William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” was published in the collection The Tower (1928). Penned in ottava rima, the poem is allegorical. It depicts a voyage that is emblematic of the spiritual quest, combating intellectual stagnation and emotional drainage. “Sailing to Byzantium” is Yeats’s standpoint on the advance in age, and the prerequisite to maintaining the vivacity and vigor in old age -a youthful spirit and sharp intellect.

The poet writes the poem as he enters the threshold of old age (60 yrs) He avows:

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,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unaging intellect.

The country remains for the young of the human world, the animal world(birds) and the vegetative world(trees)Note that the country does remain for the animal world and the vegetative world, but does not for the aged. The fish, flesh and fowl command and commend during the summer of their years. Nevertheless, what is begotten has to untimely die the way that it is born. People caught in the ‘sensual’ frenzy of life relegate human concerns and submit more to impulse and instinct. Transfixed in a competitive era, the old are termed as the “ Monuments of unaging intellect “ The young neglect them as their intellects appear to deteriorate.

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,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

An aged man is a trivial entity in this practical world. Like a tattered coat upon a stick, he comes across as disheveled and of no utility value. He will be overcome with decrepitude unless the soul in him asserts itself: applauding himself(clapping) and articulating bliss(singing).Now he is limited to studying the monuments of his own magnificence. In his youth, he could utilize time fruitfully; however now Time has won over him arresting him in old age like a monument. As he is caught in this objective slow motion where he is accounted as a specimen, there is no other alternative but to study himself. Therefore, he resolves to travel to the city of Byzantium where he pines for a life of eternity, where there is no cerebral regression or emotional corrosion.

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.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal

It knows not what it is; and gather me

. Into the artifice of eternity.

In eloquent imagery, poet pictures himself as living heart “fastened to a dying animal. The poem “The Tower”, holds a similar idea where” decrepit age” has been tied up on the poet’s “troubled heart” as a battered kettle at the heel”. The poet in the situations deems himself unfit to render sensual songs. He entreats with the sages to consume his heart as he transcends into infinity. His heart appears to be sick with insatiable aspiration. It now seems like an alien to himself incompatible with his aged body. He implores with them to allow him to cross the threshold of the “artifice of eternity” The term ‘artifice’ connotes by itself something enduring and inflexible. The term ‘artifice’ is also significant in the context that the brilliantly integrated Byzantine art greatly appealed to the poet. The sage enabling this transformation appear to be standing in a golden mosaic wall ,as they stand in God’s holy fire .The sages by themselves function as symbols of perpetuity. Also the poet tells us regarding the city of Byzantium, in the record of history, never was history, religious, aesthetic and practical life merged into one. ‘Pern‘, implies to change one’s opinions for some ulterior object. Here, it refers to giving up the practical considerations of life for something extraneous that revolves him in the spiral column of infinity. Hence, the phrase ”perne in a gyre”. In “The Second Coming”, the falcon in the gyre emblematizes the collapse of the natural world over time.

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

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Yeats always preferred the artificial over the natural. In “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart,”(1899),” the speaker expresses a longing to re-make the world in a casket of gold” and thereby arrest it in its immaculate beauty minus all natural imperfections. Or in “Dolls”( 1914) where dolls on the shelf are disgusted with sight of the human baby; or his glorification of the golden bird. Nevertheless, the poet des not intend to limit himself to physical constructs. He is rather pre-occupied with abstract phenomena like intellectual stagnation, refurnishing the soul, emotional coherence ,rational inflexibility .etc. As with “Sailing to Byzantium’, Karl Parker asserts that the theme of the poem is “the perfection of the human soul in a city of perfect and eternal art.”

© Rukhaya MK 2010

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