Magazine: Explicator, Winter, 1994


In "The Circus Animals' Desertion," W. B. Yeats asserted that his images "[g]rew in pure mind" (630). But the golden bird of "Sailing to Byzantium" may make us feel that "pure mind," although compelling, is not sufficient explanation. Where did that singing bird come from? Yeats's creative eclecticism, blending the morning's conversation with philosophical abstractions, makes the notion of one and only one source for any image implausible: see Frank O'Connor's comments on the genesis of "Lapis Lazuli," for example (211-22). We cannot discard Yeats's note to the poem, "I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang" (825), although its first four words sound suspiciously like the flimsy cloak of respectability that Yeats threw over his boldest inventions. Some have suggested that the bird came from his reading of Byzantine history, Gibbon, or even Hans Christian Andersen (Jeffares 257). But a previously unacknowledged source is worth considering: Lear's consoling speech to Cordelia in the play's final act, as they are led off to prison and death.

Yeats was greatly moved by King Lear and referred to it with some frequency in print over 40 years, with the references intensifying as he aged. Whether calling it "mad and profound" in February 1926 (Frayne and Johnson 464), several months before writing "Sailing to Byzantium," or explicitly envisioning himself as like Lear-elderly yet fierce, inspired by "frenzy," in 'An Acre of Grass"-the play and the aged king were powerful in his imagination. Thus, when we read Yeats's wish to be transfigured, we should turn again to King Lear:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come (408)

Come, let's away to prison;
We two alone will sing like birds i'th cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
Al gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who,,, out;
And take upon's the mystery of things,

As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon. (5.3.8-18)

Characteristically, Yeats's recreation of the impulse behind Lear's speech is entirely personal, but he echoes its emotional intensity and its philosophical direction. Art inspired by love-song, in this case-could defeat evil and render death irrelevant. Spatial and temporal limitations-prisons of whatever kind-do not make it impossible to create beauty. Singing joyously as the golden bird, Lear and Cordelia, caged, could "wear out" their enemies; the singing soul, creating the "artifice of eternity," could escape the aging body's prison. Yeats's bird, timeless, beautiful, and wise, paradoxically sang of the temporal, but eternal art could take shape only within those limits; thus the time-laden echoes of Lear's "tell old tales," "speak of court news," and "explore the mystery of things" in Yeats's ". . . past, or passing, or to come."

The fragility of art and love in a threatening and at best unappreciative world was not a new theme for Yeats, nor was a father's desire to protect his beloved daughter from the world's storms (as in "A Prayer for My Daughter"). Yet the words of Lear to Cordelia in prison were joyous; facing death, they adopted the heroic gaiety that Yeats commemorated in "Lapis Lazuli." In Lear's speech, Yeats saw not only the personal-the aging man, artist, parent, menaced by the inevitable; it spoke to him of art's power to combat the world's terrors. Whether one escaped imprisonment by becoming a singing bird or sang and prayed in a prison from which the only escape was death, art transformed by love was the most powerful human defense against evil and mortality.


Frayne, John P., and Cotton Johnson, eds. Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats. vol. 2. New York: Columbia UP, 1975.

Jeffares, A. Norman. A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford UP, 1968.

O'Connor, Frank. My Father's Son. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear Ed. Kenneth Muir. London: Methuen, 1971.

Yeats, William Butler. The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach. New York: Macmillan, 1973.


By MICHAEL STEINMAN, Nassau Community College

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Source: Explicator, Winter94, Vol. 52 Issue 2, p93, 2p.