The poem Sailing to Byzantium was written by William Butler Yeats in 1927. One year later, the poem was published in the book The Tower. This is a poem that he left his country and was never to return. A poem that reflected the state of his soul, according to what he told the BBC in 1931.
Byzantium was the part of Turkey that was colonized by the Greeks. The city Constantinople became the capital of Byzantium around 330 AD. The city is nowadays known as Istanbul. Yeats took the time to reflect on the historic events in his poem. The Byzantine Empire was also known as the Eastern Roman Empire.
At the time Yeats wrote this poem, he was in his sixties and felt the time to reflect on his life so far. In a broadcast for BBC Radio 1931, he had the following to say about this poem:
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.
“No country for old men”
The country that Yeats left behind is anything but a “country for old men.” Yeats felt, that there was no future for him in this country (Ireland). Everything in this country seemed to be there for young people. According to him, these old men were nothing more than worthless for society. They did not have the energy to go on and did not have a future.
The way society treated these “old men” (a metaphor for old people in general) caused him to believe that there was no need for them. However, they could still sparkle things up. If only they would find someone to listen to.
At the time that Yeats wrote down his feelings, Byzantium was nothing more than history. The longing for something old and that what was considered as “wise”, was where he was going. Let’s call it a mental journey; soul searching. A protest to the way old men (and people) are treated after a life of hard work.
Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
— William Butler Yeats