Student Question

Discuss Yeats' use of symbolism in "Byzantium," "Sailing to Byzantium," "Easter 1916," and "The Second Coming."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

An interesting aspect of William Butler Yeats’ symbolic poetry is his use of corporeal imagery to illuminate metaphysical relationships between living beings and forces of nature. In his work, the body is a symbol to portray how the physical traits of humans work symbiotically with their spiritual counterparts. He thus illustrates abundant connections between the intangible and the tangible, which is evident in these four poems, with the following examples:

In “Byzantium,” Yeats navigates spiritual persistence in an apocalyptic setting, in which bodily functions, especially the flow of blood and oxygen through arteries and veins, symbolizes the soul’s capacity for enduring death within the confines of physical deterioration. The following passage depicts how a corpse still has the ability to communicate after the body ceases to exist:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

Additionally, “Sailing to Byzantium” further explores the idea that, despite nature’s control of the body’s limitations, the spirit has immortal power. As the speaker contemplates “God’s holy fire” and the “artifice of eternity of the holy city of Byzantium,” he asserts that “Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing” (IV). By acknowledging that nature dictates mortality, Yeats illustrates the transition from life to death as a natural unfolding of time. He also investigates this idea in “Easter, 1916” by further reiterating how all living beings evolve and change, in an eternal cycle that often feels mundane or foreboding.

The Second Coming,” Yeats's iconic poem written in the wake of World War I, takes on a more sinister tone; through using symbolic images such as “a shape with lion body and the head of a man” with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” he portrays his anxiety towards what he sees as a world falling apart. Significantly, he references the “Spiritus Mundi”—meaning “world of spirit”—in this image, therefore solidifying his dynamic approach to assessing the conflicting relationship between the spiritual and the material. Consequently, Yeats’ ability to evoke these human complexities with nuanced imagery cemented his legacy as a Symbolist poet.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial