Sailing to Byzantium: Journey of No Return

by Thoithoi O’Cottage

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Written in 1926 (when Yeats was 61 years old) and first published in the collection The Tower in 1928, Sailing to Byzantium is hailed as one of Yeats’ greatest poems, and it explores time’s effect on all living things, making them slow down and lose their natural stamina and enthusiasm, how humans gain spiritual powers as physical ability slips away. The central concern of the poem is the dichotomies between youth and age, as well as sensuality and spirituality, and it finally tries to bring the opposites into one and end the conflict by creating an object which partakes of the nature of both natural and spiritual worlds. In fact, Yeats’ definition of art meshes natural and spiritual worlds together, and the song of the dying generations and the fixity of the artistic form build the basis of his concept of art.

The poems tells about a man who, feeling past his prime and having come to the realization that youth and sensual life are no longer (though he allegedly liked) an option for him (That is no country for old men), sails off for a spiritual pilgrimage to the ideal world of Byzantium, a land where emphasis is not on the physical achievements of a person (monuments of unageing intellect).

…I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

Yeats felt that the civilization of Byzantium (a city on the shore of the Bosporus which on the emperor Constantine the Great’s triumph over it in AD 330 got renamed Constantinople and became the imperial capital of the Roman Empire and was again captured by the Ottoman Turks renaming it as Istanbul in 1453) represented a zenith in art, spirituality and philosophy. It seems, therefore, logical then that in the poem Byzantium symbolizes a place where the spiritless can journey in order to seek out the spiritual, and there he is able to discard the natural elements of his body in favor of the immortal, spiritual element that his soul is.

While interested in a literal visit to twentieth-century Ravenna and Istanbul – both major centers of surviving art treasures from Byzantium and Constantinople – the speaker is more desirous of a visit back in time. Yeats wrote that he was especially interested in the reign of Justinian I (AD527-AD565) which was called a ‘golden age’ because of the lasting cultural monuments it produced: the Justinian Code (AD529 – the basis of Roman law) and numerous works of art and architecture, especially the Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom (AD537) in Istanbul. The speaker’s wished-for trip into the past also arises from the city being holy, the former 1000-year capital of Christianity replete with ‘artifice[s] of eternity’, of age-old effigies of eternal gods and saints depicted in the forever-land of heavenly realms, seeming to last forever in the cultural realms of historic Byzantium.

One problem for the speaker, however, is that in attempting to get hold of the un-aging and eternal, he is reminded that to possess them means aging and dying. The way out is the age-old solution of rebirth, but Yeats’s variation is that rebirth does not take place on earth or in heaven, but within the virtual or imaginary realm of what might be called the ‘space of artifice’, or even ‘artspace’. In the metaphoric realm of ‘unageing’ artwork, where art outlasts persons producing and admiring it, one can become a ‘monument of unageing intellect’, while at the same time inhabiting this world, ‘singing’ or telling of ‘what is past, or passing, or to come’. Of course, how one breaks into artificial space – becomes immortal by becoming an artwork – is the riddle in this poem.

Each of the four numbered stanzas marks a stage in this condensed odyssey from the land of

…The young

In one another’s arms…

(probably Ireland, the birthplace of Yeats) to ‘the holy city of Byzantium…upon a golden bough to sing’, the speaker’s eternal resting or singing place. The first stanza marks the departure, the second, the journey by boat, the third, sightseeing in Byzantium, and the fourth, singing upon a ‘golden bough’ in the living/dead artspace of Byzantium.

In the first stanza, the ‘country’ of line one is a land of birth, death, change and sensuality – in another word, nature, in the older sense of inexhaustibility. This nature is teeming with people and fish, plants and birds.

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.

Of especial note is that the birds, an evolving motif throughout the poem, make up ‘Those dying generations’ of nature. This is nature at the level of the individual organism’s more or less brief life, not the nature of ageless patterns, billion-year-old elements, thousand-year-old trees, and undetectable change.

The second stanza is likely a meditation aboard ship on growing old. The only way, the speaker thinks, that the withering or tattered body – which Yeats understands as the ‘clothing’ of the soul – can be counteracted is by singing or specifically, by writing poems that are spoken songs, which in turn are sung poems.

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

There being no school to teach such singing, one must study the monumental ‘songs’, the magnificent artworks that inspire – apparently more than nature – the soul to sing and dance. Yeats, in his introduction to the works of William Blake, relates how Blake, when his brother died, saw ‘his brother’s spirit ascending clapping its hands for joy…’ The singing, motion-filled soul is related to a singing bird, not only because of the song, but because the soul, at least since Plato, was thought to have wings that enabled it to fly upward to the undying or eternal realm of the Ideal, an early influence on the Christian construction of heaven. The bird theme is also hinted at the figure of a ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, a kind of scarecrow figure suggesting a withering body around a spine and head. While the scarecrow image is effective in evoking old age, it does clash with the decaying natural body, a body natural birds might – instead of being scared off by – descend on to feed on.

The third stanza finds the speaker in Byzantium, gazing at a mosaic of ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire.’ The mosaic is probably based on the frieze of the holy martyrs in the church of the San Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna, which Yeats visited in 1907. In History of Art, H.J. Janson remarked that upon entering this church, ‘we find ourselves in a shimmering realm of light and color where precious marble surfaces and the brilliant glitter of mosaics evoke the spiritual splendor of the Kingdom of God’. In earlier drafts of the poems, these sages had been called ‘saints’, but it appears as if Yeats reworked the word to keep it from a narrowly Christian spiritual context and to give it a higher purchase on religious universality and secular intellect. The holy fire associated with the gold mosaic is potent, a concatenation of related images. Fire was formerly the element of the ethereal realm before it became banished to Hell. Fire burns and does not consume: the martyrs are consumed by earthly fire, but pure and eternal, golden and heavenly fire does not consume.

And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. (Exodus, 3:2)

Gold-as-fire relates back to the golden sun, thought to be the dynamo behind all heat – again, heat that burns but does not consume – and light. Gold is also the emperor of metals because of its durability and radiance. Earth-bound gold once was thought to embody the sun within the earth, just as the heart – the seat of life – is within the body. These sages or martyrs in gold fire, then, died by fire but were reborn both in eternally heavenly fire and the eternal gold tiles of 1500-year-old mosaics. The speaker asks these ‘living’ sages to be his soul’s singing masters, masters initiating him into the order of the Immortal

O sages standing in God’s holy fire…
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

to consume away his heart soiled with desires (while his body dies like any dying animal) thereby purifying his soul and leaving it radiant.

‘Perne’ and ‘gyre’, favorite terms of Yeats, refer to a spool or bobbin (perne) wound with life’s thread (gyre). In the case of these sages, the thread is most likely golden. The speaker wants these sages to teach his intellect or his soul sing in perpetuity and to take his impermanent heart away in exchange. J.G. Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes how in Aztec sacrifices of humans, the victim’s heart was ripped out of the live body as an offering to keep the sun shining. In other words, impermanence (body) was sacrificed to maintain permanence (the sun). In Sailing to Byzantium, the impermanent dying heart or body is sacrificed for the permanence of singing intellect, golden art, the ‘artifice of eternity’.

By the fourth stanza, the journey becomes fully imaginative, a reverie of life after death. Yeats characterizes death as ‘out of nature’, perhaps because, he, at least for the sake of this poem, understands nature/life as change and what death brings as eternal. Granting that the speaker has enlisted the sages from the third stanza to be his spiritual masters, he decides how he will be reborn. This journey to Byzantium is a pilgrimage of no return as the speaker once purified there would not like to come back into another life as a natural animal but either as a golden object from ancient ‘Grecian’ Byzantium or an object, probably a bird, placed on a ‘golden bough’ in the emperor’s palace at Constantinople.

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…
Or set upon a golden bough to sing

Yeats mentioned ‘that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, with artificial birds that sang’, but he might also have had in mind Hans Christian Anderson’s story, The Nightingale with its gold and bejeweled artificial bird (Andersen, 1909). The more direct and traceable reference, however, lies in the words, ‘a golden bough’. J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough gets its name from Virgil’s The Aeneid which recounts the episode in which Aeneas is told by a prophetess to take the golden bough – probably based on mistletoe, a vine remaining green even after the tree on which it grows loses its leaves – to insure his safe return out of Hades (Virgil, 1909). The golden bough signifies eternality through its undying golden color and its mythic role as insurance policy against death even through the labyrinth of Hell.

Motifs in the poem include images of birds, gold and fire. The symbols of salmon-fall, mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, fowl and bird in the first stanza signify youth and fertility, while ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’ in the second stanza signifies old age and its helplessness. ‘Mortal dress’ in the same stanza conjures up images of the Hindu view of the body. Fire, perne, and gyre in the third stanza, and golden bough in the fourth are symbols spiritual purity and immortality. The symbol of bird undergoes a spiritual transformation in the passage from the first stanza in which it signifies fertility, birth, youthfulness and other aspects of change characteristic of nature, to the last stanza in which it becomes a supernatural being, an immortal work of art effecting a unitary experience like the oneness of dancer and dance, singer and song which is the Hindu view of reality. Through this unitary experience for which the speaker has sailed the seas and come to Byzantium the mortal can become immortal. The significance of the last stage of this pilgrimage (the fourth stanza) is reflected in Yeats earlier work A Vision:

I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religion aesthetics, and practical life were one.

In spite of the somber tone of the poem, what is clear from this conclusion, in conformity with the Hindu view of life, is that any stage of one’s life, be it old age or otherwise, is not a disease or cause of suffering, but one’s failure to realize one’s true identity, one’s failing to identify oneself with the immortal supersoul:

sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

(Sailing to Byzantium)

Fools dwelling in darkness, but thinking themselves

wise and erudite, go round and round, by various

tortuous paths, like the blind led by the blind. (Nikhilananda)


HE who knows at the same time both

Vidya and Avidya, crosses over death

by Avidya and attains immortality through Vidya[1]. (Paramananda, 1919)

Sailing to Byzantium is written in ottava rima (an eight-line stanza which often uses the iambic pentameter form of meter with the rhyme scheme of abababcc , in spite of the rhymes being often slanted as in young/long, for example), a form usually used in epic poems, taking ironically the traditional epic form starting right from its title which sounds like the beginning of an epic quest. The final couplet furnishes the closing punch to the steady alternating lyrical rhyme of the first six lines. The ironic atmosphere is again accentuated by turning the epic spirit inside out by planting in the setting not any young hero with rippling muscles whose successful bloody battles we are all stoked to read about but an old, crotchety man who is going to show no incredible superhuman ability but trying to leave his body completely for not wanting to be stuck with a body which is

… a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick …

In fact, corrupting the traditional epic ottava rima form and twisting its rhyme scheme of abababcc using half rhymes, Yeats allows the formal characteristics of his poem to reinforce its content.

[1] Commenting on the verse, Paramananda writes: when he knows himself to be one with the Supreme and Indestructible Whole, he realizes his immortality (p 31).

Works cited:

Andersen, H. C. (1909). The Harvard Classics Vol 17. Folk-Lore and Fable: Aesop, Grimm and Andersen. (C. W. Eliot, Ed.) New York, USA: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation.

Frazer, J. G. (1925). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York, USA: The Macmillan Company.

The Principal Upanishads. (S. Nikhilananda, Trans.)

The Upanishads. (1919). (S. Paramananda, Trans.) Boston, USA: The Vedanta Center.

Virgil. (1909). The Harvard Classics Vol 13: Aeneid. (C. W. Eliot, Ed., & J. Dryden, Trans.) New York: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation.


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