Generally, I avoid including the full text from longer poems in my posts and will instead provide a link to the online version, but “Sailing to Byzantium” deserves to be included in full. I decided to include each of the four stanzas and offer my interpretation of each stanza before moving on to the next one.
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 unaging intellect.
In the opening stanza, there are two things happening here. On one level, Yeats is expressing his disillusionment with the people of Ireland. The younger generations do not appear to appreciate Ireland’s ancient heritage, nor are they interested in the noble pursuit of poetry. But in addition to that, Yeats is hinting at something deeper and infinitely more mystical, which will be unveiled later in the poem. It has to do with resurrection mythology. For now, just keep the images of old men, young people, dying generations, and trees in the back of your mind.
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.
Here Yeats asserts that an old man is worthless, unless that aged individual possesses the ability to create poetry. And it must be poetry infused with mystical power, poetry that comes from a source that is divine of nature. In order to tap into that source, Yeats plunges himself into his subconscious mind, symbolized by the “seas,” and navigates those seas of consciousness until he reaches the mystical realm represented by the city of Byzantium.
There is a reason why Yeats chose Byzantium as the symbol for the mystical source of his poetry. In addition to being the center of classical thought in the late Hellenistic period, Byzantium had adopted the occult symbol of the star and crescent moon as their emblem. This was a result of their devotion to Hecate, whom the Byzantines believed was protecting them. (source: Wikipedia) As a practicing member of the Golden Dawn, Yeats would have viewed this connection as important, since Hecate is the goddess who is believed to endow magicians with power and knowledge.
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.
There is a lot happening in the third stanza. The holy fire is mentioned twice, so the importance is being stressed. There are layers of symbolism here. First, the holy fire represents the spark of life, creation itself. It is also illumination and enlightenment. Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, is the association with rebirth and regeneration, like that of the phoenix. The dying god spins within the gyre of flame, preparing to reemerge as a reborn god. As the god is dying and being consumed by the holy flames, the mystic bards sing the verses of the sacred poetry which will help bring about the rebirth of the dying god.
At this point, you may be thinking that my interpretation is a bit of a stretch, but reserve judgment until you read the final stanza.
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.
Here we have the key to the poem, which is the golden bough. Yeats would certainly have been very familiar with Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer’s book is the quintessential work exploring the mythology of resurrection and the dying god. So the god does not take his “bodily form from any natural thing,” but instead comes from the realm of forms as expressed by the Platonic school of thought. All the golden imagery in this stanza evokes the image of the sacred king, which is the term that Frazer uses regarding the archetypal image of the dying/reborn god. The cycle is eternal; it encompasses “what is past, or passing, or to come.” The imagery from the first stanza of the old men (dying god), young people (reborn god), and trees (symbols of rebirth) are all brought together.
The last thing I would like to point out about the poem is the overall structure. The poem is divided into four stanzas. I feel that this was an intentional representation of the four seasons, which is also symbolic of the overall theme of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
The first time I read this poem in college I didn’t get it, but I remember my professor saying that the more you read poetry, the more you will learn to appreciate Yeats. I’ve come to the point in my life where I feel like I can finally start to fully appreciate the scope of what Yeats accomplished as a poet.