The Messenger Mercury Or Two Dances for Shillings

So there I was in my second year at the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University, in the lovely city of Montreal. It was the fall of 2004. Having just read Neal Stephenson’s genre-defying and dizzyingly labyrinthine Quicksilver, I was inspired to put that stone and voice to use in an essay.

My professor, the delightful Geoffrey Fidler, thankfully found my somewhat experimental essay delightful and to his liking. And good grief, he even knew by heart some of the passages that I cited in this text.

Truly a remarkable man.

I hope you enjoy.

(Image courtesy of Videogamesartwork.)

12 February, 1698, Wherein John Locke arrives at London; the Sipping of the March Ale; Delightful Chit-Chat Parleys; Property Discussed; Mercury; the Coins are Spun

Act I, Scene the First

            The mists part like doors pried open by the methodical hands of an ancient pagan deity as the Isabella gracefully cuts through the white intangible surface cloud, declaring herself to London’s teeming port, her geodetic curves strutting her stuff to merchants and carousers along the Woolwich docks.

            John Locke, trussed in navy blue, and featuring the kind of face that one imagines having been squeezed in a vice until it began resembling a pencil, stands along the foremast, striking the withering pose of one who’s been at sea too long. As the ship slides into the dock, the sound of London slowly increases, like God turning up the volume of the world.

            ‘Tis done, this travelling,’ thinks Locke, as he scrambles to touch-down upon solid rock and earth of Home Sweet Home, England. Letter tucked away in his pocket, Locke disembarks the Isabella. He stops just before the last step, breathes inwards, and plonks his right foot onto the ground. He isn’t arrested. He exhales.

            London manages to look alien to him; a city he hadn’t seen in nearly the entire turn of a decade seems overgrown; a plant long untrimmed. The south-bank of the River Thames, he scribbles in his mind, was covered in a growth of new buildings that made the street appear more crowded and cramped than he had remembered it having been.

            ‘Enough for now though,’ the little voice in his mind utters. ‘First, a pint before the travelling doth get underway.’ He tries to recall that old Irish adage. What was it? he thinks to himself. Something about a pub and a pint. But the phrase doesn’t come to him, so he abandons the thought. He makes his way to an inn with large open windows that, despite sitting smack on the River Thames, seemingly have not been introduced to soap. Major tourist no-no. To Locke’s eyes, the windows appear so filth-ridden that it would take acid to burn through the dirt that the window has accumulated since whenever it was last cleaned. He has a while to rest while the ship is strip-teased apart of all her goods by merchant men, servants, &c.

            Locke takes a seat alongside an open window that looks out away from the river, onto the street. He wants to observe it, monitor the movements like Sir Descartes might have, given the opportunity.

            A bar-tender approacheth.

            “What can ah bring ye, ser?”

            “A March Beer is hotly desired by myne person.”

            The bar-tender doesn’t even blink. The communiqué ‘twixt Locke and said Master of the Alcohols was not oblique. One beer, straight up. He shuffles away towards the bar, and invokes the Great God of the Tap. A minute later he returns, carrying the tray with all the grace involved in life or death scenarios. To the uninitiated, this would appear strange and confusing. The travelled connoisseur knows of the nigh-divine relation between bar masters, patrons, and fine alcohol, and any two well versed men of this art need not parley on the matter – the non-monetary exchange of glances is enough.

            Locke rips into the glass, glad to be once again savouring the treats that one could only receive in London, and thinks once again how good it is to be home.

            His right hand clutches a letter of matters most pertinent. He sips his beer, and patiently waits. During this time, his mind wanders to the text he’d been editing during his last days in Holland, over in Rotterdam. His thoughts wandered equally to the letter received from one Dr.Goodall, whose name had epitomized in one blow the news that had delivered him such fortune.

‘I know you can be no stranger to the wonderful success which God Almighty hath given to the Prince of Orange in his late undertaking to deliver our miserable and distressed kingdom from Popery and slavery, which mercy we in England esteem no less than the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt by the hand of Moses…I presume you have heard that the King went privately from Whitehall some few days before the Prince came to St. James’s with a design for France, but was stopped by some fishermen, and then returned again to Whitehall on the Sunday in the evening, but on the Tuesday (being the day the Prince came to London) he retired to Rochester, and is said to have left the kingdom last Sunday.’[1]

            And now, in parlance le Françoise, the Fit had hit the Shan. James II was on his way out the door, and William of Orange had marched in, turning an already volatile political struggle between the Whigs and the Tories into an absolutely chaotic situation, driving both parties into a nigh-feverous polemic. Already, John could see things becoming operose for Louis XIV. Let’s assume for a minute that the world, in its limited physical consistence subsists of only Europe, which for the moment we shall lovingly call the World’s Sandbox. It’s 1698, the bottle cap end of a period of religious wars. Now, assuming God exists, and isn’t exactly the plucky and sweet next door neighbour of the New Testament, letting William into the sandbox with Louis XIV is not going to lead to an Age of Ennui, and Locke knows this.

            The thought reaches the period in his mind, the door opens, and yet another Silver Spoon client enters. Locke looks up – the two pairs of eyes connect, and Yes! – Contact Established. Richard Henslowe approaches, and sits down at the diametrically opposite location of Locke: Across the table.

Begin Scene Part Deux:

[The Scene, London, a Pub]

[Locke]. My ale and I assumed the worst for thee.

Henslowe.       Traffik struck down the passage of time. One must needs chart out London-towne anew if business is expected to be conducted apace.

Locke.                          Faith trust thy received lettered Treatises?

Henslowe.                               So I did, sirrah. Mercurially ‘twixt thy fingers did wordes flow, a current of thoughts.

Locke. But thy thoughts! Pray you, thy thoughts on said matter!

Henslowe.       Put thyself at ease. Struck I was by the wash of words that spun across myne temples like a pulsating hurricane of letters and thoughts. Such earnesty struck me, like a thundering muse roaring across the tides of politik.

Locke.                          Decrypt thy thoughts. Elucidate upon the thunder of the words.

Henslowe.                               You would tackle Adam and Eve’s world with a sword of property, a new dialectic based on the spinning of the coyn! Let us examine part seven and twenty, for these are fiery words even Hephaestus dare not pronounce:

Every man has a property in his own person.’ What council would you offer to those who question such words?

Locke. ‘Tis the state of nature, an inviolability not even our monarch, May God bless him, could indeed dispel. For as the treatise does declare: the labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.

Henslowe.       And should The King say otherwise?

Locke.                          Doubting the King’s mundanity?

Henslowe:                               A sufferable cur of a vice

Locke.                                                  Parliament: a loaded alchymecal infernality.

Henslowe. A Motley Dare; but less us continue apace.

‘The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left in it, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.’

Most heady.

Locke.              Not for the weak of head.

Henslowe.                   A titanic grasp will be required.  Miniscule intellects of ash will be swept away.

Locke.                                      A new ethos to challenge the firmament comes slowly. But I dare not print in myne name. Not for the moment; too many packs of braying doggerel populace the isle.

Henslowe.                                           And the Essai of Understanding?

Locke. I would have it passed by Fraser in the first.

Henslowe.       And the Treatise?

Locke.                          Pertaining to that, there is no need to rush. Filmer may wait. But let us sweep aside this beguiling distraction.

Henslowe.                               Most agreeable. Let us to the text! Paragraphe the eighth and twenty!

‘That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.’

Locke.                                                  And will anyone say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his?

Henslowe. You finish the thoughts as the coruscating river flows to the mouth of the delta. Holland has been most kind to the grace of your wits. But praytell reveal to me – how will the counties of men abide with such rules? What strength can word offer us ‘gainst a-nother Ket of Norwich?[2]

Locke.              But here is inscribed the Clincher. There must needs be an agreed upon contract. Less than that cannot be suffered.

Henslowe.                   And if ‘twas less than the agreed upon sum, and said monarch were to give the Universal Finger and Wattle off: Twch Luck, Begch?

Locke.                                      For such recusant woes to be caused by a monarch Wou’d be but another edictal-stroke of tyranny.

                                                            [Enter Bar-Tender]

Bar-Tender. Seconds in refreshment, ser?

Locke.              A cup, a cup most kind, a cup most strong, I would have my companion Henslowe trough!

Bar-Tender.                ‘E alright?

Henslowe.                               He is of the philosophe. Are they ever quite alright?

Bar-Tender.                                        A wee quacky lot, I tend ta think.

Locke. Bar-Tender, percase uncover the whirls and gears within thyself! S’pose I say to thee: I will let you thee own as thy would earn, and no monarch could say “Thy handicraft is avail to mine breast!” to only turn, stealing away all that hand and soul have built.

Bar-Tender:    Thou meyns tellin’ tha King ta piss off?

Henslowe:                   Most assuredly.

Bar-Tender.                            An what’s ta make ‘im care?

Locke.                                                  Tis not a question most urgent? And the resolution found in the bondage of ink and paper; Parliament and Monarch; an inviolable agreement!

Henslowe. But what of the agreement of exchange? For surely, as spelt in writ here, fourty and seven: ‘And thus came in the use of money, some lasting thing that men might keep without spoiling, and that by mutual consent men would take in exchange for the truly useful, but perishable supports of life.’

Locke.              And thus my hopes for the throne of William of Orange. Pray tell fair Bar-Tender, what coynage is carried upon thee?

Bar-Tender.                Wot else but shillings.

Locke.                                      Mayhap I might glance upon them?

Bar-Tender.                                        To wot end?

Locke.                                                              To reveal the glories Metis unveiled upon myne mind in silver and fire.

Bar-Tender. Naught but old shillings.

Locke.              Glance thee but closely upon the coyns! What canst thy not observe?

Henslowe.                   A faded hue, as though antediluvian soot.

Bar-Tender.                            They’re but shillings.

Locke.                                                  See thee both not more to the open eye?

Henslowe.                                                       ‘Tis a coyne, Ser Locke.

Bar-Tender. Aye. Tha gent ‘as it right.

Locke.              See not how chipped it is? And observe! What is the make?

Henslowe.                   Most like James the Fyrst.

Locke.                                      Observe the coyns minted at the Munttoren, in Muntplein. Prostrate thine eyes before this Gulzen, of Prussian domain.

Bar-Tender. I see naught but finely crafted coyns.

Locke.              Thus the key unveils! Coynage, myne good sers!

Henslowe.                   English coynage?

Bar-Tender.                            But on what shall ye buy yer beer?

Locke.                                                  On coyns most new, should William, God Bless, take such initiative!

Bar-Tender. Seconds on March beer, then.

Locke.              Quite. And of course, my companion, the Gentle Henslowe, shall partake in your splendid delicacy.

                                    [Exit Bar-Tender]

Henslowe.                               You suggest a connexion of sorts?

Locke.                                                  Inescapably.

Henslowe. Thus thy passage for paragraphe ten and five?

Locke.              What says the litany of the treatise?

Henslowe:                   ‘But since gold and silver, being little useful to the life of man in proportion to food, raiment, and carriage, has its value only from the consent of men, whereof labour yet makes, in great part, the measure, it is plain, that men have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth, they having, by a tacit and voluntary consent, found out a way how a man may fairly possess more land than he himself can use the product of, by receiving in exchange for the overplus gold and silver, which may be hoarded up without injury to any one; these metals not spoiling or decaying in the private hands of the possessor.’ Does thee belay the notion of money as a contractual device?

Locke. In fact, I do just such. A means to bind, to preserve, and as the eminent Hobbes would have sought – a prevention of chaos.

            [Enter Bar-Tender]

Bar-Tender.    An ‘ere are yer drinks. Tha’ll be 3d. per stein.

Henslowe.                   Allow myne purse to sing jovially for us both! To company long unseen!

Locke.                                      I will respectfully acquiesce to said decision. To company dearly re-united!

The stein are clunk.

                                                            [Exit Bar-Tender]

Henslowe. Tell further, of the money’d contract.

Locke.              A guarantee that costs might be stabilized. Much rests here on Sir Isaac and his Mint.

Henslowe.                   So thus, should men agree to a standard money system –

Locke.                                      A re-coyn’d system – abandon to recesses James, Elizabeth, and their coyns. Consider England under one monetary whole; man paying man in standardized units of coyn.

Henslowe.                                           Tempered spirits abound.

Locke.                                                              Contracts thusly re-inforced!

Henslowe. And where is contained the ethos of Christendom?

Locke.              Praytell which ethos thee does speak.

Henslowe.                   What conclusion left when said ideas convey the Rumble in the Jungle twixt Iesu Christus and Mercantilism?

Locke. For such cause was a proviso enscribed within paragraphe one and thirty:

‘The same law of nature, that does by this means gives us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. Vi. 12. is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it to us? To enjoy. As much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond is beyond this, is more than this share, and belongs to others.’

Henslowe.       What to make of this?

Locke.                          Here is myne beer. Master Descartes’s scientific method hath given myne person the ability to conclude what is and is not excess. Thus I order not beyond what might be drunk. Thusly I take not from the well more than is necessitated.

Henslowe.                               And what if resources are to run dry?

Locke.                                                  England is tapped into resources a-plenty that such a scene shall not dally before our eyes. Easy thy mind on such a subject. And if myne own word is a matter of doubt, trust in Master Descartes, whose own pen offers the same conclusion.

Henslowe. Let us recursively examine aforementioned propositions of the Treatise:

A contract ‘twixt men must be bound, and items will thusly exchange hands properly and with surer swiftness should the Mint reforge a sterling standard.

Locke.              It is almost operatic in nature. A Canto fermo, perhaps? Mayhap a chaconne or libretto from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas?

Shake the cloud from off your brow,
Fate your wishes does allow;
Empire growing,
Pleasures flowing,
Fortune smiles and so should you!

Henslowe.                   This alchymecal system will thusly re-inforce social stability; provided Parliament buffers said self ‘gainst King. This politikal buttress shall build the sought-after system of economic stability that myne proposal doth seek.

Locke.                                      Dear Henslowe, thy reach doth extend beyond the tail of the beast!

Henslowe.                                           But to what aim, dear Locke? What aim?

Locke. That man might know a safety and assured security of private property! For that the blade doth point! Here doth I present to Dido and Aeneas the wedding of Hephaestus and Athena!

Henslowe.       The day grows dim, dear Locke. Feel thee not the beckoning of Morpheus?

Locke.                          I would not deny such faintness of spirit. Let then this dialogue tarry till morn.


Act I. Scene III

            Locke and Henslowe depart from the tavern and cavort down the street, away from the docks, through a bustling crowd that Locke remarks, “looks not unlike an army in disarray.” This is followed by a period of silence between the two men as they struggle against endless waves of passer-by’s, merchants, farmers and nobles on horses too big for their egos. They arrive, finally, at their destination, a ramshackle house that features a society of Philosopher Naturale. Henslowe and Locke part ways, promising each other that within a fortnight their conversation shall reconvene.

            “Most agreeable” says Locke.

            “Most excellent” says Henslowe. And with that whammy of a closing comment, he turns about face and heads off – presumably, Locke thinks (and hopes) – for home.

As Henslowe’s bobbing head fades into the lapping waves of street-travellers, Locke turns and walks inside, thinking only of how excellent it will be to cannonball onto a feather’d mattress. He enters the kitchen, praying to whatever God might exist, that it will spare him from having to suffer the sight of a dead dog with a concave lense in its stomach.

            The kitchen is blissfully empty of any such phantasmagorical sights. Instead, Robert Hooke, his head a giant stratus cloud of hair, is sitting quietly at the table, reading. It looks like something Latin. He looks up as Locke enters.

            “Ah, you’ve arrived” he says. No inflexion. It’s a matter of facts at play.

            Locke looks about the room. His eyes wander over the cabinets. He declares: “Do you carry any tea?”

            “What sort do you seek?”

            “The Indian sort, that letters spoke England had begun carrying.”

            “Let us ascertain the status of the teas.”

            Hooke and Locke begin an all-out assault upon the kitchen, canvassing the cabinets and bureaus. As they burrow through all the dark corners of the kitchen, they engage in a conversation regarding Locke’s return from exile, whether his manuscript was completed, and what new thoughts could be expected in the Second Treatise. Locke lowers his voice – most likely, Hooke thinks, for dramatic effect.

            “Well you see, I rather think that much was changing whilst abroad. I have had much time to consider the matter concretely whilst sitting in the United Provinces, whittling away to paper the Essai Concerning Humane Understanding, on the matter of money and property, and the troubles of James II. All these men, these nobles, lords, applying their titles to them, each from his own county, arriving in London-towne, thinking “The king shall rue the day he laid eyes upon myne person.” These men were too busy thinking of themselves than of how to actually live with others. And what does the Englishman want? A plot of land to call his own without a by-your-leave, and the ability to provide for himself and his family.”

            Hooke is desperately intrigued. The arrival of Locke is a panegyry of the Intellectual Spheres that he hasn’t seen since the last time Isaac came around, and even then it was too difficult to know what sort of Rubik’s Cube phenomenon was evolving in his head (since life, the universe, existence, and the meaning of felines percolated like a giant swelling newly created cosmos, shaped by a maker no one could find in Isaac’s trapezoid-like mind).  

Locke is still talking. Hooke thinks that exile abroad has made him hungry for philosophik candour.

            “ – Consider the feasibility of a country whose monarch is held at sword-pointe by a parliament, and God help him should he be of the Papist disposition.” His voice drones on in a way that might seem partly comprehensible were Locke not teetering on the precipice of inebriation and extreme exhaustion.

            “The only way I can see this occurring, I think, would be to instil a system of the said following: a standardized monetary system, a stable bank, and instil agreements based on writs, contracts, and mayhap a relation between a proposed bank and the monarchy. It should be a grand way to end the incessant fighting twixt the nobility, the king, with the parliament acting as a buffer for both.”

            As Locke sputters away like a broken sieve, words fluttering out beyond control, his mind in a kind of unexplainable overdrive, Hooke and Locke zero in on the tea, stashed away behind some kind of enamel –hued jar that looks like elephant tusk that’s been degraded to the position of glorified tea-dispenser. The water is put on the stove. The sky outside has faded to a canvas of twilight, and is splashed with a net of yellow and white stars. Locke plops into a chair, taking a moment to (perhaps in vain) organize his thoughts.

            Hooke removes cups from the bureau and says: “Let us propose that such events were to take form and expand from seeds of an idea to fruits of realization. What reasons would you give for all oeconomic divisions to behave amongst themselves?”

            Locke looks taken aback by this. But since he’s sitting against a wall, there’s not much to lean back against. He takes on a bewildered look, like someone who’s just been thrown from the top-floor of the Intellectual Ivory Tower, and has begun a windy descent towards pavement that seems much longer than the few seconds during which the body sings with the sky. It’s a nonplussing moment for him.

            The kettle whistles – although upon closer observation, two refined natural philosophers such as Hooke and Locke would be more likely to observe that water – taken a different elemental form, is actually being released from the tea-kettle. Crushed tea leaves are deposited into a separate piece of china. The leaves are then hydrated by boiled water, and chymicals of assorted varieties are released from the leaves, and taint the water a hue that looks like burnished sunlight. Cups are placed upon the counter, strainers armed atop the circumference of each, and the tea is poured. The conversation resumes.

            This is how it goes down:

            Hooke: “The thought was: How to get classes of society to behave twixt one-another.”

            Locke: “Make it in their best interests.”

            Hooke: “How?”

            Locke: “Contracts. Not of any social, moral kind. If you give members of society that which they seek, they will be more likely to behave in a more malleable fashion.

            Hooke: “And you think that this can be arranged through a unified structure involving banks, restrained monarchy & nobles alike, and property?”

            Locke: “Giving citizens of England the ability to hold land is necessary. Values and payments can be sustained, monitored and controlled through a national bank, one which could also cooperate with the nobles and monarchy. Those groups, agreeing with the bank, to utilize a standardized monetary system, could economically unify England, thus reducing tensions betwixt classes on matters concerning payments, trading, and financial security. The pound could be set to a fixed price, and trade relations between our kingdom, the United Provinces, France, Portugal, Spain, and Russia could continue apace, but with less risk of confusion among merchants of means of pay.”

            Hooke: “Your words belay a dare to the monarch.”

            Locke: “There is a most transparent urgency which is required as the key to this system: a systematic re-coinage of all English coins. While such a system might survive should the bank adopt perhaps some kind of system of notes; where security is concerned, such a format would surely be armour ‘gainst counterfeiters.”

            Hooke: “Yet we lack the hindsight to deduce such results with any certainty. What gives you hope of seeing an accord amongst society for such a thing as this?”

            Locke: “Implementing such a system of security with bank-notes would make the nobles feel secure in whatever wealth they own or pretend to lay claim towards. Rather than transferring pounds manually by cart from one location to another, a system of banks spread throughout the kingdom could accept a signed note that only the person signed on the bank note could withdraw from any official bank location. Meanwhile, the layman, less concerned with bank-notes, could rely on coins that were no longer clipped, and were not remnants of Charles, or Elizabeth, but a standard, permanent system of silver. A new social system might be realized with the aid of a systematised oeconomic system that serves all classes of society and is moderated and maintained and supported by each.”

            The Dramatis Personae in the room grows quiet. In the silence of the kitchen, two brains – if listened to carefully – can be heard percolating like water bubbling in a slowly boiling pot. The wind gently pushes against the closed windows, pushing inwards, seeking to escape the ivory night that has taken form outside the residency of the Royal Society.  

            “In layman’s parlance,” says Hooke, “shall we call it a night? Should your mind unleash itself for a second round, I cannot guarantee that my grey-matter will not, in fact, break from its confines and begin pamphleteering loud accusations of intellectual harassment.”

            Locke smiles, and acquiesces. He raises himself up from the seat like an ancient leviathan, and slowly tumbles across the room. His body has seemingly severed political ties with the mind (which, Locke determines, explains his ability to process thoughts like a spreading wildfire while disavowing any real considerations towards physical animation). They hobble down a poorly lit hallway, Hooke leading the way with several candles, until they arrive at two doors in the hallway – one across from the other. Both men nod and share that unexplainable synchroneity of thought which says: “Good night, see you in the morning. We’ll continue this then” without actually going through any of the motions required in an actual verbal exchange.

            Within moments, both men have crashed down upon their mattresses, and have entered an ebony oblivion of sleep.

[1] Dr. Goodall of the College of Physicians, who invites Locke to stay with him upon his return to England. No relation to apes, gorillas, or primates involved. Only Whigs. Cranston, 306.

[2] When Robert Ket and his army of rebels set of camp outside of Norwich, [in 1549] the citizens of the city reacted in a way most disheartening to the civic authorities: many of them joined Ket, and would later welcome his occupation of the city.  That this could happen in England’s second most populous city was a shock to local leaders and to the Crown. Bouchard, Greg. The Willingly Occupied: Ket’s Rebellion and the City of Norwich. 2004

The Amazing Yeats and His Educated Magical Byzantines!

During my third year at the Liberal Arts College at Concordia University, I whipped up a magnificently massive 6,800 word essay on William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium, and the genre of fantasy fiction.

It was a massive undertaking and I was and still am tremendously proud of the effort, scope, and detail that I poured into this essay.

Ilya Popov
490 Essay

The Amazing Yeats and His Educated Magical Byzantines!

It was so long ago and far away

I have forgot the very name men called me.

The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,

And hunts and wars are shadows. I recall

Only the stillness of that sombre land;

The clouds that piled forever on the hills,

The dimness of the everlasting woods.

Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

 – Robert E. Howard, Cimmeria

The goal of this essay is an interesting and difficult one: proposed here is an analysis of the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats, but one which would attempt to situate it within perhaps a rather different tradition than earlier readers – not that of romanticism – but of the rather wide and diverse genre of literature called “fantasy.” This essay hopes to perform three basic functions: Give a brief overview of the aesthetic history of fantastical writings, focusing on some of the themes, images, and ideas that inform this rather loose and difficult-to-define genre.

Secondly, an analysis of the poem will be performed, one which will also take note of the assorted imagery used. Finally, the third section of this essay will elaborate on the influence and importance the imagery of the poem had upon other writers in the period in which it was written as well as later writers. A contextualisation of the poem within a history of fantastical writing will also be noted, to establish a historical tie between past influences and present results.

To what end this essay? Why situate Sailing to Byzantium within a fantastical framework of writing? In part it is to alleviate the mendacious and unfounded stigmas placed upon this rather wide and disparate style and form of writing called “fantasy.” Secondly, this essay hopes to point readers towards a tradition of writing which did not emerge ex nihilo. As such, we hope that readers will be able to understand that it is just as simple minded to disparage Jane Austen for being “chick lit” as it is to deride fantasy as “magic and elves.”

Entering the Siege Perilous: Literary Fantasy – A History in Brief

GO and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the devil’s foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

            And find

            What wind

Serves to advance an honest mind.

 – John Donne, Song

Karen Patricia Smith, in her text The Fabulous Realm: A Literary-Historical Approach to British Fantasy, 1780-1990, suggests that “the development of fantasy is strongly related to concepts of the art and to strong opinions about the children for whom the works were intended.” [1] Despite the suggestion that the development of an identifiable aesthetic form was aimed predominantly at children, Smith suggests that she “could not and will not agree with the premise that magic is reserved for childhood and that the coming of adulthood must necessarily make us bid farewell to the delights of magic.”[2]

While Smith argues in her text that the definition of fantasy is not clear – a claim this essay supports – a definition of some kind ought to be applied which can be used within which to frame the argument. Smith offers some guidelines by which one might identify works which are potentially of the fantastic – it may “posses fairy-tale elements…unforeseen, unusual, or purely magical arrangements of reality” which may involve “the presence of absence of human beings, anthropomorphic figures, natural objects endowed with supernatural gifts and the use of tokens, relics and/or charms” and tends towards evoking “a sustained sense of wonder.”[3] Furthermore, the theme and/or use of transformation may sometimes appear in certain texts, be it fairy or fantasy. Sometimes this concept may be analogous – if not interchangeable – with alchemy.

There are a great many sources from which tradition of the fantasy and/or fairy tale developed in Britain and Ireland. The influences vary; Snorri Sturluson’s The Poetic Edda, Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du temps passé. Avec des Moralitez (1697), Madame d’Aulnoy’s Contes des fee (1698), The Book of the Dun Cow, The Red Book of Hergist (1400), Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485), among many others narrative-cum-poetic histories from pre-modern societies. These texts all contributed to a richer cultural imagination, and that it may have contained exaggerations was not the point. Rather, that a felt cultural history existed gave writers access to a sense of some kind of landscape beyond their immediate present. Smith explains the importance of these texts in part by stating that myths – northern or otherwise – served as an inspiration for many fantasists in part because they allowed for an exploration of the “various aspects of their [British writers, ed. – and by colonial extension: Irish] country’s heritage.”[4]

Between the 1840’s and the fin-de-siecle, fantasy begins emerging as a means by which some concept of morality might be conveyed to the reader; what might be called enlightenment fantasy – and was seen as such in the works of Charles Dickens (Holiday Romance in Four Parts), Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and George MacDonald (The Princess and Curdie). Other writers who wrote fantasy tales – such as Gregg and Kirby’s The Talking Bird, emphasised the theme of people not knowing “more than is meant for them to know as a given time”[5] while writers such Paget (The Hope of the Katzekopfs) wrote fantasy that exhibited a strong sense of symbols which resulted in two levels of reading – the (obviously) symbolic, and the literal. The symbolic was sometimes used to represent the ideals of either a) the author or b) the historical period in which the writer lived.

By the 20th century, a more concerted effort was made towards creating a fully developed secondary world which Smith says “involved not only short visitations from one world to another, as in some of the Molesworth’s works, but extended development of those worlds.”[6] Other concepts that came more to the fore during the 20th century was the introduction of more self-assured heroes and heroines, example of which include Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, involving the adventures of Kay Harker, who cannot rely on adults for assistance, Dan and Una, the principle characters in Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies, among many others.

With the steady march of the Industrial Revolution, it is interestingly noted by Smith that this – along with scientific developments, led to a rise in romanticism, in which a reader could encounter anthropomorphic creatures, whose function, Smith notes, was “not designed to replace that of human beings but may rather be seen as an enriching factor, a way of returning something to the world that was perceived lost.”[7] E. Nesbit, for example, with whom Yeats corresponded, wrote a story – Five Children and It – which features the “crotchety Psammead.”[8]

Another story – The Phoenix and the Carpet – features (what else?) a talking phoenix. Interestingly, Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) – a duology which he describes as “a fantasy upon themes of Byzantium,”[9] features a talking bird which was inspired by the allusion to the singing bird in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium (‘But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/of hammered gold and gold enamelling/to keep a drowsy Emperor awake’)[10].

Returning to mythology for a moment – by the 20th century, it reappears in fantasy tales in a somewhat reconstituted form – as identifiable characters (Cu Chulainn, Odin, etc). Their appearance in fantasy fiction, Smith suggests, is tied to a resurgence in the interest of the historical past of Great Britain (and this essay would suggest, likewise with Ireland), and the result is one in which characters from a historical past that is both real and equally mythological are brought forward into the present and interact with contemporary society (Mark Twain has a devilish amount of fun reversing this concept in his famous story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

Fantasy during the first half of the century – as a general whole – sought to present a world where there was a sense of unification, an ordered cosmos. It also – eventually – embraced episodic elements as a part of the unfolding of the [overall] tale, as was seen in Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, in which the writers would sometimes use as a means of social criticism (as in Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood), or means by which to go on journeys which would sometimes be amusing (as in Grahame’s Wind In the Willows), or even to question the philosophic value of fantasy (“In Lewis’s The Ship That Flew, the god Odin says to his son Frey, regarding the use of the flying ship by the four children, “There is no magic when no one no longer believes.”[11]).

The 20th century also saw the use of poetry in fantasy, and a fair portion of it seemingly original, written by the author of each respective book, as seen in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, or Masefield’s The Box of Delights. Smith notes that “Often, journeys are made by protagonists into the past. Once in the past, author, characters and audience could temporarily be removed from the rigors of the present.”[12] The presence of a quasi-escapist narrative is suggested to be a reflection of the inability of early 20th century Britons to affect the present, and thus they were left to be passive witnesses, and such states welcomes a literature which conveys a sense of removal to another place, and one in which change might in fact be gained by the individual.

Interestingly, Irish literary critic Marguerite Quintelli-Neary refers to an observation made by Charles W. Sullivan III, who explains that “after Synge, Eliot and Joyce, intoxication with features of Irish traditional writing may be found in the works of fantasy writers who are creators of impossible, Secondary Worlds….”[13]

Furthermore, Roger C. Schlobin – commenting on late Victorian and early Edwardian outlooks towards fantasy, suggests that the notion of an epistemology based on empirical findings as the only real and legitimate form of cognition as “clearly dangerous, and despite the apparent current interest in fantasy, the attitude that nothing exists beyond the phenomenal world is currently as threatening as it has ever been. It strikes at the very essence of creative thought and affirms a tyranny of rationality, which recognises everything, except itself, as unreal and ephemeral. This antagonistic attitude will endure as long as intellectual, rational and social conventions are considered the only sources of truth – sources that deny all existences other than their own and that relegate contrary modes to escapism and rebellion.”[14]

This essay agrees with Schlobin: “Fantasy is inherent in what we call humanity and creativity.”

Smoke and Mirrors: An Analysis of Sailing to Byzantium

People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”

 – Neil Gaiman, Preludes & Nocturnes

Thus we arrive at the development of the tales most fantastical as they were right up through to the conclusion of the Second World War. And though Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium was written in 1926, the historical context in which it was written cannot be ignored, as any tradition will to varying degrees affect those who are writing within it. Where does that put us with Yeats and Sailing to Byzantium? A few preliminary statements can be made about it: It was written in 1926, and was the second of two poems about the Byzantine world; the first was simply called Byzantium, which was quite a different poem than StB.

Before even getting to the first line of the poem, we ought to consider the implications of the title: Sailing to Byzantium. The implication is that the narrator – or someone – is on a journey, from one destination to another. The location from which the character in the poem sails is not made known, but it may be suggested that it is not a place quite like Byzantium (the theme of antithesis is a prevalent element within the poem). The original title, it may be worth noting, was Towards Byzantium. The suggestion of movement – and change is something a careful analysis will also reveal as being present here.

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.

Here is the natural world, where things are set into a certain nature which is beyond man’s control: Whatever is begotten, born and dies, no matter if it is a generation of humans, a salmon, birds – as in the words of wisdom revealed to King Solomon: This too will pass. Yet the closing line suggests that there is a tension between nature and something else – intellect. The artist is upset by this, these limitations set by nature. Whoever this narrator is, he sees a denial and ‘neglect’ of the intellectual and aesthetic.

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.

The second stanza begins by addressing the un-ignorable fact that everything ages, and how could one deal with this mutability of life? The suggestion here (but studying/monuments of its own magnificence) is somehow connected to art, that the aesthetic offers some kind of nigh-immortal remembrance, if not conservation.

Nonetheless, the character in the poem seeks to overcome this somehow, and this is by venturing to someplace beyond the normal realms of man, to a place that exists only in the imagination of Yeats: Byzantium. And make no mistake – though Byzantium (Istanbul) existed, the so-called real-world city was not that which was conjured in the mind of Yeats when he wrote the poem.

Some critics, such as Giorgi Melchiori, suggest that “Sailing to Byzantium seems to have been written in the first place as an attempt to pacify this inner disturbance, to escape from the ‘sensual music’ of his [Yeats’s] recent poems by creating a poetic image of the place where all strife is at an end.”[15] Yeats seemingly never maintained one consistent position on his reasons for writing the poem, and there are several different recorded reasons given for its existence, including the one offered here from A Vision:

“I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one, that architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in /280/ gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject-matter and that the vision of a whole people. They could copy out of old Gospel books those pictures that seemed as sacred as the text, and yet weave all into a vast design, the work of many that seemed the work of one, that made building, picture, pattern, metal-work of rail and lamp, seem but a single image; and this vision, this proclamation of their invisible master, had the Greek nobility, Satan always the still half-divine Serpent, never the horned scarecrow of the didactic Middle Ages.”[16]

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.

It is interesting to point out that the mention of “soul” in both this and the previous stanza: when the character of the story makes a prayer, it is not to God, but to “sages” who have – it ought to be noted – already been preserved and stand in God’s holy fire (which makes them more golden – being with God, or being preserved? Can gold be symbolic here of more than one meaning?) As he is asking a prayer of these sages, it is clear that the nameless character has arrived in the city, and is looking at images upon a wall – images which inspired Yeats during his stay in Ravenna. Yet the image which Yeats conjures of Byzantium is one which a) no longer exists in his then contemporary period, b) may have never existed, and c) is a fantastical place in relation to the quotidian world. Melchiori says that it was in “Stockholm that Yeats had first the intuition of what Byzantium could stand for: an ideal state, a condition of miraculous harmony manifested through art.”[17]

The stanza has its nameless character say: Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre/ And be the singing-masters of my soul. There is an intimation of some kind of reverse-alchemic transformation in this passage – “Come from the holy fire, turn (or change) in a circle (to come about; come back) – asking the sages to speak to him, the person in the world still bound by natures’ rules. Through these sages, the narrator hopes to be transformed as they were, into an ‘artifice of eternity.’ Yet what ought to be telling to the discriminating reader is that this sort of transformation could only occur in a fantastical city, where all are bound up in a timeless unity, where “religious, aesthetic, and practical life were one” – a world which is never in flux or decay, a “dream-world of immorality and changelessness.”[18]

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.

In this final stanza the theme of transformation once again rears its head, and this time, rather than to that of an illustration upon a wall, it is to a mechanical bird. Though it is not said outright and directly, Yeats makes an allusion to a mechanical bird, which was mentioned in one of his notes in the ‘From the Tower’ collexion: “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor’s palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang.”[19] Thus the poem ends with an interesting completion of a cycle – “Nature causes Art which expresses Nature.”[20]

Thus, as we finish reading the poem, we reach the question which we must ask as readers: Is this poem a piece imaginative and simply containing writing that is construed as being ‘fancy,’ or is it fantastical? Is it a description of style or of content? The story, if we look at it as separate from the poetry, tells us that a journey was taken to a magical and imagined variation of the city of Byzantium, where sages on a wall were spoken to, and the narrator seeks to have them go through a nigh-reverse alchemical process that would enable him to somehow better understand how to become as they are, and thus he (or she) thinks of becoming like an automaton of a singing bird. Though we – the audience – do not know if the wish of the narrator is fulfilled, the sentiment is still expressed nonetheless.

The Tower of the Elephant: The Art of Fantasy

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

and hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

– Emily Dickinson, I Felt a Funeral In My Brain

Just as it may be argued that fantastic literature relies upon evocative prose or plots whose narratives venture outside any perceived quotidian reality, so too can it rely on imagery to attain its goals of eliciting a particular sense-reaction in the reader, or establishing a kind of mood or feel. As A.M. Hammacher explains: “The tried and tested scheme of Classicism, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, Naturalism, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, and Symbolism never does justice to the world of the fantastic; it remains a fringe phenomenon which does not appear to full advantage under the categories of Romanticism and Symbolism. In the realms of the fantastic, the bizarre and the extravagant are thrown together with visions, hallucinations, automatism, magic, unreality, fairy tales, ghost stories, fables, the improbable, the supernatural, and the absurd.”[21]

He furthermore suggests that it is possible to “attribute equal significance to the social self of the artist – his life in the world – and his unconscious or semiconscious interior world from which his creativity arises.”[22] It is often the case that interpreters of fantastic art will try to write it off through the application of Freudian or Jungian techniques, or suggesting that the art is in fact expressing Surrealistic tendencies, or an expression of the unconsciousness. Far too often a means will be sought by which to enforce a return to the quotidian, and deny the imaginative its legitimacy and importance.

An example of just this sort of artist is Paul Delvaux, who “recognised only memory and imagination as specific sources for the formation of images”[23] yet made references in his art to the Renaissance, and to assorted elements of what we term the Western Tradition, though he was known for having been strongly influenced by a form of Hellenism “which was an aftereffect of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and by Neoclassicism” and yet used “mythology to create an atmosphere…unconcerned with historical accuracy and unconcerned with the travesty of Greco-Roman art in David’s aesthetics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”[24]

The example presented through Delvaux, though of a style of aesthetic presentation different to that of the Irish, serves to present the point that artists need not have their presentations tied to particular notions of style or genre, such as “classicism” or “neo-romanticism” and rather, are working on a broader scope, expressing themselves as they see fit, independent of any particular system of aesthetic identification. Of course then question must be raised: How are we to talk about the fantastic if we cannot root it in any one style? This does not mean that 20th century fantasy is attempting to cut ties with neo-romanticism, surrealism, etc.

Rather, this essay would like to suggest that Neo-Romanticism (as an example) is a sub-set of ‘the fantastic.’ The imagery present in the aesthetic piece is representative of a certain genre, but included also in the umbrella of fantastic, which this essay argues – is related to, and develops out of (in part) a variety of different schools, and is rather prone to a kind of syncretistic melding of styles. Though Delvaux was not of Irish or British origins, he serves to represent a point this paper would like to make: far too many critics sought to somehow explain away his artwork, refusing to accept it on the terms which he presented, refusing to bow to what may perhaps be called the tyranny of reason and expressing an aesthetic of the fantastic.

With regards to Yeats: the Irish repeatedly used ‘the fantastic’ in their literature – but in a way that almost no other culture has. Critic Donald E. Morse in More Real Than Reality, suggests that “[T]he Irish discovered one of the great secrets of the human mind, that ‘ultimately, meaning is not a rational matter,’”[25] and then further says than for many fantasy is often synonymous with ‘Irish.’ Augustine Martin argues that “this concern with the unseen world gave rise to a great body of writing – poetry, drama and fiction – which employed the methods of fable and fantasy to express its peculiar idea of life and reality.”[26]

But refocusing upon Ireland and the artwork produced there during the late 19th and early 20th century, there is much that can be said to be of influence upon the development of Irish society – and by extension – the artwork produced within that society. The revival tended to call upon perceptions of traditions, images and histories associated with Ancient Ireland, drawing [sometimes; depending on the artist and the period] heavily on mythological figures, such as Cu Chulainn – the primary protagonist of the Ulster Cycle, one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology. To ignore this context would be to ignore the way in which Yeats’s work could be read.

But this skirts our central point: the artwork that influenced Yeats during a proportionally large amount of his life was a cultural movement that sought to reawaken interest in ancient myths, this we know. The reasons for doing so are myriad, and the ways in which those pre-modern stories were interpreted and understood by society as a whole is beyond the ken and focus of this essay. However, this essay would like to suggest that mythology is inescapable from fantasy, that the argument which states that fantasy has to be intentionally fantastic to be fantasy is irrelevant, as it does not take into consideration the notion that reading is an interpretive process, and that what may have been true to one reader is simply a fantastical tale to another.

Contemporary fantasist Matthew Woodring Stover argues that: “Think about it this way: What we now consider “fantasy” is the original whole from which all literature is distilled, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh, running through the Iliad, and Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, the Bhagavad-Gita—the list is infinite. Examples are found in every culture. Every other genre (I should say: every SUBgenre) is defined by eliminating fantastic elements: by carving away the gods, fate, magic, whatever. “Fantasy” is what we call a novel that partakes of the whole of the human literary heritage. So, yeah. I’m a fantasy writer. It was good enough for Homer, and it’s good enough for me.”[27]

That said, literary critics have been discussing the assorted mythological influences present in Yeats’s work, and how it works, and it has been suggested that there were at least two reasons as to the question of “why.” Firstly – Yeats seems to have thought that “myth could provide an analogy for the joys and sorrows of the individual person”[28] whilst also arguing that “because of its [myth] infinite capacity for metamorphosis, can be manipulated to meet the specific personal needs of an individual writer.”[29] Effectively, myths also function as a set of flexible symbols and signs, providing writers with a freedom which allows them to use them in a story in such a particular way as to suggest a variety of meanings [to the story] without relying on extraneous exposition; all the work is done for them. It does not need to necessarily come down to an instance of Neo-Romanticism or Classicism, etc.

What are we to make of this with regards to Sailing to Byzantium? The best approach seems to be to systematically examine each stanza, and then seek those images or passages which indicate something may be a little beyond ye olde day to day level of normalcy.

Earlier, it was stated that the first stanza indicated an examination of a natural world, where things are set into a certain nature which is beyond man’s control. And yet interestingly, Yeats chose to mention – of all things – fish. This paper would like to suggest that there may be more to read here than traditional analysis has suggested. If we are to read this in the context of a Celtic revival in a Christian country, then it could be that the fish in fact may represent a) Jesus Christ b) knowledge. If we bear in mind Morse’s statement that rationality is not the first priority in Irish writing during the Irish Revival-cum-Twilight, then we ought not to think in purely structural terms, but rather in evocative terms – in sensation and the free use of the imagination for its own purpose, rather than with any whole-hearted unified goal in mind.

Returning to the second point, fish – knowledge – is associated not only with Jesus of Nazareth but also with Taliesin (who is commonly associated with Myrddin (Merlin), though they were in fact two different figures), who some stories suggest was found in a fish wattle, and thus became inseparably tied to the symbol/image of fish. The narrator of Sailing to Byzantium may have thus been looking at the world and seeing a kind of knowledge which has mystic ties, but which is ultimately tied to a fugacious world. Yet the suggestion of a mystical world is there from the get-go if we allow ourselves to think in unconventional terms.

With the second paragraph, there are two central images: the pauper (A tattered coat upon a stick), and the holy city (Byzantium). The first image may in fact have some correlation to the Fisher King, who was said to have been a keeper of the Holy Grail (keeping in mind, the Holy Grail was still an important relic even prior to Christianisation – some of the variations of the legend refer to the Grail as the San Greal.)[30]. Interestingly, there is a tie even here to the symbol of the fish:

“It occurs without explanation in Chretien de Troyes but Robert de Boron has the title originate with Bron, brother-in-law of Joseph of Arimathea. Bron catches and places a symbolic fish upon the Grail table and becomes known as the Rich Fisher. Bron is made Fisher King when he assumes lordship over the Grail Castle in Britain. His son Alain is also called a Fisher King as is Pelles in another version. Sometimes the Fisher King and Grail King are one and the same, other times they are separate characters. The Fisher/Grail King is often wounded or sick and can only be healed by the asking of the proper question.”[31]

Then there is of course the Holy City of Byzantium, a place which as described in letters and recollections by Yeats, was not meant to be an actual real place, but rather a conception of a place that is almost but not quite a utopian ideal; a dream-city. Interestingly enough, the legendary founder of Byzantium was – in Greek mythology – Byzas, the son of Poseidon.

With the third stanza, we are come now to the Holy City, and the narrator is looking upon a wall filled with gold images, asking these erudite sages to go through a reverse-alchemic transformation, but one whose purpose would be to somehow assist the narrator into being shepherded into the artifice of eternity – an existence like that of the sages. It is a suggestion of a desire to ascend – to be brought to a plateau higher than that at which the corporeal world exists. The implication here is (in part) a denial of a positivistic concept of history – for the narrator, seemingly a modern man, would like to be as one of the ancients, for they knew the secrets that contemporary society does not. Arkins, in Builders of My Soul, suggests that Yeats “opts for the refusal of history, and acceptance of the continual and continuous regeneration of time…Yeats instead chooses to believe in historical cycles – his term is gyres – and a series of revelations, which tend to be cataclysmic.”[32]

Though Yeats’s poem is about Byzantium, the inspiration – in part – came from his visit to the Church of San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna in 1907. Some critics suggest that the mosaic expressed what Yeats saw as being something “transcendent and supernatural.”[33] By extension of that reasoning, the city as it is imagined in the poem evokes a kind of religious (ergo: irrational) sensation from the visitor. It is fantastical.[34]

In the fourth (and final) stanza, the narrator chooses a new life as a work of art – as a singing mechanical bird. He does not wish to be free of the soul, seemingly (there is nothing in the poem to suggest a ridding of the soul – not as something separate from the consciousness or otherwise), but of the body, to be cured of his physical ailment, whatever it may be. By being repaired of his body, he could sing to the Emperor and bring beauty upon the land by virtue of being an immortal and matchless work of art. Interestingly, the tree and bird of which Yeats refers to were constructed during the rule of Emperor Theophilus, under whom there was a cultural renaissance during his rule from 829 A.D. to 859 A.D. The association between the historical tie and the imagery presented suggests a desire to establish a connexion to a period of historical greatness – an idyllic period. As Atkins explains: [T]he golden tree and the artificial birds (together with the other automata) were designed to impress, to overwhelm with Byzantine magnificence, foreign envoys granted an audience with the Emperor in the great hall of the Palace in Constantinople.”[35]

Interestingly, in Greek mythology, the bird – specifically the wryneck – was seen as being magical. Pollard explains that the Ancients regarded it as a “solar emblem, like the snakes found solar discs in Oriental art.”[36] This is of some relevance, as Yeats belief system included a conception of the universe as one which contained [historical] cycles, irrational revelations, and the “procession of the equinoxes”[37] as they were involved in the coming, passing and return of the Great Year (a concept in which the cosmos – despite being eternal – is cyclically “destroyed and reconstituted”[38]). Some ancient Greek myths involving the wryneck included ones in which they worked as charms, to bring a love back to a beloved, or as a love-potion. Historically, they were (apparently) misrepresented as singing “above the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi,” yet wrynecks do not sing (especially like sirens – as they were thought to echo their spell). Other birds, such as the woodpecker and hoopoe were thought to have been able to perform impossible feats, and also exhibit healing powers. As to what sort of bird the narrator in the poem wished to be transformed into exactly is unknown, but it is not unreasonable to guess that the image of the singing bird would resonate with readers.

So in the last stanza, if we allow ourselves the freedom to see the narrator as a symbol and/or metaphor for the Fisher King, then the music he might sing would have a kind of soulful regenerative and/or restorative effect to it, and thus, would fall somewhat in line with the myth of the Fisher King, as only when he is healed is the land in which he lives made properly whole and is finally at peace. This is but one potential reading of the text, which does not by any means intend to eschew the many others which have been performed upon Sailing to Byzantium. However, it must be remembered that the reader, being wont to read any given text as they see fit regardless of the writer’s intent, will most certainly take different things away from any given poem, song or book. This is to be expected. In Yeats’s time, the images presented in Sailing to Byzantium could have had as many different reactions as it does today (giving hope to the idea that no text is ever closed). Likely, anyone well versed in Celtic-cum-Irish mythology would have seen the assortment of references to which the images in Yeats’s text alluded, as they are there, and can be seen by the observant eye.

The Light Fantastic: Influences and External Forces

Or winding up a palace stair,

    Beyond the hills of Let’s Pretend,

Come suddenly and unaware

Upon a monarch seated there,

Whose eyes were angry and whose hair

    Was frizzled there at World’s End

By the sun’s triumphant glare.

 – Lord Dunsany, How Would It Be?

While the images in Sailing to Byzantium reflected several different influences – Greek, Classical, Irish, part of the question we have to take into consideration when analysing the poem and its images is the context of tradition in which Yeats found himself during his career, and that includes taking note of the people who he influenced and – conversely – who influenced him.

During the early twentieth century, Yeats was surrounded by a variety of creative artists and noted fantasists, including Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron Dunsany, more commonly known as “Lord Dunsany” – known for such works as The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924), The Gods of Pegāna (1905), and Time and the Gods (1906) – for whom Yeats wrote the introduction to (and edited) a collexion of his fantasy tales called Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany. [39]

Dunsany critic Joshi notes that first four novels[40] “underscore the Nature theme that is at the heart of Dunsany’s work, but the latter two do so more intensely and poignantly. All, in various ways, also present striking contrasts between the present and the past, the Christian and the pagan, the city and the country; and Dunsany’s preferences invariably tend toward the latter of these dichotomies.”[41] Just like Yeats, Dunsany’s work contains a fascination with Pre-Christian concepts, images and ideas, just as Sailing to Byzantium is rooted (in part) in “Greek precedent like Phidias’ statue of Zeus”[42], this shared interest in what may loosely be called the mythological, the mystical and quite possibly a kind of syncretistic (and anachronistic) when mixed to create the landscapes of the respective authors – appear transparently fantastic.

Just as with Sailing to Byzantium, Dunsany’s King of Elfland’s Daughter contains a “complex interplay between Nature, art and religion” and thus “rightly takes its place as a masterwork of fantastic literature.”[43] Kenneth Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer elaborate further on the type of world used by Dunsany as one in which the secondary world is set in “some sort of more direct relationship to the primary world, enabling them [writers] to further define their secondary worlds by comparison with this one.”[44] One of the characteristics of these kinds of secondary worlds (by contrast to the quotidian world) is the changelessness of this imagined location; the conception of time and change do not function there as they do in the so-called real world.

(Donald E. Morse, in his introduction to More Real Than Reality, quotes Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion, defends this theory by stating: “Literary fantasies from The Castle of Otranto to Jekyll and Hyde are determined by these transitions: from conventional diabolism in Beckford’s Vathek, through equivocations of Frankenstein, Melmoth and The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, to the internalising figures of Dorian Grey…”[45])

By virtue of being an imaginative, syncretistic work, Sailing to Byzantium also recalls another writer with whom Yeats corresponded – William Morris, who is famous for having been part of a developing trend within fantasy writing[46] which contained secondary worlds – as seen in his novels The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), The Wood Beyond the World (1894), The Well at the World’s End (1896), and The Water of the Wondrous Isles (1897). The displacement from everyday reality into a “far different one” which “exemplifies a central device of the literary fantasy”[47] is present in the works of Morris – a fantastical tale that exhibits conceits of the contemporary fantasy sagas (quests, magical items, secondary worlds), yet is in the spirit of its day in exhibiting this kind of narrative trait. Other such works which displayed such a technique include William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (1912), Lewis Carroll’s Alice books (1865, 1871) and George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895). Historical records show that Yeats was reading the works of – and corresponding with – Morris. Parkin elaborates: “Yeats’s histrionic imagination was alive with images of great speakers – Maud Gonne, Bernhardt, Frank Fay, William Morris reading poetry as if it were poetry, not prose, J.B. Yeats himself, and the Dublin orator, Taylor, who, speaking some political verse, gave Yeats ‘a conviction of how great might be the effect of verse, spoken by a man almost rhythm-drunk, at the moment of intensity, the apex of long-mounting thought.’”[48]

Arkins dedicates some space to writing on the relationship between Morris and Yeats, and states that “the main source among Yeats’s friends for his view of Byzantium was William Morris, the person he calls ‘my chief of men.’ Morris had a very high opinion of Byzantine civilisation and what he saw as its unified culture, created by a whole people, praising especially the Church of the Holy Wisdom and the pattern motifs of the Tree of Life and the Holy Fire.”[49]

Given the evidence thus presented, this essay would like to suggest that it would be unreasonable of us as reader to eschew the notion that Yeats was not influenced by other writers – particularly writers of the fantastic. Yeats’s context was one in which Ireland was undergoing a revival of interest in ancient Celtic traditions, ones which happened to include a rich tapestry of imaginative and fantastical imagery. Furthermore, the English tradition of the fantastical itself is inextricably bound up with that of the Irish. From amalgamation came writers such as Dunsany, Morris, Nesbit, Barrie, Blyton, Kipling, Chesterton, Grahame, and many others.

[1] Smith, pg.4

[2] Ibid, 7

[3] Ibid, 12

[4] Ibid, 24

[5] Ibid, 160

[6] Ibid, 210

[7] Ibid, 221

[8] Ibid, 222

[9] Guy Gavriel Kay. (1998). Sailing to Sarantium. Toronto, ON: Penguin. i.

[10] Course Pack, 105

[11] Smith, 252

[12] Ibid, 261

[13] Quintelli-Neary, 4

[14] Schlobin, xiv

[15] Giorgi Melchiori, Dome of Many-Coloured Glass. From The Byzantium Poems, edited by Richard Finneran. Pg.70

[16] Yeats, from A Vision (1938). From The Byzantium Poems, edited by Richard Finneran. Pg. 16

[17] Melchiori, 81

[18] Ernst Schanzer, “Sailing to Byzantium,” Keats, and Andersen. From The Byzantium Poems, edited by Richard Finneran. Pg. 65

[19] W.B. Yeats, From the Tower. From The Byzantium Poems, edited by Richard Finneran. Pg. 15

[20] Richard J. Finnernan, Introduction. From The Byzantium Poems, edited by Richard Finneran. Pg.7

[21] Hammacher: Phantoms of the Imagination, pg. 9

[22] Ibid, 10

[23] Ibid, 173

[24] Ibid, 182

[25] Morse: More Than Reality, pg.1

[26] Ibid, 3


[28] Arkins: Builders of My Soul, pg.78

[29] Ibid

[30] Even prior to the arrival of Christianity in Erin (Ireland), Celtic mythology contained tales of heroes seeking magical cauldrons – such as Cu Chulainn and Cu Roi hunting Muirias and the Cauldron of Daghdha. Another character, Midir the Proud had a cauldron that he had supposedly brought with him from his quest to the Otherworld. It is suggested by some mythological scholars that Christianity simply incorporated aspects of these tales into their religion when it arrived in Ireland, and as such, Cu Chulainn’s quest for the magical cauldron was transformed (over time) into the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail, which included stopping at the castle of the Fisher King. For more information on the subject, see Bob Curran’s lovingly details Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology.


[32] Arkins, Builders of the My Soul, 91

[33] Ibid, 185

[34] Neil Gaiman, in American Gods, suggests at one point: “Religions are, by definition, metaphors…. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.” It is an interesting question to consider, in the context of the fantastical: “what is the difference between a world view based on worship, sacrifice, and belief in the divine and a world view based on the accumulation of material wealth and comfort?” (

[35] Arkins, 186

[36] Pollard, Birds In Greek Life and Myth, pg. 130

[37] Arkins, 92

[38] Ibid

[39] ; For more information, see attached appendix

[40] The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), The King of Elfland’s Dauther (1924), The Charwoman’s Shadow (1926), and The Blessings of Pan (1927)

[41] Joshi, 90

[42] Arkins, 181

[43] Arkins, 99

[44] Schlobin, 63

[45] Morse, 9.

[46] Kenneth Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer contend that there are four distinct types of secondary worlds, but this level of distinction is not of primary importance to this essay.

[47] Schlobin, 125

[48] Parkin, 30

[49] Arkins, 21