The poetry of William Butler Yeats deals with a variety of different themes from the political and historical to the magical and mystical. Whilst his patriotic poems are a call to arms for those like him who desired a return to the age of revolutionary heroes, it is Yeats’ poems that deal with myth, magic and symbolism that reveal the deeper side of his poetic imagination. This essay will deal with the related poems Sailing to Byzantium and its sequel of sorts Byzantium.
Sailing to Byzantium is a poem that symbolises the agony of old age. It tells of a spiritual journey to what the poet considers as an ideal land, the ancient city of Byzantium, having: “…Sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium. ” (Yeats, William Butler, Sailing to Byzantium, 1926, http://www. online-literature. com/frost/781/) Of course, it is a strictly spiritual journey and not a real one as the city of Byzantium was renamed Constantinople in the 4th century AD.
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However, the speaker is merely describing the city as he imagines as an ideal home for his soul. He sees the architecture of the ancient city as the perfect place for his immortal artistic soul to reside for eternity. He no longer sees Ireland as his home, referring to it as “no country for old men”. Indeed, Yeats sees it as a land full of youth and life, with the young laying in one another’s arms, birds singing in the trees, and fish swimming in the waters.
There, “all summer long” the world rings with the “sensual music” that makes the young forget the old, whom the speaker unashamedly describes as “Monuments of unageing intellect. ” His old country is a symbol of a world he has outgrown through his old age, as both a world he can neither understand nor be understood in (SparkNotes Editors, “SparkNote on Yeats’s Poetry. ” SparkNotes. com, SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 6 Mar. 2012, http://www. sparknotes. com/poetry/yeats/section6. rhtml).
The speaker refers to an old man as being a “paltry thing,” symbolised as merely a tattered coat upon a stick, unless his soul can clap its hands and sing; and the only way for the soul to learn how to sing is to study, as he puts it, “monuments of its own magnificence. ” The speaker also addresses the sages: “standing in God’s holy fire / As in the gold mosaic of a wall,” He hopes the sages will appear in fire and take him away from his body into an existence outside time, where, like a great work of art, he could exist in “the artifice of eternity. ” He asks them to be his soul’s “singing-masters.
He hopes they will consume his heart away, for his heart “knows not what it is”-it is “sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal”- the mortal body (Sparknotes). In the final verse of the poem, he declares that once he is out of his body and will never again appear in the form of a natural thing, but rather will fashion himself as a singing bird made of hammered gold, such as Grecian goldsmiths make “To keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” or set upon a tree of gold “to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Or what is past, or passing, or to come.
The use of myth, magic and symbolism is staggering and highly effective in conveying the speaker’s anguish at his own old age and his desire to live immortally in a world he feels best befits his poetic soul, with a highly distinct preference for the artificial over the natural (Sparknotes). Byzantium is a continuation of the story of Sailing to Byzantium- he has now spiritually arrived at the ancient city and is able to describe it as he “sees” it. It is midnight in the city of Byzantium, as “The unpurged images of day recede.
The inebriated armies of the Emperor are asleep, and the song of night-walkers fades after the great cathedral gong. The “starlit” or “moonlit dome,” the speaker says, betrays misanthropic tendencies against”All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins. ” (Yeats, William Butler, Byzantium, 1927, http://www. poetry-online. org/yeats_byzantium. htm ). The speaker says that before him floats an image- a man or a shade, but more a shade than a man, and still more simply “an image. ” The speaker hails this “superhuman” image, calling it “death-in-life and life-in-death.
The symbolic golden bird from the previous poem now sits on a golden tree, which the speaker says is a “miracle” (SparkNotes Editors, “SparkNote on Yeats’s Poetry” SparkNotes. com, SparkNotes LLC. 2002. Web. 6 Mar. 2012, http://www. sparknotes. com/poetry/yeats/section8. rhtml). At midnight, the speaker says, the images of flames flit across the Emperor’s pavement, though they are not fed by wood or steel, nor disturbed by storms. Here, “blood-begotten spirits come,” and die “into a dance, / An agony of trance, / An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” leaving behind all the complexities and furies of life.
Riding the backs of dolphins, spirit after spirit arrives, the flood broken on “the golden smithies of the Emperor. ” The marbles of the dancing floor break the “bitter furies of complexity,” the storms of images that beget more images, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. ”. It is not fully clear whether Yeats intends the poem to be a register of symbols or an actual mythological statement, though in classical mythology, dolphins are symbolised as ferrymen of sorts to the afterlife much in the vein of Charon, carrying the dead to their final resting-place (Sparknotes).
Also prevalent here is the same preference for the artificial above the actual that appeared in “Sailing to Byzantium”; only now the speaker has encountered actual creatures that exist “in the artifice of eternity”—most notably the golden bird of the third verse. But the preference is now painted with more ambiguity in that this bird looks down upon “common bird or petal,”- not out of existential necessity, but rather because it has been forced into doing so “by the moon embittered.
Like the previous poem, Byzantium is a work that focuses on myth and symbolism to portray anguish and desire for a beauty unheard of in the material world, showcasing the poet’s preference for the artificial over the natural (Sparknotes). Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium share more than just a similarity in their narrative and progression, they also both deal with a certain poverty of the soul that the speaker seeks to enrich once more. The country that is not for old men pales in comparison to the idealistic majesty of the ancient city of Byzantium.
As art as images lives forever, the speaker longs to become one with the art and the ancient city of Byzantium embodies this artistic paradise for the speaker. This haven for his soul allows for him to achieve a kind of spiritual immortality and to become one with the beauty and majesty of the art of Byzantium. The speaker feels that he and the world have grown in opposite directions- he has aged whilst the world seems to get younger for him. The world as he knew it is long gone and he longs for the beauty and majesty he once beheld to become real and true again.
This leads the preference for the artificial over the natural in these poems to be somewhat ironic- the natural world in all its beauty is no more for the poet so he wishes to become immortal and at one with the art and majesty of artificial creations. The symbolism and myth used throughout these two poems are very effective yet one wonders what the speaker could possibly mean by wanting to become immortal with things that had no life to begin with, when a world that is full of life is dead to him.
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