Rukhaya M.K

A Literary Companion

Poetry Analysis: Yeats’s “Byzantium”

Yeats’ “Byzantium’ is a companion-piece to “Sailing to Byzantium.” Byzantium reminds one of the Hellenistic city of Byzantium renowned for its architectural splendour. In his introduction to the poem, Yeats writes: ”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, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to paradise.”

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.

As with “Sailing to Byzantium,” the first stanza deals with the animate world that is being left behind for an eternal world of fixity. The images here are ‘unpurged.’ The emperor’s drunken men driven by instinct are abed. The cathedral ’gong’ sends the impulsive nightwalkers out of the scene. A starlit/moonlit dome disparages all that man stands for. The dome is a minuscule metaphor for the larger Byzantium that is a contrast to man with its enduring nature. Man on the other hand is a paradox. The poet uses the oxymoron “mere complexities” to define him, echoing the contradictory traits he encompasses. He embodies conflicting emotions: “The fury and the mire of human veins.” The last two lines in the first stanza marks the poet’s entry into Byzantium as he encounters a shade that is 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.

The shade comes across as a walking mummy .This image is twice purged from the flames as it appears to the poet. “Hades’ bobbin” according to drafts left by Yeats suggests that it is a spirit. Hades (or Pluto) was the Lord of the Underworld, the realm of the dead. The image of the bobbin suggests how the Lord is about to summon the sprits that are about to be freed from the shells of life and wound into the bobbin of reincarnation. The bobbin also signifies the mummy around which the tape is wound. To recover the dead, the tape has to be unwound. The Bobbin may be also utilized here as a symbol that unwinds the souls first and restores them to their pure elemental forms. Though this transcorporeal creature is animated, it is not living and “has no moisture and no breath.” It stands to hail the breathless purified souls. Like the sages in “Sailing to Byzantium”,that withstand the purgatory fire, this thing is also superhuman that is not alive, yet full of life. The poet claims: “I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.”

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,

More miracle 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

The golden bird planted on the golden star-lit golden bough is phenomenal than any other living bird or existing handiwork. The cock of Hades is a fixation, not something ephemeral. Moreover, it possesses the power to summon the refined spirits at it crows at the mark of dawn. The spirits are ’blood-begotten”, they are the purged souls of flesh-and blood human beings but are not bloody anymore. Hence, the adjective “ blood-begotten.” The golden bough referred to here, is the transfixed one in the world of artifice. However, it also alludes to the Golden Bough of legend, for it was in this grove of the Golden Bough that Aeneas embarked upon his descent into Hades. In the immutability of gold, the bird appears superior over the commonplace bird or petals, and “ all complexities of mire or blood.” At midnight, the poet declares how the images of flames dart across the Emperor’s pavement, though they are not fed by wood or steel, and invulnerable to storms. The Emperor referred to here is not the one in the first stanza, but the Emperor who hails from Byzantium, the world that consists of transcorporeal creatures that are dead yet kinetic. It refers to the emperor in the poem”Sailing to Byzantium”, and does not pertain to the mortal one. The dance of flames represents the reincarnation process where “all complexities of fury leave.”The dance“at once suggests rhythm, balance and harmony.” This flame cannot singe a sleeve because it is immaterial in spite of being real.

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.

It was the dolphin that bore the musician Arion safely to the shore according to the legend. The sea in the poem is at one symbolic of the natural world from which the speaker migrates to Byzantium. The spirit is transported across the “mire and blood” of ordinary mortal existence. The smithies of Byzantium “break the flood:” they impose order and control upon the world of life with dexterity, to convert it to a transreal fixation. ‘Marble’ again connotes architectural splendor. They break down life characterized by “bitter furies of complexity:” emotions at their rawest form. As the process of reincarnation takes place, images beget fresher images. The gong of “gong-tormented” signifies religion (the cathedral gong in the first stanza)that temporarily strikes a chord in the mortal souls of their ephemeral existence. The sea is “dolphin-torn” as the dolphin tears the sea apart as it renders ephemeral human existence into Eternal Art.


© Rukhaya MK 2010

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1 Comment

  1. Great content. It was of huge help in understanding the poem. The poem’s symbols are very personal hence the meaning doesn’t come across clearly. I came here looking for an explanation of hades bobbins and got a satisfying answer. Thank You.

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