Sailing to Byzantium by Yeats: A Critical Appreciation

Write a critical appreciation of Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium.

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a remarkable poem by W.B. Yeats. It was first published in the collection The Tower in 1928. It deals with the themes of art, aging, and the quest for immortality. Through its rich imagery, profound symbolism and skillful craftsmanship, the poem offers a thought-provoking exploration of the human condition and the desire for transcendence.
‘Sailing to Byzantium’ explores the dichotomies between age and youth as well as sensuality and spirituality. The speaker of this poem is ‘an aged man.’ He realizes that youth and the sensual life are no longer an option for him. Thus he commences on a spiritual journey to the ideal world of Byzantium.
The first stanza of the poem examines the natural or sensual world. Here the speaker feels alien. He feels that the new generation is caught in the ‘sensual music’. It overlooks the immortal aspects of art and intellect. The second stanza explores the world of aging and spirituality. In this stanza an elderly man is described as a scarecrow while the youth is represented by singing birds. Here the speaker concludes that he can enjoy the songs of the soul only in the holy city of Byzantium. These first two stanzas set up the conflict of the poem.
In the third stanza of the poem the speaker reaches Byzantium. He asks the sages to make him immortal like the glorious works of art in Byzantium. Here the golden bird intertwines the two worlds. The body is no longer natural but it is composed of gold. This composition will never decay. In the last stanza the speaker renounces the natural world. He chooses to recreate himself in the form of an immortal golden bird. He has now completely transformed himself into an immortal work of art. Placed in golden tree, the speaker sings of ‘what is past, or passing, or to come.’ It is the indication of his immortality. In short, the poem creates a stark contrast between the ephemeral nature of the mortal world and the timeless beauty of the Byzantine civilization.
This poem is notable for Yeats' masterful use of form and rhythm. The formal structure lends a sense of order and musicality to the poem. There are four stanzas in this poem. Each stanza has eight lines of iambic pentameter. Symbolism plays a very significant role in the poem. A journey to Byzantium has been taken as a metaphor for a spiritual journey. The use of evocative and vivid imagery is also a notable aspect of this composition. Yeats has employed it throughout the poem. The rhythmic flow of the poem reflects the speaker's yearning for a harmonious and enduring existence.
Thus ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is a fantastic piece of work. It has depth of thought, vivid imagery, and powerful symbolism. It explores profound themes of art, mortality, and the pursuit of immortality. This poem stands as a testament to Yeats' mastery as a poet and his ability to encapsulate universal human experiences.


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