Yeats was strongly influenced by his native country, and much of his poetry is a reflection of that influence. Many of his poems are continually referenced in popular culture, including this particular poem, whose first line, “That is no country for old men…” was used for the title of Cormac McCarthy’s popular novel, No Country for Old Men, which was later successfully adapted for the big screen. This poem fits in nicely with the literary movement in which it was written, Modernism. Modernists often rebelled against tradition and celebrated self-discovery, which this poem absolutely does. It is also interesting to consider when Yeats wrote this poem: he wrote it fewer than ten years before his death, which means he was an old man. This is important since the speaker in this poem feels he is not appreciated in his homeland due to his advanced age.
Perhaps Yeats was feeling alienated from his society for the same reasons.As the poem unfolds, the themes of mortality and immortality are interwoven with one another. The opening stanza gives a richly concrete picture of instinctive life with the images of sensual delight occupying the young of all species that sing out of excitement. But they express the world of flux and death in perpetual motion. The old man has no place amidst this “sensual music”. The only justification of old age is the contemplation of those artefacts which proclaim the glory of the spirit and un-ageing intellect above the transitory song of the body. Thus the poet in his old age makes his voyage to Byzantium-a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. There he will choose the form of a golden bird whose song will be totally different from the “sensual music” of birds in the former country. Sailing to Byzantium can be interpreted as a journey from the sensual to the spiritual world. But there is much more involved in this complex poem. It symbolizes a psychological change from a mentality which values the pleasure of sexuality and the flesh, to one which values things of the mind, the spirit and the soul. “The poem can be taken on a number of levels-at the transition from sensual art to intellectual art: as the poet’s new and brilliant insight into the nature of Byzantine imagination; and as the poet’s coming to terms with age and death”, as Cleanth Brooks observes.
One of the vital background information which has to be noted while reading this poem is Yeats’ age. He was in his early sixties when he penned this poem. Through the first stanza, the speaker insists how the country he has left is not suitable for old men like him. He feels Ireland is not the right place for old men because all are caught in a sensual music which makes them neglect the ageless artistic achievements of the intellect. In that country the dying generations of birds and young lovers celebrate things which are a slave to the natural cycle of birth and death. The young lovers who are in each other’s arms, the births who are in the trees and the salmon-falls and the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh and fowl all sing only one song-the song of the senses. All these, at the same time, are creatures that are very much subject to death.This poem can be seen as an allusion to the agony of old age and human mortality. As C.M. Bowra points out, “Yeats does not regard poetry as complete in itself, with its own ritual and meaning. He sees it as part of a larger experience, as a means of communication with the spiritual world which lies behind the visible.
For him the poet is almost a medium, and interpreter of the unseen and his poetry is the record of the revelations given to him.” Yeats’ use of symbolism is essential in his portrayal of immortality in opposition to mortality. The symbolism begins in the poems title, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. ‘Sailing’ symbolises a metaphorical journey, and ‘Byzantium’ symbolises a desired destination, in this case, the desire to become immortal through art. In the first stanza, the images of the young lovers, fish and birds symbolise mortality and eventual death. By highlighting this component of the world he lives in, it makes it easier for the reader to understand his need for permanence.In the second stanza, the scarecrow signifies the elderly. The image of a solitary scarecrow in a field is seen often through literature and film, and in this case the scarecrow represents the neglected generation. The scarecrow is described as ‘paltry’ (which means contemptible), and this symbolises how the younger generations have contempt for the older generations because they are a reminder of their own mortality. The scarecrow also represents everything that Yeats wishes to leave behind in departing his mortal existence.Finally, the image of the golden bird symbolises the flight Yeats has taken from his previous body, and the permanence he has found through art. The colour gold his also used several times throughout the poem, and this indicates everlasting beauty. Yeats uses images representing young life through to old life to demonstrate the transience of human life, but uses the constant image of the golden mosaics and the golden bird to show how art has a never-ending beauty.