Reality is truth, truth reality


            Want to be immortal? Sure, we’ve all thought about it. The thought of being immortal is something that is unconceivable. You would be able to live throughout time, through times of war, famine, and other events and not even worrying about passing away. Being immortal would seem to be something that you would absolutely want, right? According to John Keats‘s poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn, this is not the case. Through establishing the subjects of art, death, and love, Keats makes a comparison between a world of reality and a world of imagination, where the world of reality is more desirable.



Sailing to Byzantium: Yeats’ Monument of Unaging Intellect

               By way of it’s very nature, the world we inhabit is steeped in mystery. We as humans know from past generations that our time in these bodies will one day cease; the concept of mortality. It is because of mortality’s fleeting disposition that we are posed with the quandary of life: particularly, why does it have to end and in what manner should we interact with others before it does? Our limited knowledge and resources may never uncover the answers to the preceding questions, but that fact only motivates man further along the path to discovery. For ages, men and women of all races have tried to overcome, or at least demystify these overwhelming questions. Art, in a sense, is our very attempt to do just that. It is the best method for us, with our limits, to understand or clarify the unimaginable aspects of the human nature. This is exactly what William Butler Yeats strived to achieve with his poem Sailing to Byzantium. By means of establishing a correlation between love, art and death, Yeats pondered the impending resolution of his own life, if not the lives of all men.


Sailing to Byzantium

William Butler Yeats composed this poem to direct his attitude towards Byzantium, the capital of the Roman Empire.  This capital not only represented the center of the empire’s state, but also the core of their empirical belief.  The culture and the views of the Roman Empire began to shape Byzantium into a poorly configured capital.  Yeats took notice to this and warned that the structure that had become wasn’t compatible with realistic societies.  The governed were not in interest and those who governed took heed in themselves and their simplistic ways.  Nothing was being done to help structure an empire that was strong and powerful, yet efficient and effective.  In Sailing to Byzantium, Yeats calls attention to the death of himself through the dead state of the Roman capital.





The swan that Zeus appears as seems to represent art in most of this poem.  Swans are considered elegant, graceful, and beautiful by most people.  In this poem the swans “great wings beating still” shows that art, while inanimate, is still alive and “beating.”  Art can present both beauty and suffering to its audience.  When “the dark webs” caressed her thighs, she became terrified and suffered.  The beautiful part of art comes from the appearance of the swan, while the suffering comes from the actions of the swan.  “The great wings” and “feathered glory” show the beauty of art.  The “dark webs” caressing her thighs cause the “staggering girl” to become “terrified” showing more of the emotions that art can evoke.  Art is able to control its audience by causing them to feel certain emotions and the audience is incapable of resisting it as long as they see the art.  The art “mastered” its audience and held it captive in the air.  She, as the audience, is unable to resist the effect of the swan, or art, so she cannot “push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs”, unable to fight back so she slowly begins to accept it.



Yeats’ uncommon use of metrical tools helps add to the style of his poem.  Each stanza is separated and numbered as if to indicate each turning event; with each new number comes a different aspect to the story and a new “chapter.”  These stanzas represent the principal eight-line stanza (ottava rima) which breaks down into a cross-rhymed sestet and a couplet.  This type of sonnet is heroic and has a Shakespearean rhyme.  Usually this form is used in comedic poetry; however, Yeats manages it to be read as serious and even sad.


To tell this epic in his own words, William Butler Yeats chooses the form of a sonnet.  This is not surprising because majority of sonnets are about love and love serves as the theme of this poem, though not in a predictable way.  Not many poems focus on rape, which is the subject here, especially not rape that transpires between animal and human.  The poem takes on the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFGEFG and is separated in thought between the first eight lines(otherwise known as an octave) and the last six(a sestet), making it a Petrarchan sonnet.  Two main ideas are presented in this form.  The octave focuses on the groundless love between Leda and Zeus, and the sestet focuses on the outcome of this daring act.  “Leda and the Swan” is in iambic pentameter, although there are several variations: the third line is irregular; “By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill.”  “In his bill” sounds like an anapest, “webs, her” a pyrrhic, and “nape caught” a spondee.  Another example is in line twelve, “So mastered by the brute blood of the air,” where “brute blood” is a spondee and “of the air” an anapest.


Death in this poem is inferred as Keats doesn’t formally mention the word “death” but he uses words and phrases that can be associated with it.  In the fourth section of the poem a scene of sacrifice is taking place, as the question is asked “who are these coming to the sacrifice?”  Accompanying this question is the mentioning of a “mysterious priest” who leads a heifer which is dressed garlands to a green altar to be slaughtered in a religious ceremony.  In the fifth section the word eternity is used which also suggests death as in order to live or last for eternity one must first die.  Then we get the statement “when old age shall this generation waste, thou shalt remain, in the midst of other woe”.  Just a couple lines before this the speaker is talking about the shape and other features of the urn so to me the statement suggests that when old age kills the present generation the urn will remain to tell its story in the midst of the next generations woe, and because we don’t know whether or not Keats is writing about a real urn or not this line suggests to me that it is not the actually the urn that will continue to remain but rather the poem itself. 


Indeed, Leda and the Swan compares the rape of Leda with Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit. The vagueness of the poem helps Yeats to achieve this.
For example, he does not mention a swan aside from the title itself. Thus, what is implied to be a swan can also be interpreted as a dove, the characteristic symbol of the Holy Spirit. This connection is developed further in line seven when the author describes Leda as “laid in that white rush.” The white color is a distinguishing feature of both swans and doves. Likewise, the child of Zeus and Leda is not discussed in the poem; in fact, its gender is also not mentioned at all. What the poem does allude to about the baby is that it will have also be interpreted as a dove, the characteristic symbol of the Holy Spirit. This connection is developed further in line seven when the author describes Leda as “laid in that white rush.” The white color is a distinguishing feature of both swans and doves. Likewise, the child of Zeus and Leda is not discussed in the poem; in fact, its gender is also not mentioned at all. What the poem does allude to about the baby is that it will have great consequences, particularly destructive ones. Therefore, one can also interpret the child as Jesus Christ, who will grow up and live a life of great controversy. The stories of Zeus raping Leda and the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary are connected through their circumstances and through their consequences. Whereas one child, Helen, unintentionally spun the land into the prolonged and arduous Trojan War, the other created a religion through which a plethora of conflict erupted for generations and generations and continues today. Yeats is able to draw the reader’s attention from the cruel rape scene to thoughts of ruin and death in the last sestet with simple, powerful imagery and one particularly heavy end-stop. One disturbing feature of the comparison between Jesus’ and Helen’s birth is that Yeats puts them in a very dark tone. Although the Greek myth is far from lighthearted, the Christian story of the birth of Christ is typically told as joyous and celebratory. In reading the poem, one does not feel warm and comforted or even neutral. Yeats, it seems, is attempting to insert a sinister quality to separate the reader from his own personal bonds with the traditional story of Jesus’ birth.


Keats’ last stanza, instead of being filled with questions, is composed of bold statements and exclamations
. He sums up each of his previous statements in these last ten lines.  The last two lines however, are the most powerful.  “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  Ironically, Keats does not believe what he is bravely stating, he is using its fantastic falsehood to further depict the urn’s painting.  Life exists in the moment that was captured on the vase, there is no love because the lovers are never going to move, there is no death because men and maidens on a vase don’t die, there is simply beauty.  True beauty exists in the art of the urn, but only there, for the people on the vase, is truth beauty and beauty truth.  In their world that is all they need to know.






Yeats then saw love and the pursuit of our desires as our own mortality. If it were not for them, we could take full advantage of art and make use of our lives here on Earth. He viewed love as something worldly and askew, imploring those who follow him to cast of such hindrances, as did the martyrs pictured burning in a holy flame; and as Yeats himself did. Casting off the desires of his human flesh, Yeats took the form of art itself in order to inspire and warn upcoming generations. Although he is not in the form of a great bird in some magnificent palace, Yeats’ purpose was achieved to some extent, considering this poem is being read and discussed almost a century after it was published. It is here singing, reminding us to look towards and heed the ‘monuments of unaging intellect’