Discuss how Yeats presents the role of the artist in “Sailing to Byzantium”.
In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ Yeats is confronted with the reality of his ageing self and thus endeavours to avoid a ravishing death by proclaiming a rebirth in art. He uses art and the role of an artist to show how life can be commemorated and immortalised through transcending nature and lodging your soul in something eternal; art. Therefore in this poem Yeats heralds the role of art in its ability to create something which defies time’s derision and survives in the ‘artifice of eternity’.
By displaying transient images of nature and short-lived youth Yeats shows the need for some things to be preserved and endure time, and he refers to these are ‘monuments of unageing intellect’. In this wage the role of the artist is to craft something permanent and enduring in contrast with changing nature and the shifting transience of youth. Nature, though deplorable beautiful, is seen to be existing within a cycle of time and not escaping it. This sense is iterated by the tricolon of ‘fish, flesh or fowl’ and ‘begotten, born and dies’. The use of alliteration of ‘f’ in the first repetition is sound and transient, the sounds slip away just as the existence of nature; things are born and they die. This sense is created through the phrases ‘begotten, born and dies’ and the use of a caesura, followed by a full stop, shows the flow and then stop of life. Similarly Yeats shows how the ‘young in one another’s arms’ live in the moment. The enjambment in line one creates this sense that their live is a flowing continuum with no consideration of death, unlike Yeats who admits his own sense of ageing and mortality in the monosyllabic, punchy phrase ‘That is no country for old men’. In contrast with the flowing, cyclical mood of nature Yeats commends the role of an artist to create something which outlives this and is outside of the imminent gyre describes in line six; he suggests art is necessary to create ‘monuments’ which are ‘unageing’ as oppose to ‘sensual music’. The contrast in this rhyming couplet, which in the Elizabethan form echoing Shakespearean form follows an argument with an epigrammatic summation, between music which is transient, just like emotions of the younth, ‘sensual’, and sculpture which is enduring, relates to Yeats endeavour to use art to immortalise his ‘intellect’ now that he has seen no place for himself in the cyclical life he will ineviatbly soon depart. This idea is linked to ‘The Man and the Echo’ in which Yeats rejects the echoes suggestion that he ‘lie down and die’, as he rebukes and proclaims that to die through ‘bodkin or disease’ is to ‘shirk the spirit intellects great work’. The sharp ‘k’ here in ‘shirk’ and ‘work’ as well as the repetition of shirk, ‘and shirk in vain’, represents Yeats’ passion in his passionate defence of the enduring life of the mind in the face of ageing. Therefore in both of theme poems he wishes to preserve and animate the soul, in ‘Byzantium’ by immortalising it in art, and in ‘The Man and the Echo’ by arranging his thoughts all ‘in one clear view’.
Yeats represents the role of the artist as a method of illuminating the life of the soul, which Yeats suggests does not wither like the body but should instead by animated even greater as age increases. He represents this through the weary description of old age as ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’. This metaphor, used also in ‘Among Schoolchildren’ gives a ‘paltry’ rendition of an ‘age man’ to be nothing more than ‘old clothes upon sticks’. This image is despairing, elevated by the assonance of ‘t’ in ‘tattered’ and the antagonism of ‘t’, ‘c’ and ‘k’ in ‘sticks’; these harsh notes show their is no repreve in old age if one is to allow their soul to weather alongside their body. However, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ is by no means a despairing rendition of old age; Yeats optimistically suggests that the soul can be preserved through art and that the artists role is to ensure that the soul remains alive and kicking despite its exterior becoming withered by time’s derision. This sense is displayed through a vivid metaphor which analogises the life of the soul to a song and dance; ‘soul claps its hands and sing, and louder sing’. This metaphor is effective by contrasting images of lifelessness and the vitality connoted by the ‘song’ which will although Yeats to preserve his ageing self just as ‘Byzantium’ is a site of the preserved Greek art and culture, a comparison elevated through the use of the ancient name of the city. Through the comparison between an ageing exterior and a lively soul Yeats shows how art has a role in keeping the soul alive, as he calls out to ancient culture and art, ‘o sages’, to be the ‘singing masters’ of his soul; therefore explicitly showing how art illuminates the soul.
Finally Yeats relates the role of an artist to create a piece of artwork, such as Yeats poetry, which will outlive him once his physical body has been ‘fastened to a dying animal’. Therefore art offers the chance of a rebirth after destruction; enabling him to transcend nature and become some eternal. This is related by Yeats commands to the ‘sages standing in God’s holy fire’ to take him from a ‘natural thing’. He decides that art could make his spirit ‘hammered gold and gold enamelling’ which echoes the ‘mosaic’ mentioned in stanza three. This image of ‘gold’ is transcending and permanent and the act of it being ‘hammered’ suggests that his ‘intellect’ before he dies will be unified, reflecting Yeats desire that his thoughts be ‘hammered into unity’. In this way established art can transcend bodily limitations and exist forever to ‘sing’ ‘of what is past, or passing or to come’. This tricolon postively antitheses that used in stanza one of bodily death without the immortalising intervention of art ‘begotten, born and dies’. This shows how art has the ability to transcend the first cycle of life and divulge into another, one of the past, present and future. In this way art is able to establish something unchanging and ideal, and the mention of nature in the final stanza, as the art is a golden bird ‘set upon a bough’ shows that art has the ability to give transient things, nature ‘dies’ in stanza one, a permanence. The same effect is seen in ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ where Yeats poetry shows the ‘nine and fifty swans’ to represent a sense of permanence as they remain ‘unwearied still’, the repetition of ‘still’ throughout the poem suggesting an enduring ideal, and therefore serves as another example of the use of art to immortalise an object which is mortal. The conclusion is that the role of an artist is to achieve something which can defy the restrictions of body and nature, and create something permanent for the future; Yeats does this in his poetry both here and in poems such as ‘Wild Swans’ where the picture of the swans remains in his readers mind long after they have ‘flown away’.