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.