Sailing to Byzantium Poetry Analysis

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Sailing To Byzantium Poetry Analysis

Sailing to Byzantium is a poem written by W. B. Yeats portraying the agony of old age and the painstaking implorations and hopes the speaker has of leaving some form of permanence as a monument to his soul. This poem depicts a metaphorical journey of leaving the country of the young that the speaker can no longer relate to and traveling to Byzantium, a world of artistic magnificence and permanence. The poem portrays themes of aging and death, exploring the speakers desires to leave a mark on the world. This depressing theme creates an ironic contrast and a sad parallelism against the poetic form of ottava rima that it is written in. Throughout the poem, use of symbolism is central, first emerging in the title of the poem and continuing to be implemented through the prominent motifs of music and birds. The speaker also uses the image of a scarecrow-like figure to illustrate the absurdity of a tattered, useless old man and thus emphasize his consuming fear of the aging process.

The underlying theme of Sailing to Byzantium is the speaker’s intense dread of age and death, leading to a fascination with the artificial which manifests itself in his desire to leave behind a timeless monument. The poem begins with painting a picture of nature in all its youthful glory with “the young” people of his country encircled “in one another’s arms”, “birds in the trees”; “the salmon” falling alongside the “the mackerel-crowded seas”. This pretty picture of “fish, flesh” and “fowl” commending “all summer long” is depicted in an almost exuberant tone which is quickly polarized by the speaker stating that death is the dark underbelly of all the delights in life and that “whatever is begotten, born and dies”. The speaker also refers to “the young” and birds as “dying generations”, indicating that all that is organic is prone to death and decay. To emphasize this point, an aged man is described as nothing “but a paltry thing”, a miserable shadow of a “tattered coat upon a stick”. This is a reflection of the speaker and his consuming fear of what will or has already become of himself. His trepidation towards the aging process leads to a consuming fascination with the artificial, which he considers superior to the natural. To our speaker, artificiality is not merely a simple aesthetic escape, but a spiritual outlet which he imagines would allow his soul to break free from its decaying prison to “clap its hands and sing”. This obsession with the artificial manifests itself in his desire to leave some permanent form, some sort of lasting monument in this transient, ephemeral world. The speaker believes that monuments such as the relics of “gold” in Byzantium’s “mosaic of a wall” are the only things that are sustainable and true, inspiring him to use the image of a bird "set upon a golden bough to sing" as a symbol of the timelessness that which he desires. The bird that is set in gold will last forever, a permanent presence singing for all time, a metaphor for what the speaker so desperately craves.

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Sailing to Byzantium is written in the ottava rima form of narrating battle side victories which creates contrast and parallelism against the speaker’s endeavor of timelessness. This distinct style is the traditional Italian form of epic poems depicting the heroic actions of warriors in the battlefield. The title of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” also adds to the ottava rima style, as it seems to hint at the beginning of an epic quest. This induces an ironic effect as the traditionally epic contents of such a poetic form contrast against Yeats’ rather depressing poem about “a tattered” old mans ...

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