Across the sea to Byzantium

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a poem written by W.B.Yeats comparing the lifetimes of both art and nature, and contrasting the two parallel to youth and old age. Youth is a very creative time, and as you grow older you learn the truths of nature, you become “tattered” “aged” “old men”. Yeats dismisses Ireland, nature and the living world as they offer no consolation for “old men” like him. He sails to the mythical city of Byzantium in his mind, almost worshipping the idea of immortal art in comparison to mortal nature and mortal men. He realises that art has a life beyond the limits of nature, and thus consigns himself to visiting his creative imagination.

The roman numerals to number the stanzas give a sense of formality, that reflects the ancient civilization of Byzantium, which seems like a formal place, with “Lords and Ladies”. The rhyme scheme starts off formally but ends up with half rhymes dispersed to show the fall of Ireland, how at the time of writing Ireland had fallen apart. The rhyming couplet at the end of stanzas suggest completion after the suspense offered by alternate rhymes. The enjambment emphasises the idea that this is all taking place in Yeats’ imagination.

The poem is like an impassionate plea for some form of life through art, saying goodbye to Ireland, the city he visits representing the best of a high ancient culture and classical civilisation. Yeats likes to link his poetry to the classical world through small references or even more blatant references like rewriting myths (‘Leda and the Swan’). Byzantium also represents a revered ideal, a place where art is treasured and lasts. The fact that his poetry may last almost makes up for the fact that his mortal self must die.

The first stanza shows the need for a new song/person in Ireland.The “young” are distracted by sensual music, creative new ideas, and thus Ireland “is no country for old men” as they have no voice. This shows Yeats’ pessimistic look to the future. The phrase “old men” shows the human condition and the truth of age, time passes. A cascade of images to represent nature take over Yeats thoughts, showing nature’s true beauty, as if he is arguing in his mind over whether mortal nature or immortal art is better. The alliteration and punctuation, “fish, flesh and fowl’ force the reader to swiftly pass from one snapshot to another. The reference to summer gives the idea of nature’s energy and abundance, this coupled with the “sensual music” shows the vivid physical world that Yeats desperately wants to reject.

In stanza 2 Yeats uses the image of a scarecrow to describe old men, “tattered” and “paltry”. Yeats’ opinion seems to be that old age is unnecessary. The phrase “Soul clap its hands and sing” shows the celebration that life can be, to add to the pastoral natural images in the first stanza. At the end of this stanza he has left Ireland and politics behind completely as he has “sailed the seas”. 

In stanza 3 Yeats craves spiritual release, almost giving a prayer-like plea to go from the ephemeral to the immortal, from nature to art. He asks for the sages to “come from the holy fire” and be the “singing masters” of his soul. Singing and songs are important in this poem. In the first stanza Yeats refers to the song of the dying generation, and in the second he refers to the singing soul. These songs give the idea of regality and tradition. The idea of the soul and heart being “fastened to a dying animal” reflects the idea of the spiritual attached to the physical, the “animal” reflecting the true nature of the human body, which is animalistic in design, however the thing that makes us human is the spiritual aspect of us, our soul. Yeats accepts the idea of death, “gather me into the artifice of eternity”, he has realised that the body isn’t important.

In the final stanza Yeats admits he will not return to the mortal world after death “I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing” and looks around the richness and wealth of eternity. He almost seems to want to live in nature but he chooses to live through his art, as the lure is too strong. Gold is frequently mentioned throughout this stanza, a metal that is cold, hard, and doesn’t tarnish or change naturally. The mention of “Lords and Ladies” seems odd, as Yeats is striving to get to this place, whereas Ireland had been striving for centuries to get rid of the class system that supported those ranks, this truly shows how Yeats wants to get away from Ireland by completely defying what they fought for.

There is a contrast between the worlds of art and nature, and a constant sense of opposites. Great art lasts forever, whereas nature physically can’t. Nature is represented in two ways, negatively as a “dying animal” and positively as vivid “salmon-falls” showing both the rewards and punishments of living. Art is shown consistently as the opposite, an unchanging ideal, the city of Byzantium, a “monument of un-aging intellect”. Yeats also shows paradoxes, such as the “holy fire”, “holy” being synonymous with heaven and God, and “fire” having connotations with hell and the Devil. Yeats contrasts the opposites of old and young, that can’t share the same country; “no country for old men”. The old are presented as weak and feeble, “tattered”, “aged”, “paltry”, whereas the young are presented as energetic and vibrant, “sensual”.

There are also ambiguities in the poem. The “birds in the trees” represent the pastoral and natural mortal life and also the freedom that Yeats longs for. They could also represent stability, another thing Yeats desires, as they are up high in the trees. The line “no country for old men” is also ambiguous, as it could suggest that Yeats is nearing the end of his time and must soon die and leave life, or that there are young people taking all the attention and providing all the ideas. 

Thanks for reading,

Jack

 

 

 

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