W. B. Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli"

Updated on October 2, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Portrait of William Butler Yeats


Introduction and Text of Poem, "Lapis Lazuli"

The speaker of William Butler Yeats' Eastern-philosophically influenced piece, "Lapis Lazuli," opens his disquisition by announcing to his readers that the hysterical women are dismayed by artists who remain in non-attachment, while the times seem to require some definite movement against evil in order that they do fall victim to obliteration.

Yeats composed "Lapis Lazuli" in 1938 as WWII was geering up in Europe; thus, the women are afraid that they will be become targets of the Zeppelins and airplanes that were deployed to bomb London in WWI.

The allusion to "King Billy bomb-balls in" consists of a pun on William III at the Battle of the Boyne and Kaiser Wilhelm.

Lapis Lazuli

(for Harry Clifton)

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 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.

Reading of "Lapis Lazuli"


First Movement: "I have heard that hysterical women say"

The speaker sets up his argument to show that he believes certain complaining women are hysterical because they are lamenting a rather natural flux of history.

The speaker will be attempting to demonstrate the healing affects of art, despite what those who descend into hysterics cry and wail about.

Second Movement: "All perform their tragic play"

The second stanza continues by exemplifying scenes from famous plays. The speaker is alluding to Shakespearean dramas of Hamlet and King Lear. As those actors who portray the characters they do so in a dignified rather unattached manner.

The actors fulfill the drama with their roles but do not allow their feelings to intrude upon their lines with weeping. The actors never stop to lament over the tragedy that infuses their characters.

The actors know that the characters they are dramatizing while sporting great depth of emotion must be portrayed accurately. Therefore they are not steeped in outward displays of lamentation.

Those actors pursuing theatre art remained self-possessed. Otherwise their art would have suffered from over-emotional dabbing.

If art is to assist in mitigating sorrow, turbulence, and evil, then it must filter out the bathos that brings on hysterics. The art of the actors prevents them from descending into deep depression over their characters, despite the depth of feeling they must portray.

While tragedy by definition holds a range of emotion from despair to disdain to sorrowful outbursts, the act of making art brings on a settlement of feeling, otherwise no art could sustain itself.

Theatre art has always served society as a sort of safety valve wherein both actors and audience can view the subject of the performances with some distance. That distance must then be framed in a way that not only lowers the temperature on sorrow but also elevates with the beauty of the truth the content portrays.

Third Movement: "On their own feet they came, or on shipboard"

The third stanza reminds readers/listeners that civilization come and go, that the story of humankind is replete with societies rising and falling, like waves in the ocean. While the thought may provoke gloom, it remains a fact that those civilization have indeed been vanquished.

Even the great art of a Callimachus has come and gone. That great sculptor was able to work his magic on marble as if it were a softer material, but where is he now? Like those great civilization, he has come and gone.

Despite the fact that societies and great artists come and go, there is still hope because just as they are torn down, they rise again. Civilizations rise again, edifices are rebuilt, and new artists replace the old.

Fourth Movement: "Two Chinamen, behind them a third"

In 1935, four years before the death of W.B. Yeats, the poet Harry Clifton gave Yeats a carving that according to Yeats some Chinese sculptor had daon in lapis lazuli. The gift accounts for Yeats' dedication of the poem to Clifton.

That carving of lapis lazuli feature a scene in which three Chinese men are trekking up a mountain-side. Also featured is a long-legged bird flying overhead.

The speaker claims that this bird is a symbol of a long life. One of the Chinese men, the speaker claims, is a servant because he is transporting a musical instrument.

Fifth Movement: "Every discolouration of the stone"

The three men are hiking up the mountain toward what Yeats' speaker assumes is a little half-way house.

Readers, however, might sense that that little house might be a temple. (Oddly, Yeats even claims that building is a "temple" in his letter to Dorothy Welllesley. See call-out below.)

Yeats' speaker is interpreting that edifice as a building that resembles an Irish pub, in which the men may stop for refreshment and listen to some sorrowful tunes before trekking on.

It may also be likely that the men are Buddhist monks, and they will stop at a temple to meditate, worship, and pray; the musical instrument will be employed for their chanting.

But for the Yeatsian sensibility, as the scene unfolds, one may asks to hear a sad, melancholy tune, and the player begins to offer a rendition.

Thus, Chinese men listening to melancholy tunes may parallel the Western theatre audience watching Hamlet or King Lear.

The ancient faces of the Chinese men look on smiling but rather detached as they enjoy the melodies.

Sesshu Painting


The Lapis Lazuli Sculpture

The painter, Sesshu, produced a long scroll of his painting from his trek through China in the 15th century. Both the theme and the appearance of the painting and the sculpture are similar.

W. B. Yeats retained an interest in Eastern philosophy and art and much of his poetry, plays, and essays reflect that interest.

Lapis Lazuli Sculpture


Letter to Dorothy Welllesley, July 6 1935

[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. 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 nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 9 months ago from U.S.A.

      Thanks, Louise! I wrote my PhD dissertation on Yeats' use of Eastern philosophical thought. His poems are often much better than his understanding of that philosophy. I do also enjoy most of this poetry. Glad my hubs are useful to your understanding of the the poems.

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 9 months ago from Norfolk, England

      I do love W. B. Yeats' poetry. Thanks for this, reading your articles always helps me understand the poetry a lot more.