How do "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium" compare in terms of the symbolic space they refer to?

Quick answer:

The symbolic space of Byzantium is idealized, serene, and static in Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium.” In “Byzantium,” while the holy city remains recognizable and magnificent, it is a more dynamic and violent place.

Expert Answers

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

Yeats's visions of the holy city in "Sailing to Byzantium" and "Byzantium" clearly overlap, but the difference between them is that of anticipated ideal and magnificent but flawed reality. "Sailing to Byzantium" is, as the title suggests, about the journey. The uncivilized land the speaker has left, teeming with brutish life, is contrasted with the perfect art and artifice of Byzantium, where golden birds sing magically upon golden boughs. The function of Byzantium here is to be a dream of civilization and beauty.

"Byzantium" has a more somber tone. The city is splendid but still fraught with "complexities of mire or blood." It is not that the city is less civilized or beautiful than the speaker of "Sailing to Byzantium" hoped. Rather, civilization itself is more violent and less perfect. The difference between the two is not all in favor of "Sailing to Byzantium," which presents a soporific vision of perfection achieved. If this was a space in which there was nothing left to do but fall asleep while golden birds made music, "Byzantium" presents a more dynamic space, in which there is still much to be done. The purity which the speakers of both poems crave remains possible in "Byzantium," but the "bitter furies of complexity" must be broken to create it.

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