Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli

At my age “Lapis Lazuli” poem doesn’t seem quite as remarkable as it did when I first read it in college, but it still provides a nice perspective on life. It somehow seems even more appropriate in the midst of America’s war on terrorism and our attempts to destroy evil, for it seems like it is going to be a long “war:”

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, strands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like a 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 discoloration 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.


Surely if one is to believe the media in the last few months, the war on terrorism, America’s noble attempt to eliminate evil, is the most important thing in the world. President Bush tours the world promoting support for his war. And here I sit, writing about a Yeats poem.

Everyone, without exception, performs in “their [own] tragic play.” Every one of us has “aimed at, found and lost out,” which, of course, also explains why plays like Hamlet and King Lear remain popular. All the plays in the world cannot grow or shrink the personal tragedy.

Civilizations, just like individuals, suffer tragedies. History shows that all civilizations are “put to the sword,” and most, if not all, of what is remarkable in those civilizations disappears with the civilizations. Amazingly, blessedly, those “that build them again are gay,” unaffected by all the tragedy that has preceded them.

And then, almost as if to suggest that not everything is lost from the past, Yeats introduces an ancient artwork where two Chinamen and a servant climbing up a mountain to a house are carved into a piece of lapis lazuli. Each accident that has happened to the artwork is envisioned from within the artwork as a water-course of avalanche. These Chinese survey the “tragic scenes” of destruction, and “Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

This stanza seems to lend itself to two equally valid interpretations. One is that art transcends time. In “Sailing to Byzantium” the narrator says once he dies he wants body to take a “form such as Grecian goldsmiths make” because in doing so he would finally transcend time. These two Chinamen have done precisely this. Another equally valid interpretation, though, would be that we, like the Chinese gentlemen, should look on such tragedies with gay eyes. To do otherwise is to give the tragedy more than its due.

I think it is this kind of objective way of looking at the world that most draws me to art. It allows me to stand outside life for a moment and look in on it, almost as if I have, but for a moment, transcended my own existence.

9 thoughts on “Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli

  1. I was searching the net to make a copy of this poem for a professor, and oddly I came acroos your note attached, which echoes my thoughts exactly.

  2. I first read this poem when I was 20 and, at 41, still re-read it every few years. It only gets better for me.

    [Tragedy] It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.

    In other words, despite all the genius of Shakespeare, and all our emotional sadness over the Iraqi war, there comes a point where life’s tragedy no longer grows, and cannot. You can’t outdo Hamlet, you can’t change people’s nature through literature. No matter how much you try. “All the drop scenes drop at once” human suffering is unavoidable (see Auden, Fall of Icarus) and so is the fact that other people’s lives go on.

    Life is also full of a human desire to create happiness (through art in this case). And those people smile. No matter how bad the middle east war gets, the people who rebuild it will look for the good. Sadness does not fuel art, the desire for beauty does. The power of this proved by the fact that art, a belief in the good, continues through the worst atrocities.

    It cannot grow by and inch or an once. Once an artist realizes that they smile and continue on with their work–as we all must try.

  3. I “re-discovered” this poem just recently and was also struck by its relevance at this particular moment in time. I have been so caught up with current events, Yeats’ words are an eloquent counterpoint to my current mood. “Lapis Lazuli” was one of my late husband’s favorite poems as well so it has a personal poignancy as well.

  4. “Amazingly, blessedly, those “that build them again are gay,” unaffected by all the tragedy that has preceded them.”

    Umm, perhaps. But before we become submerged by an incoming tide of lyrical nostalgia, it may be useful to look at dreary history. Unfortunately for the poetry, those who ‘build them again’, though, are almost invariably driven men, ambitious, sometimes megalomaniac, often sociopathic, usually ruthless alpha males, and almost always a big pain in the tookus to the people they command and those neighbors who don’t care to be part of their plans to remodel the neighborhood. The degree of their gaiety may seem a bit irrelevant when their legions are busy consolidating your old country into their new empire.

    Lovely bit of stoic Taoist picnicking, though. Unfortunately, I and most of the people I know don’t have much lapis in our make-up and won’t last nearly as long as these two old gents and their manservant, so the consolations of that particular philosophy are limited.

  5. It’s cerainly true that the attempts to rebuild the world are directed by “megalomaniac, ruthless alpha males” but it also remains true that the ones actually doing the rebuilding, peasants like myself, generally live happy lives.

    I suppose at 62 I could live in misery because our government continues to try to control the world, but I still take “walks in the park” every day and still find joy in the world I find there. If we have to choose between constant anger or constant joy, I for one will continue to find joy in my grandkids while working to make the world a better place for them.

    There’s also little doubt that suffering is an inevitable part of life, and I suppose you could make it your life’s goal to escape the cycle of life in order to escape that suffering, or you could find what happiness you can in the life you do have and celebrate that joy and beauty in the art you create, whether that art is writ in fine marble or the delicate quilts that you make for your grandchildren.

  6. I think that a major theme in the poem is the exploration of the human condition and its response to tragedy. Throughout the poem the poet emphasises the passing of time, and finally in the last stanza confirms the “longevity” of this human condition. We all watch the major tragedies that do not lie on our own doorstep as if they were works of Shakespeare and deep down all our “eyes are gay” because we are glad that it is not us affected by the tragedy, and our soap opera generation lusts after tragedy. It is this that has been deep rooted in the human condition for all time.

  7. Matthew: I think it is important to keep in mind that, throughout, this is a meditation on the value of art and the role of the artist vis-a-vis life’s infinite tragedy.

    “All things fall and are built again” refers most directly (but not exclusively) to the beauty of the sculptures of Callimachus, destroyed as many ancient aesthetic wonders were by Imperial plunder and warfare. And yet “those that build [aesthetic wonders] again are gay,” as the act of artistic creation transcends its tragic surroundings and brings comfort to those who are suffering. Here it is the act of artistic creation that is celebrated, despite that it is soon compromised by the sort of imperial megalomania you describe.

    When the “chinamen” appear at the poem’s end, there is a clear separation between the two in front, and “The third, doubtless a serving-man.” Indeed, there seems to be a hierarchy at play (“One asks for mournful melodies; / Accomplished fingers begin to play”). However, it is this otherness of the artist (despite its subservience) that is so important. Whatever “tragic scene” these men look out, it is the artist who emerges as the counterbalance to this tragedy, able to bring comfort and gaiety to himself and to others suffering around him. Implicit as well, then, is that the human imagination and creativity celebrated is embodied here, in this poem, as Yeats has created this wonderful poem by merely looking at a stone of lapis lazuli.

    To the (albeit sexist) embymatized “hysterical women” who trivialize the importance of the palette, fiddlebow, or Shakespeare in times of great impending tragedy (such as in 1939), Yeats reinforces their crucial worth as vehicles for transcending these circumstances.

  8. Yeats writes of transcendence, of the infinite, of birth, death and rebirth…always a rebirth no matter the events man made that history records. The poetic journey is both forward and backward through time and the final resting place of observation is the ancient truths and harmony that encompassses the lofty perch of those timeless travelers carved so delicately into the permanence of the lapis lazuli. Life transcends death, civilization survives, all that is at once ancient is now.

What do you think?