Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While the symbol may leave the analytical mind that eschews speculative reasoning high and dry, Yeats’s poetry is not incapable of yielding precise meanings, even if they remain debatable. If one can balance the symbolic coordinates, “Byzantium” yields a rich harvest.

It is generally accepted, for example, that Byzantium is for Yeats a city of art to which the soul might escape whenever the pressures or sheer corruption of the world in particular and the physical universe in general become too much to bear. Much of this sort of reading of “Byzantium” is based on pairing that poem with comments Yeats made in a long prose work entitled A Vision (1925, 1937), as well as with another, earlier Yeats poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” which does seem to express a desire to escape from the decay and tedium of cyclical nature and which also mentions a golden bird.

On a wholly spiritual level, “Byzantium” clearly does contrast the mere mundane level of daylight vision with the infinitely richer possibilities that contemplations of the eternal and the miraculous offer. If the poem seems to trivialize day-to-day despairs and travails, it does so by asserting that enduring glories that are as yet unimagined, albeit hinted at in the symbols and icons of artistic and religious traditions, will eventually reward the patient soul.

The less one categorizes the nature of these glories—whether they are religious or aesthetic—of the eternal and spiritual or of the temporal and perceptual, the more one can appreciate Yeats’s main point that they are in fact transcendent and beyond corruption, and are therefore unchanging.

Thus the “superhuman” that the speaker hails can be Yeats’s way of suggesting that humanity has yet to achieve its full potential in the capacity to imagine a transcendent reality. The poem also comments on that element of the divine that seems to commingle irresistibly with humanity’s mortal nature, creating the complexities and confusions and conflicts on which the poem comments. This divine element could be the Christ, who, in the Byzantine image called the Pantokrator, represented in Yeats’s view the apogee of all Western thought and development to that moment in history and so seemed, as an image, to embody the perfection the race is perpetually seeking in its visionary quests.