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Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

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First stanza

That is no country for old men. The young
            In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
            – Those dying generations – at their song,
            The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
            Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
            Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
            Caught in that sensual music all neglect
            Monuments of unaging intellect.

Second stanza

            An aged man is but a paltry thing,
            A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
            Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
            For every tatter in its mortal dress,
            Nor is there singing school but studying
            Monuments of its own magnificence;
            And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
            To the holy city of Byzantium.

Third stanza

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
            Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
            And be the singing-masters of my soul.
            Consume my heart away; sick with desire
            And fastened to a dying animal
            It knows not what it is, and gather me
            Into the artifice of eternity.

Fourth stanza

            Once out of nature I shall never take
            My bodily form from any natural thing,
            But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
            Of hammered gold and gold enameling
            To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
            Or set upon a golden bough to sing
            To lords and ladies of Byzantium
            Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Summary of “Sailing to Byzantium”

The poet, in the poem “Sailing to Byzantium”, regards Ireland as a country for young men. Love-making, sensual life of nature, all that we call natural living is here, and intellectual life is neglected. The poet himself is feeling the meanness and worthlessness of his age and hence he goes to Byzantium, the center of Eastern Christianity and arts. He invokes the spirit of the great thinkers and artists of the days of Byzantium glory, asks them to burn his material body, and raises him among the spirits of eternity. Once he leaves the natural inclinations of the body, he will become an artist who has full control of his works of art like the forms made by Grecian goldsmiths.

Notes and Meanings

That is…men; Ireland is not a suitable country for the old people because it does not have so much spiritual progress which is needed for the old people. It only cares for the physical body, not for the soul. The poet was born in Ireland and is talking about the atmosphere of his country; the young…arms: young people love one another here: Those…generations: sweet birds are becoming less in number day by day. The salmon: a fish; Mackerel: a fish; Commend: praise, are busy in talking about. Begotten: given birth. Fish flesh…sizes: men, fish, and fowl live only on the physical plane; they do not bother about spiritual progress. Caught…music: they are busy in their bodily pleasures. (Poem: Sailing to Byzantium)

Neglect: do not care for. Monuments: memorials. Unageing intellect: the mind which does not grow old, immortal mind. Aged: old, paltry: not worth considering, ignorable. Tattered: torn. A tattered… sticks: a scarecrow, a useless fellow. Unless…sing: unless he gets spiritual joy due to his spiritual progress.

Louder…dress: he gets more spiritual progress as his body grows weaker and weaker day by day.

Mortal dress: body. Nor is…school – there is no school where one can get spiritual education and elevation; But…magnificence: the old man must himself progress spiritually. Sailed…seas: voyaged through the oceans. Holy: scared Byzantium: Constantinople, now Istanbul-the famous city of turkey. This was the seat of the Byzantium Empire which had its downfall in 1453. The Empire was Greek in origin and started in 395. the poet chose the city as the emblem and symbol of spiritual refinement and civilization; Sage: wise men, particularly spiritually wise people; God’s holy fire: standing there for purgation and purification of their soul; Mosaic: the art of inlaying stone or metal in a slab or wall of stone. Perne…gyre: whirl in a flight like a spire.

Be…soul: teach my soul the way to achieve spiritual progress. O sages…soul: O brave figures carved in the Byzantine churches, come to me and teach me how I can get spiritual progress. Consume: spend. Consume…away: give me spiritual ecstasy. Sick with desire: filled with desires.

Fastened: linked forcefully with. Dying animal: the mortal human body. And fastened animal: living in the mortal, aging body, the heart of the poet. It…it is: the soul (or the heart) does not know its own importance. Once…nature:  once when I die. I shall…thing: I would not take any bodily shape again. But…from: I shall take such a shape. Grecian goldsmith: the Byzantium Empire was a Greek empire and naturally Greek goldsmith must have made a piece of art for that empire. Hammered gold: gold made thin by hammering. Enameling: covering. Drowsy: going to sleep, dying.

To keep…awake: to immortalize a dead king in the shape of a gold-carved picture or statue. Bough: branch. Or set…bough: branch singing. To sing…come: this or such other pictures tell the stories of past, present, and future to the lords and ladies of Byzantium. The poet wants to become such a picture. He wants to become one with the Byzantium art, sculpture and painting.

Critical Appreciation

This is one of the representative poems of Yeats. Byzantium (the capital city of Byzantium: later on, known as Constantinople: mow-a-days known as Istanbul is supposed to be a symbol of spiritual progress by the poet who is fed up with bodily pleasures and senses. He has grown old and he feels that Ireland, his native land, is not a suitable land for old people. He wishes to get spiritual progress which is not at all possible in Ireland because materialism is in full swing there.

The poet wishes to get to Byzantium because there the life of man was controlled by a definite culture. He wants to get rid of his body which has grown old. He would find artistic creation of the supreme craftsmanship there in Byzantium. The most notable thing in the poem (Sailing to Byzantium) is the golden bird which symbolizes the artist.

The poem (Sailing to Byzantium) feels that his age developed meanness and worthlessness. That is why he sails to Byzantium in his imagination-to Byzantium, which was the center of Eastern Christianity and art and culture. It was a culture in which spiritualism had got its true share. The poet invokes the spirits of the great thinkers and artists of the days of Byzantium glory. He wishes to leave the natural inclination of the body, and get himself reborn in the world of Byzantium art and civilization. The poem is full of power.

Often, people also ask questions about the poems of W. B. Yeats. Some of these questions are as follows: Which poems carry the political thoughts of Yeats? What is Yeats’s most famous poem? What is the poem politics about? Was Yeats a Republican? You can find the answers to these questions by reading the articles related to W. B. Yeats.

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