Byzantium

Watercolor and gouache on paper by John Singer Sargent, ca. 1898

 

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 miraclc 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.

William Butler Yeats

 

Yeats certainly shares many traits with William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and other, nineteenth century precursors. Nevertheless, despite all the intensity of its emotion and the rich intricacies of its imagery, Byzantium is hardly the sort of effusive outburst one has come to associate with the ode; the speaker seems to be more engulfed in his vision than in any attempt to share its emotional quadrants with the reader.

Yeats never abandoned the Symbolist tradition that shaped him as a poet in his youth. Though Byzantium is a product of his later years, written well after he had transformed himself into a modernist poet, surely the chief device that gives the poem its other-worldly ambiance is the symbol.

Yeats’s studies had taught him that the ancient Romans used dolphins to depict the spirit’s voyage from this world to the next; that the starry dome was symbolic of the soul’s astral destiny in the ancient mystery cults associated with Mithra and Orpheus; that a crowing cock carved on a tombstone was intended to ward off evil spirits and influences; that the Byzantine emperors had mechanical birds that sang to the delight of visitors; that the golden bough signifies that point at which the temporal and eternal mingle their mysteries.