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Isolation in Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and Larkin’s “High Windows”

W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” reflect the historical differences between England and Ireland while also signifying the personal experiences of both poets.  Because “Sailing to Byzantium” was published in 1927, 47 years before “High Windows,” the background for the two texts differs historically and politically, as well as culturally and personally.  Both “Sailing to Byzantium” and “High Windows” express the theme of isolation, longing to escape the instability of a country wrought with war, although Yeats focuses on withdrawing into the imagination to live in self-imposed isolation and Larkin attempts to combat the loss of community as a result of isolation imposed by war and its after-effects.

Yeats and Larkin both wrote poems during a period of political turmoil and instability for Ireland and England, and both express a desire to escape the apparent chaos.  The Yeatses moved to Dublin in March of 1922 after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December of 1921, only to experience the outbreak of Civil War in June of that same year (Pierce 212).  The first line in “Sailing to Byzantium” suggests the desire to escape the turmoil and instability of Ireland: “That is no country for old men” (Yeats 1).  The first stanza attempts to explain the necessity for escape from this unnamed country, Ireland, but the other three stanzas of the poem focus entirely on the isolation of the individual in a new city representing paradise, Byzantium.  Also in the first stanza, however, phrases, including “dying generations,” “music of neglect,” and “unageing intellect,” support the rationale to escape (Yeats l. 3,7,8).  Yeats hopes to escape the real world and enter into a fantasy world where his imagination controls every situation.  He expresses his desire in “Sailing to Byzantium” for an escape outside of the chaotic world of political conflict, a self-imposed isolation.

Larkin’s work, on the other hand, reveals a desire to escape the isolation forced upon the individual in times of war and social change.  “High Windows” not only reflects Larkin’s concerns about the effects of a Second World War on England, but also reveals an awareness of the rapidly changing youth culture.  Mentioning the “outdated combine harvester” (Larkin l. 7) reminds the reader through implication that even though technology and standards of living have improved, the world has yet to learn its lesson about the horrors of war.  Industrialization, including the growing importance of mechanization and job specialization, perpetuates this isolation.  The speaker has also lost faith in religion, which indicates that the church, as well as the government, failed to protect the innocent from changing attitudes initiated by war.  The loss of faith in both the English church and government separates its citizens from two communities that had been supportive in the past, but which now merely represent isolation.  Larkin probably noticed that, along with the negative effects of WWII, “something marks out the distinctive post-war British youth styles” (Leventhal 865).  Larkin fears the new generations will blindly accept this isolation as an unchangeable fact of life.  The effect of war, industrialization, loss of faith, and changing youth culture augment the isolation of the individual according to Larkin’s poem. 

Beyond the effects of the war, the amount and type of exposure Yeats received to education in his childhood and young adulthood influenced the formation of his concept of isolation.  As a young child, his classmates’ opinions of his cultural heritage prevented Yeats from appreciating school at an early age.  According to Jeffares, “An insulting remark shocked him [Yeats] into his first attempt to fight anyone, and he was called names for being Irish.  He tended to think ‘the rough manners of a cheap school’ typical of all England” (12).  The school was not the only institution to turn Yeats off from education; his own father attempted to censor the literature he read.  One critic claims, “his father tried to stop him reading boys’ papers; his reason for this, that such publications were intended for the average person and restricted mental growth…” (Jeffares 13).  It should not surprise the reader that Yeats preferred solitude and failed to continue his studies to higher education.  Therefore, Yeats’s concept of isolation stems from the rejection he experienced as a child that forced him to learn self-reliance. 

Yeats’ unhappy childhood created within him a desire to transcend time, to be able to forget the trials of his youth, as highlighted in “Sailing to Byzantium.”  The second stanza depicts the problem with material schools stating, “Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence” (Yeats l. 13-14).  The word sing denotes something deeper, more spiritual, than merely reading out of a text.  The speaker calls for sages to be “singing-masters of my soul” (Yeats l. 20).  His paradise would then include a perfect view of education where he takes on the role of observer, learning through experience rather than books, like a Greek philosopher.  By allowing the sages to “gather me/Into the artifice of eternity” (l. 23-34), Yeats’s speaker gains the ability to manipulate time, enabling him to transcend the rejection of his youth by creating his own version of education.

        Contrary to Yeats, Philip Larkin established himself as a writer through his experiences in education, which were both extensive and basically uninhibited.  Larkin’s studies included time spent in King Henry VIII School in 1930 as well as St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1940 (Motion 23).  Yeats did suffer one difficulty in childhood; he had a stammer, which “contributed to his self-consciousness” (Swarbrick 3).  Contrary to Yeats’s upbringing, Larkin’s familial influence on his education “was a matter of devouring whatever came his way – his parents owned a considerable number of books, and they were not in the least censorious” (Motion 23).  Canceling the negative feelings produced by his stammer, the educational support of a good college and an encouraging family gave Larkin a reason to combat the growing feeling of isolation in British society. 

        Having enjoyed his education, Larkin battles isolation in “High Windows,” hoping to combat the time and change separating him from his experiences with education.  The contrast between the young and the old, along with a glimpse back to the speaker’s youth, is the emphasis for the first four stanzas of the poem, which indicates the link between time and isolation.  The speaker claims to understand the “paradise/everyone old has dreamed of all their lives” (Larkin l. 4-5), but only through intense thought, not merely dreaming, can a person overcome the isolation brought about by social change.  The isolation of the individual increased by the social changes brought about as a result of war inhibits educational progress, so “High Windows,” therefore, urges the reader to fight against this isolation by thinking critically about the definition of paradise and how to achieve it.

Whereas Larkin was exposed to more education during his young adulthood, Yeats had more experience in romantic relationships.  Yeats both suffered and profited from his relationships with women, and his choice for isolation indicates the desire to escape these complexities in “Sailing to Byzantium.”  Even after his marriage, the depression he suffered as a result of constant rejection and stress in his romantic relationships prevented Yeats from fully enjoying the marriage.  Yeats “was chaste and temperate – the greatest love of his life, that for Maud Gonne, was a wholly chaste one, and his failure to win her did not drive him to prostitutes or drink,” but he would never find a replacement for her loss, so his hasty marriage to Miss Hyde-Lees probably lacked love (Fraser 13, 17). 

Many of Yeats’s poems from the twenties reflect his new connections to his wife and children; however, the search for the perfect love eluded him, so occasional poems, including “Sailing to Byzantium,” highlight his desire to transcend time.  Suffering from rejection and the failure of love, Yeats developed the idea that if he were completely isolated in a paradise of the mind, there would be no fear of isolation since there would be no concrete person or thing from which to be isolated.  The speaker feels that he cannot find happiness in the world because “This is no country for old men.  The young/In one another’s arms” (Yeats l. 1-2).  Norman A. Jeffares states, “The limitation imposed by age found expression in ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ the opening poem in The Tower, provoked by seeing a pair of lovers” (281).  Yeats sought some method by which he could create a situation where true love triumphs despite events of the past.  The speaker asks the sages to “consume my heart away; sick with desire” (Yeats l. 21).  Yeats escapes the rejection and failure of love by gaining control of his life through self-imposed isolation in “Sailing to Byzantium.”  

            While it was precisely Yeats’s relationships with women that led to his desire for escape, the lack thereof led Larkin to struggle similarly, however, in an attempt to move in the opposite direction.  Larkin’s lack of any romantic relationship with a woman, causing a deep sense of isolation, perhaps contributed to his desire to escape the restrictions of society.  He attempted to develop relationships with Ruth Bowman and Monica Jones, but both efforts failed.  Even though the poem reveals a deep resentment towards social change, his own insecurities in romantic relationships led sometimes to his self-condemnation.  According to Andrew Swarbrick, “To Monica Jones he wrote in 1966: ‘it’s my own unwillingness to give myself to anyone else that’s at fault’” (125), a statement which contrasts strongly with the blame Larkin attributes to the social change reflected in “High Windows.”  Yeats’ true relationships were those he formed with his classmates in college.  During WWII, the college Larkin attended experienced this hardship described by one critic as, “the turnover rate of undergraduates was more erratic than usual, and the chances of forming longstanding relationships diminished.  But when, after four terms, Larkin failed his army medical and was therefore allowed to remain at Oxford the full nine terms, he was able to realize a degree of stability for himself” (Motion 24).  Even though Larkin was lucky enough to escape fighting in the war, he lost friends during his college years that would have formed into “lasting relationships.”  The inability to replace the relationships of his college years led Larkin to take up a personal battle against isolation.   Both the connections he formed with acquaintances in education and the romantic relationships that never came to fruition predisposed Larkin to appreciate and essentially require personal relationships with others in order to feel content with life.

In “High Windows,” Larkin expresses this desire to escape a constantly changing world in order to achieve some type of fulfilling personal relationship.  He seeks to understand isolation in order reach “a state of mind in which a measure of serenity and love can accrue” (Martin 147).  The image of the young couple having sex in the beginning of the poem indicates Larkin’s concern for a loss of meaning in romantic relationships.  The use of negative words “nothing” and “nowhere” in the last line of Larkin’s poem suggests his attitude toward isolation, indicating that he needs to feel connected through relationships and communities to gain meaning out of life.  The isolation of the individual increased by the social changes brought about as a result of the war inhibits the speaker from fulfilling his need for personal relationships, so “High Windows,” therefore, urges the reader to fight against this isolation by thinking critically about the definition of paradise and how to achieve it.

Contrasting Larkin’s desire for connections, Yeats’ depiction of isolation in “Sailing to Byzantium” rejects any possible connections within the material world.  The speaker seeks to escape this world because “an aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats l. 9-10).  He hopes to escape the physical world of books, bodies, and unreachable ideals by isolating himself in aesthetic perfection.  This world of the imagination is composed entirely of art, including “singing school,” a “gold mosaic,” and “Grecian goldsmiths” (Yeats l. 13, 18, 27).  This world is not completely devoid of relationships, however, because speaker imagines “lords and ladies of Byzantium” (l. 31) that become ideals performing his will.  Yeats’ childhood struggles with education and the rejection and failure of love in his relationships would disappear in such an aesthetic world of the imagination.  Therefore, when the poem ends with the speaker melding with art to become an integrated part of it, he achieves complete isolation from the physical world.  Yeats describes the creation of a golden bird when the speaker says, “I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing” (Yeats l. 25-26).  Not only does the poem depict a world ruled by the aesthetic, it also transforms its creator into an ideal work of art.  Yeats’ portrayal of isolation denies the suffering in the physical world by creating a changeable realm of aesthetic ideals.   

Nevertheless appreciating art as Yeats, Larkin expresses his desire to find some connection to the rapidly changing material world and to develop a meaningful relationship.  When he satirizes paradise in the first and second stanzas, Larkin indicates his fear of the devaluation of romantic relationships.  The depiction of “a couple of kids” suggests Larkin’s desire to develop a personal relationship, but at the same time it explains the negative effects of social change.  The religious image in the third and fourth stanza, although stating, “That’ll be the life;/No God any more” (Yeats l. 11-12), also indicates the opposite of what the words actually mean.  Larkin fears this loss of religion, and he wishes for a deep connection to something outside of himself, some spiritual connection to the elusive world around him.   Because, in the final stanza, “Rather than words comes the thought of high windows” (Larkin l.17), the poem suggests that literature, and maybe even art in general, contrary to Yeats’s vision, lacks the capability to reach these personal relationships.  Larkin’s depiction of isolation, therefore, pleads for the development of some relationship, whether romantic or spiritual, in reaction to the rapid social changes taking place in Britain.

        Through the structure and form of “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats reflects his opposing view, compared to Larkin’s condemnation of isolation, of the benefits of isolation from the material world.  The traditional structure of the poem reflects the author’s desire to escape into a world of art where such a poem would be appreciated.  Yeats marked each of the four stanzas with a number centered at the front of each one.  It appears as if he attempted to package each stanza into a perfect, organized block of language, which reflects his desire to control the chaos of a war-inflicted world.  Each stanza contains eight lines of iambic pentameter.  This link to historical forms suggests Yeats’s wish to transcend and control time through the imagination.  The clear rhyme scheme “abababcc” that remains a constant throughout the poem reinforces the desire for control while drawing the reader’s attention to the last two lines of each stanza.  The word pairs “neglect” and “intellect,” “come” and “Byzantium,” “me” and “eternity,” and the repeated but reversed pair “Byzantium” and “come” indicate to the reader the main themes of the poem.  Emphasizing these rhymed pairs forces the reader to notice the connection between imagination and time.  Especially the repeated and reversed pair in lines 15-16 and 31-32 suggest that paradise, Byzantium, beckons the reader to come as well as the reader beckons paradise to come.  Through this device, Yeats turns the attraction to his artistic paradise into a natural, unavoidable search for the individual artist, and possibly for all of human kind.  Implementing traditional form and structure in “Sailing to Byzantium” enables Yeats to reinforce his concept of imaginative isolation and justify his desire to escape.

        Although Yeats had no education to speak of compared to Larkin, it is Yeats who implements rigid form in his poetry and Larkin who ignores conventional structures.  The non-traditional, less structured form of “High Windows” indicates the opposing message about isolation that Larkin fosters.  The poem consists of five stanzas, each containing four lines.  Unlike Yeats’s, these stanzas blend together, creating a feeling of the connectedness of the world that Larkin wishes for.  Structure exists in the fact that the stanzas each contain the same number of lines; however, beyond this, the form of the poem lacks any type of regular pattern.  Each line contains a different number of syllables, anywhere from seven to eleven, and lacks both a rhyme scheme and a metrical pattern.  Larkin’s denial of conventional structures mirrors his desire to break free from the constraints of a restrictive society.  The colloquial language implemented in the poem denotes the informal tone taking over youth culture.  Larkin utilizes the words “pills,” “diaphragm,” and “fucking” in a matter-of-fact manner that shocks the reader and also indicates the shifting attitudes of youth (l. 2-3).  Although the poem appears less cohesive than Yeats’s, the combination of words and sounds within the body of the poem attest to Larkin’s skill with language and suggest the beneficial aspects of personal relationships that Larkin promotes.  The repetition of the “o” sound in the eighth line of the poem, “And everyone young going down the long slide” (Larkin 1.8), makes the reader slow down his/her pace just as Larkin hopes to slow the passage of time and social change.  Rhyming “endlessly” and “looked at me” from the ninth and tenth lines of the poem focuses the reader’s attention to the words so that the image of two lovers deeply looking into one another’s eyes, a possible second meaning for the two lines, might come to mind.  The alliteration in the phrase “bloody birds” in the sixteenth line of “High Windows” forces the reader to see Larkin’s ironic tone about the supposed paradise.  The enjambment with the word “immediately” ending the same line indicates the importance of the last stanza and suggests that the final image in the poem represents a natural reaction to thoughts about time and social change. In other words, when the poem ends with an image of isolation, it suggests to the reader that isolation is a direct result of the rapid passage of time and social change depicted in the first four stanzas.  The structure in the poem “High Windows,” or more accurately the lack thereof, the implementation of linguistic devices, and the strategic placement of imagery all reflect Larkin’s negative view of isolation and his desire to create personal relationships.

            The opposing views of isolation depicted in “Sailing to Byzantium” and “High Windows” reflect differences in the historical and political events taking place during the authors’ lifetimes, in the authors’ exposure to education, and in the authors’ experiences with romantic relationships.  Whereas Yeats supported Irish nationalism, received minimal education from both school and family, and participated in multiple romantic relationships, Larkin feared the social changes brought about by war, received an extensive education both at college and at home, and hardly experienced a romantic relationship.  W.B. Yeats reflected the effect of historical events and personal experiences through his promotion of isolation in “Sailing to Byzantium,” while Larkin expressed the effect of social change and his personal experiences through condemnation of isolation and the search for personal relationships in “High Windows.”

 

Works Cited

Fraser, G.S. W.B. Yeats.  Logman House, Burnt Mill, Harlowe, Essex: Logmans, Green & Co.,

1965.   

Jeffares, A. Norman.  W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.   

---.  W.B. Yeats: A New Biography.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.

Larkin, Philip.  “High Windows.”  The Northern Anthology of English Literature.  7th ed. Vol 2.

Eds. M.H. Abrams et al.  New York: Norton 2000. 2109-2110.

Leventhal, F.M., ed.  Twentieth-Century Britain: An Encyclopedia.  New York and London:

Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995.   

Martin, Bruce.  Twayne’s English Author Series: Philip Larkin.  Boston: Twayne Publishers,

1978.

Motion, Andrew.  Contemporary Writers: Philip Larkin.  New York: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1982.

Pierce, David.  Yeats’s World: Ireland, England, and the Poetic Imagination.  New Haven and

London: Yale U.P., 1995. 

Swarbrick, Andrew.  Out of Reach: The Poetry of Philip Larkin.  New York: St. Martin’s Press,

Inc., 1997. 

Yeats, William Butler.  “Sailing to Byzantium.”  The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 

7th ed. Vol 2.  Eds. M.H. Abrams et al.  New York: Norton, 2000. 2568-2569.