(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.
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.