Unity of Being, Reason and Sensibility: Yeats' Aesthetic Vision
The poetry of William Butler Yeats is underscored by a fundamental commitment to philosophical exploration. Yeats maintained that the art of poetry existed only in the movement through and beyond thought. Through the course of his life, Yeats' aesthetic vision was in flux; it moved and evolved as well. His poetry reflects this evolution. The need to achieve totality, a wholeness, through art would become his most basic aesthetic philosophy. His poetry dwells on separation only to eventually present a sense of unity. It is in this manner that Yeats is able to do what few philosophers and poets have ever done: reconcile reason and sensibility. This paradox present in his aesthetic ideal protects his poetry from stagnation and keeps his art alive. Yeats had the courage "to explore the fundamental entanglement of life and art" (Garab 56).
One of Yeats' first aesthetic statements was in "To The Rose Upon the Rood of Time", written in 1889. Eternal beauty, the red rose, thrives on sacrifice. It is hung upon the cross of time, possibly a symbol of self-sacrifice. In the first stanza,
Yeats seems to want a fusion with this archetypal beauty. "Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways:" (Yeats 71). The second stanza, however, qualifies this desire. The poet wants to be able to appreciate common aspects of life. Distance is needed for him to preserve this appreciation. One can find beauty in the commonplace, but the rose is ultimately a "higher" form of beauty, a model for aesthetics that "the weak worm hiding down in its small cave" cannot achieve (Yeats 72).
Yeats' desire for the timeless beauty embodied in the rose increased as he expanded his artistic potential. "Sailing to Byzantium" captures the poet yearning for this aesthetic ideal. He is disgusted with his world. It is a mortal world whose inhabitants do not respect the timeless beauty of art and literature. And so, Yeats turns his attention across the years and across the ocean to the ancient city of Byzantium.
"Yeats' poetic speakers, unable or unwilling to come to terms with life within or around them flee or are summoned to...the golden boughs of Byzantium" (Garab 4).
Byzantium replaces the rose as the aesthetic ideal. In Byzantium, Reason reigns supreme. Minds revel in their freedom unbound by time. The poet's soul yearns for the ultimate reward of Reason: release from the body, a sort of Platonic ecstasy. Yeats' poetry expresses this ambition. Every poem tries to fulfill his ambition and make the journey to Byzantium. Abstractions and concepts express the true form of aesthetics. Such aesthetic values exist above the flux of time. Like his art, Yeats' wants to exist as a collection of thought in a realm of unchanging intellectual abstraction, "to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come" (Yeats 87).