Byzantium Poems, W. B. Yeats
Byzantium Poems W. B. Yeats
Irish poet, memoirist, short story writer, translator, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Yeat's Byzantium Poems, “Sailing to Byzantium” (1926) and “Byzantium” (1928). See also, "The Second Coming" Criticism.
Known as the Byzantium poems, “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are considered two of Yeats's more accomplished poetic works. Written in the autumn of 1926, “Sailing to Byzantium” was published in his poetry collection, The Tower, in 1928. The second poem, “Byzantium,” was written in 1930, while the poet was recovering from illness. Viewed together, critics assert that the two poems underscore Yeats's yearning for immortality, as well as the beauty of art over the fleeting and carnal nature of sensuality. Composed near the end of the poet's life, the pieces are perceived as his reaction to aging, illness, and death.
Plot and Major Characters
“Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are viewed as complementary poems that utilize the rich imagery of the historical city of Byzantium to explore topics such as 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. He 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. Written four years later, “Byzantium” opens on the image of the impressive dome of Santa 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” to its purgation.
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. In fact, in his autobiographical notes, Yeats claimed the poems reinvigorated his interest in poetry as well as life. 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 favor of the beauty and glory of poetry. Moreover, biographers and critics have noted Yeats's 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, splendor, and creative force. In fact, some commentators have discussed parallels between the poet's portrayal of Byzantium and his homeland of Ireland.
Critical commentary on “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” has been extensive and diverse. The famous imagery of the Byzantium poems has prompted much speculation on the part of critics to its original source. One critic, Thomas L. Dume, attributes the images to The Cambridge Medieval History, as well as other historical studies of the city and its art. Other possible sources include John Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Virgil's epic poem, The Aeneid. Critical studies of the poems have been divided into two main categories: the spiritual interpretations, which focus on Yeats's depiction of the state of the soul and the afterlife; and the aesthetic view, which regards the verses as symbolic portrayals of the creative process. The majority of reviewers praise his thematic and stylistic accomplishment with the Byzantium poems, in particular the tight, effective structure of the pieces and their emphasis on the virtue of art. As Georg Roppen and Richard Sommer contend regarding Yeats's portrayal of the ancient city, “rarely has a symbol enabled a poet so to integrate his sensibility and fuse the energies of religious, intellectual and artistic aspiration.”
Mosada: A Dramatic Poem (poem) 1886
The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (poems) 1889
John Sherman (novella) 1891
The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (poetry and play) 1892
The Celtic Twilight (nonfiction) 1893
The Land of Heart's Desire (play) 1894
Poems (poems) 1895
The Secret Rose (short stories) 1897
The Wind among the Reeds (poetry) 1899
The Shadowy Waters (play) 1900
Cathleen ni Houlihan (play) 1902
Where There Is Nothing (play) 1902
The Hour Glass: A Morality (play) 1903
Ideas of Good and Evil (nonfiction) 1903
In the Seven Woods: Being Poems Chiefly of the Irish Heroic Age (poems) 1903
On Baile's Strand (play) 1903
The Hour Glass and Other Plays (plays) 1904
Stories of Red Hanrahan (short stories) 1905
Poems, 1899-1905 (poetry) 1906
The Poetical Works of William B. Yeats (poetry) 1906
Discoveries: A Volume of Essays (essays) 1907
Poetry and Ireland [with Lionel Johnson] (nonfiction) 1908
(The entire section is 410 words.)
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SOURCE: “‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Classical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, November, 1945, pp. 78-79.
[In the following essay, Notopoulos investigates the sources for the imagery found in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
W. B. Yeats', “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of his best poems, is also a noteworthy Platonic lyric.1 The contrast in the poem between the “sensual music” and the “monuments of unageing intellect” is the mature expression of a Platonic mood, shaped and given impetus to expression by Yeats' interest in Plato and Plotinus, his friendship with Stephen MacKenna, and his study and admiration of MacKenna's great translation of Plotinus.2 In his desire to be gathered into the “artifice of eternity” and in his construction of a Platonic Reality, Yeats has chosen the imagery of Byzantium which held a powerful grip on his imagination:
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.
We have preparation for the heavily inlaid Byzantine imagery of this, the last stanza of the poem, in a passage of Yeats' A Vision:
I think if I could be given a...
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SOURCE: “The Byzantine Poems of W. B. Yeats,” in Review of English Studies, Vol. 22, No. 85, January, 1946, pp. 49-52.
[In the following essay, Jeffares surveys possible influences on Yeats and “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
In his notes to Collected Poems1 Yeats wrote that he had warmed himself back into life by writing ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Veronica's Napkin’. The date for the poem's first emergence on to paper is given by an entry in the poet's 1930 Diary, recently published by the Cuala Press. This entry, dated 30 April, runs:
Subject for a poem … Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millenium. 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 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.2
The reference to ‘the system’ in Yeats's draft necessitates an examination of what he had written about Byzantium in A Vision. He gives an account of Byzantium which explains why he turned to this town as a subject for a poem:
I think that if I could be given a month of antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend...
(The entire section is 1448 words.)
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SOURCE: “Yeats' Golden Tree and Birds in the Byzantium Poems,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 67, No. 6, June, 1952, pp. 404-07.
[In the following essay, Dume considers the origin of the tree and birds in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
In William Butler Yeats' Byzantium poems, the imagery of the golden tree and the golden birds is striking enough to warrant a further consideration of its genesis in the poet's mind. Although commentators have speculated on the possible sources of this imagery, no decision could be reached until the books Yeats read and the books Yeats did not read were known to us. Investigation of his reading now points to a specific volume which almost certainly provided him with the picture of the golden tree and the golden birds.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” written in 1926, we find the lines:
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.(1)
And in “Byzantium,” written in 1930, we read:
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, More miracle than bird or handiwork, Planted on the star-lit golden bough, Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud In glory of changeless metal...
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SOURCE: “Yeats' ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. LXX, No. 8, December, 1955, pp. 585-89.
[In the following essay, Campbell interprets Yeats's vision of Byzantium as an “unorthodox but devoutly religious version of the New Jerusalem.”]
The numerous analyses of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” seem to fall into two main groups: a minority of critics feel as does John Crowe Ransom that the poem is “more magical than religious … and its magnificence a little bit forced”1; the great majority, however, praise it highly for its perfect structure and its magnificent exaltation of art. Typical of this second group are Louis MacNeice, who says: “Yeats is still, though reluctantly, asserting the supremacy of art, art, as always for him, having a supernatural sanction”2; and Kenneth Burke, who says: “there is in Yeats an intensification of Keats's vision of immortalization, not as a person, but by conversion into a fabricated thing. It is not a religious immortality that is celebrated here, but an aesthetic one.”3 I believe that both these groups have misinterpreted the poem, and will attempt to establish this judgment by an analysis which needs to be introduced by briefly recalling Yeats's intellectual biography up to the time of his writing this poem.
Although for a short time in the late 1890's...
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SOURCE: “Byzantine Platonism in Yeats,” in Classical Journal, Vol. 54, No. 7, April, 1959, pp. 315-21.
[In the following essay, Notopoulos considers the impact that Byzantine imagery and history had on Yeats's poetry and notes the Platonic elements in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
The poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of Yeats' best, is also a noteworthy Platonic lyric.1 The contrast in the poem between the “sensual music” and “the monuments of unaging intellect” is the mature expression of a Platonic mood, impelled to expression and shaped by Yeats' interest in Plato and Plotinus, his friendship with Stephen MacKenna and his admiration of MacKenna's gifted translation of Plotinus.2 In his desire to be gathered into the “artifice of eternity” and in his construction of a Platonic Reality, Yeats has chosen the imagery of Byzantium which held a powerful grip on his imagination after his visits to Italy where he beheld the Byzantine mosaics mentioned in the poem.
Yeats never sailed the seas to the city of Byzantium. He came to it in the seas of poetry and imagination, the first pilgrim in English poetry ever to come to Byzantium for his inspiration. This voyage of Yeats is unique in many ways, and as such it deserves special notice. First of all, Byzantium, in contrast to ancient and modern Greece, had no influence on English poetry until Yeats...
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SOURCE: “Yeats: To Byzantium,” in Strangers and Pilgrims: An Essay on the Metaphor of Journey, Norwegian Universities Press, 1964, pp. 337-52.
[In the following essay, Roppen and Sommer explore the defining themes of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” contending that the poems “work out a myth of spiritual and artistic rebirth.”]
For various reasons, the Romantics and Victorians could best express their spiritual conditions, private and public, through the structure of the journey as an unending quest; or if a goal was hinted, it was left vague enough to accommodate a wide range of symbolic meaning. As faith and myth receded and the traditional patterns of Christian teleology lost their hold on the poetic imagination, the value of the image of life as a journey was sought in the actual process of discovery of the self, or the splendour of action, or the greatness of the past. Combined with the idea of a voluntary exile from a barren present the journey might lead, if not to religious certainty, then at least to freedom and self-realisation, ‘beyond the utmost bound of human thought’, or in the retired ground of the Oxford countryside.
The poets of the twentieth century have achieved an intellectual toughness unknown or rare in their immediate forbears, and with their greater sense of paradoxical action, they have emerged from the perplexities and darkling plains...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and Keats's ‘Ode to a Nightingale’,” in W. B. Yeats, 1865-1965: Centenary Essays on the Art of W. B. Yeats, edited by D. E. S. Maxwell and S. B. Bushrui, Ibadan University Press, 1965, pp. 217-19.
[In the following essay, Fréchet assesses the influence of Keats's “Ode to a Nightingale” on “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
The dissatisfaction with the world of the senses and the yearning after another world, expressed in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, are of course a common theme in romantic poetry; but some close analogies between the two poems suggest that Yeats had Keats's poem at the back of his mind while composing his own; and they certainly invite a comparison between the two.
‘My heart … sick with desire’ seems an echo of ‘My heart aches’; ‘Birds in the trees … at their song’ reminds us of ‘Thou, light winged Dryad of the trees … / Singest’; ‘a form of hammered gold and gold enamelling’ seems a transmutation of the earlier poet's ‘immortal bird’. Yeats's bird, like Keats's, sings to an ‘Emperor’. Yeats, like Keats, thinks of old age and death which follow fast upon youth. ‘And therefore’, he says, ‘I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium’, echoing Keats's ‘Away! Away! … Already with thee!’
Keats is a young...
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SOURCE: “‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in College English, Vol. 28, No. 4, January, 1967, pp. 291-310.
[In the following essay, Lesser rejects earlier interpretations of “Sailing to Byzantium,” instead viewing it as a sad poem written by an old man dreading his imminent death.]
“Sailing to Byzantium” seems to occupy a special place among the several poems by Yeats dealing with the bleakness of old age. In this poem, it appears to be widely believed, Yeats triumphantly confronts and liquidates his fears of aging and death. He does so by virtue of the fact that he—or, more accurately, the “I” of the poem—is a poet and a student of poetry: he discovers that engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privations of old age.
It would be interesting to discover, if that were feasible, how much influence a single essay, Elder Oldson's widely known “‘Sailing to Byzantium’: Prolegomena to a Poetics of the Lyric,” has played in the acceptance of this viewpoint.1 What makes the question worth raising is that, so far as I can ascertain, the essay has not been challenged in any head-on way in the more than twenty years it has been in print, though surely the poem with which it deals can be read in more than one way. It seems absurd to suppose that a single essay could impose itself on an entire generation of...
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SOURCE: “Backward to Byzantium,” in Literature and Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1967, pp. 13-18.
[In the following essay, Sullivan interprets “Sailing to Byzantium” as a yearning for the past, a “regression to the early, non-sexual state of oral union with mother.”]
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” an old man failing in physical powers rejects his own country, with its birth-decay-death pattern of sensuality, for Byzantium and its passionless, immortal artifices. There he would be transformed from his natural, dying state into a golden bird singing on a golden bough, into immortal art. This is, very briefly, what Yeats's poem is about on its conscious level. It asserts the superiority and desirability of immortality over earthly life, of art over sensuality.
Beneath its conscious level, beneath the intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic values we find openly expressed lies an unconscious wishful fantasy that moves in an opposed direction—not forward toward some higher and superhuman state (expressed as becoming a “monument of unageing intellect” or an “artifice of eternity”) but backward toward very early infancy. The conscious yearning for release from a dying body in the timelessness of art is an unconscious yearning for freedom from adult sexuality, freedom achieved through regression to the early, non-sexual state of oral union with mother. Adult sexuality makes...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and the Limits of Modern Literary Criticism,” in Revue des Langues Vivantes, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 5, 1972, pp. 492-507.
[In the following essay, San Juan offers a reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” that underscores the thematic concerns of the poem, particularly those of transition and change.]
In spite of the rigorous and systematic methods skilfully applied by critics and scholars in the interpretation of literary texts today, we have grown more sharply aware that all such methods possess intrinsic limitations. The neo-Aristotelians have of course candidly announced their pluralistic orientation in matters of theory. But in the realm of practice, the result seems far from satisfactory in elucidating the meaning of poetic form. Elder Olson's excellent analysis of Yeats's poem, its value as a comprehensive evaluation of the poem's artistic principle, depends on the debatable assumption that one can discern a clear “dialectical sequence” in the poem.1 Apart from the critic's apparatus, it is doubtful if a “dialectic” is displayed by the organization of the elements in the poem. Given the coalescence of idea and image in poetic style, “dialectic” seems an inference based on pragmatic, categorizing grounds. Concepts like theme, vision, argument, etc. are extrapolations from sensory apprehension and the life of feeling. The ordering...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's Byzantium Poems and the Critics, Reconsidered,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, June, 1973, pp. 57-71.
[In the following essay, Allen surveys the critical analyses of “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
In 1962, A. Norman Jeffares published an article, “Yeats's Byzantine Poems and the Critics,” which ostensibly surveyed the major scholarship and criticism produced up to that time on the two famous pieces. The present essay is intended both to update and to improve upon that earlier article. In the period since 1962, a quite considerable volume of valuable scholarship and criticism on the two poems has been published. Moreover, Jeffares' article suffered appreciable deficiencies in the first place, digressing at points into its own analyses rather than sustaining a survey of previous studies, manifesting a marked bias in favor of British commentators over American, and committing errors in such basic matters as the spelling of authors' names and the dating of publications.
The body of secondary material on Yeats's Byzantium poems is rather astonishing, both in quantity and variety. The effort here will be to classify the more significant articles and portions of books according to nature, approach, or emphasis and to make brief value judgments as well, so that the reader will have some basis for deciding whether a given item might be of interest to him or of...
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SOURCE: “George Herbert and Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Four Decades of Poetry, 1890-1930, Vol. 1, 1976, pp. 51-53.
[In the following essay, McFarland considers the influence of George Herbert's work on “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
Although George Herbert is named in A Vision, very little has been said of his possible influence upon William Butler Yeats's poetry. Moreover, since Yeats scarcely mentions the great seventeenth-century devotional poet elsewhere in his writings, there would appear to be no reason to expect any noteworthy influence. There have been a few observations, however, concerning some possible interest in Herbert on the part of Yeats. T. R. Henn has suggested that The Winding Stair, a volume of poems which first appeared in 1929, is titled after a line in Herbert's ‘Jordan (I)’: ‘Is all good structure in a winding stair?’1 Yeats's note cited in the variorum edition of the poems, however, indicates that ‘In this book and elsewhere I have used towers, and one tower in particular, as symbols and I have compared their winding stairs to the philosophical gyres.’2 Another possible literary influence has been recognized by Elsie Leach, who has noted some relationship between Yeats's ‘A Friend's Illness’ and Herbert's ‘Vertue’.3
In A Vision Yeats indicates that poets of the twenty-fifth...
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SOURCE: “The Byzantium Poems: Yeats at the Limits of Symbolism,” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 49-54.
[In the following essay, Sarang analyzes the contrasting symbolism in Yeats's Byzantium poems.]
O where is the garden of Being that is only known in existence As the Command to be never there … ?
—W. H. Auden, For the Time Being
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
—T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
The two Byzantium poems constitute one of Yeats's major statements of a recurrent theme in his poetry: the achievement of the Timeless, and its relation to the temporal world. Any artist trying to depict the Timeless in his work must face the impossibility of the task. How can you convey the sense of Being when all you have at your disposal belongs to the world of Becoming? For a poet like Yeats, who grew up in the Symbolist tradition, it must have been especially difficult to convey the sense of Being through images derived from the world of phenomena. Yeats attempts to make the best of this situation by systematically transmuting the temporal into the Timeless. He struck upon Byzantium as the great symbol of eternity. Thus we have a specific place in a historical period as the emblem of the transcendence of history. Around this central...
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SOURCE: “Return from Byzantium: W. B. Yeats and ‘The Tower’,” in ELH: English Literary History, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 149-57.
[In the following essay, Pruitt contends that “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Tower” not only discuss the issue of aging, but asserts that each poem is “part of a process, that they are complements.”]
A remarkable level of creative activity characterized Yeats's final decades. Indeed, T. R. Henn has suggested that there exists “no precedent in literary history for a poet who produces his greatest work between the ages of 50 and 75.”1 What was the reason for Yeats's anomalous achievement? A clue to the enigma may lie in his concurrent cultivation of aesthetic sophistication and instinctive drives. Because the youthful Yeats was confident of his intellectual superiority, but felt out of touch with his instinctive drives, his effort to develop those drives was the pursuit of a lifetime. The culmination of that quest in old age may help us understand the phenomenal finish of his career as a writer.
In 1888, when he was twenty-three, Yeats remarked to his friend, Katherine Tynan: “We both of us need to substitute more and more the landscapes of nature for the landscapes of art. I myself have another and kindred need—to substitute the feelings and longings of nature for those of art.”2 Twenty years later,...
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SOURCE: “Yeats and Byzantium,” in Grand Street, Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer, 1982, pp. 67-95.
[In the following essay, Empson examines earlier drafts of Yeats's Byzantium poems to gain insight into the work.]
I had a short article on “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” in A Review of English Studies for Summer 1960, arguing that they are not so transcendental as many critics have assumed. If Yeats had meant what these people say, the poems would be in bad taste, marking a low, not a high, spiritual condition. The argument was from internal evidence, and I thought no more was needed. I was taken aback when a friend said: “Excellent; you have shown that Yeats was a pig unless he meant what you say, and obviously he didn't mean that; so now we know he was a pig, as always seemed probable.” Justice then demanded that I should peer round for external evidence, though with little hope that it had survived. This was lucky for me, as I would not otherwise have read two studies of the rough drafts for these splendid poems: one by Curtis Bradford, “Yeats's Byzantium Poems,” in Twentieth Century Views, the other by Jon Stallworthy in his book Between the Lines (1963). I am rather against the collecting of rough drafts, but Yeats was right to let those pile up in a folder; in the main, they are not boss shots but extra material which his technique forced him to exclude. What was...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's Ruskinian Byzantium,” in Yeats Annual No. 2, edited by Richard J. Finneran, Macmillan Press, 1983, pp. 25-34.
[In the following essay, Levine determines the influence of art historian John Ruskin's work on Yeats's Byzantium poems.]
Reading the numerous source studies of Yeats's Byzantium poems, one sometimes gets the impression that Yeats spent his life in a vast library, poring over books and pictures, until one day when he had absorbed enough, he retired to his study and fashioned a masterpiece out of those numerous fragments. Blake's Golgonooza, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Eugenie Strong's Apotheosis and After-Life, illustrations of the Baptistry dome at Ravenna, the Byzantine decor of Stockholm's Stadshaus, all have been suggested as instrumental to the conception of Yeats's Byzantium.1 While such studies are valuable in illuminating how Yeats transplanted details from his reading and visual experiences into his completed poems, they do not reveal the characteristic habits of mind that enabled Yeats to do so. What was it that led Yeats to shape Byzantium as an ideal city of art, whose monuments symbolize a constellation of moral and spiritual values? What was it that led him to use the visual arts as the key signposts in his history of Western civilization, the “Dove or Swan” chapter of A Vision? I contend that Yeats's habit...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's Christ Pantokrator and the Image of Edessa: Some New Observations on the Significance of Byzantium in Yeats's Historical System,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 8, Nos. 1-2, 1986, pp. 41-49.
[In the following essay, Murphy underscores the importance of historical events in Byzantium as they relate to Yeats's poems.]
While both Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium” and his “Byzantium” are poems deserving of the intense critical attention which they have received over the years, scholars too often have diminished or ignored completely the historical importance of Byzantium itself whenever they have tried to determine the source of Yeats's fascination with the city.1 Thus they have neglected to consider that Yeats's prose and poetry on the subject of Byzantine culture might yield as well to analysis when that fabulous city is regarded in the light not of aesthetic or symbolic values but of the larger and no less coherent system of values that is human history. The following article, by focusing upon the historical development of a key image which Yeats appropriated from Byzantine art, i.e. the Christ Pantokrator, will demonstrate a new basis of validity for Yeats's historical system as it is expounded in A Vision, a validity founded upon verifiable phenomena.
No one will disagree that Byzantium—neither the symbol nor the poetic theme but the actual...
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SOURCE: “Sailing the Seas to Nowhere: Inversions of Yeats's Symbolism in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies: Volume 5, edited by Richard J. Finneran, UMI Research Press, 1987, pp. 95-106.
[In the following essay, Lense investigates the unique aspects of “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
Poetry concerns itself with the creation of Paradises. I use the word in the plural for there are as many paradises as there are individual men—nay—as many as there are separate feelings.
J. B. Yeats to W. B. Yeats, 10 May 1914
When his father made this comment in a letter to him,1 Yeats had already been creating Paradises in his work for thirty years and would continue to do so until the end of his life. Each of his versions of Paradise was, furthermore, based on “a separate feeling”; for Yeats, the Other World in any of the forms he gave it was the expression of one emotion, a concentration of feeling entirely different from the partial and shifting emotions of this world. Byzantium in “Sailing to Byzantium” (P 193-94) is one such form of the Other World; what makes it unique is that the emotion it embodies is bitterness and a thorough rejection of life in this or any other world. Byzantium is “paradise” for the speaker of the poem, but certainly it is the paradise of an...
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SOURCE: “From Innisfree to Hagia Sophia: The Heritage of Meaning in Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 85-89.
[In the following essay, Allen finds parallels in imagery and meaning between Yeats's “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
… I must leave my myths and symbols to explain themselves as the years go by and one poem lights up another. …
Preface to Poems (1895), 1901 reprint
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are perhaps Yeats's two most familiar poems, the one from his early period and the other from his middle-late period. Interestingly, the two poems, along with certain other pieces, are more closely related to each other in imagery and meaning than is superficially apparent or than has generally been supposed. Further than that, the tracing of such interrelationships suggests important conclusions about thematic emphases in the later and more mature poem.
In a brief article entitled “Yeats and Innisfree” published in 1965, Russell Alspach presents a good deal more about the genesis of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” than another article from the same year with the word genesis in its title.1 Alspach quotes a passage from Autobiographies in which...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘The Tower’: A Dialectic of Body and Intellect,” in Yeats Eliot Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 90-94.
[In the following essay, Kerbaugh speculates on Yeats's arrangement of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Tower” in his poetry collection, The Tower.]
The common subject matter of “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Tower”—making one's soul, and coming to terms with old age and death and with the relationship between old age and art—explains clearly enough why Yeats printed the two poems side by side in The Tower, a matter which has nevertheless occasionally puzzled critics.1 Some question may remain, however, as to why Yeats printed “Sailing to Byzantium” before “The Tower,” which was not only composed a year earlier (1925) but was, more importantly, the title poem of the collection. The most obvious explanation is that Yeats wanted the volume to begin with the greater rather than the eponymous work. Another is that although it was actually composed earlier, “The Tower” more accurately expressed the attitude upon which he finally settled toward body and intellect and their relationship to poetry, for Yeats was, as J. P. O'Donnell points out, “at all times too alive to the world around him to abandon it completely in favor of the artifice of eternity.”2
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SOURCE: “The Last Line of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’: A New Source,” in Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies: Vol. VIII, edited by Richard J. Finneran and Edward Engelberg, The University of Michigan Press, 1990, pp. 319-21.
[In the following essay, Allison suggests a lecture by his father, John Butler Yeats, in 1906 as a possible source for the last line of “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
The source of the last line of Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium”—“Of what is past, or passing, or to come” (P 194)—is usually attributed to Blake or Shelley, though there are also several possible sources of the line in Shakespeare's plays.1 A more recent possible source, however, may be found in a lecture delivered by John Butler Yeats in 1906 to the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, published in Sanachie in 1907 and again in Essays Irish and American in 1918.2
Yeats may have attended the 1906 lecture in Dublin, or he may have read it when published in 1907 or thereafter.3 He possessed a copy of Essays Irish and American, published in June 1918, and was probably responding to this widely-read volume when he wrote to his father, in a letter of 14 June 1918, “You are a most accomplished critic.”4
In the lecture, J. B. Yeats discusses the paintings of George Watts and criticizes the artistic tastes of...
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SOURCE: “Yeats's ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in The Explicator, Vol. 52, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 93-94.
[In the following essay, Steinman submits Shakespeare's King Lear as the origin for the bird imagery in “Sailing to Byzantium.”]
In “The Circus Animals' Desertion,” W. B. Yeats asserted that his images “[g]rew in pure mind” (630). But the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” may make us feel that “pure mind,” although compelling, is not sufficient explanation. Where did that singing bird come from? Yeats's creative eclecticism, blending the morning's conversation with philosophical abstractions, makes the notion of one and only one source for any image implausible: see Frank O'Connor's comments on the genesis of “Lapis Lazuli,” for example (211-22). We cannot discard Yeats's note to the poem, “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang” (825), although its first four words sound suspiciously like the flimsy cloak of respectability that Yeats threw over his boldest inventions. Some have suggested that the bird came from his reading of Byzantine history, Gibbon, or even Hans Christian Andersen (Jeffares 257). But a previously unacknowledged source is worth considering: Lear's consoling speech to Cordelia in the play's final act, as they are led off to prison and death....
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Finneran, Richard J., ed. The Byzantium Poems. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co., 1970, 160 p.
Reprints essays on the Byzantium poems.
Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1968, 563 p.
Full-length study of Yeats's poems, with analysis of the Byzantium poems.
North, Michael. “The Ambiguity of Repose: Sculpture and the Public Art of W. B. Yeats.” ELH 50, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 379-400.
Considers the metaphor of sculpture in Yeats's poetry.
Additional coverage of Yeats's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers, Vol. 6; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 1890-1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 127; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 45; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10, 19, 98, 156; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-Studied Authors, and Poets; Discovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism,...
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