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: "...now 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
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
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).
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
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)
is clear that for Yeats Byzantium was a perfect state. Though history
might not affirm to all his idealistic visions (2), Yeats strives to
1. Which, I'm inclined to believe, Beckett would find absurd.
2. Cyril Mango asserts in The
The Order of the Golden Dawn