The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Byzantium” is written in five eight-line stanzas that are, in their metrical precision and complex rhyme scheme, reminiscent of the unique stanzaic patterns of the early nineteenth century odes composed by such English Romantic poets as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The twentieth century Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats certainly shares many traits with those, and other, nineteenth century precursors. Nevertheless, despite all the intensity of its emotion and the rich intricacies of its imagery, “Byzantium” is hardly the sort of effusive outburst one has come to associate with the ode; the speaker seems to be more engulfed in his vision than in any attempt to share its emotional quadrants with the reader.

“Byzantium” takes its name from an ancient city upon whose site the Roman Emperor Constantine constructed his eastern, Christian capital about c.e. 330. Called Nova Roma, that city eventually became known as Constantinopolis and is the modern-day Turkish city Istanbul. For more than a thousand years the capital of the Byzantine Empire, it was regarded as the premier city of the Western world. While Yeats prefers the city’s older name, there is no doubt that his Byzantium is medieval Constantinople.

As the poem begins, night is falling. The day’s sights and even the night’s sounds draw back, leaving the reader’s undistracted senses free to explore other realms of reality and ranges of experience. Soon it is after midnight. The soldiers’ nightly revelries have ended, although a “night walker,” who may simply be someone out very late or a streetwalker plying her trade, is singing, and in the “great cathedral,” the Hagia Sophia, the gong that calls the faithful to prayer has already rung.

In this dreamy atmosphere, pregnant with mystery and anticipation, “A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains”...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Yeats never abandoned the Symbolist tradition that shaped him as a poet in his youth. Though “Byzantium” is a product of his later years, written well after he had transformed himself into a modernist poet, surely the chief device that gives the poem its other-worldly ambiance is the symbol.

Indeed, in Yeats’s view, only the symbolic can express the highest truths, for symbols are “hints too subtle for the intellect”—that is, they can speak to the deeper and more enduring faculties that are generally categorized as the soul. Furthermore, the symbol can do so with an incredible economy, whereby a series of symbols in the right combination can encompass the sorts of truths that would require reams of philosophical discourse to approximate.

By the same token, Yeats was himself too serious a student and seeker of human enlightenment to trust to the unregenerate dream imagery that often beguiles the visionary poet. Thus all his life he steeped himself in traditional symbologies—ancient Celtic lore; occult symbolism and ritual, including astrology; and, finally, the rich Christian iconography of Byzantine Europe.

Yeats’s studies had taught him that the ancient Romans used dolphins to depict the spirit’s voyage from this world to the next; that the starry dome was symbolic of the soul’s astral destiny in the ancient mystery cults associated with Mithra and Orpheus; that a crowing cock carved on a tombstone was intended to ward off evil spirits and influences; that the Byzantine emperors had mechanical birds that sang to the delight of visitors; that the golden bough signifies that point at which the temporal and eternal mingle their mysteries. Precisely how these and other symbols that Yeats half appropriated and half created combine to form new or larger meanings in his poetry is left, as it should be, to the creative energies of each reader.