Sailing to Byzantium written by William Butler Yeats Summary and Questions Answers

Context of Sailing to Byzantium

The poem was written in the autumn of 1926. Yeats’ knowledge of the city was largely derived from his reading of W.G. Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodora (1905). Byzantium is a holy city, as the capital of eastern Christianity and as the place where God exists because of the life after death Yeats imagines existing there. His description of Byzantium shows that he valued the position of the artist in the city. The ancient city of Byzantium was remarkable for the beauty of its buildings and the art of its craftsman. Yeats’ city is both historical and ideal. It is a symbol of holiness, of perfection of art, of the world of intellect and spirit as distinct from the world of senses. The poem celebrates the permanence of art. against the transitory nature. Byzantium has become for him a Utopia, a symbol of holiness, of perfect craftsmanship and of Ireland’s future achievement in the arts.

Title

The title of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” begins with the word ‘Sailing,’ which alludes to a kind of movement towards something called ‘Byzantium,’ seen in the following words of the title. Byzantium seems to be a better place than the one where the person of the poem lives and the A. Norman Jeffares (1984) says, “Byzantium is a holy city, as the capital of Eastern Christianity, and as the place where God exists because of the life after death Yeats [the speaker] imagines existing there,” because he is willing enough to endure the misery of sailing and instead of living there, as Yeats himself says in A Vision, “I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium, a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the academy of Plato…”.

Summary of Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium written by William Butler Yeats in 1926 was first published in The Tower series in 1928. It contains four stanzas, each consisting of eight ten-syllable lines. It uses a journey as a metaphor for a spiritual journey to Byzantium (Constantinople). Yeats discusses his ideas and thoughts about how immortality, poetry, and the human spirit may intersect. “Sailing to Byzantium” depicts the metaphorical voyage of a man seeking his own view of everlasting life as well as his conception of heaven through the use of various literary techniques.

The poem is an emphatic reminder of the poet’s keen interest in the ancient city of the Eastern Empire and of the importance of art and culture. In the metric form, “Sailing to Byzantium” fits the style of ottava rima stanza. However, Yeats modifies the form to suit his own intent, using ten syllables instead of the initial eleven and using slanting rhymes instead of the exact ones.

The (Ireland) is not the best place for old men, since they are all wrapped up in sensual music, which lets them forget the ageless artistic accomplishments of the intellect. In this land, the dying generations of birds and young lovers celebrate things that are a slave to the natural cycle of life and death. Young lovers that are in each other’s hearts, the births that are in the woods and the salmon-falls and the mackerel-crowded waters, the water, the flesh and the birds, all sing one song, the song of the senses. All of these, at the same time, are beings that are very much prone to death.

The country (Ireland) is not the best place for an old man who is otherwise a petty thing with his physical forces decaying constantly, the only solution open to the old man is to get his soul taught in such a manner that he begins to clap his hands and sing. In this state of vigorous joy, the spirit must sing louder with every tatter in its mortal outfit. In other words, the newly learned music of the spirit must grow louder and louder than the brute forces of the old mango, from bad to worst. The only obstacle in this direction is to get the right school where the soul can get an education that is difficult to find in that country, for any singing school, instead of caring for monuments of own significance, is busy studying monuments of its own importance. As a result of the difficulties of finding the right school for his soul to be educated in that region, the poet decides to sail across the sea and to go to the holy city of Byzantium.

Addressing the sages standing in god’s holy fire in Byzantium, the poet says: “O sages who are standing in God’s holy fire in the same way as a figure stands in the gold mosaic work (inlaid work of small pieces of different coloured marble, glass, etc.) of a wall, climb down from your position in a spiral movement and be the educators of my soul so that my soul can learn the right kind of song-the song which becomes louder as the body decays more and more? The first thing one will have to do will be to purify one’s heart because it is tied to the animal instincts of the body and is sick with physical desire. Once one has purified or consumed the heart away it will be easier for one to do what the narrator most desires-gathering me into the artifice of eternity. In other words, the narrator wants to become part of those things which are beyond the cycle of birth and death.”

Once the narrator (being living, born and dying) is out of this circle of nature, he will break all contact with natural life, i.e. the physical world. He would take a form like that which was pounded into a golden shape and golden enamel by Greek goldsmiths instead of taking my body shape from some normal item. This was done to shape a golden bird by Grecian goldsmiths who could sing to a sleeping emperor to hold him awake. He also wants to be a golden bird gathered into the artifice of eternity, so that in the court of Byzantium he is placed upon a golden bough, which alone will allow him to sing to the Lords and Ladies of Byzantium of all times, past, present and future (of what is past, or passing or coming). This narrator’s song would be distinct from the sensual songs of the fading centuries, singing monuments of an ageing intellect.

It is a lyric poem with the rhyme scheme of AABBCDDC. The title of the poem, “Byzantium” refers to the place where the speaker or persona of the poem desires to go in order to be able to purify his soul and be immortal. He is in Byzantium now and whatever he is talking about happens in it.

Explanation Of The Poem

Stanza I

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
–Those dying generations -at their songs,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unaging intellect.

According to the poet,

Ireland is a land for young, imaginative artists, where the old men have no place at all. The young are engaged in their creative pursuits, whereas the old men continue their songs of their golden days of youth. Thus, one theme of the poem is the difference between youth and old age. Thus, the country is no more a place for old men. That is the country, the Ireland of his youth and he is going to leave in search of a place with regret. The imagery ‘the salmon falls’ refers to Yeats’ reminiscence of Sligo. The river drops down through the town in a series of falls up which the salmon leap in the spring when returning to spawn.

Salmon are symbols of strength and beauty. The young man is caught up in the sensual music as surely as fish are caught up in a net. But the poet is determined to go in search of a perfect place fit for his soul and mind though his body is deteriorating.

Stanza II

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

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

Yeats is sad and desperate at the innumerable problems of old age which affect man’s capacity to live life pleasurably and fruitfully. Old age is insignificant like ‘A tattered coat upon a stick’. It is as hollow as a scarecrow, with the physical appearance of a human being but lacking the human essence.

Though his body is deteriorating with old age, he is resolved to find compensation by achieving a new perfection of the soul. His soul must clap its hands for joy as it realises it is approaching nearer to perfection.

The soul must also sing -an idea which combines the ideas of singing for joy and of writing poetry. To teach his soul to sing he must, metaphorically, sail to Byzantium. The only way in which the soul can learn to sing is by studying monuments of its own magnificence such as Byzantium art. The old men must look at old age as the liberation of the soul which actively experiences the beauty beyond one’s immediate perception. Yeats, so, resolves to sail for Byzantium.

Stanza III

O Sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold masaic 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.

Yeats refers tothe sages in the frieze at St. Appolinaire at Ravenna and invokes them to spiral down the cone to him. A Perne is the spool or bobbin on which the thread is spun. The Perne carried the thread of human life which is unwound within the gyre in the opposite direction to the movement of the gyre. Perne also means a kind of hawk and the image of a bird is like the descent by the sages. It is convincingly linked with the golden bird of the last stanza. By the image ‘perne in a gyre’, Yeats refers to successive ages as a system of gyres.

In the world of art, an image is as holy as a sage. God, is the supreme artist and is the artificer of eternity and the holy fire, like the poet with his imagination which makes all artifices.

Stanza 1V

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmith make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake:

Or set upon a golden bough of Byzantium

Of what is past or passing, or to come.

Yeats seems to refer indirectly to Hans Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s Nightingale” in which reference has been made to the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium where there was a tree made of gold and silver and artificial birds that sang. On the other hand, it is also possible that Yeats may have had in mind “Ode to a Nightingale” written by Keats, where the latter had referred to ‘the self-same song heard in ancient days by Emperor and Clown.’ The poet, if he is born again, wants to take his form from the artist’s imagination so that he would be able to defy the transitory quality of all-natural things. As an artifice, he would become immortal and sing of what is past or passing or to come rather than to follow the course taken by fish, flesh and fowl of birth and decay. Thus, by imprisoning his thought in a system, he gained a strong belief that he knew and understood:

What is past, or passing, or to come.”

Thus, the poem, published in 1928, expresses Yeats’s desire for eternity. Byzantium’s civilisation is ‘elaborately rich’, but represent the perfection of the spirit as opposed to nature. He desires to escape from his own time-a period of confusion and disintegration.

POETIC STYLE

In Yeats’ poetry, one can notice the use of symbols and myth. In Essay, Yeats describes symbols as ‘the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half-consciously by their successors, the poet, the musician, and the artist. But, Yeats uses both the symbolism of sounds and ideas. His poetry, in this connection, is a communication with spirits, with an unseen order of things. Yeats’ view of Byzantium is given in his work A Vision. “I think that if I could be given a month of antiquity or leave to spend it when I choose, and I would spend it in Byzantium.” This poem is a representation of the combination and unification of the subjective and objective man, which is in reality impossible to achieve. Symbols and images become more subjective in Byzantium. His aim here is to achieve unity in being -where subjectivity and objectivity become one.

Questions and Answers

Q.1. Write a few lines on the early life of W.B. Yeats.
Ans: W.B Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, a seaside suburb of Dublin. The family of Yeats’ father was mercantile settlers. He spent his childhood alternately in London and Sligo. The first three years of infancy were passed in his birthplace Dublin. But in 1868, the family moved to London so that his father could study to become a professional painter. The family then settled at 23 Fitzroy Road, Regent’s park and lived there until 1874.

Q. 2. When did Yeats first begin to write verses?
Ans. At the age of seventeen, Yeats first began to write verses. Although Yeats wanted to be an artist, but he continued to write poetry mostly on romantic subjects in the manner of Shelley. In 1885, Yeats verse appeared for the first time in Dublin University Review. Many of his early ballads reappeared in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems.

In 1887, his verse was published in England for the first time, when his The Madness of King Groll appeared in the magazine The Leisure Hour. In the same year, he edited an anthology of poetry, which was published in Dublin under the title Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland.

Q. 3. Who was Maud Gonne? How did she respond to Yeats’ interest in her?
Ans: Maud Gonne became his chief interest. From the moment of their meeting, all life for Yeats was changed, changed utterly. But, Maud Gonne did not respond to his passion. She accepted him with delight as a friend and she was obsessed with a burning desire to free Ireland from its seven hundred years’ dominion by England.

Q. 4. How was Yeats affected by some of the contemporary public events of his time?
Ans: From the time of the Easter Rising of 1916 up to the Civil War of 1922, Yeats was more affected by public events. His violent romance was replaced then by the bitter realities and that can be ascertained from his Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), which reflected the clashes of those events. On Easter Monday 1916 the Irish rose in rebellion against the English, and between 1916 and 1921 they fought the English in a guerrilla war. Even after 1921, rival Irish factions fought a civil war about whether to accept the peace Treaty which gave
independence to the Irish Free state but separated it from the six counties
known as Northern island.

Q.5. Why is the poet sad and desperate in the poem “Sailing to Byzantium”?
Ans: He is sad and desperate at the innumerable problems of old age which affect man’s capacity to live life pleasurably and fruitfully. Old age is insignificant like “A tattered coat upon a stick”. It is as hollow as a scarecrow, with the physical appearance of a human being but lacking the human essence. Though his body is deteriorating with old age, he is resolved to find compensation by achieving a new perfection of the soul. His soul must clap its hands for joy as it realises it is approaching nearer to perfection. The soul must also sing -an idea which combines the ideas of singing for joy and of writing poetry. To teach his soul to sing he must, metaphorically, sail to Byzantium.

Q. 6. What is the only way that the soul can learn to sing according to the
poet?
Ans: The only way in which the soul can learn to sing is by studying monuments of its own magnificence such as Byzantium art. The old men must look at old age as the liberation of the soul which actively experiences the beauty beyond one’s immediate perception. Yeats, so, resolves to sail for Byzantium.

Q. 7. What are the indirect references to other texts that Yeats likely makes
in his poem?
Ans: Yeats seems to refer indirectly to Hans Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s Nightingale” in which reference has been made to the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium where there was a tree made of gold and silver and artificial birds that sang. On the other hand, it is also possible that Yeats may have had in mind “Ode to a Nightingale” written by Keats, where the latter had referred to ‘the self-same song heard in ancient days by Emperor and Clown.’ The poet, if he is born again, wants to take his form from the artist’s imagination so that he would be able to defy the transitory quality of all-natural things.

Q. What does Byzantium refer to?
Ans. The poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” consists of four eight-line stanzas that are metered in the iambic pentameter and the ABABABCC rhymes, technically called ottava rima. In the six lines of the stanza, the poet speaks about something, and in lines seven and eight of the stanza, he ends the discussion he has already raised.

Q. What does Byzantium symbolize?
Ans.Byzantium symbolises a world of artistic magnificence and permenance, conjuring up in the mind of the reader, a rich and inclusive culture such as that associated with thee Byzantium empire. The images of birds, fish and young lovers used by Yeats in the first stanza symbolises transience and mortality.

Q. What is the main theme of the poem Sailing to Byzantium?

Ans. The major Themes in “Sailing to Byzantium” are: Man versus nature and eternity are the major themes of this poem. The poem presents two things: the transience of life and the permanence of nature. The speaker wants to escape from the world where wise people are neglected.

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