“Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats

Given how much of my reading is verse rather than prose, I have written very little about poetry on this blog. This is because I am not really sure how best to write about poetry. But it has to be done: there’s no point having a blog about my literary interests and banishing poetry. So, with extreme diffidence and with not a little trepidation, I have decided to embark upon what I hope will be a regular feature: Poem of the Month. Each month, I shall be choosing some poem that takes my fancy, and write about it in a manner I hope will not be too boring for the reader.

(I think I had better keep away from modern poems, as I may run into copyright issues, but there’s more than enough richness in what is available in the public domain.)

As ever, these are not scholarly exegeses: I am no literary scholar. These are, as with any other writing on this blog, merely the personal thoughts and impressions of an interested and, I trust, not too imperceptive a reader.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get started. For the first poem in what I hope will become a regular feature, I have chosen a late poem by one of my favourite poets – “Lapis Lazuli” by William Butler Yeats.

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, 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.

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.

Before I start, it is worth saying that a poem expresses thoughts and feelings and sensations that cannot be expressed otherwise; so, naturally, any attempt to express the meaning of a poem in words other than the ones the poet uses is bound to be a failure. This is particularly true of a poem as profound and as complex as this: it is far more than the sum of its possible interpretations. Even to paraphrase any part of this poem is to simplify grotesquely, to iron out its various complexities and ambiguities.

Having got all that out of the way, here goes.

What is this poem about? In a nutshell, it seems to me to be about that paradox of “tragic joy”. We can experience a tragedy as profound and as bleak as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Sophocles’ Oedipus, and yet come out of it strangely exhilarated, uplifted. To Yeats, this curious reaction to the witnessing of human suffering points to rather complex issues not only about human psychology, but about the nature of destruction and of creation, and the elusive interactions between them. In this poem, Yeats juxtaposes the cataclysmic waves of destruction and of suffering that humanity has faced and continues to face, with the joy of rebuilding, of creating out of the ashes. (Perhaps ironically, this poem itself was written on the brink of a worldwide cataclysm: it appeared in 1938.)

A key word in this poem is the word “gay”. As the poem progresses, this word acquires different levels of meaning. But one meaning it doesn’t have here is the meaning we tend to associate nowadays with the word: this poem is not about sexuality.

In this poem, the word “gay” stands as an antithesis of the tragic. When the word first occurs, it denotes merely the bright, the cheerful, the buoyant – perhaps, even, the frivolous. By the end of the poem, it stands for everything that is life-affirming, everything that speaks for the value of humanity, and of human effort, even in the face of the most horrendous facts of death and of suffering.

Throughout this poem, there are changes of tone – almost as if the different sections are spoken by different voices. Yeats does not modulate between one voice and the next: he juxtaposes them. I tend to imagine the opening section spoken by a grumpy old git over brandy and cigars – a sort of bar-room rant of a Telegraph-reading retired-colonel type who’s possibly had a few too many . The derogatory term “hysterical women” is certainly sexist – by our standards, offensively so – but it’s consistent with the tone in this section. The first four lines have simple rhymes, but their rhythms are deliberately clumsy. Most other poets would have gone for “I have heard hysterical women say…”, but Yeats breaks up this easy rhythm with the insertion of an extra unstressed syllable – “I have heard that hysterical women say”. This puts the rhythm a bit off kilter – this is not going to be a traditional tum-ti-tum that we are all so comfortable with. It also changes the meaning: the speaker is having a rant not about what he has heard these women say, but what he has been told they say.

And what do these “hysterical women” say? Effectively, that given the horrors of life, art is frivolous and irrelevant. The whole concept of art is referred to contemptuously as “palette and fiddle-bow”: the contempt is not that of Yeats, nor even that of the brandy-swilling retired colonel, but of the “hysterical women”. There is irony in the fourth line. “For everyone knows or else should now…” This “everyone knows” is akin to Austen’s “It is a fact universally acknowledged”. The seventh line – “Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in” – is a reference to a popular ballad – “The Battle of the Boyne”: we don’t need to know the reference, but we do need to register the colloquial ballad-like tone of this line. It is noticeable also that in the second quatrain, the rhymes almost disappear: previously, we had say/gay, and bow/know: now, we have done/in. out/flat. The pairs of words end with the same consonant sound, but have different vowel sounds leading up to them. Perhaps the brandy is having its effect on the retired colonel.

Through this voice, what is being expressed is clear enough: mankind faces grave horrors, and in this environment, the very idea of art is pointless and frivolous. The retired colonel probably disagrees with such a view (in his opinion, they’re held merely by “hysterical women”), but the poem now moves on to examine these issues in tones very different from the one we have hitherto heard.

Before we go further, let us briefly consider the rhyming and the rhythms of the poem. The whole thing is arranged into units of four lines (quatrains), each with an abab rhyme scheme; and often, these rhymes are half-rhymes, or even quarter-rhymes. Sometimes, as in the first four lines, Yeats emphasises the rhyme scheme by making the rhymes exact rhymes, and often putting pauses (commas, full-stops) at the end of lines; at other times, he goes for a greater sense of fluidity by employing partial rhymes and enjambments. This flexibility allows him to vary the tone as he pleases. There are four beats to each line, but Yeats avoids tum-ti-tum monotony by varying the numbers of unstressed syllables. We could go into more detail on Yeats’ prosody, but since I would very soon be out of my depth were we to do that, let’s move on to the content. (Of course, the impact of what is said depends on how it is being said, but we’ll try to consider this as we go along.)

“All perform their tragic play”. The tone is very different now. It is the tone of serious contemplation, and those two pinnacles of the tragic art, Hamlet and King Lear, are explicitly evoked:

There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia

These great tragic figures can be seen in ordinary, common humanity – “all perform their tragic play”. These are not remote figures on a stage: they are ourselves. The last word of the first line of this section (“play”) recalls that pivotal word in this poem – “gay”. It is not explicitly rhymed with “gay” here – that occurs a few lines later: but the reader’s inner ear should catch the reference. Even when contemplating the profoundest of tragedies, the tragedies of Hamlet and of Lear, Yeats gives us an echo of the word “gay” – an echo of that which is the opposite of tragedy.

But now, Yeats makes the observation that even at the deepest point of human tragedy, Lear and Hamlet don’t “break up their lines to weep”. And he returns to that word “gay” with the astonishing pronouncement: “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay”. At this point, we have to re-examine how we understand this word. It had appeared first in a dismissive context: “artists who are always gay” – artists who are light-hearted, frivolous. But can Lear and Hamlet be regarded in such terms? Surely not! But Yeats insists on using that word “gay”: he repeats that word in a slightly different form in the next line – “Gaiety transforming all that dread”. Again, there is an element of colloquialism in the expression “all that” (as in, say “…and all that jazz”), but the thought here is startling: Lear and Hamlet are actually the opposite of that which is tragic –they are “gay”; and far from enacting tragedy, they present its opposite, thus transforming tragedy.

The reason Yeats gives for this is simple: even at the moment of greatest tragedy, the tragic protagonists do not break up their lines to weep: they speak their lines clearly, observing their rhythms and sonorities; even here, they delight in the beauty of those lines. And it is this focus on the beauty that “transforms all that dread”: the creation of that beauty is the best, indeed, the only answer humanity has to all that oppresses it.

Yeats is in danger here of sanitising human misery and suffering – or even of trivialising it: it’s as if he is saying “Yes, humans suffer, but look – we can create pretty things out of all this, so all that suffering doesn’t really matter.” It’s important to appreciate, I think, that Yeats isn’t saying this. Indeed, the next few lines of the poem make quite clear that the poet knows and understands the nature of human suffering:

All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.

In that first line, Yeats is not talking about “all men”, but rather, “all that men have aimed at”. The syntax here is more than knotty: it is, indeed, ungrammatical. It is an impressionistic sketch of human tragedy, and its fierce intensity comes as a huge surprise given the colloquial nature of much of what we have read so far. “Heaven blazing into the head” is one of those phrases which, once read, is never forgotten. (And note the echo of the word “gay” in the long “a” sound in the first syllable of the word “blazing”: even when that word isn’t explicitly stated, it is present; and here, the sound is not so much echoed, perhaps, as thundered.) I often wonder if Yeats wasn’t referring here obliquely to the first lines of Euripides’ Medea:

If only a flaming bolt from heaven would pierce my head!
(From the translation by John Davie, published by Penguin Classics)

I have never seen this connection being made, but I can’t help feeling that Euripides’ play is lurking here in the background.

Immediately after these magnificent lines, Yeats brings us down to earth with a bump, as two of the most sublime creations of literature are brought down a few pegs: “Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages.” (I love that internal rhyme – or near-rhyme – of “Hamlet rambles”.) And yes, their magnificent blank verse could, I suppose, be regarded in such terms: Hamlet does ramble, and Lear does rage. And this brings them close to the rest of us – all of us who, according to the first line of this section “act [our] tragic play”. We are, all of us, Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Cordelia. If this line brings Lear and Hamlet down to our level, it also raises us up to theirs. We too, like Hamlet and Lear, face sorrow, loss, and death: our lives too are tragic.

In the remaining lines of this section, the syntax is jumbled, and deliberately unclear:

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.

What cannot grow by an inch or an ounce? The extent of the tragedy? The gaiety into which it has been transformed? All of this? Extending that old metaphor of the stage being the world, Yeats imagines the plays all ending at once – i.e. an apocalyptic end of human life itself, when “all the drop-scenes drop at once upon a hundred, thousand stages”; even if this should happen, there is a mysterious “it” which cannot grow: the tragedy is tragic only in human terms, not cosmic: the cosmos will carry on all the same, indifferent quite to the Lears and the Hamlets, the Ophelias and the Cordelias.

And yet, in amongst all this, there lurks an important point: the joy in the creation of beauty “transforms all that dread”. It doesn’t nullify the dread: the dread is still there, and always will be there, and it is horrific. But we also have the ability to transform, to create; and in this act of creation, there is something that is close to a sense of joy – a “gaiety”, as Yeats would put it.

Does this “gaiety” redeem the inevitable tragedy of our lives? That is up to each individual to answer. Much depends, I suppose, on what we mean by “redeem”, or, indeed, whether we believe in the possibility of redemption at all. But Yeats has given us so far a sort of answer to the “hysterical women”: whether or not we believe that the joy of creation can compensate for the inevitable tragedy of human life, that joy, that “gaiety”, is as much a fact of human life as is the tragedy. The act of creation may not abolish the tragedy and the horror, but this tragedy and horror can then give rise to human activity that embodies something that is their opposite.

In the next section, the tone changes yet again. In three lines, Yeats evokes an epic canvas. The change of tone is marked by a first line which, although it still has four beats, seems very far from the underlying iambic tetrameter (ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum ti-tum):

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.

A picture is evoked of tragedy not merely of individuals – of Hamlet and Lear and Ophelia and Cordelia – but of entire peoples, entire civilisations – catastrophes on the greatest of scales. What happens when a civilisation is destroyed (as ours, too, no doubt will be some day)?

Then they and their wisdom went to rack

Yeats now evokes the legendary sculptor Callimachus, of whose work nothing now remains:

No handiwork of Callimachus
…… stands.

But between the “Callimachus” and the “stands”, Yeats uses his own art to imagine for himself, in a few exquisite lines, the nature of Callimachus’ art:

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.

The next quatrain imagines more of what Callimachus’ art may have been like, and then concludes:

All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Again that word “gay”, and again (the repeated word “again” echoing the word “gay”) it occurs for maximum emphasis at the end of the line. And we have to ponder what the word means here, now, in this context. It certainly doesn’t mean “frivolous”. Neither is Yeats referring here to the aesthetic pleasure one gets from a work of tragic art – where tragedy itself, paradoxically, is transformed to “gaiety”. He is here referring to mankind’s ability to rebuild itself after even the greatest of disasters, the greatest of destructions – just as his own imagination has allowed him to recreate in words what had been lost of Callimachus’ art. The losses are to be lamented; but equally, man’s capacity to rebuild must be celebrated, for it is “gay”.

Now, we enter the final section of the poem. Having considered works of Western art –King Lear and Hamlet and the lost art of Callimachus – Yeats now turns to a work of Oriental art, and describes in detail a Chinese sculpture curved in lapis lazuli. As ever, Yeats does not modulate from the previous section into this: he merely juxtaposes. How this sculpture relates to what he had been talking about earlier is not at first entirely clear.

He takes six lines (one and a half quatrains) to describe the piece.

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.

The tone here is completely neutral – a description of a static scene (carved literally in stone) more or less without comment. We seem suddenly transported from the hurly-burly of change and activity on a vast scale to a scene of calm; from the dynamic to the static; from a world of violent passions to one of equanimity. The very static nature of this Chinese sculpture contrasts with the dynamic imaginings of Callimachus’ sculpture in the previous section, where the very marble had seemed to be in motion.

The next (and final) section starts with two lines that complete the half-quatrain that had finished the earlier section, and relates the calm of this stasis to the themes encountered earlier in the poem:

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent
Seems a water-course or an avalanche….

The small details here can be seen as microcosms of larger events. But still, it remains unclear how this carving relates to the upheavals of tragic power, and destructions of entire civilisations.

The tone now modulates from an impersonal to a personal note, and with this modulation comes a new vowel sound – a sound that had been absent from the poem since the very first word: “I” – the long “i” sound. This is given special force by being placed at the end of the line, and two lines later, we get the word “sky” to rhyme with it. This vowel sound, in the last few lines, seems to establish a new tonality, as it were: in the last two lines, as if to emphasise this new tonality, the word “eyes” appears no less than three times. However, the word “gay”, with its long vowel sound, is not overwhelmed by this new sound: that long “a” sound appears in the last words of lines 2 and 4 in the final quatrain (play/gay), and the very last word of the poem is, of course, “gay”. The repetition of this word relates this static Chinese carving back to the dynamism of King Lear or of Hamlet, for, like those plays, this sculpture too is “gay”. But once again, the word means something a bit different here.

For this Chinese sculpture depicts not the dynamism of tragic passion, but the curious detached equanimity with which these passions can be viewed. Does this detachment imply a lack of feeling, and indifference? Or is it indicative of some transcendent wisdom that senses an elusive gaiety beyond the turmoil of human affairs? Yeats tells us that he “delights” (another repetition of that long “i” sound) in imagining these men looking down from the heights on to a scene of tragedy below, listening to “mournful melodies”, with gaiety in their ancient, glittering eyes. It is a haunting image, and a very uncomfortable one. Should suffering be looked on with equanimity? With gaiety? Most of us, I think, would answer “no”. But is this gaiety too far removed from the aesthetic satisfaction we take in seeing King Lear? Is it not a just celebration of the human ability to create, to rebuild?

The ending of this poem – indeed, the whole poem itself – is disturbing in its many paradoxes, in its relating of human suffering and misery to human creativity, and the human ability to renew itself. As with any great poem, it strikes many different notes all at the same time, and to insist on any one tonality denies the possibility of the others. All these paradoxes seem to me concentrated in that magnificent final quatrain:

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

As a footnote, I recently watched a DVD of the late Claudio Abbado conducting Mahler’s 6th symphony – among the darkest and most tragic of works – and I couldn’t help noticing that when a passage was particularly well-executed, Abbado would break into a spontaneous smile – even though the music was as dark and as bleakly tragic as may be imagined. There was such an obvious joy in the very act of creation: and yet this did not distract from the tragic nature of the work; somehow, this joy co-existed with the tragedy. And I could not help thinking then of this poem.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 5, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks for that. “Heaven blazing into the head” is very memorable.
    The reverse can also be true – I think it might have been Aldous Huxley who said that Mozart’s music seemed happy but was in fact full of sadness.


  2. Wonderful commentary – I like the idea of “joy in the act of creation”. I share your trepidation regarding writing about poetry. However, as I am in the midst of immersing myself in Frost’s wonderful verse I may give it a try as well.


    • Hello Jim – I had tried to write about Yeats’ poetry before on this blog, but it wasn’t one of my more successful posts. But it has to be done: it’s silly having a literary blog and not write about poetry. And, hopefully, one can but get better with practice.

      I look forward to reading about Frost’s poetry on your blog.


  3. Posted by Johannes on April 5, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Your closing footnote gave me something to think about.

    When you talk about detachment from passion, I think I agree that there is something very elusive about the way in which, through art, we are able to confront human tragedy of terrifying proportions in a manner which compels us where it would otherwise repel us. It seems to me to be a very human paradox, and I think it very appropriate that Yeats chose to explore it like this. Though it would be silly of me to try and formulate some kind of “solution”, I think it’s still interesting to observe that in our interaction with tragic art, there is almost always something cathartic, regardless of whether catharsis is a theme in the work itself. I’m indulging in a great deal of possibly pointless theorizing, but I believe this is at least partly due to the very detachment that we sometimes experience in art. And I believe that to be the case because it is a reflective detachment, a detachment that requires us, maybe paradoxically, to engage with what we are experiencing. After all, it’s almost impossible to read something like Anna Semyonova’s letter to Viktor Shtrum without taking a break afterwards to reflect, or to react. The same might go for the experience of Beethoven’s three last sonatas, or any number of other great works of art. It is this detachment that allows us to weave the experience of our own trials and tribulations into the fabric of the work, and which ultimately grants it relevance to our lives and to the human condition. As Thomas Mann said,

    ‘In books we never find anything but ourselves. Strangely enough, that always gives us great pleasure, and we say the author is a genius.’

    There’s also the question as to how performers themselves engage with art, which you touched on via Shakespeare and Mahler. There’s another phenomenon at work here I think, though I think this may be at best tangential to the point that Yeats is making. There is no question that in the greatest works of art, we are also witnesses to (admittedly immaculate) craftsmanship. Divine inspiration aside, there is hard, nose-to-the-grindstone toil and labour in evidence here. I’m reminded of Leonard Bernstein’s documentary on Beethoven’s 5th, where he presents rejected drafts for various sections of the symphony, and explains their inferiority to the finished work. This isn’t merely salacious voyeurism, peaking underneath the covers and exposing the manifold imperfections in the master’s opus. It’s a sobering insight into the artistic process. Not that I’m suggesting the existence of an aesthetic calculus, by which the artist may readily infer and target our sensibilities. Not at all. In order to achieve his effect though, the artist must be able to detach himself from its power over him. This is equally true of performing artists, be they actors at the Globe or musicians in the concert hall. They too must not allow themselves to wallow in the passions they are hoping to arouse, for that way lies overindulgence, insincerity and ultimately ineffectuality. It is only when their work has been reduced to the level of technique, when they have fully constructed a sort of experiential choreography, that they are in fact able to effect spontaneity. In other words, the shackles of a choreographed performance lend them the freedom to transcend the very “craftsmanship” that they started out with. This is, I suppose, one manifestation of the paradoxical relationship between artistic freedom and artistic constraints. In moments where this happens, I would not doubt for a second that there is joy in the realization that something very special and unique has been created.


    • Hello Johannes, my apologies for the delay in responding.

      I think you’re absolutely right. I do not think any good art – let alone great art – can be produced without good craftsmanship, and to be a good craftsman needs at least an element of detachment. Possibly this is what Wordsworth referred to when he spoke of poetry being “emotion recalled in tranquillity”. After all, if Tchaikovsky or Mahler had been in state of hysteria when composing their respective 6th symphonies, they wouldn’t have been able to work out the counterpoint and the harmonic structure. When actors play Lear or Hedda Gabler, unless they discipline themselves to focus on the craft of acting, they would not be able to communicate those overpowering emotions. They must not, as Yeats says, “break up their lines to weep”.

      I think, though, that Yeats is saying even more than this: he says that in the joy of creation, even in the creation of a Lear or a Hamlet, there is a joy – a “gaiety”. The very act of creating or re-creating King Lear is the very opposite of the destructive force the play presents. This act of creation is, indeed, perhaps the only answer we have to the tragic parts that we all play.

      PS Speaking of Leonard Bernstein, I discovered lately that the entire series of his famous Harvard Lectures is available on YouTube. Isn’t technology wonderful?


  4. Posted by Theodulf on May 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    I read this post yesterday, and then this morning I was viewing the second episode of “Shark”, a Korean TV drama, in which two characters are visiting the Chagall retrospective in Seoul in 2004. They are looking at his 1969 painting of Orpheus, and one explains the legend to the other, who says, “But the painting has a happy vibe.” The first says, “That’s why I like it. It tells a sad story in a happy way.”


    • It’s a complex issue, isn’t it? I have been reading King Lear lately – and went to see the cinema broadcast of the National Theatre production – and really, there is absolutely nothing happy about that work at all! It is a very complex issue Yeats broaches here, and I’m certain I have not yet reached the bottom of it…


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