The Power of Meter & Rhyme

I recall once finding a book of “nursery rhymes” for my children. The “rhymes”, which they weren’t, were a free verse compendium of new “nursery verse” [?] for children, but my children were utterly perplexed and the collection (which I can’t even remember the name of) was swiftly relegated to the dust bunny pile. It seems that some gaggle of 20th century poets didn’t get the memo as concerns rhymes (or meter for that matter). What makes nursery rhymes fun is their rhyme and meter. Likewise, what makes a limerick a limerick is it’s rhyme and meter. Try out a free verse limerick in your local pub and it won’t be long before you’re thrown out with the spoiled milk. There’s no such thing as a free verse Limerick, or Villanelle or Sonnet (despite what modern anthology editors would like you to think). Rhyme and meter is integral to their form. What children learn from Mother Goose is that rhyme and meter are what makes language memorable and also what makes poetry poetry.


Notice the repetition of meter in lines 1 & 2 and lines 4 & 5. Notice how the iambic pie/I rhyme ties together lines 3 & 6.T.S. Eliot, in the midst of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, beautifully exploits the lessons of the nursery rhyme for the two lines:


And it’s the memorability of rhyme and meter that makes it powerful and dangerous—that makes authoritarian governments not only suppress such meter, rhyme and poetry but to threaten and even murder the poets they perceive as rivaling their propaganda. The United States is not immune to such authoritarian impulses. And that makes the power of rhyme and meter, as a means of challenging government ideology and propaganda all the more necessary. Suppose, for example, a profoundly corrupt and fascistic political party were to almost unanimously support the overthrow of your Democracy by insurrection; were to unanimously endorse the elevation of ideologically driven individuals to branches of government with the power to enforce, by judicial fiat, their personal religious beliefs over the people’s constitutional rights, or were to use government as a means to curtail your ability to vote, to censor and direct what your children are taught in educational institutions, to intrude in your personal life and decisions? Then, having learned the lessons of the nursery rhyme, you might chant the following while defending your rights, your freedom, and the Constitution:


North of Autumn | Hymn # 17 The Garden Snake

I’m back in Vermont today. One thing I don’t miss about city life is the noise. Most of Berlin’s streets are off the main arteries and offer truly beautiful neighborhoods, villages within the city with streets shaded by trees, full of cafés and singing birds. The birds will almost perch on your plate if you let them. And these streets can be right around the corner from major thoroughfares like the Kudamm or Karl-Marx-Allee and you’d never guess it, but walking along any of the main arteries is real punishment for the ears—the tire noise of automobiles and the furious snarl of trucks. You would think that a car or truck’s exhaust system or engine would be the main producers of noise but they’re not—not remotely. The single most problematic noise is tire noise and the decibel level of that noise is dramatic even at lower speeds. Tires are largely what make city streets loud and it’s predominantly harmful to ones hearing.

Traveling on the trains, the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, isn’t any better.

The newest S-Bahn is a drastic improvement, quiet as a cathedral, but I only rode one of these. The rest of the above and below ground trains are god-awful. They have no air-conditioning and so Berliners open the windows and by the time the trains have screeched their way through curving tracks, metal grinding against metal, and traveling through the angry echo chambers of the tunnels, it will be a wonder if all Berliners aren’t deaf by their fifties. Between the busier streets and the public transportation the assault on hearing is non-stop. I’m particularly bothered by it having tinnitus. I remember stepping into the underground parking garage beneath the flat where we stayed and thinking I wanted to live there. There was no noise. It was pure silence. Most of Europe has really got to get it’s car-centric cities under control.

The field out back of my house, deep in Vermont, was blissful with the sound of crickets and tree frogs. The air was moist and August-sweet.

Anyway, I wrote this latest on the flight back, 37,000 feet on Aer Lingus.

  What has the snake to do with malice
    Who never once harmed me?
  She takes my garden for her palace
    And grants me tenancy.

  She wears a robe from tongue to tail
    That glitters in the sun—
  A turquoise rippling through the swale
    Surveying what I've done.

  I think that if she could she'd choose
    To demonstrate her wit.
  She'd have me read to her the news
    And let the weeding sit.

  But then again perhaps snakes know
    Where all our monsters dwell—
  The gardens where our foibles grow
    (She knows them all too well).

  But I don't mean to be untoward
    (We're both the other's guest).
  If nothing else then going forward,
    Let each by each be blessed.

  Hymn #17 The Garden
  by me
  August 17th 2022 

North of Autumn | Fables

Because I still sketch all my poetry by hand in sketchbooks. This was written while visiting the Botanical Garden. Written for the book but also a touch personal.

  Forgive me if I'm worse for wear.
There's nothing I've to show
For writing poetry here and there.
I should take care, I know—
The ant instructs us patiently—
The winter will be long—
But where would summer's evenings be
Without the cricket's song?

Aug 13, 2022
Botanischer Garten
by me

North of Autumn | Hymn #8 Butterflies

Just a reminder for anyone new to the blog. These poems are being written for a novel I’m writing (or at least will get back to once I’m back in Vermont) called North Of Autumn. (I’ll be back this coming Thursday). The poems are those of a deceased character who read and loved Emily Dickinson. The poem that follows is possibly the most “Dickinsonian” of them. I thought up this one while biking the Mauerweg, a bicycle path that follows where the Wall used to be. It’s mostly a paved and beautiful path. In just the roughly thirty years since the wall, towers, and mine fields were removed, a forest has grown up; but the most startling strangeness is the transition from former West Berlin to former East Germany.

The West Berliners developed right up to the Wall when it was still standing, while the East Germans deliberately left their side undeveloped, the farms and fields untouched. Now that the Wall is gone, the effect is surreal. Going south, the city just stops. It doesn’t gradually peter out. It just stops. There aren’t even roads. Just dirt footpaths. If you’re biking East, and if you look to your left, there will be houses and apartment buildings, roads, buses, playgrounds, etc. If you look to your right, there’s nothing but flat fields and trees as far as the eye can see. You would think you were somewhere deep in Germany’s farm lands. The fields would never last in the US. There would be stroads and strip malls in no time. I can’t help hoping this little piece of Berlin surreality remains unchanged.

  The seasons do not tabulate
    The yearly gross and net,
  And neither do they contemplate
    What quotas go unmet.

  The endless inefficiencies
    Give reason to be worried
  (There's no escaping winter's fees)
    Yet dreams will not be hurried.

  The dreary mind cannot affirm
    What nature testifies—
  The paltry labor of the worm
    Becoming butterflies.

  Written on the Mauerweg
  by Me
  August 12 2022

North of Autumn | Hymn #5 ‘Haute Couture’

This was largely written on the M10 Straßenbahn and the 200 bus going to the Zoologischer Garten; and was, believe it or not, inspired by a woman actually sitting next to me at a café who was discussing French fashion (though in German). The words in Italic are pronounced the way the French would pronounce them (read with the meter), otherwise the rhymes and meter are a mess.

  There sat a woman next to me
    Who praised Paris and Haute
  Couture! How fashionable—Mais oui!
    Their personages of note.

  I almost butted in to say
    We have our 'noted' too
  Sometimes they visit the café
    Doing what they do—

  The firefly's unmatched attire,
    Radiantly on trend,
  Ensembles few to none acquire
    (I tell you as a friend);

  Regard the swank and rakish crow,
    The black accoutrement
  The perfect compliment to snow
    Too timeless not to flaunt;

  As well I hardly need explain
    The glamor of September,
  The catwalk of an Autumn lane,
    The season's boho splendor—

  The chic sangfroid of Maple trees
    (Decidedly iconic).
  But rest assured, my dear (do please!),
    I drank my gin and tonic.

by Me
On the M10, Berlin, August 6, 2022
From the Kupferstichkabinett Museum Berlin.

North of Autumn | Thursday’s Letter Hymn # 17

The U2 must like me. I wrote this poem in one sitting, getting on the U-Bahn at Schönhauser Allee and getting out at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz. That doesn’t happen very often, but I can see how Emily Dickinson wrote so many poems in so short a time. The ballad hymns almost write themselves. The short lines, 8s and 6s, don’t give much scope for over-thinking, especially if one rhymes. One goes where the rhymes lead. The trick is to make them seem wholly coincidental—as if the poet had no idea, none at all, that the poem was rhyming. And if the reader doesn’t notice, all the better.

  I otherwise would hardly write
    (These poems are hit or miss)
  But here I sit, alone tonight,
    Still thinking of your kiss.

  Just so you know, a storm came through;
    The garden is a mess.
  You ought to see the honeydew.
    They're floating more or less.

  The mellons drift from row to row,
    And peas are here and there.
  Don't bother asking if I know
    Which vegetables are where.

  But I can tell you either way
    The mellons are delicious,
  The flesh— so cool, so sweet. To say
    Much more would be seditious.

  I washed the dirt from some tomatoes;
    Diced and tossed them in
  With several waterlogged potatoes—
    (The soup's a little thin).

  The weather teaches us, I guess,
    What is and isn't ours—
  But have I mentioned, nonetheless,
    How beautiful the stars?

    Thursday's Letter
    Written on the U2 on August 31
    by Me

I’ve extended my stay in Berlin until the middle of August. The weather in the poem was inspired by weather, not in Berlin, but back home in Vermont. Something like a small tornado or wind sheer came through and dropped trees across roads, on top of cars and rooftops. That got me thinking about the garden and raspberries in our backyard.

Also, another picture from the city of my birth.

Rough Drafts | Sidewalk Poems

The history behind these two poems is interesting. Middlebury, Vermont invited local poets to send in poems for a sidewalk project in which the poems would be imprinted in the sidewalk’s concrete—part of a poetry project. The poems came with strict line length and word limits. I don’t remember them now. But why not? Middlebury is one of my favorite Vermont towns and Brookway, the fictional town of my novels, is loosely based on it. I submitted the poems and—never heard anything again. Story of my literary life. Since they were written for a very particular location—a sidewalk—I was never sure what to do with them. Now I know. If they can’t be in Middlebury’s sidewalks, then they’ll be in Brookway’s sidewalks—a sidewalk of the imagination. They have a home again.

If despite your hurry
You pause just long enough
To momentarily query
The verses here and there,
You next may ask yourself
If poems aren’t everywhere?—
If maybe all along
(And even by a sidewalk)
There wasn’t always song?
And though that may be true,
It’s true because all poetry
Is truthfully in you.
You mostly needn’t guess
(Or second guess) the season,
You know it more or less:
You know it by the spider
Fattened on the addled flies.
They crowd September’s cider.
And if the weather’s terse
And fitful then it’s likely
April; yet suppose this verse
Is buried under snow?
Your guess is good as mine.
Vermont. You never know.
Every year it’s touch and go.

upinVermont | March 6th 2022

Robert Frost’s “The Subverted Flower”


She drew back; he was calm:
‘It is this that had the power.’
And he lashed his open palm
With the tender-headed flower.
He smiled for her to smile,
But she was either blind
Or willfully unkind.
He eyed her for a while
For a woman and a puzzle.
He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile
Caught up like fingertips
The corners of his lips
And cracked his ragged muzzle.
She was standing to the waist
In goldenrod and brake,
Her shining hair displaced.
He stretched her either arm
As if she made it ache
To clasp her – not to harm;
As if he could not spare
To touch her neck and hair.
‘If this has come to us
And not to me alone -‘
So she thought she heard him say;
Though with every word he spoke
His lips were sucked and blown
And the effort made him choke
Like a tiger at a bone.
She had to lean away.
She dared not stir a foot,
Lest movement should provoke
The demon of pursuit
That slumbers in a brute.
It was then her mother’s call
From inside the garden wall
Made her steal a look of fear
To see if he could hear
And would pounce to end it all
Before her mother came.
She looked and saw the shame:
A hand hung like a paw,
An arm worked like a saw
As if to be persuasive,
An ingratiating laugh
That cut the snout in half,
And eye become evasive.
A girl could only see
That a flower had marred a man,
But what she could not see
Was that the flower might be
Other than base and fetid:
That the flower had done but part,
And what the flower began
Her own too meager heart
Had terribly completed.
She looked and saw the worst.
And the dog or what it was,
Obeying bestial laws,
A coward save at night,
Turned from the place and ran.
She heard him stumble first
And use his hands in flight.
She heard him bark outright.
And oh, for one so young
The bitter words she spit
Like some tenacious bit
That will not leave the tongue.
She plucked her lips for it,
And still the horror clung.
Her mother wiped the foam
From her chin, picked up her comb,
And drew her backward home.


This poem puzzles me in a number of ways, and that’s probably because, as far as the poem goes, the reader isn’t quite sure what to make of either protagonist. On the one hand, the boy, or man, frostis transformed into a beast with a “ragged muzzle”, “a hand hung like a paw”, and “a coward save at night”. On the other, Frost goes on to warn us that this is how the girl, or woman, sees him (and perhaps not how we should see him): “…what the flower began/ Her own too meager heart/ Had terribly completed. / She looked and saw the worst.”

On the subject of their age, I notice while reading what others have written, that the protagonists are frequently referred to as a man and a woman. Judith Oster, in her essay Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor, chooses to read the poem as an inexperienced girl and boy (seemingly ignoring the narrator’s own description of the “boy” as a “marred man”). Frost, though, makes a point of at least the girl’s youth, referring to her as “one so young”. I read that as meaning that she’s rightly called a girl. Usually when we refer to a teen-aged girl we refer to her as just that—a teen-aged girland not a teen-aged woman. So I’m going to refer to her as a girl, probably in her mid teens. Not too young for a boy or man’s (if we consider an eighteen or nineteen year old a man let’s say) amorous and physical affections.

Frost writes that “He eyed her for a while / For a woman”, but there’s hedging in that statement. “For a woman” suggests that maybe she really wasn’t. He wants to see her that way, he “eyed” her that way, but as the poem later suggests: she’s either not old enough to be eyed that way or she herself, if old enough, is too naive or immature. Both are suggested by the line: “A girl could only see/ That a flower had marred a man…” In other words, a woman might have understood, might have seen otherwise, but a girl could only see “a marred man”. So, my reading of their ages is that she’s probably younger than him in age, or at least younger than him in maturity and experience—or both.

  • Frost’s own statement concerning the poem suggests an autobiographical element. That doesn’t mean he was portraying himself and Elinor (his wife), only that the poem might have been inspired by something, at some time, in their relationship. However, if one is going to argue that the poem is strictly autobiographical (which I wouldn’t), then Elinor and Robert would have been the same age.

Another cautionary thought would be this: be careful not to anachronistically appraise their relationship (such as it was or wasn’t). Liaisons between, say, a twenty year old “man” and a teen-aged “girl” were not considered grounds for statutory rape. On the other hand, while courting at this age was permissible, it was strictly proscribed. There might have been petting, if the couple was discreet in the extreme, but anything more could lead to considerable scandal, pregnancy and a shotgun wedding. So, my point would be: Don’t assume that the man was looking for sex. At the time Frost wrote this, and from the “girl’s” point of view, simply expecting a kiss (and a copped feel) might have been tantamount to sex (by her standards). Bottom line: don’t assume that the man was trying to “rape” the girl. That interpretation is available, but I would be wary of making it.

And that brings me to Frost’s own comment on the poem. I don’t think he would have made it if he had thought of the man as a potential rapist. In a 1960 Paris Review Interview he had this to say:


[….}Another neglected poem, and an especially good one, is “Putting In the Seed.”


That’s—sure. They leave that sort of thing out; they overlook that sort of thing with me. The only person ever noticed that was a hearty old friend of mine down at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornelius Weygandt*. He said, “I know what that’s about.”


Do you ever read that poem in public?


No, I don’t bother with those. No, there are certain ones. I wouldn’t read “The Subverted Flower” to anybody outside. It isn’t that I’m afraid of them, but I don’t want them out. I’m shy about certain things in my books, they’re more—I’d rather they’d be read. A woman asked me, “What do you mean by that ‘subverted flower’?” I said, “Frigidity in women.” She left.

So, if the point of the poem was to portray the man as a predator and the girl as a victim of sexual predation, then it strikes me as very unlikely (to put it mildly) that Frost would have characterized the poem’s subject (and by extension the girl’s behavior) as “frigidity”.  Does this mean it’s all the girl’s fault?

Many readers have been content to perceive the man just as the girl perceives him—a depraved rapist in the making (seemingly ignoring the poem’s own warning). But the poem, like many of Frost’s best, is a Rorschach test. Readers tend to read it in their own image. For example, if you do a search for “Subverted Flower” on the internet, one of the links cited will be a Masters Degree thesis written in 1958 by a John Thomas Trahey. Interestingly, Trahey’s Master’s Thesis was written while Frost still lived and before Frost’s comment in the Paris Interview:

The poem “The Subverted Flower” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins. In the poem an adolescent boy tries to lead an adolescent girl into fornication. It is interesting to note that Frost keeps referring to the boy as if in his sexual habits he were a dog. It is evident Frost despises this sort of thing as fit only for brutes… [Trahey p. 32]

The PDF’s introductory notes reveal that Trahey attended St. Ingatius High School,  then went on to the Milford Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Milford, Ohio, and then the Jesuit Philosophate at West Baden College. Notice a trend? Trahey was primed, by a rather religious environment, to read Frost’s poem as an indictment of “sexual sin”. Trahey was entirely wrong about “what Frost thinks” and utterly missed Frost’s warning, but it’s interesting in that it reflects a not uncommon reading of the poem.

But what about the opposite reading. Is it all the girl’s fault? It might be a little unfortunate that Frost commented on the poem. Yeats always refused to do so and Frost was normally cagey or took a mischievous delight in leading readers down the primrose path. I take Frost at his word though; but I’d assert that his comment doesn’t make the man any less ambiguous.  The girl may be frigid, but I don’t think Frost means us to discount her perception of the man as a kind of inarticulate brute.

Lines 1-4

She drew | back; he | was calm:
“It is this | that had | the power.”
And he lashed| his o|pen palm
With the ten| der-hea|ded flower.

The underlying meter of the poem is iambic trimeter though the opening quatrain isn’t regular enough to establish it. There are too many variant feet. I read the first two feet of the first line as spondees. The next three lines begin with anapests. The reader’s ear has nowhere to land. At this point in his career Frost had already proven that he could write perfect iambics and had shown a willingness to run the colloquial expression against the grain of the meter. The effect of the unsettled meter could also be understood as underscoring the unsettled drama and emotions that open the poem. That is, the reader finds themselves in the middle of something that is already underway.

The girl draws back. The man lashes his open palm with the tender-headed flower. What has happened?

My own reading is that the girl has just given the flower to the man but something he’s done and/or said makes her ‘draw back’. We find ourselves in the middle of an argument. He says to her, as if in answer to a question or accusation: “It is this that had the power”. We can’t be certain that he’s referring to the flower, but it’s hard to not draw that conclusion.

What does he mean?

The use of the word power in reference to the flower (or any flower) is a strange collocation. The power of the flower is obviously symbolic.  One might imagine that the girl asked: “What changed you?” Her erstwhile harmless companion is unrecognizable. To which the man answers: “It is this that had the power”. The flower was a kind of invitation and, like the petals of the flower, suggested an opening and awakening. But it’s evident that he has entirely misread the girl’s intentions. She, like the flower, is tender-headed; and his all too masculine eagerness and impulsiveness is destructive. He lashes it in his open palm, a likely metaphor for the insensibility of his sexual impulses. In these four lines, then, the entirety of the poem is captured.

Lines 5-14

He smiled | for her | to smile,
But she | was ei|ther blind
Or will|fully |unkind.
He eyed |her for |a while
For a wo|man and |a puzzle.
He flicked |and flung |the flower,
And ano|ther sort |of smile
Caught up |like fing|ertips
The cor|ners of |his lips
And cracked |his rag|ged muzzle.

The next 10 lines reveal the man’s own confusion, then  a kind of resolve. A hostile confrontation isn’t what the man intended. He smiles for her to smile, but she is either blind or willfully unkind. The fault seems to lie with the girl. Or does it? I think the lines are best understood not as reflecting the narrator’s observations but those of the protagonist. It’s the man who is confused and concludes that she’s either ignorant (blind is an accusatory description—as though she ought to know) or malicious (willfully unkind). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might be too young or inexperienced, or that her interests might not be sexual. He eyes for a woman; and for that reason, perhaps, as a puzzle. In other words: What did she mean by giving him a flower if it wasn’t an overture? If a girl gives a man a flower, there’s no confusion, but if a woman does so?

He flicked and flung the flower,
And another sort of smile [caught up his lips]…

A decision is made. He might have apologized, but instead, as I read it, he concludes that she’s simply naive or innocent. He can forgive innocence. He doesn’t eye her as a woman any more, but as a girl. And he’ll explain himself. The narrator takes us in and out of both their perceptions. She sees his smile as one “caught up like fingertips”—false, deceptive and disingenuous—transformed into a ragged muzzle. He, on the other hand, sees her not as a woman, but as a girl:

She was stan|ding to| the waist
In gol|denrod |and brake,
Her shi|ning hair |displaced.

He sees in her the very picture of innocence. Only by her hair being “displaced”do we know that something is awry. This is not a perfect picture.

Lines 18-29

He stretched |her ei|ther arm
As if |she made |it ache
To clasp |her – not |to harm;
As if |he could |not spare
To touch |her neck |and hair.
“If this |has come| to us
And not |to me| alone -”
So she thought |she heard| him say;
Though with ev|ery word |he spoke
His lips |were sucked |and blown
And the ef|fort made| him choke
Like a ti|ger at |a bone.

He ‘stretches her either arm’, and by this I think the narrator means that he’s taken her hands in his (having just flicked the flower away). In a sense, he means to trade one tender-headed flower for another, but the girl isn’t so tender-headed as to miss the meaning in the flicked and flung flower. She won’t be the next one flicked and flung aside. Her perception of the man continues to disfigure him. If the man’s intention is to awaken her (or possibly seduce) and by this means make of her a woman, the effort both succeeds and backfires. That is, the woman she’s becoming isn’t the woman he intended.

He holds her hands, stretching her arms, when what he really wants is “to touch her neck and hair”. He then makes the somewhat opaque comment: “If this has come to us/And not to me alone -” Which I read as meaning: ‘If our affection is mutual, and not mine alone -‘ But even here we can’t be sure: this is only what she thought ‘she heard him say’. The interaction falls further and further into ambiguity.  Her perception of him continues to transform him into a kind of Caliban-like beast, only half-capable of speech—an effort at dignity that makes him choke “like a tiger at a bone.”

Lines 30-34

She had| to lean| away.
She dared |not stir| a foot,
Lest move|ment should| provoke
The dem|on of |pursuit
That slum|bers in |a brute.

She freezes, and the psychological astuteness of Frost’s writing holds its own into the 21rst century. Consider the following Washington Post article:

…if the fear circuitry perceives escape as impossible and resistance as futile, then not fight or flight, but extreme survival reflexes (which scientists call “animal defense responses”) will take over. These can activate automatically when the body is in a predator’s grip – and when, as half of rape victims report, we fear death or serious injury. ¶ One such response is tonic immobility. In freezing, brain and body are primed for action. But in tonic immobility, the body is literally paralyzed by fear – unable to move, speak, or cry out.

What Frost is describing is a reaction that is pertinent to our modern day discussions of rape and sexual abuse. Again, none of this to say that Frost intended us to read the poem as attempted rape (or that the girl was truly in that kind of danger). It is to say, though, that this is how the girl felt; and that Frost beautifully captures it. She had to lean away, but she didn’t. She was too afraid.

Lines 35-40

It was then |her mo|ther’s call
From inside| the gar|den wall
Made her steal| a look| of fear
To see |if he| could hear
And would pounce| to end| it all
Before |her mo|ther came.

That her mother is so close by doesn’t mean she isn’t (or couldn’t be) in danger, but does suggest that her fears (and reaction) might be disproportionate. That her mother is calling also suggests her youth.

Lines 41-49

She looked| and saw| the shame:
A hand |hung like| a paw,
An arm |worked like |a saw
As if |to be| persuasive,
An ingra|tia|ting laugh
That cut |the snout| in half,
And eye| become |evasive.
A girl |could on|ly see
That a flower| had marred| a man,

These next lines place us fully in the girl’s realm of perception. “She looked and saw the shame”, but whether it’s really ‘shame’ or simply disappointment (or some other emotion) is left to the reader to decide. The poem is nothing if not a reenactment of wrong assessment, misreading and misunderstanding. Frost may let us into the minds of the protagonists, but only to reveal their mutual confusion. The girl, after all, has fully transmogrified the man. He’s a brute now—a beast whose hand hangs like a paw. The reference to his arm working like a saw is an unmistakable reference to masturbation. Is he really?  She may perceive it that way but I think it’s more likely he gestures her to follow him. That said, her interpretation, and his ultimate intention, may not be that far from the mark. But what of it? I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who masturbate and those who lie about it.”

And what harm in sexual pleasure (which doesn’t have to imply intercourse)?  It’s at this juncture that Frost’s own comment on the poem is either considered or ignored. Contrary to John Trahey’s assertion, that the poem ” is an instance of what Frost thinks of men who try to lead others into sexual sins”, Frost’s own judgment is that she’s being “frigid”, defined as: “sexually unresponsive; “was cold to his advances”; “a frigid woman”. This would suggest that Frost (as opposed to the narrator) isn’t entirely sympathetic with the girl.

But setting Frost’s own comment aside, the line suggests that the girl herself isn’t unfamiliar with masturbation. Why else make the observation that his hand “worked like a saw”? She could have simply said that he gestured her to follow. She doesn’t. She seems to compare it to masturbation. A reader might fairly conclude she isn’t altogether as innocent as appearances suggest. If this adds another layer of confusion to the poem (and we, as readers, like to ultimately know one way or the other) so be it. Sometimes in sexual matters like these, there’s no pat answer. Is he/she right? Wrong? Who’s to blame? Maybe both. Maybe neither. Then as now, questions of rape, responsibility and consent remain difficult to sort out.

The narrator remarks: “A girl could only see/That a flower had marred a man…” suggesting that a woman might have understood the gesture, might have seen otherwise. The lines also suggest that there was another way she might have “seen him”, as other than a “marred man”. The narrator continues:

Line 50-56

But what |she could| not see
Was that |the flower |might be
Other |than base |and fetid:
That the flower| had done| but part,
And what |the flower| began
Her own |too mea|ger heart
Had ter|ribly |completed.

The narrator suggests the girl had other options and by doing so the reader is invited to conclude that the misunderstanding (the fault) is the girl’s. A feminist critique might fairly argue that there’s implicit misogyny in that assertion, though misogyny might not be the right word. Entitlement? Why should the man be entitled to the girl’s sexual favors? Why shouldn’t it be within her rights to reject him? What other options did she have? Was there some middle ground?

Lines 57-68

She looked |and saw| the worst.
And the dog |or what| it was,
Obey|ing best|ial laws,
A cow|ard save| at night,
Turned from| the place| and ran.
She heard| him stum|ble first
And use |his hands| in flight.
She heard |him bark| outright.
And oh, |for one| so young
The bit|ter words |she spit
Like some| tena|cious bit
That will |not leave| the tongue.

All we know as that she looked and “saw the worst”. The man/dog, provoked by sexual interest is doing nothing more than “obeying bestial laws”. If there’s any autobiography in the poem, I find it here. If nothing else about the poem is autobiographical, the contemptuous accusation that a man’s interest in sex is nothing more than “obeying bestial laws” has the ring of truth, of a real accusation likely to be made when one partner’s sexual desire exceeds the others. After a time, the incessant demand for sex can feel like “pawing”.  We’ll never know, but it’s likely (in my opinion only) that Frost’s sexual appetite exceeded Elinor’s. And I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point she was fed up with him. To be fair there was the added complication of pregnancy. There weren’t birth control pills. Elinor had already had four children, wasn’t exactly living an easy life, and probably wasn’t game to risk another pregnancy for the sake of Mr. Robert Frost. More generally, the poem could also reflect a lifelong difference in their attitudes toward sex and desire for sex, beginning when they were first courting; and Frost may have vented some of that frustration in the poem. If so, was it fair to call her frigid? Maybe. Maybe not. If Elinor had written the poem though, the conclusion might have been a little different.

  • The likelihood that Frost’s sexual desires exceeded his wife’s finds some backing in the biography of Lawrence Thompson. In his book, Robert Frost Handbook, by Pittman B. Potter, Potter writes: “We should not be surprised to learn that the poem reflects an episode in Frost’s early courtship of Elinor White. Thompson has shown that their relationship was seriously disturbed by Elinor’s very shy reaction to Frost’s physical passion, and Frost’s resentment reflects itself in the subtle slanting here in the boy’s favor.” [p. 63]

The lines “obeying bestial laws,/ A coward save at night…” once again hints at masturbation and the girl’s own dark familiarity with it’s pleasures and its “cowardice”. And it’s at this turn that the girl’s own transformation begins, when she “for one so young” spits the words that will not “leave her tongue”. Like her suitor, she’s also transformed into a Caliban-like beast only half-able to speak. And it’s this moment that’s the most fascinating and revealing in the poem. Not only is he transformed into a beast by his misapprehension and hers, but the girl too. Her own sexual energy, like the flower, is subverted, channeled into divisiveness rather than union, contempt rather than acceptance, hatred rather than love. Subvert has the meaning: “To pervert, as the mind, and turn it from the truth; to corrupt; to confound.” The girl’s sexuality is turned upside down and made as bestial as his.

Line 69-73

She plucked| her lips |for it,
And still |the hor|ror clung.
Her mo|ther wiped| the foam
From her chin,| picked up| her comb,
And drew |her back|ward home.

Her mouth foams, and the reader might be reminded of a rabid dog. While one dog runs away, the other dog barks, foaming at the mouth. Both lovers are metamorphosed by the subversion of the flower. One might assert that because she refuses to be the flower, the man is transformed into a beast, but I think this ignores the girl’s own culpability and transformation. She may be young, but the narration more than suggests that she’s not entirely innocent.

And while all the lines offer moments of revelation, the last is the most suggestive. The girl must be drawn “backward” home. She doesn’t flee when given the chance. Her own sexuality, albeit subverted, is awakened and as engaged as the man’s, compelled by the same bestial laws and as drawn to the engagement (despite her foaming denial). Her mother’s forceful intervention draws her home but the girl won’t be disengaged. The flower’s “power”—sexual awakening—as inevitably draws and overwhelms the girl as it does the man.

“The mother’s call had issued from the safe domestic world—”From inside he garden wall”—and she is taken back out of threateningly sexualized nature and into that refuge at the poem’s end. [….] ¶ [But] to be drawn is not to be dragged, and yet “backward” shows no great willingness. The poem ends with a subtle variation on where it began: “She drew back; he was calm.” Now, she must be drawn back, and all sense of calm has gone, to be replaced by a fallen “comb” which is a symbol of the struggle.” [p. 373]

That the mother wipes the girl’s chin and picks up her comb suggests the mother’s infantilizing. The comb might be understood as the girl’s girlhood. The girl’s hair, that has been ‘displaced’ by her sexual encounter with the man, will be straightened. In other words, the infantilizing comb, which has been tellingly forgotten by the girl, will comb out and remove (presumably by the mother) any record of the encounter.

Fairly or unfairly, the narrator portrays the girl as not just condemning the man’s/boy’s sexual advances, but also condemning her own (this through her suggested knowledge of masturbation and sexual desire).  The tragedy is that rather than elevating them both, they’re both metamorphosed into something bestial—the subversion of what should be good and beautiful.

  • A note on the rhyme: I may return to this post to discuss the rhyme scheme, which isn’t regular but masterfully handled. The rhymes of puzzle and muzzle are beautifully handled in the sense that muzzle follows only after several lines. The reader subliminally waits and when muzzle does appear it’s all the more effective. Also worth noticing is the rhyme of the last three lines, a way to conclude the poem and bring it to a more final stop. (Elizabethan playwrights would sometimes use a concluding couplet to signal the end of a speech.) As in After Apple Picking, the rhyme scheme’s irregularity allows Frost to deploy them in a way that adds emphasis to the narration.  The meter, as mentioned above, is Iambic Trimeter varied, principally, by anapestic first feet and feminine endings.

And  that, for now, is that. Let me know if you enjoyed or have questions.

WB Yeats ❧ Byzantium

william_butler_yeats_2So, I’ve been reading more Yeats. In particular, I’ve been trying to get a foothold in Byzantium.  Whereas Sailing to Byzantium has the feeling of conviction, Byzantium reads more like a hoary Rand Mcnally triptych having no relevance to anyone but Yeats. In her book, Our Secret Discipline, Vendler spends 11 full pages explicating Byzantium without eliciting the least desire to read it. Thankfully, unlike  her analysis of Sailing to Byzantium, she seems to have gotten over her obsession with Yeats’ penis. She doesn’t write such chestnuts as “[Yeats] hopes to regain respect by emphasizing the power of the rigid Byzantine “monuments of unageing intellect. [p. 31]” (The italics are mine.) Which, when one thinks about it, is a little odd.

Anyway, what’s the point of Byzantium? Is it really just the description of souls arriving in some concocted city by a fevered poet drunk on his own “spiritualist” kool-aid? Is it just spiritualist naval gazing? Was Yeats really trying to communicate anything relevant? John Unterecker, in his Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, has this to say about Byzantium’s inception:Yeats wrote “Byzantium” in Italy after his Malta Fever collapse. The first notes for the poem are recorded in his 1930 diary under the heading “Subject for a Poem” and are dated April 30:

Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners where the soul is purefied, birds of hammered gold singing in the golden trees, in the harbor, offering their backs to the wailing dead that they may carry them to paradise. [p. 217]

And that’s that. It really does sound like the note taking of an aspiring tour guide. But Yeats must have had something more in mind. Unterecker mentions a letter from Sturge Moor, to Yeats:

“As Ursula Bridge notes, Yeats was almost certainly goaded into this stanza by Sturge Moore’s April 16, 1930, letter which had attacked the golden bird of “Sailing to Byzantium” as an essentially natural thing: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as as man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing to to come to Lords and Ladies.”

And here’s the relevant exchange, from here, in its entirety:

[From T. Sturge Moore to Yeats, April 16, 1930] Have you read Santayana’s Platonism and the Spiritual Life? He thinks the Indian philosophers the most spiritual, but his arguments leave me skeptical as to whether mere liberation from existence has any value or probability as a consummation. I prefer with Wittgenstein, whom I don’t understand, to think that nothing at all can be said about ultimates, or reality in an ultimate sense. Anyway I can say nothing that approaches giving me satisfaction, nor am I satisfied by what others say. Your “Sailing to Byzantium,” magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.

[Yeats responds, October 4, 1930] My dear Sturge Moore,

Yes, I have decided to call the book Byzantium. I enclose the poem, from which the name is taken, hoping that it may suggest symbolism for the cover. The poem originates from a criticism of yours. You objected to the last verse of “Sailing to Byzantium” because a bird made by a goldsmith was just as natural as anything else. That showed me that the idea needed exposition.

Matthew Schultz, in his essay Aestheticism in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats: The Two Byzantium Poems, goes further , writing that the disagreement was “the point of departure for “Byzantium”. Yeats own words would seem to underscore this assertion. Was Yeats really so taken aback by Moore’s critique of a single image that he was prompted to write Byzantium — a kind of refutation? This suggests two thoughts: First, that the image of the golden bird is central to Sailing to Byzantium, and that this is the image/idea around which the second poem is constructed. So, let’s take a look at the poem. I’ve tried to type it in without typos and have used the Richard J. Finneran edition of Yeats’ poetry:

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.


Yeats follows a fairly strict metrical pattern in the poem,  suggesting a more formal or serious tone. The underlying pattern is iambic and the underlying meter of the longer lines is iambic pentameter.2nd Byzantium 1rst Stanza

But for the first stanza, in which the sixth line is dimeter, the overall  pattern for the sixth and seventh lines are iambic trimeter, Any explanation for why Yeats chose this  pattern is going to be subjective (lest it come from Yeats). My own thought is that the short lines give the stanzas a sense of momentum and succinctness, especially where Yeats wants to focus the reader and listener on the content. That’s the way, at any rate, I myself tend to think of shorter lines, especially rhyming lines. Based on the rhyme scheme, one could think of the stanza as being comprised of two quatrains. The second quatrain is an Italian Quatrain, four lines that enclose a couplet. In this case, the couplet is:

All that man is,
All mere complexities…

The short lines combined in a couplet draw the reader’s mind to a central assertion: man is mere complexities. Yeats is already drawing a contrast between the temporary ambitions of man and the eternal artifice of Byzantium. Vendler states that the rhymes and rhythms of the poem change unpredictably. I’m not seeing it. Each of the stanzas follow the pattern established by the first. This is hardly unpredictable. The rhyme scheme remains the same from beginning to end. How is this unpredictable?  If she’s only going to consider the first stanza, then by that measure every poem is unpredictable until we read it.

The stanza’s that follow all follow the same pattern and so, if only to make less work for myself, I haven’t scanned them. Just ask, however, if you have any questions concerning the others.

The First Stanza

Byzantium is a sequel or continuation of Sailing to Byzantium and I don’t see how it’s possible to interpret Byzantium without reference to the first poem (though Vendler seem untroubled by such exigencies). Vendler tells us that “‘Byzantium’ gains by being read together with ‘Sailing to Byzantium’,” [p. 47] yet makes no effort to connect her interpretation of the first poem to the second. The first poem, she tells us, is an expression of Yeats’ “self-disgust” and his “exclusion—by reason of impotence—from the country of heterosexual intercourse” [p. 34]. By the second poem, Yeats is completely over it (or Vendler is). Surely, given that the two poems are so obviously connected, one would expect her to find evidence, or hints at least, of the same thematic material in both.  She doesn’t, not as far as Yeats’ “impotence” goes.

For my own part, I interpreted the first poem somewhat differently. To be brief, I interpreted Byzantium as Yeats’ argument for a new art. The poetry of youthful song and passion no longer captivated him. Such country is no place for old men. Instead, he turns his art to a more eternal kind—purified by the goldsmiths hammer—and for the spiritually transfigured reader, lords, ladies, Empress and Emperor (which I interpreted as meaning us). Byzantium isn’t so much a poem announcing Yeats’ departure from the world of “blood and mire”, but an invitation for readers to join him in his—a purified and eternal world.

How does this interpretation hold up in lieu of Byzantium?

Yeats doesn’t really describe Byzantium in Sailing to Byzantium. He suggests. He wants to be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Perhaps the atmosphere is suffused with god’s holy fire “as in the gold mosaic of a wall.” There will be a golden bough on which a bird, the artifice of Grecian goldsmiths, will sing to Lords and Ladies. The reader can easily be forgiven for imagining a stately, beautiful, and eternal city full of art and accomplishment.


You would be wrong. Yeats clears up that little misconception right from the get-go:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;

Now, and this is the thing that gets me every time I read the poem: What in the hell are drunk soldiers doing at the gates of paradise—an eternal world of fixity? Obviously, the mistake is in thinking that Byzantium is meant to be interpreted as heaven or eternity. It is however, in Yeats’ imagination, a destination for the dead  (or souls), as well as the living. They arrive “astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood”. And what’s with dolphins? It only gets weirder from there. We have a moonlit dome that “disdains /all that man is,” (though apparently not the drunken soldiers tasked with guarding it — from what, we don’t know—and not that they could anyway, being drunk).  In the second stanza, Hades’ bobbin shows up, bound in mummy-cloth, and look, there goes Abbot and Costello, running for their lives, from the mummy and from the “miracle bird” that’s crowing like a cock out of Hell  (or Hades rather).

What are we supposed to make of this place?

Having read various interpretations on the web and in critical books, I have to say (and this is only my impression)  almost nobody has a clue. Vendler puts up a pretty good front, treating the poem with the utmost earnestness and seriousness, but I’m not convinced. To me, the one critic/reader who comes closest to teasing out what Yeats might have had in mind (and it’s not like I know) was William Empson. Empson’s article, in the critical  journal Grand Street, was published in 1982 and much of the “material” that follows is drawn from the article–but the observations are largely my own. In order to pull off his feat of Yeatsian-cryptography, Empson referred to Yeats’ drafts, along with letters. He states from the outset that it’s not something he usually approves of (and neither do I) but Yeats’ Byzantium calls for desperate measures. The first question to be dealt with is why Byzantium? Here’s a city that, far from being considered a mecca of culture and civilization, inspired the word Byzantine.


Machiavellian, artful, balled up, calculating, canny, collusive,
complex, complicated, confounded, confused, connivent, conniving,
conspiring, contriving, convoluted, crabbed, crafty, cunning,
daedal, designing, devious, elaborate, embrangled, entangled,
fouled up, foxy, gordian, guileful, implicated, insidious,
intricate, intriguing, involuted, involved, knotted, knotty,
knowing, labyrinthian, labyrinthine, loused up, many-faceted,
matted, mazy, meandering, messed up, mixed up, mucked up,
multifarious, pawky, perplexed, plotting, ramified, roundabout,
scheming, screwed up, shrewd, slick, sly, snarled, sophisticated,
stratagemical, subtile, subtle, tangled, tangly, twisted, up to,

At the height of its infamy, Byzantium was famed for political intrigue, decadence, corruption, despotism, assassination and unrivaled venality. And this is where Yeats wants to go? Yeats’s was obviously aware of history’s verdict (hence the drunk soldiers), but the city’s artistic legacy appears to have assumed, to him, mythical proportions.

“There is a record of a tree of gold with artificial birds which sang. The tree was somewhere in the Royal Palace of Byzantium. I use it as a symbol of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted with the instinctive joy of human life.” [Yeats and Byzantium p. 69]

In 1932, lecturing in America, Yeats elaborates:

“Aristotle says that if you give a ball to a child, and if it was the best ball in the market, though it cost but sixpence, it is an example of magnificence; and style, whether in life or literature, comes, I think, from excess, from that something over and above utility which wrings the heart. In my later poems I have called it Byzantium, that city where the saints showed their wasted forms upon a background of gold mosaic, and an artificial bird sang upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor; and in one poem I have pictured the ghosts swimming, mounted upon dolphins, through the sensual seas, that they may dance upon its pavements.” [Ibid p. 70]

Empson then references a first draft but, for whatever reason, doesn’t follow up on the really (in my opinion) revealing “second stanza”.

Now the day is come I will speak on those
Loves I have had in play…That my soul loved
That I loved in my first youth
For many lovers have I taken off my clothes
For some I threw them off in haste, for some slowly and indifferently
and laid down on my bed that I might be…
but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone
O let me be enfolded in my …
and how shall we ever grow every…

As Empson notes, the handwriting is hard to read.  What interests me is how Yeats draws a fascinating parallel between taking off his clothes to make love, and taking off his body for an unspecified (in this extract at least) spiritual union. In other words, Yeats is sexualizing the spiritual union. That is to say, the pleasurable, naked decadence Yeats experienced as a youth when making love is comparable to the pleasure of spiritual union in old age.  And to really drive home my point: Yeats’s longing for spiritual union isn’t that of the ascetic [rigid in self-denial and devotions; austere; severe] but that of the decadent, pleasure seeking lover. Now, you’re obviously asking yourself, where might Yeats find a place that represents both pleasure seeking decadence and transcendent spiritual art? Yeah. Byzantium.

So, with this mind, let’s revisit the first stanza. Once again, the opening lines:

The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night’s resonance recedes; night walker’s song…

We now know that this Byzantium is not meant to be interpreted as a sexless, spiritually cleansed stand-in for paradise. Yeats liked women, liked sex, and liked sensuality. To him, it would seem, a spiritual realm without its own sexual and sensual parallels was decidedly not heaven.  And yes, this flatly contradicts Vendler’s suggestion that “there are no women in the heaven of sages,” (besides being contradicted by the mosaics of Sant’Apollinare).  Empson, having access to the drafts of Yeats’s Byzantium, reveals the extent to which Yeats originally wanted to emphasize the not-to-be-confused-with-Paradise nature of his Byzantium:

“…it turns out that the earlier drafts made the point much more strongly: “all that roaring route of rascals,” “the emperor’s brawling soldiers,” “the last benighted robber or assassin fled,” “the drunken harlot’s song.” Critics who still insist that this town is Paradise must be struggling to hush up a scandal.” [Ibid. p. 86]

So, the drunken harlot’s song became the nightwalker’s song. Not only is there beer and sex in Byzantium, but both are for sale. What’s not to love? And what does “The unpurged images” mean? One way to to understand this is by examining Yeats’s spiritual belief system (which I find tediously arcane and can’t be bothered with). The second is through the context of the poem.

Here’s how I interpret the matter. Yeats, when referring to life as we know it, uses words like complexity, and phrases like mire and blood ; the fury and the mire of human veins; complexities of mire or blood; complexities of fury.

  • Mire  1. To cause or permit to stick fast in mire; to plunge or fix in mud; as, to mire a horse or wagon. [1913 Webster] 2. Hence: To stick or entangle; to involve in difficulties — often used in the passive or predicate form; as, we got mired in bureaucratic red tape and it took years longer than planned.

So, given this not-so-subtly negative summation of life, it stands to reason that it’s these complexities which are to be purged. And what does he mean by complexities? We get some idea by the words and phrases he uses to describe the “opposite”. In Sailing to Byzantium, he writes: “…gather me Into the artifice of eternity”.

In Byzantium he writes:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is

…bird or golden handiwork,
[Can] scorn…
In glory of changeless metal
Common bird or petal
And all complexities of mire or blood.

Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,

  • Aside: Just for a moment, I want to point out a sexual crosscurrent that may or may not be present in Yeats’s choice of imagery. While Yeats liked women, liked sex and liked sensuality, one might be forgiven for also pointing out that, like many men, Yeats may also have been conflicted. Use of words like blood, mire and complexity all suggest the female body, sex, and reproduction. It’s certainly not a stretch to suggest that a woman’s reproductive organs could be construed as “a mire” — a damp and heated swamp  Sex, menstruation, child-birth, all involve bodily fluids (and a variety of complexities) that might have alternately attracted and repelled Yeats. I wouldn’t call it misogyny, just “issues” (if you know what I mean). In that respect, it wouldn’t be a coincidence that Yeats uses the word “beget”. He is, after all, referring to physical life when he refers to “Those images”, and the necessity that it procreate/beget new life (fresh images) in the mire—the womans’ body—of her blood, fury and complexity. If this surmise is true, then it makes perfect sense that he would write (in an unpublished sketch): “now I will take off my body”. In other words, Yeats wants sex without the blood, mire and messiness of sex. Perhaps Byzantium reveals Yeats’ conflicted attraction and repulsion to sex and women (if subliminally), and not just his spiritual aspirations. It’s not that he wants to escape the pleasure of sexuality, it’s the blood and messiness that repels him. He wants an idealized world of sensuality that is “clean” and changeless.

So, getting back to purging, it stands to reason that purging involves cleansing the soul(?) of the mire and blood that is the transient body. What remains? Right. This is what every criticism and analysis of the poem merrily glosses over. Either that, or we are referred to Yeats’s ‘cones’ (which also  does nothing to explain what Yeats had in mind). Frankly, I don’t even think that Yeats knew. He may coyly distinguish an image from a shade, but that still doesn’t tell us what they are —a soul? – a speck of consciousness? – a disembodied body? What?  All we know is that whatever remains, once we are “purged”, is not mired in blood, fury or complexity. We are presumably “purified”. We exist (whatever that “we” is) in an Aristotelian(?) and sensual realm (art/artifice of eternity?) that is changeless, permanent and ‘not-complex’. If one thinks of it figuratively (which is much easier) then one might say that what remains (of Yeats for example) is to be found in the changeless perfection of his poetry. But Yeats took these matters literally and I doubt that immortality on a bookshelf was what he had in mind – even if he flirted with the notion in his poetry (see my previous post). And frankly, I don’t know that any of this matters. It may simply be enough to assert that Yeats is contrasting the ever-changing, transient realm of the furious physical with an idealized, unchanging, intellectual/sensual realm of art and artifice. In order to get there, you have to be purged. As in Sailing to Byzantium, this purgation involves acknowledging the purer, more permanent song of the miracle bird (hammered by the Emperor’s goldsmiths) and leaving behind the song of “The young/In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/— Those dying generations”.

Think of it this way, perhaps: To be purged is to surrender the sensuality of the body to the sensuality of the mind.

So, getting all the way back to “unpurged images”. By images, Yeats is referring to physical/bodily life. They are unpurged because they still sport in the blood and mire that is bodily life, that is beer and paid sex.

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.

The first of twelve strokes announces the window in which “images” may be purged. The dome, an image of changelessness and perfection (appealing to the sensuality of the mind), disdains the bodily, Like the miracle bird’s song, and like Yeats’s poetry, the bell is a call to purgation. Vendler very nicely describes what Yeats might intend with the dome:

“…the dome stands for that which is purged of such complexities, that which harbors within itself ideal images already purged and pure.” [Our Secret Discipline, p. 39]

The Second Stanza

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.

Now. Things are going to get really interesting because I’m going to shock the world (or get myself lynched) by proposing a way to interpret these lines that, to my knowledge, has never been offered before. Here’s the thing: Every critic and close reader who has read this poem (and not without good reason) assumes that Yeats, in the poem as it was finally published, was referring to a mummy (and that’s tied every last one of them into interpretative knots). Yeats himself, before he even began drafts of the poem, wrote:

“Describe Byzantium as it is in the system towards the end of the first Christian milliennium. A  walking mummy. Flames at the street corners…” [the emphasis is my own]

However, I argue that Yeats changed his mind. As Empson himself stated, we must be wary when consulting a poet’s drafts and perhaps even avoid doing so. The reason is that the drafts not only give us clues to what the poet intended (in the course of working out the poem), but also reveal what he decided to change and leave out. I can’t stress that enough. Really. The ultimate arbiter of a poem’s meaning must remain the final, completed poem.

In Byzantium, in the poem as we have it, there is no mummy.

Let that sink in.

Every critic, Empson, Vendler, Bloom, Unterecker, et al… (because, in my opinion, of decades of misreading) have assumed that the mummy of the drafts made it into the final poem. They all read the poem the same way. However, the obvious observation is that Yeats’s final draft never actually states that the image/shade is a mummy. In fact, it’s possible to read these lines in a wholly different way and in a way that’s not self-contradictory.

Here we go:

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;

That’s a complete sentence and it ends in a semicolon. Even Yeats was aware that a mummy is not a man, no matter how beautiful the Pharaoh’s linens. A mummy is a skeleton encased by dessicated flesh. Yeats must also have realized the absurdity of his initial drafts.  He tried the following:

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
(May better sommon me) Can merrily summon me
To adore…

But rejected them. Merrily? A Mummy? Even Empson found this imagery absurd, writing:

“Merrily” carries a strong suggestion that we have not heard the whole story. Even without this unnerving detail, it would be probable that if we had the science fiction long-short we would find the mummy at least giving some gruff directions to the poet. But, even so, it would be quite unsuitable, and extremely unlike what happens to Virgil…”  [Yeats and Byzantium, p. 88]

Clearly, this was going nowhere. My reading is that Yeats changed the mummy — the guide — to a shade, “shade more than man, more image than a shade”. He also, I think, realized that it made more sense for him to summon the guide, rather than the other way around. But, you protest, what about the next line?

For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth
May unwind the winding path;

Here’s the thing: Whose to say these lines are referring to the shade? I think this is fundamentally misreading the lines. It seems to me that Yeats liked the material but recognized the inherent contradictions (and absurdities). A better idea struck him. He didn’t spell it out in the drafts because he didn’t have to. That’s not what drafts are for. He used/reused the imagery of the mummy and the winding cloth to suggest a much cleverer association. What is a bobbin? A bobbin is like a spindle. And what did ancient Egyptians wrap around spindles? Papyrus and linen. And what did we end up with? Scrolls. And what might ancient Egyptians have been writing on a scroll? — that Yeats’ might have been very interested in?

“The Book of the Dead was most commonly written in hieroglyphic or hieratic script on a papyrus scroll, and often illustrated with vignettes depicting the deceased and their journey into the afterlife.” [Wikipedia, September 25th)

732px-Weighing_of_the_heart3“The Book of the Dead is an ancient Egyptian funerary text, used from the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE.[1] The original Egyptian name for the text, transliterated rw nw prt m hrw[2] is translated as “Book of Coming Forth by Day”.[3] Another translation would be “Book of emerging forth into the Light”. Though, book is the closest term to describe the loose collection of texts[4] consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist a dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld, and into the afterlife and written by many priests over a period of about 1000 years.” [Ibid.]


Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade;
For [because] Hades’ bobbin [The Book of the Dead] bound in mummy-cloth [a scroll’s linen wrapping or book]
May unwind [like a scroll] the winding path [by summoning or by the knowledge contained therein]];
A mouth that has no moisture and no breath [the written word]
Breathless mouths [the man that is shade, more image than shade] may summon
I hail [summon] the superhuman [the man or shade];
I call it death-in-life and life-in-death.

This, readers, in my opinion, is Hades Bobbin. Hades Bobbin is not a mummy. “Hades Bobbin” is The Book of the Dead. Hades Bobbin is a scroll. There is no mummy in Byzantium.  Yeats came up with a much better idea and recycled/re-imagined the imagery of the drafts. Hades Bobbin, the scroll, literally and figuratively unwinds the winding path. Thousands of years later, what did this scroll become? A book. It was “bound”, possibly like the scroll itself, in mummy-cloth — the linen that covers the hard-cover of a book. Yeats uses the very word — bound — to describe it.  So, am I suggesting that every other critic and close reader might have missed the farm (maybe even got it wrong)?


  • It’s also worth noting that scrolls were sometimes “bound” or wrapped in linen. Was this something Yeats would have known when writing Byzantium? I don’t know.

C heck out this website, where you will find this:

 “Robert Moss’s ambition to give us a Western Book of the Dead has been fully realized in this captivating and inspiring guide to the land of the dead.  Moss shocks and thrills by revealing the hidden truth — that the other world is in fact the famliar landscape of our dreams, where we go every night.  There we can, if we intend it, meet up with our lost loved ones and encounter the great mentors of the past.   His own mentor is the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats with whom he has involved and meaningful conversations.  Moss reminds us that by our night dreaming and waking dreams we prepare for the great journey of the world beyond the mists the Celts called the Blessed Isles. Our dreams are the measure of what we aspire for, and it is in this life, through practicing our imagination, that we can draw our roadmap and our destination. For a better death and life beyond death — but also for a better life in the world of the living — do not miss this classic from a true Western Master.”

And now, the next lines make perfect sense:

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.

What is a mouth that has no moisture and no breath? A scroll or a book — perhaps even a poem. With Hades Bobbin — the scroll or The Book of the Dead — Yeats is able to “hail”, summon, the superhuman — the man, the shade, the image — his guide. Readers and critics have always assumed that it was the “mummy”, the “shade” or the “guide” who was summoning Yeats, but this makes no sense. Yeats, or the speaker of the poem, is not a breathless mouth. As far as we know, he’s still alive. Furthermore, Yeats never actually writes that he (or the speaker of the poem) was summoned. That’s simply how readers have chosen to interpret the lines. (And if he was summoned, then it was the cathedral’s gong that summoned him.) If interpreted correctly (in my opinion) its the breathless mouth of a book, The Book of the Dead, that has summoned the breathless mouth of a guide or shade. Yeats calls this guide: death-in-life and life-in-death. Be cognizant, also, that The Book of the Dead is filled with spells, incantations and chants that probably appealed to Yeats’ imagination for their nearness to poetry. If my interpretation is correct then, in a sense, Yeats is all but stating that it’s poetry that summons the superhuman.

  • superhuman/ death-in-life and life-in-death This terminology has been subjected to hundreds of pages of scrutiny. I think most readers will instinctively grasp their meaning within the context of the poem (though possibly not, precisely, what Yeats had in mind). If you’re interested to know what exactly Yeats might have meant (and that means having a familiarity with A Vision and Yeats’s esoteric writing) then resources are available.  I say might because nobody knows for sure. To me, the summoning of the superhuman is analogous to the summoning of a poem or a great work of literature. An interpretation near to my own, by Richard Ellman, remains my favorite:

“Gradually the master-image of Byzantium must have assumed dominance of the scene. The completed poem has often been taken as a representation of the afterlife, and Yeats wished this interpretation to be possible; but to him, it seems safe to say, ‘Byzantium’ was primarily a description of the act of making a poem. The poet, who is imprecisely identified with the Byzantine emperor, takes the welter of images and masters them in an act of creation. This mastery is so astonishing to the poet himself that he calls the creation of his imagination superhuman. The image of the golden bird, ‘more miracle than bird or handiwork,’ may be understood to represent a poem; the bird sings, as do Yeats’s poems, either like the cocks of Hades of rebirth — the continuing cycle of reincarnating human life, or with greater glory of the eternal reality or beatitude which transcends the cycles ‘and all complexities of mire or blood.’ Never had he realized so completely the awesome drama of the creative act” (Richard Ellman. Yeats: The Man and the Masks 269).

So, in the first Stanza Yeats has arrived in Byzantium, and in the second stanza, as I read it, Yeats uses Hades Bobbin, the “bound” Book of the Dead, to summon a guide.

The Third Stanza

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.

The guide, presumably, has taken Yeats to see the miracle bird — the “artificial bird [that sings] upon a tree of gold in the presence of the emperor”. Many critics assume that the guide is meant to take “Yeats” to the afterlife. Not so, in my opinion. Why would such a guide be merry (or be a Mummy)? I think it more likely that the guide is pleased because he has been summoned to take the poem’s narrator to something of profound beauty and elegance. Interpreting the poem this way clears up another conundrum that has troubled readers since the poem’s publication: Why does the narrator need two guides — the mummy and a miracle bird? The answer is that the conundrum  arises from misinterpretation — neither the guide nor the bird are meant to guide the narrator into the afterlife.

The third stanza, in the middle and heart of the poem, brings us back to the comment that apparently prompted Yeats to write Byzantium: “…a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or to come to Lords and Ladies.”

The first thing Yeats tries to clarify is that the bird isn’t just a “goldsmith’s bird”, but a miracle — a bird imbued with not just mechanical wonder but something akin to life and intelligence. In analyzing Sailing to Byzantium, I wrote:

If Yeats is referring to his art, his poetic passion, then the imagery is easier to swallow. Remember too, Yeats’ comment concerning the skills of Byzantine goldsmiths. Yeats glowingly comments that they can create “a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body”. Yeats, himself, doesn’t think of the goldsmith’s work as mechanical and lifeless, no,  just the opposite. The artifice is not mechanical but “flexible”, not lifeless, but like the “perfect human body”. Yeats is describing a spiritual/alchemical transmutation like a kind of miracle. (…) Yeats, in my opinion, is describing a personal, spiritual transformation as manifested through his art – his poetry. He is, in a sense, identifying himself as his poetry – which is all that will remain after he has died. In this guise, the gold bough is like the magnum opus of his poetry (his Collected Poems).
The miracle, perhaps, is in the bird’s (Yeats’s poetry) being able to continue speaking, intelligently voicing his dreams and visions. In this sense, and in keeping with Yeats’s own spiritual ideas, the guide is showing him both his future and his past. The bird speaks to the purged soul of all men and women — hence the miracle. The bird, embodying Yeats’ poetry, speaks to the undying truth of our natures. Admittedly, resting so much symbolism in a mechanical bird will probably strike readers as eccentric, and it is.
“It is hard to say just what “exposition” Yeats had given to the idea of the bird by writing the poem; perhaps he would answer that his treatment had brought out more of the inherent beauty of the “image,” and that anything so beautiful must adumbrate the truth .He was quite capable of teasing his correspondent with a mystery, in a grand manner, and it seems plain that could have chosen a more impressive example of the good which may be done by exalted works of art, if that was all he had required.” [Ibid. p. 81]
  • Note: Interestingly, Empson goes on to discuss what may have inspired Yeats’ golden bird. He remarks that mechanical, singing birds were, in fact, available and for sale during Yeats’ childhood and that his own (Empson’s) great-Aunt used to bring out “exquisitely preserved toys of an antiquity rivaling her own. Chief among them was the bird of Yeats in its great cage, wound up to sing by a massive key; a darkish green tree, as I remember, occupied most of the cage, and a quite small shimmering bird, whose beak would open and shut while the musical box in the basement was playing, perched carelessly on a branch on one side.” [Ibid. p. 83] Empson didn’t recall seeing a golden bough, but that’s surely Yeats’s imagination at work. [The image, above, is of an actual Victorian Mechanical bird with a music box. I couldn’t find a larger version of this image. It sold for $795 dollars. The attached audio file is of the singing bird — the very one pictured in the image.]

Nevertheless, Yeats tries to drive home the argument that this isn’t any ordinary bird or work of art. In can crow like the cocks of Hades and in “changeless metal [can scorn]/ Common bird or petal/And all complexities of mire or blood.” In other words, the mechanical bird is self aware; is alive, intelligent and changeless. When it is “embittered” by the changeless beauty of the moon, surpassing any transient work of man, it can add scorn to its song — something no, mere, mechanical bird can do.

hadesAnd what of the “cocks of hades” and their crowing? This may be a reference to iconography of Hades, which is often accompanied by a sheaf of wheat and/or the rooster/the cock (both of which were traditional sacrifices to Hades). What Yeats has in mind by this comparison isn’t clear to me. Possibly Yeats intends us to think that the cocks of Hades, having all been sacrifices, would (when crowing) possibly give voice to the desires of those who sacrificed them (presumably, the sacrifice was meant to appease and possibly to win favor or win “a favor”). In that sense, the golden bird on the bough, when crowing like the cocks of hell, would give voice to your innermost hopes and desires. The mechanical bird would speak your own truth (or hidden truths) back to you.
So, if we continue to follow Yeats’ narrative, it’s possible to read Yeat’s progress like that of Virgil’s. Yeats has been brought by his shade/image guide to the miracle bird which speaks to him of his innermost hopes, desires and truths.
  • Hades is also a god of fertility and wealth, including precious metals. Being that the miracle bird is beaten out of precious metal, this too effectively makes it Hades’ cock.
The Fourth Stanza
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.
After the shade has shown the poem’s narrator the miracle bird, and once the narrator is presumably filled with that bird’s revelation (like the revelation of poetry) he is taken to the Emperor’s pavement where he himself is purged or, more certainly, he watches the “images” of others be purged. Why so hedging? The narrator/narration never states that the narrator was purged. Since one assumes that purging is reserved for the dead or dying, and since the poem never actually states that the  narrator is dead,  we can’t assume too much. The narrator might, like Virgil, just be visiting and witnessing. In this sense, the poem is more like Dante’s inferno — a Yeatsian version of it.
Vendler characterizes the narrator as “the mortally ill poet” [p, 44], but there’s nothing in either Sailing to Byzantium or Byzantium to suggest that she’s right, which is to say, her opinion doesn’t reflect anything intrinsic to the poems. I do read a narrator who is turning away from the trimmings and frolic of youth, but that hardly makes me leap to the conclusion that he’s mortally ill. I mean, for God’s sake, we can be fed up with the pastimes of youth — bodily, mentally and spiritually — without being mortally ill. In fact, putting such habits behind us usually tends to make us much healthier. I read Yeats as remaking himself. His journey to Byzantium is akin to an awakening — a spiritual journey that could be compared to the visions of the American Indians. He is en-souled.
It’s easy, I suppose to speculate on the deeper metaphysical implications of every line (you can read Vendler for this) but I think most readers will instinctively grasp the meaning of the fourth stanza. These aren’t actual flames, these are spiritual flames (the kind that “cannot singe sleeve”). The agony is not the agony of being burned alive, but the agony of purification, spiritual awakening (perhaps), of a new awareness, knowledge and attainment. These spiritual flames will purge the “blood-begotten spirits” of the complexities which are the ensnarement of blood and mire — lust, physical sexuality and life’s begetting of life. As mentioned earlier, what’s left behind after this purging isn’t exactly clear, but we know what it’s not. My interpretation? I think the Emperor’s pavement is like the page on which poetry is written — perhaps Yeats’ poetry. The flames “that no faggot feeds” are the flames of knowledge. Just as flames are “begotten of flame”, so too is knowledge begotten of knowledge. The inevitable turning from youthful pleasure to knowledge and wisdom is inevitably a kind of agony. In keeping with my reading of Sailing to Byzantium, I’m tempted to read this passage as symbolically describing our awakening to art, poetry, music and the timeless wisdom therein.
The Fifth Stanza
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.
Whether the narrator turns, or his attention is turned by the guide, is left to the imagination. Yeats doesn’t say. Given my own interpretation of the second stanza, I like to think that the man, “shade more than man, more image than a shade” is still with Yeats and has turned his attention to the gong-tormented sea. There, the narrator sees spirit after spirit arriving in Byzantium. It’s my own opinion that these can be interpreted both literally and figuratively — as the recently dead or as the recently awakened. John Unterecker, in A Reader’s Guide to W.B. Yeats, writes:
“All spirits, in Yeats’s system, are of course purified before being reborn; but in “Byzantium” Yeats is offering the final purification by which the elemental patterns of the dancing floor “break” the cycle of birth and rebirth, the bitter compulsive necessity of the spirits to live their lives over and over, begetting image after image.” [p.219]
There you have the official, informed by Yeats’s Vision, interpretation of this stanza. Again, there’s no mention of what exactly, remains once all this has happened? — which is why I find this kind of explanation so unsatisfactory. What is left of us? What is left of the spirit? What are we once we’ve broken the cycle of birth and rebirth? The only hint that I’ve found so far is in the draft quoted by Empson:

but now I will take off my body

That they might be enfolded in that for which they had longed
I live on love
That which is myself alone…

Being the remnants of a draft, we can only guess at Yeats’s meaning, but perhaps we can be forgiven for thinking that just a little of that complexity, love, remains, just a little of that sensuality and yearning for pleasure. It’s this that makes me think we probably shouldn’t too closely apply Yeats’s Vision to any interpretation of the poem. That is, I think it’s a mistake to read either of the Byzantium poems as a footnote to the Vision. Though I can’t back up my assertion (and may well be wrong) I’m of the mind that Yeats the poet didn’t always jibe with Yeats the spiritualist. He was obviously a man of conflicting emotions and desires. In his own poetry, arguably the poetry of the Vision, we find a poetry of sensual beauty, words that physically delight in their melody and repetition, and a powerful intellectual complexity. Personally, this is what I really think Yeats imagines  as the outcome of the purgatorial dance. It’s a youthful desire for beauty, drama, and sensuality that is transformed by age and knowledge into a more awe-inspiring and en-souling beauty, drama and sensuality.

But that’s just me.

The golden smithies of the emperor — figuratively the poets, artists and musicians — await us at the shores of Byzantium, that crazy city of both decadence and enlightenment, ready to transform us, ready to “break the flood” of our arrival.

  • One of the questions lovingly discussed by close readers is this: What’s with the dolphins? If nothing else, the imagery is striking and dramatic, also beautiful. Vendler remarks  that  the dolphins are “symbols of resurrection on Roman sarcophagi” and I’m perfectly content to leave it at that. Makes sense to me.

The Marbles of the dancing floor, for some reason (and without reason) I’ve always imagined as being black and white. And this has always lead me to think that Yeats is alluding to the black and white appearance of words on the page; and this brings me back to my assertion that the “Emperor’s pavement” might be thought of as the page on which poems are printed. In other words, the  “blood-begotten spirits” (you and me) dance on the poet’s page (the Emperor’s pavement) where the black & white marbles (the black and white words on the page) “break bitter furies of complexity” (our confusion). We die in a dance (the act of reading), in a trance (the act of reflection), in the agony of flame (the poet’s imparted knowledge) that “cannot singe a sleeve”. See? This is purely interpretative and I make no claim that this was Yeats’ intention (though I know he would have enjoyed it). Take it or leave it.

  • I say I know that Yeats would have enjoyed it because, in correspondence, he stated that he resisted interpreting his own poems lest others be constrained.


The poem’s final line: “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea” is among the most resonant in all poetry. Why is the sea “gong-tormented”? Other close readers have argued, and I’m inclined to agree, that the entirety of the poem takes place during the twelve peals of midnight. The “torment” is possibly a reference to the meaning of the peals. The great cathedral gong is a never-ending call and summoning. (It’s the cathedral gong that summons, not any mummy or miracle bird.) The cathedral gong, perhaps, can be understood as the voluble voice of Yeats’ vision, calling us to share in the awakening of his poetry. And it’s in this sense that my current interpretation, builds on my interpretation of Sailing to Byzantium.

The first poem declares his desire, the second is a Dante-esque vision of its fruition.

Other References:



I’ve gone to market
And danced in the square.
I’ve picked the grape
And drunk the wine without a care;

But I know too
The howl of the night
When the trees
Recoil in the moon’s cold light

I’ve gone out
With nowhere to go
But to lose
My footfall in a field of snow.

September comes
As though to stay awhile
But in the leaves
Are the colors of her guile.

Don’t be fooled.
Whatever else you do
Love and be loved
Before her last good-night beguiles you too.

~ September

September 16 2014 by me, Patrick Gillespie