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Sailing to Byzantium. William Yeats Lecture 26. “Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928 as part of Yeats’ collection, The Tower, contains only four stanzas and yet is considered to be one of the most effective expressions of Yeats’ artistic craft.

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sailing to byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

William Yeats

Lecture 26


“Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928 as part of Yeats’ collection, The Tower, contains only four stanzas and yet is considered to be one of the most effective expressions of Yeats’ artistic craft.

  • To escape the agony of old age, Yeats decides to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics (completed mainly during the sixth and seventh centuries) could become the “singing-masters” of his soul.

In 1931, Yeats wrote that he chose to “symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city” because “Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.”

  • The poem is noteworthy for its evocative imagery and interwoven phrases as the poet immerses in life and at the same time strives for permanence.
  • Byzantium was the capital in 5th, 6th C of the Roman Empire (recently ‘Istanbul’) but here it is an imaginary land.
stanza 1
Stanza 1

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,

Image of the natural world; of life and fertility where young of all species are commending the flesh.

Description of state of youth, a sensuous and violent life , and emphasis on productivity and regeneration.


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.

Monuments…intellect: art , poetry, literature

the sensuality is contrasted with the intellectual, while the transitory with the permanent – the soul should be free of the shackles imposed by the sensuous passions.

stanza 2
Stanza 2

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,

Paltry: insignificant

Tattered…stick: a scare-crow

Mortal dress: body

After the death of the body, the soul is free.


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.

Studying…magnificence: the soul can only learn to sing by studying the monuments of permanence.

stanza 3
Stanza 3

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.

Poet asks the sages to be the singing-master’s of his soul and to descend upon him with hawk-like movement and to purify his heart.


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.

Dying animal: the body

He wants the soul to be set free of the decaying body – mortality contrasted with eternity- when the soul is freed of sensual desires it would be transformed into an object of eternal value.

stanza 4
Stanza 4

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

Yeats’ cyclic nature of birth and rebirth.

He wants to be transformed into a singing bird made of hammered gold like the one the Grecian goldsmiths make.


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.

He wants to be eternal.

  • The source of several major themes in “Sailing to Byzantium” can be found in Yeats’ 1925 work, A Vision (1925), in which he develops his cyclical theory of life.
  • In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats used the concept of the spiraling gyre to suggest that opposite concepts—such as youth and age, body and soul, nature and art, transient and eternal—are in fact mutually dependent upon each other.

Yoked together by the gyre and the poem itself, the mutually interpenetrating opposites—thesis and antithesis—resolve in such a way as to produce a synthesis that contains a larger truth (Hegel’s theory of dialectic).

  • “Sailing to Byzantium” has at least two symbolic readings, both mutually interdependent upon the other. The poem is both about the journey taken by the speaker's soul around the time of death and the process by which, through his art, the artist transcends his own mortality.

Byzantium represents what Yeats, in A Vision, calls “Unity of Being,” in which “religious, aesthetic and practical life were one” and art represented “the vision of a whole people.”

  • An important theme is the superiority of the art over the natural. The artificial is seen as perfect and unchanging while the natural world is prone to ugliness and decay.