Table of Contents
William Butler Yeats’ collection of poems “Byzantium” explores the theme of spiritual transcendence and disintegrates the ongoing battle between the material world and the realm of the spirit. The term “Byzantium” refers to the ancient city of Byzantium, now known as Constantinople. Yeats penned down the poems during his later years, specifically between 1926 and 1932. He was indeed mesmerized by their art and culture and was able to draw a parallel between the spiritual and the eternal. However it is important to note that Yeats never wrote about the real depiction of the Byzantine empire. He simply placed art above all, and searched for immortality through them.
In doing so he offers a glimpse into all the art and culture of this world and establishes its impact on mankind for generations to come, withstanding the test of time.
About the Poet
William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and a playwright, was known for reviving the Irish Literary Renaissance or the Celtic Revival in Ireland. His poetry has had a profound impact on literary culture and he is regarded for reflecting poignant themes of spirituality and mysticism. Mysticism and the occult influenced his life a great deal and it has been incorporated into his works. Some of his critically well acclaimed poems include “Sailing to Byzantium,” and “The Second Coming,” which projects his feelings and fascinations with spiritual transcendence. In 1923, Yeats bagged the Nobel Prize in Literature, being the first Irish to do so. He truly embraced his cultural heritage throughout his life and his poems are, hence, celebrated for its timeless beauty.
The poem has a formal rhyming structure. It consists of 5 stanzas and makes use of several images and metaphors to depict the idea of spiritual transcendence in the poem.
Summary and Analysis
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 poem starts with the view of the palace at night. The “unpurged images” start receding with the onset of the nightfall. The drunken soldiers have fallen into a slumber and the sound of the Cathedral is heard by all. So silent is the night that even the sounds of the nightwalkers have faded away. The ordinary world has fallen asleep and the human complexities come to life. In the backdrop of the sleeping town, the vices walk around constantly. The poet shows the gradual decay of the man working constantly, even if they are asleep. The star-studded moon seems to scorn man by shining brightly high above the sky and spreading light to human fickleness. Not even the prostitutes are walking the street but only the complications of men, which includes their rage and their dubious means of survival.
The speaker presents the iconic city of Byzantium, but not fully in its glory. For the city has been made shabby by its residents. However Yeats pens writes about the city when the daytime is passing by along with its dirty human activities. He shows how the Emperor’s drunken army has sunk into a deep sleep and the chaotic cacophony of the city in the morning has finally come to an end. The streets are empty as the nightwalkers have retired to their bed. Only the sound of the church, refers to the church of St. Sophia, the center of Byzantine, can be heard echoing the quiets of the city. However the speaker’s disappointment comes to light as the insignificance of human life is brought out. The “moonlit dome” seems to suggest the complexities of the humans which are caused by the “mire of human veins”.” The speaker laments that apart from their vices, nothing walks the city at night. Human life is so insignificant that even without it the city looks beautiful and life of all other kinds goes on.
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, the poet describes the vision that has appeared in front of him. He is perplexed as to whether that is a “man or shade.” He looks further and realizes that it’s more of a shade than a man. The idea is that it can either be a spirit or a ghost as even though it isn’t moving, it appears to “float” as if carried by the wind. The detail of “mummy-cloth” shows that the image has clad itself to become a purified spirit of sorts. Even though it has no life, it is immortal. It is dead yet very much alive haunting the very existence on earth.
By talking about the image which has suddenly taken shape in front of the poet, he projects the follies of the man and how short term their lives are. He himself was confused as to whether it was a shade or a man, and later realized that it was just a shade. “Mummy-cloth” symbolizes human experiences and the periods of aging and death. A life carries all the intricacies and complexities wrapped around it just like a cloth and gets unwrapped by meeting death. It shows that humans are carrying their burden deep within themselves and are only truly freed upon embracing death. Despite being alive on Earth they might think of a spiritual point of view which is the creation of a new life at the juncture of dying. The speaker gives a personal touch by writing this stanza from the first person perspective by using the word “me.” This implies he is no better than all the other people undergoing the process of aging and eventually dying.
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, More miracle than bird or handiwork, Planted on the starlit golden bough, Can like the co cks 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.
Here the poet spots something which resembles something of a miracle to him. He views a “golden handiwork” which is that of a bird sculpted and placed on the starlit golden bow. It is more than just a bird to him as Yeats tells that it seems to be crowing like the co cks of Hades, the city of the dead. The poet attempts to praise the ingenious sculptures of Byzantine and the wonders they have created which seem to outlive the imperfections of the man. The bird also shows an antidote to the impurities of the human experiences as it persists in all its glory. The creation gives life to the creator instead as it serves as a reason for human existence.
The speaker sings praises for the architectural beauty that Byzantine basks in glory of. He uses the word “miracle” to aptly describe the intricate beauty of the art created by the people. They reach an everlasting beauty and transcend all ages of mortality. The state of immortality further scorns the “birds of petal” which denote the mortal ones in this stanza. He provides a playful paradox on the immortality gained by human handiwork as the humans themselves must eventually decay and die. The art created withstands all the aging of human experiences and lives past the creator’s life as they are pure. Human existence exceeds its survival only in terms of value as they live vicariously through the handiworks.
At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit Flames that no fag got 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 offers a detailed description of the city of Byzantine at midnight. He notices how on the Emperor’s pavement, a fire has appeared. Strangely the fire is not lit by any fuel nor using any sticks, yet the fire grows larger hungrily. This gives way for the “blood-begotten” spirits who have come to extinguish the impurities from the streets by using a raging fire. They have created a mystical fire which can actually result in burning the city down. This refers to the humans and their purge of sins which they need to seek salvation for they will be burned down by the fire created by the spirits who are horror stricken at the appalling state of the city.
The self generated flames which the poet talks about in this stanza is indeed miraculous in nature. The speaker argues that these flames might be mystical in nature but they can for sure destroy the whole town. The storms cannot even water them out for so strong is the rage of the blood begotten spirits. The spirits here refer to those poor souls who had died in the civil war of Ireland. They are terrified to see the state of men ever since the war and sinful they have become. This entire passage carries an allegorical meaning as the fire can denote the Judgement day in the Bible. It has been stated that on the day of Judgement all those who are impure and have sinned will burn in the fire whereas the pure will be awarded. The purgatorial dance of spirit commences and finishes in peace and harmony. Upon doing so the spirits attain their eternal peace and quench down their revenge on the others.
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 final stanza deals with the final blow of the spirits which have appeared according to the previous stanza. One after the other spirit arrives and rides on the “dolphin’s mire and blood” and emerges victorious with pride. On the other hand, the “golden smithies” of the Emperor are given the responsibility to ensure everything is in order. But at the same time to ensure the frenzy, the marbles of the dancing floor break all those complexities which have beget fresh images in fire. This entire process was meted out with silence and peace till the sound of the church gong disturbed the night.
In the final stanza, the poet draws on the reference to the Roman beliefs of the dead being carried to the Isles of the Blessed. The spirits are riding on the dolphins to reach the island of peace, meaning they want to attain eternal peace and salvation after making sure the humans are purged of their sins. The blacksmiths are hell bent on imposing order on these spirits and marbles make sure fresh images are created. The creation of these people hold back the seas and the marbles break the complication of human life. These inspiring visions of art create a jaw-dropping effect on those who view it, including the poet himself.