James A. Notopoulos (essay date November 1945)

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SOURCE: “‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” in Classical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2, November, 1945, pp. 78-79.

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[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 the emperor Constantinus Porphyrogenitus (912-959), who in describing the throne of Solomon in the Palace of Magnaura at Constantinople says:

Kαì ποιο[UNK]ντος το[UNK] λογοθέτου τ[UNK]ς sυνήθεις [UNK]ρωτήsεις ε[UNK]ς αύτòν [UNK]ρχονται βρυχ[UNK]sθαι οí λέοντες καí τ[UNK] [UNK]ρνεα τ[UNK] [UNK]ν τ[UNK] sέντz[UNK] [UNK]μοίως καí τ[UNK] [UNK]ν το[UNK]ς δένδρεsι, [UNK]δειν [UNK]ναρμονίως τ[UNK] δ[UNK] z[UNK]α τ[UNK] [UNK]ν τ[UNK] θρόν[UNK] άπò τ[UNK]ν íδίων βαθμ[UNK]ν άνορθο[UNK]νται … καì...

(The entire section contains 83225 words.)

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