"Lapis Lazuli"

"Lapis Lazuli" is the poem that most fully contains Yeats's convictions about life as tragedy.  The conviction that the most ancient wisdom is probably the truest, which leads Eliot to quote the Vedas in The Waste Land makes Yeats return again and again to Asia in his last years. Nevertheless, only. one Poem, "Lapis Lazuli," confronts Asia and Europe without representing them at odds with one another. The poem apparently originates with a gift:

I notice that you have much lapis lazuli; someone has sent me a present of a great piece carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temple, trees, paths and an ascetic and pupil about the climb the mountain, Assctic, 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 nothing of tragedy It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry. [Letter to Dorothy Wellesley, July 6, 1935]

In July 1936, Yeats completed the poem a year after sending the letter to Dorothy Wellesley, writing more easily and rapidly than usual and with more immediate satisfaction, calling it "almost the best I have made of recent years."

In the resulting lyric Yeats came to grips with the problem that makes our time so restless, the destruction of civilization which may be impending. In these circumstances have the poets the right to be gay? Yeats proceeds to justify gaiety first in terms of the West and then of the East.

When "Lapis Lazuli" was written, in 1936, Europe was both emerging from an economic depression and heating up for war. Hitler and Mussolini were gathering themselves in Germany and Italy, and the Spanish Civil War was running its course toward Franco. It was not just "hysterical women" who must have told Yeats that they were sick of art, or that he should use his considerable powers for political purposes. In these years, public affairs were intruding on private visions so forcefully that almost all of the important younger British poets and novelists of the period (Auden, Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, Isherwood, OrweL, Warner, etc.) were engaged in writing books which were emphatically political. Poetry, especially as it was being written by High Modernists, was seen as a kind of luxury, too obscure and resistant to the needs and desires of the public to do the work in the world that these writers, and Yeats's "hysterical women," thought needed to be done. "Lapis Lazuli" constitutes Yeats's answer to them.

Title--Lapis Lazuli A deep blue semiprecious stone. One of Yeats's letters describes a Chinese carving in lapis lazuli (see above)

Section one (1-8) presents the accusation: Art is no longer enough Commitment is needed, because if "nothing drastic is done" war will break out.

It begins, according to Yeats's note on the manuscript, with the remark "some woman" made "yesterday, I am sick of . . . poets that seem always gay," reminding him of Dowson's "Villanelle"—"Unto us they belong,/ us the bitter and gay,/ Wine and women and song"—which he had just quoted in his B. B. C. broadcast on "Modern Poetry," and of the "hysterical patriots" of the old Abbey fights, who "used to repeat as often as possible that to paint pictures or to write poetry in this age was to fiddle while Rome was burning.

The occasion for that anxiety may be the widely feared prospect of aerial warfare, or the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, or Italian invasion of Abyssinia, or the new weapons being tested in Spain—the condition of life in I936. The anxiety is legitimate and the poem attacks hysteria, not concern. Yeats would have liked that story from World War 1, the German commander reporting that the situation was serious but not hopeless, the Austrian that it was hopeless but not serious.

Yeats's use of a popular seventeenth-century ballad to describe war has enticed some critics to claim that Yeats was ignoring political realities

Indeed the scornful phrase "King Billy bomb-balls" does have the effect of deflating the seriousness of what might, and did, happen.

But Yeats surely intended this deflation, because it serves to place the war to come in the larger context of all wars, in the larger context of the rise and fall of civilizations (many of which are now remembered or understood only through, and because of, their art), a subject with which Yeats, like Eliot and Pound, was much obsessed.

With adroitness Yeats neutralizes the "hysterical women" and thereby gives himself the right to contradict them: To begin with, the women are hysterical; then, by omitting the articles before "aeroplane" and "Zeppelin," Yeats makes these mechanical demons sound exercisable, and by comparing them to William of Orange's weapons at the Battle of the Boyne, with the king turned to "Billy" and the bombs to "bomb-balls" for pitching, he makes the hysteria of the women absurd. Detached from the poem, the reassurances he then offers are cold confort, but in the context they are tenable and spectacular.

6--Zeppelins: long, cylindrical airships supported by internal gas chambers; used for bombing by the Germans during Worid War I

7-King Billy: Another Iink of past and present According to an Irish ballad William III, King of E;ngland "threw his bomb-balls in" and set fire to the tents of the of James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690; also a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II (King William II) of Germany who sent the zeppelins to bomb London

Section two (9-24): the West is represented by the heroes of its tragedies.

This section is usually explained by references to prose passages in which Yeats maintains that "The arts are all the bridal chambers of joy." In 1910 he wrote about "The Tragic Theatre" under the pressure of Synge's death and of the inadequate response to Synge's last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, both shattering events, different in kind and scope from the prospect of war, but still liable to hysterical response.

As he knew from experience and from an unsympathetic reading of in Memoriam, the personal is often felt as the apocalyptic. In the essay he argued that genuine tragedy confounds the conventional distinctions between playwright and player and audience and at certain moments ascends "into that tragic ecstasy which is the best that art—perhaps that life—can give . . . .we too were carried beyond time and persons to where passion, living through its thousand purgatorial years, as in the wink of an eye, becomes wisdom, and it was as though we too had touched and felt and seen a disembodied thing."

In the 1930 Diary Yeats reaffirms his conviction that without a sense of personal immortality, "we can no longer write those tragedies which have always seemed to me alone legitimate—those that are a joy to the man who dies," a belief that goes back to Lady Gregory and forward to his last formulation of tragic ecstasy: "The arts are all the bridal chambers of joy. No tragedy is legitimate unless it leads some great character to his final joy. Polonius may go out wretchedly, but I can hear the dance music in "Absent thee from felicity awhile," or in Hamlet's speech over the dead Ophelia."

That is, Yeats's tragic heroes act upon an old theory of his: they play the tragic parts they have decided upon, and the moment of their actual death is the moment of their stage triumph, for death fuses them to their chosen image of themselves. This is what they have aimed at and found, and in finding lost. This completion of their image is the moment of supreme joy, for at this moment, like the Norse god hung over an abyss as a sacrifice to himself, they simultaneously surrender and realize themselves, transcend their temporary being by becoming their timeless image, become immortal and die.

Thus, the section suggests that in the play of civilizations even the greatest of actors do not betray the tragic parts they play, though they and we know they are partiicipating in tragedy. Instead they retain a "gaiety" which "transfigures all that dread." They commit themselves but remain themselves. They empower the play they are in and, at the same time, transcend it by displaying the proper heroic reaction to catastrophe.

The poem enacts what the prose defines, embodies the truths Yeats knows as a critic. It creates the sensation of enormous imaginative pressure with the abrupt syntax and reckless rhythms. It is as if Yeats had not enough time for poetic style or linear organization, and had grown too masterful to care.

In "Easter, 1916," the subject was people but the stage metaphor likened them and their actions to high art. Here the process is reversed. The stanza is "about" Shakespearean tragedy, but the metaphor extends to life. Synge and O'Leary, Pearse and O'Higgins, also know tragedy and exit gaily, secure in their knowledge that after a peak of intensity, "It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce." In both poems Yeats restores body to the idea of tragedy and affirms its pertinence to the way life is lived. Hamlet says "The rest is silence" and dies—"All men have aimed at, found and lost;/ Black out;" but he has also said "Absent thee from felicity awhile" and Horatio adds "Good night, Sweet Prince and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." The hero dies but the dance music continues, the abundant and intense life he represents is affirmed: "Heaven blazing into the head." Lear and Cordelia die, but the idea of Lear and Cordelia—and of Lear and Cordelia united—continues. Tragedy cannot grow beyond this intensity, yet it is heroic and redemptive—"We too had touched and felt and seen a disembodied thing"—and it leaves no room for hysteria.

10-11--Hamlet, . . . Lear, . . . Ophelia, . . . Cordelia: Tragic figures in Shakespeare's plays

19--Black out: The loss of rational consciousness making way for the blaze of inner revelation or "mad" tragic vision (Also suggestion of final curtain and of air raid curfew)

Section three (25-36) suggests that these "actors" are the ones who make civilizations. Their work rnay fall, may not last out the day, their "wisdom" may go "to rack," but "AII things fall and are built again, / And those that build them again are gay." The justifications for tragic gaiety come frorn Shakespearean tragedy and Eastern contemplation. Yeats, always the synthesizer, joins them in this stanza about history:

It is another rhetorical triumph. The impatient energy and rapidity of the first sentence mimes the process it describes. The movement slows for a long periodic sentence (to the second semicolon), a leisurely pause at Callimachus's spot in time, what A Vision called "a momentary dip into ebbing Asia." The epigrammatic conclusion has a terminal click not characteristic of Yeats, and very effective. The rebuilders have learned that it is both necessary and possible to rejoice in the face of loss, to accept the inevitable transience of things because all worthwhile, creative endeavor does begin in the human heart. It is that precarious humanism, at the edge of solipsism but redeemed by its historicity, of Yeats's most powerful affirmations. Time destroys and man re-builds. If we are to cast out remorse and learn to rejoice, we must accept our immersion in time and our mortality.

29--No handiwork of Callimachus: Fifth-century bc Athenian sculptor famous for a gold lamp in the Erechtheum (temple on the Acropolis) and for using drill lines in marble to give the effect of flowing drapery

Sections four (37-42) and five (43-56) Now the poet turns to defend gaiety Asiatically. Seeing through the eyes of the three Chinese on the stone--one seemingly unspectacular work of art, a piece of lapis lazuli "carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic and pupil about to climb the mountain"-- he changes the perspective: we are no longer staring at a highlighted stage, but stand on a lofty mountain overlooking the world and the ages From here the rise and fall of civilizations is no matter for pathos or female hysteria, but seems a necessary part of the scene. The three Chinese, like Nietzsche find joy in eternal recurrence, a gaiety which rises stubbornly in the midst of full knowledge of sorrow: Under the tremendous pressure of the poet's mood, the lapis lazuli is made to yield the message of affirmation which he must have: In it, Yeats discovers, the transcendent gaiety of all their civilizztion is now available only through art.

"Doubtless a serving man" (41) is a little off-putting, but Yeats had long dreamed of an alliance among artist, aristocrat, and peasant, and the casual hauteur, like the Nietzschean bravado, seems a small price to pay for such energy and equanimity. The bird signifies longevity, not eternity, an accurate reading of Chinese iconography, and more significantly of the poem's central premise. The Chinarnen are in time, not detached from it. They are not escaping frorn life but participating and evaluating:39-40--a long-legged bird, / A symbol of longevity: The crane

Section five (43-56)

He imagines them seated between mountain and sky, surveying "the tragic scene" below. And their ancient glittering eyes are gay." They have, through art, survived immortalized, and these transcended the civilization from which they emerged Through them, through art, their civilization retains the only meaning left to have. If King Billy's bomb-balls are pitched in, if Yeats's civilization is "beaten flat," his art--if it is really art--will remain, preserving its world for the instruction and delight of future men and women, perhaps even "A young girl in the indolence of her youth, / Or an old man upon a winter's night." ("0n Being Asked for a War Poem," ll.5-6)

It gives body to "gay" as the second stanza restores body to "tragedy There is nothing facile or evasive about those glittering eyes. They ask for i'moumful melodies" appropriate to the "tragic scene," the wreck of civilization they survey. In "The Tragic Theatre," Yeats contemplates Dieirdre's "reverie of passion that mounts and mounts till grief itself has carried her beyond grief into pure contemplation." In the "civility of sorrow;" an acute phrase, passion can become wisdom. The Chinamen are gay because they have behind them an ancient tradition, with them a sense of ceremony, and because they understand. They understand hysteria and tragedy, Aeroplane and Zeppelin, destruction and transience. They understand because they take part in experience and because they distance and order it; they apprehend it aesthetically and forrnally. They can see flux and the larger pattern that contains it, what A Vision describes as the vast design resolving itself into the single image, and breaking up again into the vast design They recognize wholeness and form and the artist's ability to create both. They see the semi-circle of life amid the full circles of eternity, history, and art.

"Lapis Lazali" declares that art is animate: birds fly, men climb, fingers play, eyes glitter. As Yeats moves into the scene of the medallion, like Keats entering the Urn, he dwells upon its ambiguity. Every discoloration, crack or dent '"seems a water-course or an avalanche." The sweetening tree may bore a plum or a cherry. Art and life are composed of multiple perceptions, of the interplay between observer and object, consciousness and the scene As Yeats enters the medallion he also possesses it, and the gaiety becomes his, a gaiety which counters ravage and loss, but does not deny them or their causes. The poem asserts and demonstrates that there is a larger and more harmonious vision, that the imagination can transform the self and its experience.

"A Dialogue of Self and Soul" found the rhetoric for ecstatic transformation and the possibility of vision; "Among School Children" the symbols. "Lapis Lazuli" embodies the whole drama, the full play of consciousness and the world it contemplates in grief and in joy.

It is a marvelous moment, for Yeats and for us. As all his mature poetry testifies, it cannot last. Six months later, recovering from the fatigue of age and ill-health, Yeats imitated a Japanese haiku he liked. It is a slight enough poem, though pleasing Or the way that Yeats informs the cliches with meaning and feeling. He called it "Imitated from the Japanese," and it immediately follows "Lapis Lazuli," in Collected Poems, a rueful footnote: A most astonishing thing—

Seventy years have I lived; (Hurrah for the flowers of Spring,

For Spring is here again.} Seventy years have I lived No ragged beggar-man, Seventy years have I lived, Seventy years man and boy, And never have I danced for joy

 

But Asia and Europe are usually less compatible. Europe could learn much from the East, but should not become Eastern. Yeats foresaw a dominantly Asiatic era to come with loathing. In Asia triumphant the vagueness and generalization which he had always hated would take on inter-continental proportions. Already in his last years he saw literature and life bent headlong towards the East. The school of Auden, Lewis, and MacNeice heralded an Asiatic era, he contended, for they had "thrown off too much, as I think, the old metaphors, the sensuous tradition of the poets," and the masterpiece they might produce would be half-Asiatic. In the writings of Pound, Virginia Woolf, and Joyce, he thought he perceived a destruction of the conscious mind's intelligible structure, a loss of conscious control to the point almost of automatism,

. . . a philosophy like that of the Samkara school of ancient India, mental and physical objects alike material, a deluge of experience breaking over us and within us, melting limits whether of line or tint; man no hard bright mirror dawdling by the dry sticks of a hedge, but a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves. In this new literature . . . man in himself is nothing.

He told Lady Gregory that the god of the new age would be a Buddha or Sphinx, both of them Asiatic symbols, for, as he had learned from Hegel, European civilization could not begin until Oedipus had destroyed the Asiatic sphinx which kept personality in bondage, and now the tables were to be turned, Oedipus himself to be destroyed. Against this fearful second coming Yeats called up the forces of Europe as if for some new Salamis. "We must hold to what we have," he asserted in On the Boiler (published after his death), "that the next civilization may be born, not from a virgin's womb, nor a tomb without a body, not front a void, but of our own rich experience." We must keep our "freedom and form" lest the counter-Renaissance come "not as an inspiration in the head, but as an obstruction in the bowels, as a self-abasing rather than self-ennobling influence.