“Sailing to Byzantium” is a poem written by 1923 Nobel Laureate W.B.Yeats in the year 1926. Two years hence it was first published in the 1928 collection ‘The Tower.’ One of Yeat’s most inspired works and one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century, it tells about the psychological sufferings of the old aged speaker. Body, art and spirit fuse in the poem as the old man attempts to find some way to move out and away from the agony of the ageing body.
Yeats, a pillar of both, the Irish and the British, literary establishments, was a symbolist poet, influenced by France and an imagist. His works are laid with allusive imagery and symbolic structures. Being a master of traditional forms, and with a keen interest in mystic beauty of art and culture, Yeats uses Byzantium, as a symbol for a place of refuge for the spiritual escape. The aged speaker wishes to and psychologically does, land into “the holy city of Byzantium,” the then known Constantinople, as the present place is “no country for old men.”
The spiritual journey is expressed in the tone of meditation. In the metrical form, it follows the ottava rima pattern, four stanzas with eight lines in each stanza. Yeats, however, modifies the original 11-syllable pattern to ten syllables and uses slant rhymes instead of exact ones, in order to suit his purpose.
The poem begins with the disoriented old man who he feels out of place as he sees the pomp of youth and life and claims that it is no longer a “country for old man.” The word “old” does not only refer to the age of the man but also to the experience of the world that he has with him. The image of the young lovers, birds, fish in merriment all denote the provinces of youth, however, with no realization of the truth of life that whatever exists will one day come to death. The worldly pleasures make the young generation neglect the old who are the “monuments of unageing intellect.” The use of diction is apt as the monument refers to the stature of the past and history that never ages.
Despite the significant experience, old man is treated as a trivial thing. The analogy used refers to the scarecrows installed in the fields to show away the uninvited birds, though useless in society’s eye. The poet gives a ray of positive light with the use of mystic image of clapping and singing by soul to cherish the twilight years of the man. He lays emphasis on studying the glories of civilization viz the “monuments of its own magnificence.” For the achievement of this, the old man moves “the holy city of Byzantium” throwing light on the theme of travel and spiritual journey.
However, the attitude of the speaker, or to say of Yeats, to old age cannot be typified. In the third stanza he addresses the wise old men, the “sages standing in God’s holy fire” and asks them to guide his soul as the old age seems certainly a handicap to the still strong sensual desires. Lowering the commanding tone, he wishes to escape to the spiritual eternity. While his pain of mortality represents his individual agony, it corresponds the suffering of the human kind. While the poetry of Yeats is rich with symbols, this stanza is equipped with the vivid symbol of spiral, whirling “gyre” that permeates in most of his works, most prominent in “The Second Coming” that prophesize the coming of prophet of destruction. Alongside, the artistic and cultural colors of Byzantium shine through the stanza as the view of “sages standing in the holy fire” appear similar to those as portrayed in the mosaic walls of the holy city of Byzantium. The image can also be compared with one offered by Thomas Hardy, who fast approaching his sixtieth birthday wrote “I look into My Glass.” Hardy wrote about viewing his wizened old features in the mirror and regretting the desires and passions of a young man which still beat in his heart in the confines of old and aged body. Yeats, too, shows the man, as called a social animal, seeing himself dying as the world of youth and life flourishes. Thus, the concept of stripping off a young man’s desire and making peace with advancing years and chasing spirituality runs in the poem.
The long continued agony of ageing turns into the ocean of new life as the reader arrives at the concluding fourth stanza. The speaker no longer laments the loss of young glamour. With an adapting attitude, he affirms with the fact of being taken “out of nature.” He claims once he is removed from here, he would never seek to return to this bodily form, but would instead be like a gold bird that the “Grecian goldsmiths” make in order to enamor the senses of the “drowsy Emperor.” Or in other terms, he would prefer being a bird “set upon a golden bough” from where he will sing to the people of Byzantium about how time passes, that which was past, is present and how it would faint into the past again. The trail of time never stops and the speaker wishes to enlighten the youth about the same, through the medium of a bird. The image of the singing bird, thus, resonates with that of the singing nightingale of John Keats. However, while the singing bird of Keats mesmerizes the listener, the bird of Yeats will guide, awake and enlighten the listener.
Concluding, “in “Sailing to Byzantium” the poet’s spirit escapes from life to the undying realm of art symbolized by Byzantium.” Yeats extensive use of rich and complex symbols in his poetry makes the words appeal to the reader and proves him the chief representative of the symbolist movement. His drawing symbols from rich folklore, mythology, philosophy, metaphysics, occult, magic, paintings, drawings and everything around helps linking and relating the reality.
The representation of old age as the symbol of tyranny of time runs throughout the poem and Yeats’ agony facing old age is found with a powerful expression in the poem, in addition to showing the modern tendency of escape.