The Byzantines are the rather untrustworthy attendants of the character Susanna in "Peter Quince at the Clavier." They appear in the following lines:
"Soon, with a noise like tambourines,/ Came her attendant Byzantines" (iii.2).
"And then the simpering Byzantines/ Fled with a noise like tambourines" (iii.9 ).
Who are the Byzantines?Edit
During Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It managed to survive the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman empire and continued to operate independently out of its capital, Constantinople, for 1000 years. For most of its existence, it was the dominant economic, cultural and military power in Europe. However, the Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 (Wikipedia) .
What are the Byzantines Doing in This Poem?Edit
In much traditional Western thought, the Byzantine Empure has been (unfairly) associated with autocracy, repression, and strict orthodoxy. LIkely as a result of Western Orientalism, the word Byzantine has often been deployed in the role of philosophical and political other (Wikipedia). Given this set of connotations, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Byzantines of Stevens' poem are deployed as foils for Susanna--the poem's heroine, and the embodiment of both the romantic, and the sexual, sublime. Over the course of the poem, Susanna, while bathing, arouses the passions, but also the souls, of a group of watching elders. It ought ot be noted that, despite the obvious voyeurism in the piece, the relationship between Susanna and the elders is that of the ideal Romantic poet to his or her reader. She, in contact with the sublime in nature, becomes a conduit for that expereince, and is able to awaken it in others. The Byzantines, however, interrupt the scene, imposing an ideological regime that curtails both the sexual and spiritual congress of the moment. Given Stevens' position as, to paraphrase Harold Bloom on Hart Crane, a High Romantic in the modern age, it may be that Stevens has modernism in mind here, and that his Byzantines reflect a critique of the modernist poetic.