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:
- the inevitability of death, which is an ultimate, unsurpassable tragedy that shouldn’t depress anyone who is truly alive
- 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
- 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.