Sailing to Byzantium
Sailing to Byzantium
William Butler Yeats 1928
First published in the collection The Tower in 1928, “Sailing to Byzantium” explores the dichotomies between age and youth, as well as sensuality and spirituality. The speaker is “an aged man” who comes to the realization that youth and the sensual life are no longer an option for him, and he commences on a spiritual journey to the ideal world of Byzantium. Yeats felt that the civilization of Byzantium represented a zenith in art, spirituality, and philosophy. It seems logical then that in the poem Byzantium symbolizes a place where the spiritless can journey in order to seek out the spiritual. In Byzantium the speaker is able to discard the natural element of his body in favor of the immortal, spiritual element of his soul.
Motifs in the poem include images of birds singing, gold, and fire. All these evoke the theme of immortality. Consider that since the poem examines the dichotomy of youth and age, a way to bridge this conflict is through immortality. Notice that the first stanza of the poem examines the natural or sensual world, while the second stanza explores the world of aging and spirituality. These first two stanzas set up the conflict of the poem. In the third stanza the speaker reaches Byzantium. Here the creation through fire of a golden bird intertwines the two worlds. The body is no longer natural, but is composed of gold, a more beautiful element and one that will not decay.
Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the eldest of four children. His father, John Butler Yeats, was the son of a once-affluent family whom Oscar Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, described as “the cleverest, most spirited people I ever met.” Yeats’s parents had an important influence on the young artist’s life. His father had trained as a lawyer, but instead decided to fulfill his life long ambition of becoming a painter. Unfortunately, while good at painting, he was not very successful at exploiting his talent, and the family often suffered from financial hardship. Yeats’s mother Susan Pollexfen Yeats, the daughter of a successful merchant from Sligo in western Ireland, was descended from a line of intense, eccentric people interested in faeries and astrology. From his mother Yeats inherited a love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo, and an interest in the folklore of the local peasantry.
Not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending the Godolphin Grammar School in Hammersmith, England, did Yeats receive any type of formal schooling. From there he went on to the Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin, where he was a generally disappointing student—erratic in his studies, prone to daydreaming, shy, and poor at sports. In 1884 Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met the poet George Russell. With Russell, Yeats founded the Dublin Hermetic Society for the purposes of conducting magical experiments and promoting their belief that “whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion and that their mythology and their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth.” This organization marked Yeats’s first serious activity in occult studies, a fascination which he would continue for the rest of his life, and the extent of which was revealed only when his unpublished notebooks were examined after his death. Yeats joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mathers’s Order of the Golden Dawn. Frequently consulting spiritualists and engaging in the ritual conjuring of Irish gods, Yeats used his knowlegde of the occult as a source of images for his poetry, and traces of his esoteric interests appear everywhere in his poems.
In 1885 Yeats met Irish nationalist John O’Leary, who helped turn his attention to Celtic nationalism and who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats’s first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of Og’Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England’s attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. On January 30, 1889 Yeats met Maud Gonne, an actress whose great beauty would haunt him for the rest of his life. Gonne, a passionate agitator for the nationalist cause in Ireland, intrigued and dismayed Yeats with her reckless de-structiveness in pursuit of her political goals. They were united in their common desire to see Ireland freed from English domination. During this period Yeats focused his attention on drama, hoping to spark a renewed interest in Irish literature and culture. Despite her many rejections of his offers of marriage, Yeats and Gonne remained close personal friends and their relationship endured through many estrangements, including her brief marriage to Major John MacBride. In his love poetry Yeats compared her to Helen of Troy, whose capricious-ness led to the destruction of a civilization. To Yeats Gonne represented an ideal, and throughout his life he found the tension between them, as well as their friendship, a source of poetic inspiration.
In 1917, when he was fifty-two years old, Yeats finally married. While they were on their honeymoon, his young wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, discovered that she had abilities as a medium and could communicate with the supernatural world through the technique of automatic writing. Late in his life, when decades of struggle by the Irish nationalists had finally culminated in the passage of the Home Rule Bill, Yeats was chosen as one of the sixty members of the new Irish Senate. Leaving the senate in 1928 because of failing health, Yeats devoted his remaining years to poetry. He died on January 28, 1939.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
In the opening stanza Yeats introduces a world of youth and sensuality. The conflict of the poem
- An audio cassette titled “The Poetry of William Butler Yeats” is available from Audiobooks.
is addressed when the speaker distances himself from this world by stating “That is no country for old men.” The speaker feels alien in this natural, youthful landscape. The image of the birds, often a symbol for the soul, are described as “dying generations.” Their songs are not immortal and thus they are aligned with the natural world.
Here the speaker continues his description of the natural world with images of fertility. “Salmon falls” and “mackerel-crowded seas,” are both images of abundance and fertility. Yeats’s salmon image is particularly interesting because it suggests both life in abundance, or the natural world, as well as the journey towards death, or the spiritual world. Each year salmon swim arduously upstream in order to reach a place to reproduce. In doing so they both work with, and against nature. Reproduction is of course, natural, but swimming upstream is an act that goes against nature. The motion itself is much like flying, and one is brought back to the idea of the body travelling towards the soul.
The rhyming couplet at the end of this stanza emphasizes the conflict of the poem. Youth, caught in the “sensual music” of the natural world overlooks the imposing, immortal aspects of art and intellect.
The second stanza introduces the world of the speaker as very different from the “country” of the previous stanza. An elderly man is described as a scarecrow. This “bird” image is interesting because it both describes the man physically, and also contributes to the description of the spiritual in the natural world. While youth is represented by singing birds, age is shown by a pathetic scarecrow.
The scarecrow image is transformed into the soul with another motion similar to flight. The clapping of hands and singing evokes more bird imagery, but this time it is associated with the spiritual world.
In these lines the speaker concludes that only in an ideal environment, like Byzantium can he learn the songs of the soul. Note the speaker elevates Byzantium to a “holy city” thus deeming it appropriate in the poem to be the center of the spiritual world.
In Byzantium, the speaker addresses the “sages” of Byzantium whose images are enclosed inside a holy fire, represented in a gold mosaic. This also is a disguised bird image. The sages may remind the reader of the Phoenix, an ancient, mythical bird whose body is consumed by fire, only to be reborn from its own ashes.
In these lines the speaker asks the sages to make him immortal like the glorious works of art in Byzantium. For this to occur his body, or natural element must be destroyed.
Here the speaker’s heart, the home of his once youthful passions, is consumed by a cleansing fire along with his body which is described as a “dying animal.” Without the body, his soul, like the sages’ is held in the “artifice of eternity.”
In these lines the speaker renounces the natural world and chooses to recreate himself in the form of an immortal golden bird. Why does he choose this form? Perhaps because the bird symbolizes the soul and it sings much like the natural birds in the first stanza. But unlike those birds, the golden bird which exemplifies the art and beauty of Byzantium culture, is immortal.
Placed in a golden tree the speaker has now completely transformed himself into a work of art, unable to decay. In the first stanza the birds of the natural world sing of “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies,” and also die themselves at the hands of nature. In the ideal world the speaker sings of “what is past, or passing, or to come,” thereby indicating his immortality.
One of the central ideas in this work is how time affects all living things, making them slow down and lose their natural stamina and enthusiasm; the poem also notes how humans gain mental powers as physical ability slips away. The imagery used in the first stanza is mostly suggestive of reproduction. Examples include the line “The young / In one another’s arms,” for obvious reasons, the salmon which climbs the falls to spawn, and the sea overpopulated with mackerel. Yeats uses reproductive imagery as the most powerful symbol of youth. Once his point is established, he goes on to represent the slowing of age with more subtle imagery: “A tattered coat on a stick,” “studying of monuments” to replace singing, and so on. The point is to establish that the benefits of being young are for the young, and the aged have to establish other values for themselves. At the end of the first stanza, he makes a reference to “unaging intellect,” Another writer might have centered on this idea as being the main goal of existence, making youth and all of its physical pleasure just a prelude to be finished off before getting down to the business of life. By giving equal balance to both early and late life, Yeats is looking at the effects of time from a broader perspective. He avoids the temptation to praise old age just because he is old.
Art and Experience
When the poem refers to “the artifice of eternity,” it is using the word “artifice” to mean roughly the same thing that we mean by the word “art”—a product created by the human mind. In modern society, artificiality has come to have a negative meaning, as we can see most clearly in the pride that some commercial products take in announcing that they have “no artificial ingredients.” We need to remember for the sake of reading this poem that there is also good reason to be proud of the ability to think of, design, and then create something that is not provided to us by nature. A tree is a thing that is found in the world, but an artistic work, such as a painting of a tree, is something that could not exist except for the power of the human mind. In the last stanza, Yeats gives a similar example, but instead of a tree, he uses a bird made of gold, which will never slow down, never become weak, and never die. Critics have mentioned that this might be a poor example for Yeats to use because, even though it is created by man, the gold bird is still modeled after a thing of nature, contradicting the line “I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.”
One reason why our modern sensibilities—valuing the natural, shuddering at artificiality-—have come to be opposite of Yeats is that, in the time between when he wrote and now, natural objects have become so scarce and unnatural objects so overwhelming. We live in a world of simulated wood grain, silk flowers, and landscaping; we see more birds on the television screen than in the sky. It is hard for us to be moved by artifice as an achievement.
To date, the only known alternative to aging is death. This poem’s speaker does not accept that, though, preferring to skip death and take the intellect that he has accumulated during his lifetime straight into eternity. In order to do this, he has imagined a place that one can sail to where death is not a factor, where one can keep living, growing further and further from nature. By giving this idealized place the name of an actual place, “the holy city of Byzantium,” the poem suggests that the natural law that drives us all to death can be broken. To the extent that it is showing us that human life is made up of two different elements, the physical and the mental(or natural and intellect), the poem is based in reality, but it has to go outside of reality to give one of these a life that is independent of the other. Since Yeats was a student of the supernatural all his adult life, the idea of a magic land where intellect is not “fastened to a dying animal” might have seemed quite reasonable to him, but critics find his Byzantium hard to accept because it is so far from reality.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is composed of four eight-line stanzas called ottava rima. They use an abababcc rhyme scheme. The poem also uses the literary device alliteration.
When a poem has a pattern of rhyme it is called a “rhyme scheme.” In order to determine the rhyme scheme of a poem, it is important to assign a letter
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem about a place where old people can go when they feel useless and unwanted, using specific, concrete images to make the place come to life for the reader.
- Compare this poem with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” also included in Poetry for Students. In what ways are the feelings of the speakers of these poems the same? Which poem do you think explores more complex emotions? Explain.
- In the fourth stanza, do you think the speaker is saying that age generally turns people against nature?
of the alphabet to each end rhyme. “End rhyme” means that the last word or words of two or more lines rhyme. Each stanza in “Sailing to Byzantium” has an “abababcc” rhyme scheme. This means that lines 1, 3, and 5 in a stanza rhyme with one another. Lines 2, 4, and 6 in a stanza also rhyme with one another. The last two lines of each stanza rhyme with each other. This is an example of a rhyming couplet.
“Alliteration” means that there is a repetition of certain consonant sounds in a line or stanza. This is used to stress or emphasize a phrase or idea in a poem. Notice the use of alliteration in lines 27-28.
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
Read these lines aloud and notice the alliteration of the consonant “g.”
“Ottava rima” is an eight-line stanza which often uses the iambic pentameter form of meter, and has an abababcc rhyme scheme. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats does not use strict iambic pentameter, however for our purposes we will only discuss its structure.
“Iambic” means that the poem is arranged in iambs which are composed of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. Examine the following line from “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Compare & Contrast
- 1928: The development of penicillin started a revolution in antibiotics, which eventually helped to overcome many of the infections that people of earlier generations died from.
- 1928: The first regularly scheduled television programs were broadcast.
Today: Hundreds of stations can be received all over the globe, bringing into any home the “artifice of eternity.”
- 1928: Bubble gum, one of the perpetual physical pleasures of the young, was developed by the Frank H. Fleer Co.
1963: The President’s Council on Physical Fitness was developed to promote health consciousness among school children.
Today: Children know more about healthy eating than generations before, but advertisers spend billions of dollars to promote inexpen-sive-to-manufacture, sugar-laden products.
An aged man is but a paltry thing.
When the iambs are identified and the stresses indicated the line appears like this:
An a / ged man / is but / a pal / try thing
Read the line aloud and notice the emphasis on the stressed syllables.
“Pentameter” means that there are five feet, in this case iambs, in each line. “Penta” means “five.”
This poem tells us about a man who, feeling past his prime, sails off to a land where emphasis is not on the physical achievements of a person, which he finds more and more difficult for his aging body. To represent this land of the mind, Yeats uses Byzantium, which was the capital of the eastern half of the Roman Empire from 476 to 1453, surviving the fall of Rome by a thousand years. The reason that he may have thought this actual city could be used to represent a haven for the aged can be found in one of his earlier writings: in his book A Vision, he says, “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religion, aesthetics, and practical life were one.” A Vision is a collection of “automatic writing” done by Yeats and his wife. Automatic writing was a practice that tried to capture psychic impressions without the interference of the conscious mind, much like a spiritual medium might “channel” the voices of dead spirits and speak their words for them.
Yeats had been a student of spiritualism and the occult since his late teens. He attended seances and studied the beliefs of the ancient Irish Celtic religion, as well as neo-Platonism, Indian magic, and esoteric Buddhism. In the 1880s and 1890s, before transportation and communication made knowledge of other cultures common, these were all considered exotic and dangerous. He was a founding member of the Dublin Hermetic Society. In 1893 he became a member of the Inner Order of the Golden Dawn, and worked his way up to the honored title of “Instructor of Mystical Philosophy” and “Statesman of the Second Order.” In 1887 Yeats was introduced to Madame Blavatsky, author of Isis Unveiled, a “Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology,” and founder of an international quasi-religion known as Theosophy. Almost immediately Yeats joined the London Lodge of Theosophists: he used to tell people that Irish literature owed more to Theosophy than to Dublin’s Trinity College. According to Theosophist beliefs, there is an external existence, composed of matter and spirit, which changes through seven planes of existence: some more physical, some more spiritual. After death, the three levels of spiritual existence split off and go into a period of repose until they are reincarnated by being joined with a new set of physical planes. Critic Allan Donaldson explained theosophy in a 1954 essay as the soul being joined to the body of a being that was already occupied with its own, lower soul: this, he argues, could be the basis for the line “fastened to a dying animal.” Although Yeats was only a Theosophist for a short time before quitting, his interest in occult explanations of reality stayed with him throughout his life and influenced his work.
Yeats was in his sixties when this poem was published and he wrote it in the 1920s, which was a time of a fast-living youth culture. World War I, which ended officially in 1919, is generally considered the primary cause of the new artistic sensibility known as “Modernism,” mainly because the scope of international involvement and the capacity for large-scale destruction made available by tanks, airplanes, and submarines stunned the world, leaving returning soldiers happy to be alive. Rich Americans ran wild in Europe, where their dollars could buy much more than they could in America. Modernism meant experimentation: Cubism in painting, Imagism in poetry, jazz in music. The rush to spend money and have fun continued until the beginning of the 1930s, when the Depression affected not just America but economies around the world. It was a great time to be young and alive, or, if you were Yeats, to imagine a place where being young and alive would not matter.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is often considered one of Yeats’s greatest poems. It examines the conflict between youth and age through the archetype of the journey for spiritual knowledge. Yeats’s solution to this conflict is the creation of an object which seems to embody both the natural and spiritual worlds. Critic Craig Cairns in his book Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the Politics of Poetry: Richest to the Richest, explains that this meshing of the two worlds is an example of Yeats’s definition of art. He states: “It is the song of the dying generations and the fixity of the artistic form together that are the basis of Yeats’s concept of art.” This seems to be the crux of the poem. Cairns continues:
... it is the forward movement of the poem, a song in time, towards an image that is apparently beyond time ... but releasing the reader’s mind into an associative reverie that will carry him far into the past, that constitutes the essential structure of Yeats’s poetic.
M.L. Rosenthal in his book The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction comments on the conflict between the two worlds. He states:
The speaker is an old man between two worlds, which has all but rejected him and which he now wishes to repossess in a new way—by becoming part of a world of pure creativity in which the fleshly is transformed into the eternal ... and the speaker between the two, seeking to make them one in his own person.
Rosenthal goes on to state that what is important in the poem is that although the two worlds are in conflict and separate they are also intrinsically linked.
But whatever we thus learn is incidental to the terrible, blazing confrontation of the two spheres of being each remote from the other yet inseparable from it.
Elder Olson in his book On Value Judgments in the Arts and Other Essays explores the transformations that occur throughout the poem. The speaker has transformed the negative aspect of age into the positive aspect of immortality.
And, now all sources of conflict are resolved in this last: the old has become ageless; impotency has been exchanged for a higher power, the soul is free of passion and free for its joy, and it sings as youth once sang.
He concludes that the concept of eternity in the poem has found its place in Byzantium. “And it has here its country, its proper and permanent habitation.”
Jhan Hochman is a freelance writer and currently teaches at Portland Community College, Portland, OR. In the following essay, Hochman compares “Sailing to Byzantium”’s aging narrator who seeks rebirth in an ancient city to Yeats, who hoped that his words would live on after him.
The narrator of William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is an aging man thinking about a kind of retirement(Yeats himself was 61 when he dated the poem). The man is not so much moving from a place of cold and damp to a place dry and warm, than leaving a young, everchanging, and
What Do I Read Next?
- Sir James Frazier’s The Golden Bough, first published in 1922, is a classic work that compiles an enormous amount of knowledge about myths and magical practices from societies all over the world.
- Of the many books that have been written about what life was like in the 1920s, one of the most lively and interesting is Edmond Wilson’s memoir called The Twenties, which he was working on when he died in 1975. Wilson was a novelist and essayist who knew all of the young, socially active literary figures of America in the 1920s: the Fitzgeralds, Dorothy Parker, Eugene O’ Neill, etc. This was the generation that was out having sensual fun while Yeats consoled himself with intelligence.
- Yeats’s poems are all available in one volume in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, originally published in 1950 and reprinted in 1982. Also of interest is his Essays and Introductions, published in 1961.
- All of Yeats’s poetry reflects a complex intellectual system that one would hardly guess lies underneath the surface upon only reading a few poems once or twice. Many sources explain the poet’s intricate philosophy, but one of the very best is Richard Ellman’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Ellman, best known as the definitive biographer of James Joyce, fills this 1979 work with literary and biographical understanding.
natural place(country of fish, flesh and fowl) to one culturally old, seemingly eternal(a city of “monuments”). The destination, Byzantium, dates from at least 800 B.C., where it was a pagan capital until the fourth century A.D. Then it was renamed Constantinople when it became the capital of Eastern Christendom. Finally, from the fourth to the fifteenth century and thereafter, the city became a major Islamic and cosmopolitan center(Istanbul). While interested in a literal visit to twentieth-century Ravenna and Istanbul—both major centers of surviving art treasures from Byzantium and Constantinople—the narrator is more desirous of a visit back in time. This is the reason he uses “Byzantium,” to call attention to its long history.
Yeats wrote that he was especially interested in the reign of Justinian I(527-565) which was called a “golden age” because it produced lasting cultural monuments: the Justinian Code(529—the basis of Roman law) and numerous works of art and architecture, especially the Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom(537) in Istanbul. The name Hagia Sophia, and the church’s age perhaps make it the model of those “Monuments of unaging intellect” Yeats mentions at the end of the first stanza of this poem and in “Byzantium” (1932), the follow-up poem to “Sailing to Byzantium.” The narrator’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 narrator, 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,” “artificial space,” or even “artspace.” In the metaphoric realm of “unaging” artwork, where art outlasts persons producing and admiring it, one can become a “monument of unaging 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 mark one stage in this condensed odyssey from the land of “the young/In one another’s arms” (probably Ireland, Yeats’s birthplace) to the narrator’s eternal resting, or singing place. Stanza one marks the departure; two, the journey by boat; three, “sightseeing” in Byzantium; and four, singing upon a “golden bough” in the living/dead artspace of Byzantium. The poem’s rhyme scheme is in the form of ottava rima, or “rhyme in eights” and though the rhymes are often “slanted” or near-rhymes(young/long, for example), the rhyme scheme is abababcc. The final couplet furnishes the closing punch to the steady alternating lyrical rhyme of the first six lines.
In the first stanza, the “country” of line one is a land of birth, death, change, and sensuality—in a word, nature, in the older sense of inexhaustibility. This nature is teeming with people and fish, plants, and birds. 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, thinks the narrator, 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. As there is 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 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 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 in the figure of the “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 to feed on.
Stanza three finds the narrator in the physical Istanbul-as-historic-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 poem, 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(Janson’s “Kingdom of God”) before it became banished to Hell. Fire burns and does not burn: the martyrs are consumed by earthly fire; but pure and eternal, golden and heavenly fire does not consume(recall the Old Testament’s burning bush which is on fire but not consumed). Gold-as-fire relates back to the “golden” sun, thought to be the dynamo behind all heat—again, heat that does and does not burn—and light. Gold is also the emperor of metals because it is so durable, uncommon, and “radiant.” 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 eternal heavenly fire and the eternal gold tiles of 1500-year-old mosaics. The narrator asks these “living” sages to be his soul’s singing teacher while his body dies like the body of any dying animal. “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 narrator, who is likely to be a poet like the author, wants these sages to teach his intellect or his soul to 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(sun). In Yeats’s poem, the impermanent dying heart or body is sacrificed for the permanence of singing intellect, golden art, the “artifice of eternity.”
By stanza four, 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 death as eternal. Granting that the narrator has enlisted the sages from stanza three to be his soul’s singing teachers, he decides how he will be reborn: as either a golden object from ancient “Grecian” Byzantium or as an object, probably a bird, placed on a “golden bough” in the emperor’s palace at Constantinople. We may assume the place is the emperor’s palace not only because the emperor is mentioned but because of the reference to “lords and ladies” in the penultimate line. 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 have also had in mind Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Nightingale” with its gold and bejewelled artificial bird. 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 Hell. The golden bough signifies eter-nality through its undying golden color and its mythic role as insurance policy against death even through the labyrinth of Hell.
In a poem likely based on a real trip from Ireland to Istanbul and Ravenna, a host of other trips are figured: youth to age, body to mind, nature to seemingly ageless culture/art, present to past, commonality to aristocracy, life to death, mortality to immortality, and change to everlasting stability. And in the image of an artificial bird “upon a golden bough” is figured the indestructible soul singing everlastingly of eternal change. But how are we or our souls to be reborn into this imaginary “artifice of eternity”? Can all those traveling and admiring the “monuments of unaging intellect” end up there? Perhaps the space of artifice is best understood as metaphorical, as standing for something else; in this case, existence as an artwork replaces or literalizes the rather mundane notion that an artist “lives on” in his/her artwork. Furthermore, it is most likely that only the best artists—those learning from the sages of the past—become known through or by their work which outlasts them. The artist-become-artwork is a metaphor for the artistic soul, and in this poem, not just any artistic soul, but the one singing like a bird, composing verse which is read long after it was written. Seventy years after this poem appeared, Yeats has realized this dream. If we are not to cast ourselves as the “drowsy,” bored Emperor who has everything and can only be awakened by the singing artwork(the poem), then perhaps we may see ourselves as “lords and ladies,” the educated or cultured still listening to Yeats singing about “what is past, passing, or to come,” still keeping him alive by stopping to listen.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
In the following excerpt, Lense explores Yeats’s vision of Paradise, or the Other World, as set forth in “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Poetry concerns itself with the creation of Paradises. I use the word in the plural for there are as many paradises as there are individual men—nay —as many as there are separate feelings.-J. B. Yeats to W. B. Yeats, 10 May 1914
When his father made this comment in a letter to him, [in J.B. Yeats: Letters to his son W.B. Yeats and others 1869-1922, edited by Joseph Hone, 1944] Yeats had already been creating Paradises in his work for thirty years and would continue to do so until the end of his life. Each of his versions of Paradise was, furthermore, based on “a separate feeling”; for Yeats, the Other World in any of the forms he gave it was the expression of one emotion, a concentration of feeling entirely different from the partial and shifting emotions of this world. Byzantium in “Sailing to Byzantium” is one such form of the Other World; what makes it unique is that the emotion it embodies is bitterness and a thorough rejection of life in this or any other world. Byzantium is “paradise” for the speaker of the poem, but certainly it is the paradise of an individual and unlikely to appeal to anyone else.
There is no mistaking the speaker’s bitterness: because he is an old man, he loathes his body, a “dying animal” that traps him in the physical world; he rejects the sexually potent young, who in their “sensual music” generate more bodies to add to the sprawling mass of procreation that the old man perceives as the antithesis of the order he sees in art; finally, he rejects the entire natural world, announcing that in the next life “I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.” After such a series of negations, there is nothing left for the Other World to embody but pure forms, static works of art divorced from human content. The speaker himself will become not a living being but a machine, since any organic life implies change and the stasis he seeks is absolute. All this is clear from the text of the poem in isolation, but the lyric is deeply embedded in the context of Yeats’s other work; in that larger perspective, it is apparent that the old man is rejecting not only this world but also the Other World as Yeats’s generally conceived of it. His way of rejecting the Yeatsian Other World is through a precise inversion of Yeats’s usual terms: where other forms of the Other World are, in one way or another, perfected forms of human life, Byzantium is the abnegation of all human life; where other forms of the Other World are full of a vivid energy shared by their inhabitants, Byzantium is a static world of art in which the perfect inhabitant is merely a conduit for time, the succession “Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” Further, the old man sets up Byzantium, especially in the image of the golden bird, as a direct parody of Yeats’s other versions of Paradise. Not only is Byzantium different in spirit from almost every alternative form of the Other World, it is presented in the usual terms turned inside-out: the sexual dance of the Other World, the source of creative energy that crowds the world with its forms, is here a burning-away of physical form, while the discar-nate soul, which Yeats almost always represented as a bird, is here a machine that mimics the form of bird but is not alive.
By way of this antithetical imagery, then, the old man challenges Yeats’s own conception of the Other World and achieves a pure bitterness, a “separate feeling” unmixed with any other emotion, that enables him to reject all aspects of this world without qualification. In so doing, the old man is rejecting not only his own body and the bodies of the young around him, but the whole spiritual order that impels the soul through a succession of bodies in search of its inherent human form, the form it had before the world was made. The soul’s journey, in Yeats’s system, carries it through both this world and the Other World; it is limited to neither one nor the other, but must alternate between them in various states of being. While the soul might eventually escape altogether from the Great Wheel, the cycle of incarnations, it can never choose one moment of the cycle and stay there. This, however, is exactly what the old man wants to do and asserts that he will do. Such an assertion challenges the entire system and, more importantly to “Sailing to Byzantium” itself, reveals the depth of the old man’s bitterness toward life. He is without hope that there can ever be a natural form that will be pleasing to his soul, and this lack of hope makes him the anti-type of many other speakers in Yeats’s poems, such as the Self in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” who, in spite of his knowledge of the difficulties of human life, is “content to live it all again / And yet again” in the hope that he can find enlightenment through the experiences of life....
Yeats’s most frequent model for the Other World was Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, in Celtic mythology. Such a land is, by its nature, “no country for old men” because it embodies the physical vigor and the pursuits of youth, exactly those things the old man most despises. The first two lines of “Sailing to Byzantium” might just as well be describing the Country of the Young; it is only at the word “dying” that the old man is definitely talking about the physical world, since Tír na nÓg differs from the physical world only in the absence
... Byzantium is the abnegation of ad human life; where other forms of the Other World are full of a vivid energy shared by their inhabitants, Byzantium is a static world of art in which the perfect inhabitant is merely a conduit for time...
there of death, suffering and old age. Tir na nÓg is not a land of ghosts, or of unfamiliar, esoteric forms, but simply this world raised to perfection. It is also, in both Irish tradition and Yeats’s poems and plays, the source of this world’s energies.
... [Yeat’s] blanket condemnation of both this world and Tír na nÓg in the opening lines of the poem, shuts off the possibility that his soul can dream like other souls, and prevents him from making the journey to Tír na nÓg. For him, becoming young again would be pointless because he denies the idea that the soul’s inherent form is a human one, or that anything human can remain when the “dying animal” of a physical incarnation is burned away. The human form, he implies, belongs to his body, not his soul.
Nonetheless, he does make a journey, and naturally it is the mirror-image of the traditional voyage to Tír na nÓg. “Sailing to Byzantium” also has both the sea-voyage and the golden bird that the old man has chosen as the ideal form for his soul. But there is nothing gradual about the old man’s journey—as he speaks it is already done, and disposed of in a few words: “therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.”
That Yeats should describe the journey in such a compressed way is important because it negates his usual emphasis on the process of changing worlds. It is clear that the old man has not been transported to Byzantium through a supernatural flash of insight, since he has indeed “sailed the seas”; Yeats gives just enough information to show that there has been a long process at work, and that the old man is speaking from a particular moment in the midst of it. This balance between the static present of the poem and the sequence of events that leads up to the present and will(perhaps) continue in the old man’s transformation was a matter to which Yeats paid great attention while writing the poem.
However irregular, in Yeatsian terms, the journey to Byzantium and the old man’s interpretation of the dance of the Other World might be, his image of the golden bird is the strangest, and most striking, feature of the poem. It is through this image that the old man reveals the full extent of his bitterness and rejection of life: his form in the Other World will not only be “out of nature,” but a direct parody of a natural form. Not only will he be a machine, but a machine in the shape of a bird that will, like the miraculous bird of “Byzantium,”
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
This shape is an appropriate choice, since the soul’s normal form between incarnations, in Yeats’s poetry, is that of a supernatural bird. The soul in this form is in transition, preparing to move on to a new body or to a period in the Other World. However, the old man, true to his desire for stasis, wants to remain frozen in this intermediate state rather than consent to another life in a human body. His seeing such an existence as a state of Paradise, rather than as a grotesque punishment in Hell, is the full expression of his bitterness and brings the poem to a startling and powerful emotional climax. At the same time, the image is bizarre enough to serve the old man as a mockery of all the many birds that sing in Yeats’s Other World as well as the “birds in the trees” of this world. Just as the journey to Byzantium parodies the traditional voyage to Tír na nÓg by keeping to its basic form but running it in reverse, the golden bird keeps the outward form of the Yeatsian soul-as-bird but inverts the normal content of that image: the golden bird is not a form taken on by a living soul, but a form created from outside it, like the mechanical birds made by Grecian goldsmiths, and it moves not because it is alive but because it is controlled by outside forces. Instead of being one of the “bobbins where all time is bound and wound,” it will be moved by time without participating in time. In other words, the old man’s soul will be effectively dead, while his bodily form will perpetually mimic the actions of living beings.
Even the old man’s choice of Byzantium as the place where he will be transformed parodies a specific element of Yeats’s system and so is consistent with his parody of the Irish imram as a means of getting to the Other World and with his choice of a mechanical bird as the eternal form for his soul. Throughout the poem, then, the old man alludes to ideas and images integral to Yeats’s work, but inverts them. The element of parody in the speaker’s rhetoric, however, does not make “Sailing to Byzantium” an aberration in Yeats’s poetry; rather, the old man’s precise use of Yeatsian symbols binds the poem to the many other works in which Yeats defines his versions of the Other World, and, by calling them up in order to reject them, reinforces the power of the old man’s rejection of life. As part of the design of Yeats’s work, the old man is the anti-type of the speakers who affirm the human body as the inherent form of the soul and thereby affirm human life with all its pain. Suffering and the acceptance of suffering are closely balanced in Yeats’s work, but while his affirmations are not easily won, they are won in the other poems, in the plays, and in A Vision; the old man is the one speaker whose despair is so absolute that it leads him, by his own choice, entirely out of life and into a form that is a mockery of life.
This analysis of the poem’s context has, necessarily, led away from “Sailing to Byzantium” itself and toward those images and ideas which the old man turns into their opposites. The poem does not depend on this context for its force; rather, this context strengthens the old man’s cry of pain through the poem’s many analogues of form and imagery, creating around it a series of echoes that are still in one voice. Yeats introduced nothing unique or unusual, in terms of his personal imagery, in this poem—the journey to the Other World, the gyres, the soul as a bird are all very familiar in his work, and even Byzantium as a world of art is a symbol carefully defined elsewhere. He did make the poem unique in its power by reversing the meaning of all those images, thereby making it even more negative in its full context than in isolation. That absolute negation adds to the already considerable weight of the speaker’s bitterness at the decay of his body, and makes it clear that he is not just an old man speaking from a black mood, but a man whose rejection of life is so final that only the creation of a special Paradise, in complete opposition to Yeats’s vision of the spiritual world, can fully express his pain.
Source: Edward Lense, “Sailing the Seas to Nowhere: Inversions of Yeats’s Symbolism in ’sailing to Byzantium,’” in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, edited by Richard John Finneran, Vol. 5, 1987, pp. 95-105.
In the following excerpt, Olson analyzes the process of aging and freeing of the soul from earthly confines in respect to the journey to Byzantium.
In “Sailing to Byzantium” an old man faces the problem of old age, of death, and of regeneration, and gives his decision. Old age, he tells us, excludes a man from the sensual joys of youth; the world appears to belong completely to the young, it is no place for the old; indeed, an old man is scarcely a man at all—he is an empty artifice, an effigy merely, of a man; he is a tattered coat upon a stick. This would be very bad, except that the young also are excluded from something; rapt in their sensuality, they are ignorant utterly of the world of the spirit. Hence if old age frees a man from sensual passion, he may rejoice in the liberation of the soul; he is admitted into the realm of the spirit; and his rejoicing will increase according as he realizes the magnificence of the soul. But the soul can best learn its own greatness from the great works of art; hence he turns to those great works, but in turning to them, he finds that these are by no means mere effigies, or monuments, but things which have souls also; these live in the noblest element of God’s fire, free from all corruption; hence he prays for death, for release from his mortal body; and since the insouled monuments exhibit the possibility of the soul’s existence in some other matter than flesh, he wishes reincarnation, not now in a mortal body, but in the immortal and changeless embodiment of art.
There are thus the following terms, one might say, from which the poem suspends: the condition of the young, who are spiritually passive although sensually active; the condition of the merely old, who are spiritually and physically impotent; the condition of the old, who, although physically impotent, are capable of spiritual activity; the condition of art considered as inanimate—i.e., the condition of things which are merely monuments; and finally the condition of art considered as animate—as of such things as artificial birds which have a human soul. The second term, impotent and un-spiritual old age, is a privative, a repugnant state which causes the progression through the other various alternative terms, until its contrary is encountered. The first and third terms are clearly contraries of each other; taken together as animate nature they are further contrary to the fourth term, inanimate art. None of these terms represents a wholly desirable mode of existence; but the fifth term, which represents such a mode, amalgamates the positive elements and eliminates the negative elements of both nature and art, and effects thus a resolution of the whole, for now the soul is present, as it would not be in art, nor is it passive, as it would be in the young and sensual mortal body, nor is it lodged in a “dying animal,” as it would be in the body of the aged man; the soul is now free to act in its own supremacy and in full cognizance of its own excellence, and its embodiment is now incorruptible and secure from all the ills of flesh.
About these several oppositions the poem forms. The whole turns on the old man’s realization, now that he is in the presence of the images of Byzantium, that these images have souls; there are consequently two major divisions which divide the poem precisely in half, the first two stanzas presenting art as inanimate, the second two, as animate; and that this is the case can be seen from such signs as that in the first half of the poem the images are stated as passive objects—they are twice called “monuments,” they are merely objects of contemplation, they may be neglected or studied, visited or not visited, whereas in stanzas III and IV they are treated as gods which can be prayed to for life or death, as beings capable of motion from sphere to sphere, as instructors of the soul, as sages possessed of wisdom; and the curious shift in the manner of consideration is signalized by the subtle phrasing of the first two lines of stanza III: “O sages standing in God’s holy fire/ As in the gold mosaic of a wall.” According to the first part, the images at Byzantium were images, and one should have expected at most some figurative apostrophe to them: “O images set in the gold mosaic of a wall, much as the sages stand in God’s holy fire”: but here the similitude is reversed, and lest there should be any error, the sages are besought to come from the holy fire and begin the tuition of the soul, the destruction of the flesh....
The first line of stanza I presents immediately, in its most simple statement, the condition which is the genesis of the whole structure: “That is no country for old men”; old men are shut out from something, and the remainder of the first six lines indicates precisely what it is from which they are excluded. The young are given over to sensual delight, in which old men can no longer participate. But a wall, if it shuts out, also shuts in; if the old are excluded from something, so are the young; lines 7 and 8, consequently, exhibit a second sense
“A man merely old, then, is worse off than youth; if the souls of the young are captive, the old have, in this sense at least, no souls at all.”
in which “That is no country for old men,” for the young neglect all intellectual things. Further, the use of “that” implies a possible “this”; that is, there is a country for the old as for the young; and, again, the use of “that” implies that the separation from the country of the young is already complete....
The country of the young, then, is in its air, in its waters, and on its earth, from headwaters to ocean, wholly given over to sensuality; its inhabitants “commend all summer long” anything whatsoever, so long as it be mortal and animal—they commend “whatever is begotten, born, and dies”; and while they “commend” because they have great joy, that which they praise, they who praise, and their praise itself are ephemeral, for these mortals praise the things of mortality, and their commendation, like their joy, lasts but a summer, a mating season. The concluding lines of the stanza remove all ambiguity, and cancel all possibility of a return to such a country; even if the old man could, he would not return to a land where “Caught in that sensual music, all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” The young are “caught,” they are really passive and incapable of free action; and they neglect those things which are unageing.
Merely to end here, however, with a condemnation of youthful sensuality would be unsatisfactory; as the second stanza expounds, old age itself is no solution; the old man cannot justly say, like Sophocles when he was asked whether he regretted the loss of youth and love, “Peace; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master”; for merely to be old is merely to be in a state of privation, it is to be “a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick,” it is to be the merest scarecrow, the merest fiction and semblance of a man, an inanimate rag upon a dead stick. A man merely old, then, is worse off than youth; if the souls of the young are captive, the old have, in this sense at least, no souls at all. Something positive must be added; and if the soul can wax and grow strong as the body wanes, then every step in the dissolution of the body—“every tatter in its mortal dress”—is cause for a further augmentation of joy. But this can occur only if the soul can rejoice in its own power and magnificence; this rejoicing is possible only if the soul knows of its own magnificence, and this knowledge is possible only through the contemplation of monuments which recall that magnificence. The soul of the aged must be strong to seek that which youth neglects. Hence the old must seek Byzantium; that is the country of the old; it is reached by sailing the seas, by breaking utterly with the country of the young; all passion must be left behind, the soul must be free to study the emblems of unchanging things.
Here the soul should be filled with joy; it should, by merely “studying,” commend changeless things with song, as youth commends the changing with song; it would seem that the problem has been resolved, and the poem hence must end; but the contemplation of the monuments teaches first of all that these are no mere monuments but living things, and that the soul cannot grow into likeness with these beings of immortal embodiment unless it cast off its mortal body utterly. Nor is joy possible until the body be dissolved; the heart is still sick with the impossible desires of the flesh, it is still ignorant of its circumstances, and no song is possible to the soul while even a remnant of passion remains. Hence the old man prays to the sages who really stand in God’s holy fire and have merely the semblance of images in gold mosaic; let them descend, “perning in a gyre,” that is, moving in the circular motion which alone is possible to eternal things, let them consume with holy fire the heart which is the last seat of passion and ignorance, let them instruct the soul, let them gather it into the artifice of eternity and make the old man like themselves; even Byzantium, so long as the flesh be present, is no country for old men.
What it is to be like these, the soul, as yet unin-structed, can only conjecture; at any rate, with the destruction of the flesh it will be free of its ills;... And now all sources of conflict are resolved in this last: the old has become the ageless; impotency has been exchanged for a higher power; the soul is free of passion and free for its joy, and it sings as youth once sang, but now of “What is past, and passing, and to come”—of the divisions of Eternity—rather than of “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”—of the divisions of mortal time. And it has here its country, its proper and permanent habitation.
Although the argument as we have stated it clearly underlies the poem, it would be erroneous to suppose that this in itself constitutes the poem, for in that case there would be no difference between our paraphrase and the poem itself. The poem itself comprehends the argument and collocates with it many terms which, although they could scarcely be formulated into some order approximating the pattern of the argument, nevertheless qualify the argument and determine its course. The basic analogies of the poem—of the natural world to a country, of the aged man to a scarecrow, of the world of art to Byzantium, and of artificial to natural generation—all these function as do the definitions of terms in actual argument; they serve to delimit the sphere of discourse and to make the argument intelligible.
This point is worth some discussion. The criticism of poetry has often turned chiefly on the so-called psychological connotations of readers with single words or phrases; but one may doubt whether the reader is at liberty to intrude such irrelevances as the accidents of personal experience or the inevitable ambiguities of language would necessarily afford. Surely the ultimate consequence of such assumptions must be either that the poem becomes a mere stimulus to independent poetic activities on the part of the reader—that is, the reader becomes the true poet, his reading the true poem—or, on the other hand, that the reader becomes the matter or medium of art, in which case all the arts would have a common medium, the soul of the spectator. Neither of these consequences, it need scarcely be said, complies with the stipulations which initiated this discussion.
If the basic terms of a lyric poem do not receive their meanings from the chance associations of the reader, neither do they have their dictionary meanings; like term in mosts discourse, they take their significance from their context, through juxtaposition to other terms with which they are equated, contrasted, correlated, or combined. In the present poem, for instance, the term “singing” is explicitly extended beyond its usual meaning to cover two kinds of jubilation, the rejoicing of the natural creature and that of the artificial; as a consequence, all the terms which relate to jubilation and song are affected; for example, “commend,” “music,” “singing-school,” and “singing-masters” suffer an extension commensurate with that of singing. Similarly, the term “intellect” and all the terms associated with it suffer extension; and the monuments here are not ordinary monuments, but changeless embodiments of the changeless soul—by no means effigies, but truly living creatures, capable of will, of desire, of jubilation, of local motion, of intellection and instruction. Nor is Byzantium the historical city; the tourist is not invited to recall that here once he was overcharged, nor is the historian invited to contribute such information as that this was a city visited by Hugh of Vermandois; Byzantium is not a place upon a map, but a term in the poem; a term signifying stage of contemplation wherein the soul studies itself and so learns both what it is and in what consists true and eternal joy....
Source: Elder Olson, “Prolegomena to a Poetics of the Lyric,” in The University of Kansas Literary Review, Vol VIII, No. 3, Spring, 1942 pp. 211-217.
Adams, Hazard, The Book of Yeats’s Poems, Florida State University Press, 1990.
Cairns, Craig, “Yeats: The Art of Memory,” in Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the Politics of Poetry: Richest to the Richest, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, pp. 85-7.
Ellman, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Macmillan, 1948.
Frazer, J. G., The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Macmillan, 1958.
Janson, H. W., History of Art, Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Olson, Elder, “Sailing to Byzantium: Prolegomena to a Poetics of the Lyric,” in On Value Judgments in the Arts and Other Essays, University of Chicago Press, 1976, pp. 3-14.
Ramazani, Jahan, Yeats and the Poetry of Death, Yale University Press, 1990.
Rice, D. Talbot, Byzantine Art, Clarendon, 1935.
Rosenthal, M.L., “Yeats and the Modern Mind,” in The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1960, pp, 28-48.
Stallworthy, Jonathan, Between the Lines: Yeats’s Poetry in the Making, Clarendon, 1963.
Timm, Eitel, W.B. Yeats: A Century of Criticism, Camden House, 1987.
Virgil, The Aeneid, Penguin Classics, 1969.
Archibald, Douglas, Yeats, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1983.
Archibald gives serious attention to Yeats’s book A Vision, which other poetry critics and biographers tend to pass over with embarrassment.
Donaldson, Allan, “A Note On W.B. Yeats’ ’sailing to Byzantium,’” in Notes and Queries, Vol. I, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 34-5.
The thesis of this piece—that the poem’s line “And fastened to a dying animal” is the product of Yeats’s brief association with Madame Blavatsky’s Theoso-phy—is not a lot of help in understanding the whole poem, but it tells us a lot about Yeats.
Tuohy, Frank, Yeats, New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1976.
Tuohy gives a very thorough account of Yeats’s life, starting with his family before the poet was born.
Wakefield, Dan, “Sailing to Byzantium: Yeats and the Young Mind ...,” in The Nation, Vol. 182, No. 25, June 23, 1956, pp. 531-32.
This essay concentrates on the young generation of the 1950s, and how Yeats’s vision, which he wrote with old age in mind, strangely struck a familiar chord with them.