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 fervent desire to leave something behind. Additionally, the ottava rima form traditionally contains a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC, which is perverted to suit the tone of this poem. The poem begins by employing traditional rhymes such as “the birds in the trees” and “the mackerel-crowded seas”. But gradually, dissonant half rhymes such as “the gold mosaic of a wall” and “the singing-masters of my soul” begin to appear. Implementing this corrupted ottava rima form along with its twisted rhyme scheme helps to reinforce the contents of the poem through creating a wry contrast and an unconventional parallelism. Though the speaker is not a traditional hero, he bravely left his old country which was “no country for old men”, gallantly attempting to seek not victories on the battlefield, but new truths, new life forms.
The use of symbolism is a crucial component of Sailing to Byzantium and first emerges in the title of the poem. The term “sailing” illustrates a metaphorical journey, giving substance to what the speaker is trying to achieve and “Byzantium” represents a symbol of artistic and intellectual permanence, which is what the speaker considers to be the only achievable form of immortality.
The symbol of music and song is also prevalent throughout the poem, providing unified themes between the intellectual and sensual words. The speaker begins the poem by stating that “the young” are “caught in that sensual music” of life and therefore neglect the importance of leaving “monuments of unageing intellect”. Here, life is compared to music – beautiful but fleeting and therefore meaningless. In the second stanza, the speaker indicates that an aged man has no meaning unless his “soul claps its hands and sing”. Music here is a representation of the immortalization of human existence through art. This idea is again represented in stanza three as the speaker calls upon sages from “God’s holy fire” to come “be the singing-masters of [his] soul”, allowing him to break free from the decaying, “dying animal” that is his mortal body. In the final stanza, the speaker indicates that “once out of nature” he would take “such a form” of a golden bird “set upon a golden bough to sing”, illustrating the image of permanence that the speaker wishes to take, a representation of the durability that is associated with gold, reflecting the speaker’s opinion of art and the artistic existence he yearns for.
The symbol of birds is brought up in the opening stanza of the poem and then echoed in the conclusion as an illustration of their transformation from the artificial to the natural. The birds in the first stanza are referred to as “dying generations”, which along with images of the natural word are used to symbolize transience and mortality, highlighting the ephemeral aspect of the world he lives in, thereby contrasting it against the timelessness of Byzantium’s magnificence. Birds are brought up again in the final stanza through the speakers desire to take “the form as Grecian goldsmiths make”, an allusion to the Byzantine Emperor who had made himself mechanical birds that were “set upon a golden bough to sing”. This transformation of the dying bird of the natural world to the everlasting permanence of the golden bird is a message of the superiority of the artificial and a metaphor for the speakers desire to live on through the “bodily form” of timeless art.
The speaker expresses his fear of aging through creating the absurd image of a hollow, scarecrow-like figure desperately clapping to prove its vitality. The second stanza begins through stating that “an aged man is but a paltry thing,” a “tattered coat upon a stick,” unless his “soul claps its hands and sing, and louder sing” to make up “for every tatter in its mortal dress.” This describes an aged man as hollow and devoid of personality, creating the image of a scarecrow—something made from a flimsy material that is without genuine substance and subject to the elements. The image of this scarecrow-like figure clapping vigorously to prove its vitality becomes grotesque, poignantly bringing out the comic absurdity of an old man’s existence. Though the rest of the poem discusses ways for this tattered heap of sticks and clothes to live on, these images and symbolism used by the speaker are difficult to escape, thus emphasizing his primary, consuming fear of aging.
Throughout the poem, Yeats portrays life as fleeting and ephemeral, expressing the superiority of the world of art and showing that permanence and immortality can be achieved through such. As this poem was written in the later years of Yeats life, the themes of desperate, consuming desire to leave behind a lasting monument were perhaps a reflection of Yeats’ own fears and implorations.