A dream of an old man

William Butler Yeats had actually written two poems on the topic of voyage to Byzantium:  “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927) and “Byzantium” (1930), the second being the continuation of the first (Parker). But our concern is the first one, in which the aging poet bestows his dreams. In this paper we will try to uncover those dreams. Is Yeats’ desire is simply a desire of bodily immortality or is this desire to immortalize his soul through the power of art? That is the main issue of our research. Our point of view is that Yeats seeks not the immortality of his body, but the immortality of his soul via a poetic word as a part of art in general.

The voice in the “Sailing to Byzantium” is a first-person narrator, the poet himself is narrating. The text of the poem falls into two parts (Parker).  The first two stanzas are describing the poet’s imagined experience of life in Byzantium and desperation about his present old age, his fear of death as reasons for his journey to that fabled country. Yeats imagines Byzantium as a country of ever-green nature and never-dying, forever-young people.

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 (Yeats).

As we can clearly see, the old men and death in Byzantium are only “at their song” (in folklore and literature). The atmosphere of eternal love and youth is thick in its air: “…The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees” (Yeats). The waters here are brimming with life: “The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas” (Yeats) and ever-lasting summer is full of joy. It is interesting how the poet is using compound words such as “salmon-falls” and “mackerel-crowded” to create an image of rich nature of Byzantium. Yeats regards the country of Byzantium as “Monuments of unageing intellect” (Yeats).

In the second stanza he compares himself, an old man, to “A tattered coat upon a stick…” and his body he calls “a mortal dress” (Yeats). These metaphors are used by the poet to amplify the emotional impact of his comparison, to create a vivid image of senile age in a readers mind. This stanza ends when the poet had just “…come / To the holy city of Byzantium” (Yeats).

The last two stanzas are of main concern to us, because they deal directly in Yeats’ concept of immortality. In the beginning of the third stanza the poet is addressing directly to the artificers of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire




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.

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…(Yeats)

The poets heart is “sick with desire” of eternal life, but what sort of immortality he means? His present state, “a dying animal”, he wishes to treat for a form “of hammered gold and gold enamelling”.  As Karl Parker writes about it:

He yearns for an eternal form, and the deadly irony of this desire is clear; imagining the answer to his prayer, the old man pictures himself as something of a golden robot, a hammered and enamelled bird, … It is difficult to imagine any reader feeling this to be a redemption, or even a freedom. The old man’s wish is inhuman; he yearns to be reduced to what is essential in art…(Parker)

We must agree with the view of K. Parker in that the poet’s wish is not the one of bodily youth and immortality. His wish is “inhuman” – to be a piece of art, a part of it and to gain immortality through the means of art. But in our mind, it contains a deeper idea. For any poet it is essential that his works are remembered and appreciated even after his actual death. The works of a poet contain an image of his character and personality; it is a certain kind of immortality via means of a poetic word. In that sense, William Butler Yeats had surely won his eternal life.

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