#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.


10 responses to “#6 “Lapis Lazuli” (William Butler Yeats)

  1. What I get out of this poem is that we have to rise above evil. People have become too involved in the material things in this world. We have become jaded and desensitized. We no long focus on the bettering ourselves. I think Yeats wants people to be more open mentally and spiritually to positivity in the face of negativity and hatred. There will always be great act of horror we inflict upon ourselves and the will always be beautiful acts of kindness and love we display towards one another. It’s perfectly okay to feel good and in terrible time of loss and grief. It should be encouraged. Art created in a time of war is all the more beautiful because of the hope and encouragement that it gives to those who suffer. Art is not frivolous it is most likely one of the relevant things that can be looked at when studying history. Art is humanities reaction and answer to his environment and surroundings. Whether art is beautiful or grotesque it is relevant.

  2. In the poem, “Lapis Lazuli,” William Butler Yeats presents a “Don’t Worry Be Happy” it’s all good point of view in the face of impending tragedy and devastation. I agree with what Yeats says, “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.” If all our greatest fears happen at once, death is brief and happens only once. So, it isn’t anything to fear. Also, Yeat’s description of the discoloration, cracks, and dents in the “Lapis Lazuli” seem to suggest an ancient stone that has weathered the cycles of history and is still standing. It reminds me of the church hymn ‘Rock of Ages.” I feel the Chinamen’s “ancient, glittering eyes, are gay” allude to the remarkable strength and resiliency of the human spirit that has been portrayed throughout history in the aftermath of mind boggling devastation. However, I see two opposing views of dealing with tragedy presented in the poem. The “hysterical women” are presenting the short view and William Butler Yeats is presenting the long view. The difference in the viewpoints is age and how much is at stake. In Yeats poem, he says, “I have heard that hysterical women say, They are sick of the palette and fiddle bow. Of poets that are always gay.” The hysterical women were tired of the artists, musicians, and poets trying to present a rosy picture against a dark, threatening backdrop. They were probably younger women with more to lose than Yeats. They were concerned about the ties that bind. The hysterical women didn’t want their homes, families, and children annihilated by the ravages of war. They could identify more with William Wordsworth’s untitled Lucy poems. He says, “Few could know when Lucy ceased to be, But she is in her grave, and, oh, The difference to me!” Although death is brief, it doesn’t mean that everyone dies at the same moment. If a child dies in a tragedy and the parents survive, then the parents have to endure the rest of their days dying a slow death of emotional pain that cannot be comforted. Some things fall and cannot be rebuilt, especially human lives. I think of Job in the Bible. He lost all his wealth, his children, and his health. God restored all those things later in his life. In church, this usually brings a shout of praise from the congregation. But I always think about the fact that you can’t replace lives. When God gave Job new children, those were not the children he had before. I believe some things can be replaced but not all things. I feel in certain cases you have to endure the irretrievable loss as you move forward in life with a limp. Ask the family members who were left behind after 911.

  3. In the first stanza, the speaker feels that art is the way to escape the chaos. A Zeppelin is a type of rigid airship pioneered by the German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the early 20th century. Zeppelins were operated by the Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG. It was the first commercial airline, served scheduled flights before World War I. (http://www.wikipedia.org/) Ophelia is a fictional character in the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare. She is a young noblewoman of Denmark, the daughter of Polonius, sister of Laertes, and sweetheart of Prince Hamlet. In the second stanza, the actors break up their lines to weep because they know that Hamlet and Lear are gay; (Yeats) The term gay doesn’t refer to homosexuality. It refers to the lack of seriousness of something. In this instance it’s tragedy. Theatre is a way for the actors to transcend the tragedy, even as they perform it. The third stanza mentions that “Old civilizations have been put to the sword. Then the poem goes on to say that even though civilizations fall, they are “built again”. The last stanza talks about the Chinamen and how the speaker could only imagine them seated there on the mountain and the sky. They sit there on all the tragic scene and stare. One asks for playing mournful melodies, accomplished fingers begin to play.” Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes. Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.” The speaker is trying to say their eyes have many wrinkles yet they are still glittering with a lack of deep depression about the tragedy of World War I. (http://poetry.suite101.com/article.cfm/w__b__yeats___lapis_lazuli_#ixzz0XRm0ahZd)

  4. Art is extremely important to the world. You can tell so much about a time frame the people or person that makes it. It brings so much history and answers so many questions or creates man questions. It’s interesting seeing art work from ancient tribes and the ruins. To me it shows the rise and fall of people. Then as time goes on it shows it being rebuilt. A cycle of creation and destruction. I feel that is what the author was getting at. Through art, stories and technology wisdom is passed on. They may have created it but the next generation perfected it. We live off the destruction and mishaps of others. We rebuild from their mistakes.

    His use of war and armies to me once again showed the rise and fall of civilizations, nations. The power and wisdom these groups had and the destruction of them. But they themselves were able to rebuilt as well as the places they attacked/conquered.

  5. kursteilnehmur

    At first I was going to write about how people seem to get distracted when they start a tedious task. The poem seemed to me like it didn’t have interconnected parts. I didn’t understand the meaning behind his drift from death to the Lapis Lazuli. However, I took a closer look at the poem and found that it really does fit together in a strange sense, but the meaning is hard to glean from the initial glance at the poem. The poem encompasses many different ideas about mankind in the first few stanzas, and then moves on to critique man’s inability to create a civilization void of disease, death, and suffering. The final half of the poem deals with the Lapis Lazuli. The poem’s interwoven meaning is about the figures on the Lapis Lazuli, but not about the monolith itself. The figures that dwell upon the stone have content lives upon the mountain. They are quite “gay” as the poem suggests. This shows that even though there will be the rise and fall of many civilizations, and strife, poverty and disease among mankind there will always be a place of Lapis Lazuli. This poem made me think of what Emily Dickenson said “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.” The idea that life is so brief is inspiring to live by. This poem seems to bring out the brevity of life in the best and worst.

  6. To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of tis poem. I wasn’t a huge fan of either poem from this class, but this is the one I felt might be easiest to write about. I usually enjoy at least one of the poems we go over in class, so I’m not sure why, so late in the countdown, I just wasn’t feeling them. This poem gives me a “life goes on” sort of sense, like nothing is so major that everything else stops. That includes your death. You can really only die once, and unless you die andyour head happens to fall on a button that controls a bomb at the core of the Earth and you kill everyone along with you, the world will still go on after you’re dead. Everything goes on, buildings are rebuilt, civilizations are reborn, and nothing changes in the long run. I don’t know, this poem struck me as a real downer. I prefered the idea in Wordsworth’s Lucy poems, where you still matter to someone after you’re gone, even if it dosen’t make much difference to anyone else. I think I would rather think maybe someone will miss me, and maybe my death is going to matter someone. Is it true? Who knows? But it certainly makes me feel better to believe.

  7. I enjoyed this poem because it showed art in such a different light than what I am use to. It was almost as if art was being criticized for being too predictable. Art was once this abstract beauty and now it is being copied and done all the same. it is living up to stereotypes that were once non existent. However just when it seems as if Yeats has given up on art, something comes along that is so simple it stands out. It is not lavish or extravagant, for it is just a traditional Chinese stone carving. Perhaps it is the way Yeats goes into great detail about the simplicity of such art work and gives it life and beauty that makes the speaker believe in art again. Hence, is art not, having the ability to bring life to simplistic things as though they were not simple at all? Is art not, convincing an audience that there is something more to a piece of work than the obvious?

  8. I didn’t favor either poem from the class period. This poem did however seem easier to write about because it reminded me of a theme we have come across before. The whole idea of life moving on regardless of what chaotic things happen has been presented to us in other poems. The line from the poem, “all things fall and are built again…” presents that same idea. Also, another line from the poem, “every discoloration of the stone, every accidental crack or dent, seems a water-course or an avalanche…” makes me think that it is a metaphor of our lives. That everything happens for a reason, every “dent” we are presented with in life serves a purpose. We endure all we can and we move on because that is how life goes, it progresses regardless of any encounters you have.

    I was expecting the poem to speak more about the stone carving. I really don’t see the connection between the beginning of the poem and the carving. Everything the speaker addressed seemed to stand well on its own so I couldn’t understand how everything tied together. I do however appreciate the poem for what it stands for, being able to move forward after a tragedy.

  9. The first stanza in this indicates to me that their is some need for “drastic” action or else the town will be destroyed by these “Aeroplanes and Zeppelins. After examining the stone and reading the poem I found something interesting. The stone, “Lapis Lazuli”, is a shimmering blue with some other brilliant colors, however the base is black. I find this interesting because of the first stanza talking about the “flattening” of a “town”. I take this to symbolize the beauty of this stone due to its location being above the devastated town. I really do not understand much of the second and third stanza except for that it serves as an intermediate setting for the description of the stone itself, which come in the final two stanzas. I enjoyed these two the most because I could look at the picture of the stone, and though rough could start to picture in my mind what it looks like. I feel admiration for this art through the elegant description of it. For example how the sculptor has used the imperfections in the stone to mold natural scenery, even if improbable. Like the “plum” or “cherry” tree at the high elevation. I see the people walking toward the house, I picture them bringing water up from a stream or spring to the house. High up overlooking the devastation down below. Knowing that Yeats is obsessed with death I can see a parallel. I think he sees these men as either gods or just everyday people gazing down upon the ruins of our world. Which has been allowed to self-destruct so to speak. Listening to their “mournful melodies” and looking down amidst all of this tragedy and still having happiness in their eyes. What’s also interesting is that he calls it a “half-way house” which tells me that Yeats believes in the dead still being among us. Caught in a midway plane of existence, a kind of parallel state between life and death. This poem is not only extremely well written, but also very insightful to both life and William Yeats’ outlook on life.

  10. One of the main I things I get from this poem is the cycle of civilizations. He describes them as being put to the sword, yet he describes the people who build civilization as happy. From the cycle he also seems to emphasize the importance of the lessons of the past, ones we seem to forget, Yeats describes the wisdom of the past civilizations being put on the rack while we happily rebuild. The most important thing that seems to come from this is that life goes on. As we live and become embroiled in our trivial things like ladies sick of the pallete and fiddle bow, the zeppelins are flying over head ready to bomb us into the ground. Life is short, and in the grand schemes of things our human lives are little blips, but things like the Lapis Lazuli will be there longer than us, and those that see and appreciate their beauty will be “gay”.

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