W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium:” Preserving One’s Self Through Art

July 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

Artists often use their work as an expression of their innermost thoughts and feelings. In his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats describes a metaphorical journey to Byzantium, an ancient city filled with timeless art, that the poem’s speaker embarks on in order to discover a medium of art through which he can express himself. In this poem, Yeats uses symbolism, alliteration, personification, and the motifs of music and gold to demonstrate how art transcends mortality and is the only medium through which the soul can continue to endure. This conception suggests that this poem is a medium through which the speaker’s soul can be preserved.

Yeats uses the symbolism of fish, coupled with alliteration, to highlight how humans are continually being born and then dying without leaving any monuments to commemorate their existence. In the first stanza, the speaker describes how “the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas… commend all summer long.” Salmon and mackerel are fish that make a journey upstream to lay their eggs and then travel downstream to die. Yeats uses this notion that fish are constantly being born and then dying as a symbol for the continuous cycle of life and death. However, this cycle prevents an individual from focusing on one’s self, because one becomes so focused on maintaining the continuation of life. Yeats further references the fish, stating “fish, flesh, or fowl” live together. Here, Yeats employs alliteration to further emphasize the symbol of the repetitive nature of life and death, as presented in the preceding line. In fact, “flesh” describes humans and includes them among other animals to demonstrate how people, just as animals, are entrapped in a continuous cycle of life and death. Yeats also presents the phrase “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” to describe how everything that comes will eventually end. By splitting life into three stages, Yeats is highlighting the uneventful lives that humans often live, suggesting that those who are trapped in the cycle enter and exit the the world without leaving behind anything to firmly commemorate their existence. At the end of the stanza, the speaker criticizes this repetitive cycle, stating that “caught in that sensual music all neglect unaging monuments of intellect.” Humans come and go, living in a cycle of life in which they are born and then die without any means to preserve their legacy. As a result, their intellect, a testament of whom they were, is not preserved in a monument to be admired for future generations.

Upon criticizing the repetitive nature of life, and humans’ inability to make a monuments of their existence, Yeats personifies the speaker’s mortality and soul in order to separate them from himself and demonstrate the desire for his soul to continue to be acknowledged. In the third stanza, the speaker asks for a holy fire to “Consume [his] heart away; sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is.” The heart keeps a human alive, making an individual mortal. Furthermore, by stating that “his heart knows not what it is,” he is personifying his mortality, as if it has a consciousness. The speaker further suggests that he wishes to distance himself from his mortality by having it “consumed,” because it serves him, whom he describes as a “dying animal”; this suggests that the speaker believes that his mortality is not important, and is something he may easily detach himself from. The speaker then personifies his soul to express his desire for it to continue to have a presence once he is no longer mortal and does not have a physical presence on earth. In the second stanza, he proclaims “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.” By asking for his soul to sing louder, he is demonstrating that he wants its presence to be heard and acknowledged by others. The speaker then states that “nor is there singing school, but studying monuments of its own magnificence.” Although the speaker wishes for his soul to express itself for others to notice, he notes that a soul cannot simply learn to be recognized in a “school”; instead, it must discover a way to express itself so that it can be maintained in a monument and recognized, suggesting that one must find a manner in which their soul can be remembered. As a result, even when the speaker’s mortality is lost, he will not be forgotten, such as fish that are born and then die, because his soul can endure and be remembered.

Beyond all this, Yeats uses the motifs of gold and music to demonstrate how art is a medium that transcends history and how it can allow one’s soul to endure on earth. In the third stanza, the speaker asks for a “Gold mosaic of a wall” to “come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, and be the singing-masters of [his] soul.” Gold is a material that is timelessly valued, while music is designed purely for the tasks of touching someone and having an effect on that person. The speaker asks the golden artwork on the wall to “sing” to his soul, demonstrating the art’s ability to have a meaningful and emotional impact on him. In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes how he wishes his bodily form to take “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enameling.” The hammering and enameling of his body highlight the craftsmanship behind creating a monument, demonstrating art’s ability to capture one’s soul. Furthermore, by asking to be remembered as something golden, the speaker is indicating that he wants his monument to be of great value and prestige. The speaker mentions gold again, stating that a golden monument of him should be “set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium.” By setting himself upon a bough, the speaker is putting himself before the people of Byzantium on a pedestal of gold. Just as the mosaic could sing to his soul, the speaker desires for his soul to take a grand, artistic form that can then be sung to the people of Byzantium and have an effect on them. Art’s ability to impact others is done “of what is past or passing, or to come,” demonstrating that years after one’s death, a part of oneself will remain golden and preciously preserved in art and can continue to have an effect on the many generations to come.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats examines how art can be used to preserve one’s soul, suggesting that the poem is a form for which the speaker’s legacy and soul may continue to endure. The speaker wishes to take a metaphorical journey to Byzantium, a place of timeless art and culture, so that he may create something worth preserving. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes how people often neglect to create “monuments of unaging intellect”; indeed, the speaker is able to express his thoughts and intellect through the form of a poem. Thus, through writing the poem, the speaker has metaphorically sailed to Byzantium, for he has found a form through which his soul can endure.

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