Byzantium Summary and Analysis: A Poem by William Butler Yeats

Read below our complete notes on the poem “Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. Our notes cover Byzantium summary, themes, and a detailed analysis of Byzantium Poem by W.B Yeats.

Byzantium Introduction:

Byzantium presents an ideal state for humans which is beyond human life. The poet describes this poem as “Byzantium as it is the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium. A walking mummy flows at the street corners 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.”

Byzantium Summary:

Stanza 1

The unpurged images of the day recede

The picture of the day to day objects which are mere objects having gross nature are going to the background because something important is coming so their value is fading away.

The Emperor`s drunken soldiers are abed

The soldiers of the Emperor who are drunk heavily are now fast asleep. They do not move and it shows the night at its full calm and peak.

Night resonance recedes, night-walkers` song

After great cathedral gong;

When the cathedral (church of St. Sophia) has struck the sound of mid night, so the music and songs of people of in the midnight also fade away and the night walkers` song also fade away. the night walkers` can be analyzed in two ways; one as usual night walkers who are rushing towards home while the others are the prostitutes.

A starlit or moonlit disdains

All that man is

All mere complexities

The fury and the mire of human veins

The starlit is the reference to the cathedral that is dislikes all that human possesses, the cathedral is contemptuous towards the nature and feelings of humans. It does not contemplate human and his intricacies. The cathedral stands here for spirituality while man stands for modernist perspective.

Summary of Stanza 1:

In this first stanza, the description is of night and the great gong of St. Sophia’s cathedral has declared that it is the time suitable and exact for spiritual meditation. The images of the drunken soldiers who are asleep remind the savage British soldiers who used to torment and torture the Irish peasantry. He says that the noise of the great gong of the cathedral has subdued the noise of the night walkers and their songs. The dome of the cathedral which the poet faces is looks as decorated with the stars and is looking at the human life of earth. The human life which is the combination of confusion and chaos is looked by this dome and it disdains this life.

Stanza 2

Before me floats an image, man or shade

The poets says that it this time of the night when it is a right time for meditation and he has entered to the spiritual city of the Byzantium a vision appears before him. He gets confused after seeing the vision because it seems like a man and a shadow. Whether it a shadow or a man, the poet seems baffled in deciding about.

Shade more than man, more image than a shade

This shade which means a spirit is more than a man in appearance as its outlook and the composure is more than a man.

For Hades` bobbin bound in mummy cloth

May unwind the winding path

This spirit which has come from the region of death has unwound the coffin cloth and threw away all the impurities and has become a purified spirit which has been through purgatory.

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath

Breathless mouth may summon

I hail the superman

I call it death in life and life in death

The poet then explains this spirit and says that this image of spirit is very lifeless because it does not breathe, it is in no current of life. But at the same it seems an immortal being as well. So the poet calls it life in death and death in life image or spirit.

Summary of Stanza 2:

He sees an image of human body but it appears to be a shade. He says that this image is more like a shade. He praises this superhuman because it has come to take him to the spiritual city of Byzantium. The poet feels the presence of this Great Spirit at the start of hid pilgrimage as very encouraging.

Stanza 3

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork

More miracle than bird or handiwork

Planted on the starlit golden bough.

Then the poet says that he says a miracle. He sees a golden bird but promptly says that is something else than a bird. It is unusual bird golden bird ‘set upon a golden bough’ which Yeats has described in his earlier poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ as well.

Can crock like the cocks of the Hades Crow?

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud

In glory metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire or blood

He says that this bird can crock like the crow which has come from the region of death and scorn other birds of petals and all the changes which flesh means mortal beings are destined to pass through. So this birds is spiritual and is casting away the material impurities.

Summary of stanza 3:

This stanza depicts the description of the heaven. He sees the golden bird and calls it a miracle, it is planted on the golden branch of the mystic tree. The bird is made up gold which is the purest substance and it demonstrates that the bird is a purified soul. The bird here is used as a symbol of purified souls and is given a divine shape by the great artisans of heaven.

Stanza 4

At Mid night on the Emperor`s pavement flit

Flames that no faggots feeds; nor steel has lit it

The poet says around midnight fire appears on the Emperor`s pavement and it seems that this fire has not been lit by burning wood or the friction of any steel against these move about stones.

Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,

He adds that no storm can interfere of disturb this fire and the flames which have been lit though self-generating.

Where blood-begotten spirits come

And all complexities of fury leave

He says that all the spirits come to this fire because they want to cast away their impurities.

Dying into a dance,

An agony of trance,

An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve

These spirits are purified from all the complexities in this fire. They come out as purified spirits. Then these spirits begin their dance of purgatory because they are about to be purified. This dance ends in a soothing joy and peace. And in the end these spirits are purified.

Summary of Stanza 4:

This stanza depicts the scenes of purgatory. The fire is lit which is not caused by burning wood or friction of steel with the pavement. The spirits are being passed through this purgatory fire in order to get purified. This fire is heavenly and the main purpose of this fire is to cast away all the impurities and complexities of the souls.

Stanza 5:

Astraddle on the dolphin`s mire and blood

Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood

These spirits one by one sit in the dolphins with their mire and blood and reach the beach of Byzantium.

The golden smithies of the emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity,

Those image that yet,

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn that gong-tormented sea.

These spirits are imposed order upon by the blacksmiths of the Emperor. The marbles of the floor where they dance break little furies of complexity and those images beget fresh images.

Summary of stanza 5:

In this stanza, the poet finds himself close to purgatory. He sees that blood begotten spirits are moving towards this fire in the back of dolphins. The poet describes the shore of ocean of life in the last line. It is a conflict between flesh and spirit. It symbolizes the state of man between life and after life.

Byzantium Themes:

Immorality:

The major theme of this immorality. The poem seems to express a desire to escape from the decay and tedium of cyclical nature. He wants to transform his own consciousness and find mystical union with the golden mosaics of a medieval empire.

Byzantium Analysis:

  • It was written in 1930 and published in The Winding Stair and other Poems.
  • The poem comprises of 5 stanzas of 8 each.
  • The meter in not regular.
  • The first, second, third, fifth and eighth line of each stanza follow iambic pentameter. The fourth lines follow tetrameter and the sixth and seventh follow iambic trimeter.
  • The rhyme scheme is AABBCDDC.
  • Byzantium is a description of the city that bears the name and is also a symbol of paradise as well as purgatory.
  • Byzantium is the old name of Constantinople or Istanbul which was once the capital of the Roman Empire.
  • The poem stands for the need of suffering and purification.
  • The golden bird symbolizes the eternity and glory of art like the dome mentioned in the first stanza.
  • The poem presents an escape from a world of flux to a kingdom of permanence.