Sailing to Byzantium Summary
The speaker introduces readers to a world that has no room in it for the elderly. it is a world during which young lovers embrace under trees filled with singing birds (who seem unaware of their own mortality), the waters swarm with fish, and each living thing—whether human, fish, or bird—is born then dies. Everything therein country is so trapped within the moment that it pays no attention to the items which may outlive the flesh.
An old man during this world is nothing but a thin, ratty old scarecrow unless he can keep his soul alive, vital, and singing within his failing, wiped out the body. nobody can teach the soul to try to do this: the one that wants to stay their soul alive has got to figure it out through their own study. For this reason, the speaker has taken a voyage across the ocean to the traditional Celestial City of Byzantium.
The speaker addresses Byzantium’s long-dead wise men and saints, who are now trapped within the glorious fire of God, which is just like the beautiful golden tiling that decorates Byzantine churches. He asks them to emerge from this hearth, whirling in spirals just like the bobbin of a spinning-wheel, and to show his soul to sing. He wants them to spend his mortal, fleshly heart, which is tethered to his failing body and can’t fathom or accept its own mortality, and to require him up into their everlasting world of art.
When he’s left his body behind, the speaker says, he won’t take up a mortal physical form again. Instead, he’ll be a gorgeous piece of golden art, something that metal workers in ancient Greece may need to be made to hold in an emperor’s bedroom. Or he’ll be a golden bird placed during a golden tree, where he, just like the sages, can teach people his eternal and otherworldly wisdom—his transcendent understanding of the past, present, and future.