Sailing to Byzantium Summery by William Butler Yeats
Sailing to Byzantium is a poem by William Butler Yeats, first published in the 1928 collection The Tower. It comprises four stanzas in ottava rima, each made up of eight ten-syllable lines. It uses a journey to Constantinople (Byzantium as a metaphor for a spiritual journey. Yeats explores his thoughts and musings on how immortality, art, and the human spirit may converge. Through the use of various poetic techniques, Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium describes the metaphorical journey of a man pursuing his own vision of eternal life as well as his conception of paradise. Written in 1926 (when Yeats was 60 or 61), Sailing to Byzantium is Yeats’s definitive statement about the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital individual even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” (the body). Yeats’s solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics could become the “singing-masters” of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity.” In the final stanza of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past (“what is past”), the present (that which is “passing”), and the future (that which is “to come”).
Perne in a gyre: Perne could refer to a pern, another name for a honeybuzzard. This would make considerable, thematic sense. Yeats repeats themes, words and ideas throughout the poem, especially as regards birds and song. Also, consider the opening lines to Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The imagery of the falcon in the gyre isn’t far removed from the imagery of a pern in a gyre. Could Yeats have misspelled pern (spelling it perne)? If one thinks of the pern as a bird of prey, then Yeats’ might be comparing the sages to birds of prey. He is inviting them to descend in an ever-more focused, fiery gyre until they find and consume his heart, the heart of a dying animal.
And fastened to a dying animal : Would have been censured by readers and critiques prior to the 20th century. Few poets would have dared end an lambic Pentameter line with a pyrrhic foot. It would have been considered inept and amateurish. In all of Milton’s Paradise (several thousand lines) there is not a single example (though some “scholars” have failed to take into account the changing pronunciation of words). As in the gold mosaic of a wall: This makes the line lambic Tatremater rather than lambic Pentameter (four feet instead of five) and makes the final foot anapestic. This would make the line a variant line and is well within Yeats’ practice, but since mosaic can be pronounced as a three syllable word ‘I’ve opted to scan it as an Iambic Pentameter line (given that Yeats has been fairly conservative in his other lines).
SUMMARY AND COMMENT
The speaker, referring to the country that he has left, says that it is “no country for old men”: it is full of youth and life, with the young lying in one another’s arms, birds singing in the trees, and fish swimming in the waters. There, “all summer long” the world rings with the “sensual music” that makes the young neglect the old, whom the speaker describes as “Monuments of unageing intellect.”
An old man, the speaker says, is a “paltry thing,” merely a tattered coat upon a stick, unless his soul çan clap its hands and sing; and the only way for the soul to learn how to sing is to study “monuments of its own magnificence”. Therefore, the speaker has “sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium”. The speaker addresses the sages “standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall”, and asks them to be his soul’s “singing-masters”. He hopes they will consume his heart away, for his heart “knows not what it is”- it is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal”, and the speaker wishes to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity”.
The speaker says that once he has been taken out of the natural world, he will no longer take his “bodily form” from any “natural thing”, but rather will fashion himself as a singing bird made of hammered gold, such as Grecian goldsmiths make “To keep a drowsy. Emperor awake”, or set upon a tree of gold “to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Or what is past, or passing, or to come”. Sailing to Byzantium is one of Yeats’s most inspired works, and one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Written in 1926 and included in Yeats’s greatest single collection, 1928’s The Tower, Sailing to Byzantium is Yeats’s definitive statement about the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital individual even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” (the body). Yeats’s solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics (completed mainly during the sixth and seventh centuries) could become the “singingmasters” of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity”. In the astonishing final stanza of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past (“what is past”), the present (that which is “passing”), and the future (that which is “to come”).
A fascination with the artificial as superior to the natural is one of Yeats’s most prevalent themes. In a much earlier poem, 1899’s “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart”, the speaker expresses a longing to re-make the world “in a casket of gold” and thereby eliminate its ugliness and imperfection. Later, in 1914’s “The Dolls“, the speaker writes of a group of dolls on a shelf, disgusted by the sight of a human baby. In each case, the artificial (the golden casket, the beautiful doll, the golden bird) is seen as perfect and unchanging, while the natural (the world, the human baby, the speaker’s body) is prone to ugliness and decay. What is more, the speaker sees deep spiritual truth (rather than simply aesthetic escape) in his assumption of artificiality; he wishes his soul to learn to sing, and transforming into a golden bird is the way to make it capable of doing so. Sailing to Byzantium is an endlessly interpretable poem, and suggests endlessly fascinating comparisons with other important poems-poems of travel, poems of age, poems of nature, poems featuring birds as symbols. (One of the most interesting is surely Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”, to which this poem is in many ways a rebuttal: Keats writes of his nightingale, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down”; Yeats, in the first stanza of Sailing to Byzantium, refers to birds in the trees” as “those dying generations”.) It is important to note that the poem is not autobiographical; Yeats did not travel to Byzantium (which was renamed Constantinople in the fourth century A. D., and later renamed Istanbul), but he did argue that, in the sixth century, it offered the ideal environment for the artist. The poem is about an imaginative journey, not an actual one.