A Critical Review
William Butler Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 1923. He had the gift for enchanting the ear. His themes were: Life and Death, Love and Hate, man’s condition, and the meaning and patterns of history.
The poems present images and magical incantations that resonate deeply with the reader apart from their literal meaning. Hear the music…visualize the pictures they project. Yeats considered himself to be one of the last Romantic poets. The element of song is always present in his works. Everywhere the theme of music and singing recurs constantly.
He believed that certain patterns or cycles of civilization existed throughout history, the most important being what he called gyres, interpenetrating cones representing mixtures of opposites of both a personal and historical nature portrayed as rotating gyres forever whirling into one another’s centers, merging, and then separating. Yeats used the term “gyre” in his most famous poem, “The Second Coming.”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer”
He contended that gyres were initiated by the divine impregnation of a mortal woman, first, the rape of Leda by Zeus, then later, the immaculate conception of Mary. Yeats found that within each 2000 year era, certain symbolic moments of balance occurred at the midpoints of the 1000 year cycle designating moments of high achievement in the culture. Yeats cited as examples the glory of Athens at 500 B.C., Byzantium at 500 A.D., and the Italian Renaissance at 1500 A.D.
Certain patterns of history recur that are entirely indifferent to human suffering. History, like art, teaches us that only through identification with the impersonal can we transcend human suffering and limitations. A symbol of this transcendence for Yeats was the Byzantine Civilization. Byzantium became for Yeats the purest embodiment of the union and subsequent transfiguration through art of the fleshly condition and the ideal of holiness. (Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the middle ages. Istanbul is now the name of what was formally called Constantinople, the empire’s capital city).
He was a symbolist poet, using allusive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his career. He chose words that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggested abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant. His use of symbols is usually something physical that is both itself and a suggestion of other possibly immaterial and timeless qualities.
Yeats employed the continental stanza and used straightforward syntax. He wrote in iambic pentameter which is a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (unstressed) syllable) followed by one long (stressed) syllable. For example: “Two households, both alike in dignity.” He also used what is known as the heroic couplet, which is a pair of rhyming iambic pentameters. This is a traditional form of English poetry used for epic and narrative poetry.
Yeats was 62 when he wrote, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Sailing to Byzantium, by William Butler Yeats
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
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
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Allusions and terminology
“Perne in a gyre”- a perne is a bobbin. A gyre is a circular motion. A perne in a gyre is your life spinning out before you.
“No Country for Old Men”, a title to a popular book by Cormac McCarthy and a popular movie by the Cohen Brothers
“The Dying Animal”, the title to a popular book by Philip Roth, and a popular movie made from the book.
“The Golden Bough” is from Roman Mythology. It was a tree branch that allowed Aenas to travel safely through the underworld guided by Sybil so that he could learn of the fate of his people. It is referenced in the epic poem he Aeneid by Virgil.
“God’s Holy Fire” is a miracle that occurs every year at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the day preceding Easter. A blue light emanates within Jesus’ tomb which forms a column of fire from which candles are lit.
Byzantium, by William Butler Yeats
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
or Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
The Second Coming, by William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Information for this article was gleaned from the flowing sources:
- William Butler Yeats, Selected Poems and Plays, Edited with and Introduction by M. L. Rosenthal
- The Poetry Foundation