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Ainur Elmgren
Lund University, Department of English
ENG 163 Spring 2000 
Tutor: Lennart Nyberg
Miracle, Bird or Golden Handiwork
Symbol of Nature versus Artifice in W.B. Yeats�s Byzantine poems


1. Introduction


Not merely a nationalist bard, deeply religious and yet pagan, deeply involved in the occultist movements of the late 19th and the early 20th century and still most at home in his native county of Sligo, Ireland � William Butler Yeats is difficult to portray coherently without considering every facet of his motley intellectual roots.

The creative period of Yeats stretched over a time of great changes in the world of art and literature. The Irish poet�s works can be linked to the Symbolist movement, but he was also a contemporary to the Modernists such as T. S. Eliot and T. E. Hulme. Other parallels may be drawn to the Romantics of the early 19th century, particularly William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he himself studied. Yeats was thus a poet of many levels, and it is challenging to unravel the layers of metaphors and symbols in his poetry and search for his sources of inspiration.

The purpose of this essay is to find the sources and inspirations to Yeats�s two so-called Byzantine poems and the ideas that led the poet to express himself and his philosophy in those verses. "Sailing to Byzantium" and the later "Byzantium" are clearly related in imagery; can they also be linked together thematically?

At a first glance, the poems seem to contrast images of nature and life with images of "artifice" and eternity. The former are viewed with scorn, while the state of the latter images is seen as desirable and ideal. The speaker seems to turn his back on organic life and seeks liberation in the artificial and eternal. However, is this all there is to it? My theory is that a study through Yeats�s many layers of meaning may reveal a more complex message. The focus will be set on one particular recurring symbol, the mechanical golden bird. I will try to study how Yeats�s ideas and work methods are revealed through this single image. What is his message and with which means does he convey it?

My essay consists of seven sections. The second will analyse the construction and technique of the two poems on a more superficial level, and only dwell upon the most obvious interpretations of the symbolisms and meanings. Here I lean heavily on A. Norman Jeffares�s excellent and thorough works on the poetry of Yeats. In the third section, the scope focalises on the bird image and goes through the historical background and possible sources for it. A deeper analysis is intended: What does the bird represent: the artificial, the artist? Why does it scorn the living birds? Does its role change from one poem to the other? A comparison will be made with other birds in Yeats�s poetic language and their symbolic significance.

The fourth section deals with Yeats�s inspirational sources. Which movements influenced him in his choices of style and subject matter? Can he be associated with any specific artistic movement of the late 19th and early 20th century? Nature and artifice occupy opposing positions. Why does Yeats seem to be on the side of the artificial and the artificer? His treatment of the two opposites is compared to some typical works and philosophies of Romantics and Modernists. The influence of Christian beliefs of the polarity of the flesh and the spirit, as well as Yeats�s interest in the occult, will be studied. Are there other works by Yeats, which deal with this problem? The fifth section is dedicated to Byzantium and the reasons why Yeats chose this city as the location for the two poems, and the significance of Byzantine art in Yeats�s philosophy. In the sixth section, his correspondence with his friend and colleague T. Sturge Moore on the subject of the poems is examined, and we understand how Yeats saw it necessary to write a second, more developed poem after "Sailing to Byzantium", and in the seventh, the outlines of Yeats�s philosophy behind the bird image are presented. Finally, the results are summarised in the conclusion.


2. Analysis of the Poems

"Sailing to Byzantium" is a poem of four stanzas in ottava rima, the rhyme scheme ABABABCC. The lines are seemingly quite freely composed and the rhymes are not always pure ("unless"/"dress"/"magnificence"; "wall"/"soul"/"animal"). It was written in the autumn of 1926 and belongs to Yeats� later period, together with "Leda and the Swan" and "Among School Children". The collection The Tower (1928) is said to contain the richest texture of his poetry, sprung as it is from the switch of interest from the Celtic twilight period to life�s riddles (Jeffares The Poetry 42).

Accordingly, the work on "Sailing to Byzantium" began as an expression of dislike of the process of ageing and the frustration at the contrast of youth and vigour (Jeffares The Poetry 42). The imagery of the first stanza is vivid and full of symbols of life and recreation: "The young/ In one another�s arms, birds in the trees � The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, /Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long/ Whatever is begotten, born and dies"(Yeats The Poems 217). In the second stanza follows a description of an old man and his sad existence amongst beings uninterested in the intellectual achievements of the ancient and the experienced. The poem�s speaker announces his decision to leave that country of teeming, sensual life and sail "To the holy city of Byzantium." After this turning-point, the speaker in the third stanza calls out to the "sages standing in God�s holy fire", the agents of his transition from the land of the living, to free his soul from his mortal body and desires: "fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is;" and to gather him "Into the artifice of eternity". Finally, the fourth stanza describes an artificial object, namely a bird of gold, "such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make". This mechanical device can sing and entertains the Imperial court of Byzantium, singing "of what is past, or passing, or to come". This final image of artifice is a contrast to the living birds (and other creatures) in the first stanza, and also to the "scarecrow"-like old man in the second, whose soul might "clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress", but does not, since nobody would listen.

The second Byzantine poem was written in 1930, four years after "Sailing to Byzantium". Structurally it has important differences. There are five stanzas with eight lines each, of which the first three are in iambic pentameter, then a trochaic line with four stresses, then one in iambic pentameter, two short lines, with at least two stresses each, finally one in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is AABBCDDC, but not always consistently so. The whole structure seems freer than in the preceding poem. The loosening form is tightened by repetition of key words and phrases.

In "Byzantium", less space is devoted to the natural images. As early as in the fifth line of the first stanza, they are already rejected: "A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains/ All that man is/ � The fury and the mire of human veins"(Yeats The Poems 280). Just as in "Sailing to Byzantium", the soul is purified in fire, but its travels are further elaborated upon. The images of ancient Byzantium � the "cathedral" is probably the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, and the golden bird, the "Emperor�s pavement" and the smithies can all be traced to various historical sources on the Byzantine Empire � provide a background to the spiritual journey of the souls after life which leads into the sea on the backs of dolphins. Interestingly, the journey starts here in the ancient, even mythic capital itself, while in the previous poem the beginning was set in a young and blooming Ireland. The sea plays a key role in both cases; it can be interpreted as the soul�s long and possibly even dangerous road after death to another level of existence.

Is there a difference in tone in the two poems?

According to A. Norman Jeffares the "value of the image or the artefact comes out strongly in �Byzantium�, where Yeats is not so much concerned with �Sailing to Byzantium�s� � immense natural vigour as with the state arrived at by the creative imagination, the stillness at the core of the flame-begotten spirits" (Jeffares The Poetry 50).

Both poems are about the same theme, but Yeats develops his ideas further in the latter one. In addition, the apparent opposition of nature and art in the earlier poem is not that obvious in "Byzantium". Even though "the fury and the mire" of earthly life are dismissed from early on, the theme permeates the poem and recurs in the three last stanzas:
"�scorn aloud / In glory of changeless metal / Common bird or petal / And all complexities of mire and blood."
"�Where blood-begotten spirits come / And all complexities of fury leave�"
"Astraddle on the dolphin�s mire and blood, / Spirit after spirit! � Marbles of the dancing floor / Break bitter furies of complexity�"

The beauty of the mortal world is not without its charms, even in Yeats�s eyes. He is prepared to draw inspiration from it, although he is painfully aware of its fleeting nature.

Jeffares writes of other poetry of Yeats�s from the period of "Byzantium": "This is an acceptance of life (�) which is opposed to his Byzantine goals" (Jeffares The Poetry 52). Even in "Byzantium", the point Yeats strives to make is something more than merely a juxtaposition of organic life (bad) and artifice (good).


3. The bird.

Background and possible sources

A visitor at the court of Constantine Porphyrogenetos, Emperor of Byzantium, describes among the wonders at the hall of audience a tree made of gold and bronze, standing in front of the Imperial throne:

Different kinds of birds, also made of gilded bronze, filled its boughs and chirped like real birds, each in its own way� When at my arrival the lions roared and the birds sang each after its own tongue, I was struck by neither horror nor astonishment, because I had heard much about the ceremony from well-informed sources� (Liutprand of Cremona, quoted by Zilliacus 90-91; my translation)

The purpose of this display of wealth and wonders of technology at the Byzantine court was undoubtedly to induce fear and awe in state visitors from "barbaric" countries. It implied that the Emperor, God�s representative on earth, had the power to make lions roar and birds sing at his command, indeed, to make lions and birds, with almost the same voices as the living.

Yeats�s knowledge of Byzantium and the gilded bird at the court was apparently derived from W. G. Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodora (1905), Mrs A. Strong, Apotheosis and After Life: Three Lectures on Certain Phases of Art and Religion in the Roman Empire (1915), and O. M. Dalton, Byzantine Art and Archaeology (1911). Other possible sources are Gibbon�s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Cambridge Mediaeval History, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Jeffares A New 211).

A related, though maybe surprising source of inspiration might be a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor�s Nightingale" (Nattergalen, Andersen 181). This has been suggested by E. Schanzer in "�Sailing to Byzantium�, Keats and Anderson", English Studies, XLI (Dec. 1960) (Jeffares A New 215). The Emperor of China loves to listen to the plain little nightingale�s beautiful song. One day he receives a gift from the Emperor of Japan, who presents him with a mechanical nightingale made of gold:

�it was a little work of art, lying in a box, an artificial nightingale, which was supposed to look like the living one, but it was covered with inlaid diamonds, rubies and sapphires; as soon as you winded up the artificial bird, it would sing one of the melodies which the real one sang, and all the while the tail went up and down and gleamed of silver and gold. (Andersen 184, my translation)

The clockwork bird becomes the whole court�s favourite toy, and the real nightingale leaves quietly. However, when the golden nightingale�s machinery is irreparably broken, the Emperor falls sick with sorrow for his old friend, and the nightingale returns to save his life with its song.

Contrarily to the moral in Andersen�s tale, Yeats seems to place the artificial bird above the ordinary, living ones. Organic life is depicted as a wild, passionate cycle of unconscious suffering, which the thinking man strives to escape. Art provides this escape, since a being made of metal or stone is virtually immortal � or, at least, more long-lived than a human being. In addition, an artist who creates such objects becomes himself immortal through his works, as his memory lives on in them.

The golden bird is an appropriate symbol for the artist and the work of art alike. A singing bird is a common symbol for a poet, and this particular fowl keeps singing "To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come". It is not only a poet, but also a historian, and, what is most important, a visionary. As the examination of Yeats�s interest in the occult will show, he was much concerned with visions and supernatural ways of communication.

The bird is also an ancient image of the soul: "Often the soul has been conceived as a bird ready to take flight. This conception has probably left traces in most languages, and it lingers as a metaphor in poetry" (Frazer 181). Old beliefs among peoples all over the world took great care of different situations when the soul might take its chance and fly away from the body, for instance while sleeping. Some particularly gifted individuals, like witches and shamans, were believed to be able to send out their souls on journeys to other worlds, often in the shape of birds, and then return unscathed.


Other Birds in Yeats�s Works

Yeats�s poetry abounds in birds: swans, doves, sparrows, hawks and falcons, and even a phoenix. In "The White Birds", an early poem from The Rose (1893), the birds are lovers, flying over the sea. In The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), the birds become a more spiritual image in the title poem, and in "The Hawk", the "yellow-eyed hawk of the mind" seems to signify the spirited intellect (Yeats The Poems 167). In "The Second Coming", the falcon in the first stanza is man, losing his orientation and his connection with the falconer (Christ?) in a turbulent world (Jeffares A New 210). In "Leda and the Swan" (1923), the disguise of Zeus who seduces the mortal woman becomes a symbol of the divine, a terrible and irresistible power which seizes the human being. The bird is an image always in connection with spirituality and divinity. Yeats is building on a long tradition. Birds and their ability to fly have always intrigued mankind, and while some religions have associated them with the dead, and other have equipped their deities with wings or bird heads, as the Egyptian Horus and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, to provide them with the same supernatural qualities which they associated with falcons or quetzal birds, Christianity depicts the Holy Ghost, the most abstract part of the Trinity, as a white dove.

Does the bird's role change from one poem to another?

"Sailing to Byzantium" ends with the speaker choosing the shape of the golden bird for his existence "out of nature". The bird inhabits the entire last stanza, while of "Byzantium�s" five stanzas the third one is dedicated to it. The third stanza is the middle one, and thus the poem seems to move on beyond the image of the mechanic device � but whither? I will return to that question, but the role of the bird has certainly changed. It is described more emotionally than its counterpart in "Sailing to Byzantium" is, which "sings � Of what is past, or passing, or to come" without feelings or engagement. The bird in "Byzantium" actually "scorn[s] aloud" mortal creatures and their joys and sufferings "by the moon embittered". Surely, a mechanical device cannot feel embittered by any celestial object. What is there in the image of the moon that is so objectionable? Probably its fickle character; during its cycle it grows full, then wanes, and then disappears completely. Most likely, it serves as a symbol for Yeats�s idea of the cycle of life and death, and, in a wider sense, the cycle of the history of mankind. The bird is not completely liberated from the troubles of its living relatives. It is perhaps more closely related to the frustrated artist himself, still trapped in a world of dirt and pain, but longing for a higher state of existence.

4. Inspirational Movements and Philosophical Sources

The Romantics

The Romantic Movement, undoubtedly, was a great source of inspiration for Yeats. His early poetry with its fascination with old Irish myths and fairy-tales, the beautiful landscapes of the Irish countryside, and the mixture of ancient eastern philosophy and Occultist imagery, fits neatly in the tradition of Blake and Shelley.

In comparing John Keats�s "Ode to a Nightingale" with "Sailing to Byzantium", many interesting parallels meet the eye. The theme is the longing for a distant place, preferably a mythical location somewhere in the Mediterranean, and the centre of the poem is a singing bird. Keats describes it in words that reverberate in Yeats�s lines: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! /No hungry generations tread thee down; /The voice I hear this passing night was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown�"(Keats 22). All the while "The weariness, the fever, and the fret" of everyday life is compared to the ideal existence in "the country green, /Dance, and Proven� al song, and sunburnt mirth!"(Keats 19-20). The narrator longs to follow the song of the bird to the dark and lush forest "on the viewless wings of Poesy" (Keats 20).

Katharine M. Wilson, who analyses the "Ode to a Nightingale" in a Jungian light, writes: "one can easily see why the nightingale should be a dream symbol for the Self. Singing in the dark and quiet of night from the heart of a wood, it does in external reality what the symbol of the Self does in inward experience" (Wilson 122).

Keats revels in nature imagery and uses it to describe supernatural bliss in detail, and the bird whose immortal song he praises is clearly a living, mortal creature. What the speaker turns his back on is not natural life as such, but the transience of beauty and dreams in the ordinary lives of mankind "where but to think is to be full of sorrow". His search for redemption leads him to the manifold beauty of nature, which is mixed with religious allusions: "�soft incense hangs upon the boughs", "thy high requiem", "the sad heart of Ruth", from the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament.

Yeats�s "Sailing to Byzantium", in contrast, carries this message: "Those who generate and die, perpetually imperfect in their world of becoming, have praise only for that world; the old man has no part in it, [�] hoping only for escape into the world of complete being, the world of the self-begotten", the artifice of eternity, as it were (Kermode 86-87). Keats, still young, does not seem to feel alienated by the images of the blooming of nature and life in spring and summer. Keats embraces those images and makes them his own, seeing nature as the road to spirituality, while Yeats struggles with what he experiences as a contradiction. Although inspired by the Romantics, Yeats deals with other problems in his works than they do.

The Symbolists and the Decadence

Another literary movement, which Yeats has been associated with, is the Symbolists. Since Yeats was a contemporary of the movement and its greatest representative in Britain, Oscar Wilde, an investigation of the Symbolists� ideology is called for. Obviously, merely the use of symbols does not make a poet a Symbolist. The Aesthetic movement and the Decadents of the 1890s stand for a slightly different philosophy than he. Sexuality and death are connected, just as in the first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium", but Yeats�s ensuing vision of an ideal future is missing from the works of Mallarm� and Baudelaire.

[I]t is unnecessary to look to [�] any Frenchman for the symbolism of [�] Yeats, who was a symbolist long before he heard of the French. He based his symbolism upon the poetry of Blake, Shelley and Rossetti, and, above all these, upon the occult. (William York Tindall, "The Symbolism of W. B. Yeats", in John Unterecker, Yeats. A Collection of Critical Essays, New York 1963; quoted by Timm 144)

The Modernists

How, then, is Yeats to be placed in the literary movement which he later became associated with? The modernist writers and poets in the Anglo-Saxon world represented different ways of breaking with the old schools of realism and romanticism, and it is difficult to discern any philosophy or ideology common to them all. In art, the term "modernism" could be applied to cubism, futurism, Dadaism, or any of the groundbreaking new styles, which had left the traditional views of the meaning of art behind. Common themes seemed to be the embracing of technology and an optimistic view on scientific development, while there also bloomed a new interest in the art of "primitive" cultures and a longing towards the uninhibited, "natural" sensuality and emotions which were believed to exist in such societies.

Yeats�s own criticism of antiquated conceptions of morale was not tied to any programme of new collective norms, but highlighted the outstanding individual. Yeats saw the conditions of living disappear for the carriers of a great culture with the advent of democracy and materialism, and these achievements of the modern civilisation meant for him the end of civilisation itself. A revaluation was necessary. Compared with his forebears of the Romantic, for instance William Blake, whose visions of the salvation of Man were always concerned with the whole mankind, Yeats stays a pure individualist. When asked by his friend T. Sturge Moore how to illustrate the final scene in "Byzantium" with spirits leaving the city on dolphin-back, how many there should be of those, Yeats simply answered: "One dolphin, one man." (Jeffares The Poetry 51) Correspondingly, in the poems, the golden bird sings alone, although the historical sources (e. g. Bishop Liutprand) mention several birds on a tree.

The movement in literature towards what we call modernism had to try to break with the conventions of storytelling. Not only the style, but also the themes of literature were subjected to radical experiments. James Joyce wrote almost a thousand pages about a day in Dublin; Virginia Woolf defied the norms of feminine writing while also rejecting the traditional masculine style, and wrote stream-of-consciousness novels lacking any action.

A remarkable modernist poet, William Carlos Williams, once defined a poem as a "machine of words" (Williams 54). He may serve as an example of a poet who redefined the role of the poet and the complex concept of "image". Williams saw the poet as a bricklayer, because he or she uses prefabricated material, i. e. words and metaphors (Halter 32). He blended his need for an indigenous, modern American art with the current propagation of technology and a new popular culture based on it. I will return to the connection between the poet and the workman or craftsman in the next chapter.

The Modernists came to criticise formerly firmly held values, such as religion and belief in the progress of society. Some modernist critics characterise the movement by its scepticism and ironic sensibility, its Nietzschean enterprise of calling into question all religious faith. Any tendencies towards the mysticism in T. S. Eliot�s, Ezra Pound�s or indeed Yeats�s works are dismissed by such critics as "aesthetic positions" (Materer 7). Later critics, such as Timothy Materer and Leon Surette, have instead emphasised the modernists� considerable interest in the occult and their often profound belief in certain phenomena, in Yeats�s case the communication with spirits through a medium. This interest is mirrored in the subject matter and the language of their poetry, although often seen through a veil of careful irony, as if the poet fears the incredulity and ridicule of his audience.

Of the Byzantine poems, the earlier "Sailing to Byzantium" is quoted more often in criticism, and more has been written about it than its younger pendant. Possibly "Byzantium" is seen as nothing more than a paraphrase of the previous poem, then again, the mystical content is heavier in it than in "Sailing to�", which can be read as the outcry of an old man, weary of life � the very superficial duality, so neatly expressed through the composition of the four stanzas, which is diffused in the second poem. The "blood-begotten spirits" "astraddle on the dolphin�s mire and blood" are more difficult to interpret symbolically, without considering Yeats�s seriously intended dabblings with the occult.

Yeats and the Occult

It was hardly possible to escape Christian values in a society like the Irish, or indeed, anywhere in Europe or America at that time. The Christian view of the flesh as sinful, as it is born in Original Sin, and the soul as pure or at least eternal, while the earthly body is subject to ageing and decaying, undoubtedly influenced Yeats�s thinking in one way or another. Yeats grew up in a religious family, Protestant by tradition, but his father�s atheism must have planted a seed of doubt in his mind, for although he craved for something more spiritual and mysterious in his life, than his father�s house-gods of reason and science (Darwin, Tyndall and John Stuart Mill) could provide him with, partly because he wanted to break with his father�s rationality and his respectability and partly to give his works a fertile growing-ground, he did not feel compelled to turn towards the Church of Ireland. Instead, a friend in Dublin introduced him to the Theosophists, and in 1885, Yeats founded together with him and a few others the Dublin Hermetic Society, a forum to discuss the occult sciences and pseudo-sciences which were en vogue at that time: Odic force, Spiritualism, Esoteric Buddhism and whatnot. When the Yeats family moved to London in 1887, Yeats joined the London Lodge of the Theosophists, led by its famous founder Madame Blavatsky. The theosophist doctrine was a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist elements, mingled with Western occultist traditions such as the Cabalistic, Neoplatonic, Hermetic, and Rosicrucian. Materer states that "Madame Blavatsky [�] raided Gnostic traditions" while formulating spiritualistic doctrines (Materer 174).

The duality inherent in orthodox Christianity was even more emphasised in the Gnostic tradition, which arose and flourished in the 2nd century and was finally branded as a heresy by the founding fathers of the Church. According to Gnosticism, the Creator of the world, a secondary deity called the Demiurge, is evil, and his creation is evil, since matter and the body binds the spirit and hinders its development. Christ is good and has come to lead the human race towards redemption, and to free it from the bonds of the material world. The name of the movement derives from the Greek word gnosis, knowledge, usually used by the Gnostics in the sense of "revelation" which gave them certain mystic knowledge for salvation, which others did not possess (Brewer 468). At least one critic, Harold Bloom, places Yeats in a Gnostic tradition because of its fascination with the contrast between the material world and the life of the soul (Materer 78).

Yeats gained much insight in the roots of occultism, and became firmly convinced that it was possible to communicate with the spirits of the deceased through mediums. He was introduced to the works of Emanuel Swedenborg and Eliphas L�vi. The idea of the pilgrimage, which every individual has to make, through life and beyond, and which is a part of the structure of the universe, also became central to his philosophy and goes as the main thread through both Byzantine poems, with the spirit�s travel through all phases of existence. However, the Theosophist ideal of the devout disciple did not suit Yeats. In the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he found a society fitting to his needs, and he joined it in 1890. There he found symbolism, imagery and linguistic resources based on Western traditions such as the Cabala and the Greek mysteries. It is worth citing a formal statement of his beliefs, which he made in 1901:

"I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, � in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times and been the foundations of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are

That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.

That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols. (Yeats, Essays and Introductions, 28; quote Hough 1984. My italics)

"Symbols" means here not just the literary symbolism of poetry, but also something more concrete. A popular practice among the members of the Golden Dawn was to meditate on certain objects, shapes and colours, which had to be manufactured by the members themselves. There exists an obvious link between these rituals and Yeats�s praise of the artisan, particularly the Byzantine artist, the "Grecian goldsmith", who created symbols of divinity and thus established a link between himself and the divine. In the same manner as the artisan and the poet were connected, the poet and the magician were essentially the same in their conjuring up of images and visions from the "great memory" of mankind.


5. Why Byzantium?

As early as 1907 Yeats had visited the Romanesque church of S. Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, and seen the "sages", the saints and apostles on the mosaic-clad walls of the basilica. Yeats had revisited Ravenna in November 1924. He was clearly inspired by the Byzantine mosaics at Monreale and the Capella Palatina at Palermo (Jeffares A New 211). The art of this period continues to intrigue him and provide him with material for his poetry.

Yeats writes in one of the most often quoted passages in The 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�(A Vision 279)

Yeats regarded Justinian�s reign in Byzantium as a great age of building in which Byzantine art was perfected. A building like St Sophia, the "great cathedral" with its "starlit or moonlit dome" of "Byzantium", preceded the climax of that civilisation.
Already in 1931, for a broadcast on his poems, he developed this idea of the city:

Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called �Sailing to Byzantium�. When Irishmen were illuminating the Books of Kells [in the 8th century] and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilisation and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city. (Jeffares A New 211)

Byzantium is the holy city where art and spiritual life are ultimately fused (Hough 71-72). It is not so much the historical city, as a mythic place, comparable to the heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse of St John or the legendary Islands of the Immortal of medieval legend. The historical Byzantium was invaded by the Turks at the end of the Middle Ages, and the Empire was lost, but the very fact that Byzantine Constantinople did not exist anymore made it the ideal city to use as an otherworldly symbol.
The art of Byzantium adapted to the needs of the church. The concept of the artist as an individual, who founds his own schools and creates his own style, was unknown. Yeats wrote about the role of the Byzantine "artificer", as he saw it:

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 � though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract � 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 [sic] the vision of a whole people. (Yeats A Vision 279-80, my brackets)

According to some critics, Byzantine art kept Yeats interested because it gave him a sense of an image totally estranged from specifically human considerations (Kermode 88). T. E. Hulme celebrated Byzantine art as being "life-alien, remote from organic life and even detesting it"(Kermode 124-125). This writer and philosopher, who in spite of his short life (1883-1917) was an important member of the Modernist avant-garde, developed a highly personal philosophy, which influenced contemporary writers immensely. Particularly his theories on the meaning of art are of interest in examining Yeats�s thinking.

According to Hulme, the history of art consists of the alteration of two great movements: geometrical art, and its counterpart, "naturalism" or "realism". Hulme sees the upcoming new schools of art as a development towards a new "geometric" period. His ideas aroused a great deal of interest amongst the writers and art critics of that time.

As in Byzantine art, where the icons lack earthly shadows and the sky never is blue (because blue is the colour of the earthly sky) but golden, the difference between nature (the life that surrounds us) and the spiritual world of images is profound.

Even the drilled pupil of the eye, when the drill is in the hand of some Byzantine worker in ivory, undergoes a somnambulistic change, for its deep shadow among the faint lines of the tablet, its mechanical circle, where all else is rhythmical and flowing, give to Saint or Angel a look of some great bird staring at a miracle. (Yeats A Vision 279-80)

The artificial bird is more than a man-made object. It exists in a world where "the fury and the mire of human veins" and the ever-rolling cycle of unconscious death and regeneration are meaningless. In Yeats�s Byzantium, "all is image and there are no contrasts and no costs" (Kermode 89). This artificial paradise is not dead, though separate from the world of the living, but it resounds with the music of the artificial birds.

I would still like to argue that in spite of all these points, Yeats is not fully rejecting the natural world. Although nature seems to be expelled from the mechanical garden, the nature and life in this poem are not subject to decay, as in the poetry and prose of the symbolists and decadents. It is preserved in the eternity of art. This concern for natural beauty that Yeats longs to hold on to, although he realises that that is impossible, is peculiar to his works. The first stanza of "Sailing to Byzantium" is as much a celebration of the natural forces of life, as it is a lamentation of the loss of youthful vigour and the ability to enjoy life. The German critic Eitel Friedrich Timm, who compares Yeats to Nietzsche in certain aspects, writes: "[I]t can full well be said that Yeats was one of the most important poets of this century, who made the problem of the relationship between art and life a central concern of his poetical work, and in the sense of Nietzsche placed �life in the highest power� as his goal" (Timm 71, my translation).


6. The Bird Discourse

Originally, "Sailing to Byzantium" was supposed to be the final version, but Yeats came to realise that the poem�s obvious duality � the conflict between the mindless "sensual music" of animal life versus the immortal "artifice of eternity", embodied in the bird � left an unsatisfactory impression on the reader. The constructive criticism by a friend made him decide to develop his ideas in another poem, instead of rewriting the old one. According to A. Norman Jeffares, "�Byzantium� � originated from T. Sturge Moore�s criticism of �Sailing to Byzantium�, which had showed Yeats that �the idea needed exposition�" (Jeffares A New 289) On 16 April 1930 Moore wrote:

Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith�s bird is as much nature as a man�s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies. (Yeats Correspondence 162)

On October 4th, Yeats sent Moore a copy of the new poem:

The poem originates from a criticism of yours. You objected to the last verse of "Sailing to Byzantium" because a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else. That showed me that the idea needed exposition. (Yeats Correspondence 164)

For Moore, the bird belongs to the same material world as the human hand that created it. He sees no fundamental differences between natural and artificial forms, since a human being can touch and experience both. The bird "cannot sing of any other state of existence because it cannot know of, or belong to, such a state" (Corbett 245). In his view, Yeats�s use of the bird as a symbol for a spiritual level of existence has failed. Besides, Moore�s personal philosophy does not admit any possibilities for mankind to speak about such a state, nor allow it to be seen as a solution to the "fury and the mire". Moore�s opinion is that "understanding is always grounded in the experience of our sensuous human life" (Corbett 245). To seek liberation from the circle of existence is pointless. Yeats has put his goal too high.

Yeats answers Moore�s challenge with these lines in "Byzantium": "Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / More miracle than bird or handiwork" (Yeats The Poems 280, my italics). He seems to have assimilated Moore�s point that nature (bird) and artifice (handiwork) are equally of this world. Now he brings in a third register of existence: "miracle". In the following lines, the golden bird is contrasted with "common", living birds, to emphasise its differing quality. Yeats completes the poem with other images of the passage into eternity: the "Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit", and the dolphin, on whose back the spirit leaves for a new level of existence. He makes an effort to create images of the unimaginable, of a visionary experience beyond bodily existence, and to prove to Moore that there is more to experience than the human world.

According to Corbett, "Byzantium" "reviews the theme of �Sailing to Byzantium� without adding to it" (Corbett 246). Moore had demanded an exposition of Yeats�s ideas, and that is what he got, but an exposition on Yeats�s terms. He does not accept Moore�s practical world-view.

Moore does not so much fail to understand that Yeats is asserting the possibility of discarnate experience, as miss the tension in both Byzantium poems between the pragmatic, accessible experience of the human world and the spiritual. "Byzantium" and its companion piece are as much about the fury and the mire of human veins and the bitter complexities that the condition involves, as they are about discarnate experience. (Corbett 247)

A conflict between two forces, embodied in a dialogue or a juxtaposition of images, is the theme of many of Yeats�s poems. "Among School Children" contrasts age and youth, life and death, "Solomon and the Witch" compares sexuality and spirituality. Instead of praising one thing and condemning the other, Yeats does not let himself get away with anything that easy. He weaves a complex pattern out of the contrasting subjects, which turn out to complement each other. Denis Donoghue writes of Yeats:

� Yeats delights in conflict, because it is a mode of power. His imagination loves to cause trouble, starting quarrels between one value and another.

If we select a value and say it is dear to Yeats, we may be right, but only if we allow equal recognition to the opposite. There are indeed official preferences, but Yeats values above all the energy of conflict. His mind needs two terms, one hardly less compelling than the other: action and knowledge, essence and existence, power and wisdom, imagination and will, life and word, personality and character, drama and picture, vision and reality. Any one of these may engage his feeling, but the feeling longs to touch its opposite, the pairs are entertained for the energy they engender, the energy they release. (Donoghue, Yeats, Glasgow 1971; quote Timm 147; my italics)

The Byzantine poems seem to contrast nature and the artificial to begin with, but as the philosophical background of the imagery is unravelled, three steps of transition appear in the poems� narratives. As the speaker or the soul moves on, he passes through these levels in different shapes, among which the bird is an outstanding image. Yeats seems to follow one form of Gnosticism, according to which "the material world was evil, and the only business of the devotee was to escape from it" (Hough 14). However, in other Gnostic traditions, and particularly in the Cabala, which he also must have acquainted himself with during his time with the Theosophists, God is equally present on all levels of existence. A certain level of knowledge, gnosis, is required to recognise this.


7. The Three Levels

The visible stages of existence, which the spirit passes through in the Byzantine poems, can be compiled to three levels, namely the organic world, the artifice, and the spiritual. Every stage has its own symbols and contrasting images, intricately woven together as the speaker or the spirit continues its pilgrimage through the stages in different shapes.

1. The organic world.

In "Sailing to Byzantium", the country of "those dying generations", in "Byzantium", "the fury and the mire of human veins" � the organic world � is filled with excitement and pain in equal measures. Calm spiritual contemplation is out of the question. Nevertheless, as we have seen, nature is not without attraction, and it permeates the poems even as they move on towards the eternal. Yeats was never that blind with idealism that he believed it could be possible to deny the world completely. His experiences among the Theosophists had acquainted him with Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, which aim towards the liberation of man from the circle of pain, death and rebirth. But Yeats did not adopt the rejection of the world (the Sanskrit word maya signifies "illusion" and is used as a name for the material world in Hinduism and Buddhism).

2. The work of the artist.

The artist (or "artificer") has an important task, maybe the most important there is to man: he is striving to establish a contact with the spiritual, while still remaining with one foot in the mortal world and using worldly tools and materials. His mission can be compared to that of the occultist medium, who uses his or her body and voice as vessels for the spirits of ancient sages, and conveys their messages to the ears of the living. On the other hand, the artist is in a difficult position. Physically, he exists in the organic world, and true spiritual existence is unattainable for him as long as he goes on living there. However, if he would die and move on, he would lose the means of conveying his experiences of the spiritual � however limited they may be � to other mortals. Through Yeats�s studies of the occult teachings he found a symbolic language that fitted his conception of the right "tools" to make the spiritual obtainable for his audience. His use of certain images was always based on this or some other rich tradition, never haphazard and random. Therefore, the bird is important. It is a mechanical object of artistic quality, created by "artificers" to be beautiful and to sing of once and future events, but it is also an artist by itself, as it tells stories and expresses emotions.

3. The spiritual.

The artist strives to reach the spiritual level of existence while still trapped in the material body, and his art seeks to capture the essence of the divine for human eyes and ears to behold. But what is this uppermost level of existence?

Yeats was accused by a critic of setting his ideals on an impossibly high level and to endlessly strive towards them in his work, painfully aware of their unobtainable character (T. Sturge Moore, quote Corbett 245). On the other hand, maybe he conceived the road towards the ideal a goal in itself. Throughout "Byzantium", there is a restless movement towards something new, which is much more diffused in the preceding poem and concealed by the polarisation of the country of the young on one hand and Byzantium on the other. The spirits that roam the streets of "Byzantium" pass through the fire and past the golden bird in the Emperor�s palace, they ride on the backs of dolphins into the sea, and still there is no immediate goal in sight. Yeats rejects the Far Eastern doctrine of turning one�s back on the world to obtain liberation from existence. He does not want to leave the cycle, but lives for the pilgrimage.

The final sense of the second poem is that to espouse [the pragmatic, accessible experience of the] human world is to consign oneself to a tightly circumscribed torture, and that the search for an ultimate register of experience offers us a way to avoid that fate. (Corbett 247)


8. Conclusion

The problem of the artist, stuck in his earthly body, trying to reach the infinite in his visions through his imperfect art, lies close to Yeats�s heart. Throughout his work, he continues to struggle with it, the artist appearing sometimes as a dancer or a studying scholar, the work of art often the dance, sometimes an ancient Japanese sword, sometimes a singing-bird made of gold. Myths and symbols were for Yeats the key to an interpretation of the history of mankind, where ways out of its cyclical course, "the fury and the mire of human veins", seemed possible to find. The interpretation of symbols that he discovered in the different esoteric doctrines helped him create his essentially own philosophy.

To replace the superficial reading of nature-versus-artifice in the Byzantine poems by superimposing a system of three levels, a passage from nature through art towards the spiritual, does not mean that the former reading is discarded. The contrast between "common bird or petal" and the "miracle, bird, or golden handiwork" is seriously intended. As Donoghue states, Yeats finds his most compelling themes in the struggles of stark opposites, but does not necessarily prefer one before the other. As his correspondence with T. Sturge Moore reveals, Yeats believes in the striving for the unattainable. The artist and his creation, the golden bird, symbolises his problematic position between opposites, between nature and art, time and eternity, life and immortality, and his ambition to unite the opposites as a mediator (or a medium, who lends her voice to spirits of the dead, who sing "of what is past, or passing, or to come" to living ears).
In the foreword to his edition of William Blake, Yeats himself brings this core of his philosophy to a point:

In Imagination only we find a Human Faculty that touches nature at one side, and spirit on the other. Imagination may be described as that which is sent bringing spirit to nature, entering into nature, and seemingly losing its spirit, that nature being revealed as symbol may lose the power to delude. (Blake, William: The Works � Ed. by E. J. Ellis and W. B. Yeats, Vol. I, p. xii; London 1893. quoted in Klimek 111)



Andersen, Hans Christian. Eventyr og Historier. I udvalg ved Hans Brix. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1967.
Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham. The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Rev. Ivor H. Evans. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993.
Corbett, David Peters. "T. Sturge Moore�s �Do We or Do We Not, Know It?� and the Writing of �Byzantium�." Yeats Annual No. 10. Gould, Warwick (ed.). London: Macmillan, 1993.
Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough. A study in magic and religion. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1993.
Halter, Peter. The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Hough, Graham. The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats. Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984.
Jeffares, A. Norman. The Poetry of W. B. Yeats. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd, 1961.
-- A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Keats, John. The Odes of Keats. London: Heinemann, 1970.
Kermode, Frank. The Romantic Image. London and Bradford: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1961.
Klimek, Theodor. Symbol und Wirklichkeit bei W. B. Yeats. Bonn: H. Bouvier u. Co. Verlag, 1967.
Materer, Timothy. Modernist Alchemy. Poetry and the Occult. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Timm, Eitel Friedrich. William Butler Yeats und Friedrich Nietzsche. W�rzburg: K�nigshausen und Neumann, 1980.
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Wilson, Katherine M. The Nightingale and the Hawk. A psychological study of Keats� ode. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1964.
Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan, 1955,
-- A Vision and related writings. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Arena, 1990,
-- W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 1901-1937, Ed. Ursula Bridge London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

Zilliacus, Henrik. Arvet fr�n Bysans. Eken�s: S�derstr�m & C:o F�rlags AB, 1989.


Appendix: The Poems



That is no country for old men. The  young
In one another�s arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever  is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter of its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
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.

(Yeats The Poems 217)





The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor�s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walker�s song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades� bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
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.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire and blood.
At midnight on the Emperor�s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin�s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
(Yeats The Poems 280-281)

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