Transcendent Beauty in Yeats and Keats
The works of W. B. Yeats and John Keats are interestingly similar in style and concept. Both rely heavily on imagery. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” is full of sensory imagery describing the journey to an ideal place, just as Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is beautifully portraying the significance of an ancient art on an urn. Both use metaphor to deal with the idea of aging, the concept of time, and the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life. The examination of immortality is a common thread in both and is seen as an achievement. Yeats and Keats come to the conclusion that aesthetic permanence is transcendent beauty. Imagery and metaphor in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are used to convey the poetic speakers’ beliefs that being an “artifice of eternity” is the ultimate achievement of transcendent beauty, while the tragic effect of time on beauty is a flaw of mankind and nature.
Yeats’ and Keats’ use of imagery and metaphors as literary tools to communicate the concepts of aging, time, beauty, permanence and transience. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” employs the imagery of people, their life and love, their activities, and destination. The metaphor compares a real journey to a physical place Byzantium to a spiritual journey into “God’s holy fire,” “eternity”. Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” uses such imageries as designs on an urn to describe relationships between humanity and art, lovers to describe the relationship of passion in people and beauty in art. This employs the metaphor of classical Greek art to present the ideas of silence, time, beauty, immortality and eternity.
Both W. B. Yeats and John Keats highlight the inevitability of aging and the mortality of humans. In Keats’ work “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, the speaker brings out the negative perspective of aging and immortality. He sees old age as something that wastes away generations: “when old age shall this generation waste” (line 46) .Yeats looks at the process of aging and consequently death in a slightly different light. Old age is an unavoidable, awful part of life. Due to this inevitability, the speaker wants to find a way to escape. Old age is portrayed as a disappointment: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” According to Lesser, “Yeats triumphantly confronts and liquidates his fears of aging and death…he discovers that engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privation of old age” (291). The statement by Lesser depicts the escape from the bondage of time that both Yeats and Keats yearned for.
There is an analogous understanding of the young being associated with being in love. Particularly, the word “sensual” is used in both works to refer to the lifestyle of the young, “the young sensual music”. This could be their interpretation that the young only see the physical, and lack knowledge and interest in the spiritual. So it correlates that, “old age frees a man from sensual passion, he may rejoice in the liberation of the soul” (Lesser 293). There is an element of being forever young that is captured in Keats’ Grecian Urn: “fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave”. The young that inhabit on the urn are frozen in a constant state of immaturity, but also in the wiles and excitements of youth. Youth is associated with carefree days of love. Yeats’ speaker regards the young, as a distant onlooker with a sense of regret and envy. There is an idyllic romanticism that is incorporated in both Yeats’ and Keats’ work, which portrays the young to be in love and associated with tree, animals or music, “the young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees”. The world that Yeats’ speaker is seeing is just for the young and this is similar to young lovers on the urn. In their small world everyone is young and in love. In another insight, “Keats humorously addresses the ever-pursuing lover, noting the paradox of eternal anticipation, but in the third stanza Keats shifts his tone and imagines a love of eternal ecstasy, unqualified by the static character of the marble figures” (Austin 434). Austin’s commentary is recognition of the depth to which the belief in youth’s preoccupation with love and permanence (“eternal ecstasy”), though illusive, is explored.
Keats and Yeats believe that the flaw of human nature is that time is in effect. This is conveyed in the tragic inevitability of aging and death. They seek escape in the aesthetic permanence of art’s transcendent beauty as well as in the optimism of existential importance. In aging there is the idea they both appreciate in which time can be slowed, yet still be happening. Keats refers to a character on the urn being a “foster-child of Silence and slow time”. In Yeats’ work the phrase “of what is past, or passing, or to come” is a representation of time. This sums up what they both hope to achieve. It is the magical balance of being able to exist forever, from the past till the future, yet to remain as in the present moment. Going further than the idea of just a physical or permanent object in which they strive for, is what it represents. Although the popular belief is that they both wanted to be objects of permanence, their goal is one of more existential importance (emphasis).
Immortality, the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life, for each poetic speaker, is an achievement. In Yeats’ poem it is exemplified by, “my bodily form from any natural thing, /But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling”. It seems very superficial and odd for Yeats’ speaker to desire to be a golden creation rather than human, but looking further, it is not about the gold itself. It is about the speaker being able to be an expression of art for all ages. The use of the immortality is for the good of others “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake; or set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium”. In a sense, art is elevated to the supernatural. It is elevated to a place of the divine that can reach people of all eras and times. This is also seen on the urn: “the fair youth piping songs beneath the trees, since he is of unknown place and unknown time, may be regarded as the artist poet or musician – of any place and time” (Wigod 114). Keats’ speaker marvels at the power the Grecian urn holds. Although cold and silent the urn provokes thought and makes one wonder “thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” These powers that immortal artworks hold are what the poetic speakers want to achieve. They want the power to cause wonder and provoke thought for eternity as well as be of positive relevance for all time.
From the achievement of immortality comes transcendent beauty. In Keats’ poem the speaker lays the famous phrase “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. This phrase ponders the relationship between the sensory experience of beauty and the intellectual understanding of truth (Han 245). It declares a universal truth that is transcendental. It can be seen that, “Keats dramatizes the idea that imaginative perception reveals the truth of eternity” (Austin 434). For the speakers it is as if the transcendent beauty is the realization that the works are not mere object, they are “effigies, or monuments, things which have souls” (Lesser 293). For Yeats, there is excitement for the beautiful future in an ethereal sense; this is represented by Byzantium. Yeats emphasizes the transition from mortality “dying animal” to “artifice of eternity”. The speaker hopes to rid himself of human limitation and become the surpassing beauty that is contained in an artifice.
In conclusion, there are remarkable similarities in style and ideas in W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. Their style in using the literary elements imagery and metaphor as narrative tools, achieve their desire to provide effective communication between their speakers and audience. The ideas of aging, the concept of time, the permanence of time relative to the fleeting nature of life, convey immortality as an achievement. Furthermore, the celebration of aesthetic permanence as transcendent beauty and the mourning of the effect of time – mankind’s tragic flaw – are explored in both these poems by Yeats and Keats. Just as their last names are interestingly similar in their sound and rhyme, so also are their imageries, metaphors and concepts in these poems. “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” share a common message – the nature of humans to want one’s impact to survive through time.
Austin, Allen . “Keats’s Grecian Urn and the Truth of Eternity.”College English. (1964): 434-436. Web.
Han, Kyoung-Min. “The Urn’s “Silent Form”: Keats’s Critique of Poetic Judgment.” Papers on Language & Literature. Vol. 48.Issue 3 (2012): p245-268. Web.
Lesser, Simon O.. “Sailing to Byzantium”-Another Voyage, Another Reading.” College English. Vol. 28.No. 4 (1967): pp. 291-296+301-310. Web.
Wigod, Jacob D.. “Keats’s Ideal in the Ode on a Grecian Urn.”PMLA. Vol. 72.No. 1 (1957): pp. 113-121. Print.
Favour Onwuka has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her vivid imagination as a child, led her to easily dream up fanciful stories. Favour is currently 18 years old, and is a 2nd year Communications major and Psychology minor, at Trinity Western University.