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Notes on Sailing to Byzantium
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Notes on "Sailing to Byzantium"
In A Vision, Yeats wrote "I think that if I could be given a month of antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium (modern Istanbul) a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato...I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architects and artificers...spoke to the multitude in gold and silver. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that vision of a whole people." (Abrams and Greenblatt 2385)
"No country for old men" - The title for the 2008 Oscar-winning film by the Coen Brothers. Yeats implies that this place is for people of youth, who are full of lust and eroticism. It's a like a heaven of artistic mortality.
"Nor is there singing school but studying/ monuments of it's own magnificence" - A lover of poetry, the old man is constantly examining his achievements in life.
"Byzantium" - a symbol of unaging intellect
"As in the gold mosaic of wall" - Yeats is referring to the mosaic frieze of the holy martyrs in the church of San Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna. (2385)
"Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre" - The narrator is asking art to come and teach them; 'Perne' means to whirl around in a spiral motion. (2385)
"Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal" - Tha narrator still feels like he has so much soul, but it's his aging body that's stopping him from experiencing his desires.
"Artifice of eternity" - The process of leaving nature behind.
"To keep a drowsy Emperor awake" - Yeats wrote "in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang." (2385)
"Of what is past, or passing, or to come" - The narrator is leaving nature behind in order to enter eternity through art. But nature is the object that art praises.
Back to "Sailing to Byzantium"
Abrams, M. H. & Steven Greenblatt (Ed.) (2001).
The Norton Anthology of English Literature
. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Past Belongs To Kids
. "Byzantium Ruins." 1999-2008. KidsKnowIt Network.
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