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One of Yeats’s most admired poems, 'Sailing to Byzantium' explores the poet’s search for spiritual and mystical renewal, imaged as a journey to the ancient city of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul).
The poem follows the Italian structure known as ottava rima which normally consists of eight-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of abababcc ; however Yeats does not always use perfect rhyme. There are four stanzas, each one of which has a distinct emphasis.
The opening stanza begins with a blunt statement: 'That is no country for old men’. Yeats does not specify which country this is, but it is most likely his own country, Ireland. He goes on to depict this country as being lush and fertile: all nature, human and animal, rejoicing in youth and the vigour of life. The third line contains a sardonic interjection – 'those dying generations'; a reminder that this life will not last forever. The closing couplet reproves these young creatures, who are too caught up in the fire of youth, their own 'sensual music' to pay any heed to the old, like the poet himself, which are strikingly imaged here as 'monuments of intellect'. The monument image has connotations of hardness and dryness, and lack of animation in contrast to the fluidity, fertility and liveliness of the young. Yeats thus sets up an opposition between young and old, and between nature and artifice – monuments generally being man-made.
The second stanza concentrates on developing the hard, dry, lifeless image of the old man (the poet) by labelling him a mere paltry thing’/a tattered coat upon a stick'. The physical appearance of the old man as some kind of scarecrow or skeleton is however contrasted with his soul which has to make an effort to ‘sing’ in order to compensate for bodily decay ('every tatter in its mortal dress’). There is no-one in the poet’s present surroundings to encourage him in this, however (there is no 'singing school') and so he leaves it all behind, at least in his mind, to come to a new place, a place of regeneration, 'the holy city of Byzantium'.
The third stanza touches on the beauty and richness of the old city of Byzantium, capital of the Byzantine empire and famous for its art and architecture, particularly its mosaics inlaid with gold and marble. Yeats appeals to the figures on these mosaics, those 'holy sages’ to come and save his soul. He asks to be delivered from ‘the dying animal’ that is his body and to be accepted ‘into the artifice of eternity’.
The fourth stanza elaborates on this idea of the ‘artifice of eternity’. Yeats means by this that he would like to escape his natural and dying body into an artificial form which will not decay. He envisages himself as an object made of gold, among 'Emperors' and 'lords and ladies of Byzantium', sitting, like a bird, upon a 'golden bough' and singing ‘of what is past, present, and to come'. This final stanza is wholly taken up with imagery of gold, of art and artifice, which offsets the natural imagery of the opening stanza. The poem, then, as whole, moves from nature to art, from youth to age, from reflections upon mortality to the imagining of eternity.
The choice of Byzantium as a place of retreat and renewal for the ageing poet is significant. Byzantium was known as a melting-pot of different cultural, artistic and religious traditions. Yeats thus looks to a mix of cultures for spiritual sustenance, like other famous writers of his time, for example T. S. Eliot.