A Journey from Life, the Ephemeral to Art, the Eternal: A Comparative Study of W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”

Arup Ratan Chakraborty, Santal Bidroha Sardha Satabarshiki Mahavidyalaya, Goaltore, Paschim Medinipur

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I

“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are two of Yeats’ accomplished poetic works known together as the Byzantium poems. Written in the autumn of 1926, “Sailing to Byzantium” first appeared in October Blast (1927) and was part of Yeats’s poetry collection, The Tower, in 1928. The second poem, “Byzantium,” was written in 1930, while the poet was recovering from illness and was published first in Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932), and then in his poetry collection, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933). Viewed together, two poems highlight Yeats’s yearning for immortality, as well as the beauty of art over the fleeting and carnal nature of sensuality.

“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are viewed as complementary poems that utilize the rich imagery of the historical city of Byzantium to explore themes of death, aging, and the transcendence of artistic expression. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poet invokes the holy city, which was once the eastern capital of Christianity. Byzantium is the old name of the city which under Roman rule was known as Constantinople and after Turkey defeated the Ottoman Sultanate was known as Istanbul. It was the headquarters of Eastern Roman Empire. Yeats describes it as a city for the young, replete with sensuality and life and unaware of the grim specter of death. The aging poet sails the seas to arrive at the city, where he envisions himself transformed into a golden bird that will sing to the emperor or the citizens of the city from a golden tree. “Byzantium” opens on the image of the impressive dome of Saint Sophia, a monument to faith that rises above the teeming life below. The poet then explores the image of a wrapped mummy, using the wrapping of the corpse to create a ‘perning’ action in which the spinning mummy ‘unwinds’ the intricacy of earthly life. Next, he refers back to the singing bird in “Sailing to Byzantium,” as the poet emphasizes the transcendence of art over mortal existence. “Byzantium” ends by describing dolphins—usually considered as traditional porters of the soul—swimming in to the shore bearing “spirit after spirit” (34) to purgation. This paper attempts a comparative study of these two poems and also explores the journey of the poet from life the ephemeral to art the eternal.

Together, “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are viewed as statements on spiritual and artistic rebirth, as well as symbolic representations of the creative poetic process. The motif of the journey is an oft-discussed one in the poems. On one level, “Sailing to Byzantium” depicts the old poet’s departure for the ancient city and the later “Byzantium” reflects his thoughts once there. On another level, “Sailing to Byzantium” traces the development of the old poet from an aged, impotent man into a glorious, eloquent bird; this is interpreted to be Yeats’s rejection of the bleakness of old age in favour of the beauty and glory of poetry. Moreover, biographers and critics have noted Yeats’ strong sense of nostalgia and hatred for the disorder of modern existence; “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” embody this theme as the poet perceives the ancient city as a representation of unity of being, splendour, and creative force.

II

“Sailing to Byzantium” was written in the autumn of 1926; the two typescripts (there are seventeen other MS. sheets) are dated 26 Sept. 1926. A. Norman Jeffares in his A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1968) writes about the title of the poem:

Yeats’s knowledge of the city was largely derived from reading W. G. Holmes’s The Age of Justinian and Theodora (1905), Mrs. A. Strong’s Apotheosis and the After Life (1915), and O. M. Dalton’s Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1911). He also read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Cambridge Mediaeval History, Encyclopaedia Britannica and other general reference works. R. Ellmann has suggested that J. B. Bury the historian, who was Latin master for a time at the High School, Dublin, may first have interested Yeats in Byzantium. (251-252)

The symbolic meaning of Byzantium can be discovered in Yeats’s A Vision (first published in 1925, and then substantially revised by Yeats in 1937); in A Vision, it was described at the end of the first Christian millennium. Byzantium is a holy city, as the capital of eastern Christianity, and as the place where God exists because of the life after death Yeats imagines existing there. His description of Byzantium in A Vision (1937) shows that he valued the position of the artist in the city:

I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium, a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato …. I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers … spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of indi­vidual design, absorbed in their subject-matter and that the vision of a whole people. (279)

In November 1924 Yeats had been ill, out of breath, with high blood pressure, and Mrs Yeats brought him to Sicily where he saw the Byzantine mosaics of Monreale and the Capella Palatina at Palermo. This visit may have revived his memories of the mosaics at Ravenna. He had visited the church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in 1907 and seen its frieze of holy virgins and martyrs1. On September 5, 1926 Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear: ‘There have been constant interruptions — the last time I wrote a poem about Byzantium to recover my spirits.’ The best comment on the poem, however, is contained in a paragraph Yeats wrote for a broadcast of his poems (B.B.C. Belfast, 8 Sept. 1931) which was not included in the final version of the script:

Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells [in the eighth century] and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city. (qtd. in Jeffares, A Commentary on the Collected Poems 253-254)

III

“Byzantium” originates from a criticism of T. Sturge Moore. On 16 April 1930 T. Sturge Moore wrote to Yeats that “Sailing to Byzantium” had let him down in the fourth stanza “as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies” (Yeats, Moore and Bridge, 162). On 4th October Yeats wrote to Sturge Moore to tell him that “Byzantium” originated from his criticism of “Sailing to Byzantium” which had showed Yeats “that the idea needed exposition” (Yeats, Moore and Bridge 164). This poem was written in September 1930. The prose draft of “Byzantium” contained in Yeats’s 1930 Diary ran:

Subject for a poem. Death of a friend . . . . Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbour [dolphins] offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to Paradise.

These subjects have been in my head for some time, especi­ally the last. (Explorations 290)

In ‘Modern Ireland’ Massachusetts Review (Winter 1964), Yeats can­celled this passage, formerly in the MS.:

In my later poems I have called it Byzantium fit’ was ‘an example of magnificence : and style, whether in literature or life, comes, I think, from excess, from that something over and above utility, which wrings the heart’], that city where the Saints showed their wasted forms upon a background of gold mosaic, and an artificial bird sang upon a tree of gold in the presence of the Emperor ; ‘and in one poem I have pictured the ghosts swimming, mounted upon dolphins, through the sensual seas, that they may dance upon its pavements. (qtd. in Jaferras, A Commentary on the Collected Poems 353)

IV

“Sailing to Byzantium” begins, “That is no country for old men. The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees / ̶ Those dying generations ̶ at their song” (1-3). The opening lines are torqued with a familiar conflict of ephemeral versus eternal and mortality of the body versus eternality of the soul. It seems Yeats writes this poem almost from direct experience; there is tension as the aging speaker realizes his own decay and the temporality of his surroundings. Though these ‘generations’ are ‘dying’ from the moment of their birth, they do not notice it: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect” (7-8). This first stanza is filled with the sensual, impure life that is distracted, disoriented, and fundamentally doomed. The body floods this stanza with sexual desire, selfishness, and decay. As an old man looks at his world, birds and fish seem to suggest springtime, youth, and procreation; though he finds something whole in his tattered body. It seems only art is eternal. The old man, like Yeats, is an outsider and finds himself alone.

The first stanza of “Byzantium” is similar in that it deals with the impure, sensual world, though it is markedly darker. There is contempt as

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins (5-8)

T.R. Henn in The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats (1965) writes that the dome is the “symbol of Byzantine achievement, the image of heaven, the only canopy for God”; it does not disdain mankind, but rather “the comparative simplification of his complexities” (230).

The second stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” finds the soul’s voice attempting to compensate for an aging body. Attempting to overcome “every tatter in its mortal dress,” the soul sings. The only songs they know, however, are songs about themselves and these merely sensuous songs no longer satisfy. They desire to sing about and experience something permanent; therefore, they must travel to a place where that can be sung about in new ways. They must set sail. The decay of age has led to self-discovery and self-realization. Decaying flesh is now an impediment between man and his desired form. There exists a need for permanence that his present body cannot fulfill.

The second stanza of “Byzantium” continues down the dark path it has found: “Before me floats an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than a shade” (9-10). The stanza continues unsure of what it is discovering. Everything seems interrelated and indefinable. “This most difficult verse concerns the invocation of the dead to discover their wisdom” (Henn 231). This invocation echoes the plea for the sages to “Consume my heart away” (21) in Yeats’s earlier poem.

In the third stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, it becomes clear that a precondition of entering the eternal city is ridding oneself of the body (as it presently exists), the heart and passion; “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is” (21-23). One must become purified of desire, passion, and love. It is the heart’s connection with the body, the dying animal, which connects the body to a sickness of desire that disallows true and pure knowledge of self. It seems the body cannot do this alone, however, and he calls upon the spirits of sages who have gone before him. Richard Ellmann in Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1979) comments:

God in the poem stands less in the position of the Christian God than in that of supreme artist, artificer of eternity and the holy fire; he is thus also the poet and the human imagination which is sometime in Yeats’s system described as the maker of all things …. The juxtaposition of fire and music in the third stanza may be traced back to his statement in Per Amica Silentia Lunae that ‘In the condition of fire is all music and all rest’. (258)

The third stanza of “Byzantium” opens on one of the Grecian goldsmiths’ forms from “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork

…………..

scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire or blood. (17-18, 21-24)

T.R. Henn elaborates on the quality of the bird: “The bird belongs both to the world of the dead, and to that of immortality; it can serve as sentinel to the underworld and to the earth” (233). The bird, in this poem, seems to be the only being in these poems that can successfully pass between the two worlds.

            In the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, Yeats continues the bird symbolism which is now a simulacrum of reached perfection:

Of hammered gold and gold enameling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bow to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past or passing or to come.” (28-32)

The bird represents the man’s body as flesh in the first stanza and as gold in the last; the tree represents the ephemeral world in the beginning of the poem and the eternal world as a golden bough in the end. These images have spiraled down and are analogous, not identical, to their predecessors. This relationship shows that Byzantium is not yet paradisiacal; there is corruption in the eternal. Byzantium is dependent on all that is mortal and ephemeral because without these, there would be no need for Byzantium to exist. The old man, once again, is an outsider and seems to find himself unable to reach Byzantium; he must look on from a distance.

At another level, “the golden bird, symbol of the reconciliation of opposites, symbolizes: (1) the poem itself, the created artifact; (2) the protagonist, who fades into it; (3) the poet, who becomes what he creates” (Ellmann 258). It is the complexities that mask multiple meanings and duality of characters. The poem closes as “the poet has sailed to Byzantium but his heart, ‘sick with desire’, is full of Ireland, and he cannot speak of the natural life without celebrating it” (Ellmann 260). A. Norman Jeffares in his  A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats quotes Yeats’s later explanation of his intentions in “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called “Sailing to Byzantium”. When Irishmen were illuminating the Books of Kells [in the eighth century] and making the jeweled crosiers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city. (qtd. in Jeffares 213)

These poems ask to be pulled apart layer by layer, consumed, and pulled apart again.

Finally, in the concluding stanzas of “Byzantium”, everything melds in coruscating piles heaped upon the reader’s head: “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit” (25-26). As T.R.Henn suggests: “Flames and Faggot suggest martyrdom, or the devastation of a countryside by the soldiery: steel has its double sense of the flint or the sword” (234). The complexities arrive from stanza one; “but now they are complexities of fury…there is the Biblical reference to the fiery furnace” (Henn 234). It is the dolphins that will save humanity

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,

Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

…………………….

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. (33-35, 38-40)

At the end of “Byzantium”, it seems, in one sense, that Yeats cannot reach his eternal desires and destinations without a mask. That is, he cannot write a perfect poem without distancing himself from the work.

V

”Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” show a poet’s journey from Ireland to Byzantium, but also the journey from life, the ephemeral, to art, the eternal. They follow, in different ways, a general journey from mortality to eternity juxtaposed with the journey from daily life to rarified and purified art. One of the most captivating things about W.B. Yeats’ poetry in general and “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” in particular is its rich symbolism. Symbols are essentially words which are not merely connotative but also suggestive, evocative and emotive. Symbols conjure before the mind’s eye a host of images attached to them.

“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are laudable attempts at bringing together aesthetics, spiritualism, symbolism, and mysticism together on one common platform. The effect is both revealing and enthralling. The poet symbolically leaves the world of limitations to usher into a world of permanence and artistic eternity. Tired of life’s agonizing existence, the poet seeks recluse and relief in death and beyond. Yeats writes in his essay “The Symbolism of Poetry”, “All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions” (Essays and Introduction 156). Not all symbols that Yeats uses are ‘emotional symbols’. He points out, “there are intellectual symbols, symbols that evoke ideas alone, ideas mingled with emotions” (Essays and Introduction 157). John Unterecker writes about Yeats’ use of symbols:

Yeats draws his from nature, that same natural world glorified by the romantics. Because Yeats thinks of himself as the “Last of the Romantics,” a man born out of his time, he assigns his symbols other values than the romantics did. Made “strange” by those values, his “masked” romantic images jolt us into a recognition of their symbolical function (Unterecker 40).

The deft use of these symbols in “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” enhances the reality of the present and mystery and richness of the past.

Richard Ellman writes, “Byzantium is a holy city, because it is the capital of Eastern Christendom, but it is also Yeats’ holy city of the imagination as Golgonooza was Blake’s” (257). The resplendent transcendental world Yeats visualizes in “Sailing to Byzantium” now gets replaced by the images of a dreary, dark and ghostly place; full of phantoms, ‘mire and blood’.

“Byzantium” has three key-symbols in the poem; the Byzantine dome, the golden bird perched on the golden bough and the flames of mosaic on the Empereror’s pavement. All three put together stand for the culmination of achievement in art. Being classic works of art they also symbolize immortality and eternity.

Works Cited

Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.

Henn, T.R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Great Britain: Methuen & CO, 1965. Print.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford U P, 1968. Print.

Jeffares, A. Norman, and W. B. Yeats. A New Commentary on the Poems of W.B. Yeats.

Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1984. Print.

Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Noonday, 1959. Print.

Yeats, W.B. Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961. Print.

—. Explorations. New York: Macmillan, 1962. Print.

—. A Vision. New York: Macmillan, 1937. Print.

Yeats, W. B, T. Sturge Moore, and Ursula Bridge. W.B. Yeats And T. Sturge Moore; Their

Correspondence, 1901-1937. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953. Print.

Arup Ratan Chakraborty is Assistant Professor and Head, Santal Bidroha Sardha Satabarshiki Mahavidyalaya, Goaltore, Paschim Medinipur.

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