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W.B. Yeats Poetry | Sailing to Byzantium

| Wednesday September 21, 2011

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Context

This poem was written in 1926 and first published in 1928. Yeats wrote in a draft script for a 1931 BBC broadcast:

I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts about that subject I have put into a poem called Sailing to Byzantium. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled ‘croziers’ in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.

This is Yeats’ 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’. Yeats’ solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, an ancient city. Byzantium represented an ideal city for Yeats, somewhere that was full of artistic beauty and where the artist was truly valued. A fascination with the artificial as superior to the natural is one of Yeats’ themes – ref ‘The Lover Tells of the Rose in His Heart’ and ‘The Dolls’.

Yeats never actually travelled to Byzantium / Constantinople / Istanbul but he did argue that in the C16th it offered the ideal environment for the artist. The poem is about an imagined journey rather than an actual one.

Structure

There are 4 eight line stanzas and the poem is written in so-called ottava rima – 2 trios of alternating rhyme followed by a couplet: ABABABCC. This is a traditional verse form used by poets such as Boccaccio, Shelley and Byron. The use of it here by Yeats fits with the subject matter – the importance of the artist or poet to society. It is therefore fitting that Yeats uses an appropriate literary form.

Stanza 1

The poem opens with the phrase ‘that is no country for old men’; this refers to Ireland. It also shows that Yeats is...


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