Yeats Journey from Sensual to Spiritual in Sailing to Byzantium

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      In his later poetry, Yeats expresses a growing concern with the problem of age and the attitude appropriate to it. Sailing to Byzantium presents one view of old age and the proper attitude to it. “Is a time to leave behind the sensual mire of the dying generations” old age, according to Yeats in this poem and to contemplate on the "artifice of eternity.” Old age is useless if at that time one does not respond to spirituality, or the soul’s claps and songs.

      The opening stanza evokes a richly concrete picture of instinctive life with the images of sensual delight occupying the young of all species which sing out of excitement. But they express the world of flux and death in perpetual motion. The old man has no place amidst this “sensual music.” The only justification of old age is the contemplation of those artifacts which proclaim the glory of the spirit and unageing intellect above the transitory song of the body. Thus, the poet in his old age makes his voyage to Byzantium—a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. There he will choose the form of a golden bird whose song will be totally different from the “sensual music” of birds in the former country. Sailing to Byzantium can be interpreted as a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. But there is much more involved in this complex poem. It symbolizes a psychological change from a mentality which values the pleasure of sexuality and the flesh, to one which values things of the mind, the spirit and the soul. “The poem can be taken on a number of levels — as the transition from sensual art to intellectual art; as the poet’s new and brilliant insight into the nature of Byzantine imagination; as the poet’s coming to terms with age and death,” as Cleanth Brooks observes.

University Questions

Sailing to Byzantium deals with Yeats’s journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. Do you agree?

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