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Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium


by William Butler Yeats

Circles and Spirals

Symbol Analysis

Let’s make this clear: circles are bad. Spirals are good. And believe us, there are major differences between the two. Think about it: if you were walking in a circle, you’d follow the same path forever. You end up right back where you started, and then you start walking again. If you walk in a spiral, however, you’re going places. You might be moving upwards (on a spiral staircase) or outwards (if you’re following a spiral path). Either way, you’re seeing new things and making new tracks. For Yeats, the cycle of natural life is an endless circle (and circles are bad, remember)? Things are born; they live; they die. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. How do you break out of this circle? Well, that’s challenge of this poem.

  • Lines 1-2: The first lines of the poem create a vivid image of two lovers encircled in each other's arms. It’s a mortal circle, of course (the arms live only as long as the lovers themselves do). In other words, it won’t last forever.
  • Line 6: Ah, the circle of life. (Play Lion King music here). It’s not an actual circle, we know. It’s just a pattern that repeats itself over and over and over again.
  • Line 18: Here’s the biggie for this poem: asking the sages to "perne in gyre," the speaker distinguishes between the cyclical work of nature and the spiraling work of the spirit. A gyre is a spiral. It’s moving in new directions all the time.
  • Line 29: Back to the bird again! You’d think this was a cycle (or a circle), right? But it’s not. Yeats constructs a loose metaphor for the changes that have occurred over the course of the poem by comparing the "dying generations" of birds in the first lines to the everlasting golden sculpture of a bird in this line.

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