Analysis of the Poem “Byzantium” by W.B.Yeats

Byzantium is a symbolic poem that started life as a note in the diary of W.B.Yeats in 1930. He’d long been an admirer of Byzantine art and culture and wanted to combine this passion with his belief in the spiritual journey of the artistic human soul.

He wrote:

‘Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbour dolphins offering their backs to the waiting dead that they may carry them to Paradise.’

Yeats developed this initial scene into a five stanza dream-like drama that is packed with symbols, allusion and visual strangeness. It has a sister poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ published earlier in 1925.

Although the reader is aware of being grounded in some sort of historic city – Byzantium started life as a Greek colony before becoming Constantinople under the Romans and is now modern Istanbul – the feeling persists that this could all be someone’s nightmare laid bare in the imagination of Yeats.

The narrative is both impersonal and personal; the speaker commentates from a distance then comes closer to the reader with detailed first person description. There are repeated words, ambiguous phrases, allusions to mythology, real experiences and unreal experiences all kept under control by long and shorter, mostly iambic, rhyming lines.

It is known that Yeats had a great enthusiasm for the ancient culture of Byzantium. He believed it represented an ideal, that the community who lived and worked there were somehow united in spiritual and artistic purpose. Artistic achievement was proof of this heightened awareness.

Yeats was also a restless questing individual who, although not conventionally religious in a churchgoing sense, experimented with and actively pursued alternative spiritual goals. He became seriously involved with theosophy, the Cabbala, Hermeticism and Spiritualism.

In his esoteric, philosophical work, A Vision, Yeats sets out his world view and how humanity fits into a cosmic system of existence. For him, the cultural and artistic energies of Byzantium were a perfect form, peaking at a special time in cyclic history. He wrote:

‘I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium…..I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious, aesthetic and practical life were one, that architect and artificers spoke to the multitude and the few alike.’

So what to make of this symbolic fantasy in rhyme? It combines art, history and esoteric themes that Yeats studied and experimented with for most of his adult life. It weaves mythology and symbolism in and out of scenes of spiritual transformation.

  • The imagery is intense and fantastical, the atmosphere dark and often surreal. Byzantium has become the setting for a regeneration of human souls that undergo a transformation involving metaphysical fire and water, which is illumination and purification.

Yeats was provoked into writing Byzantium because a friend of his had a criticism of the previous poem on this theme: ‘Sailing to Byzantium.’ Yeats thought that he needed to clarify an issue concerning the golden bird and its relation to the natural world.

The Nobel prize winner soon got down to the task of creating his poem, using a stanza form that he’d already used in poems such as ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, ‘The Tower’ (section II) and ‘A Prayer For My Daughter.’

Byzantium was first published in the book Words For Music Perhaps and Other Poems, 1932.

There are several interwoven themes noted in Byzantium:

  • Battle Between Immortality and The Creative Process
  • Human imperfection and the perfected form of art
  • Nature versus Art
  • Spiritual Regeneration Through Aesthetics
  • Tension Between Terrestrial Life and Soul Life

Byzantium is full of vivid imagery often taking the form of symbols, which were very important to Yeats. His studies of esoteric philosophy, mythology and mysticism meant that he was very much in tune with symbolism.

‘Besides emotional symbols, symbols that evoke emotions alone……there are intellectual symbols, symbols that evoke ideas alone, ideas mingled with emotions.’

from The Symbolism of Poetry (W.B.Yeats) The Dome magazine, 1900

In Byzantium there are several symbols:

The Dome

  • Represents perfection, a vault of heaven, divine cosmic order.

Based on the Church of Hagia Sophia in Byzantium.

The Golden Bird

  • The unattainable made real, timeless art, artistic freedom from base mortality.

Possibly from a story of a mechanical golden bird that would ‘sing’ from a tree in the gardens of a Byzantine emperor.

Flames

  • Metaphysical fire, illumination and purging, internal energy and passion, ecstasy.

Yeats wrote in his esoteric essay A Vision…we may escape from the constraint of our nature and from that of external things, entering upon a state where all fuel has become flame..

Dolphins

  • Resurrection, as Guides to Enlightenment, Selfless Guardians of the Unconscious.

Many legends and stories are told are of dolphins forming relationships with humans, helping them, carrying them, forming profound friendships. Dolphins are also associated with gods and goddesses, notably Aphrodite and Apollo from ancient Greece.

The Sea

  • Soul, Memory, Love, The Unconscious, Universal Unformed Mind.

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 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.

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.

Byzantium is a mystical and strangely haunting poem full of imagery and symbolism, five formal looking stanzas that carry an incredible vision.

  • For the reader there are great challenges – where to pause, when to take a breath, deeper breath, longer pause.
  • Watch out for the syntax, the way clauses and phrases fit together. The last stanza in particular is both exclamation and ambiguous sense.
  • Although the iambic foot is common, other metrical feet alter the rhythm (trochee, spondee, pyrrhic).

Since its publication, critics and commentators have poured their ideas and interpretations into the melting pot, yet the truth is, there is no definitive, overall agreement on the meaning of this poem.

It is both allegory and dream sequence, esoteric drama and utopian ideal – the flesh made immortal, enlightenment possible through perfecting the art of life and the life of art.

Stanza 1

The scene is being set. The reader is immediately aware of images being unpurged, which means not cleaned, still impure, and that they’re fading from view as the day becomes night. And the Emperor it seems has lost control of his soldiers; they’re all drunk, sleeping it off.

As the images fade so too do the sounds of the night. It’s really late, only the prostitutes are out (night-walkers) singing, after the gong has sounded. Have they been with the soldiers? Has discipline broken down?

These first four lines are rather dark but they suggest to the reader stark truths. Do the soldiers represent power? And the prostitutes lust?

The next four lines help put things into perspective. The speaker has perhaps been walking through a part of the city, observing but not drawing judgement.

The great dome of the cathedral, lit by moon or star, seems above All that man is .…the human world isn’t worth any respect because it’s in turmoil, subject to the vagaries of the blood.

Those two shorter lines, with punctuation, reinforce the idea of human weakness and the last line, pure iambic, drums home the message with a familiar beat.

As a symbol of the cosmic order the dome represents divine, unchangeable perfection. Presumably this is the dome of the cathedral (Hagia Sophia), still seen as an architectural wonder of the world and not the sky itself, sometimes referred to in Christianity as the dome of heaven, the firmament.

Stanza 2

This is the only stanza in which the first person speaker is revealed…Before me...the rest of the poem is observation. The image that floats in front of the speaker could be a ghost or a man but seems to be neither or a mix of the two.

What is clear is that the image is a mummy, a dead person, wrapped in cloth and wound around a bobbin from Hades (home of the dead, also the god of the underworld).

Yeats is using mummy-cloth as a symbol for life’s experiences on earth, part of his esoteric belief in the gyre, the whirling motion associated with each great age. So the cloth is wound on in one age and unwound in the afterlife and so on and so forth.

Yeats used a similar idea in the poem All Soul’s Night from 1920:

Such thought, that in it bound

I need no other thing,

Wound in mind’s wandering

As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

The winding path is likely the same path mentioned in the Anima Mundi section of Yeats’s 1917 book, Per Amica Silentia Lunae (Through Friendly Silence of the Moon), an esoteric work concerning spiritual and artistic matters.

That path is ‘the winding path called the Path of the Serpent’ which is the path of natural instinct, struggle and work most of us have to undertake to reach the Condition of Fire.

What Yeats is saying is that the artist has to exploit the tension between the physical and spiritual worlds by reaching certain creative thresholds.

To cut a long story very short: The Anima Mundi is the world soul which has to be penetrated by the artist.

Byzantium with its five stanzas echoes the five part book Per Amica Silentia Lunae which is a crucial part in Yeats’s developing world view.

The summoning of the dead, the image or dry mouthed, breathless ghost, reveals a duality. The speaker now recognises the superhuman, free of the winding path, free of nature. The ghost may be dead when seen from an earthly perspective; alive when seen from the spiritual realm.

Stanza 3

The golden bird now enters the scene, the symbol of perfection in the creative process. The reader is assured that it is more miracle than a work of artwhich implies it is more awesome and mysterious than it appears as it sits there on a golden bough (of the golden tree?).

This bird is capable of waking up the spirits with its call, just like the cocks of Hades who herald a new dawn – a revival of that which was dead but is now reborn.

But there’s a flipside. This bird can also scorn aloud Common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire or blood. In other words, perfected art looks down on the organic world of nature, which is subject to time, emotions and change (the moon embittered).

  • The paradox is, that the golden bird, the miracle, is created by man in the first place…the pinnacle of human craftsmanship created to die for. Art helps humans transcend their miserable space, gives them a reason to exist. That is the miracle.

Stanza 4

Purification follows the wake up call. The next part of the drama is set on the Emperor’s pavement. It is midnight, the witching hour, and metaphysical flames burn strong.

These flames are not like real fire made from faggots (small bundles of wood) or lit by steel (spark). No outside influence can affect them, nor they affect anything external, even a sleeve. These flames work internally, purging the blood-begotten spirits and inducing dance, trance and agony.

This flame relates to Yeats’s Condition of Fire from his Per Amica book in which he writes:

‘There are two realities, the terrestrial and the Condition of Fire….in the Condition of Fire is all music and all rest. Between is the condition of air where images have but a borrowed life, that of memory or that reflected upon them…’

So the spirits (post-human entities) have their complexities of fury transmuted into dance. This specific use of fury suggests anger and rage, perhaps part of Yeats’s interest over many years in the spiritual love/hate paradox.

Yeats uses the word complexities three times in the poem, and complexity once, to reinforce the idea that the human condition is anything but simple – the opposite to the elemental fire.

Stanza 5

This stanza is a finale, the final phase where the spirit is carried by a dolphin over the sea, as the cathedral gong is sounded (perhaps for a funeral) and the smithies, the golden craftsmen, representing artistic energy, attempt to oppose (break) this process.

The dolphin here is mire and blood – sensual and physical – a creature that has empathy with humans is now representing nature, nature at one with the spirit.

The Byzantine marbles where the dance is taking place, they too oppose the complex human emotions, relating directly to the preceding stanza. And the images from the first two stanzas keep on reproducing, just as the sea keeps on being torn and tormented.

Dolphins play a part in ancient Greek mythology, being associated with Apollo and Arion the poet. The Romans depicted dolphins carrying the dead to the Isles of the Blessed.

Byzantium is a formal, rhyming poem of five stanzas, each having eight lines. The first four lines are made up of two rhyming couplets – aabb – whilst the next four lines consist of a couplet sandwich – cddc – the shorter lines of the couplet enclosed by longer lines.

So the rhyme scheme is : aabbcddc

Yeats was familiar with the stanza form from some of his earlier poems. While most of the end rhymes are full, for example song/gong…blood/flood which bonds the lines harmoniously, some are half-rhymes suggesting uncertainty, for example flame/come….bough/crow.

Internal Rhyme

Sounds that are related within the poem bring musicality and echo and texture for the reader. Byzantium has several levels of internal rhyme. Consider:

unpurged/drunken/human…mere/mire

bound/mouth/mouths…Hades/hail…breathless/death

cocks/common…embittered/complexities

feeds/steel…spirits/singe…faggot/agony

spirit/smithies/bitter…dolphin-torn/gong-tormented

The metre (meter in American English) of Byzantium offers the reader a fascinating challenge because it does not have a solidly iambic and therefore predictable rhythm.

There are pure iambic pentameter lines but these are in the minority, so, from a rhymical beat perspective, the read through is different line to line, stanza to stanza.

Let’s take a close up look, (with stressed syllables in bold type) :

The un / purged im / ages / of day / recede;

The Em / peror’s drun / ken sold / iery are / abed;

Night res / onance /recedes, / night-walk / ers’ song

After / great ca / thedral gong;

A star / lit or / a moon / lit dome / disdains

All that / man is,

All mere / complex / ities,

The fur / y and / the mire / of hu / man veins.

The opening line does have a dominant iambic beat but note the pyrrhic foot mid-line which softens and quietens. Only the second and eighth lines are pure iambic pentameter. In between is a mix of trochee, spondee and pyrrhic feet; the fourth line is trochee, loud first syllable, falling second syllable, fading like the gong but the extra strong beat of this seven syllable line is the word gong itself. The two shorter lines, 6 and 7, compact meaning, and the spondees (two stressed syllables) reinforce this.

Before / me floats / an i / mage, man / or shade,

Shade more / than man, / more i/ mage than / a shade;

For Ha / des’ bob / bin bound / in mum / my-cloth

May un / wind the / winding path;

A mouth / that has / no moi / sture and / no breath

Breathless / mouths may / summon;

I hail / the su / perhuman;

I call / it death- / in-life / and life- /in-death.

The opening line – 9 – is pure iambic pentameter (daDUM daDUM etc), as is the 11th, 13th and last – 16 – bringing a sense of familiar rhythm which is interspersed with the suddenness of trochees in alternate lines, the 10th, 12th and 14th. This abrupt emphasis on the first syllable is pronounced in the 12th and 14th lines, with three trochees each.

Mira / cle, bird / or gol / den han / diwork,

More mir / acle / than bird / or han / diwork,

Planted / on the / starlit / golden bough,

Can like / the cocks / of Had / es crow,

Or, by / the moon / embitt / ered, scorn / aloud

In glor / y of / changeless / metal

Common / bird or / petal

And all / complex / ities /of mire / or blood.

Metrically, the most unusual stanza in the poem. Six out of the eight lines begin with a spondee or trochee and pyrrhic feet play their part – the opening two lines dropping off in repeated handiwork.

At mid / night on / the Emp / eror’s pave / ment flit

Flames that / no fag / got feeds, / nor steel / has lit,

Nor storm / disturbs, / flames be / gotten / of flame,

Where blood- / begot / en spir / its come

And all / complex / ities / of fur / y leave,

Dying / into / a dance,

An ag / ony / of trance,

An ag / ony /of flame / that can / not singe / a sleeve.

Iambic pentameter controls the opening line, enjambment leading into an alliterative trochee in the second, whilst the third has a well placed caesura as the pace slows and a double trochee appears. More three syllable words give rise to those calming pyrrhics in the last two lines ...agony before the iambic feet take over.

Astrad / dle on / the dol / phin’s mire / and blood,

Spirit / after / spirit! / The smith / ies break / the flood,

The gold / en smith / ies of / the Emp / eror!

Marbles / of the dan / cing floor

Break bit / ter furi / es of / complex / ity,

Those im / ages / that yet

Fresh im / ages / beget,

That dol / phin-torn, / that gong- / torment / ed sea.

Again an opening line of pure iambic pentameter, followed by a triple trochee; the rise and fall. A mix of pyrrhic and iamb in the next two lines before an anapaest appears in line 36…Marbles of the dancing floor…which fairly skips across the line. Spondee, iamb and pyrrhic combine to produce an exceptional following line whilst the shorter lines use the same three different feet to intensify a repeat. The final line is wrapped up in iambic pentameter.

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

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