Daily Archives: 19 November 2009

#6 “Lapis Lazuli” (William Butler Yeats)

In 1935, a poet named Harry Clifton gave his friend William Butler Yeats a stone carving of a Chinese scene. (The Yeats family still owns the carving; it can be seen in the National Library of Ireland.) It’s a rather conventional carving along “Oriental” themes. But as Yeats’s compatriot Oscar Wilde said, an artist

does not even require for the perfection of his art the finest materials. Anything will serve his purpose. . . . from subjects of little or of no importance . . . [he] can, if it be his pleasure so to direct or waste his faculty of contemplation, produce work that will be flawless in beauty and instinct with intellectual subtlety.

Yeats wrote one of the greatest poems in the English language about this rather ordinary collectible. “Lapis Lazuli” was published in March 1938. Two years before, Hitler’s army had entered the Rhineland (a buffer zone between France and Germany created after the First World War). Three months before “Lapis Lazuli” was published, Japanese troops massacred hundreds of thousands of Chinese people in Nanjing; six months later, the French and British would cede much of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in the Munich Agreement.

War was inevitable, despite British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement at Munich that he had secured “peace in our time.” But Yeats had seen wars of many kinds, up close and from a distance. He took the very long view, both by philosophical temperament and because he was in his seventies and had a very long memory.

After a first stanza where “hysterical women” complain that art is frivolous in such a momentous age, Yeats doesn’t talk about the prospect of a 20th-century war at all. Instead he talks about three things:

  1. the inevitability of death, which is an ultimate, unsurpassable tragedy that shouldn’t depress anyone who is truly alive
  2. the gigantic cycles in which civilizations are destroyed and rebuilt, cycles that have not only characterized human history but in a sense have been that history
  3. the stone carving in lapis lazuli that Harry Clifton gave him, where the “Chinamen,” who take the same long view Yeats does, are literally above it all

“All breathing human passion far above,” John Keats would agree about art, in a poem we might still see before the Countdown is over. It takes an extremely patient view to adopt Yeats’s theory of art, but it is an immensely reassuring view once one takes it.

In September 2001, W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939” came to seem eerily topical. But it was not the poem I thought of, and not the one I read in class on September 13th to the people I had shared September 11th with. That poem was “Lapis Lazuli,” where the “affirming flame” of Auden’s poem was first expressed, in terms far more colossal and grand:

All things fall and are built again,
And those who build them again are gay.

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#7 “The Whitsun Weddings” (Philip Larkin)

In “The Whitsun Weddings,” Philip Larkin intertwines form and content wonderfully. On the level of form, the poem “enacts” a train journey from the North of England down to London. The speaker (let’s say Larkin himself, because his speakers often parallel him closely) is probably coming from Hull, in the southern part of Yorkshire, and crosses Lincolnshire on his way south. He travels a “slow and stopping curve” of about 200 miles to the English capital.

It’s Whitsunday, the feast that Catholics, and most American Protestants, call “Pentecost.” Whitsunday is a “moveable feast,” keyed to Easter, and it falls in May or June, hence the early-summer heat that the speaker describes on the mid-20th-century, unairconditioned train.

In a unique stanza form (ABABCDECDE, where the second line is four syllables and all the rest are ten), the speaker mirrors the starting and stopping of the train, and its gathering momentum as it speeds up and eventually slows as it reaches its terminus in London. The rhythm of the poem’s lines never varies, but the rhythm of the sentences speeds and slows as they stretch across the uniform stanzas.

The basic idea of the poem’s content is provided by the peculiar, fragmentary glimpse that the speaker gets of all kinds of lives seen momentarily out the window as he passes them. But this is no ordinary train journey that unites mere random impressions. The speaker realizes, in the third stanza, that the train is collecting newlyweds. It makes sense: it’s a Saturday in early summer; a “June wedding” is traditional; so is a honeymoon journey to London. (Probably nowadays Miami or even Maui have become more popular with English newlyweds, but again, this is the 20th century.)

The “frail travelling coincidence” of the train packed with new marriages would be exciting enough, but in his particular genius, Larkin gives us a speaker (again, probably not far from the real Philip Larkin) who has a kind of comtempt for the people he sees getting married. These are working-class or lower-middle-class marriages, people from conventional families doing utterly conventional things. He doesn’t think “how sweet” and he doesn’t think back fondly on his own wedding (never having had one, even to regret it). Instead he reacts with knee-jerk superciliousness about the badly-dressed assortment of tacky types who are all doing the same thing and at the same time all thinking they’re special.

But there’s the mystery of things: just by acting as if they were special, the newlyweds are making their lives special – they are joining in some sort of partnership, while he continues on his way alone. And he can’t help but develop a sort of respect for these dubiously “respectable” people. They are on a kind of adventure, one that will lead them to unpredictable, common yet terribly momentous experiences,

and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give.