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In many of William Butler Yeats’s works, he creates a seemingly inescapable gyre or cycle that history and human lives follow. In The Second Coming, Yeats examines the cycle of history in which every two thousand years, a new messiah arrives. In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Yeats explores the gyre in which man is caught where one’s current state dies and becomes anew. In a broader sense, the poem emphasizes the inevitability of death. However, neither of these two poems recognize the possibility of escape from the gyre. Yet, in his poem Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats recognizes a way out of the aforementioned gyre. Through the separation of the soul from the physical body, one can transcend time. Yeats uses diction surrounding aging and the motifs of birds and the soul to show the insignificance of mortal life, revealing the desire for the soul to endure beyond mortal life through art.
In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats uses the motif of birds to criticize man’s tendency to focus on the moment and forget the importance of the soul, a tendency which particularly plagues the young. He describes a world with “The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees.” This description shows the sexual nature of the “young in one another’s arms” who are caught up in their own senses and equates them to carefree birds. The young use this sensuality as a distraction from the cycle in which they are caught, but their actions also demonstrate a continuation of the cycle. The young become so distracted by the physical that they unaware of their soul and their ability to separate themselves from their physical state. By condemning the young’s actions, the speaker implies that their youth and vitality are wasted. Like the young, birds also represent the cycle. The birds are singing just as the young are loving, but soon they will blindly be caught by death because they are too distracted by their song. The speaker continues his observation that the young are missing something greater, their intellect and purpose, when he says “the mackerel crowded seas, fish flesh or fowl” will reproduce all summer. Just like man, animals and all natural things are in a cycle of birth and death of which they are unaware. This highlights the true insignificance of individuals because all natural things will live and die. Additionally, constant reproduction leads to change and renewal. What will last after the current cycle? The speaker answers this when he desires to be “set upon a golden bough to sing” like a bird but with a permanence beyond the current gyre. The gold and the art created from the gold withstand death. Art is Yeats’s solution to escaping the inevitable cycle. The bird in the final stanza, as represented by a being singing on the bough, is physically able to transcend time.
Yeats recognizes the gyre in which he is caught when he explores the differences between the aging generation and the younger generation. He begins “That is no country for old men.” “That” refers to a changing world that no longer accepts traditional ideas. The speaker separates himself from this new generation by recognizing that he can no longer live in a country designed for them. He continues with the idea of a separation between the young and old when he calls attention to the “dying generations.” The idea that generations die creates a cycle: as one dies another is created. However, this cycle also shows that the young and old are intrinsically linked; the now young generation will soon become the dying generation. The cycle continues with “Whatever is Begotten, born, dies” which highlights this continuous cycle. Unlike the aging generations, the new generations ignore the “Monuments of unaging intellect” and thus don’t respect the accomplishments and ideas of their predecessors. The older generations recognize the importance of knowledge and living past their death and look to preserve their ideas with the “monuments of unaging intellect” and thus want to pass these ideas on to the younger generations. This idea connects back to the title of the poem. Byzantium, a once great empire, no longer exists and its culture and ideals disappeared. Even great civilizations face the same cycle as individuals. Like a declining empire, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” The older generation is insignificant and past its peak and thus cannot connect with the new generation and pass on its ideas. The birds in the first stanza represent the newer generation and the tattered old man in this stanza is portrayed as a scarecrow who repels the new generation and thus cannot pass on his ideas to them. The old men celebrate “every tatter in its mortal dress” while the young focus on the moment and their sexuality creating further separation between the generations. The tatters represent the struggles faced during one’s life. The older generation has amassed many tatters or lessons throughout life, while the younger generation has not. The older generations recognize the importance of celebrating knowledge born of the pain in life and the value of the soul over the physical. Even with the recognition of the soul as a separate entity, the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” and thus the speaker must find a way to allow his soul to escape the physical and transcend into the “artifice of eternity.” Unlike the body, the soul has the ability to be eternal, but this eternity is established by the things that the soul creates. Unlike the natural world, man-made things are not trapped in the cycle and can thus continue to survive even after their makers have died.
Yeats uses the motif of the soul to emphasize the speaker’s desire to be reborn as something that is able to transcend time. An old man is nothing but his tattered body, “unless Soul clap its hands and sing.” By personifying the soul, the speaker recognizes the distinction between the soul and the physical body. By allowing it to “clap its hand and sing,” the physical is allowing the soul to be more prominent. Without this separation the soul is not able to “sing” and live on past death. For Yeats, this song is poetry. The speaker provides the example of a group that has lived on through time: the “sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall.” The sages represent the frieze of saints and the wise men of Byzantium as portrayed in the Old Testament. The fire alludes to the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. This bush is on fire, but never burns, representing transformation and the removal of impurities. Therefore, the sages, who stand in this purifying fire, have been cleansed of sin and are able to be reborn because the impure physical being has been removed and the pure spiritual aspects of the soul remains. The burning sages appear in gold, which symbolizes art, and are thus able to escape the gyre and transcend time. The speaker desires for these sages to teach him to “be the singing-masters of my soul.” By focusing on the soul, the speaker is able to escape the cycle because he is no longer focused on the physical. This song symbolizes the art which allows the speaker to join the sages in eternity. Thus, the speaker desires a spiritual rebirth in which, “Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” Essentially, a physical rebirth traps the soul in the cycle, but once the physical has died, the soul can transcend time. Rather than a natural rebirth, the speaker wants his soul to survive through art like the “Grecian goldsmiths make.” Seeing this art in the future will give the artist’s past life meaning. Through the separation of the physical and the soul, the speaker is able to allow his soul to live on through art.
Yeats explores the process of intellectual preservation and the escape from life’s gyre in his poem Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats understands that his physical being, like all others, is caught in a cycle of birth, life, and death and thus Yeats, an aging man at the time of the poem, must find a way for his ideas to withstand his death. However, the young, who are too distracted by the moment and repelled by his age, do not recognize the value of his ideas so he must find another way to preserve his soul beyond his death. Yeats looks to the now extinct Byzantine Empire, once the center of cultural and artistic expression. He realizes that the legacy of the great empire is present in the art that was left behind. He looks to carry his own legacy in his art, his poetry. In creating his art, he is enabling his soul to live on beyond the end of his own life. Yeats urges the reader to recognize that he must create his own body of work which allows his soul to transcend time.
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