Thursday, February 7, 2013

Poetic Commentary: Sailing to Byzantium

'Sailing to Byzantium' ~ W.B. Yeats

‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is the poetic result of a determined ambition to create a series of strong dichotomies that are all related to one another in a single principal: they all reflect the old philosophical, somewhat Gnostic dilemma of time versus the timeless. These dichotomies are pitted against each other, martially juxtaposed over the rich imagery and almost musical tone of the narrative: the physical world is but the terrestrial playground for the intelligible reality; the fundaments of human existence are the equivalent to those of animals if the precepts of intelligence are absent; and the denizens of time and space are hopelessly mired in the cycles of death and decay so long as the eternal soul lies beyond our grasp.

Yeats launches his assault upon the material cosmos with the weaponry of a Manichaean, striking down the supports of the purely natural world by pronouncing that their place in the universe is directionless, unjustified, and that the advocates and practitioners of such a path are condemned to a hollow life; the very emptiness of this state is its only utility since its very depravity has actually driven the speaker away in order to seek out broader and more authentic realms of being. Crying out for some kind of enlightenment or transcendence over his immediate conditions, the speaker beckons the sages, the muses, the whole pantheon of eternity to be the sole inhabitants of his consciousness to relieve himself of time’s great pressures; by overcoming his sensual aspect, and by merging himself entirely with the greater dimensions of pure intellect, the speaker has conceived that he will be finally released from the wrathful wailing, the tragic eulogies of ordinary life.

This prominent dualism exhibited by Yeats in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is as ambitious as it is wasteful. Although the speaker insightfully detects the a priori meaninglessness of physical, sensual reality, and how it is manifestly inferior to the direct and intelligible joys of the ‘holy reality’ above, he is keenly unaware of their positive and reconciled relationship. The full extent of his ignorance is evident in the imagining of a magnificent golden sculpture as the future host of his liberated, eternal spirit; he has effectively come from an abrasive iconoclasm of living images caught in the vicissitudes of this mortal sphere only to arrive at the feet of a great golden idol. In following his line of logic, the speaker has come to the contradictory conclusion that a splendid persistence in time is the most desired outcome, that only an immortal body could suit his immortal soul; the problem with this is that intellectual reality can and indeed must be at one with sensual reality; the problem with this is that God became man not to dilute his own substance, but so that men could become gods through the possibility of a divine body.

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