Yeats on Byzantium

As certain gold-work has been on my mind these days. There is some commentary that may be worth a read at the end.

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
–Those dying generations — at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,(1)
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


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 starlit 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.

Now for some comments on the poems: Karl Parker makes the interesting comment in his comparative study that these poems are a sort of progression, the later poem being in fact a rewrite of the first one. That said, I’d like to concentrate on the motifs here that recur in other poems of Yeats. The starting point will be the pivotal motif of the golden bird. Now in the first poem the materiality of the bird is insisted on(“Such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/of hammered gold and gold enameling”) and in the second poem the immateriality(“more miracle than bird or handiwork”). Moreover, the second bird attempts perfection beyond what anything mortal is capable of. But there is still the subtle distinction between the “perched” in the first poem and the “planted” in the second poem, and the “perched” establishes the first bird as partaking of the impossible balance that is central to Yeat’s poems on art like “My table” or even poems on actual events like “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”(where the airman’s flight is “in balance with this life, this death). It’s a sort of very fragile sensation of what exactly artistic brilliance is. And it’s also un-achievable by mortals. The first poem places the perfection of byzantium in mosaicked saints(a nifty little link, incidentally, between the glow of “God’s holy fire’ and the glow of the gold mosaics) that must be summoned down off walls; they are both figuratively and literally distant. This motif is carried even further in the second poem by the disdaining dome, the inhuman mummy, the “flames no faggot[n.b. in this case faggot is an archaic term for a bundle of sticks] feeds nor steel has lit). The mortal airman of “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” is still distanced from earthly concerns and of course is about to join the ranks of the immortal. One also sees in the first poem, incidentally, a sort of claim that the poetry Yeats seeks is impossible in his time and place, and it would be a fine subject for a study to determine what exactly for Yeats constituted possible poetry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: