Thursday, May 22, 2008

Byzantium Road Trip!

Dear Everybody:

Remember “Sailing to Byzantium,” the other week? Well, three years after he wrote it, Yeats went back and wrote it again! Here’s the revised and re-visioned version:


by William Butler Yeats

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.

Not as easy to follow as “Sailing to Byzantium” was, is it? But there’s that bobbin, that city, that golden bird! Same poem revised and re-visioned.

What’s going on? Well, this is what we who work in the field of the fantastic call a posthumous fantasy, one which supposedly occurs after death. The narrator in “Sailing to Byzantium” hasn’t arrived there, imagines the city, is on a boat. The narrator here has arrived, sees the city, and arrived not by boat but by dolphin. Dolphins carry the spirits of the dead out of “the fury and mire” of life into purifying spiritual fire. Here, if I read him right, Yeats is thinking not of his poetic legacy but of the real afterlife.

When Marianne and I were in Yeats Country in the West of Ireland, we visited Yeats’s grave and Thoor Ballylee, the renovated medieval tower in which he lived. Afterwards, talking with our landlady (who was a respectable, middle-aged lady), I said something like, “Yeats was deep into mysticism, crucifying cats in the graveyard at midnight and things like that.” And, very bitterly, she replied, “Aye, well, he was one of the fortunate ones. He had money. Some of us had to work for a living!”

But let’s look at that last line, which contains a good example of assonance. Exactly what is assonance? Well, alliteration, you’ll remember is having two or more words in a line beginning with the same consonant sound. “Veni, vidi, vici,” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. Assonance is having two or more neighboring words containing the same vowel sound; here, it’s “dolphin-torn... gong-tormented.”

Both of which, incidentally, are Yeats’s invention, in imitation of Homeric epithets. Which, as I mentioned yesterday, is a tag-line consistently attached to a person or thing. “Swift-footed Achilles” is one and “earth-shaking Poseidon” another. “Rosy-fingered dawn.” “The wine-dark sea.” All of which frequently appeared in the Iliad and the Odyssey. For perfectly good reasons which I’ll skip over right now.

The late fantasist, Avram Davidson, who, like Shakespeare, had his coarse side, would often in his more humorous works, refer to “the dolphin-torn, the dong-tormented sea.”

There’s much more I could add, but I’ve gone on too far already.

All best,



Ian Sales said...

Can't say I've ever read Yeats, but I like that one. Reminds me a little of Shelley's 'Ozymandias' and Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'...

Michael Swanwick said...

Ahhh, well, there's a lot to be discovered.

Yeats led a long and productive life, so there's a lot pf poems to be hacked through, but they're all of them lucid and some of them magnificent. In any case, it's a voyage well worth the taking.

In addition, Yeats had two great periods, one as a young man and one when he was old. So it's like getting two poets for the price of one.