W.B.Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium

                                          I

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 unageing intellect.

 

                                        II

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.

 

                                       III

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.  

 

                                       IV

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 enamelling

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. 

 

  • This poem was first published by Yeats in 1928, in his collection ‘The Tower’. 
  • The poem uses a journey to Byzantium (Constantinople) as a metaphor for a spiritual journey in Yeats’ imagination. 
  • Yeats retreats into his imagination, with the poem dramatizing Yeats’ own struggle to find consolation of old age and death. 
  • The protagonist in this poem is not Yeats, only a symbol and it is the speaker in the poem that refers back to a country that he has left (in Yeats’ case, this country is Ireland).  

Themes: 

The themes commonly seen throughout this poem are those of art and nature and how great art outstrips nature. Another theme is that great civilization controls and supersedes nature and desire and demonstrates this with great art. 

Structure:

The structure of thus poem is strict and formal with a weighty rhyme scheme of ABABABCC

Form:

The form is set out in separate Roman numeral stanzas – it is the Roman numerals that add a sense of formality. 

Carrying out further research on this poem, i have found a comment from Yeats himself on this poem. Yeats wrote in a draft for a 1931 BBC Broadcast: 

“I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”

Advertisements