The Theme of Immortality in Yeats's Byzantium Poems

The theme of immortality in Yeats's Byzantium poems is explored in the pair poems, "Byzantium" and "Sailing to Byzantium." Both these 'poems seem to express a desire to escape from the decay and tedium of cyclical nature. On a wholly spiritual level, "Byzantium" clearly does contrast the mere mundane level of daylight vision with the infinitely richer possibilities that contemplations of the eternal and the miraculous offer.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

If the poem seems to trivialize day-to-day despairs, and travails, it does so by asserting that enduring glories, that are as yet unimagined albeit hinted at, in the symbols and icons of artistic and religious traditions, will eventually reward the patient soul. The less one categorizes the nature of these glories-whether they are religious' or aesthetic-of the eternal and spiritual or of the temporal and perceptual, the more one can appreciate Yeats's main point that, they are in fact transcendent and beyond corruption, and are therefore unchanging.

Similarly, the major theme of "Sailing to Byzantium" is the transformative power of art, the ability of art to express the ineffable and to step outside the boundaries of self. Some concrete details of the poem might be read autobiographically, such as the speaker's desire to leave his country, references to himself as an old man, "a tattered coat upon a Stick," and having a heart "sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal." Although an old man, the speaker still feels the desire to sail to Byzantium and metaphorically to transcend the sensual music of Ireland.

He wants to transform his own consciousness and find mystical union with the golden mosaics of a medieval empire. The poet pleads with the sages, in' the mosaic to open the door and allow him entry into their world, where he might reflect on past, present, and future. With his body discarded, the poet's concept of time changes. He is no longer the victim of a biological cycle, but has liberated himself into a new world, capable of reaching over all eras. The poet leaves behind a temporal world of ignorant, lust and physical celebration to gain the perspective of eternity.

In his later poetry, Yeats expresses a growing concern with the problem of age and the attitude in his later poetry. "Sailing to Byzantium" is a case in point. Old age, according to Yeats in this poem, is a time to leave behind the sensual mire of the dying generations and to contemplate on the "artifice of eternity". Old age is useless if at that time one does not respond to spirituality, or the soul's claps and songs.

The opening stanza gives a richly concrete picture of instinctive life with the images of sensual delight occupying the young of all species that sing out of excitement. But they express the world of flux and death in perpetual motion. The oId man has no place amidst this "sensual music". The only justification of old age is the contemplation of those artifacts which proclaim the glory of the spirit and unageing intellect above the transitory song of the body. Thus the poet in his old age makes his voyage to Byzantium-a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. There he will choose the form of a golden bird whose song will be totally different from the "sensual music" of birds in the former country. Sailing to Byzantium can be interpreted as a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. But there is much more involved in this complex poem. It symbolizes a psychological change from a mentality which values the pleasure of sexuality and the flesh, to one which values things of the mind, the spirit and the soul. "The poem can be taken on a number of levels-at the transition from sensual art to intellectual art: as the poet's new and brilliant insight into the nature of Byzantine imagination; and as the poet's coming to terms with age and death", as Cleanth Brooks observes.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Theme of Immortality in Yeats's Byzantium Poems." BachelorandMaster, 24 May 2017,