Yeats' Byzantiums - Part Two


In a more specific analysis of the workings of the two poems, one finds that the second poem operates in a way opposite to the first, though both deal, at least in part, with the approach to Byzantium or to this preternatural and inhuman eternity of the artistic. "Sailing to Byzantium" opens with the old man physically leaving and spurning all human cycles of regeneration because he knows he is growing old; that is, he is dying. He arrives at the holy city and, still alive though dying, prays for death and imagines his salvation and perfection within the city's eternal art. "Byzantium," spoken from inside the reality of this inhuman eternity, ends with the souls of the living (newly-dead) approaching it. This would be the old man's experience with the city -- in that he could experience its reality -- were he dead and no longer in need of his boat or imagination; no longer living in fear of and abhorring his body. No longer "fastened to a dying animal," the spirits all ride on dolphins to the city.

Whereas the old man's soul was personally crafted into the form of an all- knowing golden bird by what he imagined would be the Grecian care of eternal art, in truth, souls enter the artifice of eternity en masse, and the very waters they ride on are engulfed or actually "broken" by giant golden machines, in this case furnaces: ". . . The smithies break the flood, / The golden smithies of the Emperor!" The onlooking poet exults? Or is horrified? It seems both, once the reader has moved through the whole poem and come to this point. The very elements of stone in the floors of this, the city of eternal inhuman artistic process, "Break bitter furies of complexity," destroying such temporal or changing images as those of the sea, the last experience or sensation of the individual and conscious soul. This living "complexity," itself violently unmade and broken by the naked substance or essence of the city, seems to be a configuration at the root of temporal action and emotion: "bitter furies." Finally the last lines of "Byzantium" tell us that what is being smashed against the floors and presumably engulfed in the smithies is actual cause-and-effect, which makes things natural and comprises human thought: "Those images that yet / Fresh images beget, . . ." In this poem there is at the heart of life only one cycle of generation -- a substance which is eternally generating and is essential in human souls -- and what is merely human in the souls is not being transcended but being "broken" of its complexities, then smelted and boiled down to eternal substance. The sea, "That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea," which is the edge of the thinking world for the human soul, is a substance which can still register and be affected by the motions of animals and the tormenting sound of what we learn in the first stanza is the "great cathedral gong," the temporal, religious, perhaps funereal noise ominously just sounded, perpetually, for the last time, inside the walls of Byzantium. This sea -- these last thoughts and their living, changing natural images -- is being "broken" against uncompromising matters which are its opposites: vast fire, metal, and stone. This eternity is not establishing a higher, perfected, knowing order; it is burning the remnants of change from life and breaking the continuity of thought and nature, those changing images which comprise all of life for the living and finite. The poem ends with the edge of the living world in torment at the sound of a gong: note how the last recorded sensation in the poem is actually the emotional registering of a sound which occurs in the first lines of the first stanza -- as if the currents of physical stimulus and emotional response were broken by the very dead and inhuman matter of the poem itself -- so that the last stanza is like a head severed from the body of the poem and placed at its feet! As the living and conscious souls enter the real, eternal, changeless, rock-like subject matter of the poem, thought and nature can be no more, because the flux of images has been scorched away, the sea has been shattered, and all individual possibilities of human thought have been fused into a single inhuman eternity.

This is the exact and violent opposite of the kind of refined artistic process and function the old man expected in "Sailing to Byzantium." Byzantium, the artifice of what is eternal, will boil down all human art and vision, all limited forms and thoughts (including the old man's) into a terribly real and changeless substance beyond thought, beneath form, outside of matter, before and after time: "flames begotten of flame." All souls will now be part of the actual substance of what is "purged" out of a nature which involves life and thought. This is the reality of the "artifice of eternity" that the bitter old man who hated life longed for with such vainglory, and longed for so uncomprehendingly and suicidally because he literally could not conceive beyond forms and matter. He never dreamt, he could not have dreamed, that to be perfected and eternalized was to be made more terrible, more inhuman, than nothing. There is no thought and no nature in this eternal fire; so it is real and consumes without burning all that is real. Outside of all conception is a furnace which no one can know!

Yeats realized the ramifications of the old man's grotesquely human wish for eternalization in the objects of art, so he showed the process this would imply; it would utterly dehumanize eternity and amputate this perfection from all nature and conception:

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.

The complex, multiform furies of blood and cause-and-effect are human personalities, or souls, become a single "agony," as in the struggle that precedes death. These flames burn unaided on stone. They burn nothing. They burn themselves forever. The image of the whirling motion of all individual human flames dancing and dying into a single agony which never dies and cannot be extinguished calls to mind, yet savagely contrasts, the "sages" of "Sailing to Byzantium" whom the old man begged to "Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre." This real motion inside Byzantium, or, rather, flat on the stone surface of Byzantium, is composed of human souls losing or being purged of their last humanities, this process being helpless and eternal, not operating on command or prayer as did the presumed sages who were to bring the source of eternal song to the bitter old man who imagined them.

What is so terrible in those lines, which are effectively the heart of the poem, is that there is no irony inside Byzantium. An eternity of sublime moment -- in the old sense of thought arrested between Terror and Joy -- is being described in this stanza, a perpetual moment of artistic ecstasy which is both the matter of that which is eternal in art and the form of an experience of such matter. "Dying into a dance, / An agony of trance, . . ." That is, life-action painfully becoming art-action, or the dwindling-off of life transubstantiated into art; then, concentration which hurts, simplicity which kills. . . . The source and conclusion of all art is this dance of a death which does not end. In "Sailing to Byzantium," the old man's human imagination believed his immortalized spirit would be such as a part of an eternally perfect machine. This forge, however, this area of mindless Žre on stone, is the machine which is eternity, the deathless and lifeless real images which surpass and are the inevitable ends of all progressions of form and thought possible to life and time. The terrifying implication Yeats has come to, in this instance of actualizing his earlier poem's vision, is beyond the tenor of even Plato's conceptions of Eternal Forms, and certainly it deafens the old man's conceptions of such forms realized: "An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve." This fire, as Richard Ellmann points out, is both fire and not fire.(3) Yet it is real, "an agony." Instead of the eternal form or idea -- or even flame -- of fire, this is the real and eternal image of fire. Yeats forged the inhuman reality of this eternity in "Byzantium" in absolute juxtaposition to what now is clearly the old man's willful dream of his role in, and the function of, the afterlife. His desperate hope was not lacking in self-gloriŽcation and "personalized" eternal consciousness; the old man saw himself as the ornate, even illustrious mouthpiece or singer of the knowledge of all time. Two visions could hardly be more opposed than these.

Because of the poems' thematic symmetry, it is clear that Yeats is loudly answering "Sailing to Byzantium" if we consider more details regarding the substance of the city.

The first Byzantium, an imagined or humanly-formed Byzantium, with its "lords and ladies" and "drowsy Emperor," seemed courtly and quaint and therefore only ironically implied the inhuman nature of what the speaker as an imaginer so desperately prayed for and desired. The second Byzantium, the city which is real but located beyond matter, time, and form, is more like an empire -- beyond, even scornful of, life and death.

No human forms, no living forms, are inside Byzantium. Day and night and their "unpurged images" and "resonance" are receding from the unliving and changeless substance of this austere, huge, threatening place. Byzantium, so beyond what can be known, seems like an empire because that is the one state more machine than human, more "perfect" than human societies, impervious to change and the whim of the temporal. This Empire, an eternity that so overwhelms matter and thought, has soldiers, and they are drunk and in bed, doubly put away, stored within the active machine. Presumably the Emperor himself has gone to sleep -- hough there is no mention of his person, only his possessions and functionaries -- whereas before the Emperor of man's imagination of himself was kept awake by the mechanical bird/old man's droll and the familiar, (because eternally repetitive) song. This is the old man's vainglory, how he imagines himself freed from his "mire" of body and time. It is only an inhuman existence because it is a finite metallic container or mouthpiece containing all possible things, expressing, each night, every inevitable refrain. However, the feeling -- or rather, the existence -- in the reality of Byzantium is quite clear. Yeats still imagines it to be a city, but, like a flame that cannot singe a single sleeve, this city, or Empire, needs nothing human to function. As the poem opens, after all has receded along with its "image" or "resonance" -- day and night and what of them normally remains behind, prostitutes and nightwatchmen, priests and soldiers, Emperor and sound of bells -- all being gone, the Empire works:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.

Described is a dome of perfect substance, perfect art, and it is as large as the sky, supplanting all that the sky would have been for conscious eyes had not night and day and their remainders all receded. Bloom tells us that an early draft of the poem said that the dome "distains" all that man is: it literally outshines all that man, and all creatures of sensation below him, could do or be.(4) In the very nature of the city, because it is perfect, there is a silent and absolute rebuke to all that can change and therefore will die, all that can think and therefore will err. "Byzantium" is making silently explicit what was only indirectly invoked by the old man's attempt to mediate it imaginatively into forms: this perfection by its very "nature" and reality disdains all that man is, including his petty wish for a beautiful, spiritual eternity of divine knowledge. Here we may well feel Yeats addressing what was indeed so central to his own yearnings up to this point in his life and poetry. Apparently he realizes a frightening truth regarding his former vision and desire, inasmuch as this dome rebukes him and his previous visions absolutely, in addition to all that is humanly possible. The only divinity and knowledge extant in this eternity is not even thought or thing but lifeless, deathless imagery beyond all conceptions by which we may address it in speech or thought. The poem functions on imagery denuded of nature and comprehension. This artifice exists beyond all that is, or could ever be, created; this vision could consume and, by virtue of its reality, does consume Yeats's former vision and desire. Thus eternal art violently outshines, nullifies, and "disdains" even the poet himself. Such is the truth of an eternity of perfect art.

The second and third stanzas of "Byzantium" begin in a similar fashion, echoing each other. Together they act, each by the example of the image it offers, as further explication of the substance or process of the city once the reader has, like the visionary speaker, entered its reality to be confronted by its images in the first stanza, or once the living souls have entered the process of its images in the opposite manner, through their deaths, moving upward through the matter of the last stanza to be consumed, swirling downwards as the fourth stanza winds to a close. At this point in regarding the poem it is especially crucial to conceive of the voice of the speaker as that of the poet being confronted by the absolute images of his subject, Byzantium. This is most appropriate, as is his "hailing" (worshipping? having to name?) it later, inasmuch as this vision, the city, utterly rejects the possibilities and use of thought. These are not images that beget fresh images; these are flames forever begotten of flame. Whereas the poem of 1927 conjured up images appealing to the mind like a divine wisdom and form, this poem's images have more to do with the reality of hell, which they do not, in their perfection, imply but summon up obliquely and indeed consume in the magnitude of their function. If anything, these flames are at once purifying and therefore "holy" (as God's fire was imagined to be, in the earlier poem), purgatorial ("An agony of trance"), and hellish ("Dying into a dance"). They are beyond all, even divine, possiblities for thought: purpose, wisdom, even malevolence. The flames consume these and all possibilities to make them into human ideas or forms. The reality of the city is the reality of image, and not the image of any reality.

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

This is the first of two subsequent eternal images which consume the human possibilities of an afterlife: here, neither as man nor soul, as nothing separate or conscious, can man be perfected. Nor as bird or hammered-bird will man be perfected properly, because it is artifice, as seen in the next stanza. In these two lines the poem is growing very specific and terrible not in its implication but simply in what it forces us to try to imagine, in what it forces us to yearn to comprehend of its inscrutable substance. The images introduced at this point in the poem, in the second and third stanzas, subsume all human conceptions of an afterlife which the reader or the entering soul may have previously held: the Christian soul, the mystic's or saint's bodily assumption, the poetic (even, elsewhere in his poems, Yeatsian) bird between worlds, or, most specifically, the mechanized bird of "Sailing to Byzantium." The old man did not take a form outside of all nature, nor are any of these other forms and conceptions capable of existing in a real eternity perfected beyond all human thought and form. In the two lines quoted above, one discovers that the eternal image of man has the reality of image alone, finally without referent in the way a "shade" or "soul" normally has its referent in a body or "man." The speaker sees it as an "image, man or shade," then classifies it accordingly, as "shade" moreso than man, and, as the soul is to the body, this floating "image" is to that shade. It is as if this image were the soul of a soul, or the shadow a shadow casts, the shade the essential reality of that first shadow as much as the soul is shadow or essential substance of the body once the body has perished. This image is actually an essence twice distilled from man's imperfect reality; one could perhaps approach it as a second, and final, once-human essence which, just as the soul itself had for a time lived on, exists once the soul has died. And if we conceive of the soul as having a higher, more ultimate and lasting reality than the human body or mind, then this soul of a soul is even more real and lasting, less human, more pure and inaccessible, more eternally real than a soul appears when contrasted with human life. This "image" would have as much divine, liberating, eternal estrangement from a "shade" as a shade would have from a man's body. The speaker says, "Before me floats an image." It is a real image and nothing more -- and for that very reason all the more real in Byzantium (thereby something real yet literally eternal) -- in that it is unaccompanied by and unburdened of all referents and thus eternally beyond and unaffected by the "mire" of meaning and cause-and-effect. The two lines above suggest or encompass a perfect image, an image reŽned or boiled down beyond all that is human and real to human life, all possible thought and change.

This eternal reality is an absolute response to the former poem's vision of Byzantium, where the personalized soul was made into a kind of beautiful, metallic container keeping and transmitting unageing intellect, the knowledge of all time, unto the thinking substance -- the "lords and ladies" -- of eternity. Here, when regarding in the second stanza how he is confronted by the images in "Byzantium," Yeats is telling us there is an absolute existence which is all sign and no meaning, like "A mouth that has no moisture and no breath," all thing and no speech.

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.

This image "hailed" and not summoned in the rest of stanza two, being a kind of inhabitant of Byzantium (but merely suggested, not located or fixed), is a contrast with the mode of the "sages" in the former poem to which the old man appealed breathlessly, as he tried to summon up the powers of the city, which as we now know he could only experience when finally and literally he had no more breath.

Inside Byzantium the moment of artistic ecstasy, in the process or perception of art, is again brought to bear. Eternal images may merely be summoned by "Breathless mouths," the living who in a sublime moment appeal to what is eternal in art to perfect them. Inside the workings of the artifice of eternity these images transcend and can unravel the endless graveclothes of all now-useless nature and experience. Richard Ellmann perceives this "disdainful" power in the speaker's comment: "For Hades' bobbin bound in mummy-cloth / May unwind the winding path."(5)The relation of these images to life is that of a naked body to its clothes after it is dead, as if it were dressed, pointlessly, in the cloth of all human conception, even as it is turning to dust, becoming nothing. What remains is all garment, material to its very core, or, in the "bobbin," merely the process by which these human garments would have been made were they not being thus unwound.

By the end of the second stanza the ecstatic poet hails this kind of eternal image as "superhuman" and names it for the scope or import of its process, "death-in-life and life-in-death." Though the poet "hails" and describes the substantial existence of the city, the eternal image of man is, however, lifeless and real and therefore immortal and unassailable. The visionary poet knows that, in a moment of ecstasy, "Breathless mouths may summon" an eternal image, "A mouth that has no moisture and no breath"; yet when he hails and names it he is apparently addressing the reader, or perhaps only himself. The poet informs the thinking matter of the human and temporal about the nature of this eternity; whereas the eternal, forever involved in and circling downward into itself, has no need of, and is by its nature actively disdainful of, the temporal and all its trappings.

No human meaning, let alone spiritual elevation, is produced by a perpetually consuming artifice. This fact refutes by way of absolute contrast the old man of 1927 and his faith that the "sages" he imagined to be "standing in God's holy fire" inside Byzantium could "be the singing-masters of [his] soul," and that the city thus had the power to transform the old man's existence from "A tattered coat upon a stick" into a state of complete knowledge and physical perfection. In "Sailing to Byzantium" the imagined or wished-for sages in the gold wall of holy fire were purifying, ecstatically dancing and descending in their spin, and eternally fulfilling as the firing muses of the old man's intellect. In the second stanza, or first explication of "Byzantium," the image of an eternally existing mouth "that has no moisture and no breath," as an image which is all sign and no meaning, exactly inverts and dissolves the old man's redemptive and hopeful sages as mere dream, vain wish. The reality of Byzantium rebukes life as would a silent or disdainful God. No intellect can survive or be fostered from within its grave-like atmosphere with meaning or response rarefied right out of the air. The breathless immortal image cannot, like the flames of stanza four, affect or be affected by life or the temporal. It may only be "hailed" or "summoned," invoked verbally or called to mind, but naturally the poet, without a word of expectation, shows no sign of its coming or yielding to the living any response.

To completely clarify the contrast between this and Yeats's former vision, note that since these lifeless and deathless images have the reality of an image self-existing, arrested from all of life, they are closed within themselves forever, functioning outside of all time as the powerful, mute objects the temporal prays to and yearns for, indeed, seeks to know, yet can never know, as there is nothing in them sympathetic to knowledge. The "sages" of the 1927 poem were, however, imagined to be Žxed and changeless images of temporal reality purified and animated with divine sense and song, since they came forth in vibrant, communicative, powerfully instructive forms from "the gold mosaic of a wall." The sages the old man dreamt of and longed for could teach, could inspire song in the soul beyond all human art; the mouthpiece of eternity is mouth alone, existing forever without breath enough to live, let alone to speak or sing, and it can only be worshipped, named, or witnessed by the temporal in a moment of vision, and, in that, not affected nor even comprehended in its reality in the slightest. There is nothing to know in Byzantium. There is only the substance of the city to experience, and the process of the experience of that artifice is such that it unmakes all of life, consumes all we know and all that ever was or could be known. Thus, confronting or experiencing Byzantium unmakes the ability to know: essentially, even the poet's voice is silent within the action of the poem, as his direct address or "hailing" his subject matter is, like the entire second stanza, either addressed to the reader or spoken under his breath in the moment of his vision of Byzantium. When its images ßoat before him, and he names them and hails them, the speaker clearly does not speak to nor attempts to inform a city of deathless inhuman substance which is itself all mouth, all vision, the brutal resolution of all thought and sense. In 1930 the poet makes a deafening response to the possibilities of absolute knowledge and purpose his former vision wished for, yearned for, and ardently imagined.

In "Byzantium," Yeats has these eternal images subsume, as noted above, both the mechanical bird and the possibility of a spiritual or poetic bird of identity remaining in eternity, perfected and outside of mortal life. In the third stanza he transforms -- or rather, hollows out fully, dehumanizes and denatures -- the mechanical bird the old man had chosen for himself, seeking and yet naturally failing to escape "bodily form" and nature, himself still fixed in time. The old man escaped the decaying flux of time and finity only in poeticized matter; he made or imagined a golden bird, the song of which would have as its matter the temporal, yet the temporal perfected (from feathers to gold) to endure as the eternal: ". . . what is past, or passing, or to come." If the reader can accept and believe in the inconceivable reality of what is involved in an eternal image being like the soul of a soul, or a contiguous and existing death- in-life and life-in-death, then he or she will have to accept this fact: that the substance of the old man's imagined form of his own afterlife which actually would exist perfected and eternal in Byzantium is, quite literally, "More miracle than bird or handiwork." In the latter vision we see that the old man's brittle apotheosis, his all-knowing golden bird, exists in Byzantium not even as form purified or abstracted from matter, but Žnally as the substance of "miracle" or artistic process itself abstracted from form. This eternal "bird" is literally the puriŽed work of a work of art, beyond any matter or form the art may involve:

Miracle, bird or golden handiwork,
More miracle than bird or handiwork,
Planted on the starlit 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.

It is absolutely necessary to the poet's re-envisioning or realizing the implication of his former poem that these lines be taken literally for what they seem, for what they imagine. They imply nothing. To accentuate the bird's very real, substantial and existing unreality, Yeats has it "planted on" (curiously both organically and mechanically fixed) "the starlit golden bough" -- a tree that is not a tree, in an anti-night illuminated by its own light. Furthermore this bird will not sing with all intelligence like the now seemingly endearing and beneficent bird of "Sailing to Byzantium." This bird can "crow" like the roosters in hell. It is embittered by the moon because morning never comes: day and night are always receding as we enter this place in the first lines of the poem. It is terrible, this "miracle" or image of the process of a metallic rooster which has no dawn to herald, nor betrayal to signify. It does not sing of and represent all temporal things, as does the bird in the earlier poem; it "scorns," and "scorns aloud" all figures of time. It is an image of the "glory of changeless metal" -- even different from the rather benevolent, malleable gold of the old man's dream of his soul. This existence is pure process; it has always existed; it is a solid image of the process of its conception and creation; the former golden bird was hammered and made into an eternal object, a fact which, along with the creation of the bird's song, suggests not eternity but time. There could be nothing in eternity but that which was always there. The poet seems from his eternal images to reimagine or to realize eternity as a moment of absolute pure creation fixed perpetually outside of all temporal changes, materials, or thought-progressions. By the end of the third stanza the city of eternal art can now be seen, in this bird-of-process as well as in its very structure (its floors, pavement, trees, domes, flames), as actively disdaining and overwhelming the forms of every other nature, human, animal, and vegetative: ". . . all complexities of mire or blood." It is clear that this "bird" does not sing; its process has no message, no outcome but its own perpetuation, no thought for the living. It shrieks its disdain. (last paragraph missing)

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