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Humanities Libertexts

13.11: Byzantium

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  • [1]

    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[2] 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;[3]
    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 star-lit golden bough,
    Can like the cocks of Hades crow,[4]
    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[5] 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.[6]

    Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
    Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
    The golden smithies of the Emperor![7]
    Marbles of the dancing floor
    Break bitter furies of complexity,
    Those images that yet
    Fresh images beget,
    That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented[8] sea.


    Contributors and Attributions

    1. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” written four years earlier in 1926, Yeats expresses his desire to be reincarnated as a work of art, a golden bird, living in sixth-century Byzantium (now Istanbul), his ideal city. In this poem, he imagines he has achieved his dream, and he watches as other souls are purified. ↵
    2. Of the sprawling Greek Orthodox basilica, St. Sophia (now a museum). ↵
    3. After death, when the soul is in Hades (the underworld), the bobbin or spool or gyre of life may unwind, in preparation to enter the realm of pure spirit. ↵
    4. To announce a reincarnation. ↵
    5. A bundle of sticks tied together, used to fuel fire. ↵
    6. Here Yeats describes the ritual process whereby the mortal soul is purified to render it immortal. ↵
    7. Overwhelmed by the number of sprits who come on the backs of dolphins, which in Greek mythology carried souls to the Isles of the Blessed, the goldsmiths call a halt to the purification process, unable to accommodate any more, for now. ↵
    8. From the ringing of the gong, the funeral bell. ↵
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