing but the form of the golden bird which was designed by Greek artist to sit upon a golden bough to sing perpetually and keep the king awake. This bird’s song is supposed to be different from the sensual music referred to earlier. This bird rather will sing of what is past, or passing or to come i.e, of past, present and future.


      One of the stylistic achievements of Sailing to Byzantium is the success with which the images do justice to the contrast between the sensual world and the artifice of eternity. All the images which Yeats uses to signify the sensual world evoke both its power of enchantment and the permanence of life in this sensual world. The phrase movement of unageing intelligence. He  on the other hand, sums up the world which is contrasted with the sensual world represented by fish, flesh or fowl. The poem is very rich in its use of metaphor and symbols also. The two opposing sets of symbols as also the two opposing sets of intense and poignant images are allowed to interact with each other and the pattern is not only intricate but also it adds to richness of the texture of the poem. The analogy with music is also one of the principle working at the center of the poem. In the end, everything in the poem—image, metaphors, symbols, movement and stanza division contributes to strengthening the dilemma at the center of the poem which is admirably realized by doing full justice to the two set of choices available in the poem.

Critical Opinion

      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.”

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