Poems of WB Yeats The Tower
W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium:” Preserving One’s Self Through Art
Artists often use their work as an expression of their innermost thoughts and feelings. In his poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats describes a metaphorical journey to Byzantium, an ancient city filled with timeless art, that the poem’s speaker embarks on in order to discover a medium of art through which he can express himself. In this poem, Yeats uses symbolism, alliteration, personification, and the motifs of music and gold to demonstrate how art transcends mortality and is the only medium through which the soul can continue to endure. This conception suggests that this poem is a medium through which the speaker’s soul can be preserved.
Yeats uses the symbolism of fish, coupled with alliteration, to highlight how humans are continually being born and then dying without leaving any monuments to commemorate their existence. In the first stanza, the speaker describes how “the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas… commend all summer long.” Salmon and mackerel are fish that make a journey upstream to lay their eggs and then travel downstream to die. Yeats uses this notion that fish are constantly being born and then dying as a symbol for the continuous cycle of life and death. However, this cycle prevents an individual from focusing on one’s self, because one becomes so focused on maintaining the continuation of life. Yeats further references the fish, stating “fish, flesh, or fowl” live together. Here, Yeats employs alliteration to further emphasize the symbol of the repetitive nature of life and death, as presented in the preceding line. In fact, “flesh” describes humans and includes them among other animals to demonstrate how people, just as animals, are entrapped in a continuous cycle of life and death. Yeats also presents the phrase “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” to describe how everything that comes will eventually end. By splitting life into three stages, Yeats is highlighting the uneventful lives that humans often live, suggesting that those who are trapped in the cycle enter and exit the the world without leaving behind anything to firmly commemorate their existence. At the end of the stanza, the speaker criticizes this repetitive cycle, stating that “caught in that sensual music all neglect unaging monuments of intellect.” Humans come and go, living in a cycle of life in which they are born and then die without any means to preserve their legacy. As a result, their intellect, a testament of whom they were, is not preserved in a monument to be admired for future generations.
Upon criticizing the repetitive nature of life, and humans’ inability to make a monuments of their existence, Yeats personifies the speaker’s mortality and soul in order to separate them from himself and demonstrate the desire for his soul to continue to be acknowledged. In the third stanza, the speaker asks for a holy fire to “Consume [his] heart away; sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is.” The heart keeps a human alive, making an individual mortal. Furthermore, by stating that “his heart knows not what it is,” he is personifying his mortality, as if it has a consciousness. The speaker further suggests that he wishes to distance himself from his mortality by having it “consumed,” because it serves him, whom he describes as a “dying animal”; this suggests that the speaker believes that his mortality is not important, and is something he may easily detach himself from. The speaker then personifies his soul to express his desire for it to continue to have a presence once he is no longer mortal and does not have a physical presence on earth. In the second stanza, he proclaims “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.” By asking for his soul to sing louder, he is demonstrating that he wants its presence to be heard and acknowledged by others. The speaker then states that “nor is there singing school, but studying monuments of its own magnificence.” Although the speaker wishes for his soul to express itself for others to notice, he notes that a soul cannot simply learn to be recognized in a “school”; instead, it must discover a way to express itself so that it can be maintained in a monument and recognized, suggesting that one must find a manner in which their soul can be remembered. As a result, even when the speaker’s mortality is lost, he will not be forgotten, such as fish that are born and then die, because his soul can endure and be remembered.
Beyond all this, Yeats uses the motifs of gold and music to demonstrate how art is a medium that transcends history and how it can allow one’s soul to endure on earth. In the third stanza, the speaker asks for a “Gold mosaic of a wall” to “come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, and be the singing-masters of [his] soul.” Gold is a material that is timelessly valued, while music is designed purely for the tasks of touching someone and having an effect on that person. The speaker asks the golden artwork on the wall to “sing” to his soul, demonstrating the art’s ability to have a meaningful and emotional impact on him. In the fourth stanza, the speaker describes how he wishes his bodily form to take “such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enameling.” The hammering and enameling of his body highlight the craftsmanship behind creating a monument, demonstrating art’s ability to capture one’s soul. Furthermore, by asking to be remembered as something golden, the speaker is indicating that he wants his monument to be of great value and prestige. The speaker mentions gold again, stating that a golden monument of him should be “set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium.” By setting himself upon a bough, the speaker is putting himself before the people of Byzantium on a pedestal of gold. Just as the mosaic could sing to his soul, the speaker desires for his soul to take a grand, artistic form that can then be sung to the people of Byzantium and have an effect on them. Art’s ability to impact others is done “of what is past or passing, or to come,” demonstrating that years after one’s death, a part of oneself will remain golden and preciously preserved in art and can continue to have an effect on the many generations to come.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats examines how art can be used to preserve one’s soul, suggesting that the poem is a form for which the speaker’s legacy and soul may continue to endure. The speaker wishes to take a metaphorical journey to Byzantium, a place of timeless art and culture, so that he may create something worth preserving. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker describes how people often neglect to create “monuments of unaging intellect”; indeed, the speaker is able to express his thoughts and intellect through the form of a poem. Thus, through writing the poem, the speaker has metaphorically sailed to Byzantium, for he has found a form through which his soul can endure.
Creating One’s Own Art
In many of William Butler Yeats’s works, he creates a seemingly inescapable gyre or cycle that history and human lives follow. In The Second Coming, Yeats examines the cycle of history in which every two thousand years, a new messiah arrives. In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Yeats explores the gyre in which man is caught where one’s current state dies and becomes anew. In a broader sense, the poem emphasizes the inevitability of death. However, neither of these two poems recognize the possibility of escape from the gyre. Yet, in his poem Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats recognizes a way out of the aforementioned gyre. Through the separation of the soul from the physical body, one can transcend time. Yeats uses diction surrounding aging and the motifs of birds and the soul to show the insignificance of mortal life, revealing the desire for the soul to endure beyond mortal life through art.
In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats uses the motif of birds to criticize man’s tendency to focus on the moment and forget the importance of the soul, a tendency which particularly plagues the young. He describes a world with “The young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees.” This description shows the sexual nature of the “young in one another’s arms” who are caught up in their own senses and equates them to carefree birds. The young use this sensuality as a distraction from the cycle in which they are caught, but their actions also demonstrate a continuation of the cycle. The young become so distracted by the physical that they unaware of their soul and their ability to separate themselves from their physical state. By condemning the young’s actions, the speaker implies that their youth and vitality are wasted. Like the young, birds also represent the cycle. The birds are singing just as the young are loving, but soon they will blindly be caught by death because they are too distracted by their song. The speaker continues his observation that the young are missing something greater, their intellect and purpose, when he says “the mackerel crowded seas, fish flesh or fowl” will reproduce all summer. Just like man, animals and all natural things are in a cycle of birth and death of which they are unaware. This highlights the true insignificance of individuals because all natural things will live and die. Additionally, constant reproduction leads to change and renewal. What will last after the current cycle? The speaker answers this when he desires to be “set upon a golden bough to sing” like a bird but with a permanence beyond the current gyre. The gold and the art created from the gold withstand death. Art is Yeats’s solution to escaping the inevitable cycle. The bird in the final stanza, as represented by a being singing on the bough, is physically able to transcend time.
Yeats recognizes the gyre in which he is caught when he explores the differences between the aging generation and the younger generation. He begins “That is no country for old men.” “That” refers to a changing world that no longer accepts traditional ideas. The speaker separates himself from this new generation by recognizing that he can no longer live in a country designed for them. He continues with the idea of a separation between the young and old when he calls attention to the “dying generations.” The idea that generations die creates a cycle: as one dies another is created. However, this cycle also shows that the young and old are intrinsically linked; the now young generation will soon become the dying generation. The cycle continues with “Whatever is Begotten, born, dies” which highlights this continuous cycle. Unlike the aging generations, the new generations ignore the “Monuments of unaging intellect” and thus don’t respect the accomplishments and ideas of their predecessors. The older generations recognize the importance of knowledge and living past their death and look to preserve their ideas with the “monuments of unaging intellect” and thus want to pass these ideas on to the younger generations. This idea connects back to the title of the poem. Byzantium, a once great empire, no longer exists and its culture and ideals disappeared. Even great civilizations face the same cycle as individuals. Like a declining empire, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” The older generation is insignificant and past its peak and thus cannot connect with the new generation and pass on its ideas. The birds in the first stanza represent the newer generation and the tattered old man in this stanza is portrayed as a scarecrow who repels the new generation and thus cannot pass on his ideas to them. The old men celebrate “every tatter in its mortal dress” while the young focus on the moment and their sexuality creating further separation between the generations. The tatters represent the struggles faced during one’s life. The older generation has amassed many tatters or lessons throughout life, while the younger generation has not. The older generations recognize the importance of celebrating knowledge born of the pain in life and the value of the soul over the physical. Even with the recognition of the soul as a separate entity, the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” and thus the speaker must find a way to allow his soul to escape the physical and transcend into the “artifice of eternity.” Unlike the body, the soul has the ability to be eternal, but this eternity is established by the things that the soul creates. Unlike the natural world, man-made things are not trapped in the cycle and can thus continue to survive even after their makers have died.
Yeats uses the motif of the soul to emphasize the speaker’s desire to be reborn as something that is able to transcend time. An old man is nothing but his tattered body, “unless Soul clap its hands and sing.” By personifying the soul, the speaker recognizes the distinction between the soul and the physical body. By allowing it to “clap its hand and sing,” the physical is allowing the soul to be more prominent. Without this separation the soul is not able to “sing” and live on past death. For Yeats, this song is poetry. The speaker provides the example of a group that has lived on through time: the “sages standing in God’s holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall.” The sages represent the frieze of saints and the wise men of Byzantium as portrayed in the Old Testament. The fire alludes to the burning bush in the Book of Exodus. This bush is on fire, but never burns, representing transformation and the removal of impurities. Therefore, the sages, who stand in this purifying fire, have been cleansed of sin and are able to be reborn because the impure physical being has been removed and the pure spiritual aspects of the soul remains. The burning sages appear in gold, which symbolizes art, and are thus able to escape the gyre and transcend time. The speaker desires for these sages to teach him to “be the singing-masters of my soul.” By focusing on the soul, the speaker is able to escape the cycle because he is no longer focused on the physical. This song symbolizes the art which allows the speaker to join the sages in eternity. Thus, the speaker desires a spiritual rebirth in which, “Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make.” Essentially, a physical rebirth traps the soul in the cycle, but once the physical has died, the soul can transcend time. Rather than a natural rebirth, the speaker wants his soul to survive through art like the “Grecian goldsmiths make.” Seeing this art in the future will give the artist’s past life meaning. Through the separation of the physical and the soul, the speaker is able to allow his soul to live on through art.
Yeats explores the process of intellectual preservation and the escape from life’s gyre in his poem Sailing to Byzantium. Yeats understands that his physical being, like all others, is caught in a cycle of birth, life, and death and thus Yeats, an aging man at the time of the poem, must find a way for his ideas to withstand his death. However, the young, who are too distracted by the moment and repelled by his age, do not recognize the value of his ideas so he must find another way to preserve his soul beyond his death. Yeats looks to the now extinct Byzantine Empire, once the center of cultural and artistic expression. He realizes that the legacy of the great empire is present in the art that was left behind. He looks to carry his own legacy in his art, his poetry. In creating his art, he is enabling his soul to live on beyond the end of his own life. Yeats urges the reader to recognize that he must create his own body of work which allows his soul to transcend time.
Byzantium: An Illusion of Salvation
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.
Understanding the History: Antimonial Vision of Yeats
More so than any other Modernist writer, William Butler Yeats’ life and work reveal themselves to be intricately connected and draw on each other in multifarious ways. What makes Yeats’ poetry achieve so much power is the conscious employment of his antinomial vision which runs through his life and his work. Therefore any analysis of these strands in his work would have to operate with the assumption that for Yeats there was no clear distinction between life and work and the many antinomies which run through them.
Simply put, antinomial vision, implies a certain ability to hold opposing opinions together and we shall see in close analysis how central this vision is to his poetry. For Yeats, antinomy was the capacity to care for and withdraw simultaneously from something. Perhaps the very idea of opposing views for Yeatswould have come from his own experience itself. Yeats was famously involved in the Irish Cultural Revival and several aspects of the Irish struggle for autonomy thus firmly placing his personal, political and artistic concerns in the public arena. Generally sympathetic to the aristocratic values and art aesthetics, he also embraced the experience and wisdom of the common Irish peasantry, forming perhaps the first of the many antinomies in his life. Similarly, just as he was an active participant in the civil society he was also deeply involved in mysticism and the search for truths beyond the particularities of the political.
This search to hold together contradictions and attempt to achieve unity will achieve a deeper meaning only when Yeats’ work is placed in its context. The early twentieth century in which Yeats was writing was a time of immense socio-political upheaval and witnessed the irrational destruction of the First World War which would create a sense of disillusionment with the progress of human civilization and the concomitant expression of loss and fragmentation in most Modernist art and writing. Also important is the intellectual developments which create a sense of rootlessness in the twentieth century, the prime example of which is the Darwinian undercutting of conventional Christian morality and ethos with nothing to take its place. Perhaps, Yeats’ forays into mysticism and the occult and his relentless attempt to syncretise oppositions rise out of a deep need to find meaning in life and art even as the world around it seems fragmented as never before. Yeats delves into Platonic thought, Kabala, Buddhism, Hinduism, Greco-Roman thought and so on to find a common thread of symbolism in his poetry which would create a holistic vision out of all the contradictions. Even in his personal life, there was an antinomy in the mentorship he received from both his father J.B. Yeats who taught him intensity and purpose in art and the need to be objective, with that of George Pollexfen who taught him mysticism and astronomy. He would learn to compromise these two diverse views showing a propensity to delve into contradictions which other poets would hesitate to.
Similarly, Yeats interactions with public life in Ireland show him deeply conflicted in his relationship with his country. On one hand he was an ardent supporter of the Irish movement and had a close relationship with Charles Parnell but as soon as the movement takes a violent direction Yeats retreats into a more metaphysical realm through his friendships and associations with Lady Gregory, Madame Blavatsky and so on. His rebuke of bourgeois Irish society and its uber-nationalistic and chauvinistic ideals were critiqued by Yeats relentlessly while around this time he was also involved in trying to preserve the myths and traditions of Gaelic culture and his desire to build a unique national tradition for Ireland. These antinomies would be reflected in his poems as we will see later.
Yeats’ antinomies can be understood better in the light of his theory of séances and gyres. He uses symbols from tradition of the spiritus mundi or the collective mind but gives it his own interpretations through visions and séances. A good example would be his conceptualization of the phases of the moon which according to him had 28 phases from the dark moon to the full moon. Similarly human personality is divided into 28 phases and every phase links back to another phase, thus showing the dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity where phase 1 is completely objective and phase 15 completely subjective. Each human being passes through these cycles from objectivity and subjectivity and vice versa. Therefore one can never assume a state where the opposite doesn’t exist; when one is subjective, objectivity will also be there. This would make everyone a bundle of opposites from which there is no escape.
Another theory which runs through much of Yeats’ poetry which is important for our understanding of his antinomial vision is the gyre theory. Gyres, for Yeats, were two cones which interpenetrated each other and mirror all life. The gyres represent various antinomies in life and are constituted of several actions and inactions. In fact the very structure of the gyres is such that the moment one reaches the point of greatest expansion one has to start retreating.
Another symbolic interpretation would be the juxtaposition of male and female. It can also be seen as the antinomy of spirit and matter, heaven and earth, fire and water, out of which life is born. The gyres simultaneously stand for permanence and change. A human beings life is spent between what they are and what they want to be and the gyres symbolize this conflict as well. Yeats also uses the symbol of the ladder and the winding stairs which contain another antinomy of rootedness and upward aspiration. The tower and the winding stairs make up the antinomy of isolation but firmness, unconquerable spirit of man and the work needed to achieve the top of the tower.
Perhaps no discussion of the Yeatsian antinomy will be complete without exploring his relationship with Maud Gonne. As Yeats memorably remarked, it was with their meeting that the “troubling” of his life began. Even after their relationship was effectively over after her marriage to John MacBride, Yeats’ obsession with Gonne would fuel much of his poetry. Simultaneously disdainful and entranced by the woman who had scorned him, Yeats’ poetry would be haunted by Maud Gonne’s presence but there will be significant differences between the early and late poems where he finally is able to look at the affair with a certain detachment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poem, “No Second Troy”. Belonging to The Green Helmet and Other Poems published in 1910, “No Second Troy” resounds with conflicts and tensions concentrated in terse, sparse lines. His antinomial attitude towards Maud Gonne is seen throughout; he is deeply hurt but is willing to forgive her for her duty and love towards Ireland. Yeats after he was rejected by Gonne, he retreats to the aristocratic realm populated by people like Lady Gregory while Gonne becomes embroiled in the violent section of the revolutionary movement. This brings in Yeats a certain detachment and coolness and is willing to finally put the disappointment behind him and assume public responsibility. But Maud’s specter would be hard to conquer as he is still taken in by her so the poem is also marked by the assumption of the mask of the man of the world who will put up the facade that he will not be dragged down and destroyed. While he’s describing Maud’s terrible power there is also an antinomy at work as Yeats was aware that a woman capable of such power was in fact caught in an abusive marriage which was coming to its end.
The title itself refers to this conflict. In evoking Helen of Troy, he connects Maud to a history of women who have caused great trouble in the world but there is poignancy in Yeats assertion that her mind was “nobleness made simple as a fire” suggesting that Maud’s destructive beauty and power was an inherent character which she cannot relinquish. This contradictory position shows the conflict between the disillusionment and the coolness in Yeats. The fire image also suggests the antinomial relationship between the great beauty capable of destruction of civilizations and the force which is capable of burning out the dross of civilization and this was brought together in the figure of Maud Gonne. “The tightened bow” suggests the threat of violence but it also invokes the image of Cupid’s bow, thus linking beauty, love and destruction in an antinomial relationship. While Yeats appreciates Gonne’s beauty, power and character he had moved away enough to refuse to let her destroy him, thus completing the series of antinomies. The poem’s tension is also because of Yeats trying to balance love and anger and fighting between the fated premonition of the destruction of Troy and standing up for the individual. Ultimately “No Second Troy” reveals one of the most basic of all antinomies in Yeats, the one of love and hate coming together through the figure of Maud Gonne.
The antinomies are taken to frightening extremes in one of Yeats’ most powerful poems, “The Second Coming”. As discussed before the World War and the ensuing political turbulence creates the atmosphere for this poem of frightening images, where the world awaits the apocalypse on the Judgement Day. The basic antinomy is between Yeats’ use of mythological images with contemporary political references. There is a constant juxtaposition of the personal with the public thus erasing their rigid binary. Referring to various archetypal patterns of history Yeats compounds the fear of death with the prophecies of violence. For Yeats, the end of the universe meant the reversal of the gyres and the beast-like figure referred to in the poem will be born instead of Christ, the Saviour and from here on, the poem works by putting forward a series of contradictory pairs. The reference to the two birds right at the beginning links it to the interpenetrating gyres. According to Yeats the gyre which represented the birth of Christ and meekness and innocence in human life is now on its way out, only to be dominated by the violence, evil and thirst for power in the modern age. The old world order symbolising peace and stability indicated by the birst of Christ will be replaced by the terrible new order where “the ceremony of innocence is drowned”. Bethlehem which symbolized humaneness of the Christian era is over and it’s the terrible beast which is hurtling to be born in Bethlehem.
The new world for Yeats will not be born out of a virgin but instead from humanity’s evil deeds and spirit, which was responsible for crucifying the messenger of peace. Philosophically, the gyres represent integration versus disintegration which is reflected in order of the old age and the fragmentation of the modern age. The reference to tides in a Christian context would invoke images of the sea of life but here it becomes the “blood-dimmed tide”, in which innocence drowns. While blood would signify the birth of Christ here the blood becomes a sign of death. The lion represents the bestial antinomy to man generally but here Yeats brings the two together to show just how horrific the new age is. The Son of God would normally be associated with imagery of light and life but this bestial ‘son’ is haunted by birds of prey and followed by shadows. The maternal imagery of the rocking cradle is here compared to a nightmare, thus bringing together antinomies that one would normally not associate, thus underlining the horrendous new age borne out of the World War.
The poem ends on a dire note but Yeats commented that the power to classify can be the power to control and this brings a slight hint of hope into the picture. By powerfully putting his antinomial vision to use Yeats clearly lays the blame for the pathetic state of the twentieth century individual on humans but also somewhere signifies that they themselves have the power to bring about a change in this scheme by constantly referring to a better past juxtaposed with the terrible present.
By 1927, Yeats moves away from the utterly dystopian vision of “The Second Coming” to more metaphysical and complex questions where he explores the dichotomy between art and life. This is best represented in “Sailing to Byzantium”. Byzantium is Constantinople and for Yeats it was the center point of the gyres. In Yeats’ own words “…..early Byzantium may never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers…..spoke to the multitude and few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost all impersonal….absorbed in their subject matter and that vision of a whole people”. Byzantium was the meeting point of the East and the West and also for Yeats held special significance because of its ability to bring conflicting images together. It’s also important to note that even in his personal life Yeats was undergoing a time of conflict-caught between the antinomies of waning physical strength and extremely virile imagination. For Yeats, the symbol of Byzantium stood for unfettered imagination; it was a place of religious significance and yet a centre of great art. In this multiplicity of antinomies, Byzantium stands for perfect unity- flawless sensibility in art along with the mysteries of religion and mysticism. Yeats saw in it a symbol simultaneously looking to the future while rooted in the past.
The poem contains a deep tension between the antinomies of the mortality of the body and the timelessness of art. Right from the beginning Yeats contrasts the vivid images of salmons and birds full of life with human frailty at the passage of time. There is throughout the poem, echoes of the Golden Bird which symbolizes perfection beyond decay. Contrasted with ephemeral human life which withers away, art survives. Yeats’ wish is to leave the real world and become an immortal soul through the beauty of art. The constant denial of the body we see in the poem reflects Yeats’ wish to turn into the golden world of the bird. The image of sailing to leave behind all physical fetters has always represented the search for spirituality. Yeats wants to turn away from the impermanence and chaos of the world to look for answers in the “artifice of eternity”. This can be seen as an antinomy where there is a human desire to sail away from the life of the natural body and seek eternal life in an artificial object. Like the goldsmith’s work, art triumphs over the limitations of the body and attains a higher level for the spirit. In the last stanza Yeats clearly spells out the conflict where man is part of both flesh and soul and the impossibility of choosing one over the other. The bird is permanent but it sings of life: art is, therefore, simply not detachable from life. The poem here achieves almost a circular effect. The speaker of the poem after severing ties from life still sings of time in front of the audience. The antinomy, it seems, cannot be escaped.
The poem ultimately establishes an organic continuity between the world of flesh and spirit, youth and age, life and death, nature and art and ultimately emphasizes the interdependence between nature and art and one would be incomplete without the other. The golden bird acquires new meaning after the last stanza is considered as it becomes clear that no art can exist without imagination. The protagonist who sails away is both an artist and a man and the two cannot be separated since it is experience which feeds into art and vice versa. Ultimately, no man can reject life and find solace in art becomes art celebrates life itself demonstrating creative interdependence. Yeats himself felt that this poem was closest to the 15th phase of the moon when “unity of being is perfectly attained”. The poem is a reconciliation and synthesis of antinomies into the Complex Compound.
“Leda and the Swan”, another Tower poem effectively employs antinomies through which more complex issues of power are discussed. Leda’s rape by Zeus as a swan is discussed as an experience of terror and fear and loss of innocence but also the gaining of the power of insight. The tone of the poem is such that there’s a great flurry of action but it is also a moment of perfect stillness. In the midpoint a communion takes place where the “shudder in the loins” engenders the future. However after this point there is a complete reversal: Zeus has satiated himself but Leda is now in the throes of passion. Her ‘awakening’ is not just sexual but also a realization of her power over the future.
Yeats at the time of writing the poem was extremely frustrated and disillusioned and uses it to create an opposition of ideas. Leda and the swan image becomes an antinomy for power and knowledge. The issue of giving up power for gaining knowledge is raised but not completely answered. The language is of violence overcoming resistance and its almost as though the victim takes on the power of the oppressor. Blood, here becomes the blood of loss of virginity, the blood of birth of great figures like Christ and Helen and the ultimate bloodshed caused. The last line suggests that both Mary and Leda by taking in divinity they attain some amount of mastery. Leda and Mary symbolizes the union of the godhead and the woman and both produce monumental births. The final “shudder” is replete with contradictory meanings of fear of motherhood and creativity itself. Fear and power seems to difficult to separate in this disturbing poem.
Perhaps no other Yeats poem contains perfect images of the unity of contradictions than “Among School Children” where past and present, Yeats and Maud Gonne, age and youth, life and death, and art and reality, come together perfectly. Yeats is able to synthesize his sixty year old self with that of the child he was once, with Maud Gonne, with the children sitting in the classroom. The poem is structured through parallel trinities. Firstly, Yeats himself as an old man, Yeats as the lover, Yeats as the philosopher-poet. Secondly Yeats as a permanent example of human life as a baby, man and scarecrow. Thirdly, the three philosophers who attempted to understand the system of reality- Plato (forms), Aristotle (nature) and Pythagoras (art and music). Fourthly, the presences of passion, piety and affection of the lover, nun and mother respectively which remain changeless. Finally, trinity of nature itself represented through the image of the chestnut tree. All these trios, like the gyres, suggest relationships and interrelationships. It is a compound of all these parts and the poem and the poet cannot be separated. Yeats’ search for double vision finally finds full fruition in this poem.
Several antinomial images are central to understanding the poem’s conflicts. The egg and white imagery of the yolk signify unity but the egg also brings into mind Leda giving birth to the reason for destruction. Similarly when Yeats is in the classroom his mind provides him the reality of the school children in front of him but there is also the mental reality of Maud Gonne’s memories taking him back. There is also the use of the mask when Yeats projects an image where he “smile on all that smile” but his mind is in ferment. Yeats then invokes a mother’s love to connect it with Porphyry’s treatise “The Cave of the Nymphs” and the honey referred to tracks back to the honey in Porphyry where it represents sexual act and pleasure but at the same time destroys the link of the soul with past memories. If the mother, who for Yeats is the ideal symbol of affection, could see further into the future at sixty she might even have hesitated giving birth to a child. He then considers the role of philosophy in understanding reality through Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras but ultimately all their study becomes “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”. Yeats posits the antinomy of reality versus image and says that you cannot escape reality by looking for something in the world but instead it is the reality of imagination which provides answers, thus moving closer to art. These images for Yeats are those of the passion of the lover, the piety of the nun and the affection of the mother. After failing to understand reality man has to move beyond it. It is imagination which creates presence in mind and body and therefore truth is to be found there.
In the final stanza Yeats ties up all the antimonies introduced earlier through two important images. Before that he compares the physical world of decay and the beautiful world of imagination. He stresses the importance of unity of body and soul and urges people to accept aging as part of the process. The unity of body and soul is what is the truth of art and nature. To symbolize this unity Yeats first uses the famous image of the chestnut tree, which is the symbol of unity of fragility and strength and it’s leaf, blossom and bole are all of equal importance. The reference to music once again emphasizes the unity of the soul and they cannot divide themselves. The entire set of antinomies is united in the beautiful image of the dancer and the dance. When the dancer finds themselves synthesized in the movement of dance, knowing that dancer is temporary but the dancer is permanent. Finally Yeats arrives on his understanding of compound equality through this image of perfect balance. The double vision is what is needed to enjoy life and art in the world.
As we have seen, Yeats’ life and work are intricately connected through the strands of his antinomial vision. The idea that the poet and the poem should be separate was an anathema to Yeats who insisted that “a poet always writes of his personal life in his personal work, whatever it be- remorse, lost love or mere loneliness”. His ultimate goal was to create a vision and the need to bring about a “compound of images which creates a vision of reality”. Yeats, in both his life and poetry demonstrates the need for human unity and togetherness in the onslaught of the chaos.