Byzantium - Deep Desires that Transcend Time
William Butler Yeats wrote two poems which are together known as the Byzantium series. The first is "Sailing to Byzantium," and its sequel is simply named "Byzantium." The former is considered the easier of the two to understand. It contains multiple meanings and emotions, and the poet uses various literary devices to communicate them. Two of the most dominant themes of this poem are the desire for escape from the hardships of this world and the quest for immortality. These are circumstances of the poet's life that influenced the composition of the poem. Those personal experiences and Yeats's skillful use of words come together to emphasize the need, or at least desire, that many people have for escape and immortality.
The first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" describes a society of people who live for the moment but ignore the wisdom and intellect that the poet finds important. In his frustration, the poet says in lines 21-22 that his heart is "sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal." He is ready to leave this world of apathy and arrive in his holy land of Byzantium, which is a sort of paradise in his mind (Kennedy and Gioia 866-67). This is evidence of his desire for escape. In the second stanza, Yeats describes an aged man as "a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick" (9-10). It is believed that the poet is describing his own condition in these lines. The physical weariness he is experiencing causes him to want to be able to sing through poetry to keep his spirit alive. He believes that his poetry can help him to transcend time and old age, and that it will take him to his ideal city of Byzantium (Thorndike 1852). He prays that the sages of God will "be the singing-masters of my soul" (20). In other words, he wants to be taught how to write the poetry that will sustain his spirit. This is the poet's attempt at achieving immortality. As long as his poetry still exists and is read, a part of his soul continues to live.
These two major themes in the poem are enhanced by the writer's use of symbolism. Byzantium, as mentioned before, is a sort of ideal land, comparable to the scriptural heaven. This is obviously one of the most predominant symbols in the poem. Another symbol that carries throughout the work is that of a bird. There is a reference to a bird in each stanza, but perhaps the best indicator of its meaning is found in stanza 4. Yeats uses the image of a bird "set upon a golden bough to sing" (30) to refer to the timelessness and spirit he craves. The bird that is set in gold is there forever, singing for all time, and the poet longs to be...