(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”