Sailing to Byzantium : themes

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Sailing to Byzantium is a notable literary work by William Butler Yeats. A complete discussion of this literary work is given, which will help you enhance your literary skills and prepare for the exam. Read the main text, key info, Summary, Themes, Characters, Literary Devices, Quotations, Notes, to various questions of Sailing to Byzantium.


Sailing to Byzantium” is a poem by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, and it was first published in 1927 in his collection “The Tower.” The poem surveys several themes, including:

Spiritual Longing: The poem starts with a speaker who feels disconnected from the physical world and longs for a spiritual existence. He seeks a place where he can transcend the limitations of the body and attain a higher, more permanent state of being.

Art and Immortality: Yeats was extremely interested in the idea of art as a means of achieving immortality. In the poem, Byzantium conveys a place where art and artists are revered. The speaker desires to become a work of art, to be “set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium.” This contemplates the idea that through their artistic creations, artists can achieve a form of immortality.

The Aging Process: The poem implies the process of aging and the physical decay that comes with it. The speaker desires to escape the “sensual music” of the physical world, suggesting a desire to transcend the limitations of the aging body.

Cultural Identity and Tradition: Byzantium, in this poem, describes a place of rich cultural heritage and tradition. Yeats was profoundly interested in Irish cultural identity and the preservation of Irish traditions in the face of modernity. The poem deliberates a yearning for a culture and tradition that is timeless and unchanging.

The Contrast Between Youth and Age: The poem differs the vitality and sensuality of youth with the wisdom and permanence of old age. The speaker desires to leave behind the world of “youth’s tumult” and assume a state of being where he can become a “singing master of my soul.”

Transcendence: The central theme of the poem is the idea of transcendence, both in a spiritual and artistic sense. The speaker wants to transcend the limitations of the physical world, the body, and even time itself. He expects to achieve a state of being that is eternal and free from the transitory nature of human existence.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats uses explicit and symbolic language to explore these themes and depict his philosophical and artistic beliefs. The poem is diagnosed as a reflection on the conflict between the temporal and the eternal, the physical and the spiritual, and the transient nature of human life compared to the enduring power of art and culture.