W.B.Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium


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.



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.



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.  



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).  


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. 


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


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.”


W.B.Yeats – The Cold Heaven

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light. Ah! when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?

In this poem Yeats seems to be confused and this is reflected in the vagueness of the poem. The poem is romantic in style as it tries to transcend reason in order to focus upon emotion.

Oxymoron and Opposites

  • ‘Cold Heaven’ is the exact opposite of hell in terms of temperature.
  • ‘ice burned’ – this sounds doubtly torturous as both extremes of the temperature spectrum are explored.

Ending the poem with a question is a powerful device that reinforces the nystery of death and depiciton of the tortured soul released from its body but not from remorse. The final word of the poem is ‘pumishment?’ which is an idea that is central to the poem.

The modd of the poem is one of revelation and reflection, possibly remorse. Yeats’ own voice reflects upon the past and he blames himself for a failed affair of romantic love. There is a sense conveyed that he feels very much alone in accounting his past actions, and perhaps that we are all essentially alone in these matters.

W.B.Yeats – The Wild Swans At Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty, 

The woodland paths are dry, 

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky; 

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans. 


The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since I first made my count; 

I saw before I had well finished, 

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings. 


I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore. 

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, 

The first time on this shore, 

The bell-beat of their wings above my head, 

Trod with a lighter tread. 


Unwearied still, lover by lover, 

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air; 

Their hearts have not grown old; 

Passion or conquest, wander where they will, 

Attend upon them still. 


But now they drift on the still water, 

Mysterious, beautiful; 

Among what rushes will they build. 

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?


Coole Park, in County Galway, was the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, a playwright and nationalist whom Yeats met in 1898. They grew to be close and Yeats spent his summers with her at Coole Park, a peaceful and beautiful place, popular with other writers.

In The Wild Swans at Coole the poet-narrator has come to the end of another summer there. It is now autumn and he reflects on how quickly time passes, and how helpless we are to alter time’s path. The swans – unlike him – appear unchanging. The passing of time and the change he sees in himself upsets him.


The poem is written in a regular stanza form. it is a modified ballad format which gives the image of perfection that the swans complete. 


The poem is a mixture of short and long lines which add to the sense of tranquility and slow shifting peace. The tempo is slow and formal which matches the appearance of the swan. 

Attitudes and Ideas

Yeats wrote this poem at the age of fifty-one. He realises that so much has changed since he first came and saw the swans at Coole Park, both in his life and in the wider world. It is the ‘nineteenth autumn’ that he has been there, a thought which upsets him: ‘and now my heart is sore’ 


Time: whatever the circumstances humanity cannot conquer time. Yeats knows this and is saddened at this idea.

Change: just as the passing of time is inevitable, so is change, and not necessarily for the better. Yeats describes the swans as unchanging to contrast the change within himself. 

Relationships: there is a sense that one type of change that Yeats has seen is in his relationship with other such as that with Maude Gonne. Again, the swans contrast with this idea as they remain with their chosen partners for life. Image

W.B. Yeats – September 1913

This poem by Yeats was first published in Irish Times 8th September 1913 and was orginally called ‘Romance in Ireland’. It was written in response to controversies of Parnell and his private scandal and how people were unwilling to respond. The target of the poem was largely catholic Ireland.

The language used in this poem impresses the reader with a sense of loss of degragation, and encourages us to remember what might have been.

The poem reminds contemporarys to look for a better/richer way of life and the whole poem is full of punchy, monosyllabic words, that give energy to anger and disgust. The poem can feel negative but the second verse changes the tone.

Personally I feel that the poem is Yeats way of making the reader think that they have forgotten about the heroes of Ireland.

W.B. Yeats – ‘Leda And The Swan’

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still 

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark web, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.


How can those terrified vague fingers push  

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush, 

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?


A shudder in the loins endangers there 

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

                      Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power,

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

When first hearing about this particular piece of Yeats’ work I was both baffled and intrigued. The subject matter of the poem, being based on that of Greek mythology, whereby Zeus takes the form of a swan and rapes a young girl Leda. Unsurprisingly it was this that first drew my attention to the poem an upon an analyse I have found it to in my opinion, one of Yeats’most interesting pieces. As mentioned in my post yesterday, it is not uncommon for pieces of literature to relate to pieces of art work, in the case of the particular it certainly calls to mind paintings by Da Vinci and Michelangelo who both take on the subject matter of this piece of Green mythology. 

The poem display an uncomfortable degree of beauty in relation to the subject matter which places the reader in a precarious position of having to identify both Leda and her rapist, Zeus. 

Upheaval. change, force, violence and power are all dominating themes in the poem. Leda is overpowered by the god Zeus and in her moment of violent action with the swan she becomes impregnated with his powerful offspring-Helen of Troy, this then conveys to the reader a sense of an act of evil only gives birth to more evil. Along with becoming impregnated, Leda also absorbs the dark knowledge of the fate of Troy. In the moment when she is “caught up” and “mastered by the brute blood of air” she is exposed to the dangerous and volatile idea that change comes through violence and aggression. This mimics Yeats own ideas. Yeats believed that change was cyclical. As Troy lost to Grecian forces because of the sin committed by Zeus against Leda the sins of England would likewise be visited upon them as Ireland gained independence through revolution, and change 

Just as Greece entered a new age, beginning with the rape of Leda, Ireland will enter a new complex and questioning age of societal and governmental change.Yeats is tackling more than just the dynamic between Leda and Zeus or Ireland and England. Yeats is also tackling the conflict between the human and the divine.

Camille Paglia, who called the poem “the greatest poem of the twentieth century,” and said “all human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the ‘white rush’ of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of art.” 

This criticism is something that I largely agree with. I have found this piece to be, personally Yeats’  most interesting, due to its challenging and complex subject matter and the interesting, yet questionable degree of beauty.  

W.B. Yeats – The Second Coming

With its stunning, violent imagery and terrifying ritualistic language, “The Second Coming” is one of Yeats’s most famous and most anthologized poems; it is also one of the most thematically obscure and difficult to understand. (It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction.) Structurally, the poem is quite simple—the first stanza describes the conditions present in the world (things falling apart, anarchy, etc.), and the second surmises from those conditions that a monstrous Second Coming is about to take place, not of the Jesus we first knew, but of a new messiah, a “rough beast,” the slouching sphinx rousing itself in the desert and lumbering toward Bethlehem. This brief exposition, though intriguingly blasphemous, is not terribly complicated; but the question of what it should signify to a reader is another story entirely.

From a personal perspective, when reading this poem images of those such as Hieronymus Bosch’s depictions of hell specifically come to mind. This is due mainly to images that Yeats conveys in this poem through his language. Hieronymus Bosch was a Dutch painter with his work being well known for its use of fantastic imagery to illustrate moral and religious concepts and narratives. In his works Bosch depicts his idea of ‘hell’, it is these works that come to mind when I read ‘The second Coming’ by Yeats as both pieces express their own images of a hell like matter but through different medians. Image 

W.B. Yeats – ‘A Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ continued

Yesterday, my blog entry was focused on the poem ‘A Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ written by Yeats. In this entry I made a few brief notes on when the poem was written and, that the airman written about is said to be that of Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats and the son of Lady Gregory.

In today’s blog entry I will not continuing work on ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ however, I will today voice my opinion on the poem, expressing both my thoughts and feelings and the evidence that supports these views.

Firstly, I find a Yeats’ work to have tone of morbidity – which can also be said to be present in this particular piece of his work, this I think is a view which can be expressed with only one reading of the poem, it is with closer analysis of this piece that I think it can be seen that it is not a tone of morbidity but rather that of freedom.

I feel that freedom is the most prominent theme throughout the poem. Personally,I find that this theme of freedom can be seen in the title of the poem with the word ‘Death’  this is significant as it shows that the airman himself, knows he is going to die in a war that was futile – this gives the poem it’s sense of fatality and that it makes no different, this is turn conveys the theme of freedom as it is though the airman is being set free from normal justification of war. This airman is not fighting for neither country of duty but instead he is fighting for himself.

The theme of freedom can also be seen in the mere setting of the poem, in the fact that it is written with the airman being in the sky, which gives him detachment from the rest of mankind. The repetition of the word ‘clouds’ portray this theme of freedom as they convey an image that the airman is by himself in the ‘clouds’ with only his thoughts as company, this then in turn shows the depth of intimacy of these thoughts.

Referring back to my original point, I feel that this poem is not with a tone of morbidity but rather that of fate and freedom. The poem is a grandly romantic assertion of individuality and independence at a time when those things were subordinated. The ‘fight’ that this airman is fighting is a kind of philosophy that suggests meaning in life is gained through an embracing of responsibility by ones self and a freedom from other agencies. Open to interpretation this poem can be seen as irresponsible in its refusal to come to terms with the war in moral terms however this is something that I disagree with. I feel that although the poem does not directly address the violence that occurred during The First World War,it still gives an insight, as it shows the thoughts of one as an individual and creates a persona above historical context and it is portrayed with this persona,the politics of conflict the airman has willingly entered.

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