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Byzantium -- William Butler Yeats

       
(Poem #60) Byzantium
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 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
This poem should be read in conjunction with 'Sailing to Byzantium' (the
Minstrels, poem #21) (and the notes attached thereto) for full effect.

Quoting extensively from George Macbeth...

"...Yeats' third period ... was concerned with [exploring and
expressing] the intricacies of a private mythology. [Read the commentary
to 'Sailing to Byzantium' for a more detailed description of Yeats'
poetic development - thomas] ...

...Yeats read philosophy late in life with an imperfect understanding of
what it was all about, and his ideas form a confused hotchpotch of
idealist thinking from Plato onwards. The amazing thing is that this
rather ridiculous superstructure enabled him to enrich and deepen his
response to experience in his later poems. In particular, the myth of
Byzantium as a magical city where life was entirely transmuted into art
inspired Yeats to some of his finest poetic flights [sorry to repeat
myself <grin> - thomas]. The idea of life as art was originally part of
the common vocabulary of decadence in the late nineteenth century, but
Yeats gave it a new twist and a new meaning...

...['Byzantium' is] perhaps the most extreme example of Yeats' third
period, a masterpiece of density and evocative but mysterious detail.
References to the history of the Holy Roman Empire blend with Yeats' own
philosophy in a glittering, intense traffic jam of brilliant ideas. In
essence, the poem is an ecstatic vision of the spontaneous creation of
spirits in what Yeats seems to see as the furnace of heaven. The dolphin
was the Byzantine guide to the other world. The idea of 'handiwork' in
the poem is a common one in Yeats' later work (compare, especially, the
last stanza of 'Sailing to Byzantium')..."

'a glittering, intense traffic jam of brilliant ideas' - I couldn't have
put it better myself. On that note,

thomas.

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