Notes by Will Fairbairn
- The Poem was inspired by strange sky patterns; it is revelatory. Yeats is confused and this is reflected by the vagueness of the poem.
- It is revelatory also as it has biblical allusions: ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.’ – Revelation 21: 1. This reflects confusion, and confounds any beliefs that ‘heaven’ is synonymous with peace.
- Romantic in style – tries to transcend reason in order to focus on emotion.
Oxymorons and Opposites
- ‘Cold Heaven’ is the exact opposite of Hell in terms of temperature.
- ‘ice burned’ – This sounds doubly torturous as both extremes of the temperature spectrum are explored. opposites and oxymorons are also explored in The Cat and the Moon with directions, which the ‘Cat’ going ‘here and there’ and the moon ‘spinning round like a top’ and Easter 1916 ‘a terrible beauty is born’. all these opposites demonstrate that some relationships cannot work because they are too irreconcilable.
- ‘By the injustice of the skies for punishment?’ – The persona of Sailing to Byzantium seeks the skies as a source of ‘unaging intellect; not punishment.
Form and Structure
- Made Up of Alexandrines woven into free verse, reflecting order with chaos. by blending the two opposites Yeats reflects his own confusions about the afterlife.
- Loads of enjambement ‘Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven/ That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,’ the continuous flow of words seams like a stream-of-consciousness. It also reflects the rush of thought that is the result of a revelation
- ‘rocking to and fro’ – Line length, both the number of stresses and number of characters, rock back and forth. Scanning the lines, the number of accents is: 6, 7, 5, 6, 6, 7, 5, 6, 7, 5, 6, 5. This reflects the ‘reeling’ of the atmosphere.
- The poem is split to form a pseudo-volta with spondees on awkward-to-pronounce vowels, each an o-sound:
With the hót blóod of yóuth, of lóve cróssed lóng agó;
The mood of the poem relaxes after it and the momentum lapses before building up towards the end.
- ‘…Vanished and left but memories, that should be out of season/With the hot blood of youth..’
Yeats argues that the young should not be concerned with death yet in Sailing to Byzantium Yeats mocks the innocence of yout and rebukes them for ‘commend[ing] all summer long/ Whatever is begotten, born and dies.’ Also ‘out of season’ foreshadows The Wild Swans at Coole, as this is another poem where Yeats concerns himself with the his aging self.
- ‘rook-delighting’ – omen of death. This contrasts with heaven to make us even more confused as to how good or bad the afterlife is.
- ‘Ah!’ could be an epiphany and brings the poem to a complete stand-still. It is the crux, and from hereon in the poem accelerates to a climax.
- The word ‘memories’ foreshadows The Man and the Echo and hence immediately makes us think of regret, and ‘love crossed long ago;’ a typical Yeatsian allusion to Maud Gonne; another poem in which Yeats is regretful of not consummating his love for her. Instead, she remains his Muse. However, on the other hand, would Yeats’ poetry have degraded if a relationship with her materialised? Keats made his sacrifice with Fanny Brawne, so must Yeats follow suit?
- It ends with a rhetorical question, similar to Leda and the Swan, Among Schoolchildren, and The Second Coming. Yeats does not provide answers through his poetry, only more questions.
- The phrase ‘riddled with light’ conveys ‘punishment’ but it is unsure whether this punishment is physical or psychological. The light could refer to a shocking metaphorical ‘enlightening’ or could be a more literal blinding light. The ‘Ah!’ that proceeds it could be an exclamation of pain as well as the hitherto discussed hypothesis that it is a verbalised epiphany.
- Yeats puns on ‘love crossed long ago;’ This alludes to the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ from opening sonnet of Romeo and Juliet yet also could also suggest that he has passed this crossroad in his life and has moved on from Maud Gonne.
- ‘And I took all the blame out of sense and reason’ – this begs the question, then what is left. This line strongly supports Yeats’ enlightenment.