Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

‘Byzantium’ is a sequel written by W. B. Yeats to his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. This poem was written four years later in 1930 and published in the book ‘Words For Music Perhaps and Other Poems’ in 1932. During the break between these two poems, the poet has undergone a physical (due to Malta fever) and intellectual changes. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ the poet talks of the journey to Byzantium but in ‘Byzantium’ the poet talks of his experience at Byzantium. Therefore, ‘Byzantium’ looks like an improvised version of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. These two poems are commonly addressed as ‘Byzantium poems’.

Byzantium by William Butler Yeats

 

Summary of Byzantium

The poem ‘Byzantium’ deliberates what happens at night in the city of Byzantium, through the first-person perspective. As the night emerges, in the city of Byzantium, the day’s activities recede. The drunken soldiers of the Emperor are asleep, and the song of night-walkers too fades along with other night sounds, after the great cathedral gong. The “starlit” or “moonlit” dome, disdains everything that is human, for human life is mere complexities filled with fury and the mire of human veins. As he observes the scene around him, the speaker sees an image floating in front of him. The speaker addresses the spirit as “superhuman”, for it reflects the ultimate truth of “death-in-life and life-in-death.” The poet follows the floating image to find a golden bird perching on a golden tree like a “miracle”. It calls and scorns the birds of “mire and blood.”

At midnight, the images float through the flames across the Emperor’s pavement. The fire seems to be self-generated and self-fed for it was fed by neither wood nor steel. Even the storm has no effect on it.  Here, “blood-begotten spirits” come and “dance” in a “trance” and be cleared of all earthly impurities. Finally, spirit after spirit arrives at the seashore to be carried across the sea on the backs of dolphins. The golden smithies of the Emperor ensure the perfection of the end process, while the flames ensure the speckles cleansing of the spirits on land.

 

Theme and Settings of Byzantium

The major themes of ‘Byzantium’ can be “Human imperfection vs. perfectness of art” and “Terrestrial life vs. Spiritual or afterlife”. The contrasting image of day and night, symbolically present the contrasting life before and after death. On the whole, the poet metaphorically presents human life as nothing and momentous, while the man-made arts remains forever.

The setting of the poem is “a night in the city of Byzantium”.  The great Cathedral in the poem refers to the church of St. Sophia, which is built in the central part of Byzantium or the Eastern part of Rome.

 

Form and Structure of Byzantium

Byzantium is a formal, rhyming poem. The poet used the stanza form that he’d already used in his other poems ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory‘ and ‘A Prayer For My Daughter.’ Each stanza of the poem has eight lines with the rhyme scheme of ‘AABBCDDC’. The first four lines are made up of two rhyming couplets (AABB), while the rhyme structure of the next four lines looks like sandwiched couplets with the rhyme scheme (CDDC).

 

Analysis of Byzantium

Stanza One

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.

The first stanza of ‘Byzantium’ presents the night view of the place. As night emerges, the unpurged images or the human activity recedes. Also, the drunken soldiers of the emperor have gone to sleep. By the time the sound of the gong of the great Cathedral (the church of St. Sophia, the center of Byzantine) is heard, even the sounds of the night and the songs of the nightwalkers (prostitutes) fades. All these scenes indicate that it is the late hours of the night, he is describing. The “drunken soldiers” and “night-walkers” indicate the poet’s disappointment over the degrading cultural and social values that addressed in most of his poems. Further, the second part of the stanza comments on the insignificant life of the human. The moonlit or starlit dome of the cathedral, suggest that human life is filled with “complexities” caused mainly by the “mire of human veins”.

 

Stanza Two

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.

In the second stanza of the ‘Byzantium’, the poet talks of the vision or the image that appeared in front of him.  He wonders if it is a man or a shade. As he looks further, he realizes it to be a shade more than a man; an image more than a shade. The verb “float“ makes it clear that the image isn`t moving but simply carried away by the wind, confirming it to be a ghost or spirit. For, Hade’s bobbin – the dead people wound in “mummy-cloth” – takes the winding path to reach him. Further, the next lines describe them to be with no “moisture” or “breath” and “dry-mouthed”.

Yeats has used the “mummy-cloth” as a symbol of human experiences and periods of aging and death. The cloth wound around indicates the complexities of life a soul carries around after death to be unwounded before entering the afterlife. A similar idea is presented by the poet in his other poem ‘All Soul’s Night’ published in 1920. The poet addresses those dead people as “superhuman” for they are free from the earthly curbs. Further, the poet employed “chiasmus,” a rhetorical device to reveal the contrasting perspective on death. For those alive on earth may think it to be an end of life, but from a spiritual perspective, it is the beginning of new life. The use of “me” in this stanza gives more personal and subjectivity to the poem.

 

Stanza Three

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Planted on the starlit 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.

In the third stanza of ‘Byzantium,’ the poet sees something that looks like a miracle. He sees a golden bird or bird sculpture placed on the starlit golden bow. The poet here refers to the art and architectural beauty Byzantine is famous for. He calls it a miracle for it was more than a bird or a handiwork. It seems to be crowing like the cocks of Hades, the city of the dead, and ghosts. In its glory of “changeless metal”, the state of immortality, it scorns those “birds of petals”, the mortal ones. The bird image serves as a paradox on the immortality gained by human handiwork. It becomes something that is immune to the impurities and aging of human experience. The art, which is manmade, becomes something that gives reason to human existence.

 

Stanza Four

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.

The fourth stanza of the poem details what the poet has witnessed in the city at midnight. At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement, a fire appears. It is neither fed by fuel sticks nor started by striking a piece of iron against a flintstone. They look like self-generated flames, one arising out of another. It is miraculous in nature for even storms can not quench them. The blood-begotten spirits (according to medieval belief spirits are begotten of blood) come to be removed of all their impurities and earthly passions. “Blood-begotten” spirits can also be interpreted as the spirits of those who died during the world war and the civil war in Ireland. The spirits undergo a “dance” of “trance” in this mystical agonizing fire, yet can burn even the sleeve. It allegorically refers to the fire of Judgment mentioned in the bible to those impure souls.

 

Stanza Five

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.

The fifth and the final stanza of the poem ‘Byzantium’, deliberate on the final process of the spirits.  Spirit after Spirit comes to ride on the dolphins, symbolically referring to the Roman beliefs of the dead carried to the Isles of the Blessed. The golden blacksmiths of the emperor are given the responsibility of keeping things in order. At the same time, the marbles of the dancing floor break even the little furies of complexity for those images that beget fresh images in fire. Still, the process of the spirits being carried on despite the sea being torn by the dolphins and the silence of the night disturbed with the gong sound.

 

About William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born as the eldest son of John Butler Yeats on June 13, 1865. He soon recognized his true calling in poetry and established himself as a man of letters. For the rest of his life, he worked tirelessly as a poet, playwright, and literary critic. Revitalizing Irish culture, search for spiritual identity, and his unrequited love for Maud Gonne are the dominant themes of his poetry. As an outcome of his untiring effort, he founded the Irish Literary Theatre, later known as the Abbey Theatre in 1904 with the help of his friend Lady Augusta Gregory. Yeats proved to be a vigorous writer, writing even at the time of his death on January 28, 1939.

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