Sailing From Byzantium: A Meditation on Encountering History

Once out of nature, I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enamelling/ To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;/ Or set upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

-William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium1

Yeats’s poem, quoted above, is a powerful evocation of old age yearning for an eternal springtime. His Byzantium is a carefully crafted image refracted through his own esoteric system of a country that stands outside of history. It’s a kingdom of amorous dalliance and untroubled enchantment, the antithesis of the wasteland of the post-war Europe in which the poet wrote and the strident fascism toward which, sadly, he was drawn.2 It beckons us to a paradise of perpetual youth and beauty where a disillusioned scholar might dream of being reincarnated amid the finery and pomp of the imperial court. 

This visionary recreation of Constantinople strikes me as an apt point from which to embark on a broader discussion of the necessity of encountering history. For it is easy to be beguiled by Yeat’s eloquence, to forget that Byzantium was no fairy tale kingdom, no Shangri-La exempt from the turmoil of history but a real place. It was here that the Emperor Constantine relocated his capital in 330, here that we might have heard the eloquence of John Chrysostom or witnessed the decisive rupture between the Eastern and Western Churches. And it was here that the Roman Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. 

So perhaps Yeat’s symbolic city can serve us as an emblem of the ways in which we gloss over history. And if this article has a perspective that I’d invite my readers to share, it’s simply the joyous obligation to genuinely engage the past through books. For in our air-conditioned informational nightmare, the unwieldy bulk of history often gets planed down into a commodity that’s easier to sell. Complexity is lost, and with it, much that is ineffable. 

But when we read, we step into a time machine made of words, and the persons we may encounter in our travels, from Seneca to Voltaire, will undoubtedly surprise us. We shall always find after such delightful interviews that our viewpoint has been altered and our lives immeasurably enriched. 

C.S. Lewis once sounded a similar theme. “There is a strange idea abroad,” he writes, “that in every subject, the ancient books should be read only by the professionals. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing they think of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. But if they only knew, the great man is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand a very great deal of what Plato said. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”3

I myself once had a similar experience. Somewhere in my schoolboy days, my teachers poured into my tender ears the knowledge that before Columbus made his voyage, everyone believed the earth to be flat. You may imagine my surprise when later I opened Plato’s dialogue Phaedo and encountered the following passage. “Well then, my friend, in the first place, it is said that the earth, looked at from above, resembles those spherical balls made up of twelve pieces of leather; it is multi-colored, and of these colors, those used by our painters give us an indication; up there the whole earth has these colors, but much brighter and purer.”4 

On reading these words, I found myself shocked into a silence of thought. Here over two thousand years ago, a man by reason and intuition had raised his mind to imagine accurately how the earth might look from space. Turning over the following pages, the resemblance to The Blue Marble photo from the Apollo mission fades. Despite the startling azure waters of the Mediterranean, Plato’s seas are green, and his earth appears more like a dodecahedron with a definite top and bottom. But it is still a remarkable leap from the flat earth cosmologies that preceded it. And the achievement and mastery of this image still awakens a profound awe in me decades later. 

Continuing my studies, I found in the full sweep of years from Ptolemy to Dante that everyone knew that “the earth is round, like an orange.”5 And it prompted me to wonder, whence came this idea of belief in a flat earth before Columbus? Perhaps it was an honest mistake, a misquotation that grew into established “fact.” Or, possibly, some historian wished to paper over the brutal and genocidal record of Europe’s conquest of the Americas by presenting its inception in the borrowed finery of scientific advancement. 

But regardless of its source, those who read possess a talisman that shatters such illusions. And in an age of toxic misinformation, nothing could be more necessary. 

A similar paradigm shift occurred over a more extended period when I began pursuing early Christian studies. The mists of late antiquity and the supposed “dark ages” melted away, revealing the first millennium to be a time of high culture, bright with learning and beautified with art.6  

Consider the elegant extended metaphor with which Gregory of Nyssa opens his treatise on the life of Moses. “The spectators at the horse races, being deeply engrossed in winning, shout to their favorites in the competition, despite the fact that the horses are earnest to run on their own. In the stadium, they are involved in the race only with their eyes, hoping to motivate the charioteer to a greater effort. They perform these things, not because they believe their behavior can help with the victory, but thinking that, at the very least, by this manner and by their good intention, they can enthusiastically demonstrate both in voice and deed their concern for the contestants. I suppose I am doing this same thing, my most precious friend and brother. During the time you are honorably competing in the godly contest on the track of virtue, lightly running and straining regularly for the reward of the heavenly calling, I will simply goad, encourage and urge you to forcefully increase your pace.”7

Here we are in another world than we might have expected, given the turbulence of the fourth century. Gregory’s classical prose beguiles our ears as much as our minds. The text which follows this preface offers an allegorical reading of the Biblical story in which the grace of presentation vies with the depth of the writer’s thought to capture our attention. 

Another revelation struck me at about this same time. As I traveled on in these studies, I chanced across a whole archipelago of poets whose work has been cordoned off from the mainstream of literary studies. And I felt something of the excitement that Byron expresses in his poem on Chapman’s Homer. So often, books presumed to be the sole domain of specialists, when dusted off, prove as vital as the verses of a Horace or a John Donne. 

One of my favorites of these is a writer known only as Ephraim of Syria. Let’s listen to his voice as he sings to us across the waters of time.

On a certain day a pearl did I take up, my brethren;/ I saw in it mysteries pertaining to the Kingdom;/ Semblances and types of the Majesty;/ It became a fountain, and I drank out of it mysteries of the Son./ I put it, my brethren, upon the palm of my hand,/ That I might examine it:/ I went to look at it on one side,/ And it proved faces on all sides./ I found out that the Son was incomprehensible,/ Since He is wholly Light.8

Reading the works of writers like Gregory and Ephraim can cause us to pause and reconsider our preconceptions. And perhaps from time to time, what might be considered the canon of literature should be reevaluated to be more inclusive of what is now obscure. Someone once said that the past is another country.9 We must always set sail from the Byzantiums of our minds and allow that foreign country to claim us as its own. 

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Notes

  1. Yeats, W.B. “Sailing to Byzantium” from The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Copyright 1933 by Macmillan Publishing Company
  2. “Yeats saw in Mussolini’s spectacular new regime in Italy personal government at its height and a burst of powerful personality such as he anticipated for the new era. Fortunately, he did not go so far as to accept fascism explicitly, but he came dangerously close.” Ellman, Richard, Yeats, the Man, and the Masks, PP Publishing edition 2016, p.247
  3. Lewis, C.S. “Preface to On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius,” translated by John Behr, St.Vladimir’s Press, p.5
  4. Plato: Complete Works, Edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, Hackett Publishing Company, p.128
  5. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia, One Hundred Years of Solitude, tr. Gregory Rabassa, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., p.4
  6. “The medieval period originated as historical flyover country, and was thought to have been marked by barbarism and ignorance. Tellingly, the term ‘dark age’ also gained currency in the Renaissance, an in English-language scholarship eventually became attached to the Early Middle Ages in particular, both because of the period’s perceived obscurity and because of its supposed level of decadence. The ‘dark ages’ have now, fortunately, been banished from scholarship.” Naismith, Rory, Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge University Press, p. 50
  7. St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Kindle edition, Toronto Publishing, This text is in the public domain, l.21
  8. St. Ephraim the Syrian, The Pearl: Seven Hymns of the Faith, Translated by J.B. Morris, re-edited by John Gwynn, internet edition, Christian Classics Etherial Library, St. Pachomius Orthodox Library, this text is in the public domain.
  9. “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Hartley, L.P, The Go-Between, New York Review of Books edition, p.17

Sailing From Byzantium, Copyright: Jonathan Golding 2023, All Rights Reserved.

Artwork: The Blue Marble 2012, photo credit NASA, public domain 

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