Sailing to Byzantium
“Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928 as part of Yeats's collection, The Tower, contains only four stanzas and yet is considered to be one of the most effective expressions of Yeats's arcane poetic “system,” exploring tensions between art and ordinary life and demonstrating how, through an imaginative alchemy, the raw materials of life can be transformed into something enduring. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the artist/speaker transforms himself into a work of art, and, in so doing, obscures the distinction between form and content and the artist and his work. “Sailing to Byzantium” is widely admired for its inventive, evocative imagery and masterfully interwoven phrases.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is Yeats’s definitive statement about the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital individual even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” (the body). Yeats’s solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city’s famous gold mosaics (completed mainly during the sixth and seventh centuries) could become the “singing-masters” of his soul. He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity.” In the astonishing final stanza of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body he will never again appear in the form of a natural thing; rather, he will become a golden bird, sitting on a golden tree, singing of the past (“what is past”), the present (that which is “passing”), and the future (that which is “to come”).
A fascination with the artificial as superior to the natural is one of Yeats’s most prevalent themes. In a much earlier poem, 1899’s “The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart,” the speaker expresses a longing to re-make the world “in a casket of gold” and thereby eliminate its ugliness and imperfection. Later, in