Sunday, March 29, 2009

Main Themes in W.B. Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium is indeed one of the best known lyrics of W.B. Yeats. Written in 1926, it appeared in Yeats's 1928 collection The Tower. Ever since its publication, Sailing to Byzantium has evoked immense interest among readers and critics alike.

Most of the critics have perceived Byzantium in variety of ways; as a representation of the imagination, the imaginative act, the soul, vision, and Unity of Being. The poem has also been viewed and interpreted as the source and the symbol of supreme beauty and enduring appeal of artifacts.

The poem's major and most obvious theme centers on the contrast between the ephemeral and the permanent. The poem conveys the message that human body is mortal and is sure to decay and perish whereas art or beautifully crafted artifacts are timeless, eternal, unchangeable and of permanent value.

The poem is thus the poet's deepening desire to leave this world of death and sorrow and to escape into a world of immortal beauty perceived imaginatively as an imaginary escape to Byzantium. Raymond Cowell writes, "The poet determines to sail to a place where he will be appreciated, Byzantium. He hopes that he will thus be able to defeat Time ...because art is timeless".

Similarly, another critic Harold Bloom also equates the "artifice of eternity" with artwork. According to Denis Donoghue, "The old man is changed into a poet and he knows his place; it is not on earth, in nature, but in the eternity of art. It makes little difference to the poem whether we feel Byzantium as an island of the blessed, a land of eternal youth, or the holy city of Romantic art, so long as we receive from it suggestions of permanence, perfection, and form".

W. B. Yeats asserted that his images "grew in pure mind". But the golden bird of "Sailing to Byzantium" may make us feel that "pure mind," although compelling, is not sufficient explanation. Where did that singing bird come from? We cannot discard Yeats' note to the poem, "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", although its first four words sound suspiciously like the flimsy cloak of respectability that Yeats threw over his boldest inventions.

Some have suggested that the bird came from his reading of Byzantine history, Gibbon, or even Hans Christian Andersen . But a previously unacknowledged source is worth considering: Lear's consoling speech to Cordelia in the play's final act, as they are led off to prison and death.

Yeats was greatly moved by King Lear and referred to it with some frequency in print over 40 years, with the references intensifying as he aged. Whether calling it "mad and profound" in February 1926, several months before writing "Sailing to Byzantium," or explicitly envisioning himself like Lear-elderly yet fierce. Thus, when we read Yeats' wish to be transfigured, we may turn again to King Lear:

“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…..”

Characteristically, Yeats's recreation of the impulse behind Lear's speech is entirely personal, but he echoes its emotional intensity and its philosophical direction. Art inspired by love--song, in this case--could defeat evil and render death irrelevant. Spatial and temporal limitations--prisons of whatever kind--do not make it impossible to create beauty. Singing joyously as the golden bird, Lear and Cordelia, caged, could "wear out" their enemies; the singing soul, creating the "artifice of eternity," could escape the aging body's prison.

Yeats' bird, timeless, beautiful, and wise, paradoxically sang of the temporal, but eternal art could take shape only within those limits; thus the time-laden echoes of Lear's "tell old tales," "speak of court news," and "explore the mystery of things" in Yeats's "... past, or passing, or to come."

The fragility of art and love in a threatening and at best unappreciative world was not a new theme for Yeats, nor was a father's desire to protect his beloved daughter from the world's storms (as in "Prayer for My Daughter"). Yet the words of Lear to Cordelia in prison were joyous; facing death, they adopted the heroic gaiety that Yeats commemorated in "Lapis Lazuli."

In Lear's speech, Yeats saw not only the personal--the aging man, artist, parent, menaced by the inevitable; it spoke to him of art's power to combat the world's terrors. The theme of escaping from one’s imprisonment by singing and praying like a singing bird in a prison from which the only escape is death or the theme of getting transformed by love have always been the most powerful human defense against evil, helplessness and mortality.

Yeats acquired his initial knowledge of Byzantine mosaics from the visit he made to Italy in1907. He also read several books focused on Byzantium's history and this knowledge on the subject reflects well in this poem too.

Yeats' imagery and ideas for Sailing to Byzantium surely were influenced by his personal identification with the age of Justinian, an empire which Yeats, in a continuation of the musings on Byzantium quoted above, described as his ideal society, one in which "maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one".

Yeats derived most of his information from the book titled The Age of Justinian and Theodora by W. G. Holmes, and the impact of this book was reflected in A Vision which Yeats was composing during the period when he read Holmes's book . In A Vision, Yeats declares, "I think that 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".

However, if one reflects on the eventual fate of Justinian's empire, and, by extension, the artifacts representative of it, then it would seem that a deep vein of irony must not be in the poem.

In a recently published historical account, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004), Jonathan Phillips describes the ultimate fate, in the thirteenth century, of the aesthetic products of Justinian's reign: "The Church of the Holy Apostles contained a mausoleum holding the tombs of some of the..... great Byzantine emperors of the past, including Justinian. Not content with pillaging all the church's ornaments and chalices, the crusaders broke open the great imperial tombs. These mighty sarcophagi, made of the purple porphyry marble that signified imperial status, held not just corpses, but also gold, jewels and pearls. Justinian's body was found to be in almost perfect condition; in the 639 years since his death his cadaver had barely decomposed. ... While the crusaders were duly impressed, it did nothing to halt their stealing of the valuables lying around the imperial body."

Phillips concludes the with a summary of the drastic effects of the devastation and havoc caused by crusaders, "Constantinople was being transformed from the greatest city in the Christian world to a scarred and ragged shadow of its former splendor.... the monuments that had commemorated and sustained the Byzantines' cultural identity were being torn down. Pedestals stood shorn of their statues, alcoves lay bare".

It seems, then, that in Sailing to Byzantium Yeats intimates the vulnerability of the very artifacts that within the poem, appear to symbolize immutability. This vulnerability, unlike the biological vulnerability of the "dying animal," has been imposed not by time, but by human aggressiveness, greed and avarice as expressed through inevitable cycles of human warfare.

Viewed thus, the speaker while facing his inevitable destruction as a "dying animal" appears to be, in an ironic sense, to be a counterpart of the apparently inviolable Byzantine golden bird whose destruction has merely been deferred and not condoned.

If one accepts this interpretation, then Sailing to Byzantium becomes linked not only with its obvious complement, "Byzantium," but also with another poem in The Tower, "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," a poem that commences with the statement, "Many ingenious lovely things are gone," a vanishing imposed by the "nightmare" of a "drunken soldiery."

The only "comfort" that the speaker can get is through the consolation that "Man is in love and loves what vanishes," a judgment that may define, though much more subtly, a similar poignant dilemma in Sailing to Byzantium.

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