What is Yeats’ attitude to old age in the poem Sailing to Byzantium?

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree 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 The Lake Isle of Innisfree.


What is Yeats’ attitude to old age in the poem Sailing to Byzantium?

In the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” William Butler Yeats describes a complex and uncertain attitude towards old age. The poem, written in 1926, is one of Yeats’ most prominent works and is often regarded as a reflection on the themes of aging, art, and the search for immortality.

Intransient: In the first stanza, Yeats describes the world of nature as transient and impermanent, contrasting it with the eternal world of deception and spirituality represented by the ancient city of Byzantium. He sees the natural world as being consumed by time and decay. The use of vivid imagery, such as “the salmon-falls,” “mackerel-crowded seas,” and “the young in one another’s arms,” conveys a sense of vitality, youthfulness, and the cyclic nature of life. He says,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Mocking Attitude: Yeats’s attitude toward old age becomes more nuanced as the poem progresses. He realizes the limitations of the natural world and the physical body, expressing a sense of weariness and dissatisfaction with the constraints of aging. He depicts himself as a “tattered coat upon a stick,” implying a weak and aging body. The phrase “soul clap its hands and sing” means a longing for a more accessible and spiritual existence, free from physical limitations.

Optimistic Attitude: In the final stanza, Yeats wishes to be reborn as a “golden bird” in Byzantium, a symbol of immortality and superiority. This is a positive and hopeful attitude towards old age, suggesting that through art and pursuing the spiritual, one can find a sense of renewal and meaning in life, even in the face of aging and mortality.

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.

Yeats’ attitude towards old age in “Sailing to Byzantium” is intricate and multi-layered. He realizes the limitations and decay associated with aging. Still, he also assumes the transformative power of art and spirituality.