Sailing to Byzantium is a poem in which there's a clash of opposites. The basic idea is that the placement of the old against the young. Old age, tells the poet, excludes a man from the sensual joys of youth. The world appears to belong completely to the young, it is no place for the old, indeed, an old man is scarcely a man at all, he is an empty artifice, an effigy merely of a man he's a tattered coat upon a stick.
According to Elder Olson, the poem presents contrasting ideas, There are, thus, the following terms, one might say, from which the poem suspends; the condition of young, who are spiritually passive although sensually active; the condition of art considered inanimate; that is the condition of things which are merely monuments; and finally, the condition of art considered as animate as of such things as artificial birds which have a person's soul.
The second term, important and unspiritual old age, is a privative, a repugnant state which causes the progression through the other various alternative terms until its contrary is encountered. The first and therefore the third terms are clearly contraries of every other; taken together as animate nature, they're further contrary to the fourth term, inanimate art.
None of those terms represents an entirely desirable mode of existence; but the fifth term, which represents such a mode, amalgamates the positive elements and eliminates the negative elements of both nature and art, and effects, thus, a resolution of the whole, for now, the soul is present, as it is lodged in a “dying animal”, as it would be in the body of the aged man; the soul now free to act its embodiment is now incorruptible and secure from all the ills of the flesh.
There are two major divisions which divide the poem precisely in half, the first two stanzas presenting art as inanimate, the second two, as animate; and that the case be seem from such signs as that in the first half of the poem the images are stated passive objects; they are twice called “monuments”, they are merely objects of contemplation, they may be neglected or studied, visited or not visited, whereas in stanzas III and IV they are treated as gods which can be prayed to for life or death, as being capable of motion from sphere to sphere as instructors of the soul, as sages possessed of wisdom; and the curious shift in the mariner of consideration is signalized by the subtle phrasing of the first or the primary two lines of stanza III.
O sages standing in God's holy fireAs in the gold mosaic of a wall
According to the first part, the images at Byzantium were images, and one should have expected at most some figurative apostrophe to them;
O images set in the gold mosaic of a wall, much as the sages stand in God's holy fire
but here the similitude is reversed, and lest there should be any error, the sages are sought to come from the holy fire and begin the tuition of the soul, the destruction of the flesh. Within these two halves of the poem, further divisions may be found coincident with the stanzaic divisions.
In the first Stanza presents a rejection of passion, in the second stanza an acceptance of intellection, then, turning on the realisation that art is insouled, in the third stanza presents a rejection of the corruptible embodiment, and the fourth stanza, an acceptance of the incorruptible.
There is an alternation, thus of negative and affirmative out of passion into intellection, out of corruption into permanence, in clear balance, the proportion being I: II: III: IV and what order these sections is their dialectical sequence.
That is, passion must be condemned before the intellect can be esteemed; the intellect must operate before the images are insouled precedes the realisation that the body may be dispensed with: and the reincarnation of the soul in some changeless medium can be recognised as a possibility only through the prior recognition that the flesh is not the necessary matter of the soul.
The parallel opposition of contraries constitutes a sharp demarcation: in the stanza, I, a mortal bird of nature amid natural trees sings a brief song of sensual joy in praise of mortal things, of “what is past, or passing, or to come” and similarly, in stanza II a living thing is found to be an inanimate artifice, a tattered coat upon a stick,' incapable of motion, speech, sense or knowledge, whereas in stanza III what had appeared to be inanimate artifice is found to possess a soul, and hence to be capable of all these.
A certain artificial symmetry in the argument serves to distinguish these parts even further; stanzas I and IV begin with the conclusions, and the I is dependent upon the II for the substantiation of its premises, as the IV is dependent upon III.
The highly complex poem is a battle ground for the clash of opposites. The poet has not only rendered the opposites-
country- city, sexuality-intellectuality, dying-unageing, body-soul, flesh-spirit, holy-unholy
but he has also tried to reconcile them by conceiving in the manner of Plotinus, a city outside Time. As Cleanth Brooks points out, "The poem are often taken on variety of levels: because the transition from sensual art to intellectual art: because the poet's new and brilliant insight into the character of the Byzantine imagination; because the poet's coming to terms with age and death."
So we can study this poem on many levels. We can take Byzantium as the holy city of Eastern Christendom. We can also take Byzantium as Yeats's holy city of the imagination as Golgonooza was Blake's. We can take this poem-
as the transition from sensual art to intellectual art; as the poet's new and brilliant insight into the nature of the Byzantine imagination, as the poet's coming to terms with age and death.
This poem is a debate which emphasises the dichotomy between physical and spiritual very sharply. “The country” and “the holy city” are set against each other, the one world of youth, sex and decay, the other a world of art, religion, and the changeless. The reconciliation is never sought.
This conflict can be compared with that of Keats's Ode to Grecian Urn in which ‘Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard are sweeter.’ Mr Ellmann says: The poem gathers its tension from the dramatic conflict of passion and wisdom. But though wisdom conquers, its victory is almost Pyrrhic.
The poet has sailed to Byzantium, but his heart, sick with desire, is filled with Ireland and he cannot speak of the natural life, without celebrating. His prayer and ambition also are impure; those personages to whom he prays, being figures within the mosaics or sages in God's holy fire, or both, are already removed from life, but the wishes to escape even further.
He asks, therefore, not to become a sage-like them, but to be turned into a beautiful, mechanical bird which will have wisdom placed in its mouth by its fashioner. He will be liberated not only from life but from all responsibilities by being transmuted into an image, which, in turn, will sing not of would-be eternity but of time.