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W. B. Yeats's “Byzantium” and Zen Meditation

Yoo Baekyun
Baekseok Culture University


In this study, I will focus on “Byzantium” and explore how the poem mirrorsthe essence of Zen Meditation. Not only is the poem patterned after the progressiveprocedure of Zen meditation, but they also reflect the fundamental concerns of Zenmeditation, such as the problem of duality, the concept of time, and an aspirationfor freedom from the limitation of this life. These features of Zen meditation areexpressed through the use of specific symbols, the implications of setting, andvarious poetic techniques. The purpose of this study is to provide another way toread the poem by analyzing it in the context of Zen meditation. The structures ofthe poem are loosely patterned after a typical process of meditation through whichthe meditator reaches Unity of Being. The process of Zen meditation is nicelydepicted in the ten pictures titled “The Boy and the Ox,” each of which shows thegradual development of the meditator’s search for his won nature or Buddhahood.For the convenience of my discussion, I will simplify the ten stages of Zenmeditation to four?confusion, immersion, union and return?which, I believe, coverall the important procedures in the meditation. The first stanza of “Byzantium”exhibits some typical features related to its meditative scheme, in which we can feelthe sense of confusion on the part of the meditator or poetic persona. In otherwords, the meditator sets out his meditative journey to search for an answer for hissense of confusion or clear it. The second to the fourth stanzas are equivalent tothe second stage (immersion) and the third stage (union or seeing the vision) ofmeditation. The last stanza parallels the final stage of Zen meditation (return). In“Byzantium,” we see the reflection of Zen meditation. The structural patterns of themeditative poems generally correspond to the four stages of Zen meditation:confusion, immersion, union or seeing the vision of the unity, and return. Yeats’ use of poetic techniques such as line scheme, use of number symbolism, and thearrangement of stanzas are closely associated with the meditative scheme of thepoems. In addition, the major concern of the poems is reminiscent of that of Zenmeditation in that they confront the problem of duality, which sets up the occasionfor meditation. The agony of duality results from the concept of time. Thus, themeditator tries to reconcile the dichotomous elements, resulting in the state offreedom from time. More than anything else, the purpose of Yeats’ meditative poemlies in the poet’s aspiration for self-awakening, as in Zen meditation. The poem isYeats’ record of his life-long efforts to meet his “fourth self” or Great Self.


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    The Yeats Society of Korea

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