William B. Yeats (1865-1939)
Byzantium was the capital of the Eastern wing of the Holy Roman Empire. It was famous for its mosaic art and gold enamelling. But in this poem Byzantium is not a city of concrete reality. It is a creation of the mind which exists in imagination only. It is a place beyond the world of teeming millions, free from the limitation of time and space.
Both are the poems of escape from a world of flux to a kingdom of permanence and in both the poet is trying to solve a personal problem. In the first he seeks to quell the desires troubling his heart in old age, while in the second he 'wanted to warm himself back to life' after a severe illness which brought him very close to death.
The poem opens in the silence of the night, when the great song of St. Sophia has announced the time appropriate to spiritual meditation and divine revelation. The images of daytime, such as the drunken soldiers of the king, reminiscent of the savage British soldiers terrorizing the Irish peasantry, stained with the blood and fury of the busy day light. The noises and images peculiar of the night in a great city, such as the song of night-walkers and brawl of the revelers have also melted in the calm atmosphere. The poet is now, face to face with the Great Dome of St. Sophia, which suddenly assumes the aspect of the sky, bedecked with the light of the moon and stars and looking down upon the human life on the earth with multiplicities, love and hate, strife and confusion, peculiar to the everyday life of men and women.
As the poet contemplates the Dome of 'Divine wisdom' with a secret desire to explore its mysteries, he describes an image floating before him. It is faint and vague, a shadow in comparison with a concrete human body, but an image when compared to a shade. The poet keeps its identity deliberately vague as Milton does in the case of the description of Death in Paradise Lost. This much is clear that it is one of the spirits from the Land of the Dead, which like the 'Sages in God's holy fire' in 'Sailing to Byzantium' can retrace their steps (unwind the winding path) and come to the earth, which they have left behind. They have become purged of the memories of the earthly life which were woven round them like the 'mummy cloths' round the Egyptian mummies or the skein of thread round the bobbin. This spirit, with a mouth without moisture or breath can summon other ghosts from Hades as the Shade of Tiresias does in Homer's Kingdom of the blessed to help Ulysses. The poet needs a guide to lead him to the various regions of the kingdom of the dead. Such a guidance was prescribed by all the mystic and occult systems.
'Shade' appears to be incorporeal spirit, but with certain properties of communication; Image would seem to be the shade in a more or less materialized condition. The poet hails the superhuman guide, who is antithetical to man, living the life of the man's death and the death of man's life, and starts on his pilgrimage under the felt presence of this spirit.
The third stanza presents the vision of heaven, and the golden bird here, more a 'miracle' than 'an artifice' planted on the starlit golden branch of the mystic tree, is a purified soul. Its substance is gold, the purest and imperishable substance in alchemy, the symbol of the transmuted soul. It is a bird not made by the hand of man, but hammered into shape on the divine smithy in purgatory.
The fourth stanza unrolls the spectacle of purgatory, where the souls are flitting about like flames of fire, which is unearthly. It is not the fire raised by faggot for the burning of martyrs, nor the one struck by the steel in friction. It is the unearthly fire of purgatory, which no storm can disturb and which purges the soul into the likeness of flame as described by Dante in his Divine Cometly. To this place of purgation come the spirits from the human world and undergo the process of the gradual liberation through "dreaming back". This dreaming back, in which the soul reviews all its memories, sins and experiences, is represented by a dance which, at times, is marked by 'an agony of trance', where the soul burns in the eternal fire of remorse. This fire of agony which consumes the spirits is internal, not external, it burns the heart of the sinner but cannot burn 'a sleeve'. In this sense the flames or the fire-like souls are begotten of flames, that is the flame raging in their minds. The flame which covers them is the flame issuing out of their own minds.
In the last stanza the poet has reached the brink of purgatory and can catch a clear view of the vast ocean of time-and-space-bound life through which 'blood-begotten' spirits are seen moving forward on the backs of dolphins, the proverbial escorts of souls to the kingdom of the dead. The scene has been familiarized by artists as well as the makers of the Roman tombs. But dolphins themselves are also the symbols of earthly love, 'of the mire and blood' of the mortal life and as such belong to the element of the ocean, which they are traversing. The flood of life beats upon the borders of 'the smithy', where the souls are purged and shaped and the water of life cannot penetrate; while, on the marble floor, where the souls 'dance in an agony of trance' they are gradually divested of 'that flaming shirt' that agonising and cohesive stain of the fury, passion and lust of life which human hand cannot remove. The dancing images are begetting fresh images of their life experiences in the process of 'dreaming back'. Each memory comes back as an image in a dream. In the last line the poet has come back to the shores of the ocean of life, which is agitated by the conflicting claims of flesh (dolphin-torn) and spirit (gong-tormented), the extremities between which the moral man swings like a pendulum.
Sharma, K.N. "Byzantium by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 24 May 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/byzantium-critical-appreciation.html.