“Sailing to Byzantium”


St. John Chrysostom, one of the patriarchs of Constantinople


Published when he was into his mid-sixties, “Sailing to Byzantium” expresses William Butler Yeats’s discomfort at his advancing age and his yearning for a spiritual realm (symbolized in the poem by the city of Byzantium or Constantinople, today’s Istanbul) that would take him from the “place” where thoughtless and sensual youth (no longer available to him) was all that mattered, and that would enable him to transcend his failing body:


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.


I couldn’t help but think of Yeats’s poem while riding the ferry today on the Sea of Marmara, en route back to Istanbul from Bursa by way of Iznik (ancient Nicaea, site of the Nicene Council and source of the Nicene Creed).


Posted from Istanbul, Turkey.



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  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Science Fiction author Robert Silverberg titled one of hisbaward-winning stories “Sailing to Byzantium”. The story is part of his Roma Eterna series, an alternate history in which the Roman Empire has persisted ibto rhe 20th Century and beyond.

    • danpeterson

      In a very real sense, Rome DID survive into the FIFTEENTH century. In the east. Where I was, until yesterday.