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W.B. Yeats’s Poems Demonstrate a Tension between the Permanent and the Mutable



W. B. Yeats envisions a paradise of intellectual everlastingness and underlying youth in the symbol of Byzantium


W.B. Yeats, like John Keats, views art superior to life.To him spiritual life is true life and the world of art contrasts the mundane world. The spirit is immortal and art too is regarded by Yeats as timeless and eternal. This view of art and life was developed by Yeats in his two Byzantium poems namely The Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium. The first poem is a picture of a voyage from the material world to the holy city of eternity. The second is a vision of the city from the inside where the soul is depicted first as a walking mummy and then as the emperor’s golden bird “whose glory of changeless metal” is contrasted with the “complexities of mire and blood.” In the second poem, Byzantium is a place of cleansing flames.  

 Byzantium, now called Constantinpole or Istambul, was the capital of Eastern wing of the Holy Roman Empire. It was noted for is art, specially mosaic work, and gold enam welling. However, in the poem, it is no real city but a country of the niwol outside time and Nature, a utopia, a retreat from the process of ageing and decaying. It is a symbol, “of the world of intellect and the spirit.”


The first poem in the Byzantium series is The Sailing to Byzantium. It is a highly symbolic poem. Byzantium represents the world of intellect, spirit and art. An old man cannot be happy or at peace in the world of the senses. He should therefore withdraw to an ideal world where he can be happy in the midst of “monuments of unageing intellect” and where his soul will be transformed into a golden bird singing upon a golden bough to the lords and ladies of Byzantium. On that golden bough the old man will himself become one of those monuments which he has so admired.

The poet realizes that an old man is a contemptible figure, a mere “taterred coat upon stick,” unless he devotes himself to the study and enjoyment of art. The older he grows, the greater should be his devotion to art. Appreciation and understanding of art can be achieved only by studying magnificent and immortal works of art. Since Byzantium is the traditional home of art, the poet has decided to devote himself to the study of its rich treasures.


Therefore, the poet sails for Byzantium and as soon as he reaches there, he prays, not to God, but to God’s saints to come down from heaven and teach him the appreciation of art. The sages are great artists of Byzantium who created in the pas “monuments of unageing intellect,”. He visualizes them standing in God’s “holy fire,” like figures in mosaic work, standing against a background of pure gold. The fire is a symbol of purification, and it does them no harm for they are supernatural. The poet invokes them to come down with a rapid spiral-movement and to teach him how to enjoy the beauty of art.

 Sailing to Byzatium reflects the poet’s interest in Byzantine art and culture. Byzantium in this poem becomes a symbol of a perfect world. Rejecting this world of birth, reproduction, and death, Yeats makes up his mind to sail to Byzantium where he thinks, he can defeat Time because he will go to the world of art and because art is timeless. Thus sailing to Byzantium meant for him making a voyage to a world vastly different from this world of materialistic and sensual interests.  To sail to Byzantium means to enter the realm of art. This realm, apart from giving him pleasure, is eternal.

Another poem in this series is Byzantium. It was written as a sequel to Sailing to Byzantium after an interval of three years. Yeats said that he wrote the second poem in order to throw light on the first one and make it explicable. But in the poem Byzantium is no reality, but “a country of the mind,” transcendental place outside time and space. It is beyond the world.

As in the earlier poem, the first stanza of Byzantium is concerned with the flesh-and-blood world that is being left behind, the world of “unpurged images” .After that opening stanza, the miraculous golden bird, the purgatorial flames, even the spirits crossing the sea, are all recalled, but in reverse order to their appearance in the earlier poem, for both the setting and the point of view have here changed completely. “Sailing to Byzantium” represents the voyage and is written from the point of view of the uninitiated outsider who leaves the material world for the immaterial. Byzantium, on the other hand, is written from the point of view of the initiated individual who watches the uninitiated, unpurged spirits arriving from beyond the “gong-tormented sea” which separates Byzantium’s reality from the flesh and blood reality of the twentieth century world.


Byzantium is for Yeats, so to speak, the heaven of man’s mind; there the mind or soul dwells in eternal or miraculous for; there all things are possible because all things are known to the soul. Byzantium had both a historical and an ideal form, and the historical is the exemplar, the dramatic witness, of the ideal. Byzantium represents both a dated epoch and a recurrent state of insight, when Nature is magical, that is, at the back of mind, and magic is natural- a practical rather than a theoretic art.

Thus, the Byzantium poems give a picture of the transcendent world of art, which timeless and eternal. These two poems may also be regarded as incorporating a, neo-Platonic vision of life after death. But they also celebrate the work of art as opposed to the work of nature. However they both deal with the last things. The Yeatsian aesthetic resolves into a final metaphor that reconciles all metaphors: “I hail the super-human;/ I call it death-in –life and life-in-death.” In this way, the dialogue of self and soul, and of art and life, both reach a conclusion.

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