“Sailing to Byzantium” -William Butler Yeats

In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats deals with the separation between body and soul. The narrator’s journey to Byzantium can be interpreted as literal or figurative; figuratively it represents the character’s attempt to separate himself from his body and earthly desires. He describes the country he’s leaving as a place with “the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees” something unfit for “old men” (1-2). Yeats uses synecdoche having the birds represent nature, and the young lovers representing romantic love as a whole. The narrator goes on to state that those things, nature and love specifically, are nothing more than “sensual music” which causes “all [to] neglect monuments of unageing intellect” or enlightenment, if you will (7-8). Thus the narrator makes clear his quest to leave all earthly things in favor for true enlightenment.

The second stanza begins with self-deprecation “an aged man is but a paltry thing” (9). This is the beginning of the degradation of the body in order to elevate the soul. The rest of the stanza is spent talking about how to free the soul and attain the enlightenment previously mentioned. Specifically, the soul needs to “clap its hands and sing, and louder sing” in order to evelate itself above the “its mortal dress” (11-12). Ironically, the imagery produced by this is that of a body, exactly what the soul is attempting to escape. Yeats writes “nor is there singing school” suggesting that the enlightenment being sought is highly individualistic, not something which can be taught. Perhaps this is why the young are more concerned with the “sensual music” or the world; they do not have enough world experience to teach their souls to “sing” (7).

The third stanza sees the narrator addressing sage and asking it to “be the singing-master of my soul” (20). More importantly though, he talks more derisively of his old body, saying that his soul is “fastened to a dying animal” (22). This completes the separation between body and soul: especially since Yeats declares the body ignorant of “what it is” (23). This brings up an important philosophical as well as neurological point: where does the border of physical and mental truly belong? For, our thoughts are naught but electrical signals and synapses between neurons — cells that are undoubtedly part of our physical selves. This is perhaps my favorite concept in all of neuroscience: where thought and consciousness arises from. Although to say that the Yeats intended this interpretation would be false, as that would be an anachronism.

The fourth stanza gives the realization of the separation of body and soul, and the narrator officially swears off the natural world, declaring “I shall never take my body form from any natural thing” (25-26). The end is important as it looks toward “what is past, or passing, or to come” (32). This is important as the soul is supposed to be timeless, so without explicitly stating it, Yeats concludes with a nod of the hat to the past, present, and future.

-B

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