Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Poem of the Week 9/8/08: Byzantium


The unpurged images of day recedes;
The Emperor's drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night-walkers' song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome 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;
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,
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 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.

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

William Butler Yeats

How does one begin to look at this poem? The opening stanza holds the line "all man is," and I think that would be an excellent question with which one might approach the poem. What is Yeats' vision of man, and if you find that it shifts or that it is nearly impossible to parse or pin down, then are there any perspectives that might shed light on man (fleshly, subconscious/mystical/visionary, mythic, violent, emotional, thoughtful etc)?

some notes of my own:
Yeats is placing his mythic Byzantium in the same category as Blake's Jerusalem or the great cities of the Old and New Testaments--real places in the worldly sense, but perhaps as well enormous landscapes inside the human being. So if there are aspects of blood and mire and violence in this poem, dolphins and golden birds and peace, then these are all characters in a vast subconsicous network, communicated to Yeats the poet, or perhaps in a way chosen by him to represent what man's inner experience is touched with from time to time.

Perhaps it will be helpful to read the beginning of this poem as a kind of movement from waking consciousness to a remembered draming consciousness; it opens with the receding of "the unpurged images of day," which leaves us what?

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