"Sailing to Byzantium" by W. B. Yeats: Voyage of the Inner Spiritual Essence into the Wisdom and Freedom


Introduction: Sailing to Byzantium, one of Yeats’ masterpieces is organized round the dichotomy of flesh and spirit, nature and art where the sea symbolizes the energetic vitality of the former. As Yeats advanced into old age he continued to be troubled by the passions. The voyage in this poem is thus an inner voyage of spiritual awakening. To wards wisdom and freedom from the enslavement to nature. Quite apart from the special meaning that Byzantium has in Yeats’ system, historically it was the meeting point of the Pagan and Christian civilization. The poem carries a symbolic pattern and a mystic philosophic notion is derided.

A journey and the Byzantium: There has been a multiple interpretation of Yeats’ symbols and imageries. Sailing to Byzantium is no exception. It is a journey of metaphysical content and the destination is Byzantium En-route Sea. Byzantium is the excellence of art, glory of self and emblem of beauty. It is a journey for excellence, for supremacy, for artistic exuberance and for self realization of consummate and conscious artist.

Journey of the Soul: A recent study in Yeats has shown that Yeats has had spiritual knowledge of Yoga and Upanishada, particularly of Patranjali’s Yoga Sutra, which was translated into English by Yeats himself in 1936-37. The book contains the journey of soul, rebirth, and doctrine of Samadhi. The poem Sailing to Byzantium is a display of this learning.

Yeats beings his poem by mentioning that life is itself a journey – a soul’s journey through the countries of childhood, youth and old age. His own soul has already journeyed through the countries of sportive childhood and sensual youth. Commenting on the youthful vigour he compares it to a period of procreation and sensual appeal. Under an urge of mating young birds tune in. the soul of fish with their burning  passion of sex, copulate and spawn –
              The salmon – falls the mackerel – crowed seas,
               Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
               Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
The youth is meant for celebration, for emotional attachment, for sensuality and for concern of spring.

But such the country of youth is none a place the old poet – ‘that is no country for old men.’ The youths are caught in the sensual music and totally ignore the ‘monuments of the unageing intellect.’ Thus, the youths do not know the immortality of intellectual supremacy of Yoga, the knowledge of soul which the poet finds a monument. The poet’s old age is weak in physicality, sensuality and rejuvenation and fecundity. He finds himself a scarecrow – ‘a tattered coat upon a sick’, an image of ugliness and decay. He finds none of the songs of his soul. He has thus, voyaged and reached the holy city of Byzantium to record his soul’s content.

The journey is no physical rather a spiritual: Yeats is on his seat to go yogic Samadhi. When a yogi intends to go into Samadhi, he withdraws the power of the senses and centralized them into the mind. Here the powers of senses are compared to ‘sages’ standing in the fire of prana which may be called ‘God’s holy fire.’ The senses are like gold mosaic of a wall. The poet bids them to come back to his mind being in control of the self just as a flying pern comes back to his master after circular flight. If the Samadhi is complete, the yogi learning will consume the material and sensual drawbacks and gradually he should be an artifice of eternity, of self effulgent, of unegoing and perfection –
     Consume my heart away; sick with desire
      ………………… ; and gather me
      Ito the artifice of eternity.
In the concluding stanza the poet wishes to continue his yogic Samadhi. None of the physical approach worldly riches or extra should have an impact on him. On the contrary, he shall mention his Samadhi posture for ever. He shall keep sitting like statue ever made by Greek Goldsmith out of gold and coated with enamel. He should keep his posture intact in order to keep his soul, the Emperor of nature universe, awake to its eternal glory. He wishes to attain an absolute freedom from the sickles of his mind and body through the doctrine of Yoga Sutra. The absolute Samadhi would lead him into samaskaras, knowledge of absolute. He can relate then – ‘of what is past, or passing, or to come.’
Conclusion: A part from the spiritual analysis the Byzantium can be read as a study of heightened consciousness, an eternity specific to art etc. the awaking or learning of the Emperor of our artistry, spirituality and intellectuality. Sailing to Byzantium is thus rich in complexity, concrete in experimenting, irreducible threads.

REF: Wikipedia, W.B. Yeats' Indian Philosophy by Dr. L. S. Balasubhramaniam


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