English Literature
Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Shiken premium Upgrade Banner

A Poetic Reflection on Ageing: "Sailing to Byzantium" by William Butler Yeats

In 1928, renowned poet William Butler Yeats wrote "Sailing to Byzantium," a poem that delves into the themes of mortality and the fragility of the human body as it ages. At 62 years old, Yeats was contemplating his own mortality and the realities of ageing, which is reflected in the poem's content.

Overview of "Sailing to Byzantium"

The poem is written in ottava rima, a form typically used in epics. It consists of stanzas of eight lines, with 10 or 11 syllables and a rhyme scheme of abababcc. This form adds irony to the poem as it deviates from the typical tales of adventure and youth found in epics. Instead, "Sailing to Byzantium" tells the story of an old man on a spiritual journey, desperately trying to hold onto his youth and legacy. This irony serves as a reminder that despite our longing to stay young, ageing is an inevitable part of life.

Analysis of "Sailing to Byzantium"

The poem opens with the famous line "That is no country for old men," setting the tone for the theme of ageing and the image of the young embracing each other. The speaker reflects on the fleeting beauty of the natural world, where everything that is born must eventually die. In the last three lines of the stanza, the speaker laments how easily we overlook the important things in life while chasing temporary pleasures.

In the second stanza, the speaker presents the image of an old man as a tattered coat on a stick, unless his soul remains alive and celebrates every aspect of life, including the decay of the body. This idea is reinforced in the third stanza, where the speaker longs to join the sages of Byzantium who have eternal souls, standing in God's fire. The speaker desires to be consumed by this fire, freeing him from his dying body.

The final stanza reveals the speaker's longing to transcend the natural world and take on a new form, "such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make," to become a part of the eternal and sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium about the past, present, and future.

Context of the Poem

At the time of writing "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats was married to a much younger woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees, who shared his spiritual and intellectual interests. Their marriage, when Yeats was 52 years old, reflected his focus on ageing and leaving a lasting legacy. This preoccupation began almost a decade earlier when Yeats had been repeatedly rejected by his lifelong love, Maude Gonne, and her daughter. Seeking companionship and intellectual stimulation in his old age, Yeats married Hyde-Lees.

The poem also reflects Yeats' Protestant background and explores themes of the separation of the soul from the body and the afterlife. Byzantium, an ancient city known as Constantinople and Istanbul, was a strong center for early Christianity, making it a significant setting for the poem.

Summary of "Sailing to Byzantium"

"Sailing to Byzantium" contemplates the inevitable process of ageing and the longing to preserve one's legacy and youth. It serves as a reminder that while our bodies may fade, our souls can thrive if we appreciate the beauty in life and leave a lasting impact behind.

Stanza IV

The use of apostrophe in poetry shifts the speaker's focus to an absent entity, in this case the sages who hold the key to immortality. It also emphasizes the distance between the speaker's mortal self and the immortal art he desires.

The Final Stanza

In the last stanza, the speaker contemplates the decisions he will make in the afterlife. He states that, when he passes on, he will not return as a mere mortal. Instead, he aspires to be like the golden art of ancient Greeks, displayed for an emperor's entertainment or as a golden bird perched on a branch. This desire for immortality stems from the speaker's fear of aging and the eventual decay of the physical body. He longs to impart his wisdom, like the sages of Byzantium, who possess knowledge of the past and future.

Themes in 'Sailing to Byzantium'

While exploring various themes related to humanity and life, 'Sailing to Byzantium' has three central themes that stand out.


At its core, the poem delves into the mortality of the human body. The speaker acknowledges that aging and death are more prominent and significant for the elderly than the young or ignorant. He refers to the body as a "dying animal" and expresses his fear of growing old. The speaker's journey to Byzantium symbolizes his quest for immortality, as the ancient city represents his desire to be immortalized. His preoccupation with mortality is evident in his plea to the sages to consume his heart in their holy fire and free him from his fears. Despite his decaying body, he continues to search for ways to enrich his mind and soul, as the absence of a "singing school" depicts a lack of spiritual fulfillment and guidance.

The Quest for Eternal Youth in William Butler Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'

William Butler Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium' portrays the speaker's soul as a source of eternal youth and fulfillment. He believes that by keeping his soul singing, he can resist the inevitability of aging. However, he also acknowledges that this is a personal and individual process and seeks the guidance of ancient sages to attain spiritual wisdom and purity. Through his spiritual journey to Byzantium, the seat of power for the Christian religion, the speaker hopes to transcend his mortal limitations and achieve immortality through his art and passing on his wisdom to future generations.


As a deeply spiritual poet, Yeats explored spirituality and communicated with spirits through automatic writing with his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees. His book 'The Vision' expresses his belief that in early Byzantium, aesthetics and practical life were intertwined. Inspired by automatic writing, Yeats believed that spirits influenced his ideas in 'The Vision'. 'Sailing to Byzantium' also delves into themes of spirituality, religion, and the afterlife, with the speaker choosing Byzantium as his spiritual destination.


The theme of art also plays a central role in 'Sailing to Byzantium'. The speaker's ultimate goal is to transform his mortal body into a work of art that will continue to speak to future generations even after his passing. He desires to be like the sages depicted in mosaics, immortal and grand, rather than being confined in his mortal body. Through his transition from mortal to artistic body, the speaker hopes to gain immortality and continue passing on his wisdom.

The use of iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme in the poem adds a lyrical and musical quality, bringing lightness to the otherwise somber theme of existential dread. The inclusion of art in the poem uplifts the speaker and the reader, providing a sense of hope and wisdom.

Symbols in 'Sailing to Byzantium'

Yeats was known for his use of symbols in his poetry, and 'Sailing to Byzantium' is no exception. While there are several symbols in the poem, some of the most significant ones are:

  • Byzantium: The city of Byzantium serves as a symbol in the poem. It represents a place of peace and guidance in the speaker's spiritual journey.The Perfect Destination for the Spiritual and Artistic Soul: Sailing to Byzantium
  • The city of Byzantium, with its strong Christian influence and enduring works of art, is an idyllic destination for the speaker in William Butler Yeats' poem 'Sailing to Byzantium.' The speaker's longing for immortality and transcendence of the mortal body is represented through symbols such as golden art and the goddess Justice, offering a thought-provoking perspective on the human desire for eternal youth and fulfillment.
  • The Symbolism of Golden Art in 'Sailing to Byzantium'
  • In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker expresses their desire to transform into a piece of Grecian art, specifically something made of gold. This symbolizes the speaker's aspiration for immortality and the transcendence of their mortal body. To the speaker, becoming art is a means of achieving spiritual fulfillment and eternal life.
  • In Search of Justice: The Goddess in Gold
  • The speaker also mentions the golden statue of the goddess Justice, representing their quest for fairness and justice in their pursuit of eternal youth. This symbolizes the human desire for a just and fulfilling existence, even in the face of mortality.
  • Exploring Themes of Spirituality, Art, and Immortality
  • The poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' delves into deep themes such as spirituality, art, and the desire for everlasting youth. Through their journey to Byzantium, the speaker seeks spiritual guidance and looks to attain immortality through their art. The use of symbols and Yeats' lyrical writing style offers a captivating perspective on the human longing for eternal life and fulfillment.
  • The Human Struggle: Nature vs. Artifice
  • The poem highlights the contrast between the fleeting nature of the human body and the lasting, crafted body symbolized by gold art. This contrast between nature and artifice represents the struggle between the mortal body and the desire for immortality through artistic creation.
  • The Holy Fire: A Symbol of Purification and Cleansing
  • The holy fire in 'Sailing to Byzantium' serves as a symbol of purification and cleansing, rooted in traditional Christian imagery. In the third stanza, the speaker calls upon the sages to use holy fire to purify their mortal body and heart, symbolizing the shedding of mortal fears and uncertainties that come with ageing.
  • The Significance of 'Sailing to Byzantium'
  • The poem explores the psyche of an elderly speaker grappling with the challenges of ageing and seeking a solution to the inevitable process of death. Through their journey to Byzantium, the speaker comes to the realization that shedding the mortal body means not returning as another frail and decaying being but as an eternal being with knowledge of the past, present, and future.
  • Meaningful Themes and Symbols in 'Sailing to Byzantium'
  • Yeats masterfully infuses 'Sailing to Byzantium' with profound themes and symbols that add depth and provoke introspection. The symbolism of the ancient city of Byzantium, gold art, and holy fire represent significant ideas such as mortality, art, and the human quest for eternal life.
  • About the Poet
  • William Butler Yeats, a renowned Irish poet and playwright, wrote 'Sailing to Byzantium' in 1928. The poem is included in his collection 'The Tower,' where he explores themes of ageing and mortality through his personal experiences as an elderly man.
  • Frequently Asked Questions About 'Sailing to Byzantium'
  • What is the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium' about?
    The poem delves into the theme of mortality and the struggle for acceptance of death and ageing.
  • Who is the author of 'Sailing to Byzantium'?
    The poem was written by William Butler Yeats, a renowned Irish poet and playwright.
  • How is the speaker portrayed in 'Sailing to Byzantium'?
    The speaker is depicted as an elderly individual struggling with the concept of mortality and seeking a way to maintain their youthful and joyful soul.The Portrayal of the Elderly in 'Sailing to Byzantium' by W.B. Yeats
  • In his poem, 'Sailing to Byzantium', W.B. Yeats presents a stark depiction of the elderly, describing them as "a paltry thing / a tattered coat upon a stick." This imagery suggests that without a vibrant spirit and purpose in life, the elderly are like mere scarecrows, empty and lifeless.
  • The Longing for Immortality in 'Sailing to Byzantium'
  • The speaker in the poem expresses a desire to transcend the limitations of mortal life and become an immortal being. This longing is portrayed through the use of art and artifice, as the speaker wishes to gain knowledge of the past, present, and future. For the speaker, this would be a more fulfilling existence than the inevitable aging and death of a mere mortal.

Join Shiken For FREE

Gumbo Study Buddy

Explore More Subject Explanations

Try Shiken Premium
for Free

14-day free trial. Cancel anytime.
Get Started
Join 20,000+ learners worldwide.
The first 14 days are on us
96% of learners report x2 faster learning
Free hands-on onboarding & support
Cancel Anytime