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,” 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.
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.”
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.
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,
Tattered…stick: a scare-crow
Mortal dress: body
After the death of the body, the soul is free.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”