To the speaker of “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats and also to the poet himself, aging is a foul degrading process and the only things that were sustainable and true are the relics of gold that serve as testaments to an older age such as that in “Sailing to Byzantium”. All that is organic or living is prone to death and decay, even the young people at the beginning who are “dying generations” and especially men that are already advanced in age. It is worth noting in this poem analysis of “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats that the speaker comments upon both the appearance and presumably the soul of an aging or old man when he begins the second stanza with the statement, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / his soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress.” This description of an aged man is hollow and devoid of personality. The image that arises in the reader’s mind is one of a scarecrow—something made from flimsy material without genuine substance and prone to the elements.
Furthermore, and also important in this analysis of “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, the imagery of this scarecrow figure suddenly clapping to prove its vitality becomes grotesque and nearly absurd, which demonstrates that this is something rare or perhaps even impossible. While the remainder of the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats discusses a way for this tattered heap of sticks and old clothing to live on, this series of imagery tactics on the part of Yeats to express symbols of aging versus youth are difficult to escape or forget about and it becomes clear that this is a prime example of the author’s personal fear of aging—of turning to dust or to mere rags on a stick—despite the somewhat epic ending featuring a man living on through wisdom, relics, and memory. To a mystic such as W.B. Yeats, the concept of the aging soul outlasting the “dying animal” of the body is not uncharacteristic and can be witnessed in several of his later poems as well.
As this poem analysis of “Sailing to Byzantium” suggests in terms of the poem itself and of William Butler Yeats, the imagery of the aged man as a hollow image or a scarecrow is prominent throughout several of Yeats’ poems and it is not coincidence that nearly all of the examples of such imagery are connected to his thoughts about aging. After taking a tour of a school late in his political career, Yeats penned the poem, “Among Schoolchildren”. Far from being a discussion about the pleasures or lives of these young people, the speaker takes the opportunity to travel back to his own boyhood days and picture the woman he would later fall in love with, Maud, when she was a child. Although “Among Schoolchildren” by William Butler Yeats, the reader is never able to escape the fact that the speaker is a man advanced in age. As this analysis of “Among Schoolchildren” by W.B. Yeats suggests of this and other poems by the poet, we are reminded of this in the first stanza when he imagines the children’s perceptions of him as, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man.” This more wholesome imagery in “Among Schoolchildren” belies the bitterness and sadness of such an image. Although he smiling, this is public face and no one can witness the grim and anguished thoughts that invade his perceptions of the children.
By the fourth stanza of “Among Schoolchildren” by William Butler Yeats, we not only see his inner thoughts, but he calls himself “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” again, imagining the children’s perceptions. This image of the old man as what Yeats referred to as, “A tattered coat upon a stick” in “Sailing to Byzantium” is equally present in this poem. The difference here, however, is that he is not entirely faceless. Instead, the reader is confronted with two images that are juxtaposed; the first is of a smiling old man, the second is a scarecrow. The result of these two images is rather disturbing as it is a blank-faced but grinning and smiling scarecrow in tattered rags. He is a public scarecrow, one who smiles when appropriate although there is nothing inside—the soul has been exchanged for the vast painful store of memory he now thrives off of.