Lapis Lazuli by William Butler Yeats: Introduction

Lapis Lazuli written in March 1938 is a kind of a precious blue stone. The Lapis Lazuli referred to in this poem was given to Yeats on his seventieth birthday (as a present) by Mr. Harry Clifton. Clifton had sent him a present of a great piece carved by some Chinese sculptor into a semblance of a mountain, with temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic, and a pupil about to climb the mountain.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Yeats uses the carving to meditate on the role of art in an essentially tragic world.

Immediately after receiving the gift the poet began to think about its significance. Again he observed in one of his letters: “Ascetic, Pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east”. The heroic cry in the midst of despair. But no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always, and therefore, knows nothings of tragedy, It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry. In the resulting poem the poet grappled with the problem that makes out time also restless, the destruction of civilization which may be impending. Yeats thought that the eastern people are able to tolerate the tragedies of life because they knew that sense of gaiety and tolerance are important and should be maintained even amidst tragedies and miseries.

The first stanza of the poem lists the three areas of art which, doomed to destruction, nevertheless go down to destruction gaily. The second stanza shows the gaiety inherent in tragic literature, the third stanza shows the gaiety inherent in the visual arts. Stanzas fourth and fifth show the gaiety inherent in mournful melodies. Yeats also uses stanza fifth to integrate all of the materials he has drawn on before, locating on his lapis lazuli carving the “tragic scene” of the world and a singer of “mournful melodies,” both of which induce the calm observing old Chinamen’s eyes to glitter gaily.

When Yeats planned the poem, he first saw it as an illustration of Eastern-Western difference: "Ascetic, pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east.... the heroic cry in the midst of despair. It is we, not the east that must raise the heroic cry. "Through this East-West division was certainly in Yeats's mind when he started that poem, it seems that in the finished version his interest has shifted to a focus on the three arts facing tragedy. As a finished work it finds its theme in the conflict between art and those people of the world - hysterical women, to use his example - who would prefer action to contemplation, politics to art.

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