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Updated: May 12, 2022

This post consists of some reflections on Yeats' Byzantium and Michael Tippett's musical setting of the poem, which are the subject of a recent painting.

In the poem (and the earlier poem Sailing to Byzantium), the ancient imperial city of Byzantium - Constantinople, now Istanbul - represents the spiritual urge of the aging Yeats. He uses various images to describe a kind of oppressive spirituality: the Emperor's divine authority imposing itself on the worldly forces of the city; the clang of the great cathedral's gong smothering the commotion of the day, thrashing the wild ocean into submission; artifice standing as reproach to the disorder of life; suppressed life-force dissipating in blazing midnight apparitions (scroll down for the text).

Though it presumably has contemporary cultural and political connotations, at its core the poem concerns an age-old theme - the difficulty of reconciling the ideal with the real, or of sustaining our highest aspirations in the face of the way things are. It evokes an idealism which believes it can only supplant by brute force, never integrate itself with real life, therefore always fighting against reality, which never submits to its governance. Less metaphorically, it is about facing up to the fact that when we turn our minds away from worldly concerns, we are bound to run into contradictions and difficulties resulting from the fact that we are, after all, worldly creatures. The solution represented in Byzantium, not a satisfying one, is that of a schizoid spirituality, an aloof intellectualism repressing a worldliness hardly under control, threatening to boil over at any moment; although the city of Byzantium supposedly represents the end of the poet's spiritual journey, it appears to raise an insoluble difficulty.

To me this is also a powerful symbol of creativity, the never-ending challenge of finding adequate means of expressing one's deepest and most inchoate ideas, the intractable reality of words and sounds and colours always thwarting the mind's irascible vision, resisting the brute force of technical skills, always compelling a painful sidelong advance, overturning or reinventing old rules and assumptions.

Tippett's barbaric-sophisticated music, by turns sublime and grotesque, intensifies the emotional struggle between real and ideal, represented in Yeats' poem by the opposing forces of surging life and dead artifice; this is an approach to the poem I have also tried to adopt. The following observations may serve as a starting point for understanding the relationship between the painting and its subject matter, although they are not not intended to supplant the process of listening, looking and contemplating. The rough-edged, wonky geometry represents ideal fighting against real, looking like a rigid city forcing itself upon fluidity, always at war with its foundations and battling to sustain its corporeal existence. The eye is tempted to construct three-dimensional patterns and shapes, but, as in most of my paintings, all of the compositional elements - shape, colour, shadow, texture - are geared towards frustrating a settled judgement of symmetry or asymmetry, stasis or dynamism. The overall impression is intended to resemble an otherworldly jumble of earthy and quasi-corporeal elements, calm carefully balanced with an underlying chaos, with muted colour suggestive of a brightly moonlit night.

There is a hint of Paul Klee, whose ragged geometrical conglomerations contrast starkly with the bloodless late abstractions of Mondrian, Kandinsky and Malevich (see Mark Cheetham's book The Rhetoric of Purity). This is doubly appropriate because Klee was a favourite of Tippett's (in a 1953 letter he reports being "drunk with Klee," which I presume is a reference to the effects of the artist's paintings rather than an unrelated drinking buddy).

The poem is as follows:

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 starlit 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.


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