Sailing to Byzantium

Notes by Manoj Sadwahani

The title of the collection from which ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is taken is The Tower; the title may reference the Tower of Babel. This myth, originating in the Old Testament, recognises that even when people come together for good, a higher force can separate them. A combination of men built the tower, but God destroyed it because he did not like it, and then he divided up the people. Yeats could be making reference to the destruction caused by WW1 through his naming of his collection thus. He could also be hinting at the notion that differences in cultures are unavoidable and / or that even the power of language has its limitations. The collection may also be named ‘The Tower’ as the majority of the collection was written at Yeats’ summer house Thoor Ballylee, known as ‘The Tower’ and originally forming part of the Gregory estate at Coole Park.

‘Byzantium’, which is the former name of Istanbul, has come, over the years to be synonymous with artistic freedom; the fact that ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is the title chosen by Yeats already thus hints at the metaphorical search for artistic perfection. Yeats chooses ‘Sailing’ to Byzantium, because it places more emphasis on the journey than the destination. The sea is an inefficient route to Byzantium, yet the poet/the persona in this poem chooses to take it anyway, to represent his opinion of the importance of the journey; of course metaphorically ‘life’ is the journey – Yeats is effectively suggesting that he knows Byzantium is an impossibility.

It is vital to remember that this poem is not about the Byzantium that actually exists – because, of course, by the time that Yeats was writing the poem, it didn’t (the city has been called variously Byzantium, Nova Roma, Constantinople and Istanbul throughout its history and is famous as a key geographical point of flux and change).

In the poem, Yeats suggests that has already left Ireland, the place he is referring to, by saying ‘That is no country for old men’. Yeats does not feel like he belongs in Ireland anymore, the country he refers to, because they are caught up in the cycle of life and death, in war, and in ‘sensual music’ [i.e. action for the sole sake of sensation/satisfaction]. Therefore, he commences his journey to Byzantium, for its decadent associations, and asks God’s ‘sages’ to take his body away; at this point Yeats wishes to be immortal and to be granted a body that lives on forever. He is scornful in this portrayal of the place he has already left, by stating the irrelevance of ‘the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees’. He is scornful of the folly of youth – it is this youth and the images of plenty that oppose so painfully the poet’s state of age and decay. We can cross-reference Yeats’ frustrations with the ineffective waste of youth to his poem ‘Among School Children’.

The images of plenty ironically bring to mind the death and destruction caused by the wars (civil war in Ireland/against the British/WW1), and the lack of meaning behind all of it; time will pass, and it / sacrifice will all be forgotten (link to Yeats’ theories on gyres), whereas art is non-transient and will live on forever. The meaning in this poem seems to contrast with the ideas expressed in earlier works such as ‘Easter 1916’.

Yeats renders his feeling of a lack of accomplishment with, ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing’; he is describing himself as someone who has accomplished a disappointingly little amount. He mentions this in another of his poems ‘Among School Children’; Yeats entails ‘a momentary wonder stare upon a sixty-year-old smiling public man’; this is a point at which Yeats begins to reflect and question his achievements in his life thus far. He feels he could accomplish a whole lot more the second time around. Yeats refers to a scarecrow, ‘A tattered coat upon a stick’, because it eliminates the birds (metaphor here for flippant, passing experience)and of course is an image of pity.

Yeats exposes his frustration with the war, and the way in which no one else is learning what they should from all the deaths associated with it. This poem was published in 1928, after majority of the deaths (which occurred in 1916/7), yet there is still so much violence going on in Ireland through on-going violence between the IRA and the Unionists/British. Yeats decides he is going learn from the mistakes of others, himself, and says this is the reason he has ‘sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium’. He places more importance on the journey, even if it is longer, because he knows in the end everyone will die; this is significant, because it backs up his wish of producing art that will live on forever.

Yeats has had many disappointments in life, such as Maud Gonne’s multiple rejections of his marriage proposals; therefore he describes his life as ‘pern[ing] in a gyre’ and seems to accept that he has no control over his life. Gonne played a major role in the Irish revolution, and was a prominent political figure at the time in Ireland. Yeats was not a fan of her involvement in politics, and felt it ruined her. He gives this implication in ‘Among School Children’, when he says ‘her present image floats into the mind-did Quattrocentro finger fashion it’, it becomes clear that he is not impressed with her present image.

He says, ‘consume my heart away’ – the emotion behind this line is also seen in ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, because he would rather his soul carry on into eternity, while his body inevitably gives up; he states he wants to be in ‘the artifice of eternity’. Yeats wants the sages to use an artifice to make him eternal; he clearly despises the pain that comes with mortality. In the last stanza, Yeats states that he never wants to take his bodily form again, but wants to take the form that ‘Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling’. Yeats wants to be a golden statue in Byzantium, in order to become a part of, ‘what is past, or passing, or to come.’ He wants himself to live on in the form of, for example, a golden bird: a thing of beauty that never has to endure the painful truths of life. Yeats wants to know the answers about the meaning of life etc, but doesn’t want to have to suffer for this knowledge to be obtained.

The form of the poem is Ottava Rima, (a-b, a-b, a-b, c-c), which is a classical form, and is commonly used for heroic/Romantic poems. The Romantic poets inspired Yeats by expressing how they lived their lives in solitude, with unreciprocated love- just the way Yeats has lived. They placed absolute value on emotions – believing that these (as opposed to reason) would yield answers. Yeats re-wrote the poem three times, and upon eventually having it typed, he then edited further. It is as though he is searching for his ‘Byzantium’, (idealised place), through this work of art, and will settle for nothing less than perfection.

19 thoughts on “Sailing to Byzantium

  1. Really useful notes, thanks! What do people think Yeats is saying about the role of art and culture in this poem?

  2. Hey sir. I think Yeats is saying that art and culture are what a culture leaves behind for those that come after them, a legacy for the younger generations to live up to. Yeats obviously wanted to become part of this legacy, if not in Ireland, then maybe in Byzantium. Ten points if you can guess who wrote this.

    • Hmmm who could it be?
      Why do you think that Yeats has chosen to write about this topic at this stage of his life?

      • Because he probably feels that as he gets older he has less and less time to make an impact. We all know how pessimistic he is.

      • We can see yeats’s fear of death and his agnostic views appearing in this poem. He believs that death is the end of a being, and that the soul does not live in in an afterlife.
        Therefore he is scared as he fears his death approaching

  3. In my opinion, Sailing to Byzantium is a poem of mystical images. It symbolises art and culture through the use of colour. Through out the last stanza “Gold” is repeated several times which could suggest a protection of art and this is also a comparission between Yeats ageing and the image of God and gold that is eternal. Byzantium is presented as a holy city where a never ending journey is possible.

    • I like the idea of the poem being full of mystical images, why do you think that Yeats feels this way?

  4. I believe that this poem is Yeats’ last attempt to dismiss his aging. Although he seems to accept, “that is no country for old men”, and that, “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”; he seems he does not want to let go of the fact he is effectively, “past it”. He argues that although he is aging, the art that he has created, in form of poetry, are, “Monuments of unaging intellect”.

  5. I think that Yeats wants to escape the natural world.The title alone suggests an escape to a distant, imaginary land. Yeats would like escape from the natural world to be transformed into some object of art having an eternal value, in “..the holy city of Byzantium.

  6. Yeats uses the art and culture of Byzantium in comparison to himself and his poetry. He seems to think of himself as being on the same level as the unaging, gold mosaics of Byzantium in the first stanza. I think that this is because, compared to modern Ireland, he sees himself as very cultured and superior to the natural world which he often uses in his poems (such as The Fisherman and Stolen Child) to symbolise Ireland —
    ”Fish, flesh, or fowl… begotten, born, and dies.””

    However, later in the poem he describes himself as ”A tattered coat upon a stick.” This imagery of a scarecrow represents the fact that yeats sees himself as distanced from Ireland — as though he is a scarecrow standing in for a real human, but also that he does not see himself as equal to Byzantium’s ancient art, as a scarecrow could be seen as a poor attempt at a sculpture.

  7. I think that Yeats is trying to satisfy his need for immortality and his fear of death and being forgotten by using (in his world) the immortal form of poetry. He is also comparing Ireland a previous hub of romantic imagery to byzantium and bringing to light all that Ireland has lost.

    • Ottava Rima form, which is generally used for heroic types of poems, pretty ironic to use epic form for an ‘aged man’ describing himself as ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’.. Used by romantic poets frequently in order to express emotions as means of yielding answers. Pretty formal, divided into four eight line stanzas however doesn’t always stick to form as Yeats uses half rhyme e.g. wall/soul. Metred in iambic pentametre..

  8. I feel that his talk of “the young in each others arms” isn’t simply scorn; that is much too simplistic for a man who underwent dubious operations (monkey glands) to maintain his sexual activities. It seems to be much more of an attempt, much like his reference to “Byzantium” of appearing or attempting to convince himself of his disinterest in his previous life in Ireland and his youth. Yet we cannot ignore the reminiscent undertones in the poem, despite his obvious anger and disgust at his age.

  9. Could ‘salmon falls’ ‘mackerel crowded seas’ ‘sailing’ potentially allow this poem to be linked to the fisherman?

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