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.)