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After great cathedral gong

November 2, 2013

This being All Soul’s Night, it would appropriate to post about the Yeats poem of that name, but I am instead going to write about a different poem that shares many of the same themes: “Byzantium.” Note that I don’t mean “Sailing to Byzantium,” which, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite poems, but rather that poem’s much more bizarre sequel. I’ve had “Byzantium” in the back of my mind for years–who can forget that astounding last line, “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”?–but I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of it. Having spent the last week obsessing over it (and inadvertently memorizing it), I’d like to think I have a better grasp on it than I did, but I must admit, there are still things about it that baffle and frustrate me.

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 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.

The plot of “Sailing to Byzantium” is fairly straightforward: the poet grows old, he wants to leave behind the world of flux for one of permanence, so he has come to Byzantium and hopes to learn from its sages and turn into a golden bird. But “Byzantium”–what exactly is going on here?

The initial scene is vivid enough. The day is ended; the soldiers and whores have gone to bed; the midnight gong sounds; the dim celestial lights make cathedral dome a mirror of the sky above and strip from those still awake all human complexities, all color and warmth. And leaving–what? An “image, man or shade” appears–which is what, exactly?  A guide to the underworld, perhaps? And then a golden bird–does it appear alongside the shade? Does the shade lead us to it, guiding us through the streets of the city towards the palace where it sits and sings? I don’t know that there’s any concrete movement envisioned here, just vague image-association. We end up at the cool agonizing flames dancing in the dolphin floor mosaics of the Emperor’s pavement. Then, in that fantastic, frustrating, final stanza, we zoom away from the dancing floor, past the smithies (whatever those are) and marbles (but weren’t the floors mosaics?), out to the actual dolphin-torn sea, and we hear again the gong, but now as if we’re hovering over the water, threatened by the violence of the waves.

The plot is confusing, perhaps, because there isn’t really a plot, there’s just a vision, a vision that can’t be fully understood, that the speaker can only fitfully attempt to analyze: “shade more than man, more image than a shade.” But what does it mean to say it’s a vision? “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”: that’s not an attempt to put into words a confusing image, it’s an attempt to put into words a vague idea, an intellectual specter. It’s the feeling you get at midnight or three a.m. after sitting and reading in the cold and dark for far too long after everyone else has gone to bed. Sitting and reading, not history or philosophy, but literature; reading not for practical or intellectual reasons, but because the book has you entranced, seems to summon a spirit from beyond the grave that will, any minute now, reveal the hidden meaning of the universe and guide you away from the dull pains of earthly existence towards the decadent immortality of Byzantium. Then the book ends, dawn breaks, and you’re thrown back into the fury and mire.

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