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William Butler Yeats Objectives - A review of "Byzantium"

Updated on March 14, 2017

It was William Butler Yeats intention in the April of 1930, according to a note in the diary that he kept at that time, the same that is quoted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, to “describe Byzantium (what is now Istanbul) as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian millennium”. In the poem, Byzantium, Yeats has done just this. I would like to argue that the findings as related in this poem are ones of almost utter contempt for the current religious system of his time but not ones that have convinced Yeats to abandon the predicament as hopeless.

In order to understand the conclusions that Yeats landed upon, one must first try to understand what type of man would ever even want to write a poem of this nature. As opposed to James Joyce or other popular Irish writers of that time, Yeats was a strong believer in the metaphysical world, most intently on the one that comes when one passes on. What Yeats disliked about the Christian religion was the final trip to heaven. He, instead, began to fashion his own religion in which reincarnation occurs after death. The rebirthing form taken, however, is not simply picked at random. It is, instead, the ideal form of whoever has just passed on.

Yeats was nearing sixty at the time of this writing, no longer the spring chicken that he once was, and, because of this, extremely intent on addressing and grappling the nature of the afterlife. A main theme for this time of his writing, as it was during the span of his career, was an intense use of symbolism. The difference was that during this stage, very near death and very aware of it, Yeats cast off symbolism as a tool of translating the politically or emotionally charged beliefs that comprise the poems that he had written in the past, and used it instead to represent “the calm eternity of art”, where that belief in reincarnation transformed into one where everyone after being brought back are in their idyllic state for, not simply the lifespan of that form, but a “calm eternity“. And with his old age came the realization of a harboring cockiness. He was good at writing poetry and he knew it and had as much experience as anyone with the metaphysical world, short of visiting it himself. But his time to write was running out. There was only so much time to translate his beliefs and religious system and convince others of it.

So, we have a motive, and we have a man more than qualified to undertake such a critique as I believe “Byzantium” is. Let’s get to the poem’s actual analysis, shall we?

“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 call it death in life and life in death.” These words from the second stanza encompass what Yeats believes is really the only appeal of the Christian church. Catholic life, one spent pleasing a higher being in the hopes that they will be rewarded when they pass on, has caused people to be optimistic about the nature of the unknown. Death has become nothing to be feared but, if one is constantly working for and worrying about God’s favor, the capacity for people to enjoy that life has been severely damaged. Furthermore, the image that is being appealed to has not been determined. It is only a shadow of something that might exist. Is it the best use of time spending one’s life appealing to a being that may not even exist? Should it be worth compromising your own happiness?

This next bit is a nice example, as well, of Yeats’ extraordinary abilities in the use of symbolism as a way of translating the metaphysical.

“A starlit or moonlit dome disdains all that man is, all mere complexities, the fury and mire of human veins.” This set of lines in the first stanza are very effective in summing up Yeats’ main trouble with Christianity. “A starlit or moonlit dome”, in this instance, according to the class text, refers to “the great church of St. Sophia”. Here we have the very house of God holding its worshippers in contempt. We have an establishment that has only to proclaim what occurs as the will of God and watch followers flock like so many flies to a certain unpleasant brown substance.

“At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame.” Yeats seems to want the reader to begin to understand that the inanimate object is not responsible for the “flames” of passion in the human heart and soul. These feelings manifest themselves out of a cold, lifeless place that is unable to conjure any such emotions through any act of its own. What is the difference between this building and any other except for the fact that this has the label of a holy place attached to it?

So goes the negative critique. As I mentioned above, however, Yeats does maintain hope that human beings as a whole will begin to see the problems that are present and will set in motion not necessarily its abolishment but the acceptance of a different way of life.

“The smithies break the flood, the great smithies of the Emperor! Marbles of the dancing floor break bitter furies of complexity…”. The “great smithies of the Emperor” that “break the flood” seems to connote that a change will occur when some of the most religious of the Christian Orthodoxy begin to see the errors in their thought process and make them clear to the overwhelming masses that are pledging themselves in the name of their religion constantly. Once that occurs, the “flood” will end. The human population will unite, symbolically as a marble dance floor, both smooth and strong. And here we see Yeats’ ideal reincarnated form. A dance floor that is solid, unmoving, will last for near eternity. More importantly, it will bear witness to the best and most joyous times humans can experience. Once people learn to realize such a promising alternative, the “bitter furies of complexity”, meaning any misunderstandings concerning the meaning and nature of the Christian religion, will be cleared up and made understood.

There they are, the many intentions of Byzantium. This is a good example of what many consider Yeats’ finest period of composition. By touching on the troubles that Christianity, and religion in general, have caused and urging people to wake up and stop wasting their lives, I would have to agree.


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