Byzantium Essay - Critical Essays

Byzantium Poems, W. B. Yeats

Introduction

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.

Major Themes

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 Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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

...

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Criticism

James A. Notopoulos (essay date November 1945)

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 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 I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even. … 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.3

This intense admiration for “the monuments of Byzantine magnificence” is the result of Yeats' visit to Sicily in November 1924 when he saw the Byzantine mosaics of Monreale and the Capella Palatina at Palermo.4 His biographer, Hone, says that he saw Yeats in Rome in February 1925. “There was a week of sightseeing, and as in Sicily, he followed the enchantment of mosaics and glass, which he compared with the ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ that he had seen at Ravenna seventeen years before, when visiting Italy with Lady Gregory.”5 Yeats also sailed the seas and came “to the holy city of Byzantium,” at least in his imagination, which was nourished, Coleridge-like, on books. As Coleridge, in a gloss to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner (line 132), refers to the “Platonic Constantinopolitan Michael Psellus” so Yeats appends a note to the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” which reads, “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.”6

A search for this source leads us to...

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A. Norman Jeffares (essay date January 1946)

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...

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Thomas L. Dume (essay date June 1952)

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...

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Harry Modean Campbell (essay date December 1955)

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...

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James A. Notopoulos (essay date April 1959)

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...

(The entire section is 4074 words.)

Georg Roppen and Richard Sommer (essay date 1964)

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...

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R. Fréchet (essay date 1965)

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...

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Simon O. Lesser (essay date January 1967)

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.]

I

“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...

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Ruth Elizabeth Sullivan (essay date 1967)

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....

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E. San Juan, Jr. (essay date 1972)

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....

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James Lovic Allen (essay date June 1973)

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'...

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Ronald E. McFarland (essay date 1976)

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...

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Vilas Sarang (essay date Fall 1978)

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:...

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Virginia Pruitt (essay date Spring 1980)

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...

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William Empson (essay date Summer 1982)

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...

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Herbert J. Levine (essay date 1983)

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...

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Russell Murphy (essay date 1986)

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...

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Edward Lense (essay date 1987)

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...

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James Lovic Allen (essay date Fall 1990)

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...

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J. L. Kerbaugh (essay date Fall 1990)

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...

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Jonathan Allison (essay date 1990)

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...

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Michael Steinman (essay date Winter 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 801 words.)