Posted in Film and Literature Analyses

Sailing to Byzantium

By: Bryan Ricardo Marini Quintana

(Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633)

In the poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, poet William Butler Yeats narrates a spiritual journey of the body’s decay whilst the soul rejuvenates. At the start a voice says: “That is no country for old men…” (Yeats). Through these words, the poet makes it clear that those of old age are neglected by the boats that carry mortals to Byzantium. Instead, the gift of sailing to this majestic city is bestowed upon those with a youthful essence. Afterward, the voice presents how the younger mortals are like “…birds in the trees…” (Yeats), who sing and enjoy life with ecstasy. However, “…Those dying generations…” (Yeats) don’t share this festive sentiment with their dry voices that aren’t able to sing joyful melodies anymore. In a pessimistic manner, the poet says: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. / Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” (Yeats). These key lines unveil how old men have been relegated from society, due to their decrepit state and pessimistic nature. What these lines reveal, is the refusal of the voice to allow what energy is left within his soul to dwindle. Evidently, the poet shows his fears of dying and being forgotten, unveiling that although there is a youthful spirit within, the body is continually waning. Withering with old age, the voice longs to reach the city of Byzantium to be free of his mortal confines. By keeping his soul joyful with the melodies of life, the voice has been granted passage to the city of Byzantium. Therefore, the poet prepares for the journey, with an unwavering resolution to let go of his decaying body and travel to a city that will rejuvenate him. Hence, guided by the singing of birds that call unto him to make the journey, the voice leaves the mortal world and sails towards Byzantium, choosing to reach this eternal city, where beings through joyful melodies don’t age, rather than stay amidst wrinkled bodies clinging unto pale souls, meeting his fate.

Reaching the shores of the majestic city of Byzantium, the poet describes his journey’s end. Immediately, the poet depicts the city as Holy, a structure that had withstood the winds of change, still standing as a pivotal beacon of importance throughout the years. In here, the historical significance of the city plays a pivotal role in why the poet chooses to travel specifically towards this destination. Evidently, throughout history this city has acquired importance to the Greeks and Persians. Even beyond, The Macedonian Empire, The Roman Empire, and The Ottoman Empire recognized not only its benefiting strategic location but the cultural significance it carried. This reveals how across various civilizations and nations that have risen and fallen, the city has withstood throughout years, embodying a symbol of cultural pride. For these reasons, William Butler Yeats chooses to sail in a spiritual journey of rejuvenation to this unageing city. Therefore, this makes Byzantium the ideal city for the poet to visit as the strength of his body wanes but that of his soul is filled with energy. Allowing for the frail voice to be rejuvenated by reaching a city that throughout history has withstood as a haven of art and immortality.

Afterward, the poet reaches the city and says: “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.” (Yeats). With these words, the voice describes the city as an entity of its own. Alongside, this entity is either blessed by a divine being or is the manifestation of a divine being. Thereafter, the poet is at the gates of the city and is received by angelic voices that sing a melody that rekindles his soul. Although the decaying state of his body would have left the doors shut, due to the joyful melody within his soul, the voice is granted entrance. Onwards, the poet describes the beauty of the song and how it has awakened his soul, with the essence of the voice being filled with a rejuvenating chorus that welcomes him into the city.

Once inside, the poet describes the end of his journey by saying that now in the city he can be free from mortal constraints. “Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing,” (Yeats). With these lines, the poet rejects the limitations of a human body and begins to let go of wrinkled flesh that clings unto a glistening soul. By getting rid of what limits him, an aged body that ties the voice to the mortal world, the process of rejuvenation may begin. Thereafter, the poet lets go of his mortal form to transcend mortality and reach immortality. This change from a mortal man to what can be comprehended as a transformation into art itself, is shown when the voice says: “But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make / Of hammered gold and gold enamelling” (Yeats). Now, the poet has unveiled his greatest desire, wishing to become art. This will make the voice a part of what comprises the city of Byzantium, allowing him to live on forever. In order to become art, the poet describes the process of a Grecian goldsmith that will give him a new form that will immortalize the poet. With this new form, the voice will become a part of Byzantium that can be admired throughout history, by saying: “To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” (Yeats). In these final words, William Butler Yeats reveals his true intentions, with a desire to become art being fulfilled due to the soul that remained joyful and sought to sail towards the city, as Byzantium embraces him with melodies and grants the voice a wish to become immortal by transforming the poet into art that can be admired forever.

Works Cited:

Butler Yeats, William. “Sailing to Byzantium.” 1928. Poetry Foundation,