Byzantium: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      (Byzantium is a description of the city bearing that name, but it is also a symbol of Paradise as well as Purgatory).

Stanza I

      The ordinary gross objects of the work-a-day world go into the background. The drunken soldiers of the emperor are now asleep. The voices of the night become faint; the night-walkers song comes to an end, after the sound of the gong of the great Cathedral (St. Sophia). A star-studded or moon-lit dome of the sky scorns all that man is, all his complexities, the passion and the dross of human life (the violence decay and transitory of man’s life).

Stanza II

      Before me, appears a vision—perhaps a man or shade or a visible ghost of an invisible spirit; a purified spirit which has unwound the coffin cloth and has cast away its impurities and become a purified spirit. It is a lifeless image as also an immortal being and I call it death in-like and life-in-detail (‘dead’ according to our idiom, but ‘alive’ according to the wise).

Stanza III

      I see a sort of miracle. Is it a golden bird or is it something else or is it an unusual bird on a starlit golden bough? It can crow like the cock of hell, or scorn other birds of petals and. all the changes which flesh is heir to.

Stanza IV

      At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement appears a fire which is not fed by fuel or started, by striking a piece of iron against a flintstone. No storm can disturb these flames which are begotten of blood (according to medieval belief) or are self-generating. Here the spirits are purified of all their passions in the flames. There the purgatorial dance of spirit begins and ends in a sort of peace and joy. The spirits thus purified, gain eternal peace.

Stanza V

      Spirits sit astride on the dolphins with their mire and blood and reach the beach of Byzantium. The blacksmiths of the emperor impose order on these spirits. The marbles of the dancing floor break little furies of complexity, and those images that beget fresh images and also the dolphin tom, that gong tormented sea.

Critical Analysis


      Byzantium was written in 1930 and published in the volume entitled The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1930). The earlier poem Sailing to Byzantium was written in 1929. The later poem is both similar and dissimilar to the earlier poem. The poem was written in Italy after a long sickness. Byzantium should not be confined to the historical city of the Holy Roman Empire. It is a country of the poet’s imagination, a millennium or symbol of Paradise. The poet’s notes recorded about this poem reads thus: “Describe Byzantium as it is the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy flows at the street comers where the soul is purified, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden tree, in the bower, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to Paradise.”

      The poem is symbolic of the need of suffering and purification. Life is full of ‘complexities of misery or blood’. But the process of purification is an agony of trance. The record theme is superiority of art in which the poet seeks a refuse. Some critics read into it the process of making a poem. Whatever be the interpretation, It yields new joy and significance at each reading.

      The poet describes the conditions in Byzantium—the drunken soldiers, the Cathedral gong and the moonlit dome. The midnight brings human activity to an end. The confrontation between the different elements of Rajas, Tamas and Satva has come to an end. Tlie poet (as it were) looks from a tower on all that man is and his struggle and complexities. He sees a superhuman figure which he calls death-in-life and life-in-death. If we interpret it as a part of the poetic process, imagination resolves the differences in the raw materials supplied by the physical world. The poet in that mysterical state destroys all the differences between life and death. He is both living and dead—dead to the world and living in the world of spirit.

      One of the spirits leads the poet to a mechanical golden bird who offers a contrast to Nature or art. It rejects all complexities of mire or blood. The golden bird sings to the poet of the eternal reality and its glory instead of the fury and mire of mundane existence.

      The poet finds in the Emperor’s palace, the pavement on which a mystic fire bums and in which the souls of the dead dance and thereby purge themselves without getting burnt. Finally, the poet standing, sees many people riding on the backs of dolphins rushing to the beach. The smiths of the emperor work on them to perfection.

      The theme of the poem is the soul and its purification. The poet rejects the life of the senses and procreation. In the Byzantium, as in purgatory, the spuls are purified and the smiths work on them and give them inimitable images.

Development of Thought

      The poem opens with a scene at night — the silence being conductive to divine contemplation. The bloody realities (Irish freedom struggle) are over; the revelers have gone to rest. The poet looks at the dome of St. Sophia’s Church lit up by the moonlight. Then the poet sees an image—hardly identifiable—of a spirit from the land of the dead. This spirit has been purged by mentally going through the earthly experiences. Hades’ Bobbin unwinds itself, implying that souls relieve their earlier lives and re-suffer previous agonies. Suffering leads to their purification. The distinction between life and death is marginal. The distinction between life and death is marginal. The poet calls it death-in-life and life-in-death.

The Golden Bird

      One of the spirits takes the poet to be a mechanical golden bird, sitting on a golden bough. This reminds us of the golden age of Byzantine art. The spirits generally disappear with the crowing of cocks and so the poet refers to Hades’ Cock. The golden bird symbolizes the eternity and glory of art like the dome mentioned in the first stanza. The purity and permanence of art is contrasted with the blood and mire of the physical world of today.

      Thereafter the poet present the scene of purgatory where the souls are purified by an unearthly and endless fire. Spirits from the physical world—‘blood-begotten’—come here and by dreaming their former experiences expatiate for their sins. This internal fire of remorse and repentance purifies these spirits.

The Dolphin-Ride

      Finally, as the poet completes the round of purgatory, he views the vast ocean of life when the spirits move forward riding on the back of dolphins. The dolphins belong to the world of mire and blood. After purgation, the soul are wrought by the smiths and shaped anew. The poet casts a last look on the ocean of life when the struggle between the flesh and the spirit in man is swinging on the pendulum to and fro.


      This is a difficult, nay obscure poem. It is in the reverse order-first comes Paradise, then purgatory and finally the world as it is, with its tensions and conflicts. Secondly, the variety of interpretations makes for its complexity. Thirdly, the complex images make it incomprehensible to an ordinary man. Hades’ Bobbin, death-in-life, blood-begotten spirits, the dolphins, the smithies are capable of various interpretations. Fourthly, the symbols of the golden dome, the golden bird, the gong and the flame, the emperor are rather unusual. They indicate the glory of Byzantine art. But one has to dig deep in order to understand the meaning of symbols in the context of the world of today. Paradoxes like flames without fuel and mouth without moisture and breath add to the complexity of the poem. Inspite of its complexities and interpretations at different levels, the poem has a unity of idea and purpose. Byzantium is not only a historical reality, but also an ideal state. In short, the poem deserves a close and deep study in order to unravel the secrets of the poet’s mind and art.

Critical Opinions

      According to Ellmann, “the poet, who is precisely identified with the Byzantine Emperor, takes the welter of images and masters, them in the act of creation. This, mastery is astonishing to the poet himself that he calls the creation of his imagination superhuman. The image of the golden bird ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork’ may be understood to represent a poem; the bird sings, as do Yeats’s poems, either like the cock of Hades, of rebirth—the continuing cycle of reincarnating human life, or with greater glory of the eternal reality or his attitude which transcends the cycles and all complexities of mire and blood. Never had he realized so completely the awesome drama of the creative act.”

      Giorgio Melxhiori remarks: “Byzantium is a contemplation of death—r rather of the ideal state of death. The meter adopted is significant from this point of view. While ‘Sailing’ was in the eight-line stanza form, common to many meditative poems of Yeats, Byzantium adopts the meter that Yeats used only in his most deeply felt poems of death and birth, the stanza patterned on that of Cowley’s elegy for Mr. William Harvey and used first in the poem for the death of Major Gregory.”

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