Critical appreciation of Sailing to Byzantium

Question: Write a critical appreciation of Sailing to Byzantium.


William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the central figures in the galaxy of 20th-century literature. His acclaimed poem “Sailing to Byzantium” is a specimen of Yeats’ high imagination and romanticism. The poem centers around how the situation becomes different from the perspective of stages of life.

Background of the poem

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a poem by W. B. Yeats first published in the 1928 collection of poetry “The Tower”. It presents a metaphoric spiritual journey to Byzantium that was also known as Constantinople was the capital city of the Roman Empire. Yeats explores his thoughts and musings on how immortality, art, and the human spirit may converge. Yeats wrote this poem after getting over from Malta fever.

The subject matter of the poem

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a poem in which there is a clash of opposites. The basic idea is the placement of the old against the young. Old age that tells the poet excludes a man from the sensual joys of youth. The world appears to belong completely to the young it is to place for the old. Indeed, an old man is scarcely a man because he is a tattered coat upon a stick. In short, the subject matter of the poem is a spiritual quest for ideal beauty or heavenly pleasure.

Romantic elements

The poem is replete with romantic elements. This is the only poem through which we can negotiate Yeats as a romantic poet like John Keats. The romantic elements of the poem are as follows:


We find that the poem is engulfed with a first-person point of view though the overall position is objective. The poet does not care for the bodily concept here in this poem. He mainly focuses on the spiritual concept that means peace of soul that is absent in the chaotic city life based on materialistic gaining.

“……. I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make…”

High imagination

Yeats has applied the techniques of John Keats in this poem based on his high imagination. Byzantium is a historical allusion that symbolizes an imaginative ideal world that is free from all kinds of fret and fever of the materialistic world.

“That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,”

Beauty of nature

Yeats minutely depicts the beauty of nature that is not less sensual than any romantic poet. Through the different beautiful objects of nature such as birds, trees, golden bough, and so on, the poet proclaims that Byzantium is a country irrespective of ages.

“Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.”

Symbols and images

Symbols and images are the souls of poetry. Yeats is no exception to this tradition. Rather he is more prolific in case of use of symbols and images. The title of the poem symbolizes a spiritual journey to the world of ideality that is free from corruption and diseases. Byzantium also represents the world of art and culture. The phrase “a tattered coat upon a stick” is the symbol of the pathetic situation of aged life. The images of the poem are complex. Hammered implies an effort of life. Holy fire symbolizes purgation and purification. Gold mosaic is the symbol of difficulties of life that are not available in the ideal world. In short, the whole poem is symbolic and packed with images.

Form and style

“Sailing to Byzantium” is a lyric in which the poet has used sundry poetic techniques. Using various poetic techniques, Yeats describes the metaphorical journey of a man pursuing his own vision of eternal life as well as his conception of paradise. It comprises four stanzas in Ottava Rima, each with eight to ten accent lines.


In termination, it can be said that this single poem is enough to trace the high poetic qualification of Yeats in his final stage of poetic development. This poem certainly affects the conscience of human beings for the spiritual quest of ideal beauty like John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale and Grecian Urn”.

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SR Sarker
SR Sarker
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