Since I am on holidays from work, and not consumed with duties and obligations, I have returned to an old habit of virtue, and spent time memorising poetry. The poem I am committing to memory today is Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium.
The choice of this poem itself was prompted by reading Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, which is an uncluttered, vivid telling of the main storylines of the Byzantine Empire. He connects threads of Byzantium in surprising ways to our own culture – the story of little Red Riding Hood, the use of the fork in Europe, the adaptation of chess, the theft of sericulture from China. This mysterious still neglected story haunts our imagination, without us really knowing how or why. As Fidler writes:
“Once you know the story of this lost empire, you feel the ghost of Byzantium pressing against you at the crumbling land walls. You become suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia, and you glimpse it within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian. The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know.” (Fidler, Ghost Empire, p. 9)
And it is a story that very much belongs in the Burning Archive, devoted to remembering the ruined cultures and disappearing stories of the world, and the yearning of this tattered cloak upon a stick to enter into the infinite conversation. Fidler titles his final chapter, “The Artifice of Eternity,” in a tribute to Yeats’ poem. And towards the end of this chapter, Sailing to Byzantium itself appears, crowning a discussion of Constantinople’s place as the “immortal city of imagination.” Fidler quotes Yeats from a BBC lecture discussing his poem in which Yeats said
“When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.”
Fidler leaves out of the quotation the last clause of Yeats sentence: “so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”
I wish I had a symbol of a holy city to which I could sail, fleeing from the fires in the archive and the depredations of merchants and treasonous clerks. Through loving attention, perhaps I can create one.
In the meantime, here is a musical realisation of Yeats’ great poem – set to music by Andrew Howes in a world premiere performance by Sydney Camerata at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 18 May 2012. I don’t know if the music exceeds the beauty of Yeats’ language.
And here are the final stanzas of Yeats other poem, Byzantium:
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.
Image source: Four Icons from a Pair of Doors (Panels), possibly part of a Polyptych: John the Theologian and Prochoros, the Baptism (Epiphany), Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis), and Saint Nicholas, 15th century, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art