Byzantium Summery by W B Yeats
1. A General Note
Byzantium, along with its companion poem Sailing to Byzantium, is deemed as specifically remarkable in Yeats’s poetry. It was written in 1930 and published first in the volume of poetry by Yeats under the title The Winding Stair and Other Poems in 1930. The other Byzantium poem-Sailing to Byzantium-was wrilten eartier in 1929. Of course, both the poems were similar as well as dissimilar in approach and treatment.
This poem was written, when the poet was just cured after a long sickness, in Italy. Byzantium was historically a city of the holy Roman empire, considered perfect and saintly.
Of course, the poet is not exactly indicating that historical city of the holy Roman empire. Byzantium is to him an imaginary place of perfection—his dream of a land of the millenuium, a symbol of Paradise. In this connection, Yeats’s own admission may be worth quoting here : “Describe Byzantium as it is the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy flows at the street corners where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden tree, in the bower, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to Paradise.”
The poem begins with a serene scene. This is of Byzantium, a city of the Holy Roman Empire, but idealised as the symbol of Paradise as also Purgatory. All ordinary, gross, worldly objects, all human confusions and complexities, are absent here. The poet views before him a vision of a man or spirit, rather a purified spirit, free of all impurities and grossness. He perceives in this figure the existence of death in life and of life in death. There glimmers a miraculous sight before the poet. That is a golden bird, a rare sight of a star-lit night. The bird seems to belong to the animate world, yet it looks too delicate, rather unusual as an earthly being. Both what is earthly and what is unearthly are found assimilated in it. A strange fire is found to burn on the pavement of the city. This is fed neither by any fuel nor by a flint. No wind sways this. Flames here appears to be self generating. The spirits dance around the flames, getting purged of their earthly passions and inclinations, although the fire has no effect of burning. The poet sees also the purged spirits riding the dolphins to reach the shore of Byzantium. These spirits, emancipated from their earthly weakness, appear, in an orderly manner, as images follow images, with dolphins haunted and the church-bells resounded over the sea.
This is a description of a city-sight, that symbolizes a state of perfection, an emblem of Paradise as well as Purgatory.
Of course, the poet’s contention is intricate enough, and images are confusing and overlapping one another.
I. To the poet’s view, the gross, common objects of the everyday world passes into the background. The Emperor’s drunk soldiers are fast asleep, whereas all nightly voices and noises have subsided. The star-studded, moon-lit sky seems to scorn human life, with all its passions and pride, complexities and confusions. (Stanza 1)
II. Before the poet seems to float a vision. This may be of a man, a spirit, rather a purified spirit, immuned of all (human) impurities and vulgarities. The poet perceives in this an image of one that is both living and lifeless. He calls this death in life and life in death. (Stanza 2)
III. There is also a miraculous sight before the poet. This is of an unusual birda golden bird, or some such thing else, on a starlit golden bough. It seems able to crow like the cock of hell and stands superior to other birds, as it is beyond any change. (Stanza 3)
IV. The poet seems to have a view of a strange fire on the pavement of Byzantium at midnight. This is fed by no fuel nor is stirred by the striking of a piece of iron against a flint. No rough wind is found to distrub its flames that are selfgenerating. The spirits, purged of their earthly impurities, are found to dance around these flames, that give light but do not burn. (Stanza 4)
V. Finally, the poet seems to see before him spirits after spirits riding on dolphins’ back on the sea of life to reach the shore of Byzantium. The blacksmiths there are found engaged to keep them in order and lead them to the marble dancing floor. Here images follow imges in a ceaseless succession amid the constant movements of the spirit-ridden dolphins and the continuous ringing of the holy churchbell. (Stanza y
The poem is titled after Byzantium. Byzantium happened to be the capital of the eastern wing of the Holy Roman empire. It was very much renowned in the remote past as a centre of art and culture.
Yeats’s poem, however, is based not on the material facts of that real historical city of Byzantium. This is a creation of his speculative mind. To him Byzantium stands for an ideal state of a serene and spiritualized living, away from the vulgarities and impurities of the material and mechanical world. It is a place, rather transcendental, beyond time and space. In the poet’s perception, there is a synthesis of the spiritual and the earthly, life in death and death in life, in this realm of purification and perfection.
The present poem Byzatium consists of the poet’s vision of such a place which is serene and sublime, in which life is brought after death and lives in an eternal bliss, after purged of earthly sins and weaknesses. His vision here is of such an ideal realm, no doubt imaginative, and he calls this Byzantium. Judged from this thematic angle, the title of the poem seems to appear befitting and well suggertive. This is aptly called Byzantium.
ANNOTATIONS ON THE TEXT
Gist : The poet has the vision of a night, all serene, silent and shining.
The unpurged……..recede-the impure images of the worldly affairs seem to retreat. Drunken…….abed-activities have come to a halt. The drunk soldiers of the Emperor are all asleep. Night…..gone all the noises and sounds of the night are stopped. A starlit………. etc. The sky, stars-studded and moonlit, seems to despise the vain, gross confusions and complexities of man’s materialistic existence. All that man……human veins-ail that pertains to the human existence-all the complexities and conflicting feelings and passions of the man, lost in materialistic puruits.
N.B. An antithtical account appears in the contrasting scenes of serenity and silence and of complexities and confrontations.
Gist: The poet has a vision before him. This looks like a human figure, a shadow, or a purified spirit. The poet perceives in this the presence of death-in-life and lifein-death.
Floats an image a vision appears. Man or…..shade the poet wonders to ascertain what this is. Shade—the shadow of a figure. For Hades…..mummy clothHades, in the classical mythology, is the domain of the dead, inhabitated by spirits and ghosts. Those spirits and ghosts seem to have come out of the cloth that wraps up dead bodies. A mouth……summon-the figures seem earthly, yet indicate enough that they are unearthly, purified spirits. I hail the super human–the poet takes and greets the figure as superhuman. I call……life-in-death-this is the miracle of the whole vision that assimilates both death and life. Death exists in life, just as life lives in death.
N.B. Yeats’s concept is mystical, though spiritually animated.
Gist : The poet perceives a miracle, a golden bird on a star-lit golden bough. This is an unusual bird that bears the faculty of the living world, yet remains free from its usual changes.
Miracle……etc.—Yeats refers to the miracle, visualized by him, This is a golden a bird, placed on a star-lit golden bough. Can like……etc. This has the faculty of the spirits of Hades, the domain of the dead. In glory……..Etc. This miracle bird is beyond the touch of earthly changes, complexities, or decay.
N.B. The vision is mystical, but imbibed with spiritualism.
Gist : The poet views a strange fire burning on the pavement of Byzantium. This has no source of sustenance nor any effect of burning. The spirits dance around this, as if in a trance, for their purgation from earthly evils.
Flit flames…..dit-the poet perceives the flames, uncanny and strange depends on no fuel or the force of flint. Nor storm disturbed—the flames are least disturbed by the storm. Flames begotten flames-the flames are self-generating. Blood begotten spirits-spirits formed after the death of the earthly beings. All complexities of fury leave leaving behind or freeing themselves from all the complex and conflicting earthly passions. Dying…….trance-their death has led them to dance as spirits as if in a trance. Cannot singe a sleeve-cannot burn or scorch the sleeve of a shirt or a coat. no sort of fuel or
N.B. This is a mystical picture. The flames flit, but are fed by fire. These are bright, yet they do not burn or scorch (197) al).
Gist : Finally, the poet has the mystic view of the dolphin ride. The found to ride on the back of the dolphins to cross the vast sea of life to reach the beach of Byzantium, where preparations are ready to receive them.
Astraddle……blood—the spirits are found to ride on the backs of numerous dolphin. The smithies…..flood—the spirits are purified in the workshops of the blacksmith in Byzantium. Break bitter……….complexities-all earthly passions and complexities are cleansed and spirits, purified. Those……beget-the images, too, are self generating, one following another in succession. That……sea—the sea of life is haunted with the dolphin ride and the resonant church-bell.
N.B. The poem ends with a mystical imagery of a spiritual