Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
This guy is a bit hard to pin down. Although our speaker’s the only real character in this poem (besides the sages, who get a tiny shout out a bit later on), he never really reveals that much about his background. For one thing, we don’t know if the speaker’s a man or a woman. And that’s just the start of our problems. (We’re betting that he’s a man – after all, the first line of the poem suggests that his old country was no place for men. But that’s just a hunch.) You might even want to ask yourself if it makes any difference whether our speaker is male or female. We’ll leave that up to you.
We do know, however, that our speaker is sick and tired of his life. After years of living in a country that doesn’t value anything but the current fads, he’s ready to be somewhere more substantial. He’s moving from Barney to The Simpsons. It’s time to grow up. As he realizes, he’s gotten too old to live on Sesame Street anymore.
Like the fine folks who write for The Simpsons, our speaker is a bit of a philosopher. He’s worried about the nature of human existence. What happens to him when he dies? Does his soul outlast his body? How can he find the answers to all her questions? They’re tricky ones…but he figures that the sages in Byzantium might just have some answers. It’s probably good to note that our speaker doesn’t seem too interested in figuring out all the answers for himself. He’s not the independent sort. Letting the sages bestow their knowledge onto him is good enough for him.
Oh, one more thing: our speaker’s a bit of an art fanatic. There’s good art and bad art, of course, but at the end of the day, all life is art. (Haven’t we heard that somewhere before?) The big exchange he’s hoping to make is one that would allow him to trade the heap of old bones and rotting flesh he calls a body in for a solid gold form. Not a bad trade, eh? That’s what he thinks, at any rate. As art, he’ll live forever in other’s vision. Of course, this is still wishful thinking at this point…but hey, a guy can dream!