Monday, March 30, 2009

Art, Immortality, Religion and Spirituality in W.B. Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium

The numerous analyses of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" seem to fall into two main groups:
Firstly, a minority of critics like John Crowe Ransom feel that the poem is "more magical than religious . . . and its magnificence a little bit forced."

Secondly, a great majority of critics that praise it for its perfect structure and its magnificent exaltation of art. Typical of this second group are Louis MacNeice, who writes: "Yeats is still, though reluctantly, asserting the supremacy of art, art, as always for him, having a supernatural sanction."

Kenneth Burke feels, "there is in Yeats, an intensification of Keats's vision of immortalization, not as a person, but by conversion into a fabricated thing. It is not a religious immortality that is celebrated here, but an aesthetic one."

Actually, both of these groups have misinterpreted the poem. A close analysis of "Sailing to Byzantium" establishes this judgment quite well. To do so, let us briefly recall Yeats's intellectual biography up to the time of his writing this poem.

Although for a short time in the late 1890's Yeats believed in An for Art's sake of the English variety and was influenced by French Symbolism, he soon decided that the emphasis in such a religion of art was a fundamental distortion of the vital relation that had existed between religion and art in the past, and in an important essay entitled "The Symbolism of Poetry" (1900) called for "a return to the way of our fathers ... a return to imagination" that would restore art to its proper function as "the garment of religion." He writes:

"How can the arts overcome the slow dying of men's hearts that we call the progress, the world, and lay their hands upon men's heart-strings again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times?"

This conviction expressed frequently in his prose volume entitled Ideas of Good and Evil and elsewhere, never left Yeats. As C. M. Bowra has said in explaining the difference between Yeats and Mallarme:

"Yeats does not regard poetry as complete in itself, with its own ritual and meaning. He sees it as part of a larger experience, as a means of communication with the spiritual world which lies behind the visible. For him the poet is almost a medium, and interpreter of the unseen, and his poetry is the record of the revelations given to him."

The point of all this is that, except for a brief devotion to a religion of art in his youth, Yeats always, whatever the ingredients of his theology, kept art as "the garment of religion as in old times," so that to speak of the immortality referred to in "Sailing to Byzantium" as "not a religious immortality . . . but an aesthetic one" is contrary to all that we know of· his expressed beliefs.

Yeats's own private religion, after his early rejection of Christianity, was indeed a hodgepodge, containing at various times elements from Irish folklore, Blake's system, Brahmanism, Buddhism, and (especially in his later years) the culture of the Byzantine Empire about the time of Justinian I. In spite of his rejection of Christianity, there are a few poems in his later years, like" A Prayer for My Son," that are definitely Christian, and he always admitted that he shared with Christians the belief, for example, in the miraculous immortality of their sainted dead. In" Vacillation" he says:

"Must we part, Von Hugel, though much alike, for we

Accept the miracles of the saints and honour sanctity?

The body of Saint Teresa lies undecayed in tomb,

Bathed in miraculous oil, sweet odours from it come,

Healing from its lettered slab."

Yeats's specific attitude toward Byzantium that is most relevant to the poem "Sailing to Byzantium" is expressed in A Vision. Why does he say, "I think if I could be given a month in 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."

He answers in the next sentence, "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." The spirit of this early age one of nearness to the supernatural (which Yeats would recover in "Sailing to Byzantium ") is not that of the artist creating his religion making his own "artifice of eternity."

On the contrary, says Yeats, the artists of that happy time "were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people . . . and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility." Yeats similarly in the humility of his religious attitude in this poem prays from his weakness as " a dying animal" that the messengers from" God's holy fire" may "gather me/ Into the artifice of eternity."

But let us consider in more detail the...... arguments of the critics. What about the group who find "magic" predominant in the poem ? Elder Olson contends that in the last two stanzas the monuments become "insouled" and the art animate: the monuments, he says, prayed to for life or death, as beings capable of motion from sphere to sphere."

Arthur Mizener says that "Yeats for a moment asks us to fancy the figures stepping [from the gold mosaic] as his singing masters." But the poem does not say this: the appeal is no more to the works of art or to the artists than the prayer of the Roman Catholic is to the statues of the saints, or the sculptors of the statues, before which he kneels. The appeal of the Roman Catholic is to the saints, whose lives on earth are commemorated, and whose present spiritual existence in the other world is represented, by the monuments. Such is the poet's attitude toward the" sages" in "Sailing to Byzantium." He does hot say, "Come from the gold mosaic." He says:

"O sages standing in God's holy fire

As in the gold mosaic of a wall,

Come from the holy fire. . . . "

The sages are to come from the holy fire, not from the gold mosaic, which, like the statues of saints for the Catholic, is merely the visible representation of the sages and the holy fire. If Yeats meant that the art might actually become animate, he would be little more than an idolater, or, even if he meant it only as a metaphor, it would be on about the same intellectual level as a fairy tale for children.

Of course, from a strictly rationalist standpoint, coming from the holy fire would be crude magic, but this symbol for a mystical, spiritual conta1lt with the holy dead has considerable religious sanction and therefore a certain degree at least of intellectual dignity.

We revert to the fairy tale magic, however, if we interpret the last verse of the poem as does John Crowe Ransom, who says of the poet:

"In Byzantium, in his next life, he will be a mechanical bird made of gold." But the poet does not say this. He says:

"Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make ...

To keep a drowsy Emperor awake."

Yeats was faced, as Dante had been in the Paradiso, with the exceedingly difficult task of conveying the idea of immortality in a concrete, poetic form. Dante chose, among other figures, the figure of the Rose; but Yeats's short poem had already emphasized the swift decay and death of everything natural; "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies."

Therefore-and here again is the answer to the group of critics who maintain that this is primarily an aesthetic and not a religious immortality -to what that is concrete but not natural could he turn except to art for a symbol of immortality? And it is only a symbol, specifically a simile, in the poem (" such a form as ...").


What, then, are the similarities between his immortal life and the mechanical bird that make the simile appropriate? The bird in the Emperor's palace that Yeats had read about was beautiful in appearance, enduring and precious (made of gold), and capable of singing songs that were both-beautiful and full of wisdom, not "sensual music," but singing

"To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come."

These characteristics, he no doubt felt, make this figure an appropriate one to express in concrete form the joys of immortality-especially appropriate since such mechanical birds actually existed in the historical Byzantium, of which Yeats said in A Vision: "I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one."


Starting from this remarkable historical city, Yeats made Byzantium his very unorthodox but devoutly religious version of the New Jerusalem, in which "holy city" the poet, the "dying animal," is primarily concerned, not with the art, but with the spiritual life visibly represented by the art.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

why is Yeats attacking Christianity as a belief??

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