Monday, 27 January 2014

Yeats; Upon the Balance of Two Worlds…

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By Jason B.R. Maxwell
Griffith University

 “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment 

Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a back ground not of 

Judaisim but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete phenomenal. I 

was born in this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it”   (Yeats cited in Harrison 371)
Introduction: Two Religions
Much has been said about the theological complexity of William Butler Yeats.
Yet from the moot of his critics, there remains a question via one structure of thought; on judgement day, does he believe in any form of Christian salvation? Even though it is clear that Yeats is far from Christian, answering a definitive negative to this question would be far from truth. Therefore this essay unearths an agnostic balance of religions leading to his visions of salvation. This balance can be seen behind two key works; the mechanistic logic of Christian enlightenment in “Sailing to Byzantium” and the natural beast of Paganism in “The Second Coming” (Yeats 124-129).
A Vision:  Conceptual background.
Yet we cannot discuss these works without first mentioning Yeats’s philosophic view point in ‘A Vision’. Inspired by Mrs Yeats’ exposition as a discovered psychic in 1920,  ‘A Vision’ details, in prose, that history was a “Wheel”, where a “Great Memory” and the influence of Christ, lasts two thousand years and then falls to a new cycle, directly opposed to its predecessor (Weeks 286-287, Griffith University 16). But to complicate this determinism, analysis made by Empson suggests that spirits “time travel” to ancient kingdoms and decide where and when to incarnate themselves (72). Indeed Yeats himself was interpreted as desiring to do so, to around 1000 AD (Empson 84).
Yeats; Sailing to a perfected Eternity…
But where was Yeats going and why? Byzantium, one of the major birthplaces of Christianity, to Yeats, represented a “unity of aesthetic and religious experience” (Empson 69) and thus a pivotal point in the two thousand year Christian cycle (Empson 84).  Further, in Yeats’s first poem of the city, “Sailing to Byzantium”, it is singing that is given detailed and contrasted metaphors relating to the perfection of art, where each stanza beholds music in different forms (Empson 69).
In the beginning the poems youthful song seems to accelerate the cycle of “whatever begotten, born and dies” and thus a distraction from “the monuments of unaging intellect” or collective mind (Yeats 6-8). Further, in the second stanza, the structures involved in the schools of art also distract, this time from the individuals “soul clap”, i.e. the individuals music amidst the songs or monuments of Byzantium (Yeats 11). In the third he turns to his new masters there and makes prayer, to “pern in a gyre” or reach out to help “Gather … [him] /Into the artifice of eternity” (Yeats 19-22). These three stanzas form an advancement of the soul in song, from the distractions of youth, to learning an individual’s place, to sharing art until enlightenment.
However it is the completion of the poem which creates the most controversy. For once he has achieved the highest purification of his soul, he wishes not for any type of flesh-full immortality amongst the lords and ladies of Byzantium, instead he wishes to reincarnate as a golden bird in order to sing to a “drowsy Emperor” to keep him awake (Yeats 29). 
But why would Yeats do this?
Some critics see this move as “hollowness” and Yeats was deeply criticized even by his friends for turning his back on the naturalism that is so strong in other works (Kimball 216, Empson 80). But nowhere does it say that Yeats’ song itself is unnatural, mechanical or monotonous. So in light of Yeats’ circular theory, Yeats might believe that for personal AND political reasons, he had to travel to the very critical time of Byzantium where the real bird is said to have existed (Empson 84).  This mission might seem so vital, that even immortal flesh, subservient to impurity, will fail him and his Emperor to the decisions that might decide the fate of all future Christianity. And so the question; why couldn’t Yeats’ ‘unaging intellect’ lead Christianity to salvation?
Absolution and Armageddon
Perhaps art can lead to salvation, but to give such a world burden to one man alone would be to define Yeats (or his yawning, un-god like Emperor) as Christ himself, and too far from Yeats’s agnostic and war hardened reality. No, Harrison defines Yeats in similarity to Nietzsche, in that Christianity parallels Paganism as “two principles” that are in a state of constant flux that is “contrary, not negation, not refutation” (368). Indeed, this was a natural unending cycle, one after the other.  Nowhere is this more relevant than in his poem; “The Second Coming”, where rather than signalling any “reforming zeal,” Yeats depicts civilization on its “blood dimmed” knees (Harrison 368, Yeats 5).  
The poems semiotic structure is simple enough; two stanzas contrast contemporary torn realities with a mystic’s narrated vision. It achieves the former with Yeats’s cone shaped ‘gyre’ system for the soul embodying contemporary Christianity as a whole; for “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ … /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (Weeks 286-287, Yeats 1-3).  This system predicts that in the largest ‘gyre’, furthest from the birth of Christ symbolised ideologically as the Falcon, innocence is lost, the wise are silent while “the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Weeks, Yeats 2-8). 
This environment builds into the second, where Yeats then imagines a sleeping Sphinx awakening in the desert as a consequence.  Here Yeats comments on his own symbolism, of the East and its Sphinx as “human power … stretched to its utmost” and thus a symbol of “laughing, ecstatic destruction” (Yeats cited in Harrison 368). But to finish it all in true Christian dread, this gigantic beast “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” (Yeats 22).
In contrast to “Sailing to Byzantium”, the symbols in “The Second Coming” seems to leave no real room for interpretation, it is “quite plainly the association of the beast, the anti-Christ” and thus the destruction of Christian civilization (Weeks 291).   But to differ from interpretations inherit in ‘anti’, perhaps seeing the second coming of Christ in a contrary form rather than a ‘refuted’ form, one such as Michel Angelo, would absolve many concerns amidst the sheer chaos (Yeats 20, Yeats cited in Harrison 373).
Conclusion: The Completion Storey…
By contrasting the dualistic bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” and the ‘Anti’- Christ in “The Second Coming” we can see the beginning, the middle and the end of Christian civilization in political failure AND artistic beauty.  Yet past Christianity’s life cycle, it is perhaps answering “What rough beast … slouches towards Bethlehem” with a Pagan one, a rough yet natural “druidic” Christ  with the tough task of leading the world back to nature, where we come closer to Yeats’ intended influences upon Christianity. For to Yeats, life was a balance, not a conversion, of two contrary forces; of the logical, temporal mechanics of Christianity and the natural, eternal song of Paganism.

Works Cited:
Empson, William. Yeats and Byzantium. Grand Street 1:4 (1982): 67-95. Web. 20th Dec.            2013.
Griffith University. Study guide; LCI12 Irish Literature.Brisbane: Digitisation and Distribution,    2013. Print.
Harrison, John R. What Rough Beast? Yeats, Nietzsche and historical Rhetoric in “the Second Coming”. Papers on Language and Literature 31.4 (1995):362-373. Web. 28th Dec. 2013.
Kimball, Elizabeth. Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. The Explicator 61:4 (2003): 216-218. Web.     26th Dec 2013.
Weeks, Donald. Image and Idea in Yeats’ the Second Coming. PMLA 63:1 (1948): 281-            292.    Web. 26th Dec. 2013.
Yeats, William Butler. Selected Poems. Ed.Timothy Webb. London: Penguin       Books,            1991. Print.

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