Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Year of Publication
to Byzantium," by William Butler Yeats, is a lyric
poem with four stanzas. The Macmillan Company published the poem in
New York in 1928 as part of The Tower, a collection of twenty-one
of Yeats's poems.
Neglect of the Aging
speaker, an old man, says he does not feel welcome in the land of the young.
"Caught in the sensual music" (line 8) of their own existence and of reproducing
themselves, the young "neglect monuments of unageing intellect" (line 8-9).
In other words, they neglect old people, who remain keen and youthful intellectually
though withered physically. Consequently, the speaker says (perhaps sarcastically),
he would rather be an object of art--like the art objects in Byzantium.
They never age. And even sleepy emperors, as well as lords and ladies,
pay attention to them.
was a city on the site of present-day Istanbul, Turkey. Byzantium was founded
in circa 600 BC by former residents of the Greek cities of Megarus and
Miletus. On May 11, AD 330, the Roman ruler Constantine I, a Christian,
chose the city as the new capital of his empire and renamed it Constantinople.
Over time, the city became famous for the magnificence of its works of
art on religious themes. Wall mosaics, like those referred to in lines
17 and 18 of "Sailing to Byzantium," were among them.
rhyme scheme in each stanza is ABABABCC. In several of the rhymes, the
vowel sounds differ but the final consonants are the same--as in lines
18 and 20. When the vowel sounds of rhyming words are different but their
final consonants are the same, a special kind of rhyme occurs: consonance.
wrote the poem in iambic pentameter. In this verse format, each line has
five pairs of syllables. Each pair consists of an unstressed syllable followed
by a stressed syllable. The first line of the poem demonstrates the pattern.
are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
Repetition of consonant
Line 4: The salmon-falls,
Line 5: Fish,
an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing
absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person.
Line 17: O sages standing
in God's holy fire
Line 8: Monuments of unageing
of old men to monuments
Lines 9-10: An aged man is
but a paltry thing,
tattered coat upon a stick,
of an old man's skin to a tattered coat and his skeleton to a stick
Summary of the Poem
men feel out of place in a land where everything heralds new life: young
men with their nubile women, singing and cooing birds, spawning salmon
and mackerel. Throughout the summer, animals and fish bring forth new generations.
When life is busy reproducing itself, it neglects old men, whose bodies
are nothing but monuments of what used to be--although their intellects
do not age.
old man is little more than wrinkled, drooping skin hanging from bones
unless his soul--his unaging inner self--claps its hands and sings. But
even in that case, all he has to sing about is his past. There is no school
to teach him a new song. Therefore, because I myself am an old man, I have
come to the holy of Byzantium. (Byzantium became Constantinople, etc.)
this city are churches with mosaic images of saints on the wall, sages
burning with holy zeal. I ask these sages to come forth to teach my soul
to sing a new song, one that will lift it out of my dying body and take
it to an artificial--that is, manmade--eternity.
I am free of my body, I shall not be reborn in a natural body. Instead
I will take form in an artificial thing--perhaps an image forged by Grecian
goldsmiths, one which can keep a drowsy emperor awake. Or one which, attached
to a Golden bough made by smith, can sing of the past, present, or future
to the lords and ladies of Byzantium.
in a Gyre
line 19 appears the phrase "perne in a gyre." It means "whirling in a spiral
of the Poem
can access the complete text of the poem at Online
Literature or Poetry
Questions and Writing Topics
1. Write an eight-line poem
that imitates the rhyme scheme in "Sailing to Byzantium." The topic is
2. Write an essay focusing
on a characteristic of Byzantine art.
3. WIn what ways is "Sailing
to Byzantium" similar to John Keats's "Ode on a
What is the difference between a lyric poem, like "Sailing to Byzantium,"
and a narrative poem?