Sailing to Byzantium


(Poem as it appeared in The Tower, 1928)

That is no county for old men. The
In one another’s arms, birds in the
—Those dying generations—at their
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.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but study-
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas
     and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, penne in a
And be the singing masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural
But such a form as Grecian gold-
     smiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
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.

“Sailing to Byzantium” appears as the first poem in Yeats’ The Tower. The poem was previously published several times, in both October Blast and Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose in 1927. The poem “Sailing to Byzantium” was also featured in the volume The Exile, edited by Ezra Pound.

As the opening poem of The Tower, “Sailing to Byzantium” expresses a desire to embrace artifice, to throw off the human form in exchange for the form of a little mechanical bird, “Of hammered gold and gold enameling.” This poem expresses anxieties and aspirations that will follow Yeats throughout the volume, as he despairs old age and the trappings of human life. 

A Closer Look: October Blast (August 1927)

“Sailing to Byzantium” was published in October Blast in August of 1927, only a year before the publication of The Tower. “Sailing to Byzantium” was featured as the opening poem in October Blast, just as it would in future iterations. A Cuala Press publication, October Blast identifies itself as a distinctly Irish, nationalist volume—boasting Irish paper, published in Dublin. Due to this nationalist coding, “Sailing to Byzantium” takes on a distinctly Irish identity, suggesting that the Byzantium Yeats longs for is actually an idealized ancient Ireland.

A Closer Look: Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose (1927)

When “Sailing to Byzantium” was published in Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose in 1927, the poem featured a epigraph which dedicated the poem “to Norah McGuinness.” Norah McGuinness was an illustrator who designed and decorated several volumes of Yeats’ poetry. This dedication, although removed in following productions, reiterates the careful attention paid to the construction and publication of Yeats’s books under the Cuala Press. As Yeats pays tribute to his publisher and illustrator—both women, incidentally—he presents his book as an object of collaboration. The book is not simply a collection of Yeats’s text, but a piece of artwork, designed and produced by women like Elizabeth Corbet Yeats and Norah McGuinness.

A Closer Look: The Exile, edited by Ezra Pound (March 1927)

“Sailing to Byzantium” was also published in the literary journal The Exile, edited by Yeats’s friend Ezra Pound. Pound was an American writer who lived abroad in Europe as an expatriate poet, where he became a leader of the imagist literary movement, writing which prioritized clarity of language and fought against abstraction. He was also a great literary critic and translator.

The Exile only lasted for four issues, although it featured work from several influential writers including Yeats, Hemingway, and E. E. Cummings.  However, the journal also featured many of Pound’s editorials, in which he discoursed on matters such as Confucianism and Lenin.

In the context of The Exile, published by a famed expatriate, “Sailing to Byzantium” might take on new meaning. Without the Irish-nationalist coding of Cuala Press, readers were less likely to identify Byzantium with ancient Ireland. Instead, Byzantium might be identified as the homeland of an exiled writer, or perhaps as the idealized land that the expatriate longs to escape to. Any nationalist feelings expressed in “Sailing to Byzantium” are lost, as the poem takes on a more generalized longing for a society which values art and beauty.