Sailing to Byzantium

Critical Appreciation Sailing to Byzantium is a deeply symbolic poem by W. B. Yeats, one of the greatest poets of the Present Century. It is the First poem in the volume called the Tower.

The poem deals with war, old age, the Anglo-Irish inheritance, the decay of the present world and moves between contraries such as youth and age, life and death, change and changelessness, and nature and art Byzantium, the present Istanbul, was the capital of Eastern Christianity and was famous for the platonic Academy until the 15th century.

Sailing to Byzantium
Sailing to Byzantium

For Yeats, Byzantium represents eternity, a paradise free from the cause of growth and decay. The artist finds permanence in his place through his art and can remain free of the distortions caused by age and hard work.

The young caught up in the natural cycle of birth, grown and death can not belong to this place. Given the choice, Yeats would have preferred to sail back in time and space to 6th century Byzantium.

To Yeats, Byzantium symbolized European civilization and spiritual philosophy and the journey to Byzantium, a search for spiritual life. The theme of the poem is very close to John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Gracian Urn which concludes by saying’ Beauty is truth and truth beauty.

Critical Appreciation of Sailing to Byzantium

Art and Beauty created in the artifice are permanent and contrasted with the gradual decay and death of natural life. Artifice is is a work of imagination, of undying intellect. Yeats would rather choose art over nature, In this poet conflict of the flesh and the spirit has been delineated in symbolic terms.

Sailing to Byzantium
Sailing to Byzantium

The poem begins with an indirect reference to contemporary. Ireland n by political strife and is passing through a phase of transition. To Yeats, this transition, interpreted in poetical terms, is a transition from the old to the new, from the physical to the spiritual.

An old man faces the problem of age, death, and regeneration. According to him, old age excludes a man from the sensual joys of Youth. The world appears to belong completely to the young. Here there is no place for the old.

Indeed an old man is merely an empty artifice, an effigy, like Eliot’s hollow men, a tattered coat upon a stick, On the other hand, the young rapt in their sensuality is utterly ignorant of the world of the spirit. That is what creates the tension in the poem; the physical against the spiritual.

According to Yeats, the youths are rapt in sensuality and the aged have lost all passion and vigour. In such a paradoxical state, Yeats has chosen to sail the holy city of Byzantium. He makes a fervent appeal to the sages of antiquity to purify his soul in the holy fire and redeem it by gathering it into the artifice of eternity.

That is the highest form of redemption for Yeats being made a part of divine pattern of beauty and art. The last stanza is a supreme example of symbolic poetry.

The poet’s desire to transcend this world of passion and aging and enter into the eternal land of art and beauty finds a suitable symbol in the bird made of gold sitting on the golden bough and enchanting the Greek Emperor the Theophilus and his court.

Sailing to Byzantium
Sailing to Byzantium

The poet would transform himself not into any natural being again, but into an artifact symbolizing the world of eternal art and beauty.

“Sailing to Byzantium’ is one of the finest poems of the present century. Yeats is the greatest poetical figure of the age. This poem presents Yeats’s vision of the modern world and its essential malaise of spiritual decay.

The only redemption for the artist in such a world of passion and depravity is the title realm of eternal beauty which can be attained through art only.

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