English Literature II
April, 14th, 2014
The Transcendence of Art in W. B Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet, dramatist and author born in Dublin in 1865. As he lived during a period of political, economic and even social turmoil, his poetic style went through five periods that adapted to the current situation not only in Ireland, but all over Europe. Yeats’ special interest in the Celtic Revival Movement led him to become one of the founding members of the National Theatre of Ireland in 1904, which became the flagship for Irish playwrights and actors. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. “Sailing to Byzantium,” written in 1926 and included in the collection The Tower, can be interpreted both as a journey taken by the speaker’s aged soul and as the process of transcendence of his own mortality by means of art. “Sailing to Byzantium,” consisting of a four eight-line stanza poem, is metered in iambic pentameter with two trios of alternating rhyme followed by a couplet. Having neither characters nor plot “Sailing to Byzantium” refers to the agony of old age and the work required to remain a vital individual. Byzantium is mainly a trading city: a center of power, knowledge and art, where “monuments of unageing intellect” (8) can be found. In the speaker’s view, Byzantium is “no country for old man” (1), but a city crowded by younger generations. Yeats thinks of aged men as “paltry thing[s]” (9) and “tattered coat[s] upon a stick” (10). However, there is still hope for old men since a journey “To the holy city of Byzantium” (16) will immerse them in a world of timeless art and spirituality. The solution to the speaker’s desire for transcendence is found in Byzantium, where he hopes sages become the “singing masters of [his] soul” (20). In other words, the speaker is expecting that the...
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