Divided into four eight-line stanzas, "Sailing to Byzantium" takes on a sort of formal regularity. It’s actually written in ottava rima. OK, that’s a lot of technical jargon to throw out, right? But here’s the cool part: ottava rima was traditionally an Italian poetic form. It was usually used in epic poems – poems that traced the successes of a hero through battles, saving damsels in distress, and all other sorts of fun. Hmm…notice the irony here? "Sailing to Byzantium" is in the form of traditional epics. Heck, its title even sounds like the beginning of an epic quest. We’re all stoked to read about bloody battles and young heroes with rippling muscles. What we get, of course, is an old, crotchety man. He’s certainly not trying to point out the incredible abilities that he’s got. In fact, he’s trying to leave his body completely. After all, who’d want to be stuck with a body that's like "a tattered coat on a stick"(9)?
Changing the content of a poem in ottava rima into something which isn’t an epic (at least in the traditional sense) can make us, as readers, feel like the rug’s been ripped out from under us. Just in case we’re starting to feel comfortable, though, Yeats tosses in a few extra formal kinks.
See, ottava rima traditionally contains the following rhyme scheme: ABABABCC. Yeats doesn’t play this game. He starts out with rhymes that seem to be following the traditional scheme, but then he introduces these weird, dissonant half-rhymes instead of full rhymes.
We interrupt this program for a quick Shmoop technical note: full rhymes are, well, rhymes. Here are some examples from the poem: trees/seas, song/long, neglect/intellect. Half-rhymes, on the other hand, don’t quite rhyme. They half-rhyme. Get it? Here are some examples: seas/dies, wall/soul/animal. Notice how they’ve got the same final consonants ("s" and "l"), but they have different vowel sounds. When you read them, it seems like they should rhyme – but they don’t.
Working with a corrupted ottava rima form and a twisted rhyme scheme, Yeats allows the formal characteristics of his poem to reinforce its content. Sure, our speaker’s not a traditional hero. After all, that’s why he left his old country. It’s "no country for old men," remember (1)? Maybe his unconventional attempt to seek new truths and new life forms needs a new poetic form, as well.