Byzantium: An Illusion of Salvation

April 10, 2022 by Essay Writer

William Butler Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium (1926) is one of the more remarkable poems from The Tower, a celebrated collection of poems published in 1929. The poem is remarkable partly because of its highly suggestive and ambiguous language, which lends itself to a variety of interpretations. For example, many critics of the poem offer radically different readings of the poem’s conclusion. Carol Morgan, a contemporary critic of Yeats, claims that the poem’s form offers insight into the speaker’s fate. She asserts that a comparison of the rhyme scheme in the first and final stanzas reveals that the speaker finds salvation within Byzantium. She argues that the last stanza, unlike the first, employs a set of full triple rhymes in order to suggest order and harmony in Byzantium. According to Morgan, the first stanza’s half-rhymes emphasize the “chaotic” or “natural” state of the country and the restless anxiety of the narrator. In contrast, the use of full triple rhymes in the last stanza implies that such anxiety has been replaced by peaceful contentment (Morgan, Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, 141-142). This essay offers a radically different reading from Morgan’s and grounds its interpretation not only on the form of the poem but also on its language and imagery. Evaluating the speaker’s fate in Byzantium requires one to analyze Yeats’ use of form, language and imagery within individual stanzas and also to compare entire stanzas against each other. The poem’s rhyming couplets, its use of alliteration, repetition, ambiguity and its use of contrasting images all suggest that Byzantium is a pretentious, static and constrictive world that causes the speaker apprehension rather than providing him salvation. A comparison of the rhyming couplets in the first and last stanzas of the poem exposes the speaker’s apprehensive feelings towards Byzantium. The first two stanzas contain couplets that stand on their own as rhetorical statements. In the first stanza the following couplets express speaker’s scorn for the young who disregard the world of art: The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees / Those dying generations—at their song / Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellectIn the second stanza, the speaker declares his interest in leaving the sensual world and entering the intellectual paradise of Byzantium: An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / And therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium. The last two stanzas of the poem, which deal exclusively with the world of Byzantium, fail to make such declarations and are not self-contained rhetorical statements. Thus, the poem’s form can be seen as a regression from certainty to uncertainty, which suggest that the speaker feel apprehension in Byzantium and still retains allegiance to his native Ireland. Furthermore, the speaker’s alienation and apprehension in Byzantium is also conveyed by the third couplet’s ambiguous language and the fourth’s clever inversion of the second couplet’s rhyme scheme. The third stanza ends with this couplet: It knows not what it is; and gather me / Into the artifice of eternity. This couplet’s ambiguity is highlighted by its use of the unspecific pronoun “it” rather than a more concrete word “heart” and invokes the idea of alienation through the statement, “It knows not what it is.” The word “artifice” in the second line of the couplet echoes the words “art” and “artificial” thus suggesting that the artistic and artificial world of Byzantium causes the speaker feelings of alienation. Furthermore, the final couplet in the poem does not leave the reader with a positive impression of the speaker’s fate, but instead reinforces the view of Byzantium as an alienating environment. Raymond Cowell, a prominent literary critic, argues that the final couplet leaves such an impression by inverting the rhyme scheme of couple two. “As a particular ironic twist Yeats reverses the final rhymes of stanza two when he reaches the final rhymes of the last stanza. In stanza two the speaker has ‘come to’ Byzantium in a state of triumphant expectation; the couplet proclaims the positive. In stanza four, the order is reversed and the speaker moves beyond the nobility of Byzantium, to the future ‘to come’ which is contained in the bird’s song; the couplet is broken open, with the future left uncertain” (Cowell, Literary Critiques: W.B. Yeats, 144). The impression of uncertainty echoes the impression of uncertainty and apprehension conveyed by the last lines of couplet three, thus implying that Byzantium can neither alleviate the speaker’s anxiety nor offer him salvation. Furthermore, the language and imagery of the poem characterizes Byzantium not as an ideal representation of utopia but instead as a static world that lacks energy and freedom. The linguistic vitality of the first stanza in comparison to the monotony of the last stanza reveals how Byzantium lacks the energy and freedom of the speaker’s homeland. The first stanza contains lyrical alliterations like, “fish, flesh or fowl” which convey the enormous energy and vigor of Ireland while the last stanza is characterized by its repetition of words. Furthermore, in the phrase, “set upon the golden bough to sing,” the word “set” is a passive very which contrasts sharply with the assertive, action-oriented verbs of the first stanza. The phrase also evokes an image of the speaker’s helplessness as if he does not possess the energy needed to place himself on the tree limb. Byzantium is not only characterized by its lack of vigor but also by its constraining nature. The phrase, “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake,” implies the speaker’s lack of freedom in Byzantium, as he must constantly attend to the lords and ladies of the land. In contrast, the beginning of the poem evokes numerous images of animals and citizens of Ireland copulating and pursuing their own hedonist desires. Yeats also uses contrasting images to convey the pretentious nature of Byzantium as the speaker, despite his transformation into a golden bird is not able to create eternal art. Carol Morgan asserts that the speaker’s ability to create art in Byzantium, through his singing, is a critical factor that ultimately validates Byzantium as a destination of salvation (Morgan 144). Other critics of the poem, including T. Sturge Moore, refute Morgan’s contention and instead view Byzantium as a pretentious place that denies the speaker the ability to create lasting art. Moore bases his analysis on the beginning line of the last stanza and the ending line of the poem. He asserts that the speaker cannot sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come” if the speaker is “out of nature”. In other words, how can the speaker create lasting art if he is completely removed from life? According to Moore, “art is dependent on life” (Cowell 102). Yeats contrasts this image of the eternal golden bird singing of “what is past, or passing or to come” with images of birds in the natural world to suggest that only the natural world provides a domain that fosters great art. The birds, in the opening stanza of the poem, sing a sensual yet transient song that is appreciated by young lovers in Ireland. In contrast, the golden bird sings for eternity yet his singing only serves the purpose of keeping the “drowsy Emperor awake.” Ironically, the speaker’s art is not appreciated in a world that represents the pinnacle of classical art, thus implying the pretension of Byzantium. The poem paints Byzantium, through its use of couplets and its contrasting language and imagery, as a pretentious, constrictive and static place. Seen at close quarters Byzantium is less attractive than at a distance, as it fails to ease the speaker’s anxiety or alienation. Ironically, the speaker retreats from Ireland due to neglect, but finds no consolation or acceptance in Byzantium. This analysis of the poem begs the question: Is this rejection of Byzantium, Yeats’ way of urging the reader to take responsibility for his or her own life and accept his or her inadequacies. If one assumes that the poem implicates the reader in its personal drama, then it seems logical to conclude that it implores the reader to face life rather than retreat into fantasy.

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