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:”

(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.