Yeats Sailing to Byzantium Analysis

?mer Bozkurt

Dr.??r.?yesi Orkun KOCABIYIK

IDE 306 ?ngiliz Edebiyat Tarihi IV

William Butler Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium

The spiritual quest towards peace may not happen in all people’s life but some can achive it very well. Those experiencing such a journey may not have talked about it directly although they mostly reflect it in their works of art.

In my opinion, William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and intellectual, may have experienced such peace and reflected it in his works of art. The poem that called “Sailing to Byzantium,” reveal his departure from a mortal world to an everlasting peace. He uses figurative language to describe his reasons for this travel by presenting some facts about the place he is currently living and the ideal place he has been looking for. In this paper, I will focus on his poem to show how he tends to illustrate his quest from a mortal world to an everlasting peace.

The title of the poem starts with the word ‘Sailing’ which represents a kind of movement which is toward somewhere named ‘Byzantium’ shown in the following words of the title.

Byzantium seems to be a place better than the one where the speaker of the poem lives and as A. Norman Jeffares (1984) says, “Byzantium is a holy city, as the capital of eastern Christianity, and as the place where God exists because of the life after death Yeats imagines existing there,” (p. 212) because he is eager enough to bear the hardship of sailing.

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The first stanza of the poem opens with the sentence “that is no country for old men” in which we can distinguish a contrast between ‘that country’ where the speaker of the poem lived and is not the place of old men because of the lack of rejuvenation and the country ahead where the speaker is going to reach and is the place of old men because there he can rejuvenate himself. ‘Old men’ signifies mortality, decrepitude, and death. As a result, by mentioning the first sentence the speaker persists in the mortality of ‘that country’. So, even with focusing on the first sentence, the reader can conspicuously differentiate ‘that country,’ where the speaker of the poem lived, with its ephemeral, sensuous, passing, temporal, transient, deadly, and lethal characteristics from the country ahead with its immortal, eternal, everlasting, incorruptible, ageless, deathless, perpetual, unchanhing characteristics. Furthermore, the speaker of the poem continues to complete this contrast by talking more about the images and events of the former country he lived in. the image of “The young” who are “in one another’s arms” shows the passionate world which is transient. “Birds” as “dying generation,” are “in the trees / at their song.” “The salmon-falls,” “the mackerel-crowded seas,” “Fish, flesh, or fowl,” and “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies” clearly show the mortal world the speaker of the poem wants to depart. He believes that all the creatures in his former country “Caught in sensual” and because of that they “all neglect monuments of unaging intellect” and know no spirituality and as a result no immortality.

The second stanza of the poem opens with “An aged man is but a paltry thing” in which we can see the image of “an aged man” who is considered as useless and trivial object in a mortal world. He is nothing but “A tattered coat upon a stick” which alludes to the image of scarecrow in sensual world. He does not have any way to get rid of the situation he is trapped into “unless/soul clap its hands and sing,” which means that his immortal or spiritual part helps him to ascend from ephemeral world.

The speaker of the poem believes that in the country ahead there is “singing school” It is a country where the “studying” of the “magnificence” of the soul is of high importance. From lines 10 to 14 the speaker brings the words “soul,” “hands,” “sing,” “dress,” “singing school,” “studying,” “monuments,” “its,” and “magnificence” in which we see the repetition of “S” sound by which he wants to arrange a whispering condition to be able to study the excellence of soul in silence with whole concentration. As a result, he “sailed the seas” and chose “the holy city of Byzantium” as a place where he could fully know the majesty of his soul. The importance of Byzantium for the speaker is conspicuous here as John Unterecker (1965) says, “A scarecrow, ‘A tattered coat upon a stick,’ he must sing not of the flesh but rather of the soul, and his singing school must be among those monuments that only perfect civilizations of the past – Byzantium, say- have produced” (p. 173).

The importance of the word “holy” in “holy city of Byzantium” can not be ignored because it describes the characteristics of Byzantium as spiritual, for the soul goes there, and immortal because the speaker tries to escape from “dying generation”; As a result, it is meaningless to go to another place where there is death again. So, by the end of the second stanza, the speaker who recognized himself as an aged man moves from his country and residents in Byzantium to distinguish his soul from his decrepit body as a scarecrow.

The images of the third stanza are quite different from those in the first and the second. The speaker persistently wants the sages to aid him to change the attitude of his heart which is interwoven into the dying natural world which, he believes, is nothing and help him to be immortal or “artifice of eternity”. It is obvious that the speaker is escaping from death and whatever causes death, as Virginia Pruitt (2005) mentions: In “sailing to Byzantium” Yeats intimates the vulnerability of the very artifact, that, within the poem, symbolizes immutability. This vulnerability, unlike the biological vulnerability of the “dying animal,” has been imposed not by times but rather by human aggressiveness expressed through inevitable cycles of warfare. Viewed thus, the speaker/poet-appears, in an ironic sense, to be a counterpart of the apparently inviolable Byzantium golden bird, whose death has merely been deferred. (p. 226) That’s why the speaker as a mortal creature wants to be “golden bird” which is immortal.

In the opening line of the fourth stanza the speaker persistently talks about his desire to get away from the natural or mortal world, “Once out of nature,” but he does not stop and continues to complete his trajectory by never returning to his former mortal position once he divorced, “I shall never take / my bodily form from any natural thing,” It is here, the soul casting off the body of old age and rejecting the sensual profusion of life, travels and becomes itself a work of art”. That’s what the speaker has in his mind and tries to be. But what he wants to be is ‘a work of art’ or a ‘golden bird’ out of all sufferings, ‘hammered,’ he welcomes in order to grasp the attention of others to be able to do what he has in his mind. The speaker expressed a wish to go on singing but as a golden bird, that is, to be himself a work of art, and so immortal”. For the speaker, ‘singing’ is of high importance. Again, at the end of the poem we see how the speaker wants to ‘sing,’ as a bird, to people the passage of time, “what is past, or passing, or to come”. We notice the desire of the speaker to escape from the physical world which, he believes, withers both the body and the soul simultaneously, because both of them are entrapped in the lethal characteristics of the mortal world. At last “out of nature,” he can renounce all physical incarnation. He can be the imperishable thing itself, the golden bird -the very work of art- beyond decay, and so unlike the dying generations of read birds who perform similar song in stanza one (who sing “whatever is begotten, born, and die” but who must themselves perish). On his golden bough, he will have become himself one of those monuments he had so admired. As a result, it is in Byzantium he can achieve what he has in mind.

It was argued in this paper that a spiritual movement of the speaker of “sailing to Byzantium,” occurred from sensual world to eternal world. The life which the speaker of these poems looks for is not a natural life which ends in death but a spiritual life which ends in eternity. He is tired of his life in the former country, with its entire vicissitudes, which ends in a Delphic fruitlessness. As a result, he spiritually escapes from that country, his former country he lived in, to gain an everlasting existence in the country ahead or Byzantium.


Jeffares, A.N. (1984). A new commentary on the poem of w.b. yeats. London: Macmillan.

Unterecker, J. (1965). A Reader’s Guide To Williams Butler Yeats. London : Thames and Hudson

Pruitt, V. (2005). Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium. The Explicator 63.4, 225-227.

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Yeats Sailing to Byzantium Analysis. (2019, Nov 14). Retrieved from

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