Sailing to Byzantium is one of the most famous poems of the stalwart literary artist, William Butler Yeats. The poem is one of the quintessential pieces in the history of English literature, and it lives on in the hearts of the avid readers transcending the effect of time. The poet utilizes his aesthetic excellence to reach out to the gazillion readers across the globe through this immortal work of literature. There are vivid imagery and other literary devices in the poem that bring out the central idea with clarity and quintessence.
The poem is a vehement statement of the poet about the deep pain of the old age. The poet talks about the spiritual work and imaginativeness that is needed to retain the exuberance, even if the physical strength is one the wane with age. He suggests that one should leave the country that belongs to the young generation to reach Byzantium. Byzantium is a place where the well-known gold mosaics of the city have sages that could serve the purpose of being the “singing masters” of the human soul. The poet is hopeful that he sages will show up in flames to take him far away from the temporal world and body, so that he can become “the artifice of eternity.” Thus, the poet explores the territory of his imagination, and weaves the imagery of the poem with utmost beauty to touch the hearts of the avid readers.
The poem is allegorical in nature, and it is written in ‘ottava rima’. All the four stanzas of the poem are written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABABCC. The poem portrays the spiritual journey to this land, so that the soul can attain eternity and bliss.
Yeats expresses his emotions saying, “That is no country for old men. The young / in one another’s arms, birds in the trees / —those dying generations,” that provides the readers with the reason for his journey to the Byzantium land. (Yeats 1-3)
There are many images in the course of the poem that bring out the contrast between the artifice of eternity and the temporal world. The poet portrays the charm and permanence that are provided by the sensual world. The poet has many symbols and metaphor. These literary devices add poignancy to the imagery, and helps in accentuating the effect of reading the poem. The poet draws an analogy with music. The poem is not an autobiographical work as Yeats did not visit the land of Byzantium in reality. However, he still goes on to portray the voyage with quintessence and appeal to all the readers.
The poem begins with the portrayal of nature with all its exuberant charm. However, the poem acknowledges that nothing in this world remains youthful and invigorated all the time, and is bound to decay with the passage of time. Death and decay are inevitable truths of beings that dwell in the temporal world. As the poet goes on to age, death looms over his mind.
The symbols are abundant in this poem. Even the title of the poem is symbolic in nature. Here, sailing refers to the metaphorical journey that the poet talks about in the course of the poem. The land of Byzantium symbolizes the realm of artistic quintessence and permanence. The land evokes in the minds of the avid readers the image of a land that is marked by cultural richness, associated with the Byzantium Empire.
The poet uses the vivid imagery of fish, birds and youthful lovers in the very first stanza of the poem that in unison symbolize the mortality and transience of beings in the world. Yeats goes on to describe the world where he dwells, so that the readers can understand how contrasting the realm of Byzantium is in comparison.
The second stanza has the usage of the scarecrow as a symbolic thing that stands for the infirmity of ripe old age. The image is that of a lifeless repulsive figure that symbolizes all the things that the poet wishes to do away with in his mortal existence in the world. There are symbols of song and music throughout the poem that act as a motif between the two worlds- that of intellect and sensual ones.
The first stanza of the poem depicts the songs that are sung by the birds in the trees. The song is a transient, sensual one that catches the attention of the readers. The second stanza portrays the image of “a singing school” that signifies that the joy in the artistic paradise is much more than the happiness of the song. The idea is reiterated in the next stanza.
The final stanza has the vivid description of a golden bird that goes on to provide entertainment to the ladies and lords who live in Byzantium. The description is representative of the supreme intellection bliss that awaits the poet in the land. Yeats envisages and wishes for an existence in the form of this golden bird that is described in the final stanza of the literary work. The golden form of the immortal being stands for the durability and refined quality of the precious metal, gold. The poet expresses his urge with all his heart, and yearns to experience the best in the surreal world of Byzantium that has so much to offer him.
Epifanio San Juan, in his famous critical book, Poetics: The Imitation of Action: Essays in Interpretation discusses about the poem by W.B. Yeats. He delves deep into the content of the literary work and gives his critical opinion regarding the poem.
““Sailing to Byzantium,” on the whole, renders a stage of transition, a moment in a total process, from the contingency of natural existence to the magical transcendence projected in the image of the bird at the center of Byzantium.” (Juan 59) Indeed, the golden bird symbolizes what Yeats wishes to become finally. The bird embodies the piety and immortality of artistic excellence.
Here, the readers see a man who wishes to embark upon a journey for the world that will set him apart. The poem is the vehement expression of a creative artist who seeks immortality in the arms of the aesthetic world. While, he believes the new age world has nothing to offer to his aging soul, his deepest desire expresses the unflinching inspiration of a creative soul that escapes from the clutches of transience and decay that overrule every mortal being in the globe.
Nothing is better for a creative artist than seeking refuge and bliss in the world of his creativity and aesthetics. The poem weaves the imagination of the readers, and makes them realize how the Utopian world of artistic excellence can make one live life to the fullest, attain eternal bliss and immortality.
His old soul is not only the signifier of decay, but also the spark of creative excellence that longs to live on with the exuberance till the end of time. The poet wishes to drink the life being freed of the limitations of temporality.
“Vividly perceived and intelligibly formulated, the origin of this “sailor” in quest of a city and all that the city symbolizes is a coherent world of cyclic continuity.” (Juan 60) The poet talks about the temporal young world with a distant feeling. His undying wish to set sail for Byzantium is the focus of the literary work. The journey, indeed, is what any creative soul could wish for. The expression and desire is prototypical of the wishes of many all over who aim to live in an ideal world where creative zeal and quintessence would be the main thing of existence.
The poet points to the fact that the “place or habitat completely encloses the living object.” (Juan 60) Yeats pens, “The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,” showing how the beings are shackled by the dungeon that tricks the beings to be the world around. (Yeats 1-2) The soul gets constricted by the domain of existence, and one cannot escape from the world of drudgeries or camouflage. There is much more to life than what the temporal existence offers to an individual in his or her lifetime.
The poet writes, “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.” (Yeats 21-24) The poet longs for freedom from the drudgeries and decay of the world that bound the human soul. He talks of embarking on this exuberant journey down the sea in this ship to finally reach the Utopia of creativity- Byzantium. The poet wants to escape from the misleading cycle of the mortal world to attain transcendence. It is only in the blissful arms of creative excellence that a person can finally find fulfillment and ecstasy.
The poet addresses the sages of Byzantium. In an apostrophe, the poet says, “gather me / Into the artifice of eternity.” (Yeats 23-24) Thus, his soul would be regenerated, and he would be able to find what his heart seeks.
The poet critiques the young generation referring to them as “dying generations.” The young people are engaged in the various trivial matters of life. In stark contrast, the old man feels shackled living in the weak body, while the heart yearns to be free of the shackles to live with all the vigor and exuberance.
Thus, the poet weaves the lines of the poem a quintessential way, portraying the facets of life that one misses out on. Living in this world is not the only thing. One needs to strive for more in life, and explore all the avenues with all the zeal and grit in the heart. The poem is an apt expression of that undying spirit to become someone better, to find salvation in the caressing, blissful realm of creativity.
Juan, Epifanio San. Poetics: The Imitation of Action: Essays in Interpretation. New Jersey:
Associated University Press, Inc., 1979. Print.