The poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats is about the passage of time and how one may become immortal. Because Yeats lived from 1865 to 1939, this poem, written in 1926, expresses his concerns of becoming old and being obsolete. The narrator of this poem is interested in the human/animal situation, which states that we are born, live, and die. The narrator looks for a location where he may join the historical monuments and live on forever. He selects Byzantium, which is now known as Istanbul, because of the city’s rich history and the many monuments devoted to the past that it contains. He believes that by being a monument himself, he will be able to overcome the state of humanity.
The opening line of this poem says that the young are in charge in the narrator’s nation, while the elderly are becoming has-beens. In this opening sentence, it is pretty reasonable to assume that Yeats is talking to Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State in Ireland in 1922. Because Ireland had previously been under English rule, the new separation brought with it a new generation of leaders. Younger radicals took over the existing laws and government personnel. Beginning in 1922, Yeats was elected to the Irish Senate for two terms. He also received the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the first Irishman to receive this distinction. When Yeats composed this poem, he was sixty-one years old, so it’s understandable that he was thinking about what it meant to be old and how to remain current in such a fast-changing world. Ireland was reaching a new era in which the attitude was “out with the old, in with the new; change is for the young, not the old.”
The notion of youthful love, simplicity, and naivety is promoted by young people being in one other’s arms. It may also be compared to how the Irish Free State is similar to a youthful love relationship: everything is still fresh and wonderful, and there haven’t been any serious problems yet.
Comment on the opposition of art and life and youth and old age in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’.
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This stanza is finished by a sequence of natural pictures by Yeats. Birds will be a recurring image throughout the poem, since they symbolise freedom. “Those fading generations-at their song” is a reference to the life cycle of birds (animal condition), in which they hatch, develop, mate, and die. In this poem, music and song play an important part; in the second stanza, Yeats utilises them to awaken the spirit.
The fish and mackerel are the subject of the following natural picture. Salmon are born in fresh water and then travel to the ocean to mature over the course of many years. They return to their birthplace and deposit their eggs when they are ready to mate. The majority of salmon perish only a few days after depositing their eggs. Because a female mackerel may lay up to one million eggs at once, Yeats refers to “mackerel-crowded waters.” Salmon have limited life spans, and their whole existence revolves on reproduction; it is both the beginning and the end of their existence. Yeats argues in lines 5 and 6 that everything that is born must die; this is the essence of life. Everything must perish, whether you are a fish, a bird, or a person.
The opening stanza’s final two lines resemble Yeats’ subject phrase. He’s implying that the old can’t be heard above the love songs of youth, and that the elderly are ignored since they aren’t youthful and beautiful.
The term “sensual music” may also apply to bird sounds, which might be interpreted as a mating call. The monuments are images of history that relate to the elderly. The young are dazzled by their hormones, vitality, and the desire to be young, thus they ignore the monuments. Yeats is implying that just because someone is elderly does not mean they have lost their wits; they are still valuable. Monuments should be respected rather than overlooked.
The second verse begins with Yeats declaring that being an elderly man is a trivial matter. Line 10’s “tattered coat” symbolises an old man’s skin; it’s worn out, worthless, and essentially a rag. An elderly man’s bones serve as the “stick.” This comparison is used to demonstrate humanity’s fragility; in the end, we’re all just skin and bone. Line 10 concludes with the phrase “unless,” which establishes that there is hope; life does not have to stop with infirmity, and the old may become eternal monuments. In line 11, the narrator requests that the elderly get up and sing; that they be heard. “The soul claps its hands and sings” is evocative of William Blake, who “saw the spirit of his deceased brother ascend to heaven, ‘clapping his hands for joy,'” . The narrator is telling the elderly to sing louder so they won’t be forgotten. He is encouraging them to boldly sing their heritage. In line 12, the word “tatter” refers to the coat from the comparison in line 10 and is also used to represent the elderly man’s life experiences. Every scar, or rather every tatter in a coat, has a tale to tell. Human skin serves as the “mortal clothing.” The narrator claims that he has been looking for a location with magnificent monuments where he may be a part of history.
I believe that in ancient Byzantium, perhaps before or since recorded history, religious, artistic, and practical life were all intertwined, and that architects and artisans…spoke to the many as well as the few. The painter, mosaic artist, gold and silversmith, and holy book illuminator were virtually impersonal, almost without awareness of particular design, immersed in their subject-matter and that of an entire people’s vision.
“Byzantium,” according to Yeats, is the only location where art and man are one. It is the only location where history has been accurately represented. Art and monuments in Byzantium are unaffected by anything other than their topic; they are genuine historical representations that are respected.
In verse three, Yeats summons the God’s wise men to free him from his human state and grant him immortality. To emphasise the gravity of his plea to the sages, Yeats starts with the exclamation “O.” A sage is someone who is well-known for their knowledge. The sages are God’s saints in this poetry; they are the chosen ones who will dwell on eternally in the hearts of worshippers. They embody everything he aspires to be.
The gold mosaic in line 18 is most likely a reference to the mosaics that Yeats observed at Ravenna, Italy’s San Apollinaire Nuovo. They have a gold backdrop with rows of saints. “Perne in a gyre” literally translates to “spiral swirl.” Yeats is begging the saints to sing his history/song as they emerge from the holy fire. He wants them to eat his heart, which is unfortunate since its vessel is failing. He aspires to be immortal and transcend mankind. His body is the dying beast. His spirit want to go on indefinitely, but he understands that his body is incapable of doing so. The body has no idea how valuable the things it holds, which is what Jesus means when he says “it knows not what it is” (3.23). A smart trick or a crafty contrivance is referred to as an artifice. He wishes for the sages to employ a trick to make him immortal.
This stanza also conjures up images of the mythical phoenix. The phoenix is a brightly coloured bird with a lifespan of 500 to 1,000 years. When a bird feels that its life is coming to an end, it will construct a nest made of twigs. This nest catches fire, burning both the nest and the phoenix; from the ashes, a new phoenix rises. This cycle will go on indefinitely. The phoenix is slain and then reborn from the holy fire. When the phoenix cries, it is believed to sound like a lovely melody. In verse three, Yeats discusses reincarnation, requesting that the sages remove his earthly covering so that he may be reincarnated as a creature that would never die.
He doesn’t want to be reborn into another being or natural object after he dies, since he would face the same dilemmas as before. He wants the Grecian goldsmiths to change into something made of gold (the Greeks were the ones who built Byzantium in the first place). He believes that the only way his soul can survive eternally is to become an item that will be treasured by future generations.
Yeats wrote, referring to a tree made of gold and silver that would be used to keep the Emperor awake, “read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium [there] was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang,”. Because these gold birds cannot die and their history will be linked to the Emperor’s, Yeats want to be one of them. Scholars and people alike study and respect royalty, and their legacy will go on in perpetuity, as the narrator wishes for himself. The narrator overcomes the human predicament in the poem’s last phrase. He has no bounds; he will sing about the past, present, and future. The ultimate aim of a writer is to be remembered for all time by his work; the narrator believes that by writing this poem, it will become his artifice for all time.