William Butler Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” first published in 1928, wrestles with some of the most problematic binaries in philosophical thought: age and youth, mortality and immortality, transience and permanence, artifice and nature. One of the great Modern poets, Yeats used a variety of rhyme schemes and meters in his vast body of work, but he settled on ottava rima in iambic pentameter for “Sailing to Byzantium.”
For “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats employed a rhyme scheme called “ottava rima,” loosely translated as “eight-line rhyme.” Each stanza in ottava rima rhymes ABABABCC. “Sailing to Byzantium” was the first poem that Yeats composed in ottava rima. He placed it first in the “The Tower,” the collection of poems in which it appears. Helen Vendler, author of “Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form,” notes that this initial placement showcases Yeats’ new preferred form; he used it in a slew of poems after that, including “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “The Choice.”
Yeats wasn’t the first poet to come up with ottava rima; it has Italian roots, and several prominent English writers had used it since Edward Fairfax introduced it to England in his translation of an Italian poem. For instance, Lord George Gordon Byron famously used ottava rima in “Don Juan,” and Percy Shelley wrote in the form in “The Witch of Atlas” and “The Zucca,” among other poems. By choosing ottava rima for his works, Yeats announces his connection with the literary past, and he introduces the form to the Modern era as an appropriate vehicle for serious subject matter.
“Sailing to Byzantium” is written in a meter called iambic pentameter. Each line in this form uses the iambic “foot” -- one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable -- five times, for a pattern of 10 syllables that alternate between unstressed and stressed. For example, the second stanza’s first line uses perfect iambic pentameter: “An AG-ed MAN is BUT a PAL-try THING,” where capital letters indicate a stressed syllable. Iambic pentameter, like ottava rima, helps establish the elevated tone of “Sailing to Byzantium,” since historically the meter has been used for poems that deal with weighty subject matter, such as philosophy or the sacred.
Although poems are defined by the meter they use most, few poems adhere perfectly to a meter throughout. “Sailing to Byzantium” departs from the iambic pentameter form in several places. For example, its first sentence, with its emphatic statement, can be read with no iambs at all, only substitutions: “THAT is NO COUN-try for OLD MEN.” In this reading, there’s a trochaic substitution in the first foot, a spondaic substitution in the second foot, a pyrrhic substitution in the third foot, and another spondaic substitution in the fourth foot. The iambic form initiates with the last foot in the line, “The YOUNG,” and recovers in the second line of the poem: “In ONE an-OTH-er’s ARMS, BIRDS in the TREES.” This second line has only one substitution, a trochee in the fourth foot.