Study Guide

Sailing to Byzantium Transformation

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Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. (5-6)

Nature changes all the time. It’s just the way things are: you’re born, you live for a while, and then you die. Got it? Notice, though, that we’re absolutely no different than all the other animals in the world. You and the slug: exactly the same. It’s not a very comforting thought, is it? That’s what our speaker thinks, too.

birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song, (2-3)

Death looms as the one transformation that invariably awaits all living forms. For the speaker, at least, the creepy thing is that most creatures in nature remain blissfully unaware of their own mortality. Birds keep singing, regardless of whether they’re about to die or not.

Consume my heart away; (21)

The sort of transformation our speaker’s after isn’t necessarily a natural one. Turning to spiritual revelation as a type of change that can be as complete as death or birth itself, the speaker begs to have his heart re-crafted. This passage closely echoes tenets of most major religions, which often articulate the need to surrender to a divine being.

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

Yup, our speaker’s not such a huge fan of the transformations that take place in the natural world. Even if the speaker’s body were to be re-crafted, it would still be mortal. That’s why art becomes a possibility, one which allows the speaker to move outside the terrifying prospect of the end of the body.

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium. (13-16)

Sometimes physical movement is the only way to effect mental change. Restless in his old life, our speaker uses the trappings of an actual journey to hammer home the fact that he’s searching for spiritual transformation.

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