Sailing to Byzantium did not come easily to Yeats. Notoriously fastidious and perfectionist in the practice of his art, nineteen surviving drafts of the poem make it clear that it caused him great labour. He once wrote to Katherine Tynan: ‘I envy your power of writing stray snatches of verse. I cannot do it at all. With me everything is premeditated for a long time.’
The poem went through its preliminary stages during the very hot summer of 1926 while Yeats was staying at Muckross House in County Kerry. It was the home of Bourne Vincent, a wealthy acquaintance who had offered him a temporary escape from his busy life in Dublin. By this time Yeats was a Senator of the Irish Free State, a famous poet and playwright and winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize for literature.
Despite this worldly success, Yeats’ life was hardly one of unsullied sweetness and light. He loathed what he experienced as the barren materialism that characterised everyday life and found in his art the only available antidote to it. He had endured endless battles against the philistinism of his own country, especially with regard to the establishment and maintenance of the Abbey Theatre. Although only sixty-one, his physical health was poor. He was probably feeling much older than his years and wondering what life had left to offer him.
What are believed to be Yeats’ first jottings for the poem suggest that his initial theme focused on past sexual encounters, some loving and others simply carnal. This was important to Yeats because he associated sexual potency with quality of life, regrettable loss of the former being equated with unavoidable loss of the latter. Subsequent drafts of the poem indicate that there were many other false starts. Fresh themes were introduced and then abandoned, some of which found their way four years later into his poem, Byzantium.
It seems clear that Yeats began with only a vague, instinctive awareness of what he wanted his poem to express. The creativity that eventually achieved the final poem lay in the indefatigable redrafting. It was only during the creative process of articulating the inarticulate that he was able to objectify, understand and re-present his experience satisfactorily. The result is this complex and densely-packed piece of work, one which requires the reader’s closest attention.
It is written in ottava rima, a verse form which originated in medieval Italy, each stanza consisting of eight pentameter lines rhyming abababcc. Wyatt, Spenser, Shelley, Keats and Byron, among others, all used it – the latter to great advantage in his Don Juan. Yeats employed it several times, usually in his graver and more meditative poems, such as Among School Children and The Circus Animals’ Desertion. The flexibility of the form offered sufficiently large scope and discipline of structure to meet the exacting demands Sailing to Byzantium would make upon it.
In terms of style, the poem is notable for its fluid lyricism, rhythmic control and vividness of imagery – vintage Yeats in fact. The first stanza contains a beautiful five-line paean to the procreative processes of nature. The beauty of the lines does not depend only on their concrete descriptive or visual images but emerges from the verbal blending of what the eye sees with what the imagination makes of it. Though the rhyme scheme is very demanding, and the musicality of the lines readily apparent, at no point is the task of re-presenting experience sacrificed for mere ‘poetic’ effect. This represents literary integrity and skill of a rare and very high order.
Yeats was, like most of us, a person of inner contradictions, the struggle between which did much to shape his life and art. Several pairs of contradictory factors are present in this poem. Prominent among them are youth contrasted with age, virility with impotence, nature with art, cultural health with decadence, the modern world with ancient Byzantium, the natural with the mechanical and body with soul. These are not always explicit or arranged one with another but tend to make themselves known while working through the poem.
What did Byzantium mean for Yeats? In notes for a broadcast made in 1931, Yeats stated: ‘When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells and making the jewelled crozier 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.’
In 1925 he had published A Vision, his diagrammatic modelling of the process of historical change and system of personal and historical archetypes. He described it as ‘… a last act of defence against the chaos of the world …’ In it he had written that Byzantium had brought aesthetic and practical life together. He instanced mosaic workers and goldsmiths as expressing the vision of a whole people and representing a unity of creative being.
In the fourth stanza of the poem Yeats insists, probably for several reasons, that the goldsmiths were Greek. Not only had Byzantium begun as a Greek colony but it was, during Yeats’ favoured period in the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565CE), a very cosmopolitan community with Greek as the predominant language. It was also Yeats’ belief that, compared with Greek culture, Roman culture was decadent. It seems clear that in this poem Byzantium represents what for Yeats was an ideal social order in which a creative spiritual life for all would be possible. He contrasts this unfavourably with his own contemporary civilisation which seemed to him increasingly non-spiritual, materialistic and decadent.
Yeats was a highly intelligent man but in some respects he was, to say the least, naïve. His ideal society would have been one consisting only of aristocrats and peasants, devoid of the merchant and the clerk, the corrupting middle class he despised. He was not a fascist but did flirt spasmodically with right-wing political movements. He became disillusioned with all of them. As a Senator he was obliged to be active in Irish political affairs but withheld from politics in the party sense.
He was, however, an unapologetic elitist. He believed that the ability to maintain the highest social and cultural standards in a society – qualities vital for its wellbeing – was possessed by very few people and that everyone in society should aid and abet those few people in their essential task. In conversation with the playwright Sean O’Casey he declared: ‘Whatever the State, there must be a governing class placed by wealth above fear and toil.’ It follows that Yeats believed democracy to be a major contributor to the contemporary decline in social and cultural standards. What society needed was a firmly rooted but enlightened aristocracy with the wealth and leisure to do its job, supported by a compliant and loyal working class.
Yeats must have known, on some level, that none of this would ever happen in the real world but he believed in it nevertheless. What could he do but enshrine it in his Byzantium, a society which belonged to the irretrievable past and could therefore become nothing more than his personal City of Imperishable Mind? Yeats was a poet, not a man of action, and poetry, as W. H. Auden later observed, makes nothing happen.
We now turn to each of the four stanzas in greater detail. The first is much possessed by the ageing process and the bodily decrepitude which results from it. The opening sentence, That is no country for old men, obviously refers not only to Ireland but simultaneously to wherever the procreative fecundity of nature is manifest. Such a country seems to have relevance only for the young who still have the potency to procreate their species. In witnessing Those dying generations in the ceaseless process of Whatever is begotten, born and dies, natural fecundity, in all its variety, is expressed in images of great beauty and power. This is reinforced by the tensions created when it is submitted to the discipline of the verse form. The reader can experience the poet’s personal sense of inadequacy in realising that, apart from dying, he can no longer take part in nature’s process.
The procreation of life all around him paradoxically underlines the proximity of his own death. The word, commend, in line five, is masterly because it emphasises that, although the poet regrets what he has been reduced to in nature, he still recognises the beauty of what individually for him is reaching its end. This natural process is so compelling that those who are caught in that sensual music have no regard at the time for its cultural opposite, i. e. works of art, here expressed as Monuments of unageing intellect. The contradiction that matters here is: in nature one ages; in culture one does not.
Yeats often used the image of a scarecrow to represent an ageing man. In the second stanza he is no more than,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing,
and louder sing, For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Here his soul, the immortal part of him, positively rejoices at each manifestation of decrepitude in his mortal body. It is the triumph of immortality over the all-too-mortal body in decline that is celebrated. Its importance is emphasised in the repetition of and louder sing. The poem then takes up the theme of artistic practice in the actual society of his time which, unlike that of Yeats’ Byzantium, was centred on the individual artist’s egotistical concerns rather than the wellbeing of society as a whole.
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
For these reasons Yeats longs to abandon both nature and contemporary society for the holy city of Byzantium.
In stanza three, once he has entered the holy city, he invokes certain saintly images of Byzantine mosaic art set against a golden background, (O sages) which he had seen during earlier visits to Italy. He importunes these holy images because they are the means to his perceived salvation. The phrase, perne in a gyre, is part of Yeats’ highly idiosyncratic terminology used in his book, A Vision. A perne is a bobbin of a spinning mill and gyre is a circular motion, as in gyrate. The resulting image is that of simultaneously circulating and moving up through the cone of time. Immune as the holy images are from decay, (standing in God’s holy fire), he implores them to perne in a gyre and thereby re-enter the world of Whatever is begotten, born and dies. By that re-entry his heart, the seat of his longing, will be neutralised (Consume my heart away😉 and he will no longer be subject to the decay he is already experiencing from the ageing process. The distress caused by sexual longing (sick with desire) denied by bodily decrepitude (fastened to a dying animal) makes him long for the immortality which the saintly images already possess,
and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Yeats believed in reincarnation but the fourth stanza makes clear that at his death (Once out of nature) he had no wish to return as an element of Whatever is begotten, born and dies. This is a crucial point in the poem. Given a choice, he would return as something at once immortal and representative of his beloved Byzantium. What better than a Byzantine work of art, a created bird, of
… such a form as Grecian goldsmiths
make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling …
which, unlike the poet trammelled by his mortality, would sing forever of the mystery and wisdom of the ages to an Emperor and his enlightened aristocracy who would in turn disseminate it appropriately for the benefit of all? No matter that this concept made no sense in everyday life. We have been drawn into the world of poetry – Yeats’ only refuge from his bitter real world – where the imagination can, and often does, make anything happen.
In this poem Yeats aspires to become a work of art himself, a monument of unageing intellect. He so closely identifies his own physical decline with the decline of his contemporary society that, in expressing his profound intolerance and near-despair with both, he seems to be speaking of each in the same breath.
Yeats was not offering Sailing to Byzantium to readers as a rational exposition of how best to live out their declining years. He was offering it as an imagined construct in words, scrupulously chosen and arranged to represent best how he was experiencing the fag-end of his mortality. In doing so he made a work of art as beautiful and immortal as the bird he set to sing on its golden bough.