“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” all that human beings are—human complexities and the “fury and the mire” of human veins. That dome may be the night sky or it may be the dome of the Hagia Sophia. Earthbound in this most worldly of cities, an imperial capital, the speaker reminds the reader of that extreme emblem of power and glory, the boundless heavens that dwarf the scope of the human imagination, let alone human accomplishments, let alone one mere mortal.
As if he, too, has been called to prayer and is inspired by this setting to free his spirit of its sensory limitations, the speaker now has a vision. He cannot be certain if the image he sees is a man or a shade—that is, a ghost—although it is an image apparently so awesome in its reality that it overwhelms him to such an extent that he does not know if he is alive or dead—or what life or death is. Yielding to the strength of his vision, he “hail[s] the superhuman;/ I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.”
The vision increases in its intensity as the darkened physical world all about him is transfigured. He is “seeing” with the mind’s eye—although it would be more proper, given the quasi-religious tone of much of the imagery thus far, to imagine the so-called third eye of the mystic. The reader now sees a golden bird that may be a miracle, a real bird, or a man-made, mechanical bird. The speaker decides that it is a miraculous bird; it is “Planted on the starlit golden bough” and “by the moon embittered.” The imagery recalls the disdainful dome of the opening stanza, for the bird also “scorn[s] aloud” the day’s commonplaces and “all complexities of mire or blood.”
In the fourth stanza, the visionary frenzy increases as the reader is swept up with the speaker “into a dance,/ An agony of trance.” Flames are flitting on the pavement. These are not the result of the fires of our physical world, however, but are manifestations of the fire of the spirit. Although they are begotten of blood, those spirits who have finally...
(The entire section contains 1095 words.)
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- Critical Essays