Sailing To Byzantium Poem by William Butler Yeats Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium” was first published in 1928 as part of his collection titled “The Tower.” The poem talks about the quest for immortality using rich imagery and symbolism. The title sets the stage for a journey, both physical and metaphorical, to a distant and mythical place- Byzantium. Yeats was feeling disconnected from the world and yearns for something more permanent and spiritually fulfilling, which led him to pen down this beautiful poem. 

About the poet

William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and a playwright, was known for reviving the Irish Literary Renaissance or the Celtic Revival in Ireland. His poetry has had a profound impact on literary culture and he is regarded for reflecting poignant themes of spirituality and mysticism.  Mysticism and the occult influenced his life a great deal and it has been incorporated into his works. Some of his critically well acclaimed poems include “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Second Coming,” which projects his feelings and fascinations with spiritual transcendence. In 1923, Yeats bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature, being the first Irish to do so. He truly embraced his cultural heritage throughout his life and his poems are, hence, celebrated for its timeless beauty. 


The poem is made up of four stanzas, consisting of eight lines each. Even though it deals with the negative and serious topics of life, there is an optimism in the poem as the lines are written in a sing-song manner. 

Summary and Analysis

Stanza 1

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.


The poet claims in the first stanza that he is traveling from Ireland to Byzantium since that nation is unsuitable for the habitation of elderly people. Older guys are excluded from this type of living since it is exclusively bodily and sensuous there. He is heading away from this existence to the city of Byzantium, where he will find intellectual stimulation. The opening stanza of the poem begins with the categorical phrase “That is no country for old men.” The reader can immediately tell how important Yeats’s use of language is because rather than using “this” to refer to the nation the speaker is now in, the speaker utilizes “that,” giving the audience the impression that the speaker is viewing his previous homeland distantly. The verse begins as if he had begun his voyage to Byzantium.


The speaker of the poem declares at the outset of this stanza that elderly individuals have no relevance in society. The infants are cuddled up in their respective bosoms. The water is teeming with leaping fish, and the branches are brimming with bird melodies that have no idea they’re going to pass away one day. Everyone who exists has to pass away eventually. The earth is filled with seductive sounds throughout summertime, and the older people are ignored and given no thought. However, as the speaker implies when he refers to the songbirds as “those dying generations” and notes that the cheerful youth are “neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect,” this society is likewise constrained by its refusal to acknowledge the harsh facts of aging. In other words, adolescents are so consumed with themselves and these tangible, sensual pleasures that they are unable to understand their own death and are most definitely unable to experience the sort of eternal life that the speaker craves for.

Stanza 2

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.


The second stanza continues in a similar vein. Readers are unable to overlook the sour undertone that permeates this verse; Yeats’s use of language in equating an elderly gentleman to an inconsequential, worthless item is especially striking. He implies that an elderly person is just a pole sporting a tattered jacket since there is nothing left to them. However, Yeats appears to be making the point that just though someone is old, it does not automatically mean they have an old soul since the old man’s soul is noisily applauding and humming. An alternate reading can be made of the second stanza aside from that. The poet is shown in this scene crossing from Ireland to Byzantium as an elderly man. He has already defined the nation he is leaving in the first stanza. In contrast, the poet illustrates in the second verse the advantages the new nation offers an elderly man such as him. An old guy is useless, the poet declares at the outset. The elderly man resembles a gruesome creature with his ragged clothing covering his frail and slender frame. 


The speaker actually remarks that, except he maintains his inner being fresh beneath his old, outdated physique, an elderly man in this dimension is a little and worthless entity exactly like a scarecrow. The ability to maintain one’s spirit and to sing cannot be taught. It is instead accomplished by looking into the beauty of the individual’s personal soul. The speaker continues by claiming that this is the explanation why he has crossed the oceans to get to the sacred city of Byzantium. The speaker advises the listener that he ought to sing loudly the older he is since the elderly have undoubtedly gained the right to sing. A simple elderly man is more disadvantaged than a young man, so a benefit must be included. Every stage of the disintegration of the physical being (“every tatter in its mortal dress”) is reason for a surge in joy if one’s soul can improve and develop stronger as the body diminishes with passing years. However, this can only take place if the inner being can celebrate its greatness and strength.

Stanza 3

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.


It becomes more abstract and philosophical in the third stanza. The speaker greets philosophers or otherwise individuals he encounters in Byzantium. The poet now addresses the sages who are currently standing in “God’s holy fire” and have thereby been cleansed of the final vestiges of immorality in the first two verses of the third verse. The sages in question resemble the people shown in “the gold mosaic of a wall.” In line 3, the phrase “pern in a gyre” refers to a pillar of flame moving in a clockwise direction that emerges from the sacred flame depicted in the mural. The poet urges them to emerge from the “holy fire” and fly at himself like hawks. They are to cleanse his coronary arteries and acquire the “singing masters of his soul,” according to him. To instruct him to discriminate between his religious tunes and sensuous music (which in turn the poet has already addressed in verse one), in a nutshell.


This idea is developed in the final line of the third verse. When he says, “And fastened to a dying animal,” he indicates that his heart is bound to a lifeless corpse while he is unaware of or unable to understand its true nature. He refers to himself as being “sick with desire,” which refers to the sickening filth of worldly cravings that fill his soul. Here, the speaker acknowledges being disoriented and “sick with desire.” He is pleading with the knowledgeable elders to purify him because the rejection he suffered in his previous residence soured his heart. He cries out for eternity because he wants to live forever and receive praise from everyone. Additionally, the poet continues to wrestle with his sensuous impulses that attach to him. He is a dying old man who is unwilling to comprehend his situation. Only those wise ones may offer him the durability that such outstanding works of art have by cleansing his emotions of any filth.

Stanza 4

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.


The speaker declares in stanza four that he desires to give up his physical form to exist eternally, memorialized via the Greeks’ artistic creations. The poet expresses his distaste for Ireland’s bodily and sexual lifestyle in the first stanza; in the second, he describes the solitary existence that the poet would be living in the golden town of Byzantium; and in the third, he asks the Byzantine scholars to cleanse his soul of any staying intimacy. However, the poet describes the sort of appearance he would like to take upon his resurrection in this final line of the poem. He wants to be shaped like a golden bird, the sort of bird that Grecian goldsmiths in order are thought to have created for an emperor’s amusement. He would be distinct from the “dying generations” of actual birds referenced in the first stanza because he would be a golden bird, an object of creation that is immune to deterioration and mortality.


He doesn’t want to be reincarnated in the identical or another terrestrial form after giving up his early form. Due to the fact that all organisms are susceptible to frailty and death, he will dismiss all corporeal manifestations. The speaker declares that in order for an emperor to spend his evenings ogling at him in the works of art, he would like to take the shape of Grecian pots or apply enamel that has been handmade by goldsmiths. The speaker will live forever, therefore the past, present, and future will all merge into one. He is expected to be singing tunes of all periods, the past, present, and future to an assembly of the nobles and princesses of Byzantium while being mounted on a golden tree. His melody, which would be in the form of a gold chanting bird, will be one of heavenly bliss, as evidenced by the spirit “clapping its hands and singing.” Additionally, he will be accompanied by an exquisite and intellectual crowd rather than youthful partners and other sexually engaged animals. He won’t have a history, now, or destiny in Byzantium.