Study Guide

Sailing to Byzantium Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By William Butler Yeats

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.


Yeats begins his poem with a description of nature in all its youthful glory. Anything that starts out this perfect, however, can’t stay that way for long. Death is the dark underbelly of all the delightful life that the speaker references. As he ages, death seems to occupy more and more of his time. Mimicking his need to escape thoughts of dying, the poem shifts from a contemplation of nature to a discussion of art as it progresses.

  • Lines 2-3: Referring to the birds singing as "dying generations" seems to be a form of synecdoche. Yeats isn’t only referring only to birds (or to the "young/ In one another’s arms." He’s talking about all living creatures.
  • Lines 5-6: Using lists to describe both all living creatures and the stages of their lives is a form of parallelism. The repetition of this pattern helps to create the sense that the speaker’s talking about all life forms – they all fit into the same pattern.
  • Lines 9-10: Yeats deliberately uses a metonymic phrase in these lines, describing a man as a "tattered coat upon a stick." The tattered coat stands in for the human who wears it; in this case, Yeats uses metonymy to suggest that the man might actually waste away until the coat is all that’s left of him.
  • Line 11: Using "Soul" as a way to represent the human as a whole, Yeats employs metonymy (again!).
  • Line 29: The last stanza of this poem returns to the figure of a bird in a way that’s deliberately ironic. Now the bird isn’t "natural." It’s a form of art.


Art’s pretty. It’s often sparkly and full of gold (in this poem, at least). Really, what’s not to like? That’s what our speaker thinks, at any rate. As old age approaches and nature becomes threatening, art starts to sound like pretty good stuff. For one thing, it doesn’t age (like his body will). For another, it doesn’t ever go out of circulation (again, like his body will). If you’ve got a pretty picture, chances are that someone will always want to look at it. That’s where our speaker’s plan comes into play. He’s figuring that, if he can concentrate his soul and his artistic sensibilities into a single work of art, he’ll turn what’s left of his spirit into something that’s eternal. Remember how your elementary school art teachers always told you to "express yourself?" That could be this guy’s motto.

  • Lines 7-8: References to "sensual music" and "monuments" craft a metaphor that refers to the human experience as different forms of art.
  • Lines 13-14: The second stanza picks up the same metaphor that we’ve read about in the first. Now, however, the speaker extends the metaphor, suggesting that music (like life) remains a rough art because no one is available to teach you how to sing.
  • Lines 16-17: This, folks, is a simile. The sages stand as if they were pieces of gold in a mosaic. The "as" (a comparative term) is our signal that a simile’s in action here.
  • Lines 26-27: The repetition of "g"s at the beginning of several words in this line is a form of alliteration. Here, the alliterative effect is also a repetitive one: the word "gold" appears three times in the two lines cited.
  • Line 29: He’s talking about a golden sculpture of a bird. Imagining that the bird can sing, the speaker employs animism to give a piece of artwork animal-like characteristics. Check out our analysis of Line 29 in "Nature" for another reading of the line.


In this poem, regeneration takes on huge spiritual overtones. The artwork and the work of human life become one and the same as our speaker tries to figure out how to break through the boundaries of human experience. What is the soul capable of? Exactly how much of the artist’s intention is reflected in the work he/she creates? Yeats is using some specialized symbols here, but the general concepts he works with are pretty commonplace. After all, nearly every superhero we’ve ever read about goes through some sort of emotional transformation. Chances are that they change their appearances, as well. That’s all our speaker is asking for. Asking to become superhuman isn’t that big of a request, is it?

  • Lines 20-23: These lines are the continuation of an apostrophe: the speaker addresses the sages of Byzantium, asking them to "consume" him and "gather [him] into the artifice of eternity." The first step towards regeneration, after all, is giving up what you’ve already got.
  • Lines 24-25: There aren’t really many technical terms we can throw at you for these lines. It’s useful to note, though, that here the speaker feels like he can choose the bodily form that his soul will take. Is he speaking metaphorically here, or does he really want to become a work of art? We’ll leave that up to you!

Circles and Spirals

Let’s make this clear: circles are bad. Spirals are good. And believe us, there are major differences between the two. Think about it: if you were walking in a circle, you’d follow the same path forever. You end up right back where you started, and then you start walking again. If you walk in a spiral, however, you’re going places. You might be moving upwards (on a spiral staircase) or outwards (if you’re following a spiral path). Either way, you’re seeing new things and making new tracks. For Yeats, the cycle of natural life is an endless circle (and circles are bad, remember)? Things are born; they live; they die. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. How do you break out of this circle? Well, that’s challenge of this poem.

  • Lines 1-2: The first lines of the poem create a vivid image of two lovers encircled in each other's arms. It’s a mortal circle, of course (the arms live only as long as the lovers themselves do). In other words, it won’t last forever.
  • Line 6: Ah, the circle of life. (Play Lion King music here). It’s not an actual circle, we know. It’s just a pattern that repeats itself over and over and over again.
  • Line 18: Here’s the biggie for this poem: asking the sages to "perne in gyre," the speaker distinguishes between the cyclical work of nature and the spiraling work of the spirit. A gyre is a spiral. It’s moving in new directions all the time.
  • Line 29: Back to the bird again! You’d think this was a cycle (or a circle), right? But it’s not. Yeats constructs a loose metaphor for the changes that have occurred over the course of the poem by comparing the "dying generations" of birds in the first lines to the everlasting golden sculpture of a bird in this line.