“Sailing to Byzantium”: The Pilgrim’s Journey

"I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium" Detail from 'The Return of the King' (2003)

Text of the poem:

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
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
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, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
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
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.

(W.B. Yeats; 1927)

In literature, a journey is rarely about what happens along the way from Point A to Point B, but is rather about what the pilgrim’s travels represent.  Yeat’s sententious poem, “Sailing to Byzantium”, discusses a metaphoric journey such as this: the speaker has left a land in which he felt alienated and has come to Byzantium–Istanbul, which was once Constantinople–in search of spiritual acceptance and enlightenment. Indeed, Yeats deems the specific events of the journey so unimportant that we get no description of what happened along the way: we only hear what Point A was like, and what Point B seems to be like now. Yet even though we get no details of the actual journey, we nevertheless see its symbolic value: a pilgrim has left the dark confines of his previous life in search of spiritual enlightenment elsewhere; like every other wayfarer who has set out on a journey, the speaker of this poem has been called to adventure and has consequently set out for his destination.

The first line of the poem boldly states, “That is no country for old men”; the word “that” clearly indicates that the speaker is no longer in that country for he would have otherwise said, “this”. Thus, we know from this that the journey is done and that the speaker has reached his destination. But why did he leave in the first place? He indicates that the country he has left–“that” country–is full of youthfulness and teeming life, all of which “neglect / [m]onuments of unaging intellect” (7-8), which is to say that the country is brimming with vitality and surging life that pays no attention the elderly, the so-called “monuments of unaging intellect”. Based on this decidedly derisive depiction, we can guess that the speaker is an old man, someone offended by the neglect he suffered in the land he has left. The young are too busy “in one another’s arms” (2), the birds are too busy singing, etc., to pay any attention to the old. They are–to paraphrase a line from The Shawshank Redemption (1994)–too busy living to worry about those who are busy dying.

The topic of old age continues into the next stanza, wherein the speaker explains that

an aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress. (9-10)

An old man, the speaker says, is a worthless and insignificant thing unless the old man has a “luminous” soul, so to speak, one that outshines the old man’s worn-out body. How does a soul accomplish this–how does a soul “clap its hand and sing”? According to Yeats’ speaker, it seems this is accomplished by creating “[m]onuments of its [the soul’s] own magnificence” (14)–in the speaker’s case, these monuments seem to be poems, though these could ostensibly come in any other artistic form, such as paintings, sculptures, etc. These monuments are apparently either nonexistent or otherwise unappreciated in “that country”, so the speaker has “sailed the seas and come / [t]o the holy city of Byzantium” (15-16).

Fortunately, the speaker has found what he was looking for within the city walls of Byzantium: there are at least sages (wise old men) and gold mosaics (the “monuments of unaging intellect”), so his journey was not in vain; this is a country for old men. So happy is he to be in this city that he pleads to the sages:

Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,

And be the singing masters of my soul.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animals

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity. (19-24)

Here, the speaker acknowledges his mortality and begs the wise old men of Byzantium to immortalize his soul. He has made the pilgrimage from a land devoid of what he considers to be spiritual significance and is now seeking the ultimate pay-off in this ancient place: eternal spiritual existence. This makes sense, of course, since he is an old man: he is dying and, at the end of his life, wants to ensure a place for his soul in the hereafter–in the “artifice of eternity”.

So his journey, we see, is not quite over. Certainly, his physical travels are completed now that he has arrived in Byzantium, but his spiritual journey will not end until his has actually died and passed onto heaven. Upon arriving there, he claims, he will reject sentient reincarnation (25-26), but instead will take

such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lord and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come. (27-32)

He will, in short, only accept reincarnation as a “monument of unaging intellect”–specifically, an artificial gilded bird that will sing out as he was never able to in mortal life. As a living man, his soul cannot sing; but as an immortal ornament of spiritualized artifice, his soul will sing out for eternity.

But how does the journey-as-metaphor model work into this metaphysical meditation? Let us think about the reason for the first leg of his journey–the physical trek from “that country” to Byzantium: he left in search of spiritual acceptance and enlightenment. While he does find these there, he acknowledges that his spirit must still journey on past the ancient city into “the artifice of eternity”–heaven. He leaves the spiritual alienation and ignorance in is his former country and eventually finds in Byzantium the sages that teach his soul to sing so that, once reaching the afterlife, he can become immortalized as a beautiful piece of art–a golden bird that will sing out for all who will listen about the past, the present, and the future. Thus, the speaker’s journey is symbolic of every human’s desire to give meaning to his or her existence: everyone who has ever even briefly pondered the meaning of life has undergone this quest, this search for truth. Yeats’ meaning seems to be found in the singing of his soul, and while this might be true for him, this is certainly not true for everyone; but this is just an end. The means–the journey–is the same. All of us who have ever sought out truths beyond the visible world have sailed to Byzantium; but some of us, to be sure, are still pilgrims en route to our holy city.

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