W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is an allusion to the agony of old age and human mortality, and was written as a part of a collection of poems called ‘Tower’. It is in very old verse form which is written as a narrative verse in first person, with four eight line stanzas. It has a rhyming scheme of ABABABCC, or two trios of alternating rhyme followed by one couplet. This rhyming scheme gives the reader the sense that the final two lines of each stanza are the most important, and that the first six are leading up to the conclusion of the stanza.
Each line takes the rhythm of iambic pentameter. The tone of the poem provokes a sense of sadness in the reader as it tells of a man’s desire to live forever, and how he can’t accept that he has grown old and will soon die. This tone is reinforced by the sound of the letter ‘o’, heavily used throughout the poem.
The poem talks of the mortality of the living, and how the elderly are a reminder of this. The youth are caught up in the moment and do not wish to be reminded that there will come a time when they too will grow old and die.
Upon this realisation, he decides to travel to the holy city of Byzantium. Byzantium (which was renamed Constantinople, then Istanbul) was a city in the Eastern Roman Empire.
The journey to Byzantium is not a literal one, but a metaphorical one which represents the acceptance of mortality, artistic splendour and a way of immortalising oneself through art. Art is an artificial creation, and is something which can stand the test of time and will remain beautiful from the moment it is first created. The use of symbolism and themes are very prevalent in conveying this message of mortality, which leads me to my guiding questions: ‘How does Yeats use language to distinguish the difference between mortality and immortality for the reader? ‘ and ‘How does Yeats use symbolism to convey the theme of immortality versus the transience of life? ‘ The first stanza presents an image of life to the reader; the birds in the trees, the fish filled waters, the young people who are preoccupied with their lives and loves. But in amongst the description of life Yeats refers to them as ‘those dying generations’. This is a reminder that life is inevitably followed by death, and that we are all moving closer to our deaths, or ‘dying’. It is a reminder that everything that lives is doomed. ‘Whatever is begotten, born and dies /Caught in that sensual music all neglect /Monuments of unaging intellect. ‘ This is a crude summary of the aspects of life that everyone shares (conception, birth and death) and how all living things get caught up with the ‘sensual music’, and neglect the ‘monuments of unaging intellect’. The final line has a double meaning. The ‘monuments of unaging intellect’ represents the elderly and how their minds and intelligence do not age with their bodies, but it also represents the artworks and paintings which Yeats’ destination, Byzantium, is so famous for. The people in paintings, sculptures and other forms of art are undying, and remain the same as they were the day they were first created for eternity. Yeats is condemning the natural as all things natural are doomed to die, and praising the artificial things as they can stand the test of times. This is paradoxical however, because without the natural, the artificial wouldn’t exist. In the second stanza, Yeats likens and aged man to a scarecrow: ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick. ‘ This is a symbol of the elderly. Scarecrows are devices which were created to do just as their name describes ‘to scare crows’, but in the poem they represent a device which is to scare the youth. Many people fear death, and as the elderly remind the youth of their own mortality, in looking at the aged, they have a sense of fear as they are seeing what they will become. However, this is followed by ‘unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, louder sing/for every tatter in its mortal dress’. By using a personification of soul, Yeats reminds the reader that the soul is what separates each life from the next, and that for every problem it comes by, it becomes stronger. In saying this, Yeats is focusing on the fact that it is possible to avoid becoming an empty, lifeless shell, like the scarecrow, by concentrating on the soul, and therefore overcoming the constrictions of the human body. Since the journey to metaphorical one, Yeats is saying that the only way that the journey to Byzantium is possible is to learn to escape from the constraints of the body. Byzantium represents a desired destination, and in Yeats’ case, it is a symbol of permanence and intransience through art. During a trip to Ravenna, Yeats saw a painting which portrayed martyrs being burnt because of their faith. In the third stanza, in the line ‘O sages standing in God’s holy fire/As in the gold mosaic of a wall,’ Yeats has incorporated his interpretation of this painting into the poem. He sees the martyrs as sages and the flames as the Holy Spirit. This is represents the transition between life as a mortal and life as an immortal, as at the time of their deaths the sages gained an immortal existence through being incorporated into art. The mosaic is described as ‘gold’, as this colour represents an untarnished and everlasting beauty. ‘Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,/And be the singing-masters of my soul’. Here, Yeats is referring to a spinning wheel, and the quick movement of thread through a bobbin and spool. This image of each strand of thread being merged into one constant piece symbolises how human life spawns other lives another and how each life links up with another creating a continuous flow of life. Yeats is asking the sages in the mosaic to free him from his body, which he describes as a ‘dying animal’, and guide him to Byzantium so that he too can join the ‘artifice of eternity’. The sages in the mosaic have seen many generations of people, without ageing themselves. The fourth and final stanza commences with Yeats pronouncing that once he has escaped him human form, he will never again take the form from anything natural, as from his description in the first stanza, these things are all prone to decay and death. He then proceeds to say that he would wish to take the form of a golden bird like the ones the Grecian goldsmiths used to make. He wishes to make the final transition from the transience of human life, and immortalise himself through an ancient form of art. The final line of the poem ‘Of what is past, or passing, or to come’ is a reflection of the line ‘Whatever is begotten, born and dies’ found in the first stanza. Yeats categorises time into past, present and future, which is a suggestion that even after escaping his human body, his mind would still be limited to what he can perceive as a human being. The idea of eternity is a concept almost impossible for a human mind to grasp, so we classify time into past, present and future. In answer to my first guiding question, there is a notable difference in the language Yeats uses depending on whether he the idea of mortality or immortality is being conveyed. For example, in the first stanza when the old country is being described, the words are limited to one or two syllables, and the language is rough and has a staccato style rhythm: ‘The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,/Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long’. The quick, often monosyllabic words help to enforce the idea that these things will eventually die, and the ‘f’ and ‘sh’ sounds are repeated, creating an alliteration which gives a sharper sound to the line. Yeats uses long, more flowing words in line 7, ‘Caught in that sensual music all neglect’, as if to admit that he, too, become preoccupied with this aspect of human life. In the final line of the first stanza, the reader is first introduced to the idea of an everlasting existence: ‘Monuments of unageing intellect’. This line rolls over the tongue, and is a contrast from line 5 which describes things that will die. It also displays a use of alliteration, as the letter ‘n’ is echoed throughout the line. More examples language being used to emphasize the difference between transience and an endless existence can be found in the other stanzas: ‘A tattered coat upon a stick’ and ‘Monuments of its own magnificence’: ‘Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal’ against ‘Into the artifice of eternity’. The lines which are referring to immortality have a much more soothing tone, whereas the lines which are referring to mortality are more staccato-like and harsher sounding. In answer to my second guiding question, Yeats’ use of symbolism is essential in his portrayal of immortality in opposition to mortality. The symbolism begins in the poems title, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. ‘Sailing’ symbolises a metaphorical journey, and ‘Byzantium’ symbolises a desired destination, in this case, the desire to become immortal through art. In the first stanza, the images of the young lovers, fish and birds symbolise mortality and eventual death. By highlighting this component of the world he lives in, it makes it easier for the reader to understand his need for permanence. In the second stanza, the scarecrow signifies the elderly. The image of a solitary scarecrow in a field is seen often through literature and film, and in this case the scarecrow represents the neglected generation. The scarecrow is described as ‘paltry’ (which means contemptible), and this symbolises how the younger generations have contempt for the older generations because they are a reminder of their own mortality. The scarecrow also represents everything that Yeats wishes to leave behind in departing his mortal existence. Finally, the image of the golden bird symbolises the flight Yeats has taken from his previous body, and the permanence he has found through art. The colour gold his also used several times throughout the poem, and this indicates everlasting beauty. Yeats uses images representing young life through to old life to demonstrate the transience of human life, but uses the constant image of the golden mosaics and the golden bird to show how art has a never-ending beauty. In conclusion, I think the main idea W. B. Yeats was trying to convey in writing this poem was that the artificial is superior to the natural, and that while all things natural are doomed to die, the artificial can exist forever. The way Yeats uses imagery helps to convey the idea that the artificial is an everlasting creation, and whereas the natural, while is beautiful at one time, eventually withers and dies. The fact that the author believes the artificial is superior to the natural becomes apparent in difference in language Yeats uses, depending on which of them he is talking about. The abrupt phrases and monosyllabic words Yeats uses to talk about the natural connote that the lives of these things, like the words, are quickly over. However, the more descriptive and flowing language used to describe things which are man-made, such as art, tells the reader that these things are longer lasting and more beautiful. I think that the way in which Yeats tells the poem complements the message he is conveying and causes the reader to contemplate their own existence.