Splittgerber -Sailing to Faeryland: Mask & Self, Artifice & Eternity
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Sailing to Obscurity: Mask & Self, Artifice & Eternity

by Jonathan Splittgerber


“True art is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, every colour, every gesture, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence. False art is not expressive, but mimetic, not from experience but form observation and is the mother of all evil, persuading us to save our bodies alive at no matter what cost of rapine and fraud” (Yeats, E&I).



            William Butler Yeats’s work can nearly be defined by ideas of the Self, the mask, artifice and eternity. These central ideas interplay as the mask transcends self and artifice transcends eternity. The mask must be explored in his work because, “any understanding of Yeats’ poetry depends upon a realization of his theory of the Mask, and…some sympathy with that theory” (Henn 36). Also, “The doctrine of the mask is so complex and so central in Yeats that we can hardly attend to it too closely” (Ellmann 175). Façades are built to hide some realities and reveal others, as they exist in both the ephemeral and eternal worlds; “The use of ‘veils’ to reveal the truth…is an idea Yeats…subscribes to” (Oppel 56).

“To start with its [the mask’s] simplest meaning, the mask is the social self. Browning had spoken of ‘two soul-sides, one to face the world with’, and one to show the beloved. But Yeats’s doctrine assumes that we face with a mask both the world and the beloved…In addition, the mask is defensive armour: we wear it, like the light lover, to keep from being hurt. So protected, we are only slightly involved no matter what happens. This theory seems to assume that we can be detached from experience like actors from a play. Finally, the mask is a weapon of attack; we put it on to keep up a noble conception of ourselves; it is a heroic ideal which we try to live up to.” (Ellman 175)

            Yeats has used all three of Richard Ellmann’s distinctions regarding the mask; however, Yeats’s later work deals with ideas of Self and Mask in increasingly complex ways. “The word that begins to occur constantly in [Yeats’s] writings during the first decade of the century is ‘mask’, a word which lent dignity and a kind of traditional sanction to his theories of the pose” (Ellmann 174). In The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats says, “…what I have called ‘the Mask’ is an emotional antithesis to all that comes out of their internal nature. We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy” (Finneran 297). Several years later, Yeats claims, “The Mask as it were wills itself as beauty, but because, as Plotinus says, things that are of one kind are unconscious, it is an ideal of supernatural incarnation” (Finneran 414). Does Yeats believe the mask is both a defense mechanism and a supernatural incarnation or have his ideas changed?

            Yeats’s use of the mask cannot be discussed without investigating the daemon (or daimon); with his obsession for oppositions, it is clear why he studied and theorized about the daemon.

When a poet chooses not to write out of his real self or his personal experience but to assume a mask “whose lineaments permit the expression of all the man most lacks, and it may be dreads, and of that only”, then he enters into momentary union with the daimon. The poet is thus capable of working on a different plane, a multidimensional level where the golden rule of art- striking a boundary line between this figure and the next- cannot distinguish between man and daimon, locked in opposition yet knitted together within the mask. (Haswell 20)

            This seems to be one of Yeats’s goals as his poetry progresses; the reader may wonder how much the poet can control this tension. “I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold, some articulation of the Image which is the opposite of all that I am in my daily life, and all that my country is.” He continues; “yet man or nation can no more make this Mask or Image than the seed can be made by the soil into which it is cast” (Finneran 305). While the soil cannot make the seed, it certainly plays a large role in determining the health of the seed. The mask, then, seems the only way to transcend the self and speak both to and from the Animus Mundi.

            While Carl Jung’s idea of the anima and animus may be considered stereotypical and culture-bound by postmodern critique, it is nevertheless helpful in analyzing Yeats’s interrelation between mask and daemon. Jung states, “No man is so entirely masculine that he has nothing feminine in him” (Jung 78). In men, Jung recognized what he called the anima, Latin for soul. The anima represents the “unconscious feminine” side of man with its own “particular character and its own particular ways of acting” (Hopcke 90). Jung states, “The anima, being of feminine gender, is exclusively a figure that compensates the masculine consciousness. In woman, the compensating figure is of a masculine character, and can therefore appropriately be termed the animus”, Latin for spirit (Jung 94). Jung believed the anima and animus to be “archetypes of the collective unconscious” (Hopcke 90). That is, they were (are) inherited patterns of thought from past collective experiences that occur in every individual. This corresponds, quite nicely, to Yeats’s revised thinking of the daemon. He had originally gendered the daemon (his daemon) as “he”; though Janis Tedesco Haswell argues, “he uses the male pronoun as a universal.” She explains, “The use of the female pronoun… [after the Automatic Script experiment in A Vision] is clearly deliberate. This method of gendering, or more precisely, regendering from male to female, has no precedent in Greek daimonology, where it was commonplace to refer to the soul as ‘she’ and to any foreign influence as ‘he’” (Haswell 22). Clearly, Yeats’s ideas are closely related to Jung’s. Jung does not stop at saying the anima and animus are merely gender counterparts and complements, but they are the “inward personification of one’s psyche, not simply one’s feminine or masculine side” (Hopcke 92). These concepts clearly go beyond the scope of a paper this length; however, it is unclear if Yeats agrees with Jung at this point. Regardless, it is this gender opposition that achieves Yeats’s elemental and all-important “complete harmony between physical body, intellect & spiritual desire”, or Unity of Being (Haswell 29). Yeats’s Per Amica Silentia Lunae best investigates his thoughts on the mask and the daemon.

The Daemon, by using his mediatorial shades, brings man again and again to the place of choice, heightening temptation that the choice may be as final as possible, imposing his own lucidity upon events, leading his victim to whatever among works not impossible is the most difficult. He suffers with man as some firm-souled man suffers with the woman he but loves the better because she is extravagant and fickle. (Finneran 410)

            In his 1901 essay, “Magic”, Yeats says, “ I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the artist” (28). Yeats is being quite modest in saying the poet half unconsciously (half consciously) uses symbols; it seems his use of the mask and other symbols was quite intentional in both “Byzantium”, and “Sailing to Byzantium”.

In “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats reached the climax of this period by creating richer and more multitudinous overtones than before. He attempted here to evoke a symbol- in the poem as a whole and also in the symbolic bird spoken of in the poem- which would have a life of its own into which he could put himself. (Ellmann 256)

            “Sailing to Byzantium” is a quintessential Yeats poem as it is filled with both concealing and revealing masks and “is full of echoes of Yeats’s other works, of his reading, and of his experiences. In a sense he had been writing it all his life” (Ellmann 258). The centrality of symbolism in Yeats’s life began relatively early with his exposure to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. It was here he found a library of theories, symbols, and myths that would later drip into his work. His use and understanding of the mask as a powerful and literary tool likely came from this exposure to the Golden Dawn.

            The use of Byzantium was, of course, quite intentional and extremely effective as shown in Ellmann’s quote; “Byzantium is a holy city, because it is the capital of Eastern Christendom, but it is also Yeats’s holy city of the imagination as Golgonooza was Blake’s” (Ellmann 257). Yeats’s intention and intellectual strength was, maybe for the first time, recognized and is clearly at work for “Byzantium is more effective for symbolic purposes than Golgonooza, for Yeats needs only to divert it from the traditional meaning it already has and is not required to explain it from the beginning” (Ellmann 257). T.R. Henn explained, on another level, why Byzantium was so important; “Byzantium…has a multiple symbolic value. It stands for the unity of all aspects of life, for perhaps the last time in history. It has inherited the perfection of craftsmanship, and more than craftsmanship, perhaps, the ‘mystical mathematics’ of perfection of form in all artistic creation” (Henn 223). In simply naming his “great beyond”, Yeats brings an entire history to his Eternal without having to create a history. It already seems clear why Yeats’s phrenic strength became immortalized in poems like “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium.”

            We might postulate at Yeats’s inspiration for “Sailing to Byzantium” if we look at a letter he wrote six years before The Tower was published; “I am tired & in a rage at being old, I am all I ever was & much more but an enemy has bound and twisted me so I can plan & think as I never could, but no longer achieve all I plan & think” (Ellmann 245). Yeats had clearly become “full of bitterness about old age; for many years he had been blind in one eye; now he felt deafness coming on and told himself that he was too old to dash with his former abandon into impossible projects” (Ellmann 245). It seems the poem might be an application for Yeats to discover a path from the ephemeral life to the eternal, if only in his creation of poetry.

            “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” are disparate poems on similar ideas. “In the earlier poem [“Sailing To Byzantium”] the sensual life is separated from the spiritual as Ireland from Byzantium, but in the later poem the fury and the mire of human veins, the teeming images, ‘that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea’, flood up to the marbles of Byzantium itself” (Ellmann 273). The poems may represent the afterlife, but some believe they were “primarily a description of the act of making a poem” (Ellmann 273). Clearly, Yeats has piled layer upon layer and we are left to slowly pick apart each one. His work progresses in the time between the two poems and, “the systems of tensions is more complex [and] the overtones more significant” in “Byzantium” (Henn 228).

            “Sailing to Byzantium” begins, “That is no country for old men. The young / In one another’s arms, birds in the trees, / -Those dying generations- at their song” (1-3). The opening lines are torqued with a familiar conflict of ephemeral versus eternal and mortality of the body versus eternality of the soul. It seems Yeats writes this poem almost from direct experience; there is tension as the aging speaker realizes his own decay and the temporality of his surroundings. Everyone gets “caught in that sensual music” and seems to forget, if only for a moment, that the end is coming; it only takes a moment to forget. This first stanza is filled with the sensual, impure life that is distracted, disoriented, and fundamentally doomed. The body floods this stanza with sexual desire, selfishness, and decay. As an old man looks at his world, birds and fish seem to suggest springtime, youth, and procreation; though he finds something whole in his tattered body. It seems only art is eternal. The old man, like Yeats, is an outsider and finds himself alone.

            The first stanza of “Byzantium” is similar in that it deals with the impure, sensual world, though it is markedly darker. There is contempt as “A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains / All that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins” (5-8). The dome is the “symbol of Byzantine achievement, the image of heaven, the only canopy for God”; it does not disdain mankind, but rather “the comparative simplification of his complexities” (Henn 230).

            The second stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium” finds the soul’s voice attempting to compensate for an aging body. Attempting to overcome “every tatter in its mortal dress,” the soul sings. The only songs they know, however, are songs about themselves and these merely sensuous songs no longer satisfy. They desire to sing about and experience something permanent; therefore, they must travel to a place that can be sung about in new ways. They must set sail. The decay of age has led to self-discovery and self-realization. Decaying flesh is now an impediment between man and his desired form. There exists a need for permanence that his present body cannot fulfill.

            The second stanza of “Byzantium” continues down the dark path it has found; “Before me floats an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than a shade” (9-10). The stanza continues unsure of what it is discovering. Everything seems interrelated and indefinable. “This most difficult verse concerns the invocation of the dead to discover their wisdom” (Henn 231). This invocation echoes the plea for the sages to “Consume my heart away” in Yeats’s earlier poem.

            In the third stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, it becomes clear that a precondition of entering the eternal city is ridding oneself of the body (as it presently exists), the heart and passion; “Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal / It knows not what it is” (21-23). One must become purified of desire, passion, and love. It is the heart’s connection with the body, the dying animal, which connects the body to a sickness of desire that disallows true and pure knowledge of self. It seems the body cannot do this alone, however, and he calls upon the spirits of sages who have gone before him. “God in the poem stands less in the position of the Christian God than in that of supreme artist, artificer of eternity and the holy fire; he is thus also the poet and the human imagination which is sometime in Yeats’s system described as the maker of all things.” Ellmann continues, “The juxtaposition of fire and music in the third stanza may be traced back to his statement in Per Amica Silentia Lunae that ‘In the condition of fire is all music and all rest’ (Ellmann 258).

            The third stanza of “Byzantium” opens on one of the Grecian goldsmiths’ forms from “Sailing to Byzantium” (Henn 232). “Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / More miracle than bird or handiwork” (17-18). “…scorn aloud / In glory of changeless metal / Common bird or petal / And all complexities of mire or blood” (21-24). “The bird belongs both to the world of the dead, and to that of immortality; it can serve as sentinel to the underworld and to the earth” (Henn 233). The bird, in this poem, seems to be the only being in these poems that can successfully pass between the two worlds.

            In the final stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”, Yeats continues the bird symbology which is now a simulacrum of reached perfection; “Of hammered gold and gold enameling / To keep a drowsy emperor awake, / Or set upon a golden bow to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium, / Of what is past or passing or to come” (28-32). The bird represents the man’s body as flesh in the first stanza and as gold in the last; the tree represents the ephemeral world in the beginning of the poem and the eternal world as a golden bough in the end. These images have spiraled down and are analogous, not identical, to their predecessors. This relationship shows that Byzantium is not yet paradisiacal; there is corruption in the eternal. Byzantium is dependent on all that is mortal and ephemeral because without these, there would be no need for Byzantium to exist. The old man, once again, is an outsider and seems to find himself unable to reach Byzantium; he must look on from a distance.

            At another level, “the golden bird, symbol of the reconciliation of opposites, symbolizes: (1) the poem itself, the created artifact; (2) the protagonist, who fades into it; (3) the poet, who becomes what he creates” (Ellmann 258). It is the complexities that mask multiple meanings and duality of characters. The poem closes as “the poet has sailed to Byzantium but his heart, ‘sick with desire’, is full of Ireland, and he cannot speak of the natural life without celebrating it” (Ellmann 260). Yeats later explained his intentions in “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called “Sailing to Byzantium”. When Irishmen were illuminating the Books of Kells [in the eighth century] and making the jeweled crosiers 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. (Jeffares 213)

These poems ask to be pulled apart layer by layer, consumed, and pulled apart again.

            Finally, in the concluding stanzas of “Byzantium”, everything melds in coruscating piles heaped upon the reader’s head. “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit” (25-26). “Flames and Faggot suggest martyrdom, or the devastation of a countryside by the soldiery: steel has its double sense of the flint or the sword” (Henn 234). The complexities arrive from stanza one; “but now they are complexities of fury…there is the Biblical reference to the fiery furnace” (Henn 234). It is the dolphins that will save humanity; “Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood, / Spirit after spirit!” (Henn 234) At the end of “Byzantium”, it seems, in one sense, that Yeats cannot reach his eternal desires and destinations without a mask. That is, he cannot write a perfect poem without distancing himself from the work.

            “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” show a poet’s journey from Ireland to Byzantium, but also the journey from life, the ephemeral, to art, the eternal. They follow, in different ways, a general journey from mortality to eternity juxtaposed with the journey from daily life to rarified and purified art. Yeats has realized, and shows through “Sailing to Byzantium”, that not everything is a dichotomy; everything melts, melds, and is interdependent and engaging one another.

            For Yeats, the idea of the mask held greater importance than solely understanding the whole through oppositions; “The mask became for Yeats a means of combating the erosion of exterior fate. More than an ideal of character, the mask was that anti-self reminding the poet that his reality was not the comings and goings outside his window in the street, but the comings and goings in his own mind” (Moore 4). It seems the mask became a way he could deal with the Ephemeral and its effects on him. Age could take his energy, but could it not also take his resolve? It had already taken his hearing, and now as it was threatening his sight, could he find strength in the mask or was it simply idealism?

            The concepts of the self, the mask, artifice and eternity are central to Yeats’s work; any understanding of his work depends upon an understanding of the interdependence of these ideas. “Byzantium” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are two poems that can hardly be understood apart from these ideas. “The mask is both an end and a means. As the expression of a great life attitude it urges a man on to remake himself in order to be worthy of it; as the image of a certain philosophy of life it serves to link nature and super-nature, the visible and the invisible. And this was what Yeats intended his art to do” (Moore 5).

Works Cited


Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton, 1979.

Finneran, Richard J. The Yeats Reader. New York: Scribner, 2002.

Haswell, Janis Tedesco. Pressed against Divinity. DeKalb, Ill.” Northern Illinois University Press, 1997.

Henn, T.R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Great Britain: Methuen & CO, 1965.

Hopcke, Robert H. A Guided Tour of the Collective Works of C.G. Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.

Jung, C.G. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Aspects of the Feminine. New Jersey: Princeton University, 1982.

Moore, John Rees. Masks of Love and Death: Yeats as Dramatist. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1971.

Oppel, Frances Nesbitt. Mask and Tragedy: Yeats and Nietzsche, 1902-10. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987.

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