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

Leave a Reply