Although there are several allusions to it made by several scholars within the vast library of biographical works regarding William Butler Yeats, the poet’s intense fear and disdain of aging and death can be discerned with even the most cursory reading of his works. Many of Yeats’ poems reflect an intense dread of the aging process with its decay and impending threat of death on both a physical and spiritual level through the use of imagery and reflection. For W.B. Yeats, there is little that is honorable about becoming an old man, perhaps simply because there is still so much left to do. Despite having lived a life that might appear to the outsider as quite fulfilling, William Butler Yeats remained somewhat hollow and unsatisfied with the great deal of personal and artistic progress he made throughout his long life.
There are several themes that are common throughout the poems of William Butler Yeats. Many of poems by W.B. Yeats reflect an unrelenting obsession with the past—both the distant past and that of his personal life—and these fixations are symbolic of his fear of growing old or aging and a persistent fear of death. There were many things W.B. Yeats wanted to accomplish, one of which was gaining the hand of his long-time love Maud Gonne. Images of her, both as she appeared to him in his memory and as expressed by allusions are frequent throughout Yeats’ poetry as are his numerous references to the grim process of aging and preparing for death. For Yeats, death or even aging alone was not the romantic end or dramatic solution—it was an organic process that caused a man to become hollow and scarecrow-like.
Along with this thesis statement expressed here on the similarities in themes in the poems by W.B. Yeats and their fixation on death and aging, it should also be noted that many of the poems by Yeats induce an image of an aged man as such a scarecrow or as a man in tatters with little left of any substance. Such a man is only able to stagnate in one position and can only look backward since moving forward is no longer a possibility. Although this is a rather bleak image, it is highly representative of the many struggles W.B. Yeats endured in as a young man, a frustrated suitor, a political pioneer, and finally, an aged poet—a sage. Although traces of these themes are recurrent in several poems by William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium," “Among Schoolchildren," and “The Circus Animal’s Desertion" portray these complex themes most completely.
One of the most stunning poems reflecting implicit fear of aging in poems by William Butler Yeats occurs throughout “Sailing to Byzantium." This poem was written in 1926 as W.B. Yeats was growing older and beginning to realize the meaning and consequences of old age. “Sailing to Byzantium" reflects the speaker’s desire to return to an older age far from the youthful excesses and their inability to recognize age and wisdom. One of the important quotes from “Sailing to Byzantium” is at the beginning and says, “that is no country for old men. The young / in one another’s arms, birds in the trees—those dying generations" which discusses the reason for the speaker’s journey. He no longer feels he has a place among the youthful exuberance and seeks something more fulfilling and ancient. Although the young represented in the poem by William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” are “those dying generations" they are nonetheless too engaged with their trivialities to understand the pursuits of an old man who feels he is condemned to live in an aging body, or “fastened to a dying animal" while his soul yearns to be free.