Symbolism and Style in Yeats' “Byzantium” and Joyce's “The Dead”
James Joyce and William Butler Yeats are perhaps the two most prominent modernist writers of the twentieth century, and both have left their unique stylistic legacies to English literature. Though these fellow Irishmen wrote at the same time, their drastically different styles reveal distinctions in their characters and standpoints, and comparing them provides intriguing glimpses into two deeply individual minds. One area in which an obvious difference in approach exists is the way each uses symbolism; whereas Yeats often uses a heavy symbolism placed in the foreground of his works to reveal broader truths and ideological beliefs, Joyce chooses a subtler method in which less visible symbols are woven into the fabric of the prose. Joyce’s closing story in the collection Dubliners, “The Dead,” is exemplary of his approach to symbolic imagery. Joyce repeatedly mentions the falling snow in an understated manner at carefully selected moments, slowly working its presence into the consciousness of the reader. In the final paragraphs, the snow is revealed as a symbol of significance, though still one of elusive meaning to a certain extent. Yeats’ poem “Byzantium” makes an interesting counterpart to “The Dead” because of not only the noticeable difference in style but also some ironic parallels between the two works.
In “Byzantium,” Yeats sets up a dichotomy of humanity versus a kind of higher order whose truths exist outside of the hopeless complexity of humans, with his symbolism carrying the bulk of the narrative weight in the poem. He describes an imagined nighttime scene at the Byzantine Emperor’s palace, and nearly all of the figures and images introduced fit into the broader symbolic themes and are presented primarily as symbols rather than elements of a story. He lays out the aforementioned dichotomy quite clearly from the beginning within the first octet of the poem. The scene opens with night falling on the city and the cathedral, whose dome Yeats says “disdains” the “mere complexities” of humanity (5-7). Already the poem is dominated by the image of a great dome, presumably perfect in its construction, that appears orderly and powerful in comparison with the chaos of people. Yeats also introduces several important phrases and concepts that will be repeated often in multiple points throughout the poem, namely the gong of the cathedral, the light of the moon and stars on the scene, and the complexity and the “fury and the mire” of human veins (8). He has established from the beginning the symbolic frame in which the following stanzas will operate.
The next few octets introduce the bridge between the human world and the higher order: the superhuman. This superhuman appears to Yeats as a kind of crafted golden bird, apparently the same vision he described four years earlier in “Sailing to Byzantium.” This miracle, as he calls it, is associated with the dome...