Study Guide

Sailing to Byzantium Man and the Natural World

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Man and the Natural World

The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song, (1-3)

Juxtaposing happy, joyful images of young couples in love and birds singing with an insistent reminder of death, Yeats underscores the fragility of life itself.

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. (4-6)

Life and all of its pleasures tend to occupy the minds of most living things. It’s not often that we think of philosophical or even spiritual questions that don’t directly affect our daily lives. At least, that’s the contention of our speaker here.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect. (7-8)

The "sensual music" of life becomes all-consuming. While listening to music, it’s easy to get entranced. Similarly, while caught up in the business of living, it’s all too easy to forget about existential questions.

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; (21-23)

The "dying animal" (that is, the man himself) seems unwilling here to recognize himself as human. The body is nothing more than a source of physical decay. It’s the spirit, the soul, which he turns to as the definition of his being.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing, (25-26)

The terrors of nature give way to the pleasures of art in the last stanzas of this poem. The only way to avoid the problems of growing old is to become something that doesn’t age at all.

Or set upon a golden bough to sing (30)

Ironically, as soon as the speaker imagines himself as a piece of art, he animates it. As we know, golden birds can’t really sing. The desire to blend life and art produces a bit of tension in this line. It’s not enough to last forever: our speaker wants to push the boundaries of what art can do, as well.

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