WB Yeats

  • Irish poet - Irish Nationalist

  • Symbolist

  • Inspired by Pre-Raphaelites and William Blake

  • poetry was a reaction to the naturalistic and realistic poetry of the Victorian age

  • Won the Nobel

  • dreams, imagination, visions, magic, and mysticism

  • antidemocratic view

Sailing to Byzantium

Link to original

written in 1926 Yeats was in his 60s “the state of my soul and some of my thoughts about the subject” time of industrial revolution

utopia monument of unageing intellect perne???


Full Text

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.

Byzantium - Existed in classical time Present day Istanbul

Poet was at Istanbul Wants to move back (in time) to Byzantium

The speaker describes a world where the old are not welcome. It is a world full of young lovers, birds, and fish, who enjoy life without thinking about death or anything beyond their physical existence.

The old man in this world feels like a ragged scarecrow, unless he can keep his soul alive and singing in his decaying body. He has to learn how to do this by himself, since no one can teach him. (“no singing school”)

That is why he has traveled across the sea to the ancient sacred city of Byzantium. There, he appeals to the wise men and saints who have died and become part of God’s glorious fire, which resembles the golden mosaics of Byzantine churches. He asks them to come out of the fire, spinning like a spool, and teach his soul to sing. He wants them to destroy his mortal heart, which is bound to his dying body and cannot understand or accept its own mortality, and take him to their eternal world of art.

When he leaves his body behind, he says he will not take another mortal form.

Instead, he will become a beautiful golden artwork, like something made by ancient Greek metal workers for an emperor’s bedroom Or a golden bird on a golden tree, where he can teach people his everlasting and otherworldly wisdom - his transcendent knowledge of the past, present, and future.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies

As such, the speaker is basically imagining traveling to a long-dead holy city and talking to mosaic icons on a wall. But that’s the point: these sages have transcended old age and mortality through becoming the materials of imagination and of art. They have left their frail, physical bodies behind. The speaker intends to one day join them—and when he does, he’ll leave behind his body forever, and “never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.”

the world of the young and vital has no room for himself

golden Byzantine mosaics


  1. Old Age and Mortality; leaving the tattered body behind
  2. Power of Art and Immortality through art