Sailing to Byzantium
"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' 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").
Yeats wrote in a draft script for a 1931 BBC broadcast:
I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called 'Sailing to Byzantium'. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jeweled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.
John Crowe Ransom comments: "The prayer is addressed to holy sages who dwell I know not where; it does not seem to matter where, for they seem qualified to receive the prayer, and it is a qualified and dignified prayer."
Epifanio San Juan writes that the action of the poem "occurs in the tension between memory and desire, knowledge and intuition, nature and history, subsumed within a vision of eternal order".
Cleanth Brooks asks whether, in this poem, Yeats chooses idealism or materialism and answers his own question, "Yeats chooses both and neither. One cannot know the world of being save through the world of becoming (though one must remember that the world of becoming is a meaningless flux aside from the world of being which it implies)".
- Some readers and reviewers assume that the title of Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal is derived from the third stanza of the poem.
- The title of No Country for Old Men by American author Cormac McCarthy and its subsequent film adaptation by the same name is derived from the first line of the poem.
- The title of "The Young in One Another's Arms" by Canadian author Jane Rule is a quotation from the poem.
- The title of Sailing to Sarantium by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay is inspired by the title of the poem.
- Robert Silverberg wrote a science fiction novella titled Sailing to Byzantium; it won a Nebula award in 1986.
- The band Liars named a track Sailing to Byzantium on their 2007 self-titled album.
- In the BBC documentary series The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski cites the 'monuments of unageing intellect' as a primary focus for his series of essays.
- Lisa Gerrard has a track entitled Sailing to Byzantium on her album Immortal Memory.
- J. M. Coetzee focuses his book Disgrace around the story of aged scholar suffering with questions of his own mortality and quotes the poem directly in the work.
- Jeffares, Alexander Norman, A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1968) p. 217
- Quoted in San Juan, Epifiano, Poetics: the imitation of action (Cranbury, N.J., Assoiated University Presses 1979) ISBN 0-8386-2273-9 p. 57
- San Juan, Epifiano, Poetics: the imitation of action (Cranbury, N.J., Assoiated University Presses 1979) ISBN 0-8386-2273-9 p. 59
- Cleanth Brooks, "Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'", in Staton, Shirley F., Literary theories in praxis, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 1987) ISBN 0-8122-1234-7 p. 17
- "The Animal in Man: Roth returns to introspection and the Id", a review by Lucas Hanft, http://www.yale.edu/yrb/fall01/review04.htm
- Sailing to Byzantium. Poetry Archives
- Sailing to Byzantium. The Britannica Guide to the Nobel Prizes. 1997. 30 April 2006. Archived April 6, 2006 at the Wayback Machine[dead link]