Lapis Lazuli #
“Lapis Lazuli”, one of William B. Yeats last poems perhaps best illustrates his philosophy of history and the role that artists can and do play in it. “Lapis Lazuli”, written in 1938 not only Indicates the concern he feels for events “falling apart” but also his optimistic view that history will continue and that everything will turn out in the end.
“Lapis Lazuli” is a well structured poem. It can be. divided into two sections. The first three stanzas deal with western civilization and the last two deal with the east.
Lapis Lazuli #
(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.
The tone of the first section is one of hysteria or despair associated with a civilization that has run its course.
The first stanza indicates the fear people have of the threat of war in Europe. Though Yeats never gets specific, no doubt Nazism, Fascism, and Bolshevism are at the root of this fear. Phrases like:
“if nothing drastic is done! Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls Until the town lie beaten flat./ The stage curtain about to drop,! Black out; Heaven blazing into the head;! And all the drop-scenes drop at once”
all imply a sort of doom imminent for western civilization. While the language of the first section- is frantic and modern, that of the second and third is more calm.
The mood of the second section is serene arid tranquil. Here Yeats is contemplating an oriental carving of a mountain scene with several Chinamen climbing towards the top. Though the ascetic and his pupil also see the “tragic scene” they are calm and deliberate about all their actions. There is no mood of despair or urgency here.
Yeats’ theory of history arises from his apocalyptic vision of rotating cycles or gyres of what he calls “The Great Wheel This “Wheel” is more like a giant sphere with twenty— eight spokes dividing history into twenty—eight phases. While the first phase was ushered in by Leda and the swan, the second by Mary and the dove Yeats does not specifically state what symbol will usher in the new era. It could be a falcon, a “rough beast” or “a long legged bird” that flies over the Chinamen in the carving.
Yeats explains the conception of this new era in A Vision¹
“When our historical era approaches Phase I, …. the antithetical East will beget upon the primary West and the child or era so born will be antithetical. The primary child or era is predominantly western, but because begot- ten upon the East, eastern in body, and if I am right in thinking that my instructors imply not only the symbolic but the geographical East, Asiatic.”
¹William B. Yeats, A Vision, (New York, 1938) p. 257.
While the downfall of the West is prophesied in the first three stanzas of “Lapis Lazuli”, Yeats is urging us to keep our cool. The spirit of our civilization and culture will endure in a new setting- likely that of the orient. Though “all things rail” they are “built again”.
The “Great Wheel” represents more than just a cyclical view of history.” the twenty-eight phases of world history it contains twenty—eight basic personalities or twenty—eight phases of an individual’s life.” ²
In “Lapis Lazuli” Yeats seems to be saying that the artist is the objective element in society (Phase 17). While hysterical women call for action and those in power break down to weep, the artist stands above this and is “gay”.
The word “gay” may take on an obscure meaning. Does Yeats mean that the Artist understands the meaning of his time? If he does then Marshal McLuhan agree with him. In one of his television appearances McLuhan stated that
“the chances of understanding the meaning of our involvement in the present is very small. It is generally the artists who see what they are living in the present and we are always one step ahead (of technology)”.
² Unterecker, A reader’s guide to William Butler V (New York, 1959 p. 27)
Yeats raises this question in “Leda and the Swan” where he asks;
“Did she put on his knowledge with his power(?)”.
When applied to the Chinamen, the word can take a different meaning. Because of their long history and their placid characters they face a mutable world without hysteria rather with strong morale and wisdom. “Their glittering eyes are gay”. While the contrast between the West and East seems to be great, the word gay in both sections implies that the spirit of the arts will carry on even though civilizations rise and fall. Just as our civilization is based on the Greek civilization so the antithetical era will bear some heretical resemblance to ours.
A distinguishing feature of Yeats revealed in most of his poetry and especially here is his refusal to deal with specific events or with petty politics. He makes no attempt to solve world politics by giving pat answers to politicians. The role of the artist is above this, As his poem ‘On Politics” indicates this role is likely metaphysical.
“Lapis Lazuli incorporates both Yeats’ theory of history and his view of artists in a remarkable way.