A Missing Link in the Chain: W. B. Yeats, Mysticism and “Sailing to Byzantium”

Pawan Kumar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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W. B. Yeats’s oeuvre, especially his poetry, is studied as a part of courses on Modernism and Irish Literature all over the world. However, despite being in the mainstream English Literature Syllabi, Yeats’s mystical aspect is not given serious academic attention, both in terms of teaching and learning, which, according to my research, is essential for a better, more comprehensive understanding of the poetic-artistic persona of Yeats. It is a fact beyond reasonable doubt that mysticism was an integral, indispensible part of who Yeats was and what he wrote. In his oft-quoted line from a letter to John O’Leary (1892), Yeats wrote: “The mystical life is at the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.” But, in an act which almost undermines this key to the understanding of the towering personality and creative rigour of Yeats, what one usually encounters in the academic arena is that Yeats’s literary works are analyzed and explained through theories that give little or no space to his mystical aspect. Only at the level of independent research has the mystical aspect of Yeats always fascinated writers and critics, because it projects a different persona of Yeats, which is still, in some ways, beyond theoretical analysis and logical explanation.

 In the view of T. S. Eliot, something about his contemporary was unusual and inexplicable:

“Mr. Yeats’s mind is a mind in some way independent of experience; and anything that occurs in that mind is of equal importance. It is a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours.” (Cowell 11).

What Eliot was possibly pointing towards in calling Yeats’s mind “independent of experience” was, broadly speaking, the fact that the poetical experiences of a writer are always independent of day-to-day experiences, and particularly in the case of Yeats, they were all the more different because they had the unexplained mystical elements in them.

Now, mystical consciousness, when interpreted along different lines of contemporary theories, turns out to be an attempt to draw a boundary around a writer’s limitless imaginative flight. The thrust of this argument is, thus, not the perennial argument of applicability and usefulness of theories, but a critical engagement with the mystical consciousness of a writer and national history vis-à-vis his artistic and literary works. Especially in case of writers like W. B. Yeats, whose breadth of artistic/poetic imagination is such that it imports images and symbols from history (both Irish and World history), contemporary world view (in the sense of both political and philosophical ideas) and his own mystical and prophetic visions in order to articulate the existential quest of mankind and translate it into poetry, literature, and art.

In trying to study the hitherto unexplored, the methodological problem that one encounters is the use of traditional theoretical approaches to explain and establish one’s point. On the one hand, the subtlety of human consciousness gives rise to art and literature which are universal in their appeal, but on the other hand, the application of theories make them more objective and rationally appealing in their approach. But because mystical consciousness conceives ideas from different layers of history and time, thus defying spatial and temporal limits, how is it possible to analyze it with the yardstick of a theory, which has a confined space and time-frame to exercise its views? Throughout the oeuvre of Yeats, one finds an urge in the writer’s consciousness to create an absolute national identity. After coming into contact with various mystical societies like the Psychical Research Society, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Theosophical Society, to name a few, Yeats started to explore the representation of Irish folklore, myths, and people’s history in his literary works through the medium of mystical images and symbols as an expression of the idea of Irishness, and also the problems and existential anxieties facing mankind in general.

Being a painter, poet, mystic and politician, Yeats always delved into the literary terrain where poetry, mysticism and national pursuit intertwined, to give rise to such poems like “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Leda and the Swan,” “The Second Coming,” and “Among School Children,” to cite a few. The images and symbols in these poems are so powerful that they force one to think about the real, deeper meaning of life, culture and tradition. Taking specially the case of “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927), one discerns that on a symbolic level, the image of an old man represents the old Irish culture, while the new/modern culture is portrayed through the symbol of the young generation: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/ for every tatter in its mortal dress ” (Yeats 163) . Yeats intertwined these symbols with his mystical experiences to express his own psychological turmoil about existence in a poetical-philosophical manner. The element of a vision, a prophecy, makes his take on history, art, culture and tradition, different from other modernist writers/poets. These lines are indicative of the possibility that our historical consciousness is the soul of our creativity, and the aged man represents art and literature (which, in turn, take shape out of the very same historical consciousness) of the present. Yeats’s image of the ‘clapping of the soul’ shows the creative power of historical consciousness, which is beyond the periphery of disintegration. One must remember that Yeats’ active involvement in the Irish revival movement and his mystical pursuit gave a different shade to his poetry. In this poem, the poet’s emphasis on the symbol of the ‘[m]onuments of unageing intellect’ projects his mystical realization that one’s ancient culture and timeless traditions are eternal sources of creative inspiration. Later on in the poem, Yeats writes, “[a]nd be the singing-masters of my soul./ Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows what it is; and gather me/ Into the artifice of eternity” (Yeats 163).

Thus, from the foregoing discussion, it must be becoming clearer that Yeats’s vision of a nation can only be fully understood when one analyses the poem under discussion from the perspective of mysticism, where the mystic poetic-artistic persona is in search of a mystic order/system, in which poetry, philosophy and nationalism amalgamate to form, what Yeats terms ‘Byzantium”; the energy expended in the act is a testimony to the same: “I have sailed the seas and come/ To the holy city of Byzantium.” This is further proven by Yeats’s own statement, “I had three interests: interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality. . . Now all three are, I think, one, or rather all three are a discrete expression of a single conviction” (Yeats v).

Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’ is not an ideal world or an alternative refuge, but a place achieved when one realizes the real philosophy and meaning of life and literature, which was accurately articulated by William Blake, who inspired Yeats and was quoted by him in his “Mr. Rhys’ Welsh Ballads,” that “art is a labour to bring again the golden age” (Uncollected Prose 92). Although one can find this mystical streak running through most of Yeats’ work, in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the importance that Yeats accords to mystical experiences reaches its zenith when he writes, “Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing” (Yeats 164).

In fact, even in his poem “The Tower” (1926), Yeats envisages the existential angst of a man caught in an age of desolation : “What shall I do with this absurdity—/ O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,/ Decrepit age that has been tied to me/ As to a dog’s tail?” (Yeats 164). But later in the poem, his poetical imagination and mystic experiences give him strength to declare that “[n]ow shall I make my soul” (Yeats 169). Mystic experiences gave a new fervour and energy to Yeats’s poetical expression of the external world, and at the same time, the much-needed strength to deal with the realization that “[w]hatever is begotten, born, and dies” (Yeats 163). The images that spring from his mystical experiences come together to account for Yeats’s world of complex symbolism (like gyres, rose, lunar phases, tower etc.), thus posing serious challenges for anyone approaching Yeats’s works without some or little knowledge of his exploits into the unknown and esoteric world and its experiences.

Thus, the mystical aspect of Yeats provides us a deeper understanding of his images, symbols, his philosophy and his take on human life and existence. Although it makes his world seem complex, it also justifies Yeats’s visionary and prophetic poetic consciousness, which the latter also demands that added effort from the reader’s side, where she/he has to go the extra mile to decode the ‘other’ world that Yeats’s thinking mind inhabited. Mere theorization of his work will not lead to an exhaustive understanding/explanation of the subtle interplay of artistic imagination and mystical experiences in his work. Thus, it goes beyond reasonable doubt that the introduction of mysticism into our discussions on Yeats would definitely provide a new direction to our attempts to comprehend the enigmatic personality of Yeats as well as offer newer vantage points to understand the artistic range and deep-seated meanings of his poetic and literary works.


Critics on Yeats: Readings in Literary Criticism. Ed. Raymond Cowell. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971. Print.

The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats, Vol. 1, 1865-1895. Eds. John Kelly and Eric Domville. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986. Print.

Uncollected Prose by W.B. Yeats 2: Reviews, Articles and Other Miscellaneous Prose 1897-1939. Eds. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson. London: The Macmillan Press, 1975. Print.

Yeats , W. B. The Collected Poems. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2008. Print.

Pawan Kumar, Ph.D. Research Scholar,Center for English Studies,School of Language, Literature and Cultural Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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