Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
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.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic 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.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
"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 lines of iambic pentameter. It uses a journey to Byzantium (Constantinople) 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." This is a reference to the legend that when the Turks entered the church (Hagia Sophia) in 1453, the priests who were singing the Divine Liturgy took up the sacred vessels and disappeared into the wall of the church, where they will stay and only come out when the church is returned to Christendom (see Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium, page 337). 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").
The Golden Bough (mythology) is a reference to the Aeneid, book VI, by the Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC), where it is offered as a gift by Trojan hero Aeneas to Proserpina to enter the gate of the underworld. Aeneas' father Anchises describes the spirit inside every body
The seeds of life—
fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they
are weighed down by the bodies' ills or dulled
by earthly limbs and flesh that's born for death.
That is the source of all men's fears and longings,
joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens' light,
shut up in the body's tomb, a prison dark and deep.
This describes the tension between physicality and spirituality, mortality and immortality, which are the themes of this poem.
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."
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)".
A second poem written by W. B. Yeats, "Byzantium", extends and complements "Sailing to Byzantium". It blends descriptions of the medieval city in nighttime darkness with spiritual, supernatural and artistic imagery.
The short story "No Country for Old Men" by Irish author Seán Ó Faoláin, about two veterans of the Irish War of Independence struggling to find their place in the Irish Republic of the 1950s, takes its title from the first line of the poem. His daughter, author Julia O'Faolain, added her own twist when she titled her Booker-nominated 1980 novel No Country for Young Men.
- Jeffares, Alexander Norman, A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (Stanford: Stanford University Press 1968) p. 217
- Quoted in San Juan, Epifanio, Poetics: the imitation of action (Cranbury, N.J., Associated University Presses 1979) ISBN 0-8386-2273-9 p. 57
- San Juan, Epifanio, Poetics: the imitation of action (Cranbury, N.J., Associated 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
- "Transnational Trauma and "the mockery of Armageddon": "The Dying Animal" in the New Millennium," AIMEE POZORSKI, Studies in American Jewish Literature Vol. 23 Philip Roth's America: The Later Novels (2004), pp. 122-134. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41206011
- Dena Taylor, On Sailing to Sarantium, TransVersions 10, Toronto: Orchid Press, 1999, republished on Bright Weavings (Kay's authorized website) Archived 15 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine
- Frye, S. (2006). "Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium' and McCarthy's No Country for Old Men: Art and Artifice in the New Novel". The Cormac McCarthy Society Journal. 5.
- "Sailing to Byzantium" Poetry Foundation. Archived 14 June 2022 at the Wayback Machine
- "Sailing to Byzantium" The Britannica Guide to the Nobel Prizes. 1997. 30 April 2006. Archived 22 June 2002 at the Wayback Machine