12 Yeats – Sailing to Byzantium

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Sailing to Byzantium
W.B. Yeats
Written 1927.
Published in ‘The Tower’ (1928)
Sailing to Byzantium
‘Now 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
upon that subject are here...’
WB Yeats
Can I go there?
• Sadly no... Byzantium was an ancient Greek city on the site that
later became Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
• It was founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 657 BC. The city
was rebuilt and reinaugurated as the new capital of the Roman
Empire by Emperor Constantine I in 330 AD and subsequently
renamed Constantinople.
• The city remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire until 1453,
when it was conquered and became the capital of the Ottoman
Empire.
• Since the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923, the Turkish
name of the city, Istanbul, has replaced the name Constantinople in
the West.
• Yeats saw the Byzantine Empire, along with the Renaissance, as one
of the high points of civilisation/ high point of gyres
Symbolism of Byzantium
• An ideal state of mind beyond life
• Represents the perfect aesthetic
• The perfection of art allows the artist to
transcend daily life, the ego, nature, death,
relationships, desire
• Art is not personal here; it is art for art’s sake
The Byzantine artist...
• Whether painters, mosaic makers, illuminators,
illustrators of books, song writers, goldsmiths,
silversmiths... All artists are impersonal.
• They work without consciousness of individual
design
• They are absorbed in their subject matter/ the
creation of art itself
• Their aim is to represent the visions of the whole
people NOT the individual
Note on form – AO2
• Ottava Rima – loose iambic pentameter stanzas
with an asymmetric rhyme pattern
• A sestet and a couplet: ABABABCC
• Renaissance form that Yeats discovered in Italy
with Lady G in 1907
• Associated with aristocratic poise, ceremony and
custom; Yeats often uses in reflective poems (e.g.
‘Among School Children’
• Provides a sense of balance and shape and
possibly, reflection (link to structure in ‘Wild
Swans at Coole...)
Sailing to Byzantium (1927)
I
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.
II
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.
III
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.
IV
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.
Interpretations
• An allegory of the process by which fantasies are
made into art?
• About the artfulness of art?
• A rejection of the personal in art?
• A metaphysical poem as much as a symbolic
poem?
• Reflects Yeats’ commitment to the craft of poetry,
above all else?
• Or as Yeats suggested, is it ‘over and above
utility...something that wrings the heart’?

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