Yeats Goes to Byzantium
(By Way of Byzantine Art, Eastern Mysticism, and Esoteric Symbolism)

San Appolinaire Nuovo mosaic

Bristol IvyLogan LewisSuyog ShresthaW.B. Yeats

Bristol Ivy, Logan Lewis, Suyog Shrestha, and W.B. Yeats

          Yeats, in his later life, was highly focused on the thought of grasping reality in one thought. Having explored the various facets of life in different forms of poetry, Yeats now engaged himself in forming a single vision about life (1). The triggering of automatic writing, experienced by his wife in her sleep, and the instructions he received from his mysterious teachers who spoke through her influenced his contemporary thought process. Through the same teachers he also got acquainted with a system of symbolism, the circuitry of the sun and moon and its influence upon humans. When asked whether he believed in the actual existence of his circuits of sun and moon, he expresses his thoughts thus: " that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice." (Yeats, 25) In his formulation of the vision, mostly in his book A Vision, Yeats has tried to integrate the symbolism, mysticism, spiritualism, aesthetics and the ideal state of Byzantium, which we can find in his two poems on Byzantium as well.
            For Yeats Byzantium was an ideal state even though he struggles to establish the precise dates to the empire he refers to. Invoking the system of symbols revealed to him, Yeats confesses that"[he has] not the knowledge (it may be that no man has knowledge) to trace the rise of the Byzantine State through Phases 9, 10 and 11"With a desire for simplicity of statement I would have preferred to find in the middle, not at the end, of the fifth century Phase 12, for that was, so far as the known evidence carries us, the moment when Byzantium became Byzantine and substituted for formal Roman magnificence, with its glorification of physical power, an architecture that suggests the Sacred City in the Apocalypse of St. John." (Yeats, 279) 

       The dates of the period of Byzantine art correspond with the dates of the city's history, starting its development as an iconic artistic category in 330 and ending in 1453 with the Turkish conquest.  However, these dates are artificial decided, as is its close affiliation only with the city of Constantinople, as the evolution of the Byzantine art form is in fact on a far longer timeline and representative of a far larger geographic area.  But there are a few basic themes that can be drawn among the art of the time that can help us understand Yeats' fascination with Byzantium.  One of the fundamental concepts of Byzantine art was its focus on the religious aspect of life, one that every citizen could identify with, and in doing so create a sense of unity among everyone:
        The link between all Byzantines was their deep knowledge of the Bible.  Byzantine art expressed and relied on this
        common  culture.  The icon [the artistic representation of a religious figure, prominently displayed in homes and
        churches] gains its emotional and spiritual dimension from its references to Scripture; it also acted as an enhancement
         of the Christian message which rendered the church a place of beauty as well as of truth.
  (Cormack, 6)
Consequently, the highest conception of artistry in the Byzantine era was its referent to the ideals of Christianity, and therefore the intimation of godliness over all other ideals.
Therefore, in Byzantine art, the pinnacle of beauty and artistry was that which was closest to God was closest to perfection,  in line with the religious thinkings of the time.  That which replicated the humanity of man, with its imperfections and inconsistencies, was considered inferior and a debased version of the flawlessness associated with godliness.  This conception of art focused on not only the perfection of godliness, but also the immortal nature of it, as opposed to the mere mortality of humanity.  Much emphasis was placed on the permanence of the forms of art favored in Byzantium; the more impermeable to the decades and centuries of civilization, the closer to God, the closer to perfection: "Its forms do indeed evoke and quicken the sense of life, but it is a life elect and spiritual, and not the tumultuous flow of human existence.  They are without the solidity of organisms which rejoice or suffer; they seem to need no sun and cast no shadow, emerging mysteriously from some radiance of their own. . .  It is greatest, it is most itself, when it frankly renounces nature" (Gordon, 85).
    Going along with this idea of godliness and perfection as the greatest focus of the art of the Byzantine era, much emphasis was placed on the sense of cohesion between people, art, and religion in Constantinople.  As with the use of Scripture in iconic imagery as a synthesizing link among the Byzantine people, the integration of many different artists' conceptions of perfection into one single artifice is indicative of the synthetic nature of Byzantine art.  It is the working together to achieve an ideal, a communal conception of the godlike, rather than the individual triumph, that matters in Byzantine art.  A perfect metaphor for this is Yeats' highly-prized mosaic, composed of an infinite number of miniscule tiles, that separately, mean nothing, but together, attain heights of beauty and perfection not thought of.  It is this cohesion of art, the synthesis of the community's ideals of perfection, that makes Byzantine art so indicative of the capabilities of man and his appreciation for the religious and for his city.  As Yeats states on his visit to the Stockholm Stadshus, a replication of Byzantine architecture:
        The Town Hall of Stockholm . . . is decorated by many artists working in harmony with one another and with the                 design of the building as a whole, and yet in seeming perfect freedom . . . these myth-makers and mask-makers worked
        as if they belonged to one family . . . all that multitude and unity, could hardly have been possible, had not love of
        Stockholm and belief in its future so filled men of different minds, classes and occupations, that they almost attained
        the supreme miracle, the dream that has haunted all religions, and loved one another
. (Yeats, quoted in Melchiori, 216-217)
Therefore the art of the Byzantine era establishes not only a love of perfection, God, spirituality and the subsequent yearnings for immortality, it also illustrates a unity among its creators and appreciators, and a love for the city that spawned it, Constantinople.

            One of the other most defining characteristics of W.B. Yeats' life and writing is was his fascination with mysticism, occultism, and Eastern religions. Much of this owed to the time and place he was raised, as the 1880's saw a revival of supernatural and occult texts not seen again until the 1960's (Foster 50). Yeats was first introduced to this by his aunt, who sent him a copy of Esoteric Buddhism, which was then the defining text for the Eastern religious tradition in the West. Attracted to the simple and exotic nature of these new ideas, he soon became a member of the Dublin Hermetic Society, which later became the Dublin Theosophical Society (Foster 47). In addition to embracing the mystical and the occult as an end in themselves, Yeats also employed his new esoteric interests in his poetry, as he subscribed to William Blake's view of a total art conceived by mystical vision (Foster 98). The

            Yeats??? poem ???Sailing to Byzantium??? is one of works in which his admiration for the esoteric is most apparent. In the first stanza, he change is the nature of earthly reality, and lack any permanent existence, as he writes, "Whatever is begotten, born, and dies / Caught up in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of unaging intellect." This metaphysical assertion is in stark contrast with traditional Western beliefs, which typically contend that things have infinite existence outside the physical world in a spiritual or intellectual way. Instead, it is highly akin to traditional Buddhist values, which typically feature a subscription to reincarnation, which would necessitate both a cyclical view of time and a rejection of permanent forms. Additionally, this idea of the universe as essential dual in nature is similar to those of Neo-Platonism, which was a popular belief among Theosophists like Yeats (Foster 50).  His ideal vision of the Byzantium Empire is reinforced by his strong desire to take "a form as Grecian goldsmiths make" and sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium. (Sailing to Byzantium) Further, in A Vision he admits that if he were given ???a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where [he] chose, [he] would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending to him nearer to him than to Plotinus even (Yeats, 279)

            Yeats brings Buddhist metaphysics to the forefront again in the third stanza, where he writes about one of its most important aspects: the liberation from wordly desires, known as enlightenment. Distraught by his present conditions, he pleas for release: "Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal." Here, desire is not treated in the positive sense we are used to in the Western world, and is instead treated so negatively that it is regarded as a sickness. He suggests Neo-Platonism, which is defined by emphasizing the intelligible and ethereal part of reality of the fragmented and incomprehensible part that composes physical existence, in the next line. Here he claims that the "dying animal" which composes his physical existence "knows not what it is," which suggests a struggle between this aspect of his existence, and the part of him that exists in the timeless and ethereal realm. This is consistent with his view of the artist as a divided self (Foster 89).

            Also much unlike the traditional Western view of linear time, Yeats believed that time progressed in a cyclical fashion (Foster 50). This is evident in his poem "The Second Coming" when he writes that "Surely the second coming is at hand." If taken in isolation, this line would be unremarkable, but the next lines reveal this line to contain more meaning than it initially suggests, as Yeats writes "Hardly are those words out / When a vast image of our Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight." Even though the subject of the poem is the second coming of Christ, Yeats is either unable or unwilling to completely dissociate the esoteric from his writing. Again, he references a kind of universal intellect, which is typically associated more with Eastern ideologies than the western.

To further illustrate Yeats' fascination with the Byzantine Empire, we would like to include an entire paragraph from book IV of A Vision where Yeats gives his interpretation of the Byzantine Empire the history has recorded:

            I think that in early Byzantium, may be 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 gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual designs, 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 cast design, that 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. (Yeats, 280)

It is clear that for Yeats Byzantium was a perfect state. Though history might not affirm to all his idealistic visions (2), Yeats strives to use Byzantium as an image "that is the perfect expression of his own desire. Hazard Adams, a commentator on A Vision, claims that Yeats makes of Byzantium an image that is the perfect expression of the object of his own desire: to be the creator of a vision that is visually instinctive and also communal, the joining of one and many. The emphasis is more on the communal than the individual, however; and that expresses Yeats's own desire to compensate for what he perceived to be lacking in his own age." (Adams, 143) Thus Yeats has formed his vision based on a mystical system of belief and his idealistic interpretation of the history of Byzantium and the spiritual and aesthetic life therein.  



1. Which, I'm inclined to believe, Beckett would find absurd.

2. Cyril Mango asserts in The Oxford History of Byzantium:

"The thousand years of Byzantium are very unevenly covered in surviving historiography. Some periods, like the brief reign of Julian (361-3) or the long one of Justinian are brightly illuminated, others are quite obscure. Strangely enough, the fourth and fifth centuries, including even the reign of Constantine, are very poor in extant narrative sources. The seventh and eighth centuries are notoriously dark and even the ninth, when the empire was beginning to recover from its troubles, is narrated in texts a hundred years after the events in question."? (Mango, 6)


Ravenna: Site of Yeats' visit and inspiration

The Order of the Golden Dawn

Adams, Hazard.; The Book of Yeats' Vision: The University of Michigan Press,
Ann Arbor, MI, USA 2000.
Gordon, Donald JamesW.B. Yeats: Images of a Poet:  Manchester, England: The University of Manchester Press.  1961.
Foster, R.F. W.B. Yeats: A Life: Oxford University Press. Oxford: 1997
Cormack, RobinByzantine Art:  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.  2000.
Mango, Cyril; The Oxford History of Byzantium: Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6DP, England
Melchiori, GiorgioThe Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work of W.B. Yeats:  New York, NY: The MacMillan Company.  1961.
Yeats, W.B.; A Vision: The Macmillan Company, New York, 1956