Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation

Lapis Lazuli is dedicated to Harry Clifton, who presented him such a precious stone carved with Chinese old men, climbing a barren mountain on his 70th birthday. Yeats uses the marvelous carving to mediate on the role of art in the face of tragic world.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The opening stanza focuses on modem times (times as bad as those! of 1690 when King Billy of Organge pitched in bomb-balls at the Battle of the Boyne - and which found a modem counter-part in another King Billy, Kaiser Wilhelm II whose zeppelin and airplane had harried the English in the First World War. Even worse than the impending destruction however, are those hysterical women who reject music, painting and poetry – all “gay” art- infavor of political women like Maud Gonne and Con. Markiewicz who had lost their beauty and their voices in street -corner oratory. The rest of the poem, as a matter of fact, is a defense of the sort of art which they reject - an art which lets the artist face death without hysteria, with instead gay and ancient glittering eyes.

Refusing to talk in ordinary terms, the speaker uses dramatic metaphor to describe life (as drama) and says that we must act it out heroically, and not be hysterical like the women, for that too will not always help. So, the second stanza investigates the way artists' characters - fictional heroes - have met tragedy and death: "Hamlet and Lear are gay". Tragedy is wrought to its uttermost in their gaiety as they find and lose all that men have aimed at  for as both scenes and heroes literally "Black out" (Yeats is careful to keep all the imagery of this section theatrical), heaven blazes into the heroic heads. Such final insight - gay awareness of irrevocable defect - is "tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

The "Old civilizations put to the sword" which parade at the beginning of the third stanza represent history's record of perpetual defeat and renewal. The artist, who contributes most to each civilization, will be as defeated as everyone else; but like his characters he will be gay in his defeat. Callimachus, the Athenian sculptor who in the fifth century B.C. had made the Erechtheum's "bronze lamp, shaped like a palm', but individual defeat is not important to the artist, for he is man’s necessary builder. And though recognizes that “all things fall” he is also supremely conscious that all things “are built again.

In the middle of the fifth stanza, the Chinamen have gone beyond their place on the stone, have reached a resting place, have stopped climbing, have entered a “little half-way house,” have seated themselves, and have settled back to contemplation of the “tragic scene” that is spread below them. The carving is abandoned for a world that is constructed in pure imagination.

To emphasize the imaginative nature of his scene, Yeats deliberately offers the reader a choice. For he can interpret the discolorations, accidental cracks, and dents of the stone in various ways. They can be taken as "a water course or an avalanche, /Or lofty slope where it still snows." For each accident of the stone "seems" to have meaning, but that meaning -Yeats insists - is in the observer. The "meaning" of the work of art exists not in the artist alone but also in the interpreter. "Meaning" hinges finally on the interplay that takes place between artist and art object, and between art object and audience. Yeats almost goes out of his way to establish this point. Though it might be snowing on that "lofty slope," he points out, it is equally possible that "plum or cherry branch/Sweetens the little half - way house/Those Chinamen climb towards." For while Yeats offers tentative "meanings," we, reading the poem, must give them their final shape.

The Chinamen, having been lifted beyond the lapis lazuli scene to an imagined one, stare on all the tragic scene; and one of them requests "mournful melodies." These mournful melodies, reminding us that Yeats has already examined in the second and third stanzas drama and sculpture, introduce the musician and complete the trio of arts (visual arts, music, and literature) outlined in the opening lines of the poem; "the palette and fiddle-bow" and the poets that the hysterical women are sick of.

The poem opens with a description of the war phobia and panic that gripped Europe during the period 1935-39. It was a time of deep despair born of the foreknowledge that a war more devastating than the first one was impending. The frontiers of terror and violence were extending and people were trembling with apprehension of air-raids, and raining incendiary bombs. It was widely felt that fine arts like poetry, painting and music were of little solace with clouds of tragedy banking over the horizon. The gaiety and gladness of the poets and artists told upon their nerves and seemed to be out of tune when calamity was looking them in the face. What they wanted at the time was not art but something strong and stringent to prevent the Second World War descending upon them. If that was not done, disaster will overtake them and the country will be ruined. However, the poet is impatient with such folk and the aggressive crudity of the verse in the first lines expresses his impatience.

Having described the condition of the people weighed down by the fear of war the poet proceeds to point out that the world is a tragic drama and actors should play their role in it up to the last scene without breaking down. No one should succumb to panic, get hysteric or burst into tears, but like an accomplished artist devote himself with perfect self-control to the part he had chosen to play or is called upon to play on the drama of life. Verily it is the zest and zeal of an actor in his art which makes him feel delighted and gay even when playing a tragic role. Similarly one should live his life with zest, and this zest for life would make him happy even in the midst of tragedy. The creative joy of the artist can convert tragedy itself into gaiety. The profoundest philosophy is born of tragedy. Total external blackout results in internal illumination.

Art such as Hamlet, King Lear, Othello etc, has again and again represented the extremes of human suffering and tragedy-tragedy wrought to its utmost. The hero or the heroine in each of the said plays is about to die, but he or she is still gay. Even a threatened global conflagration cannot sharpen the tragedy of destruction conducting air-raids with lethal and incendiary bombs, but this by itself does not invalidate the under-standing of human life and the representation of its tragedy already achieved by art.

Birth-death-rebirth (destruction and re-construction) is the eternal law of Nature. History testifies that civilizations have born, decayed and, finally died out. Hordes of invaders have eventually decayed and finally died out. Hordes of invaders have eventually swooped down and have wiped out old civilizations and their wisdom. The coming of invaders has been described vividly and pictorially. Lines such as camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back, sound like a procession and the repetition suggests history's cyclic re-enactment. Even magnificent works of art, such as those of Callimachus, have perished. Nothing has escaped the destructive temper of time. But that is no reason for despair of despondency. The process of history runs into cycles; what has happened must happen again. There is-an aesthetic-gleam in-the destruction and the construction.

This is the call of all art, hysteria and panic of the contemporary scene and the value and validity of art even in situations and circumstance of terrible tragedy, the poet now gives an account of the scene depicted on the piece of Lapis Lazuli. The scene shows two Chinese going forward followed by a servant carrying musical instruments. Cracks and faded colour-lines on the stone give the appearance of a stream of avalanche. Half way up on a high hill stands a rest house surrounded by a number of plum and cherry trees that give a beautiful look. The two Chinese climb to the resthouse, and seated there comfortably, and survey the tragic scene around. The servant plays a somber tune, and the eyes in the wrinkled ancient faces of the Chinese glitter with gaiety.

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Sharma, K.N. "Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 8 June 2017,