Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Poem

Sailing to Byzantium written in 1926 is an emphatic reminder of the poet's keen interest in that historic city of Eastern Empire and the significance of art and culture. In the metrical form, “Sailing to Byzantium” follows an ottava rima stanza pattern. Yeats, however, modifies the form to suit his own purpose, using ten syllables instead of the original eleven and using slant rhymes instead of exact ones.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Summary of Stanza I

That (Ireland) is not the right place for old men because all are caught in a sensual music which makes them neglect the ageless artistic achievements of the intellect. In that country the dying generations of birds and young lovers celebrate things which are a slave to the natural cycle of birth and death. The young lovers who are in each other's arms, the births who are in the trees and the salmon-falls and the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh and fowl all sing only one song-the song of the senses. All these, at the same time, are creatures who are very much subject to death.

Stanza I
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.

Summary of Stanza II

That country (Ireland) not being the right place for an old man who is otherwise a petty thing with his physical powers decaying continuously, the only alternative available for the old man is to have his soul educated in such a way that it starts to clap its hands and sing. In this state of robust joy the soul has to sing louder with every tatter in its mortal dress. In other words, the newly learnt song of the soul has to become louder and louder as the physical powers of the old man goes from bad to worse. The only hurdle in this way is getting the right school where the soul can get an education which is difficult to find in that country because every singing school, instead of caring for monuments of unageing intellect is busy studying the monuments of its own significance. As a result of the difficulty in finding the right school for his soul to be educated in that country, the poet decides to sail across seas and go to the holy city of Byzantium.

Stanza II
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.

Summary of Stanza III

Addressing the sages standing in god's holy fire in Byzantium, the poet says: "O sages who are standing in God's holy fire in the same way as a figure stands in the gold mosaic work (inlaid work of small pieces of different colored marble, glass, etc.) of a wall, climb down from your position in a spiral movement and be the educators of my soul so that my soul can learn the right kind of song-the song which becomes louder as the body decays more and more. The first thing one will have to do will be to purify one's heart because it is tied to the animal instincts of the body and is sick with physical desire. Once one has purified or consumed the heart away it will be easier for one to do what the narrator most desires-gathering me into the artifice of eternity. In other words, the narrator wants to become part of those things which are beyond the cycle of birth and death."

Stanza III
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.

Summary of Stanza IV

Once the narrator is out of this circle of nature (being begotten, born and dying), he will break all contact with natural things i.e., with the physical world. Instead of taking my bodily form from any natural thing he shall take a form like that which was hammered into golden shape and golden enamelling by Grecian goldsmiths. This was done by Grecian goldsmiths to form a golden bird who could sing to a sleepy Emperor and keep him awake. He also wants to be a golden bird gathered into the artifice of eternity, so that he is set upon a golden bough in the court of Byzantium, that alone would enable him to sing of all times- past, present and future (of what is past, or passing or to come) to the Lords and Ladies of Byzantium. This song of the narrator will be different from the sensual music of dying generations and will sing of monuments of unageing intellect.

Stanza IV
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.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, K.N. "Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Poem." BachelorandMaster, 23 Nov. 2013,