A summary of a classic Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Growing older, feeling out of touch with the new generation superseding you, feeling surplus to requirements, waiting for death. These are, perhaps, inevitable thoughts once we reach a certain age: they certainly came to Yeats in his later years, and he frequently wrote about growing old. (See ‘Among School Children’ for another notable example.) This is what ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is about, though it’s not all it’s about. To discover what else this – one of W. B. Yeats’s finest poems – has to say, we will have to look more closely at it. Below is the poem, followed by a brief summary of it, with some notes towards an analysis of its form, language, and imagery.
Sailing to Byzantium
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 unageing intellect.
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.
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.
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.
W. B. Yeats wrote ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ in 1927, when he was in his early sixties, and published a year later in The Tower. In summary, the first stanza sees Yeats’s speaker announcing that the country he’s left behind is ‘no country for old men’ (the phrase has been given a whole new life thanks to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, and the film, of that title). Being old, the speaker felt out of place there. Young love, birds singing, and other signs of joy and youth are not the province of the old. ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, as this opening stanza establishes, is about something that is still very much hotly debated and highlighted: how the elderly are neglected by the rest of society.
The second stanza describes old men, such as the speaker himself, as worthless things, like a coat hung upon a stick – just as slight, and just as useless in society’s eyes. That is, unless the old can learn to be happy in their twilight years – and to do that, to learn how to relish their old age and wisdom, to make their soul ‘sing’ again, they need to study the glories of civilisation, ‘Monuments of its own magnificence’ – in other words, what the soul of man has built. And this, the speaker explains, is why he has travelled to Byzantium.
In the third stanza, then, the speaker commands the wise old men, or ‘sages’, of Byzantium to ‘be the singing-masters of my soul’ – to teach him how to delight in his old age and be happy in his soul again. We then get an image that is similar to the one offered by Thomas Hardy, who – fast approaching his sixtieth birthday – wrote ‘I Look into My Glass’, about viewing his wizened old features in the mirror and regretting that his heart still beats with the desires and passions of a young man.
This is why the speaker of Yeats’s poem wants the elders to ‘Consume my heart away’: literally, to eat his heart out. He needs to be stripped of a young man’s desire and make peace with his advancing years. For he is, after all, a ‘dying animal’. (A link with Yeats’s short poem ‘Death’ suggests itself here.)
In the final stanza, Yeats’s speaker says that once he has been removed ‘out of nature’ and is shorn of his desire and ‘heart’, he will never seek to return to his bodily form, but will instead be like a gold bird made by Grecian goldsmiths, or a bird placed on the ‘golden bough’ to sing to the people of Byzantium. In other words, Yeats’s speaker yearns to leave his body behind and enter some altogether more spiritual, and everlasting, plane.
Why Byzantium? Yeats made its significance clear in a script he wrote for a BBC radio broadcast in 1931:
I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.
The poem is about renouncing the hold of the world upon us, and attaining something higher than the physical or sensual. Yeats’s images require further analysis, though: for instance, the final stanza with its image of the gold singing bird is baffling when we first encounter it. However, Yeats himself recalled that he had ‘read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang’. (The book Yeats is struggling to recall here may have been Sir Walter Scott’s Count Robert of Paris.)
But ‘golden bough’ is also a loaded phrase, since to Yeats’s original readers it would have suggested the colossal work of comparative religion, The Golden Bough (1890-1915), by James Frazer. Since ‘Byzantium’ (the Turkish city that later became known as Constantinople, and, later still, Istanbul) was variously ruled by Greeks, Romans, and Christians (in the later years of the Roman empire), and is now largely populated by Muslims, the city acts as a sort of meeting-point for various ethnicities, cultures, religions, and traditions, its significance in Yeats’s poem can be interpreted in light of this idea of shared ideas across different religious systems.
‘Sailing to Byzantium’ takes the form of the ottava rima, an Italian verse form of eight lines rhymed abababcc. This stanza form goes back a long way in English and, as the name suggests, Italian poetry, and is an appropriately august form for a poem concerned with the ancient and timeless, that which transcends the narrow span of a man’s life.
The poem is one of Yeats’s finest, and is worth the effort to analyse and unpick his difficult imagery and symbolism. One of the great meditations on ageing and wisdom, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is elusive and even mystical, but all the better for it.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). For more discussion of poetry, see our tips for the close reading of poetry, our summary of Yeats’s sonnet about Leda and Zeus, and our thoughts on his ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. B. Yeats in 1911, by George Charles Beresford; Wikimedia Commons.