Poetry analysis: Byzantium, by William Butler Yeats

Byzantium

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.

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats, Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

William Butler Yeats’s “Byzantium” is a companion poem to to “Sailing to Byzantium” and it chronicles the city of Byzantium towards the end of the first Christian Millennium. It has in fact the same theme that the reader encounters in another of Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming”.

“Byzantium” pays tribute to the miracle of the work of art; the poem itself has overcome the “bitter furies of complexity”. The complexity of human flesh is turned into the artefact which preserves it and thus evokes the poet’s immortality in his art.

“Byzantium” is bursting with imagery of permanence and immortality in art. While the city of Byzantium stands as the backdrop to all its violent contrasts, the poet indulges in the exploration of death and the wisdom of the past. The mosaics depict the spiritual experience stabilised by the knowledge and technique of the artist that ignite the flame of artistic creation.

The notion of permanence is fully delineated by the invocation of the nightingale, the traditional symbol of permanence as described in Keats’s poem. The goldsmith’s art can thus give the permanence and significance in life unattainable by flesh.

At night in the city of Byzantium, “The unpurged images of day recede.” The drunken soldiers of the Emperor are asleep, and the song of night-walkers fades after the great cathedral gong. The “starlit” or “moonlit dome,” the speaker says, disdains all that is human—”All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The speaker says that before him floats an image—a man or a shade, but more a shade than a man, and still more simply “an image.” The speaker hails this “superhuman” image, calling it “death-in-life and life-in-death.” A golden bird sits on a golden tree, which the speaker says is a “miracle”; it sings aloud, and scorns the “common bird or petal / And all complexities of mire or blood.”

At midnight, the speaker says, the images of flames flit across the Emperor’s pavement, though they are not fed by wood or steel, nor disturbed by storms. Here, “blood-begotten spirits come,” and die “into a dance, / An agony of trance, / An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” leaving behind all the complexities and furies of life. Riding the backs of dolphins, spirit after spirit arrives, the flood broken on “the golden smithies of the Emperor.” The marbles of the dancing floor break the “bitter furies of complexity,” the storms of images that beget more images, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”

The pronounced differences in “Byzantium” ’s line lengths make its stanzas appear very haphazard; however, they are actually quite regular: each stanza constitutes eight lines, and each rhymes AABBCDDC. Metrically, each is quite complicated; the lines are loosely iambic, with the first, second, third, fifth, and eighth lines in pentameter, the fourth line in tetrameter, and the sixth and seventh line in trimeter, so that the pattern of line-stresses in each stanza is 55545335.

You might have read Yeats’s account of “Sailing to Byzantium”; now he has arrived at the city itself, and is able to describe it. In “Sailing to Byzantium” the speaker stated his desire to be “out of nature” and to assume the form of a golden bird; in “Byzantium,” the bird appears, and scores of dead spirits arrive on the backs of dolphins, to be forged into “the artifice of eternity”—ghostlike images with no physical presence (“a flame that cannot singe a sleeve”). The narrative and imagistic arrangement of this poem is highly ambiguous and complicated; it is unclear whether Yeats intends the poem to be a register of symbols or an actual mythological statement. (In classical mythology, dolphins often carry the dead to their final resting-place.)

In any event, we see here the same preference for the artificial above the actual that appeared in “Sailing to Byzantium”; only now the speaker has encountered actual creatures that exist “in the artifice of eternity”—most notably the golden bird of stanza three. But the preference is now tinged with ambiguity: the bird looks down upon “common bird or petal,” but it does so not out of existential necessity, but rather because it has been coerced into doing so, as it were—“by the moon embittered.” The speaker’s demonstrated preoccupation with “fresh images” has led some critics to conclude that the poem is really an allegory of the process by which fantasies are rendered into art, images arriving from the “dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea,” then being made into permanent artifacts by “the golden smithies of the Emperor.” It is impossible to say whether this is all or part of Yeats’s intention, and it is difficult to see how the prevalent symbols of the afterlife connect thematically to the topic of images (how could images be dead?). For all its difficulty and almost unfixed quality of meaning—the poem is difficult to place even within the context of A Vision—the intriguing imagery and sensual language of the poem are tokens of its power; simply as the evocation of a fascinating imaginary scene, “Byzantium” is unmatched in all of Yeats.

Bernd Riebe

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was an Irish poet and dramatist, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years Yeats served as an Irish Senator for two terms. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, and along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn founded the Abbey Theatre, serving as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” (from Wikipedia)

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