Transcendence of Mortality

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William Butler Yeats, born in Ireland on June 13, 1865, was an unquestionably remarkable poet whose desperate belief in mysticism and theosophy inspired him to produce works which would establish his dominant influence in poetry during the twentieth-century. Driven by a desire to create a unique set of symbols and metaphors applicable to poetry as well as the human experience, Yeats’ poetry evolved to represent his views on spirituality and Man’s existentialist dilemmas. “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem about the voyage of an old man from an unknown superficial country to a vastly more culturally and spiritually rich Byzantium, is considered to be one of Yeats’ masterpieces. This poem, which initially seems like a bitter response of an aging man unable to enjoy the care freeness of youth, seems to more accurately embody Man’s transcendence of mortality. Yeats use of dichotomies, symbolism, and allusions in “Sailing to Byzantium” effectively illustrates the human desire to separate one’s self from nature’s inevitable cycle of life and death in order to avoid becoming an insignificant, meaningless blip in the universe’s infinite span.

Yeats employs the dichotomy of youth and age to establish the harsh, inevitable reality of the life cycle and the need for people to seek a higher purpose in life. The poem begins with the speaker asserting that a country, which remains nameless, is “no country for old men” because the country was a monument for the physical living world (line 1). The “young” seem to be caught up in primal pursuits of love “In one another’s arms”, and “birds in the trees” lighten the atmosphere further (1-2). However, the speaker collectively describes both of these very living things as “the dying generation”, and later frankly states that “Whatever is begotten, born and dies”, referring to the “Fish, flesh, or fowl” mentioned earlier in the stanza (3-6). The alliteration of “Fish, flesh or fowl” creates a parallelism which equalizes all life...
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