W.B. Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium"

Analysis of William Butler Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium

William Butler Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium" is concerned with the passage of time, and how someone can become eternal. Yeats lived from 1865 to 1939; so this poem, which was written in 1926, reflects his fears about aging and becoming irrelevant. The narrator of this poem is concerned with the idea of the human/animal condition, which is that we are born, we live, and then we die. The narrator seeks out a place where he will be able to join the monuments of history, so that he will be able to live on forever. He chooses Byzantium, present day Istanbul, because of its rich history and monuments dedicated to the past. He hopes that by becoming a monument himself, he will be able to defeat the human condition.

The first line of this poem states that in the narrator's country the young are the ones who are in power, and the old are becoming has-beens. It is fairly safe to say that the country Yeats is referring to, in this first line, is Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State was established in Ireland by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Up until that point Ireland had been controlled by England; so with this new separation came a new generation of leaders. The old laws and government officials were replaced by younger revolutionaries. Yeats served as a Senator in Ireland for two terms beginning in 1922. He also won the Nobel Prize in Literature; he was the first Irishman to ever be honored with this award. Yeats was sixty-one years old when he wrote this poem; so it makes sense that he was exploring what it meant to be old, and how one stays current in a world that is changing so rapidly. Ireland was entering into a new phase that had the mentality: out with the old and in with the new; change is for the young not the old.

The young being in one another's arms promotes the idea of young love, innocence, and naivety. It can also be an analogy of how the Irish Free State is kind of like young love; everything is still new and exciting, there haven't been any real complications within the relationship yet.

Yeats continues this stanza with a series of nature images. Birds are going to be a constant image seen throughout the poem; they represent freedom. "Those dying generations-at their song" is referring to life cycle of birds (animal condition); they hatch, grow, mate, and eventually die. Music and song also plays an interesting role in this poem; Yeats uses it in the second stanza as a way to awaken the soul. The next nature image is that of the salmon and mackerel. Salmons are born in fresh water, and then migrate to the ocean where they spend the next few years maturing. When they are ready to mate they return to their birth place and lay their eggs. Most salmon die within a few days of laying their eggs. A female mackerel can lay up to one million eggs at a time, which is why Yeats says "mackerel-crowded seas". Salmon have short life spans, which revolve around reproducing; it is their beginning and their end. In lines 5 and 6, Yeats explains that everything that is born must die; that is the nature of life. It does not matter if you are a fish, bird, or human, everything must die.

The last two lines of the first stanza are like Yeats topic sentence. He is saying that the old can't be heard over the love songs of youth; the old are neglected because they are simply not young and attractive. The "sensual music" can also be referring to the songs that birds sing; it can be seen as a mating call. The monuments refer to the old people; it is an image of history. The young neglect the monuments simply because they are blinded by their hormones, life, and the pursuit of being young. Yeats is saying that just because they are old doesn't mean that they have lost their minds; they still have worth. Monuments are something that should be revered not forgotten.

Yeats starts the second stanza off by saying that being an old man is an insignificant thing. The "tattered coat," in line 10, is represents an old man's skin; its old, useless, and basically a rag. The "stick" is an old man's bones. This analogy is used show the frailty of humanity; in the end we are all reduced to skin and bone. Line 10 ends with the word "unless," which is used to establish that there is hope; life doesn't have to end with frailty, the elderly can become monuments that will last forever. In line 11, the narrator is asking for the old to stand up and sing; make themselves heard. "Soul clap its hands and sing" is reminiscent of William Blake; who apparently "saw the soul of his dead brother rise to heaven, 'clapping his hands for joy'" (2040). The narrator is instructing the elderly to sing louder; so that they cannot be ignored. He is telling them to sing their history proudly. "Tatter," in line 12, is once again referring to the coat from the analogy in line 10, and it is also being used to symbolize the life experiences of the old man. Every scar has a story; or rather ever tatter in a coat has a story. The "mortal dress" is the human skin. The narrator says that he has searched for a place that is known for its incredible monuments; so that he can be a part of history.

Yeats wrote in his A Vision:
I think that if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato...I think that in early Byzantium, maybe before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers...spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design , absorbed in their subject-matter and that the vision of a whole people (2040).

Yeats idealizes Byzantium as the only place where art and man are one. It is the only place that has been able to impartially represent history. In Byzantium, art and monuments are not influenced by anything other than their subject; they are true representations of history, and they are revered.

In stanza three, Yeats is calling forth the God's wise men to release him from the human-condition, and make him immortal. Yeats begins with the interjection "O" as a way to give seriousness to his appeal to the sages. A sage is a person, who is famed for their wisdom. In this poem, the sages are the saints of God; they are the chosen ones, who will live on in the hearts of devotees, forever. They are everything that he wants to be.

The gold mosaic in line 18 is most likely referring to the mosaics that Yeats saw in San Apollinaire Nuovo, which is in Ravenna, Italy. They show rows of saints with a gold background. "Perne in a gyre" literally means whirl in a spiral. Yeats is pleading to the saints to come out of the holy fire, and sing his history/song. He is asking them to consume his heart, which is sad because its vessel is dying. He wants to transcend humanity, and become eternal. The dying animal is his body. His soul wants to live on forever, but he knows that his body cannot. The body doesn't know the worth of what it contains, which is what he means by saying that "it knows not what it is" (3.23). An artifice is a crafty device or a clever trick. He wants the sages to use an artifice to make him eternal.

This stanza also makes one think of the mythological bird, the phoenix. The phoenix is said to be a very colorful bird that lives between 500 and 1,000 years. When the bird senses that it is nearing the end of its life it will build a nest out of twigs. This nest turns into fire, and burns the nest and the phoenix; from the ashes another phoenix is born. This cycle continues on forever. The phoenix is destroyed and birthed from the holy fire. It is also said that when the phoenix cries it sounds like a beautiful song. In stanza three, Yeats is talking about rebirth; he wants the sages to shed his earthly coat; so that he can be reborn into a creature that will never die.

When he dies he does not want to be reincarnated into another living or natural thing, because he will just be faced with the same quandary as before. He wants the Grecian (the Greeks were the ones who originally founded Byzantium) goldsmiths to transform into something that is made out of gold. He wants to be an object that is cherished by generations to come, because he thinks that is the only way his soul will live forever.

Yeats wrote that he had "read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium [there] was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang," which would be used to keep the Emperor awake (2040). Yeats wants to be one of these gold birds, because they cannot die and because their history will be attached to the Emperor's history. Royalty is studied and revered by scholars and citizens alike, and their history will never die, which is what the narrator wants for himself. In the last line of the poem, the narrator defeats the human condition. There is no end for him; he will sing of the past, present, and the future. The overall goal of a writer is to be remembered forever through his work; by writing this poem the narrator hopes that it will become his artifice for eternity.


Yeats, William Butler. "Sailing to Byzantium." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 2040.

Wikipedia contributors. "Phoenix (mythology)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 10 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Jan. 2010.

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