First published in Yeat’s 1928 collection “The Tower”, “Sailing to Byzantium” is one of William’s most celebrated and keenly analyzed poems. Throughout its years of extensive study, several unique approaches have been developed to the interpretation of this poem. In this essay, a brief but encapsulating overview of these approaches and the critics who undertook them will be given, in an effort to illustrate the landscape in which this poem has been criticized. The landscape will then be commented upon to depict how being in possession of this information in conjunction with access to available manuscripts of “Sailing to Byzantium”, can create an entirely new reading experience.
Since the amount of secondary material regarding criticism is so vast concerning “Sailing to Byzantium”, critics of the critics such as A. Norman Jeffries and James Lovic Allen divide the depths of criticism into three different categories for clarification. The first category is the most surface-level, which is an initial personal reading of the poem in which Jeffries describes as “pure criticism”. (11) The next two categories delve deeper, the second being what Allen describes as a “spiritual interpretation”, which takes into account Yeat’s beliefs of the occult and his focus on pursuit of a more spiritual existence in old age. (59) The third category Allen describes as the “aesthetic interpretation”, which focuses more on the content of images and form, which comment more greatly on the creative poetic process as well as Yeats’ lasting impact as an artist. (59) Although interpretations tend to lend themselves to one of these directions, Jeffries and Allen both recognize that these categories are not exclusive, and some criticism traverses both paths of interpretation creating their own sub-categories.
Rather than attempt to include every piece of the expansive amount of criticism in which is available, a focus will be taken towards pieces from each category in which have a reputation as value judgement of art. In terms of “pure interpretation”, the first piece of secondary criticism considered should be from William York Tindall’s book “W.B Yeats”. (66) He not only provides a comprehensive initial read, but begins to build towards the notion of combining the spiritual and aesthetic layers of analysis. In Donald Stauffer’s “The Nature of Poetry” he takes more of a focus on the aesthetic interpretation of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, while also providing another thorough overview of content. (66) Robert Ellman’s book “The Identity of Yeats”, offers further in depth commentary of the relation of the aesthetic and spiritual interpretations in the poem and how they can combine. (66) Harry Modean Campbell’s 1955 article “Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium” from Modern Language Notes, provides compelling material for the spiritual level of analysis, and breaks down the layers of analysis even further. Thomas L. Dume’s article from the same journal also touches specifically upon the images of the artificial golden bird and tree, which are very insightful to an aesthetic interpretation of the poem. For a greater overview of all the specific images present in “Sailing to Byzantium” in their relevance to Yeats’ other work, chapters from Ian Fletcher and D.J Gordon’s book “W.B Yeats Images of a Poet”, helps grasp the deeper significance of Yeats’ specific choices for content. Giorgio Melichori’s book “The Whole Mystery of Art: Pattern into Poetry in the Work of W.B. Yeats” further extrapolates the connections the images in “Sailing to Byzantium” have to visual sources. In L.C Parks “The Hidden Aspect of Sailing to Byzantium”, the structure of the poem is analyzed and related to Yeat’s occult system for another comprehensive form of spiritual interpretation. T. McAlindon’s article titled, “The Idea of Byzantium in William Morris and W. B. Yeats” offers unique origins to Yeat’s seemingly personal interest in the symbolic image of Byzantium. Curtis Bradford’s “Yeats’s Byzantium Poems: A Study of Their Development” is beneficial in understanding the specific changes that took place from manuscript to manuscript in both “Sailing To Byzantium” and its related poem “Byzantium”. Marjorie Perloff’s book “Rhyme and Meaning in the Poetry of Yeats”, helps understand the specific relationship between rhyme scheme and potential deeper interpretations of the rhythm rather than pure performance. Finally, Elder Olson’s article “‘Sailing to Byzantium’; Prolegomena to a Poetics of the Lyric”, offers what is a methodical and popular reading of the piece in which captures the most standard interpretation of the piece.
By combining all of these distinct and unique pieces of secondary criticism, a landscape of criticism has been developed. Although there exists further criticism and ideas, this landscape provides ample insight from the different layers of interpretation to produce an even deeper layer of criticism. This new layer is achieved through the unique reading experience of combining this landscape with the accessibility to the several versions of “Sailing to Byzantium”. Upon approaching the poem stand-alone in text, the initial read can be described as the form of “pure interpretation” mentioned earlier by Norman Jeffries. Typically, it would take a scholar a commitment of extensive time to compile a knowledge of criticism in relation to the poet’s biographical influence. Although only a brief introduction to each piece of criticism is provided here, having the sources already at hand saves readers the necessity to research criticism on their own volition. Also, since the previous versions are made readily available in conjunction with this criticism, the reader need not venture into supplementary texts to research past versions on their own accord. The combination of these two features with the text creates an immediate door into deeper readings, previously inaccessible without adequate auxiliary research. This progressive modus operandi has the ability to engage readers in a unique way, in which may help further connect younger readers with a medium that is slipping into the shadows of cultural value.
Allen, James Lovic. “Yeats ‘s Byzantium Poems and the Critics, Reconsidered.” Colby Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 2, June 1973, pp. 1–15.
Jeffries, A. Norman. “Yeats’s Byzantine Poems and the Critics.” 1962, pp. 11–28.