“Sailing to Byzantium” Prose Commentary

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As Leon Battista Alberti once said, “Painting is possessed of divine powered, for not only does it make the absent present, but also makes the dead almost alive”. This seems to summarize the central theme of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” that through human imagination, nature and its raw materials are transformed into something that will withstand the test of time. Through the use of Yeats’ clusters of images, paradoxes, and syntax, this theme of endurance over time is emphasized. Yeats additionally employs other figures of speech such as symbols and allusions to further illustrate his main theme. This lyrical poem of four stanzas differs from other poems of the time (1928) as there is neither a conventional speaker, nor a plot that follows as we would expect. These stanzas, each eight lines long are characterized by their open-form, however, they follow a specific rhyme structure of ABABABCC which highlights the author’s rigor to form. The situation of the poem is interesting due to its lack of conventional narration, but we can discern that the speaker must be taking a journey towards his death and to the city of Byzantium. The setting changes from the first stanza where the speaker is setting out on the voyage, to the last stanza where he arrives in Byzantium and is turned into a golden bird in a coo coo clock. The poem is for the most part written in the declarative mode, in a hopeful tone that the speaker will overcome death by becoming a work of art. Between the third and fourth stanzas, the tone shifts from hopeful to one of rejuvenation as the speaker is transformed into the coo coo. The clusters of images in the first stanza, “salmon falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, / Fish, flesh, or fowl /comment al summer long /Whatever is begotten, born, and dies “(ll. 4-6) serve to highlight the imagery of the life cycle and that youth and age are linked to and dependent upon one another. In the second stanza of, “mortal dress” and “the holy...
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