Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
Analysis: Sound Check
If you’ve ever seen Macbeth or watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, you’ve probably seen some witches at work. Their language starts to become singsong, as if they’re using their voices to create a world before your eyes (or, in Robin Hood’s case, to kill him. But we’ll just forget about that for now). The same sort of incantatory motion starts to take over by the end of "Sailing to Byzantium."
Sure, in the first stanzas, it sounds like we’re talking to your grandfather’s roommate in the retirement home. His language is choppy: "That is no country for old men" (1). The words are all short, and they’re almost all accented. Read the first line aloud…you’ll see that you emphasize almost all the words. It goes something like this: "THAT IS NO COUN-try for OLD MEN." That’s six (count ‘em, SIX!) accented syllables in the first line alone. He’s a bit old and bitter. It makes sense that he’d want to shout at us for a little while.
By the time the speaker sucks himself into dreaming of Byzantium, however, the language gets a magical overhaul. Words start to blend into each other: Yeats is the master of the sorts of sound play that allow vowels to echo across lines. Stanza three opens with the letter "O" and continues to weave long "o" sounds into almost all of its lines:
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul (17-20).
By the time you finish reading the lines aloud, it’s almost as if Yeats has tricked you into chanting, as well. In fact, that may just be what he was doing! The open, long "o" sounds resonate in our mouths and on our tongues, drawing us further and further into the speaker’s spiritual revelation. That’s where the witch-like rolling language comes in. Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as creepy as that shriveled, white-eyed woman the Sheriff of Nottingham likes so much. Think of this as pleasant witchery. It’s all in good fun.