Lapis Lazuli

William Butler Yeats


William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

He passed away in January 1939 after a career in prose, drama, and poetry.

Lapis lazuli’, written on 25th July 1936 by W. B. Yeats was published in his “Last Poems”. The poem is dedicated to Harry Clifton, who presented him with such a precious stone on his 70th birthday. Intrigued Yeats uses the marvelous carving to meditate on the role of art in the face of the tragic world. In his letter to Dorothy Wellesley, July 6, 1935, Yeats has spoken about this large piece of stone that intrigued him to meditate over it.  He describes Lapis Lazuli as carved by some Chinese Sculptor that resembles a mountain with a temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic and pupil about to climb the mountain.

Lapis Lazuli
W. B. Yeats

(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women sayThey are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,Of poets that are always gay,For everybody knows or else should knowThat if nothing drastic is doneAeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls inUntil 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 onceUpon 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 CallimachusWho handled marble as if it were bronze,Made draperies that seemed to riseWhen sea-wind swept the corner, stands;His long lamp chimney shaped like the stemOf a slender palm, stood but a day;All things fall and are built againAnd those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,Are carved in Lapis Lazuli,Over them flies a long-legged birdA symbol of longevity;The third, doubtless a serving-man,Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,Every accidental crack or dentSeems a water-course or an avalanche,Or lofty slope where it still snowsThough doubtless plum or cherry-branchSweetens the little half-way houseThose Chinamen climb towards, and IDelight 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.
Lapis Lazuli by W. B. Yeats


‘Lapis Lazuli’ by W. B. Yeats elaborates on the role played by Art in bringing about happiness and joy despite the chaotic situations that could prevail around people or caused by any external forces. 

Lapis Lazuli’ has its origin in the gift of a large piece of Lapis Lazuli carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temples, trees, paths, and an ascetic and his pupil about to climb the mountain. The poet meditates over the constant pressure on human society to renew and regenerate. As the new generation comes into action the artists have the responsibility to provide what is needed in the future. The poet talks about Art, which plays an important role when the world is hysterical about war and its consequences. On the whole, the speaker of the poem, the poet is examining the possibility of harmony and serenity despite a chaotic environment.

Form and Structure

The poem ‘Lapis lazuli’ is in the form of lyric. The rhyme scheme of the poem varies depending on the length of the stanza. It follows the alternative rhyme pattern. The poem begins with an account of the war-phobia and panic that swept across Europe during the years 1934-39.After picturing the terrifying and terror-stricken picture of the period the poet goes on to add that the world is a tragic drama and the actors should keep acting without yielding to the emotions of the time. Further, the poet gives an account of the Lapis Lazuli. Through the scene carved on the stone, the poet delineates that art could bring peace and solace amidst a chaotic situation.

Tone and Style

Yeats begins ‘Lapis lazuli’ with a pessimistic tone. Yet, as the poem progresses, it becomes more of a contemplative, then it becomes more optimistic. The poem is written in the form of an argument. It is a response to those hysterical women who are worried about the impending war and lost faith in the art. The way he brings in tragedy, regeneration, and the carving, substantiates the subject of the poem.

Themes in Lapis Lazuli

Yeats delineates two major themes in ‘Lapis Lazuli.’ First, he talks about the old civilizations have been wiped out and how modern civilization also is likely to be obliterated. The allusion to ‘aeroplanes and zeppelins,’ and the destruction of cities is one contemporary theme. Next, he depicts how art and philosophy triumph over the tragedy’ of the modern event. The poet feels that all forms of art can surpass the tragedies experienced within the world. Further, the poet has employed the theme of tragic joy throughout the poem. A style often he incorporated in his works toward the last few years of his life. He strongly believes and coveys that art can bring people joy even in the worst of times.

Literary and Poetic Devices

In ‘Lapis Lazuli’ Yeats uses imagery, personification, juxtaposition, and symbolism to best support his view on the power of art to change society. Imagery is present in the 55 & 56, where the poet describes, how the Chinese people received happiness from the music, though it is a song of melancholy. The poet pictures how they represent their joy “their eyes mid many wrinkles, their ancient glittering eyes, are gay”.

In the fifth stanza, the poet personifies the men in the carving. He imagines them to be sitting on the mountain and taking a deep vast look at the scenery present in front of them: “There, on the mountains and the sky, on all the tragic scenes they stare”

The bird image that appears on the carving is interpreted by the poet to delineate a life of longevity. The symbolism present in this line “over them flies a long-legged bird a symbol of longevity” juxtaposes with the narrow human lifespan. They are compared to the Japanese haiku, something more eternal and enduring.

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

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.

The first stanza of ‘Lapis Lazuli’ begins as a response to the ‘hysterical women’ who the poet believes to lament over a most natural change in history. Since the shadow of impending war was hanging over everyone in the 1930s, they express their indifference to art for it is ‘gay’ or upbeat. They hoped for something ‘drastic’ to be done to prevent a war. At this juncture, the speaker attempts to demonstrate the healing effects of art.

Stanza Two

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.

In the second stanza of the poem, Yeats responds with several counterarguments, to support his view on the healing power of art. First, he alludes to the Shakespearean tragedies of Hamlet and King Lear. Despite knowing the pessimistic end of the play, the actors who play these roles on stage go on with the play. They do not ‘break up their lines to weep’ just because they know that ‘Hamlet and Lear are gay’. Moreover, human life has always been tragic. Hamlet and Lear enact their tragic roles all over the modern world and the drop curtain is likely to drop all at once “upon a hundred thousand stages.”

Stanza Three

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, stands;

His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem

Of a slender palm, stood but a day;

All things fall and are built again

And those that build them again are gay.

In the third stanza, Yeats refers to world civilization and the world of sculpture. The poet says that so many civilizations in the world have fallen and are not heard anymore. Old civilizations have been ‘put to the sword’, but new ones arise to fill the void left by them. Therefore we should not feel sorry if our own civilization is also destroyed. Further the artist who contributes most to each civilization will be as defeated as everyone. Here, he refers to the classical sculptor “Callimachus” who made beautiful marble sculptures that do not exist now.  The poet believes that all things are destroyed and are built up again “All things fall and are built again”.  This contrasts the stance in the poem “The Gyres” from exultation in the destructive element to an aesthetic poise of the destructive and creative.

Stanza Four

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.

In stanza four, Yeats describes the carving in lapis lazuli which is believed to have been done by some Chinese sculptor. The carving on lapis lazuli features a scene in which three Chinese men are trekking up a mountain-side. Two of them are Chinamen – an ascetic and his disciple – and the third one who follows them carries a musical instrument. It also features a long-legged bird flying overhead. According to the poet, the bird is a ‘symbol of longevity’. It juxtaposes the human beings who are limited to their narrow lifespan.

Stanza Five

Every discolouration 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.

Yeats concludes ‘Lapis Lazuli’ in the fifth stanza by describing the carving in lapis lazuli of two Chinese men and another standing behind them, and a long-legged bird flies above them. Every discoloration or crack or dent of the stone indicates a water-course or an avalanche or some lofty slope covered with snow. The poet sees a rest house surrounded by plum trees and cherry bushes, halfway up the slope. Yeats imagines the men climbing up the mountain and sitting and staring at ‘the tragic scene’ of human existence. He imagines one of the men desires to listen to some ‘mournful melodies’.  The expert artiste begins to play the instrument. As he plays, the other men’s ‘glittering eyes’ will be ‘gay’ and joyous despite the tragic scene around them. Thus, the poet concludes that art can keep people happy even in the midst of dire tragedy.

Similar Poetry

Yeats believed that art and politics were intrinsically linked. He used his writings to express his attitudes toward Irish politics, as well as to educate his readers about Irish cultural history. His political, social, and philosophical perspectives can be better understood if one reads the following poems: ‘Sailing to Byzantium‘, ‘Byzantium‘,The Second Coming‘, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter‘, ‘The Tower‘, ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory‘, and ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.

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