Sailing to Byzantium
Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

Tough-O-Meter

We’ve got your back. With the Tough-O-Meter, you’ll know whether to bring extra layers or Swiss army knives as you summit the literary mountain. (10 = Toughest)

(8) Snow Line

Yup, in terms of tough, this guy’s up there on the charts. Sure, it’s not written in Swahili. Then again, it sometimes seems like it might as well be. What in the world does "perne in gyre" even mean? Is "perne" even a word? Argh!

Not to fear, folks. We here at Shmoop have some thoughts on these tricky points…and some other thoughts about the poem, as well.

See, Yeats is going for the good stuff: love, death, life, existence…you know, all those big words that make self-help sections the most popular places in the bookstore. He’s trying to get rid of all the accumulated junk that society tries to pass off as the "important stuff" that we spend most of our time thinking about. In order to do so, though, he actually tries to create his own set of symbols, ones that will mean new things.

Wait…if he’s creating his own set of symbols, does he also include a key? Well, that’s the tricky part. The answer, of course, is no. Unless you want to spend serious amounts of your time analyzing Yeats’s critical works, you’re probably not going to figure out all of the intricate symbols that Yeats chucks into his work. Here’s the important part, though: you don’t have to. Check out our analysis in "Symbols, Images and Wordplay" for some pointers – but it’s okay to realize that this is seriously strange stuff. It’s not meant to be crystal-clear. So take a deep breath and charge into the zaniness of Yeats’s world. Sure, it’s weird. But it’s also pretty cool.

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