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Sailing to Byzantium

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Sailing to Byzantium W.B. Yeats' poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' is an allusion to the agony of old age and human mortality, and was written as a part of a collection of poems called 'Tower'. It is in very old verse form which is written as a narrative verse in first person, with four eight line stanzas. It has a rhyming scheme of ABABABCC, or two trios of alternating rhyme followed by one couplet. This rhyming scheme gives the reader the sense that the final two lines of each stanza are the most important, and that the first six are leading up to the conclusion of the stanza. Each line takes the rhythm of iambic pentameter. The tone of the poem provokes a sense of sadness in the reader as it tells of a man's desire to live forever, and how he can't accept that he has grown old and will soon die. This tone is reinforced by the sound of the letter 'o', heavily used throughout the poem. The poem talks of the mortality of the living, and how the elderly are a reminder of this. The youth are caught up in the moment and do not wish to be reminded that there will come a time when they too will grow old and die. Upon this realisation, he decides to travel to the holy city of Byzantium. Byzantium (which was renamed Constantinople, then Istanbul) was a city in the Eastern Roman Empire. ...read more.


In the third stanza, in the line 'O sages standing in God's holy fire/As in the gold mosaic of a wall,' Yeats has incorporated his interpretation of this painting into the poem. He sees the martyrs as sages and the flames as the Holy Spirit. This is represents the transition between life as a mortal and life as an immortal, as at the time of their deaths the sages gained an immortal existence through being incorporated into art. The mosaic is described as 'gold', as this colour represents an untarnished and everlasting beauty. 'Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,/And be the singing-masters of my soul'. Here, Yeats is referring to a spinning wheel, and the quick movement of thread through a bobbin and spool. This image of each strand of thread being merged into one constant piece symbolises how human life spawns other lives another and how each life links up with another creating a continuous flow of life. Yeats is asking the sages in the mosaic to free him from his body, which he describes as a 'dying animal', and guide him to Byzantium so that he too can join the 'artifice of eternity'. The sages in the mosaic have seen many generations of people, without ageing themselves. The fourth and final stanza commences with Yeats pronouncing that once he has escaped him human form, he will never again take the form from anything natural, as from his description in the first stanza, these things are all prone to decay and death. ...read more.


The scarecrow also represents everything that Yeats wishes to leave behind in departing his mortal existence. Finally, the image of the golden bird symbolises the flight Yeats has taken from his previous body, and the permanence he has found through art. The colour gold his also used several times throughout the poem, and this indicates everlasting beauty. Yeats uses images representing young life through to old life to demonstrate the transience of human life, but uses the constant image of the golden mosaics and the golden bird to show how art has a never-ending beauty. In conclusion, I think the main idea W.B. Yeats was trying to convey in writing this poem was that the artificial is superior to the natural, and that while all things natural are doomed to die, the artificial can exist forever. The way Yeats uses imagery helps to convey the idea that the artificial is an everlasting creation, and whereas the natural, while is beautiful at one time, eventually withers and dies. The fact that the author believes the artificial is superior to the natural becomes apparent in difference in language Yeats uses, depending on which of them he is talking about. The abrupt phrases and monosyllabic words Yeats uses to talk about the natural connote that the lives of these things, like the words, are quickly over. However, the more descriptive and flowing language used to describe things which are man-made, such as art, tells the reader that these things are longer lasting and more beautiful. I think that the way in which Yeats tells the poem complements the message he is conveying and causes the reader to contemplate their own existence. ...read more.

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Here's what a teacher thought of this essay

3 star(s)

The strength of this essay lies in its clear account of the poem's meaning and how its imagery and symbolism operate.
The discussion of language use is not so strong. The writer knows the theory - that rhythm, rhyme and lexical choices are all important - but often struggles to give precise and convincing accounts of the impact and effects of poetic devices.

Marked by teacher Val Shore 27/03/2012

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