When Guy Gavriel Kay wrote his byzantine historical fantasy Sailing to Sarantium, he was stealing a title from a famous poem by William Butler Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium.” After reading the novel last June, I took a close look at Yeats’ poem to search for the items that might be said to have inspired Kay’s depiction of Sarantium and the prominent themes of his novel
The following is essentially a slightly edited and modernized re-post from my earlier author site, which has fallen into disuse. I thought my explorations of Kay’s source material was fruitful and I now wish to revisit it and share my findings, old and recent, with you.
First, allow me to provide a quick review of Sailing to Sarantium, which is the first novel in the Sarantine Mosaic, a series of two books that includes Sailing‘s sequel Lord of Emperors.
Caius Crispus, or Crispin, is an dissatisfied artisan working on a mosaic for a royal tomb in Varenna using mediocre teserrae pieces which lack for colour, when his master Martinian receives a letter by imperial post. He has been summoned to work on the great mosaic being planned for the Sanctuary to Holy Jad in Sarantium. Crispin takes on his master’s name and ‘sails’ to the Queen of Cities, Sarantium, and ultimately the court of Valerius II. In actual fact, he travels on foot, encountering many strange people and horrors along the way. When finally he arrives to perform his artwork, his destiny becomes intertwined with the men and women who rule the empire and kingdoms that make up his world.
In my mind, Kay’s work should be as well known for its portrayal of artist figures as for its spectacular fusion of history and fantasy. There is a great list of such figures now: Alessan from Tigana, the bards of A Song for Arbonne, Ammar ibn Khairan the poet-diplomat from the Lions of Al-Rassan, Sima Zian the Ninth Dynasty poet from Under Heaven, and the most recent one, River of Stars‘ poet-calligraphist Lin Shan. In Sailing, Crispin’s calling is that of a mosaicist. Exploring the process of creative inspiration, Sailing also raises the question of whether the execution of an artwork can be said to be idiosyncratic to the individual artist, or if it is always the result of the culture and civilization in which that artist lives. To some extent, this is a question relevant to all of Kay’s artists.
Crispin’s quest begins with him in a depression, which he channels into anger through his vivid, imaginative insults to which he subjects his apprentices. His wife has died. His daughters are dead too, take by the plague. He has given up living for anything, awash in a world that feels indifferent to him, a leaf in the wind of impermanence. Art becomes part of his search for stability.
Art and permanence (read: immortality) are also key themes in W.B. Yeats’ poem “Sailing to Byzantium.” Kay has admitted that Yeats inspired his portrayal of Sarantium, which is based on the Byzantine empire under the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora. But to what extent do both literary works invoke the other through shared themes and imagery? The answer surprised me: there were more ways than even I had thought to find.
Here is a transcript of the poem:
“Sailing to Byzantium”
THAT is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Yeats describes Byzantium as a city of youth and art, a place where you can go to forget “whatever is begotten, born, and dies” (ln. 6). It is the original “no country for old men” (1). I can imagine that Crispin would be comforted in his existential crisis in such an ageless land, although Kay’s portrayal of Sarantium is not quite so idealized as Yeats’ depiction of Byzantium.
A significant stanza regarding Kay’s depiction of the Sarantine court is the following:
“O sages standing in God’s holy fire
as in the gold mosaic of a wall,
come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
and be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
and fastened to a dying animal
it knows not what it is; and gather me
into the artifice of eternity” (17-24).
After reading these lines, my mouth dropped. Even leaving the beauty of Yeats’ verse aside, which is difficult, there were so many subtle reflections of Kay’s universe in these lines. The gold mosaic is a clear reference to the mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Byzantium, the analogue for Kay’s Sanctuary to Holy Jad. The effect of the “holy fire, pern[ing] in a gyre” describes the all-around overwhelming effect that religious art, especially when thrown onto a 360 degree dome, can have on a spectator. It reminds me of the scene where Crispus sees the more rugged depiction of Jad in a provincial sanctuary, and is blown off his feet in awe, so that he can only lie down on his back gazing up at the sublime beauty of the artwork.
“Consume my heart away” was the other phrase that immediately called to mind a particularly gruesome scene in Sailing. In the haunted Aldwood forest, a mysterious beast called the zubir devours prey sent to it as a sacrifice. It rips open the rib cage and devours all the internal organs, including the heart, so that the torso is completely hollowed out. Kay literalizes a metaphor that Yeats’ speaker uses to express his longing for immortality—an intense irony, if there was ever one. Yet, after glimpsing the zubir, Crispin becomes so deeply affected by his close brush with death that he becomes more susceptible to the inspiration he needs to create his mosaic, his “artifice of eternity,” which he hopes will win him immortal fame.
My Norton Anthology of English Literature quotes Yeats as having written the following about his poem: “The painter, the mosaic worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of the whole people.” (My italics)
I said before that Sailing is about the tension between the individual artist and role society plays on his artwork. Kay challenges Yeats’ assumption about the impersonality of art. Crispin designs an intensely personal mosaic for the dome of Jad’s sanctuary. His personality is inevitably displayed in the passion and desire he puts into his creation. He does cater to his society, by trying to avoid depicting heretical images and adhering to what Valerius wants emphasized in the artwork. However, Crispin’s personality and his own beliefs end up colouring the final product in subtle ways that might be overlooked by most observers—including censors.
Yeats says that writing the poem and escaping to Byzantium was his way “to warm myself back to life” after an illness (Norton Anthology). Crispin’s character arc is similar, if depression is his illness. He gains the desire not only to live, but to leave his imprint on the world. Yeats and Crispin both have the same driving desire as poets.
“Sailing to Byzantium” forms a pair with Yeats’ other poem “Byzantium,” where further parallels may be gleaned:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon;
I hail the superhuman;
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the star-lit golden bough,
Can like the cocks of Hades crow,
Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.
At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.
Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
Right away, it can be seen that the “moonlit dome” that “disdains / all that man is, / all mere complexities, / the fury and the mire of human veins” has resonance, because it is under the dome in the Sarantine sanctuary that Crispin becomes inspired to live without fear of death (ln. 5-8). Furthermore, the opening nighttime imagery resonates strongly with Lord of Emperors, in which many events happen in the space of single night—a romantic hour, if there was ever one.
The enigmatic character in Yeats’s poem, the “image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than shade” (9-10), made me recall the zubir, or even Linon, the mechanical bird embedded with the soul of a human girl. Although the beast and the girl are not men per se, both are “superhuman” and can be called “death-in-life and life-in-death” (16). The zubir is a living incarnation of death itself, while Linon’s soul exists in a liminal state of life. It need hardly be mentioned, of course, that Kay uses Yeats’ line “miracle, bird or golden handiwork, / more miracle than bird or handiwork” to refer to Linon as well: he uses the very line as an epigraph in his book.
Valerius II is known as the “Night Emperor” in Sailing, because he is restless at night, always leaving lights on in his window and wandering the moonlit halls of his palace, planning his stratagems to deal with the power-hungry court he must hold together. Yeats draws attention to this special appellation, which Valerius shares with the real-life Byzantine Emperor Justinian, when he describes the emperor: “At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit / flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame” (25-27).
On the flame imagery: though the following is a major spoil alert [Do NOT read ahead if you have not read BOTH books of the Sarantine Mosaic], I cannot help but imagine that the “agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” which can be interpreted as a reference to the ‘fire’ of guilt, since it does not physically wound, inspired the crime Valerius abetted in the prologue to Sailing, when he first wins the throne. He burns a competitor to death with Greek fire. Perhaps the same fire imagery inspired the way in which the victim and his relatives repay Valerius in Lord of Emperors …
Lastly, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” (40) should carry mountains of resonance with readers familiar with Sailing. In Sarantium, dolphins are heretical to depict in art because they are associated with an older style of worship that is considered unorthodox under Valerius II: the worship of Jad’s son, Heladikos. This pagan god drove his chariot, which was the sun, before dying tragically, in a myth the calls to mind the story of Phaeton. Heladikos is understood among Sarantine heretics to still be carrying the sun through the underworld, suggesting that Heladikos is a symbol of the unconscious, repressed aspects of a society’s psyche. Since dolphins inhabit the seas and occasionally leap out of the water, the old religion draws the link between dolphins and Heladikos, and adds the belief that dolphins ferry the souls of the dead to the underworld.
Undoubtedly, I have only skimmed the surface of the nuances between both poems and the novel. I hope you have found my explorations and speculations illuminating. I will leave it to other readers of Yeats and Kay to tease out any additional layers of meaning between Sailing and its source material. It has been a fascinating exercise for me, and I hope readers of Sailing return to Yeats after finishing the book in order to discover (or re-discover) a remarkable twentieth-century poet.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 4th ed. Vol 2.