From Bethlehem to Byzantium: Utopian Journey of Yeats

Subashish Bhattacharjee and Saikat Guha, North Bengal University

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The concept of “utopia,” popularized in English literature by Sir Thomas More during the Renaissance, had been a romantic refuge across subsequent generations which speculate on its all-encompassing sense of comfort and justice. Utopia has been synonymous to such notions as mirth, hope, justice and other positive qualities. Whether utopia is a realizable concept is a matter of debate, but the speculative mind of the artist associates ideals of joys and happiness unattained in mundane life. The unfulfilled aspirations and unconscious passions of the artist find manifestation in the idyllic world called utopia. Fátima Vieira notes that utopia has been historically defined with four parameters: the content of an imagined society, or a “good place”; the literary form into which the utopian imagination has been crystallized; the function of utopia, or the impact that it causes on its reader; and the desire for a better life, caused by a feeling of discontentment towards the society one lives in (6). After being neglected in the Neo-classical period whose extreme reasoning failed to appreciate the poetic possibilities of utopic contemplation, the concept of utopia was reinstated to its former glory in the Romantic Period. The romantic poets who placed imagination above reason delightfully embraced and celebrated the hopeful, jocund mood of utopia which offered the pining subjects a place to unleash their emotion sans sorrow, fever and fret.

Yeats was a romantic at heart who disliked the dominance of reason and preferred imagination instead. He drew on the fertile Irish legends, magic, myths and superstitions to enrich his poems. Yeats’ interest in an esoteric occult knowledge that relates to a utopic idealism can be found in such poems as “The Second Coming,” “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” which also function as a search for a utopic place—a place of refuge from the unnerving scenario of war-torn, materialistic, disillusioning twentieth century. Byzantium is a fabled land which, notwithstanding its history of being attacked by various forces in successive periods, is believed to be the centre of medieval cult of Arts in Europe which retained its superiority for centuries. However, the final fall of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in the year 1453 led to the dispersal of the Byzantine scholars throughout Europe who carried with them the finest cultural treasures associated with Byzantium. The pagan tradition of Byzantium became a matter of immense interest during the Renaissance and it was believed to be a magic place full of enchanting objects. While occultism that characterizes Byzantium heightened the interest of Christian scholars who coupled it with dark arts, the artistic superiority and material affluence of Byzantium became a matter of conjecture and imagination of the artists.

The first reference to a distinct utopic location apart from the Christian land of salvation can be identified in “The Second Coming,” which was published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). The poem is also Yeats’ introduction of an imaginative ideal into the world which comes to fruition and completion in his Byzantium poems. Yeats is aware that any creation is violent and must bear some memory of the violent enunciation (for example, the image of a Spiritus Mundi). The second, extended stanza of the poem gives an indication of a utopic vision towards its very end, through the image of a rocking cradle:

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? (“The Second Coming”)

The re-creation of life in the form of the immense apparition that is evinced as a second coming moves towards Bethlehem with a utopia of possibilities. However, Yeats is also aware that the utopic imagination pertaining to Bethlehem and cannot be realized. Yeats’ loss of faith in the cradle of Christianity for a new Renaissance and a respite from the arduous conditions of their present history is apparent. Terence Brown suggests, “a new age coming to birth cannot escape the violence of a terrible parturition, nor the fear of what is to come to term—strange and incomprehensible as it must be to contemporary thought and feeling” (441). Yeats’ ideal of salvation is, again, two-fold—one pagan and another Christian. If the later Byzantium poems are replete with pagan elements, “The Second Coming” presents an unmistakable Christian imagery. The image of a rocking cradle here recalls the promise of Christ of a second coming for the purgation of men’s sinfulness. But the imagery is an occult one, anticipating the nature of the Byzantium poems, where the promised birth vexes the generations of sleep and indifference. Here the image of the unborn is more frightening than that of the dead—but it too is expected to kill the half-dead men of modern society so that a new birth can take place with all the promises of a reincarnated civilization. Yeats dreams of another utopia but seeks it at a great risk.

The Byzantium poems are Yeats’ expression of a tacit understanding and response against the mutability of mortal lives. Indeed the volume, The Tower (1928) is replete with poems that possess such spirit as he shows in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Utopia is thus the innate desire in the poet’s mind—not a mythical place away from home, but a possibility to transcend the existing delirium. This visualization of a possible and physical (Irish) utopia is necessary for Yeats who believes that “philosophy with its vision of transcendence of the material world cannot offer comfort in face of such bleak knowledge” of the harsh realities (Brown 446). Rather, it is “only an art centered in the truths of earthly, bodily existence can offer any credible alternative to the vision of personal and historical disintegration” (ibid). There is ,however, no corrosive sense of destruction in this vision that permeates a large number of Yeats’ other poems, including “The Second Coming.” What is in place in lieu of the sense of destruction is optimism concealed under the façade of mortal considerations , as the very first stanza testifies to:

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect. (“Sailing to Byzantium”)

This is a commentary on the dystopia that Yeats witnesses around him as a regular event. The ravages of the Great War, the failure of his revolutionary ideals and the irresolution of the Irish issue are combined with Yeats’ ideological turmoil. In the poem, Yeats does not propose a utopia that is severed from the realities of existence. Rather, he proposes grounding in reality of the concept that still permits the employment of idealism and imagination. The historicity of Byzantium and the Renaissance affection towards its idea are reproduced as Yeats closes his poem with an air of optimism:

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. (“Sailing to Byzantium”)

In his reworking of “Sailing to Byzantium” in the sequel-poem “Byzantium,” published in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929), the conclusion has a sense of utopic vision, but the hallucination of reality has already crept in. The three-year difference between compositions of the two poems allowed for a drastic alteration in Yeats’ vision. Whereas “Sailing to Byzantium” had a manifestation at times of clear optimism, “Byzantium” reveals the idea of utopia as the impossibility that Yeats now considers it to be. Among the images of violence, the third stanza is distinct in its break from mythic sources to historical realities:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit

Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,

Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,

Where blood-begotten spirits come

And all complexities of fury leave,

Dying into a dance,

An agony of trance,

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve. (“Byzantium”)

If a utopia exists in “Byzantium” it is in this reference of continuity. The flames appear to be indestructible as well as not destroying anything. In their appearance they resemble the eternal flames in Hell as Milton described them. However, Byzantium is not an analogy for Hell in Yeats’ imagination. The terrors which Yeats deliberates on are metaphoric and solicit the idea of a utopia as the escape route, necessitating the conclusion that also features a reappearance of the Emperor’s goldsmiths from “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,

Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity,

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. (“Byzantium”)

The conclusion is referential to history and cultural lineage together. While Yeats cannot eschew religious symbolism entirely, nor does he purport to move away from history, he creates a plausible atmosphere where the two come together with his national sensibilities. This vision is not excessively romantic in its unbridled imagination, but responds to his reality in the most apt manner—by creating a utopia of possibilities.

Yeats’ vision of Byzantium is partly real, and largely utopic. It is, to him, literally and symbolically, a golden land where old and mature people of this world set forth to complete their store of knowledge. Yeats’ Byzantium is also like Dante’s purgatory where men are taken to a cathartic process to be purged of their earthly sins. In this sense, Byzantium is a heavenly place which is in many respects in sharp contrast to the earth where common men dwell. Yeats’ utopic Byzantium is not Eliot’s waste land, but a reverse of it. But his quest of an ideal land is similar to that of Eliot although the latter is evidently pessimistic in his quest of a happy land. Eliot’s “hollow men” are condemned to suspire and die in the wasteland almost without any hope for betterment of their fate. But Yeats’ men can undertake to discover the ideal place which would offer them salvation. What is utopic in Yeats’ imagination is not purely historical nor entirely imaginative. His ideal is one which brings together the myths and cultural scaffoldings of Irish national identity with history. Instead of creating a utopia of myths and fiction, Yeats proposes one which possesses the best of the mythic as well as of the real. The remarks of Middleton Murry perhaps best summarizes Yeats’ resources in his construction of a utopic imagination:

The poet turns to myth as a foundation upon which he can explicate his imagination. He may take his myth from legend or familiar history, or he may create one for himself anew; but the function it fulfils is always the same. It supplies the elements, upon which he can build the structure of his parable, upon which he can make it elaborate enough to convey the multitudinous reactions of his soul to the world. (qtd in Brown 438)

Works Cited:

Brown, Terence. “W. B. Yeats: The Tower.” A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Ed. Neil Roberts. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001. 437-447. Print.

Eliot, T. S. “The Hollow Men.” Poetry Nook. Web. 25 May 2015.

Vieira, Fátima. “The Concept of Utopia.” The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Ed. Gregory Claeys. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 3-27. Print.

Yeats, W. B. “Byzantium.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 20 May 2015.

—. “The Second Coming.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 20 May 2015.

—. “Sailing to Byzantium.” The Poetry Foundation. Web. 20 May 2015.

Subashish Bhattacharjee and Saikat Guha, North Bengal University

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