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Literary Analysis Essay of William Butler Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium
William Butler Yeats’ 1927 poem, Sailing to Byzantium, tells the story of an old man leaving his country to journey towards the city of Byzantium, now modern day Istanbul. The poem is written in four stanzas, each with eight ten-syllable lines, and narrates the old man’s journey through his internal monologue for the first two stanzas, while the following two stanzas are a prayer spoken aloud by the old man upon arriving in Byzantium. The first two stanzas do not directly narrate the journey itself, but reflect upon the reasons for the journey. By doing this, Yeats’ intention in the poem is exposed through the old man’s musings on life, the world from which he is coming, and the world to which he is going. Sailing to Byzantium is not simply about an old man, but more about aging and the desire to cling to life as one nears the end of it. The old man is not merely going to Byzantium for pleasure; he is searching for the secret to eternal life, to resist the natural forces of life and death, and to become immortalized so that he may live on long after he is dead, quite possibly a concept Yeats himself was preoccupied with when he penned this poem near the end of his life.
The first stanza of Sailing to Byzantium is written from the perspective of the old man as he speaks about where he is coming from and giving hints as to why he left. This stanza mostly consists of a romantic portrayal of the country the old man is leaving behind. The image that Yeats paints is one of young love, of prosperity, and of conflict. Yeats is not simply referring to the country, but more to the whole world. This stanza contains some imagery that contributes heavily to the concept of the fight against natural processes and death. Line four contains an image of salmon swimming upstream, as they do when spawning, reproducing. This image is important because it is representative of life’s processes, in...