History in Sailing to Byzantium & The Second Coming

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      Yeats’s symbolic system displays the principle of conflict in the life of the individual and that of human civilization. Basic to this symbolic system is the Greek and the interpenetrating “gyres” or cones. Yeats’s, view of history involves the symbols of the wheel and the “gyres.”

      The movement of history, in Yeats’s system, is symbolized by two interlocking gyres (or cones) whirling continually. History like an individual, passes through the 26 phases along the Great Wheel. Each phase covers a period of 2000 years, divisible into two equal portions (of 1000 years each).

      Each phase covers a rise, growth and decline of strength. Simultaneously, its antithetical “gyre” is born which lives on its death. It is relevant to remember how Yeats himself explained this process in a note:

      The end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction. At the present moment the life-gyre is sweeping outward, unlike that before the birth of Christ which was narrowing, and has almost reached its greatest expansion....’

      Yeats saw all our “scientific, democratic fact-accumulating heterogenous civilization” as belonging to the outward gyre. It is Preparing, not the continuance of the civilization, but the “revelation in a lightning flash” of the civilization that must slowly take its place. His system is formulated, in his philosophical work, a Vision.

The Second Coming

      The Second Coming, we may say, is the climax of Yeats’s view of historical civilization which is to come. Yeats was convinced that the Christian Civilization was nearing the end of its allotted period of time.

      The Second Coming, illustrates Yeats’s theory of the rise and fall of civilizations. At first, a civilization is very narrow and intense, like the apex of a cone (or “gyre”). Gradually this intensity is lost, the civilization broadens and dissipates energy. The progress is like the unwinding of a thread wound around a cone. As the “progress” takes place, an opposing inspiration is simultaneously gaining in strength, and will ultimately take over to begin a new civilization. Yeats’s belief that Christian forces had spent themselves out, arose out of his observation of the scene around him in Europe after the war and in the political upheaval in Ireland. He is convinced that some new brutal force is about to take over—the “rough beast” is advancing, and “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” Disintegration is seen to be seeping into all spheres of life—the social, the political, the moral and the cultural. The intellectual center has broken down, the mind has disintegrated; mind and soul are divided, resulting in universal chaos. The good have lost their faith; what is worse is that the bad are not only gaining power but are possessed of certain ideas, which they cling to with frightening intensity. All these ideas ideas are not conveyed in literal terms, but through the use of myth, symbols and powerful images. The phrase “second coming” at once evokes in the poet’s mind a terrifying image, more frightening because of its vagueness, which he communicates in the poem. It rises out of sandy desert of monstrous shape—with a man’s head and a lion’s body. All about the monster are whirling “red shadows of angry screaming birds” symbolic of the violent horror. This beast is crawling towards Bethlehem, the birth-place of Christ who was the sponsor of the old civilization.

      The diminishing impetus of Christianity is conveyed through the image of the falcon which has lost touch with the falconer, and thus is lost and without direction. The pattern of the two interpenetrating gyres is woven into the poem. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Significantly, the falcon (symbolizing intellect) flies beyond the call of its master—symbolizing the failure of man’s spiritual ability to control intellect. In the second stanza, we see the “anti” image of the screaming desert birds circling around the monstrous shape of the image of anti—Christ. Careful selection of images and words marks the poem—for instance, the repetition of “turning” giving an f impression of the inexorably moving wheel of history. Every phrase and rhythm conveys the vision forcefully. The Second Coming is “at once a representation of Yeatsian dialectic, his cyclic theory of history, the primary antithetical oscillation, and of his heart-broken and outraged sense of the failure and dissolution of life in his time.”

Sailing of Byzantium

      Sailing of Byzantium is an emphatic reminder of Yeats’s keen interest in that historic city of the Eastern Empire and the significance he attached to its art and culture. Byzantium to Yeats stood for that moment in history where religious, aesthetic and practical life were one—something never achieved before or since in recorded history.

      In Yeats’s concept of the cycle of history, the Christian civilization achieved the poi it of the fullest synthesis or unity of being in the visionary art of Byzantium about the time of Justinian. Thus Byzantium became a symbol of “the artifice of eternity” where the human soul may realize its possibilities in this life. Byzantium climaxes the end of the first Christian millennium when the architects and artificers spoke to the multitude and the few alike, where there was no fragmentation, where there was perfect unity of beings. After the moment the disintegration of the Christian civilization set in, and in the present twentieth century, there is complete immersion in one aspect of life at the cost of another. Completely immersed in the flux of life, the dying generations have no thought for those masterpieces of art which are the products of ageless intellect and spirit and symbolize permanence in the stream of life. Sailing to Byzantium presents the voyage to the land of the mind. The song of the golden bird will be beyond time even as it sings of the main phases of time — past, present and future.

University Questions

With Sailing to Byzantium or The Second Coming as your point of focus, show how Yeats’s vision of history has been presented in a symbolic mode.
Write a critical appreciation of Sailing to Byzantium or The Second Coming showing how history and anthropology provide both the symbolic framework and the bulk of the details by which the overriding myth is established.
Bring out the central ideal in Sailing to Byzantium or The Second Coming.
Write an essay on Yeats’s handling of history and myth with particular reference to Sailing to Byzantium and The Second Coming.

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