The real world and the symbolic realm of Byzantium as contrasted in Yeats’ companion poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium.”

Yeats has written two poems about Byzantium, a place representing for him the realm of artistic perfection. “Sailing to Byzantium” is set in the modern, real world, while “Byzantium” takes us into the more symbolic, imaginary, and idealistic realm of the ancient past. The differences between the two places are dramatized by vivid imagery revolving mostly around light, and through the use of mythological and otherworldly references. These poetic devices enable the reader to comprehend the distinct differences between these two places, and thereby appreciate what Yeats is trying to convey about them, intellectually, philosophically, and aesthetically.
“Sailing to Byzantium” depicts a real place – modern (early twentieth century) Ireland, although it seems this could as well be a metaphorical journey. In either case, Byzantium represents the speaker’s vision of the world of art, a “holy city” (l.16), an eternal, golden place, magnificent, meaningful, and permanent. In the poem, this holy city of Byzantium contrasts with modern Ireland, a country of young people, of singing and sensuality, where there is little interest in things ancient and more monumental. Yeats states that it “is no country for old men” (l.1), that “an aged man is but a paltry thing / A tattered coat upon a stick” (ll.9-10). This is an important image because it indicates that old people and things are insignificant. The speaker is saying that Ireland is a place where the great ancient monuments of art, exemplifying the summit and grandeur of civilization, are neglected and unimportant. He, of course, is sad about this, stating that his heart is “sick with desire” (l.21). He would much prefer to see the modern world respect and revere the ancient past, and to recognize that art, as it deserves, has grand importance and true prominence.
There are frequent references to ancient things in this poem, all with attributes of death: “dying generations” (l.3), “a dying animal” (l.22), old and aged men. This is significant because it emphasizes that in modern Ireland, ancient things are associated with death, rather than with grandeur and beauty and high civilization as they once were. The death and dying of the old world is contrasted against the modern place with “the young in one another’s arms” (ll.1-2), where birds commonly sing, and where there are “mackerel-crowded seas” (l.4). As the reader gazes from the robust, modern place with its young people and merriment, back at an ancient world, neglected, forgotten, and lost in time, he cannot help but feel sadness at the terrible loss. Through this contrast, the reader is made to understand the meaning of the poem, the belief that the past with its artistic grandeur, had something significant and lasting to offer. Yet somehow today we have managed to construct a world bereft of this ancient grandeur, and worse still, we have come to accept the situation.
The poem “Byzantium” describes an ethereal, symbolic realm, depicting very little actual reality. The poem is comprised of many mythological references such as “Hades’ bobbin” (l.11), the “cocks of Hades” (l.20), the “golden bough” (l.19), and “bitter furies” (l.37). The conditions of the poem are clearly otherworldly, a place of spirits and shades, a collage of miracles, gold, flames, marble, gongs, and emperors. This gives the poem an imaginary, almost seductive quality, making that symbolic realm more attractive to us than the modern place, with its shallow realities, depicted in “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Imagery is very strong in this poem. The poet actually uses the word “images” five times: images of day receding, and of man and shades. By centering the poem around the imagery of light and dark, one assumes that he is trying to create an ethereal world. He is designing this world with mystery and a lack of concrete reality, perhaps in the hopes of attracting us, of tempting us in. It begins with the day receding, leading then into starlight and moonlight, drawing us further into the night. In the third stanza, “Miracle, bird or golden handiwork” are all “planted on the star-lit golden bough” (ll.17-18). The poem continues, leading us into a midnight lit with flames, bringing out the shades and the “blood-begotten spirits” (l.28). This imagery of light combines with frequent mythological and otherworldly references to put the poem securely in the symbolic realm of starlight and mummy-cloth, trances, and golden smithies. The poet accomplishes this by creating an unreal atmosphere, a place the reader would not normally experience in the real world.
For the speaker, the two poems essentially depict the same place – Byzantium, that ideal of artistic magnificence and permanence. “Sailing to Byzantium” depicts Ireland of today, a sad place devoid of Byzantium’s great and wondrous past, its art tarnished and neglected. The youth of today are not interested in what transpired before in ages past. They are too busy living for now. Whereas the second poem paints a picture of gold and flames, with dancing and vibrant “unpurged images” (l.1), a place alive and exciting, flourishing with miracles and spirits alive and thriving. Yeats achieves this remarkable vision by using mythological and otherworldly references, and through the imagery of light.


Michael Estabrook
4 Valley Road
Acton, MA 01720



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