Sailing to Byzantium
A Poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Background on Byzantium
End Rhyme
Figures of Speech
Summary of the Poem
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Yeats
Index of Study Gujides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2010
Type of Work and Year of Publication

......."Sailing 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.

Theme: Neglect of the Aging

.......The 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. 

Background on Byzantium

.......Byzantium 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.

End Rhyme

.......The 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.


.......Yeats 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.

That IS..|..no COUN..|..try FOR..|..old MEN...|..The YOUNG
Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem.

Repetition of consonant sounds

Line 4: The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Line 5: Fish, flesh, or fowl, 

Addressing an abstraction or a thing, present or absent; addressing
an absent entity or person; addressing a deceased person.

Line 17: O sages standing in God's holy fire

Line 8: Monuments of unageing intellect.
..............Comparison of old men to monuments

Lines 9-10: An aged man is but a paltry thing,
.......................A tattered coat upon a stick,
.......................Comparison of an old man's skin to a tattered coat and his skeleton to a stick

Summary of the Poem

Stanza 1

.......Old 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. 

Stanza 2

.......An 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.)

Stanza 3

.......In 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.

Stanza 4

.......Once 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.

Definition: Perne in a Gyre

.......In line 19 appears the phrase "perne in a gyre." It means "whirling in a spiral pattern."

Text of the Poem

.......You can access the complete text of the poem at Online Literature or Poetry X.

Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write an eight-line poem that imitates the rhyme scheme in "Sailing to Byzantium." The topic is open.
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 Grecian Urn"?
4. What is the difference between a lyric poem, like "Sailing to Byzantium," and a narrative poem?