by Vincent Adams
William Butler Yeats’ most well-known and most studied poem is likely “Sailing to Byzantium.” And probably for good reason as the poem shows how someone can gain immortality through artifice, a structure created by man that exists in both the mortal and eternal realm. Though, “Sailing” is hardly the only poem where Yeats presents this theme, and by explicating artifice from other poems the reader begins to understand the level of complexity involved and, thus, can better appreciate the accomplishment in “Sailing.” I intend to reveal the use of artifice in “Among School Children” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (both of which appear in Tower with “Sailing to Byzantium”) to show use of artifice within the two aforementioned poems and show how Yeats uses “Sailing to Byzantium” to solve the complications artifice presents in the other two poems.
Unity of Being is Yeats’ philosophical framework in his handling of not only the poems I will consider, but throughout much of his poetry and, especially, in The Tower. But as simple a concept as Unity of Being may sound, pinning it down into a concrete form and understanding it proves difficult, and, in fact, it is its elusiveness that makes it perfect poetry fodder. Shalini Sikka’s, in her book entitled W.B. Yeats and the Upanishads, explains Unity of Being in terms of how Yeats understood the concept through his studies of the Upanishads, which are Hindu scriptures that use metaphysics to explain how to achieve the perfect human form. Achieving this perfect form requires “a well-proportioned body” that is a “complete fusion of the senses, body, and spirit in the personality of man” (Sikka 110). Complicating the term further, Sikka explains:
The self-enlightened intellect controls the reins of the mind, which in turn controls the senses. The Upanisad (her spelling of Upanishad) advocates not rejection but control of the senses; the senses and the mind have each their proportionate importance and are not be rejected altogether, but used as instruments of the spirit (110).
Having such control allows one to embody truth and use it in worldly and spiritual exploits. Indeed, it is this notion that Yeats captures in his oft-cited phrase “Man can embody knowledge but he cannot know it.” Using this framework in his poetry, Yeats then explores how disproportioned mixtures of the senses, body and spirit create tensions in the human experience. And it is this thread that fuels his work in The Tower.
“Among School Children" presents disunity, (a term indicating a lack of Unity of Being), by showing children as an imperfect artifice. First, children exist in the mortal realm and will live a human life and have human experiences, so their participation in the mortal realm is obvious. But also through participation in culture and passing those human experiences on via the regenerative process (the birth cycle) children also operate within the eternal realm. Thus, Yeats has an artifice he can consider in his poetry. First, the speaker finds himself in a schoolroom “questioning.” Given that a nun replies that the children learn to “cipher and to sing,” the reader assumes the speaker is interested to know how children are learning to decode truths of human existence. To decode is a root denotation for “cipher,” and the reader later learns the children cipher by “reading books and history.” These lines indicate that children are becoming part of the eternal cycle of humanity by investigating its history and placing themselves in it. But this isn’t as productive as it might read because Yeats complicates matters by quipping that children learn to “be neat in everything.” Being neat indicates that children are not learning about any spiritual aspect of their existence in their education (one’s indoctrination into the human experience), and this is a reference to the modern world’s obsession with objectivity and stripping out the subjective human in how the modern world records supposed facts. The following lines further this and show how the spiritual element of Unity is missing: “the children’s eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon / A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” Without an understanding of the spiritual realm of humankind, the children are left to wonder about a man whose age represents the degenerative aspect of humanity. This, according to Yeats, is an ailment of the modernity, which becomes apparent in the sarcastic, sneer-like phrase “In the best modern way” to explain the children’s wonderment.
The fifth part of the poem presents another version of disunity: “What a youthful mother, a shape upon her lap / Honey of generation had betrayed.” Honey, here, represents the product of copulation that causes the “shape” upon her lap, which refers to her protruding pregnant stomach. Generation, again, refers to children’s role in regeneration, but here the speaker explicitly calls it a betrayal, indicating the mother’s betraying herself in considering the child her link to the eternal realm because as she lives and dies so will her child. This concept crystallizes when the speaker points out that the mother thinks about the child-to-come as having “sixty of more winters on its head.” This reference is blatant in showing that her future child was born to die. Furthermore, the speaker calls the child’s inevitable life as “compensation for the pang of his birth, / Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?” Pang is an interesting word use since it characterizes the birth as a spasm, which is a reduced bodily reaction instead of the important event many consider birth, and this word is defiantly not something that captures humanity’s connection to something lasting and eternal. Also, the child’s future life is “compensation” for the “uncertainty” that lies ahead, meaning the mother considers the mortal gift of life enough to satisfy her link with eternity.
Then the speaker, in part six of the poem, begins revealing more explicit messages about mortal disunity by bringing in Plato’s notion that “nature” is “but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” Spume is a similar reference to pang in that it reduces life in the mortal realm to something resembling bubbles, and this spume needs a “ghostly paradigm,” which is the first concrete reference to something outside of the mortal realm. These lines also show that humanity understands through its interdependence with the eternal realm—meaning life models itself after life that came before it. Building on this, part seven shows the disunity at the other extreme: worshipping children. Readers learn “Both nuns and mothers worship images.” Images (which a reader can interpret both as paintings and/or photographs) are the artifice these nuns and mothers use to try to capture the eternal, but they are too shallow to eternalize because they are merely images that “break hearts,” and are unable to “animate a mother’s reveries.” A mere image cannot link to the eternal because it doesn’t capture Unity; it just captures a picture of a mortal. To transcend to the eternal the artifice must have a special quality, something that doesn’t occur by “keep(ing) a marble or a bronze repose.” Robert M. Schuler, in W.B. Yeats: Artist or Alchemist?, chronicles Yeats’ interest in alchemy, a process that changes common metals into gold. In his essay, Schuler shows how Yeats used alchemy as a symbol to capture “the metaphysical level” where “the human soul could be changed into an imperishable and perfect spirit” (37). Thus, an artifice must be created by humans, but it must also capture they’re Unified essence.
The poem peaks when the speaker calls children “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise,” and it is in this line where readers learn childrens’ role as an artifice. Children mock humanity’s plight to immortalize itself through children because they can’t provide the Unity of Being needed to become truly eternal, and this is a notion the reader gets in the final four lines:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? (61 – 64).
The speaker characterizes children as an artifice that can’t be Unified, and this assertion resides in the fact that the speaker questions what element of a Unified tree children are instead of showing how they provide a path to immortality. John Unterecker, in A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, echoes these sentiments:
It is ultimately, however, in the double vision that the truth resides. The part (what Yeats calls “Labour” day-to-day flesh-and-blood life) must not be taken for the whole itself an indispensable ingredient of the whole. The chestnut-tree is not leaf, blossom or bole; yet without leaf, blossom, or bole it is not chestnut-tree (193).
Furthermore, since the speaker doesn’t offer any suggestions in how children are a path to immortality, the reader is left to assume children are an imperfect artifice. And that, after considering that children are merely flesh and blood unable to transcend their mortalness themselves, makes sense. While it is true that children are a link to eternity through the regenerative process, their flesh roots them to the mortal realm and, thus, makes them an imperfect artifice and unfit for Unity of Being. Finally, while symbolized differently in the next two lines, the speaker again captures disunity by asking, this time, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Both depend on each other for their Unity and existence—just like the chestnut-tree.
So what artifice is capable of perfect Unity, and that exists in both the eternal and mortal realms? For Yeats it is, as I alluded to with my discussion of alchemy, a great work of art. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” was written during the Irish Civil War in 1922, and was a time when Yeats saw everything that his beloved Ireland was and stood for being destroyed in war. For Yeats, culture existed in great works of art that capture and define culture. The speaker in “Meditations” begins by declaring “Surely among a rich man’s flowering lawns, / Amid the rustle of his planted hills, / Life overflows without ambitious pains.” This builds the initial image of “Ancestral Houses” as something valuable since life flows from them. However, the speaker complicates this notion by characterizing the overflow of life as too much, saying it “rains down life until the basin (a container that holds water) spills.” Then the overflow begins to overwhelm and “mounts more dizzy the more it rains” and takes “whatever shape it wills.” This shows that too much “life” can get destructive when it is no longer contained (or channeled) properly. Life itself is what will later become a destructive force to the “Shadows of the inherited glory of the rich.” At the end of the fifth stanza, the speaker says “But take our greatness with our bitterness” after setting up the importance of cultural artifacts that embody Irish culture (even if it is the wealthy who possess such items):
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless, (33 – 40).
Here the speaker is arguing against the violence that has gotten out of control and threatens to destroy these artifacts that embody the culture both sides are supposedly fighting to defend, and it is here that a reader connects the water spilling out of the basin to the violence of the war, thus the passions people have to preserve culture are out of control.
Then the narrator takes readers to “My House” and shows how the loss impacts communities. It is this “Farmhouse,” surrounded by “an ancient bridge” and an “ancient tower,” where the culture thrives because it is “where the symbolic rose can break in flower.” Throughout his poetry, Yeats used the rose to symbolize Irish culture and tradition, so here the speaker says it is in these ancient houses that culture thrives. Furthermore, the use of “ancient” here makes these houses a “monument(s) linking the past and present” (Doggett), which makes this house and the other mentioned artifacts an artifice for Yeats to consider. But before we learn about whether these artifices have an Unity potential, we discover, as we did with the artifices in the first poem, that the house is at the mercy of the same natural force: “The sound of the rain or sound / Of every wind that blows.” An important connection to make at this point is that Yeats is using natural forces as the metaphor to explain war destruction. Also important is realizing that Yeats uses this poem to show a tension inherent in artifice: the natural realm that creates artifice also destroys it.
Then the poem complicates artifice even further by zeroing in on a particular artifact in “My Table.” Here we learn about a “changeless sword” that lies “By pen and paper” and “moralise(s)” the speaker’s “days out of their aimlessness.” Pen and paper links the sword to writing and, thus, channels its artistic value. Moralise means to give a moral quality or direction, showing the sword provides some meaningful purpose. We also learn the sword is:
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the sword.
Soul's beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
The soul's unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass Heaven's door,
That loved inferior art, (lines 17 – 27)
Thus, in this small section of the poem, readers find an artifice that links the mortal and eternal realms, but, more importantly, it also connects the soul to the artifact (note my use of bold in the quotation) and shows it fit for Unity since this mortal creation captures that spiritual human essence. Further, Unity becomes evident because one could not find “Heaven” (here being used to symbolize that perfect Unity) if he/she sought an art that was inferior and didn’t have the eternal link and captured human essence of this sword. However, this sword, like the other cultural artifacts expressed throughout the poem thus far, is in danger of being destroyed by the passions that fuel the war:
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country's talk
For silken clothes and stately walk.
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno's peacock screamed. (27 – 32).
The reference to “aching heart” explains how passions overwhelm one who has “walking wits” and causes one to destroy “the sword,” which is captured in the allusion in line 32: “as a symbol of immortality” the “peacock was sacred to Juno,” and “Yeats refers to a peacock’s scream (as) symbolizing the end of a civilization” (Finneran 505). With the first three parts of “Meditations” all showing how artifices (great works of art) are being destroyed with the passions of the civil war, the reader learns in “The Stare’s Nest by My Window” in the final stanza about how the “aching heart” is causing this destruction.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare (16 – 20).
Here the reader learns more about what is causing the heart to ache: fantasies. These fantasies are the passions for the Irish culture the war is destroying. Then the next line indicates that when people are so caught up in their passions, it causes that passion to calcify and focus on an animosity toward an enemy instead of a love for what they are fighting for. “O honey-bees” is a symbol for people (another attempt to characterize people in the natural realm) and line 20 shows that their actions have hollowed out their culture and are building something common. That latter notion comes from the word “stare,” which, Yeats says, is what the Irish call a starling (Finneran 506), a common bird that in now way resembles “A marvellous accomplishment.” And, finally, all this frustration with the war leads the speaker to the final part of the poem, “I see Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart's Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness”— just the title alone indicates that the speaker doesn’t see any hope preserving the lost culture. In this part, the speaker discusses the cycle of violence and shows how it builds more passion that feeds into the cycle, thus it is seems inevitable that the end will only occur when everything is lost. ‘“Vengeance upon the murders,’” cries one side. Then in “rage-driven” retaliation ‘“Vengeance for Jacques Molay*?” the other side acts and feeds into the cycle. But, more importantly, this last section of “Meditations” shows the speakers decision to turn away from the passions that are tearing the country apart: “I turn away and shut the door, and on the stair / Wonder how many times I could have proven my worth.” In an explanation as to why the speaker turns away, he says “It (the passions to war) had made us pine the more. The abstract joy.” Meaning, the more they fought and yearned intensely (denotation of “pine”), the more they fed into the cycle, the more their purpose for fighting became abstract and disconnected from them. And this destruction, and the passion that fuels it, reduces supposed wise men into boys, a notion we get from the last two lines of the poem: “The half-read wisdom of daemonic images, / Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy.” And this concept is where “Sailing to Byzantium” begins.
Unterecker argues that “Almost everything in The Tower is assembled in support of the great opening poem. … Restatements of its theme, evidence supporting his contention that the modern world ‘“is no country for old men’” (171). And after reading through the poems I’ve analyzed here, this assertion holds true. One important theme in “Sailing” is regeneration: the life and death cycle. In “Sailing” it is “Those dying generations,” a reference to the youth that embody the same regeneration theme in “Among School Children.” In “Sailing,” the youth’s regeneration is captured in the line “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” And, intuitively, this is “no country for old men” because they are at the end of this cycle. We also learn the youth in “Sailing” are “Caught in that sensual music” and that they “neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect.” The sensual music is a reference to an unproportioned focus on the senses at the expense of crafting something monumental, and what is monumental in “Sailing” is the same thing that is a “marvellous accomplishment” in “Meditations in Time of Civil war”: a great work of art that captures a Unified human essence. The difference in “Sailing” is that the speaker explicitly reference both eternity and human essence in the phrase “unageing intellect”, whereas this notion is more implicit in “Meditations.” Further, in “Sailing” the speaker asks sages to strip him of those mortal passions because they make him “sick with desire.” The speaker wants the sages to become “singing-masters of my soul” that rids him of being merely a “dying animal.” This process effectively Unifies his soul because the focus on mortal passions are tempered and balanced with his soul (or eternal essence), an event that gains more importance after reading about their destructive nature in “Meditations.” Consuming “my heart away” allows the speaker to be gathered “Into the artifice of eternity” instead of watching it get destroyed. This concept is even more interesting after considering the connection artifice has to art. How can this speaker become art if a child could not? The speaker is not a person; he is the poem itself. He is the Unified artifice, and the mortal children in “Among” were merely images people worshipped. Simply, children in “Among” are not art and do not capture a Unified human essence, whereas the speaker in “Sailing” is art and does. Readers, finally, arrive at the last process in immortalizing art: alchemy (the creation of the monument). In “Sailing” we learn:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling (25 – 32).
In “Among” the speaker simply explains that an alchemy-like process is required if the mothers and the nuns hope to place children in the eternal realm. But in “Sailing,” readers learn that about this process and the need to enter it after ridding of mortal desires and becoming Unified. The opening lines of this final stanza reveal this because the speaker is “out of nature” and ready to become a new form that is not from “any natural thing.” Instead, the speaker is ready to use alchemy to transcend and become immortal, which we get in the line, “But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” One important element I have left out of my discussion so far is mention of “the holy city of Byzantium.” In A Vision, Yeats says, “I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one,” which captures the nature of the city as being Unified. Thus, sailing to Byzantium is a process to find inner Unity and immortalization, and arriving there allows one to “set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium” This allows the speaker to transcended from a world that is “begotten, born, and dies” to an eternal realm that is “past, or passing, or to come.”
Richard Ellman, a well-known Yeats scholar, says “When he (Yeats) defends immortality, he argues pragmatically that confidence in it is necessary to human survival: without it no course of conduct except brute pleasure-seeking would hold any attraction” (82), and this ads another interesting element to our discussion. Immortality, no matter how we define it or think about it, is a human creation and doesn’t exist without our participation in its existence. Thus, it is a paradox, but a rich one that allows Yeats and other artists to explore the various tensions in how humanity interacts with it. For “Among” and “Meditations,” Yeats shows the tensions between the mortal and eternal realms, and leaves the tension in favor of the mortal realm. This, simply, abandons readers with a feeling of great loss. We all want to think of ourselves as something more than an insignificant part of nature, but Yeats is effective in showing how the forces in the mortal realm destroy our lone link to the eternal. However, “Sailing” compensates for the loss we feel in the other two poems and shows readers how to immortalize themselves by seeking a Unified form and capturing that form in art. Where “Among” and “Meditations” complicates the human spirit, “Sailing” rebuilds and celebrates it, and Yeats does not show us a place that is immortal, he shows us that we become immortal by seeking it and capturing our quest for others.
*Jaques Molay was a Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a military order designed to defend the Christian kingdom and protect visitors of the Holy Land. Yeats said he used Molay as a symbol to represent ‘“those who labour from hatred, and so for sterility in various kinds. It is said to have been incorporated in the ritual of certain Masonic societies in the eighteenth century, and to have fed class hatred’” (Finneran 506).
Dogget, Rob. “Writing Out (of) Chaos: Constructions of History in Yeats’s ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War.’” Twentieth-Century Literature. 47.2 (2001): 137 – 168.
Ellman, Richard. “Assertion Without Doctrine.” Included in Patrick J. Keane, ed., William Butler Yeats. McGraw Hill Paperback, 1923.
Finneran, Richard J. “Notes to the Poems” The Yeats Reader. New York: Scribner Poetry, 1997.
Shuler. Robert M. “W.B Yeats: Artist or Alchemist?” The Review of English Studies, New Series. 22.85. (1971): 37 – 53.
Sikka, Shalini. “Unity of Being” W.B. Yeats and the Upanishads. New York: Peter Lang, 2002.
Unterecker, John. “The Tower” A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1959. 169 – 199.