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Extended Essay in English A1

How does Yeats incorporate themes of the conflict between the material and immaterial world in his
1927 poem, Sailing to Byzantium, and how does he advance this theme in his 1930 reimagining of it,
Byzantium?

Mark Kropivnitski
Candidate Number: dfw727 (000322-045)
Richmond Secondary School
Extended Essay Advisor: Ms. White
Word Count: 3272
Abstract:
In 1927, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called Sailing to Byzantium that made
profound comments on worldly issues such as the role of art, immortality and eternity, time and age. It
detailed the metaphorical journey of a man (who is likely Yeats himself) as he searches for existential
meaning as he grows old, finding it in art and the pursuit of the immaterial. However, three years later
Sailing to Byzantium became the prelude to a much fuller work; In 1930 Yeats published Byzantium, a
reimagining of his previous work- while Sailing to Byzantium introduced and defined the conflict
between the material and immaterial world, its successor developed the theme and came at a powerful
statement.
This essay is both interperative and exploratory- it includes both general discussion about
the poem as well as a line-by-line analysis of it that aims to connect the themes of these two poems
under the common conflict between the material and conceptual. Most research undertaken involved
analyzing the primary sources, but there was also research done in Yeat's personal history relevant to
the poems. The main question that the essay tries to answer is:

How does Yeats incorporate themes of the conflict between the material and immaterial world in
his 1927 poem, Sailing to Byzantium, and how does he advance this theme in his 1930 reimagining
of it, Byzantium?

Ultimately through my analysis I came to the conclusion that Sailing to Byzantium is a


necessary prelude to introduce the complex ideas of Byzantium that advanced the conflict between the
material and immaterial to its theme- The triumph of the immaterial world over the material one.

Word Count: 271


Table of Contents

Introduction .........................................................................................4
Analysis of Sailing to Byzantium ........................................................5
Analysis of Byzantium .........................................................................7
Conclusion ...........................................................................................10
References ............................................................................................11
Introduction

"—The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth,
more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are
nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to
fly by those nets."- James Joyce writing as Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

In my first reading of W.B. Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium, I was like a deer
caught in headlights- While Yeats' sharp imagery captivated my imagination, the abstract nature of his
poetry left me grasping at thin air as I searched for meaning. In my re-readings however, I was shocked
to find that the poems, especially the latter, reflected on many philosophical issues that plagued my
mind as of late, such as the daunting ontology poised by materialism. Having been presented to me
during a time in which my worldview was in a crisis, I was inspired by Yeats' strong idealism and
indeed, I had learned much from his views that starkly opposed where I felt mine were headed,
influenced by modern materialists such as Douglas Hofstadter. In general I feel that the 21st century
represented a shift towards purely physical, scientific based worldviews by many and, in the spirit of
the IBO learner profile that other people, with their differences in opinion can also be right, I chose to
write this essay to present Yeats' ontology that opposes modern ones. That being said, I also chose to
write this essay because Byzantium and Sailing to contain so many themes and ideas that I have never
before seen so concentrated into such short works, and from a literary point of view such saturation is
worth exploring.
Before I begin my analysis in full, some real-life context is in order. Yeats had an interest
in spiritualism and the occult throughout his life- Yeats wrote in 1892 that “The mystical life is the
centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”1 In 1911, Yeats joined a paranormal
research organization, “The Ghost Club”, whose focii were studies into paranormal phenomena such as
ghosts, spirits, and hauntings, in spite of criticism from materialists such as W.H. Auden who
denounced Yeats' spirituality as the “deplorable spectacle of a grown man occupied with the mumbo-
jumbo of magic and the nonsense of India.” Yeats also wrote a spiritualist book called A Vision in 1925
using automatic writing, the same basic technique as the use of a Ouija board. Spiritualism is a topic
that Yeats touches on many times in Byzantium and Sailing to. Also note that Yeats was 62 years old

1 Ellmann, Richard (1948). "Yeats: The Man and the Masks". (New York) Macmillan.
when he wrote Sailing to Byzantium, which was considered to be quite old at the time, and we will see
that Yeats reflects on aging in the poems.

Analysis of Sailing to Byzantium


Sailing to Byzantium is a poem which was largely the result of Yeats' reflection of his old
age. Growing old, Yeats placed growing emphasis on the role of religion in his life, along with growing
contemplation of how he will be remembered. Sailing to Byzantium primarily deals with the theme of
the conflict between the material and conceptual worlds, set alongside the conflict of the mortal and
immortal- the mortal being represented by the imperfect material world, prone to age and the immortal
being represented by the eternal collection of human art in the world of the conceptual.
The first stanza of the poem begins with Yeats reflecting on the nature of time passing by
and the place of the old- “That is no country for old men.” Although he begins by saying that the old
are out of place compared to the “young in one another's arms” and the “birds in the trees”. He then
transitions from the young imagery of nature to organisms which are nearing the end of their life
cycles, that is to say, of salmon nearing their deaths as they reproduce, as well as mackerel. Summing
up the ever-continuing life cycles of these animals, Yeats writes “Whatever is begotten, born, and
dies.” This phrase, of course, applies to humans as well as animals and Yeats, knowing of this,
transitions to a rhyming couplet that concerns itself with the higher human side of age:

“Caught in that sensual music all neglect


Monuments of unaging intellect.”

What Yeats means by these two lines is that in the progression of time we as laypeople are
caught in the “sensual music” of everyday life- that, if we merely live our lives passively without
passion we are caught in a neglect of time, aging faster, for without appreciating the monumental
intellectual contributions of artists the days of our lives start to blend into each other and the passive
lives we lead take us swiftly to our deaths. The “Monuments of unaging intellect” refer to these
intellectual contributions (e.g. philosophies) through which we may mark our lives, for it is in
appreciating these contributions that we make realizations that are timeless- we are but one stanza in
and already a theme is introduced: That in living our ordinary passive lives we neglect the timeless
contributions of artists, and by doing this we place ourselves at the mercy of time instead of
transcending it as artists do.
In the next stanza Yeats reflects on the effects of his own age which expose the value of the
conceptual mind over the physical (the physical world in general, not the physical mind). Opening with
an interesting metaphor for an old man much like Yeats, comparing him to “A tattered coat upon a
stick,” Yeats admits that physically an old man leaves much to be desired, but then writes “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;” This is Yeats' reversal from the mere physical to
the idealistic beauty of a wiser, aged mind. Yeats argues that although there is “tatter in its mortal
dress” the aged mind doesn't concern itself with the arbitrary concerns of the young mind such as
singing school but studies “monuments of its own magnificence;” the same “monuments of unaging
intellect” as mentioned in the first stanza- in essence, he is saying that the aged mind possesses the
wisdom giving it access to the higher pursuits of life. The last two lines are Yeats speaking directly- the
city of Byzantium, being a flocking place for artists represents the pursuit of art itself; Yeats here is
merely stating that his value of the mind over the physical (aforementioned) is the reason why he chose
to pursue literature.
The third stanza is where things start getting a little ambiguous- whether the “sages
standing in God's holy fire” are priests of a religion or mystics of a cult is undecided, but the gist is
clear: Yeats is appealing to some kind of authorities on the metaphysical. Yeats then implores them to
“be the singing masters of [his] soul” and to “Consume [his] heart away;” basically to guide his soul in
search of spirituality. Yeats then outright denounces his physical form- he claims that his heart is
“fastened to a dying animal” the dying animal, of course, being Yeats (in his physicality). Yeats then
claims that “[he] knows not what [he] is”2 and then urges the sages to gather him into the “artifice of
eternity.” This is the first mention of eternity, an important motif in the two poems- in this context the
artifice of eternity is reminiscent of the “monuments of unaging intellect” as it refers to not quite the
timeless pursuit of art, but of the timeless pursuits of metaphysics and spirituality.
Lastly, in the fourth stanza Yeats debases the natural and physical world of importance and
proclaims that he shall seek, above all, all that is conceptual and human-made. In the first two lines he
proclaims that he shall never base his form on anything in nature, but instead on “such a form as
Grecian goldsmiths make,” the goldsmiths being a reference to the philosophers, writers and artists that
Greece was famous for- Yeats once again places the conceptual and abstract world over the material
one- the conflict between these two worlds is itself a theme in the poems. The fourth line of the fourth
stanza is Yeats' way of expressing some humility- that the artistic form which he's made of isn't so

2 I claim that Yeats refers to himself in line 23 because the “it” could refer to either his heart or the dying animal, both of
which represent Yeats.
dazzling that it sends all into a fervor, but humbly “keeps a drowsy Emperor awake;” The last lines of
the poem indicate Yeats' entrance into Byzantium- That he has joined his voice into that of the other
artists' in the city- that he “sing[s] [...] of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Analysis of Byzantium
Byzantium takes the themes and ideas of its predecessor and explores them in more detail;
while Sailing to Byzantium introduced us to the conflict between the material and immaterial,
Byzantium represents the triumph of the latter over the former. Byzantium also goes into themes such as
how different minds may whither or flourish in their pursuit of knowledge as well as the incopatibility
of what is immortal with the material world in its antagonization of time. It takes place right after the
events of Sailing to Byzantium, with the speaker Yeats having arrived at the legendary city and stayed
there during the day- we come in during nighttime when Yeats contemplates the city.
Yeats begins by declaring the poem to be a reflection post arrival in the first four lines:
"The unpurged images of day recede;/ The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;" Here he says that his
initial shock and awe of entering the city have worn off, and he is ready to examine it with a more
objective eye devoid of whatever expectations Yeats may have had in his journey to it. In the two lines
following, Yeats subtly introduces the motif of time in the poem by depicting the night succeeding the
day. After a ceremonial strike of the chuch gong to celebrate his arrival, Yeats gets to the meat of his
reflection and states the ongoing conflict between the world of the material and immaterial:

"A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains


All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins."

This conflict isn't introduced fairly. For one the representatives of each of the worlds are
very different- for the material world the massive heavens, of the night's sky eternal, and for the
conceptual world man, with all his short-lived troubles and mortality. Yeats also, through this unfair
introduction admits that the material world does supercede the conceptual one- after all, the night's sky
disdains what man is, and in its indifference Yeats captures that in reality, the material world doesn't
need ideas to exist (does it?), but the world of ideas needs matter to take form, for the people who
create ideas are made of matter. Of people, Yeats has only to say that they are in the mire of mortality
and the contemplation of their own deaths. We will see Yeats develop this conflict and argue for the
side of the conceptual in the rest of the poem.
The second stanza details Yeats observing a strange spectacle: Before him floats an ethereal
bobbin wrapped in mummy cloth, representative of the mind through nonmaterial imagery: "Shade
more than man, more image than a shade;" Yeats then sees this bobbin unwravel and appreciates the
marvel of seeing the exposed mind. It's interesting to question that if the unwraveling mummy cloth
represents the mind, what then does the core of the bobbin represent- consciousness, or the soul? Yeats
declares that this bobbin "has no moisture and no breath" true, as the mind speaks without breath; it
only thinks, or summons ideas in the realm of the conceptual- "breathless mouths may summon;" here
Yeats explores that in the realm of the conceptual, it is the mind that has power, not material. He then
goes on to praise the mind for its powers in the conceptual world- "I hail the superhuman;/I call it death
-in-life and life-in-death. Now we see the conflict between the material and non-material in the poem
sway to side with the latter, even in terms of imagery; note how in the first stanza Yeats talks about
solid, physical objects- the great cathedral gong and the army of the Emperor, while in the second
stanza the imagery is more abstract and non-material. We will see Yeats make another transition in
imagery in the fourth stanza.
In the third stanza Yeats fits his model of a mind and conflict between the material and
immaterial to people in general. While the first two lines seem very abstract at first, after some
consideration we can see that they represent a mind- the miracle of consciousness, the bird, free to fly
anywhere represents free thought, and the golden handiwork being, again, an allusion to the "form that
Grecian goldsmiths make," metaphorical for the pool of knowledge that we draw on, having learned it
from the great writers and thinkers of history. When "planted on the star-lit golden bough," to present
their thoughts, a mind may "like the cocks of Hades crow,"- spout what is of disinterest to humanity,
"or, by moon embittered, scorn aloud / In glory of changeless metal"- being insatisfied with the
material world, think of conceptual advances which may benefit all, in the style of the Grecian
goldsmiths. Essentially what Yeats has said in this stanza so far is that any mind may choose between
the pursuit within either of two worlds: the material and immaterial- Yeats regards minds which pursue
the petty material gains of the physical world as largely wasted, and those who pursue ideas in the
conceptual one as flourished, deserving of the golden handiwork created by other great minds; although
Yeats does make much reference to the work created by the greatest of minds, lines 23 and 24 put the
stanza into context within the rest of the human sphere: "Common bird or petal / And all complexities
of mire or blood." Here Yeats acknowledges that the choice of pursuit of either world is up to every
mind to decide, be they Joe or Joyce.
It is in the fourth stanza that we are taken from Yeats' praise for the immaterial to his harsh
criticism of the physical world, centered largely around the flaw in the concept of physical immortality.
Yeats begins the stanza by transitioning into physical imagery, in this case the Emperor's pavement,
and examining, for his critique, an immortal flame:

"Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,


Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
and all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve." 3

One has but to refer to Yeats' diction (bolded) to see that he is portraying physical
immortality negatively. He talks of an immortal flame that doesn't have to consume wood to burn, nor
has it even been sparked by steel; this flame has always existed, eternal. It is undisturbed by water, and
ultimately, the flame suffers and is powerless. The reader may be confused at this point, having read
Sailing to Byzantium and learning that Yeats is actually in search of immortality, or at least of that
which is timeless, so why does he criticize it? This all comes down to the role of immortality and time
in the conflict between the material and immaterial; the immortality which Yeats is portraying here
with the flame exists only in the physical world, and this kind of immortality Yeats doesn't seek; to
him, to physically live forever is to live in agony- for is it not death which gives life pertinence, or a
sense of urgency? If one was to live forever they would get to see all of their friends and family die, as
well as all of their descendants. Yeats argues that an immortal would lose their humanity, when "all
complexities of fury leave," They would live to see the human race eventually die out, or the sun
swallow the earth- on this scale with the material world immortality as a person would be flawed
indeed, and this impotency is what Yeats refers to in line 32- that in the material world, we are so weak
anyway compared with the heavens that we "Cannot singe a sleeve." When all has been said and done,
what would the immortal person then have to occupy them? Yeats proves that the material world is a
slave to time, and any immortal within it would be, by extention, a slave as well.
It is after completely turning around the conflict between the material and immaterial world
that Yeats, in the fifth and last stanza finally summons an intellectual call to arms, if you will.
Transitioning back into more ethereal imagery, Yeats calls all people to take up and embrace the
3 The emphasis is mine, not Yeats'.
conceptual world- "Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood. / The golden smithies of the
Emperor!" Yeats here urges all people to imitate the Grecian goldsmiths and to create new ideas of
their own. In lines 36 and 37 Yeats says that if the conceptual world is embraced, the ideas created as a
result will continue to push the limits that current ones have set and advance our understanding of the
world. The last three lines of the poem are a nebulous contemplation of what new ideas are to come- as
the speaker now gazes out into the open sea, giving them a scope of the grand conceptual world that is
to be explored.

Conclusion

Byzantium as a whole is a poem about the triumph of the conceptual world over the
material one despite any impressions we may get from living in it. Yeats shows us the true power of the
conceptual world by a fierce transition from being secondary to the material world to empowerment.
After reading the poem we now realize that the unfair introduction of the conflict really favors the
conceptual; for as man looks at the moonlit dome that disdains him he realizes that due to his nature, he
can never truly be free from the perils of time, and accepts his physical morality. Man knows however,
that his ideas are what will truly be immortal- that the stars of the night's sky will eventually burn out
and cease to be, while his ideas, universal, live on. Yeats acknowledges this and heralds the pursuit of
art, timeless as it is, the realization of these immortal ideas.
It's sad that the vision Yeats had at the end of Byzantium was never truly realized, as the
world has moved away from his spiritualistic, idealist view. Perhaps in the context of the ideas of the
21st century, we may take Byzantium as a life lesson: That while it is important that the materialistic
ontologies implied by science may yield fruit for us and advance our capabilities in the physical world
we must not lose touch with our spiritual sides- for they too are part of what makes us human, part of

"All that man is,


All mere complexities,
The fury and mire of human veins."

for in human history there has always been those cold and calculated; those for whom if something is
impossible to empirically prove in a laboratory, that if one can't observe something or at least find
indirect evidence for it, it can't exist. Many have been satisfied to take these worldviews for their
powerful, rational explainations and indeed; I cannot deny them that. But what I will deny them is that
for every time they excell at explaining the physical world, they have failed to capture the fury, the
soul, the passion of the human being! If Byzantium and Sailing to have taught me anything, it is that
nothing gained from a laboritory, no result, theory or model can ever quantify Caesar's betrayal when
he he uttered his last words, nor of the epiphanies made by Stephen Dedalus, or find God, at that!
Cynics may scoff at such romanticism but there is still a point made- that the world is more than just
the atoms it is made of or how they interact, and the pursuit of this other world needs to be appreciated.

References

Ellmann, Richard (1948). "Yeats: The Man and the Masks". (New York) Macmillan.
Yeats, William Butler (1927). "Sailing to Byzantium".
Yeats, William Butler (1927). "Byzantium".