By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Lapis Lazuli’ belongs to W. B. Yeats’s late phase, in the 1930s. Like a number of Yeats’s other late poems, it is concerned with the place and treatment of art in the modern world, a situation which Yeats considers by taking in all of history. The poem’s ‘argument’ takes a bit of unpicking; before we get to our analysis, here’s a reminder of this mysterious poem.
(for Harry Clifton)
I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.
All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop scenes drop at once
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.
On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.
Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
‘Lapis Lazuli’ (the poem’s title comes from the precious blue stone) begins as a response to ‘hysterical women’ who say they are sick of art that is ‘gay’ or upbeat, especially since the shadow of an impending war hangs over everything in the 1930s. Something ‘drastic’ should be done to prevent a war; art that is happy and uplifting has no place at such a time.
But Yeats responds with several counterarguments. First, he offers the example of tragedy. Hamlet and King Lear are tragic characters, but the actors who play these roles on stage go on with the play, despite its pessimistic ending. They don’t ‘break up their lines to weep’ because they ‘know that Hamlet and Lear are gay’. This seems counterintuitive: surely the moody Hamlet and angst-ridden Lear are anything but happy? But Yeats’s point, perhaps, is that tragedy is the transcending of one’s terrible situation through art. To put it another way, Hamlet may be a character in the grip of self-loathing and inactivity, but he talks about it beautifully – so beautifully that he makes tragedy an affirmative experience.
Yeats’s next example is from the world of sculpture: the classical sculptor Callimachus made beautiful marble sculptures that have not lasted. But so what? ‘All things fall and are built again’, and succeeding generations are only too happy to embrace the task of rebuilding civilisation and making more great art. Old civilisations have been ‘put to the sword’, but new ones arise to fill the void left by them.
Yeats concludes ‘Lapis Lazuli’ by describing the carving in lapis lazuli of two Chinese men (another standing behind them), over whom a long-legged bird flies. For Yeats, this bird is a ‘symbol of longevity’: the men may be limited to their narrow human lifespan, but they are juxtaposed, much as in a Japanese haiku, by something more eternal and enduring. The third man standing behind them, whom Yeats assumes to be their servant, carries a musical instrument, and Yeats imagines them as real men, climbing towards a ‘little half-way house’ where they will sit and stare at ‘the tragic scene’ of human existence. One of the men will ask the servant to play ‘mournful melodies’ (recalling the talk of tragedy earlier in the poem), and as he plays, the other men’s ‘glittering eyes’ will be ‘gay’ and joyous.
We may wonder what we should make of all this. Is Yeats’s argument meant sincerely? A poem is often not presented as an ‘argument’ as such, but the examples he gives seem to be offered as corroboration of his position concerning art and civilisation and its need to be ‘gay’. Yet there is something potentially troubling about offering tragedy as a ‘gay’ or happy art form (although ever since Aristotle we have understood its cathartic aspects, and its ability, through showing us suffering, to make us feel better about ourselves), just as there is something a little dubious about Yeats’s interpretation of a bird in flight as a ‘symbol of longevity’. Flight, of all things, surely conjures the fleeting rather than the permanent. Nevertheless, there is another way of analysing such features of the poem which reconciles these apparent paradoxes with the ‘thrust’ of Yeats’s beliefs: that civilisations and individual works of art may not survive plunder, warfare, and human destruction, but civilisation itself is bigger than them, and always endures. That lapis lazuli itself, at least, offers a true symbol of permanence.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.