Yeats' Two Byzantiums

"Gather Me Into The Artifice of Eternity" :
Yeats and His Two Visions of Byzantium


Karl Parker

It is an important and curious fact that Yeats apparently rewrote one of his major works, "Sailing to Byzantium," three years after its composition, in the form of the poem "Byzantium," in his book The Winding Stair and Other Poems. The former work originally bore the title of the latter, yet the two poems are vastly different visions of what is ostensibly the same theme, the perfection of the human soul in a city of perfect and eternal art. Since each poem is substantial enough to stand on its own as a work of art, it seems clear that Yeats was not merely revising the poem of 1927 in 1930, but that he was entirely reimagining and understanding anew the conflict which gave the earlier poem birth: the yearning to perfect what is merely human by fusing the soul with what is changeless and timeless in art. To elucidate how the poet reimagines this conflict I will attempt to trace in the later work the transformations of the earlier poem's imagery and, thereby, its implications. I will begin with what I feel are significant and underlying contrasts between the two works; and there is always the question: "Why did the poet do this?"

One thing is clear if we consider the titles and the fact I mentioned above. It seems that Yeats, during or after the writing of the 1927 poem, realized that neither he, as visionary, nor his poem, as vision, had actually entered or experienced the true nature of the holy city of Byzantium in the course of that poem's action. On the following pages, the poems are reprinted in their entirety. For my discussion to be fruitful, a close reading of the poems is necessary.

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
--Those dying generations -- at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.



O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,(1)
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.





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 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 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.

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.




In "Sailing to Byzantium," Yeats, like the speaker he dramatizes, has merely arrived at the eternal city. He has not yet actually entered it. While the numbered stanzas permit and encourage the atmosphere of a physical progression or journey, it soon becomes clear that the old man, who has but "come / to the holy city of Byzantium" in the frst two stanzas, merely implores in stanzas III and IV the powers of the city and imagines what will happen when his desperate prayer is answered, when (and, the reader imagines, if) he is freed from his body, from nature and decay:

(stanza III: he changes voice, addresses directly the workings of the city, like a man just come ashore, bringing his cares with him) :

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . ; and gather me
Into the artifce of eternity.

(stanza IV: he imagines or predicts the result of stanza III)

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is no evidence that within the action of the poem the old man is transformed. He reimagines himself not as an old man, "a tattered coat upon a stick," but outside of, free from, his decrepit nature and ephemerally-known time. He yearns for an eternal form, and the deadly irony of this desire is clear; imagining the answer to his prayer, the old man pictures himself as something of a golden robot, a hammered and enamelled bird, quaintly entertaining or pleasantly distracting with its pre-programmed (because eternal and changeless) song. It is difficult to imagine any reader feeling this to be a redemption, or even a freedom. The old man's wish is inhuman; he yearns to be reduced to what is essential in art, and nothing desirable to human life survives in the portrait of what, with such ardent despair, he wants to become.

When Yeats writes "Byzantium," as the title -- now appropriate -- suggests, he re-imagines his original theme by continuing on from where the events and experience of the first poem leave off. The reader of "Byzantium" enters the eternal city to experience its reality for the first time. This experience is not simply imagined or anticipated by a character within the poem.

A comparison of the first stanzas of each poem is revealing. In the earlier work there is a distance between the speaker and that from whence he came, just as there is revealed a distance between the speaker and that towards which he yearns to move. In the first stanza of "Byzantium" there appears to be none of this physical or mental distance between speaker and subject, as it describes events inside the city, apparently as they occur in reality, or occur to the speaker's mind. Indeed the later poem makes use of a striking present tense in nearly every line, and the second stanza locates the images of the city directly before the speaker's eyes; thus the reader of "Byzantium" has an experience of the city which seems direct because barely mediated to the reader, and therefore strikes one as if it is an experience of a reality and not an idea or imagination of an experience. We are confronted in "Byzantium" with a profound contrast between what the old man in the 1927 poem imagined that eternity would be like, and what it is really like -- how the city actually works and what sort of things are there.

To clarify this contrast further I would like to point out that the identity of the speaker in "Byzantium" -- though only in stanza II is the voice obviously that of a speaker within the poem (temporarily giving the unmediated first stanza the indubitable weight and immediacy of authorial description) -- must be closer to that of the poet inasmuch as the speaker is solely an observer of the city's eternal reality. The speaker does not imagine it; its images float up before him. He comments overtly only once; otherwise he does not speak of himself. The entire second stanza is the speaker's comment, beginning with "Before me floats an image," and ending emphatically, "I hail the superhuman; / I call it death-in-life and life-in-death." This is clearly a human voice. It is hailing and being confronted visually by that which is utterly beyond it. Most importantly, while the speaker is being thus directly confronted by the reality of Byzantium's images, he is never transformed or transfgured by the city itself -- as opposed to what the reader learns of its function in the rest of the poem, and certainly in absolute contrast to the old man of 1927 who never entered the place and imagined himself changed utterly. I conclude that the voice in the poem is that of the author himself as visionary poet experiencing the reality of Byzantium, since otherwise only human souls enter the city ("Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood, / Spirit after spirit! . . ."); and all are transformed, or perhaps engulfed, as we shall see. Surely nothing, or no-one other than the author in a moment of vision, could speak out to the reader from inside the reality of this eternal city.

A most central fact appears when, for the first time, the poet actually experiences or is confronted by the eternal city's reality. The old man of "Sailing to Byzantium" imagined the city's power as being able to "gather" him into "the artifice of eternity" -- presumably into "monuments of unageing intellect," immortal and changeless structures representative of or embodying all knowledge, linked like a perfect machine at the center of time. Yeats perfects and makes startlingly real what was previously only imagined as perfect when, in "Byzantium," he seems to envision an actual artifice of eternity and not eternal artifice. The city, as we shall see, generates -- or actually smelts -- eternal images: lifeless and deathless realities which finally supersede or consume all "complexities," all individual souls, all art, all the forms of temporal life.

This contrast between the two poems is central to Yeats's re-imagining of his former theme. The old man, the poet's dramatic character, could not enter the city in reality because he was not dead and was not on a dolphin, as these are the conditions in which the living are conducted as souls to Byzantium; he came by means of artifice, by boat, and his "experience" of the city is solely his own creation. From the point of view of a living character the old man naturally imagines the city's eternity existing in fixed forms of perfect gold; the changeless matter of his "song" is already, perpetually, set, just as he is "set upon a branch to sing" forever "of what is past, passing, and to come." Even the natural form "bird" is never mentioned but merely implied in his speech: the old man is yearning for the perfect -- to him, the perfectly unnatural -- "bodily form," "such as Grecian goldsmiths make."

It is clear in the later poem, once the human mouthpiece or mediator of the author's vision has been removed, that "the artifice of eternity" consists not of perfect forms or representations of eternity (the knowledge of all time) but of that which is nonetheless real yet finally without, or beyond, form and matter. Byzantium consists of the "substance" of what eternity actually is rather than some supposedly physical, changeless substance which, while being conceivable to the human mind, would necessarily involve form and matter and therefore the trappings of change and finity. Again, it would seem that Yeats is imagining and representing in the later poem the actual reality of what was merely conjectured or called upon by the old man of 1927. Apparently the "artifice of eternity" is much less human than that which was, then, imagined or desired.

Of the two cities envisioned in the poems, Harold Bloom writes in his book Yeats that "The cities are both of the mind, but they are not quite the same city, the second being at a still further remove from nature than the first.") This is clear, and it is relevant to the status of each vision. After reading both poems it is possible to conclude that, were the speaker of the frst poem to die, both his soul and the raw matter of that poem's entire vision of Byzantium would be consumed within the eternal fires of the second poem, inside the reality of the city.

This city is "at a further remove from nature" because it is about as inhuman and unnatural a state as it is possible to conceive of -- as eternity actually would be, even fully so, if we could conceive it fully. Again it is important to note that the later poem does not present the city as it is imagined to be, but as it really is, at least in the context of the two poems; there is no mediating or poeticized character to limit the voice or devalue the status of the vision as simply and consciously imagined within the poem's reality. Nor does the reader feel in the second poem any of the pathos or irony of what was (because imagined and sought by a living human being and not a soul) a deeply suicidal, yet artistically driving, vision. Truly, from the point of view of his absolute and real hatred of time and the world, the old man imagined himself in a pure state which, were it realized, would have redeemed him as a functioning entity, though the reader might find the very purity of this state repulsive in its inhumanity.

But "Byzantium" is a less human vision than all this; finally, for the soul, there is nothing whatsoever of this kind of remorseless triumph, absolute knowledge, or personal perfection in the machinations of that which is eternal in art. The city is more like a physical process than a state of knowledge, and yet the reader must try to imagine it as a process so basic that it makes void all "complexities," those qualities of nature and reality which we cannot even conceive as being absent, and indeed, without which we cannot conceive at all. As in a perpetual furnace or process beyond all time, matter, and human conception, in "Byzantium" we behold not fixed form and matter which can perfect and eternalize the temporal, but eternally unliving undying images, the action or nature of which consumes and nullifies all artifce, all things real or imagined.


More on 'Byzantium' >