At night in the city of Byzantium, “The unpurged images of day recede.” The drunken soldiers of the Emperor are asleep, and the song of night-walkers fades after the great cathedral gong. The “starlit” or “moonlit dome,” the speaker says, disdains all that is human—”All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The speaker says that before him floats an image—a man or a shade, but more a shade than a man, and still more simply “an image.” The speaker hails this “superhuman” image, calling it “death-in-life and life-in-death.” A golden bird sits on a golden tree, which the speaker says is a “miracle”; it sings aloud, and scorns the “common bird or petal / And all complexities of mire or blood.”
At midnight, the speaker says, the images of flames flit across the Emperor’s pavement, though they are not fed by wood or steel, nor disturbed by storms. Here, “blood-begotten spirits come,” and die “into a dance, / An agony of trance, / An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve,” leaving behind all the complexities and furies of life. Riding the backs of dolphins, spirit after spirit arrives, the flood broken on “the golden smithies of the Emperor.” The marbles of the dancing floor break the “bitter furies of complexity,” the storms of images that beget more images, “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”
The pronounced differences in “Byzantium” ’s line lengths make its stanzas appear very haphazard; however, they are actually quite regular: each stanza constitutes eight lines, and each rhymes AABBCDDC. Metrically, each is quite complicated; the lines are loosely iambic, with the first, second, third, fifth, and eighth lines in pentameter, the fourth line in tetrameter, and the sixth and seventh line in trimeter, so that the pattern of line-stresses in each stanza is 55545335.
We have read Yeats’s account of “Sailing to Byzantium”; now he has arrived at the city itself, and is able to describe it. In “Sailing to Byzantium” the speaker stated his desire to be “out of nature” and to assume the form of a golden bird; in “Byzantium,” the bird appears, and scores of dead spirits arrive on the backs of dolphins, to be forged into “the artifice of eternity”—ghostlike images with no physical presence (“a flame that cannot singe a sleeve”). The narrative and imagistic arrangement of this poem is highly ambiguous and complicated; it is unclear whether Yeats intends the poem to be a register of symbols or an actual mythological statement. (In classical mythology, dolphins often carry the dead to their final resting-place.)
In any event, we see here the same preference for the artificial above the actual that appeared in “Sailing to Byzantium”; only now the speaker has encountered actual creatures that exist “in the artifice of eternity”—most notably the golden bird of stanza three. But the preference is now tinged with ambiguity: the bird looks down upon “common bird or petal,” but it does so not out of existential necessity, but rather because it has been coerced into doing so, as it were—“by the moon embittered.” The speaker’s demonstrated preoccupation with “fresh images” has led some critics to conclude that the poem is really an allegory of the process by which fantasies are rendered into art, images arriving from the “dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea,” then being made into permanent artifacts by “the golden smithies of the Emperor.” It is impossible to say whether this is all or part of Yeats’s intention, and it is difficult to see how the prevalent symbols of the afterlife connect thematically to the topic of images (how could images be dead?). For all its difficulty and almost unfixed quality of meaning—the poem is difficult to place even within the context of A Vision—the intriguing imagery and sensual language of the poem are tokens of its power; simply as the evocation of a fascinating imaginary scene, “Byzantium” is unmatched in all of Yeats.