Monday, March 16, 2009

Symbolism in W. B. Yeats’ “Byzantium”

One of the most captivating things about W.B. Yeats' poetry in general and "Byzantium" in particular is its rich symbolism. Symbols are essentially words which are not merely connotative but also suggestive, evocative and emotive. Symbols conjure before the mind's eye a host of images attached to them.

Things that are difficult to explain or are inexpressible can be conveyed through symbols. "Byzantium' is indeed a laudable attempt at bringing together aesthetics, spiritualism, symbolism, and mysticism together on one common platform. The effect is both revealing and enthralling. The epic exploration of the other world brings into perspective, the question of life in death and death in life.

The poet symbolically leaves the world of limitations to usher into a world of permanence and artistic eternity. Tired of life's agonizing existence, the poet seeks recluse and relief in death and beyond.

W.B. Yeats' "Byzantium" is a highly symbolic poem. It contains variety of symbols. While some symbols in this poem are easy to understand as they come from W.B.Yeats' stock arsenal, other are complex and obscure. The resonant, sonorous and glittering quality of these symbols makes "Byzantium" a visual and acoustic treat.

Yeats writes in his essay "The symbolism of Poetry", "All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions" (46). Not all symbols that Yeats uses are 'emotional symbols'. He points out, "there are intellectual symbols, symbols that evoke ideas alone, ideas mingled with emotions" (49).

The deft use of these symbols in "Byzantium" enhances the reality of the present and mystery and richness of the past.

W.B. Yeats interweaves several different threads in "Byzantium", thereby granting the symbols richness and intricacy. Byzantium was the capital of the eastern Wing of the Holy Roman Empire. It was known for its works of art; especially mosaic work and gold enameling. In W. B. Yeats' poem Byzantium ceases to have its traditional meaning. It typifies a world of artistic magnificence and permanence.

It is a world of immortality beyond limits of time and space. It also denotes a place of unity; spiritual or otherwise. Richard Ellman writes, "Byzantium is a holy city, because it is the capital of Eastern Christendom, but it is also Yeats's holy city of the imagination as Golgonooza was Blake's" (257).

The resplendent transcendental world Yeats visualizes in "Sailing to Byzantium" now gets replaced by the images of a dreary, dark and ghostly place; full of phantoms, 'mire and blood'.

"Byzantium" has three key-symbols in the poem; the Byzantine dome, the golden bird perched on the golden bough and the flames of mosaic on the Empereror's pavement. All three put together stand for the culmination of achievement in art. Being classic works of art they also symbolize immortality and eternity.

They are as timeless and beautiful as John Keats Grecian urn. T.R. Henn remarks, "Byzantium…has a multiple symbolic value. It stands for the unity of all aspects of life, for perhaps the last time in history. It has inherited the perfection of craftsmanship, and more than craftsmanship, perhaps, the 'mystical mathematics' of perfection of form in all artistic creation".

The presence of the moon in the poem signifies a lot. First of all, the moon is a symbol of rhythm and cycle of time. It also represents the different phases in man's life. It denotes the center ground between the earth and heaven, the light of the sun and night. It is typifies the center point between the conscious and the unconscious. This mood is unmistakably present in "Byzantium". John Unterecker writes about Yeats' use of symbols:

Yeats draws his from nature, that same natural world glorified by the romantics. Because Yeats thinks of himself as the "Last of the Romantics," a man born out of his time, he assigns his symbols other values than the romantics did. Made "strange" by those values, his "masked" romantic images jolt us into a recognition of their symbolical function (Unterecker 40).

The dome that soars high towards the sky symbolizes the kindred meeting point of heaven and earth. Obviously, it stands in direct contrast with 'the fury and mire of human veins'. The very fact that the golden bird and the golden bough are made of gold, says it all. Gold is a precious metal, it never rusts.

The rays of the Sun are also golden and symbolize knowledge and permanence. Byzantium is symbolic of a place that may resolve the eternal struggle between the limitations of the physical world and the aspirations of the immortal spirit.

The golden bird is a timeless artifact like the poem "Byzantium" itself. The repeated use of the term 'complexities' by the poet, signifies that there is no easy solution to the enigma of life and death, mortality and immortality and the question of salvation or redemption.

'Mire' in the poem refers to the cycle of birth and death and man's inherent relationship with dust and clay. It also reminds one of the famous Biblical lines, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

The 'mummy cloth' clearly signifies that what it holds inside is beyond the question of life and death. Hence, the poet seems to liken death in "Byzantium" and sees end to human problems with the end of physical bond with the earth. The word 'superhuman' is significant as it has been used by the poet for a ghostly figure. It means, the likelihood of gaining super- stature is possible only after death and not in one's lifetime.

The description of events in poems like "Byzantium" is cosmological. When asked about the basis of such depiction, Yeats says that they are, "purely symbolical ..... have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice" (A Vision 25). He explains his theory further at another place in "A Vision", "The whole system is founded upon the belief that the ultimate reality, symbolized by the sphere, falls in human consciousness... into a series of antinomies" (187). Such antinomies or contradictions do confront the readers while trying to understand the complex structure of obscure symbols used by Yeats in "Byzantium".

The flames of the Emperor's pavement are fuelled by deep spiritual realization. Thus, these flames are flames of divine purgatorial fire. The spirits brought to Byzantium by Dolphins through the sea of time are covered with 'mire and blood'; here blood signifies impurity or spurious state. 'Faggot' in the poem signifies martyrdom.

This means, the impure spirits must pass through an intensely trying spiritual fire, they must consign themselves to this fire to emerge like a phoenix. This agonizing dance of fire, flames and faggots would eventually turn these spirits into something pure or 'superhuman'.

Yeats deliberately stirs up a poetic passion while describing his symbols to achieve a desired poetical effect. B. Chatterjee's comment about the use of symbols in Byzantium is significant, "The image after image is evoked-bird……… and these lead the reader's mind through a crescendo of horror, through the torture and terror of hell. But is it Hell or Purgatory? Yeats' attitude is ambivalent" (145).

Works Cited
Chatterjee. B. The Poetry of W.B. Yeats . Orient Longmans, 1962.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: Norton, 1979.
Henn, T.R. The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Great Britain: Methuen &
Co, 1965.
Jeffares, Norman. A Selected Criticism. Longman McMillan, 1964.
Unterecker, John. A Reader's Guide to W.B. Yeats . Thames and Hudson, 1975.
Yeats, W.B. A Vision . New York: Macmillan, 1956.

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ajwa khan said...

this article is amazing....
outstanding article. each and every aspect of byzantium is covered in it..
thankyou very much....

Chinky Goswami said...

Rhetorical description of symbols in Byzantium.. It'll be of great help.Thanks a tone.

Unknown said...

Very helpful description about symbols in Byzantium

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