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W. B. Yeats´ two Byzantium poems
As he became an old man, Yeats wrote two poems about the antique city of Byzantium. These poems are very mystique. They tell from life and death and from the idea of being born again. The aim of Yeats` dreams is this city. Here he wants to be reincarnated.
In the fallowing work I want to unriddle the two poems to win insight in the poet`s dreams and fears. The dreams and fears of an ageing man.
The two poems, each for itself
Sailing to Byzantiumcan be divided in two parts. The first two stanzas desrcibe the ordinary life, the age and death. The last two stanzas tell from the hope of a new life in eternity.
The country Yeats talks about in the first stanza is the world he lives in and this has obviously left no room for him, because it ``is no country for old men``. This also includes the poet himself. Now Yeats sets the old men on contrast to the young. Thererefore he uses an enjambement. The old and the young stand directly next to each other in one line, but they are seperated by a full stop. The two generations are also contrasted by the content of the next lines. The world of the young people is full of love and harmony: ``in one another`s arms``.
Even nature joins in: ``birds in the trees``. Then there`s again the contrast to the old: ``-Those dying generations-``. This contrast is visually strengthened with the use of hyphens.
The image of the salmon has got a double meaning. On the one hand the salmon jumping up the falls is a symbol for birth, youth and energy. The salmon overcomes this hindrance to create a new generation. On the other hand, it has got the opposite meaning. ``The salmon- falls`` can also mean, that the salmon that once was young and has been a symbol for youth, now is falling, he is getting old and loses his power.
The mackerel crowded seas create another picture. Like earth is full of human beings, the sea is not only full of mackerels it is stuffed. That means there is only place for the young and strong ones and the old ones lost their right to live in the same sea. Using these images from nature Yeats shows, that this is a natural process. So he also uses the image of the life-cycle:
``Fish, flesh or fowl``. Everything will pass from this world. The line ``whatever is begotten, born and dies`` repeats the picture of the life-cycle.
The last two lines of the first stanza desrcibe the situation of the old. Yeats the old man is caught in his past, in the rememberance of the things that he has achieved, and also caught in the picture of himself as a young man.
In the second stanza he illustrates the situation of an old man. He says that an aged man is paltry. That means that he is a useless person who deserves other people`s pity. Then he creates the picture of an old man as a scarecrow. And this scary figure only lives because of the art it once has written. This art are the ``monuments of its own magnificence``.
In order to find a place, where not only the artworks but also the artist is honoured, he wants to sail to Byzantium.
The beginning of the third stanza sounds like an incantation. He calls the wise men of the past to help him in becoming someone like them. These men are ``standing in God`s holy fire``.
This fire gives them energy and cleans them. It is the old image of fire as a source of purgation. It also creates the image of these sages as stars standing in the firnament next to God. He compares this heavenly place with a gold mosaic of a wall. This comparison does not only illustrate his admiration of the sages, but also the meaning art has to him. Now he calls upon the sages to leave the holy place to help him.
He wants them to show him the way out of his misery and to guide his soul. They should ease him and take away his sorrows: ``Consume my heart away; sick with desire``. In order to show his pain, he compares himself with a dying animal to which his heart is fastened. The dying animal is a very strong image for the ageing poet and like this animal, htat is looking for a place to die, he is headlessly wandering through this world: ``it knows not what it is``.
This meant, he doesn`t know his place in this world. So he asks the sages to gather him ``into the artifice of eternity``.
Yeats doesn`t want to travel to Byzantium physically. He doesn`t really want to go on board of a ship to sail there. He wants to be reincarnated, and in the fourth stanza he chooses the form of his reincarnation.
When he passes from this worls de doesn`t want to become a natural kind of being again:
Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily forn from any natural thing, But such a form as Greacian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling He wants to be born as an artwork, because art has got a very special meaning to him. He has shown that before in the third stanza, where he talked about the gold mosaic. But Yeats won`t be a common artwork, he will be so fascinating, that he will be able to ``keep a drowsy emperor awake``.
An example for such an artwork is given in the next line: ``or set upon a golden bow to sing``. Here Yeats talks about the artificial golden bird that was made for the emperor of Byzantium. Yeats wants to become this bird to sing:
To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
In this part of the poem, the poet has not only reached a technical or artistic perfection, because he is the wonderful golden bird, he has olso won insight in the truths of the past, the present and the future. As that perfect piece of art he has reached an almost godlike status.
Byzantiumappeares like a collection of impressions and scenes from this unbelievable city. Each stanza has an own content and character.
The first stanza creates a calm and peaceful picture of the city. As night begins the whole city changes. ``The unpurged images of day recede``. This means that night falls over the city like a mist and makes all the negative sides disappear. Even the Emperor`s army doesn`t seem to be dangerous at all: ``The Emperor`s drunken soldiers are abed``. The army here is weakened in two ways. The army is drunken and isn`t able to fight any more. It now just seems like a caricature of a real army. And they are asleep. So, every bit of danger or fear is gone.
The scene that Yeats sets here is quiet: ``Night resonance recedes``. The business of the day is gone and only one sound can be heard: ``night.walker`s song``.
The gong of the cathedral called in the night: ``After great cathedral gong``. This line is ambiguous. Not only the gong is great, but also the cathedral. At this point Yeats hints to the great culture of Byzantium. This is also mentioned in the next line: ``A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains``. Here Yeats also talks about Byzantium`s great architectural achievements that witness the cultural strength of this city. But this image is disturbed by the verb ``disdains``:
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains All that man is.
All mere complexities, The fury and the mire of human veins.
This means that compared with this great building a man is nothing. All the human troubles and problems seem to be meaningless. And in the last line Yeats says that this is good. A human being is a collection of negative attributes. The human veins are dirty, so he calls them mire. But we have to remember one thing: humans have not only created this building but the whole city of Byzantuim. So Yeats questions the human existance and the great Art. This means that when life comes to an end everything is questionable. And this is the topic of the first stanza: death. The whole imagery of quietness and sleep is a symbol for death.
The quiet atmosphere of the first stanza is not only created by the description of the nocturnal scenes. It is also a product of the language. In the third line Yeats says: ``Night resonance recedes``. This is also the case for the language. It recedes. The sentences are just indicated. Yeats omly gives the key-words and the reader comlpetes the picture himself: ``night- walker`song``.
The second stanza gets even darker and more mysterous:
Before me floats an image, man or shade, Shade more than man, more image than a shade; Obviously Yeats is takling about some kind of ghost. In the first line he can`t really tell what kind of image he has discovered. The verb ``float`` describes that the image isn`t able to move. It blows in the wind like a leave or floats like a piece of wood in a river. This attribute of the image creates the picture of a kind of ghost. This image is strengthened by the fact thet Yeats can`t tell wether it is a man or a shade.
This mysterious mood is continued in the second line. At the first sight it seems like a repetition of the end of the first line. Again Yeats isn`t able to discover the nature of the image. Is it a man or a shade, or a image or a shade? But read in a different way, the beginning of this line offers a more exact meaning: ``Shade more than man``. This means that this shade is more than a man. The shade is a supernatural being, a ghost.
The next two lines are even more mysterious:
For Hades` bobbin bound in mummy-cloth May unwind the winding path; Hades is the greek god of the underworld and becane also the term for the land of the death itself. Now it is clear that Yeats really talked about a ghost in the first two lines.
``Hades` bobbin has got two meanings. First the bobbin is a symbol for the thread of life which is controlled by Hades. He plots peoples life and the length. Another meaning of the bobbin is the thread that leadsthe way out of the Minotaur`s labyrinth. In this case it leads the spirits out of Hades` Realm into the world of the living humans. ``May unwind the winding path`` also hints to this suggestion. The thread of the bobbin unwinds the path out of the Hades. The mummy-cloth helps to create the picture of the Hades. It makes the reader think of dark vaults and egyptian tombs.
The last four lines are a kind of invocation formula:
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.
First Yeath gives a desrciption of the inhabitants of the Hades. Their have got neither moisture nor breath. This description underlines the fact that they are really dead.
The next line is ambiguous. In this line Yeats not only talks about the dead, but also about himself. Again the dead are described as ``breathless``, but this word also refers to the poet. He is breathless because the invocation makes him very exited. The verb ``summon`` stands for the act of invocation.
The invocation seems to be soccesful, because the next line sounds like a salute to the arriving dead. Now the border between life and death is abolished. That`s what Yeats describes in the last line. He can`t tell if the persons he sees are dead or alive.
In the third stanza yeats talks about the glorious Handiwork of Byzantium:
Miracle, bird or golden handiwork, More miracle than bird or handiwork, These two lines can be compared with the beginning of the second stanza. There the poet wasn`t able to decide wether the image was a man or a shade. The border was blurred. Thios is also the case in the third stanza. The handiworks of Byzantium are so perfect that the borders between miralce, bird and handiwork are blurred. Although he knows that it is a piece of art, it seems to him more like a miracle.
Yeats has alredy indicated what kind of handiwork he talks about: the legendary golden bird of Byzantium`s Emperor. In the next lines he gives a more detailed description of this miraculous bird:
Planted on the star-lit 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.
First Yeats tells us the position of the bird in the Emperor`s palace. He sits on a golden bough, where it is illuminated by the moon. So the position has been carefully chosen.
Then the bird is compared with the cocks of Hades. But not the bird`d appearance equals tha cock of Hades, but its call. It can tell the same things as the cock, so that he can give informations about the underworld. So, also the third stanza has death as a topic.
First the bird is illuminated by the stars, now the moon shines upon it: it is embittered by the moon. So, the moon has god negative attributes in this poem. Why is this so? The moon as a female symbol stands in opposition to the cock as a male symbol. But this struggle has got no influence on the bird: ``In glory of changeless metal``. So Yeats has staged this little struggle to underline the glory of the golden bird. In doing so he also demonstrates the significance of the art as the golden bird serves as an example for art and handiwork.
Under the influence of the moon, the bird scorns the common birds or petals. This means that compared with the wonderful artwork, natural birds and flowers are inferior. And like in the first stanza Yeats diminishes the importance and the quality of the homan attributes,. Because he adds all the human complexities to the inferior birds and flowers. And again he uses the devaluating term ``mire``.
The fourth stanza presents another piece of Byzantuim`s rich culture: the mosaic in the Emperor`s palace:
At midnight on the Emperor`s pavement flit Flames that no faggot feeds, or steel has lit, Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame, The scene in the palace is now different from the scene in the first stanza. The drunken soldiers are forgotten. This partly comic element is gone, because it has no place when the poet talks about the arts.
The mosaic is so perfect and realistic, that it really seems to be alive.It is flitting over the floor. Yeats illustrates this by comparing it with flames. The spectator of the mosac wonders, How this fire is kept alive. But this fire doesn`t need to be fed with faggots, it is fed with the sheer ability of the mosaic`s creator. ``Nor storm disturbs`` doesn`t just mean that it can`t be harmed by winds because it is not a real fire, it also means that this artwork will live on forever. Emperors and taste might change, but this mosaic won`t loose its greatness.
The image of the flames have also been chosen for another reason: the fire as a purgatory power. This means that someone who watches the mosaic gets clean. These flames wash the negative elements out of his soul. This again is the power of the arts.
This phenonenon is described in the fallowing lines:
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.
The blood-begotten spirits might either be the ghosts, invocated in the second stanza, or someone who gets reincarnated in Byzantium, as Yeats described it inSailing to Byzantium. Now these spirits take a look at the mosaic and they loose their negative attributes. The ``complexities`` that were mentioned twice before are gone. The negative human energies are now canalized into a dance. And when the dance is over, the comlexities will be gone , too.
This is meant with ``dying into a dance``. ``An agony of trance`` repeats that the energy of the fury is now used for the dance.
The last line repeats how realistic the mosaic is. It is ``an agony of flame``, but it ``cannot singe a sleeve``, because it is no real fire, it is an artwork.
The last stanza introduces two new elements: dolphins and the sea.
Astraddle on the dolphin`s mire and blood, Sprit after spirit! The smithies break the flood, The golden smithies of the Emperor!
The spitits are brought from the underworld on the backs of dolphins. The flood is the river that seperates the Hades from the World of the living. The dolphins are mortal beings like the humans. They also consist of mire and blood. Maybe that`s wha they help the spirits. The dolphins are intelligent enough to understand, that once they will also die and when this time comes they want to be helped, too.
But there are other helpers, the smithies of the Emperor. They break the flood and pave the way for the dolphins. The smithies` deed has a symbolic meaning. The smithies have created immortal handiworks, the golden bird and the mosaic. They help the spirits to leave the underworld to become immortal. These are their own spirits and they became immortal by their handiwork. Now one of the artworks is mentioned again:
Marbles of the dancing floor Break bitter furies of complexity, Those images that yet Fresh images beget, That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.
In these last lines, the whole poem is summed up. Most of the elements occur again. The mosaic with its dancing flames, as an example for the arts. The effect this art has on the beholder. And the immortality of the art and its creator. But in this case another reason for this immortality is given. These artworks inspire other artists to create new ones. The old art lives on in the new art. The ``dolphin-torn`` and ``gong-tormented`` sea is the last imange of the poem. It stands for the victory of the artist. The art has overcome death. In this way the old poet can reach immortality.
The two poems and their links
The two Byzantium-poems have got four major topics im common:
-The invocation of the dead
-The golden bird
-The city of Byzantium
InSailingYeats adresses his speech directly to the dead. At the beginning of the third stanza he calls them: ``O sages...``. He calls on these sages to participate in their knowledge. These wise men became immortal through their arts. Yeats wants them to help him becoming immortal, too. In the poem he wants to be a ``artifice of eternity``. In real life this means, that his art shall be eternal. InByzantiumhe doesn`t adress his speech that direct to the ghosts.
During the second stanza tha act of invocation gets obvious. He honours the dead (`` I hail the superhuman``), but the intention of the invocation doesn`t really get clear, but from this point of the poem on, the topic of death is in the air.
In both poems fire has got a very special function. In bothSailingandByzantiumthe image of fire has got two levels. InSailingthe sages stand in ``God`s holy fire``. This fire shows the reader the importance and spiritual power of these wise men. They literally shine like a torch. Their importance is also illustrated by their position next to God. The ring of fire binds them to him and secludes them from the world of Yeats.
InByzantiumthe fire has the function of showing the mastery of the mosaic. It illustrates the liveliness and the vivacy of this artwork. It really seems to be alive like a burning fire.
The second symbolic level the fire has in both poems is its purgatory power. InSailingthe sages profite from this godly energy. It cleans their souls and gives them new spiritual health. Yeats calls these sages. He also wants to be refreshed by the holy fire. InByzantiumpurgatory power of the fire is directly shown. The spirits come to the fire and loose their ``complexities of fury``. InByzantiuma deeper level of this imagery gets obvious. Here the purgatory fire is fed by the art itself. Here the art is the fire, the power oritinates from the mosaic. So when talking about the fire, Yeats is talking about the art.
The golden bird appears in boths poems. First of all it is a Symbol for the masrery of handiwork in Byzantium. But the bird has also got supernatural abilities. In both poems it is able to tell secrets of the past, the present and the future. So, to some extand the bird is a symbol for the poet himself. He also tells riddled truths through his works. The cock as a symbol for manhood stands for the poem as a man. The cock is embittered by the moon, a female symbol, like the old poet is embittered by women.
Finally the city of Byzantium appeares in both poems. InSailingit is the final destination of a journey. Byzantium is the land of Yeats dreams. Why Byzantium?
The idea of old Greece as an ideal is not Yeats invention. In the german Sturm und Drang- period the feeling of estrangement and alienation lead to the antique world as an ideal. But not the scolarly latin antiquity, but early archaic greece was the prototype. There the vioce of nature spoke out of man and humans were able to cultivate all their abilities. A man was not fixed to one job, he could be everything like Sophokles who was a warrior and a poet at the same time. Yeats also preferred the greek antiquity to the latin decadence. The antique Byzantium was a city where an artist like yeats was able to breath free without any limitations. An artist was not disintegrated and was able to do whatever he wanted.
InSailingYeats contrasts his own life as an ageing man, who becomes an outsider in society because of his appearance and his weakness, with the glorious city of Byzantium. Especially his description of the age in the first two stanzas delivers a very good picture of Yeats` inner life. He doesn`t regard himself as a part of this world any more. So he escapes to the idea of Byzantium. There he and his art will be appreciated.
InByzantiumthe contrast between the greek city and the real world is presented in another way. Not the age and its treatment is Byzantium`s antipole, but the human attributes. Yeats calls them ``mere complexities``. In Byzantium these negative sides of the human beings will disappear. But arriving in this city doesn`t only mean becoming a better man, but also reaching immortality. Immortality by the help of the art, because Byzantium is also a symbol for the victory of the artist over death. Perfect art will live on forever, and with his wonderful poems on Byzantium, Yeats has made two more steps in that direction.
- Quote paper
- Sebastian Krack (Author), 2000, W. B. Yeat`s - Two Byzantium poems, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/99309