I know it’s a terrible, pretentious cliché for me to quote a famous poem here, but since it’s the last day of my old life (in a certain weird biological sense) and since it’s been an uneventful day from a medical point of view (no more chemo, just a few antibiotics), I am going to indulge myself. “Byzantium,” by W.B. Yeats, has always struck me as a kind of esoteric vision that only someone as strange as Yeats could manage to have, and though I love its obsessive cadences and urgency, I will confess that I have never managed to make much sense of it myself, though I’ve taught it (or tried) and have read a fair amount about Yeats’s wacky ideas when he wrote it. However, as I’ve walked around in the hall outside my room these past few nights, I have been haunted by certain (OK, many) lines in the poem that suddenly seem to resonate with my own current situation. There’s a lot in it about blood, death, and rebirth, and the poem’s truly astonishing ending captures something violent yet wonderful about the physiological transformation I’m in the process of undergoing, I suppose. Anyway, for those of you who want to read it again and picture me patrolling the halls in a garish yellow gown chanting it softly to myself, here it is:
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.