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The Mutually Interdependent Relationship of Nature and Artifice

by Sarah Fallik


            The natural and artificial worlds have always been a source of fascination for William Yeats. Even in his early poetic career, Yeats’ interest in artifice and nature were underlying subjects in his works. Along with the evolution in his critical writings, brought to a peak in A Vision, the development of his poetic form also reflects the budding importance of the dualistic realities. Through his portrayal of the natural and artificial worlds over the course of his poetry, it becomes more and more apparent that Yeats is not favoring one world over the other, but rather proclaiming that the two opposing worlds are mutually dependent.


Defining Terms: Nature and Artifice

            The terms nature and artifice have, over time, developed distinct connotations and commonly held meanings. Presently, nature and artifice are typically differentiated by whether something exists organically in nature or is created artificially by man. Throughout Yeats’ writings, the terms nature and artifice take on enduring meanings. The natural world is primarily typified by imperfection, decay, the continual impurities of desire, and the limits of time. On the other hand, artificiality is depicted as perfect, unchanging, and timeless. The idolization of artificial flawlessness permeates Yeats’ writings. “The quest for an ideal moment outside of time silently generates the Yeatsian text” (Hirsch 57)



Disgust/Intrigue of Natural Bodily Function

            In 1927, Yeats said that “only two topics can be of the least interest to a serious and studious mind- sex and the dead” (Perloff 267). For Yeats, sexuality and the belief in an existence beyond death are fundamental to his perception of the physical and other worldly realms. Yeats’ preoccupation with death is laden with the desire for something of intellectual and spiritual significance beyond corporal decay. He unearths his own quest for spirituality in “Sailing to Byzantium,” (1926) the first poem in the collected works of The Tower. The poem distinguishes youth from old age by the formers’ desire for sensual worldly pleasures and the latters’ longing for timeless wisdom.

            Youth, who are often clouded by sexuality and human yearnings, are archetypal of the natural realm. In the movement away from the sensuality of youth in “Sailing to Byzantium,” sexual desire and decay of the body are purified, leaving the perfection of the artificial. As a product of the imagination, the artificial is eternal and without flaw. In the approach to old age, the bodily corrosion accompanying the stretch toward death is distinguished by the decline of sexual instinct and subsequent amplification of the spiritual.

            As early as 1889, Yeats’ preoccupations with the limits of his aging body were evident. In a letter written in 1889 to the Boston Pilot, Yeats said, “I have been very near the gates of Death, and an old man feeble and tottering, but not in spirits and life, not in the real man, the imagination which liveth for ever. In that I am stronger and stronger as this foolish body decays-” (Jeffares 233). In response to the disgust of his bodily bounds, Yeats looked toward an immortal perfection for a permanent place that his mind and spirit may inhabit. Yeats discovers this undying spiritual flawlessness in his vision of the eternal city of Byzantium.

            Yeats was on the threshold of old age when “Sailing to Byzantium” was written. Its composition was a way for him to recover his spirits. With the looming bodily decay that is a product of fading youth, the speaker of “Sailing to Byzantium” realizes that he is caught in the land of the young (Ireland). He contrasts the futility of his own decrepit body in the land of Ireland to the youth, who are sensual, energetic, and filled with desire, by describing himself as “A tattered coat upon a stick” (Finneran 84). Feeling detached from the “sensual music” of the young, he yearns for an existence beyond the limits of his mortality. Instead of looking at life through an external viewpoint, Yeats began to turn his eyes inward. “When the senses cease to be preoccupied with the external world, and the mind turns inward to a contemplation of its own essential form, the Divine is revealed,” (Sikka 82). By relinquishing mortal desires, a fusion of the soul and body sanctioning a life of higher purpose becomes accessible.

            For Yeats, the connection between sexuality and mortality lies deeper than their significance in his poetry. In both the relationship is characterized simultaneously by attraction and repulsion. The disgust that Yeats felt about his bodily decomposition in old age was similarly endured in youth in reference to his budding sexuality. He describes his experience, beginning near age fifteen, of being constantly burdened by the tortures of unfulfilled sexual desire. In “Memoirs,” written between 1916 and 1917, Yeats described his relationship to his own sexuality. He asserted that it was “a continual struggle against an experience that almost invariably left me with exhausted nerves” (Finneran 340). Although his sexual encounters were infrequent, they typically were adverse experiences that left him with a feeling self-loathing. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” it becomes clear that this discomfort with sexuality is reflected in the poem. In the land of sexually charged youth, there is a distinct coldness and the speaker reveals feeling unwelcome in Ireland. He longs to exist in a place of wisdom, devoid of sex, where he may once again feel at ease. The sensual music of youth is depicted negatively in that it disregards wisdom in favor of bodily pleasure. “Caught in the sensual music all neglect/ monuments of unageing intellect” (84).

            Adding to Yeats’ interest in the eternal world, beyond the limits of mortality, was his arrival at a life of stimulation in old age. In the context of his recent marriage, his position as a Senator, and having been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923, “Life was exciting, but there was the bother of old age,” (Jeffares 233). Later in life, he had come to a point where he could continually reinvent and rediscover himself. With the success in his later years, Yeats defied his earlier disillusionment that was felt when he wrote that “my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens,” (Finneran 292) In the 1920s, Yeats’ efforts in early life finally came to be rewarded. His involvement in revolutionary politics led to his position as a senator, while his early interest in mysticism and theology led to his creation of A Vision. The richness of the works encompassed in The Tower was the result of the evolution of his writing style that accompanied or that coincided with his personal maturation (Jeffares 215-216).


Unity of Being and The Mask

            Of central importance to the Yeats’ comprehension of nature and artifice are the closely related concepts Unity of Being and the Mask. In the 1937 version of A Vision, Yeats alludes to the state of embodied Unity of Being as a divine experience, occurring fleetingly, if at all. He defines Unity of Being to be “complete harmony between physical body intellect & spiritual desire” ( Haswell 29). Unity of Being is, as a rule, experienced more often in the undying confines of art than in life. “As the metaphysician decries the impossibility of unity, the poet struggles to forge a unity in which thought and passion, subject and object, the incarnate and the discarnate, natural and supernatural, particular and archetypal come together in the living lines as they cannot in the living person” (Day 77). Much like Yeats’ assertion that man can embody truth but he cannot know it, man can encounter the eternal but cannot possess it. “We attain (the perfect moment) in the creation or enjoyment of a work of art, but that moment though eternal in the Daimon passes from us because it is not an attainment of our whole being” (58). Hence, because Unity of Being is experienced, not acquired for ownership, it has greater potential to exist in an ageless art form. Despite the realization that the artificial realm is a sought out, passing encounter, Yeats’ work on A Vision is pervaded by the desire to possess the artificial. (Day 74)

            Unity of Being and Yeats’ theory of the Mask embrace similar connotations. “The discarnate image, as the object of desire, is closely allied to that he calls in A Vision the Mask” (Day 74). Much like Yeats’ concept of the Mask, in the case of nature and artifice, one always desires its opposite. Both the Mask and Unity of Being describe the human quest to be defined by seeking completion in the image to which we aspire to become. Yearning for a Mask contradictory to oneself “the incarnate subject desires the unattainable” (Day 75). Ultimately, Unity of Being is only possible in the unification of the incarnate and discarnate. In pursuit of divine fusion “artists and visionaries are always sailing the dolphin-torn gong-tormented sea to Byzantium- and never arriving” (Day 77). The quest for Unity of Being through art is central to both Byzantium poems. Yeats’ captivation with Byzantium stemmed in large part from the unifying quality which he saw in the city. He saw it to be a conceptual model for cultural unity. ( Bradford 110). Yeats deemed that “in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one” (Finneran 421). In both Byzantium poems, Unity of Being is achieved through the immortal world of art. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Unity of Being is sought in the journey from the temporal world to the paradise of spiritual life. In “ Byzantium,” as the uncleansed icons of sensuality submit to tranquil images of spirituality, there is a progression from complexity to simplicity. Unity of Being is realized in the eternal and the time confined realms. ( Bradford 125).

Passion Incited by Opposites

            Oppositional forces that produce passion are necessary for the desired Unity of Being to be achieved. Opposition serves as a catalyst for provoking and fusing clashing emotions, with passion as the end result. In Yeats’ final revised definition of the Mask he states that the Mask is “a form created by passion to unite us to ourselves” ( Haswell 33). In the case of the Mask and Unity of Being, “passion is what the Daimon behind the vision desires of its human opposite; passion alone effects Unity of Being” (Day 77). Through the existence of contradictory forces, passion is incited. The spiritual entity of the Daimon is described by Yeats to be either “another mind,’ or ‘part of our own mind,” (75). Each yearns for what lacks and what is seen in the other. The incarnate human desires the Daimons’ capacity to attain wisdom. “For wisdom is the property of the dead,/ A something incompatible with life” (75). The disincarnate Daimon desires the potential of the living for passion. Yeats remarks on the similar ability to incite passion in the relationship between man and Daimon and that of man and woman. “Man and Daimon face each other in perpetual conflict or embrace. The relation (the Daimon being of the opposite sex to that of man) may create a passion like that of sexual love” (75).

            Conceivably, because opposites continually seek one another and Yeats writes more closely allied to the natural realm throughout most of his poetic career, the natural world is often portrayed to be inferior to the artificial. In “The Dolls” (1914), Yeats describes the experience of dolls on a shelf, looking at the natural world, embodied by a baby, with repugnance. Through the continuous portrayal of the natural world permeated by the supernatural, it grows to be apparent that Yeats is striving for an experience beyond nature, incessantly looking toward the artificial for the ageless quality deficient in human flesh. Likewise, in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the reader is taken on a journey from the natural to the artificial. The voyage to Byzantium concludes in the arrival at the eternal city, however, the speaker does not actually enter it. He is filled with a wisdom brought on by old age, but his body cannot match the thriving powers of his mind. He looks to the embodiment of his opposite with admiration, seeking the ideal reality, free from the burdens of time. He makes a seemingly inhuman wish, but justifiable in the quest of completion in a contradictory force, to enter into the emotionally devoid state of an art form. The separation from bodily drives as a result of the journey to Byzantium signifies an entrance into the spiritual. “It is but the old youthful desire to conquer bodily inclinations and live a lonely life of wisdom” (Jeffares 223). Yeats’ portrayal of immortality in “ Byzantium” (1930) is fundamentally different from what the old man envisioned eternity to be in “Sailing to Byzantium.” “ Byzantium” was also written from a spell of depression as a way for Yeats to recuperate his melancholy mental state. His admiration for the artificial is still observable as he praises the eternal world. “I hail the superhuman; / I call it life-in-death and death-in-life” (Finneran 116).While man and his bodily drives are fleeting, art and ideas have the capacity for timelessness.

            Much like the instinctive nature of humanity to seek completion in its opposite, in tracking the path of Yeats’ poetry, it becomes more and more clear that the artificial and natural realms continually seek totality in one another. Pervasive symmetry yields a stagnant state where imbalance permeates. “Evil is the cessation of opposition; it is a world devoid of difference” ( Haswell 26).


The Rose as a Symbol for Unity of Being

            In Yeats’ early works, such as the collected poems of The Rose, the converse natural and artificial spheres tend be represented in simple symbols, while more complex symbols, such as the eternal city of Byzantium, tend to be used in his later works. Yeats relied on the symbol for its capacity to fuse numerous emotions, images, and associations. “Yeats sought to attain the unity he so desired through the symbol,” (Franke 24). At the foundation for his dependence on the symbol was the assumption of an ideal reality. From the affirmation of an ideal existence “springs a conflict between the ideal and the physical” (Franke 26). Hence, “The rose for Yeats thus becomes a symbol of Unity of Being, Of the reconciliation and union of natural and spiritual for which the poet is striving” (Byrd 102). In “The Rose Upon the Rood of Time,” published in 1893, the rose is portrayed as both eternal and earthly. “In all poor foolish things in a day,/ eternal beauty wandering on her way” (Finneran 11). Although the rose is part of the cycle of birth and death, its standing as a symbol of desire and beauty supersedes its earthly status, making it also capable of immortality. The rose is ever-present in nature, but Yeats’ portrayal of the rose tinged with an element of supernatural lends it to be slightly out of reach. Hence, the rose is representative of Yeats’ spiritual quest, “distinguished by his desire to cross the threshold beyond human experience” (60).


Physical Beauty and Unity of Being

            Those with the ability to unite the immortal with the mortal, attaining Unity of being, assume the form of great physical beauty. “Yeats’ symbol for this spiritual perfection is superhuman physical beauty in life.”(Sikka 83). In A Vision, Yeats deems that the fifteenth phase of the 28 incarnations indicates great physical beauty which accompanies spiritual illumination. “Yeats numbers among those nearly perfect beings Helen (at phase fourteen); his many references to Maud Gonne too show that she represented this kind of beauty,” (Sikka 83). Like Yeats’ rendering of Gonne as Helen of Troy, the beautiful Rose is another example of the human world being punctured by the world of the supernatural. The rose is observed by Yeats to be “for many centuries a symbol of spiritual love and supreme beauty.” (Byrd 35). Thus, the rose icon is both immortal and mortal, idealized for its ability to sustain timeless beauty.


The Byzantium Poems and the Central Theme of Nature and Artifice

            Although nature and artifice are themes that run through all of Yeats’ collected poems, they reach their height of prominence in the collected works of The Tower and The Winding Stair. Specifically, the notions of nature and artifice are imperative to the Byzantium poems. It was from his reading and his understanding of Byzantine art that Yeats constructed the concept of the eternal city of Byzantium. Although his life-long interest in Byzantine art began in the 1890s, ( Franke 25) the greater part of Yeats’ knowledge of Byzantium was acquired primarily from readings that he did during the time that was consumed with writing A Vision, between 1917 and 1925 ( Dume 405).

            Byzantium represents a timeless world of perfection and divinity amid the mortal world of decay. Yeats chose Byzantium as the destination of his journey because “ Byzantium was the center of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolize the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city” ( Bradford 111). In “Sailing to Byzantium,” the understanding of the mutually interdependent relationship between the natural and the artificial, the body and the spirit, progresses further from earlier works such as The Rose collection. After his completion of the poem, Yeats wrote a letter to Mrs Shakespear, stating, “How well too it puts my mood between spiritual excitement and the sexual torture the knowledge that these two are somehow inseparable!”(Jeffares 246).

            Partially because the natural and artificial worlds continually seek one another for wholeness, “ Byzantium” continues from where “Sailing to Byzantium” left off. Rather than portray the journey to the timeless city, in “ Byzantium,” Yeats depicts what it is to be in the city’s core for the first time. On clear distinction between the two Byzantium poems is the contrast of what eternity is anticipated to be and what eternity is in actuality. This distinction is vital to the re-imagining of the eternal city. In “ Byzantium,” there is a reconciliation of the worlds whereby the two clearly depend upon one another. Just as life is constantly looking to art for spiritual meaning, Byzantium continually looks to a fresh supply of life in order to be art. “In our system it is a cardinal principle that anything separated form its opposite-the victory of separation-‘consumes itself away.’ The existence of the one depends upon the existence of the other” ( Haswell 27). Although the speaker is inside Byzantium, he is clearly a guest of the eternal observing his surroundings. As a natural guest in the supernatural realm, being in the mists of both worlds, we are able to see the true interdependence of life and art. In “ Byzantium,” Yeats continues his progression toward the portrayal of the interdependence of the immortal and mortal realms. He calls it “death-in-life and life in death” (Finneran 116).

            In “ Byzantium,” Yeats portrays the creatures that exist in his undying paradise. Yeats’ reference to the golden tree and birds stems from his learning of a tree of gold and artificial birds that dwell in the royal palace of Byzantium. “I use it as a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctual joy of human life” ( Bradford 111).

            The paradise of art that is Byzantium essentially remains the same between the Byzantium poems. One plain, but notable distinction between the Byzantium poems is that Yeats writes the second poem closer to his demise and more distanced from his youth. Much like Yeats’ mutual fascination and repulsion with death and sex, the Byzantium poems make it evident that at the core of Yeats’ notion of the other world is a the idea that there is a mutual dependence and necessary enmity between the two opposite spheres. “Mortals need and seek spiritual knowledge (wisdom) from the other-world; Immortals lack physical substance (power) and require mortals to complete their tasks (Hirsch 63). Yeats spent his life engulfed in his art. Hence, in dedicating his life not only to his creations, he also dedicated to the attainment of the Unity of Being. While nature and artifice have always been themes in his writings, it can be said that with age, as Yeats began to be more and more interested in his own immortality, he became closer to attaining Unity of Being and that proximity to such a Divine form is reflected in his later works. “The shift in Yeats’s poetry is not so much from emphasis on the goal to the quest itself as it is from the seeker who has faith but no certain knowledge to the seeker who sees more clearly. In the early poetry, the seeker searches through the mists” (Byrd 46).


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Byrd, Thomas L. Jr. The Early Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1978


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Haswell, Janis Tedesco. “Gender, the Mask, and Complementarity.” Pressed by Divinity. Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 1997


Hirsch, Edward. “A War Between the Orders: Yeats’s Fiction and the Transcendental Movement*.” A Forum on Fiction 17 Autumn, 1983: 52-66. JSTOR. CSU Lib. 6, Nov. 2005 <http://www.jstor.org>


Jeffares, Norman. W.B Yeats: Man and Poet. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949


Perloff, Marjorie J. “Heart Mysteries’: The Later Love Lyrics of W. B. Yeats.” Contemporary Literature 10 Spring, 1969: 266-283. JSTOR. CSU Lib. 16, Nov. 2005 <http://www.jstor.org>


Sikka, Shalini. “Yeats’s ‘Unity of Being’ in the perspective of Upanisadic States of Turiya and Sushupti.” 12 Winter, 1994: 81-87

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