Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
Stanza III Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
- Now that we’ve gotten to Byzantium, things are looking up.
- For one thing, there are actually beings that our speaker wants to address. They happen to be sages, wise and holy folk. They also happen to be standing in a fire. That doesn’t seem so wise, but hey, what do we know?
- The whole poem seems to have shifted from nature and the body (that cycle of living and dying that we saw in stanza one) to something more mystical. The art has changed, as well.
- If "that country" has music that only lasts for a few minutes, Byzantium has sages that appear like the "gold mosaic" of a wall.
- Let’s pause on that for a second: gold is generally a good thing. It’s shiny and pretty and usually quite expensive. That’s because it’s a precious metal.
- Using gold to metaphorically describe the sages allows our speaker to allude to the precious nature of the sages, as well. When we say that the sages are "precious," we don’t mean that they’re cute little five-year-olds. We mean that they’re valuable. Like gold.
- Moreover, a mosaic is a piece of art (notice how much we’re talking about art now?). You probably made lots of them out of macaroni when you were in grade school.
- By combining small pieces of precious metal, gemstones, and even colored stones into intricate designs, artists create complex pictures.
- For an example of a Greek mosaic, check out our "Images" page. We’ve got to admit, the images we’ve added for you to check out are actually from a later period in Byzantine history…mostly because few Greek mosaics from the time Yeats is referencing still exist.
- Not to worry, though: Byzantine craftsmen continued to make some pretty awesome mosaics, especially during the early periods of Christianity. It’s hard to see in these images, but if you look closely, you can see that certain sections of the mosaics are actually inlaid with gold. Sort of like in our poem.
- So why allude to mosaics in this particular phrase? Why not painting or sculpture or macaroni art?
- Well, the nifty thing about mosaics is that they create a beautiful picture out of lots of small parts – sort of like the way that a good society is created by the collaboration of lots of individual people. The sages aren’t the end-all and be-all of Byzantium. They’re just a small (and beautiful) part of a pretty awesome whole.
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
- Ack. What in on earth is he talking about? Is "perne" even a word?
- Well, yes. Yes it is. Check out our "Literary Devices" section for an analysis of circles and spirals.
- Here’s the quick and dirty version: to "perne" is to turn in circles, like a bobbin in a sewing machine or a top. A "gyre" is a sort of swirling vortex that creates spiraling motion. Lots of circles. Lots of spiraling. It’s one of Yeats’s key moves.
- So our speaker asks the sages to swirl around him and become the "singing masters" that he couldn’t find back in his old country.
- In other words, he’s looking for a spiritual rebirth. It may sound a bit New Age-y, but that’s because it is a bit New Age-y. Yeats was a huge fan of mysticism. He even played a major role in an esoteric group (a.k.a. cult) called The Golden Dawn.
- Even without the esoteric overtones, however, the concept of spiritual rebirth is a pretty popular one. Think about movies like The Freedom Writers or even Batman (and, of course The Dark Knight). Everybody’s excited about becoming new and better person these days…and most folks need a mentor in order to do it. Our speaker, for example, has the sages.
- Let’s get technical for a second (don’t worry, we won’t bore you for too long):
- Note the long "i" sounds in the words "fire" and "gyre." There’s a super-spiffy technical term for repeating vowel sounds in a segment of poetry. It’s called "assonance." Assonant words tend to blur together in our ears, almost as if the vowels are echoing each other.
- Go ahead: read line three aloud. Notice how the "i" seems to carry over?
- That’s intentional – it allows the word "fire" to extend its reach over the entire line (almost as if it’s taking the line over). It’s consuming. Just like an actual fire. Pretty cool, huh?
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is;
- So the speaker’s still having a conversation with the sages.
- If the sages come out of fire, maybe they can work like fire, consuming the speaker’s heart. That’s what he’s hoping for, at least. Total destruction (and a total make-over). In terms of total transformations, this guy would put "What Not to Wear" to shame.
- Remember how we told you to keep in mind the splitting of body and soul, which starts to happen in Stanza I? Here’s where that hint starts to pay off.
- The problem, it seems, is that our speaker’s heart is just too attached to his body. It’s a natural reaction. We’re all pretty attached to our bodies. After all, they’re the only way that we know the world.
- The bad part, of course, is that bodies die. If you’re trying figure out a way to stay immortal (as our friend here is), then sticking with a decaying body can be…problematic. No one likes talking corpses. Even zombies don’t tend to be so popular.
- Attached to a body, our speaker’s heart can’t break free and exist on its own. That, my friends, is a problem.
and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
- Why is eternity an "artifice?" And why does our speaker want to be a part of it?
- Those are good questions. After all, "artifice" tends to sound like something that’s contrived or made-up (or, well, artificial). That’s bad, right?
- Well, not necessarily. See, art is also a form of artifice. It’s not part of the natural world. It’s made up – and that means that it doesn’t have to participate in all those endless cycles of birth and death that our speaker hated so much, earlier in the poem.
- A mosaic or another piece of artwork can outlast the artist who created it. What’s eternal and long lasting about the artist, then, isn’t her body. It’s her art. The art, or "artifice," becomes the way that an artist can enter the history books.
- How would we remember Shakespeare if it weren’t for his plays? Or Picasso without his paintings?
- Having your soul gathered up into your art might not sound like a pleasant experience, but it may just be the only way that our speaker can transcend his own body and become part of a larger whole.