Why is Neil Jordan’s latest vampire film titled Byzantium? To be sure, that’s the name of the shabby hotel where Clara and Eleanor, his downscale daughters of darkness, take refuge, and a vampire hitman does brandish a sword he claims he looted from Byzantium during the Crusades. Does Moira Buffini reference the legendary city in her play A Vampire Story, which she adapted for the film? Could be, but I’d lay odds that the title is Neil Jordan’s contribution, and that the boy from County Sligo—W.B. Yeats’ old haunt—means his problematic meditation on the lives of the undead to lead us straight to “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium,” Yeats’ poems about age, time, eternity, and art.
In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, beset by age and love’s loss, imagined finding a way “out of nature” by becoming a form of art—say, a golden nightingale in fabled Byzantium that would sing of “what is past, or passing, or to come.” But once arrived in “Byzantium” (penned after “Sailing”), the poet discovers that perfect artifice disdains “all that man is, / All mere complexities, / The fury and the mire of human veins.” The city’s “blood-begotten spirits” suffer no passions and do not die; immortality simplifies all, for nothing changes or grows or decays. Yeats calls it “death-in-life and life-in-death,” the very state achieved by Jordan’s vampires in his own Byzantium.