Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats
Sailing to Byzantium Summary
We’re movin’ on up. (If you’ve got the theme song from The Jeffersons in your head here, you’re in the right place.) Want to know why? Well, as our speaker says, the country we were in before pretty much sucked.
It's a nice enough place to be if you're young and pretty and perfect, but once you start to show a few wrinkles or some grey hairs, things get ugly fast. In other words, it was a pretty brutal place to be. After all, who can be young and pretty and perfect all the time? Our speaker decides that the old country is for the birds. Literally. It’s obsessed with the latest trends. Whatever’s newest and prettiest gets all the attention. There’s no interest in things that might endure for generations. It’s sort of like a really bad episode of Trading Spaces, when a crummy designer pours bright orange paint all over a bookcase that had been in the family for generations. Sure, it looks pretty for a second…but orange goes out of style pretty quickly. Then it’s just plain ugly.
Luckily, our speaker’s a resourceful guy. He’s so ready to get the heck outta Dodge that Byzantium (a country nearby) starts to sound pretty appealing. It sounds so appealing, in fact, that he sails there.
Byzantium is a holy city, which works out well for our speaker. In fact, he’s expecting a revelation. Primarily, he’s hoping that the wise folk in Byzantium will consume his soul.
Once in Byzantium, our speaker starts thinking about death. Hmm….pleasant, right? Well, yes, actually. In Byzantium, death becomes something that can be thought about realistically (which is a big improvement over our speaker’s old home). In fact, once he starts reflecting about death, he actually begins to figure out ways to commemorate life.
According to the speaker, the best way to commemorate life is art. (You had to know that one was coming. After all, this is a poem.) He finally decides that art becomes a way to lodge the soul in a new "bodily form." He’s not expecting the pictures on the walls to start talking or anything. That only happens in the Harry Potter books. Art can, however, bear witness to the past. That’s pretty cool. At least, it’s good enough for our speaker.