11 September 1998
William Butler Yeats wrote two poems which are together known as the Byzantium series. The first is "Sailing to Byzantium," and its sequel is simply named "Byzantium." The former is considered the easier of the two to understand. It contains multiple meanings and emotions, and the poet uses various literary devices to communicate them. Two of the most dominant themes of this poem are the desire for escape from the hardships of this world and the quest for immortality. These are circumstances of the poet's life that influenced the composition of the poem. Those personal experiences and Yeats's skillful use of words come together to emphasize the need, or at least desire, that many people have for escape and immortality.
The first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" describes a society of people who live for the moment but ignore the wisdom and intellect that the poet finds important. In his frustration, the poet says in lines 21-22 that his heart is "sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal." He is ready to leave this world of apathy and arrive in his holy land of Byzantium, which is a sort of paradise in his mind (Kennedy and Gioia 866-67). This is evidence of his desire for escape. In the second stanza, Yeats describes an aged man as "a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick" (9-10). It is believed that the poet is describing his own condition in these lines. The physical weariness he is experiencing causes him to want to be able to sing through poetry to keep his spirit alive. He believes that his poetry can help him to transcend time and old age, and that it will take him to his ideal city of Byzantium (Thorndike 1852). He prays that the sages of God will "be the singing-masters of my soul" (20). In other words, he wants to be taught how to write the poetry that will sustain his spirit. This is the poet's attempt at achieving immortality. As long as his poetry still exists and is read, a part of his soul continues to live.
These two major themes in the poem are enhanced by the writer's use of symbolism. Byzantium, as mentioned before, is a sort of ideal land, comparable to the scriptural heaven. This is obviously one of the most predominant symbols in the poem. Another symbol that carries throughout the work is that of a bird. There is a reference to a bird in each stanza, but perhaps the best indicator of its meaning is found in stanza 4. Yeats uses the image of a bird "set upon a golden bough to sing" (30) to refer to the timelessness and spirit he craves. The bird that is set in gold is there forever, singing for all time, and the poet longs to be able to sing similarly through his poetry and therefore achieve immortality. Finally, the metaphor of singing is present in each stanza and reinforces the poet's desire to be able to create timeless music in poetry. He says that reading poems is a kind of "singing school" (13) where he can learn to step into that world of immortality (Thorndike 1853).
Similar to the way Yeats uses symbols to enhance this poem, he uses personal experience to inspire it. Twenty years prior to writing "Sailing to Byzantium," he was first exposed to Byzantine art. He saw mosaics that are regarded as the basis for most of the imagery in stanza 3. Also, when Yeats was nearly sixty years old, he suffered high blood pressure and had difficulty breathing. His wife took him on a Mediterranean tour to help him relax, and on that tour he saw mosaics that contrasted art with nature. This would explain his statement in the poem that "Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing, / But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make" (25-27). In addition, Yeats did not regret leaving his home on this excursion because he was depressed about his health and dissatisfied with the political situations at home. Therefore, it is probably that the imaginative voyage the man takes in the poem from one place to a more appealing one is directly influenced by the poet's feelings at that time (Allen 3728).
"Sailing to Byzantium" is a poem packed with emotion and meaning. It depicts a man striving to reach a better place while leaving a piece of his soul behind for all time. It expresses the weariness and frustration that everyone experiences at some point, but especially with the aging process. It is a poem that encompasses human desires and emotions and presents them almost as though they were in a dream. However, it is almost as though the imaginative wording of the poem makes it easier to see the reality behind its message. The poem refreshes the craving people have for a better world with no hardships, and the need they have to leave a part of themselves here to sing eternally "Of what is past, or passing, or to come" (32).
Allen, James Lovic. "William Butler Yeats." Critical Survey of Poetry: English Language Series. Revised ed. Vol. 8. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs: 1992. 3709-3729.
Kennedy, S. J., and Dana Gioia, eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. 6th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. 866-868.
Thorndike, Jonathan L. "Sailing to Byzantium." Masterplots II: Poetry Series. Vol. 5. Ed. Frank N. Magil. Englewood Cliffs: 1992. 1852-1854.