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...
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...onal-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.
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