According to Wikipedia of W.B. Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium" is

a metaphor for a spiritual journey. Yeats explores his thoughts and musings on how immortality, art, and the human spirit may converge. Through the use of various poetic techniques, Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" describes the metaphorical journey of a man pursuing his own vision of eternal life as well as his conception of paradise.

The last couplet of the poem is apparently about the afterlife:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

The story of Aenaeas and the Golden Bough is about him entering the underworld, to meet his late father in Elysium.

So both have a theme involving an eternal afterlife. But Aeneas' golden bough is an offering, a tool to enter the underworld without dying oneself. Yeats' golden bough is where he sits down, possibly in a timeless existence.

Is the "golden bough" a passing reference to the story of Aeneas, to enhance the theme; or is there a deeper symbolism?

1 Answer 1


I think it does refer to the episode from The Aeneid. I say this with confidence because there are many classical references. First, there is the name Byzantium, the Latin name for the city (Greek: Byzantion). Next, there is a reference to Grecian goldsmiths, which is not surprising, as the city was Greek from about 660 BC to the 2nd century CE. Additionally, there is the idea of body-soul duality, which is a Platonic idea.

The narrator is contemplating what will happen to his soul once he departs this life. "Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing". He goes on to say that he might live on through human artifice, such as the "hammered gold" or "gold enamelling" of Grecian goldsmiths. This is one view of eternal life. But another thought occurs to him. Perhaps some "golden bough" will take him to the lords and ladies of Byzantium.

The golden bough evokes the underworld, and in particular, the Elysian Fields. The idea of the narrator telling lords and ladies of "what is past, or passing, or to come" reminds me of the story that Anchises tells Aeneas, explaining how life came to be, and what their descendants will go on to do. This speech takes place in the Elysian Fields. Anchises starts by describing the spirit inside every body.

The seeds of life—
fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they
are weighed down by the bodies' ills or dulled
by earthly limbs and flesh that's born for death.
That is the source of all men's fears and longings,
joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens' light,
shut up in the body's tomb, a prison dark and deep. (Aeneid VI:843-848)

Thematically similar to the poem, don't you think? If the narrator is searching for a spiritual life, then it's not surprising that he mentions the golden bough. The golden bough gives Aeneas not just passage to the underworld, but also a chance to receive spiritual advice from his father. I think the narrator sees the bough as a talisman through which his dream of a spiritual life may be realized.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.