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William Butler Yeats Sailing To Byzantium English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2155 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The poem, Sailing to Byzantium was wtitten in 1926 (by then the Nobel Prize-winner artist was in his sixties [1] ) and first published in The Tower (1928) [2] , which contains Yeats' poems from the period between 1912 and 1927. [3] ËThe poem can be taken on a number of levels: as transition from sensual art to intellectual art; as the poet's new and brilliant insight into the nature of the Byzantine imagination; as the poet's coming to terms with age and death." [4] 

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The author was an enthusiastic follower of occultism and spiritualism, [5] he created his own system and published it in the Vision (1925). [6] His basic concept was that ˝all things are subject to a cycle of changes, which can be regarded as bi-polar, passing from a state of objectivity (e.g. nature, society, God) to one of subjectivity (like human life) before returning to objectivity (after-life) again." [7] ËOne of Yeats' theory centers on" [8] the gyres, which are growing and dwindling vortices (or more commonly double vortices). [9] The word 'gyre' is used in many of his poems, including Sailing to Byzantium [10] . ˝Asking the sages to "perne in gyre," the speaker distinguishes between the cyclical work of nature (birth, life and death) and the spiraling work of the spirit." [11] ËYeats used the concept of the spiraling gyre to suggest that opposite concepts-such as youth and age, body and soul, nature and art, transient and eternal-are in fact mutually dependent upon each other." [12] By 1900 the author was the chosen head of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, [13] a magical order being concerned with alchemy among others. [14] Therefore, the gold metaphor in the poem may refer to the science of alchemy. [15] 

The title of the poem contains the symbol of sailing, that is in this case a metaphorical journey, [16] in which the starting point (mortality) and the destination (immortality) are important instead of the journey itself. [17] ËByzantium is a symbol of the permanence of art, even after the the artist is dead, set against the mutability of life. And when he says that he wants, after death, to be transformed into a golden singing bird, singing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium of what is past, or passing, or to come, he means, that after his death he will have a kind of immortality in his poems. " [18] In Yeats' time, the Byzantine civilisation was seen as the ˝undecaying centre of something", [19] even static and mummified (which may be in contradict with modern historians' opinion). [20] ËIn 1931, the poet wrote that he chose to 'symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city' because 'Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.'" [21] 

'That', the first word of the first line of the pice of art ˝indicates that the first-person singular speaker is no longer in 'that' country (probably Ireland [22] ), for he would have otherwise said, ´this'." [23] He depicts the country, he left behind, as it is something full of life (young people, birds and fish), but he knows that ˝whatever is begotten, born, and dies." The young does not seem to care about the aged, who may be the ˝monuments of unageing intellect"; they only care about earthly things like being ˝in one another's arms" instead of art and spiritual things. The expression ´unageing intellect' may stand for the conflict between the speaker's ageing body and his mind, which is still fresh, vivid and youthfull. [24] 

In the second stanza the poetic persona describes an old man (himself) as a ˝tattered coat upon a stick", which is a metonymy. This scarecrow-like figure scares the birds away and in a more abstract sense it scares all the living creatures away. Being a scarecrow might mean being dead (cf. ˝that is no country for old men"). In order to leave this lifeless 'scarecrow-status' the soul must ˝clap its hands and sing." The song cannot be learnt in any singing school but studying the ˝monuments of unageing intellect" or the ˝monuments of its (intellect and art) own magnificence." Therefore the speaker has ˝sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium." [25] 

The third stanza begins with a reference to a painting, which Yeats saw in a church in Ravenna. The ˝gold mosaic of a wall" ˝depicted martyrs being burned for their faith. The author's interpretation suggests that these martyrs were sages and that the flames represent the Holy Spirit," thus ˝the moment of their deaths" may stand for the ˝moving from the mortal life to the immortal life and achieving a permanence through both the life of the soul and the Byzantine painting." [26] The poetic persona asks the sages to ˝come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, / and be the singing-masters of" his soul. ˝Perne in the gyre" can be seen as an indication to the poet's ˝cyclical theory of history and transcendence." [27] This image also might be associated with the burning sages, who are crazily running to and fro. The speaker want the wisemen to liberate his soul from his human body, which is in constant decline because of ageing. He uses art as a tool in order to become immortal. [28] 

In the fourth, and last stanza the poetic persona chooses an artifical form of life (a bird made of ˝hammered gold"), instead of his decaying bodily form. The ˝drowsy Emperor" in the poem refers to ˝the Byzantine Emperor Theophilos who had made for himself mechanical golden birds that sang upon the branches of a golden tree." [29] ËSome have suggested that the bird came from Yeats's 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." [30] He echoes that ˝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." [31] The speaker becomes a mechanical golden bird who sings ˝to lords and ladies of Byzantium / of what is past, or passing, or to come." The poet and his works will live forever in the absolute time (past, present and future). [32] ËYeats sees gold as representing an untarnished brilliance and permanence that best reflects his opinion of art." [33] 

The poet accepted the fact that each living creature (e.g. man, ˝birds in the trees", ˝fish, flesh, or fowl") has to follow the same cyclical pattern of life, that is, birth, youth, old age and death. Art seems to be a possible escape from mortality, becoming a piece of art, like a golden bird, means becoming immortal. The living bird in the first stanza turns into an artifical, constant and eternal bird made of gold in the last one, thus the image of the bird set the whole poem in a frame. [34] 

References to different forms of art run through the whole poem: monuments in a metaphoric sense (architecture), music (˝sensual music", song, clapping hands, singing school, singing bird which is always a metaphor of poetry), and painting (˝gold mosaic of a wall"). [35] 

The poem contains four stanzas in ottava rima, which was originally the form of epic poems. The speaker's sailing to the exotic Byzantium might be seen as an epic quest. [36] He uses some very elevated expressions for examples, ˝monuments of unageing intellect", ˝God's holy fire" and ˝singing-masters of my soul." Yeats uses ˝dissonant half-rhymes instead of full rhymes." [37] Sailing to Byzantium is written in iambic pentameters. [38] 

The Hungarian audiance can read Yeats's masterpiece in the translation of György Rónay [39] and Zoltán Jékely. [40] 

The piece of work is the sister poem of Byzantium, which was written four years after its prequel. In general, it deals with the same themes: life, old age, death, art and the relationships between them. [41] 

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William Butler Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium


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