Lapis Lazuli: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      (Lapis Lazuli is a deep-blue mineral. Here it refers to the medallion of this Chinaware presented to the poet)

Stanza I

      I have listened to the cries of hysterical women (of the nineteen thirties) who are panicky and scared of the preparations for the Second World War. They are sick of the painter’s palette and the musical instrument of the singer and the poet’s compositions because all of them are happy and gay. The women express their anxiety and suspense and want everybody to know that unless something drastic is done, airplanes and bombs will level flat the town just as King Billy-King of Orange hurled bombs in the battle of Boyne. Everything will be reduced to dust.

Stanza II

      (The Arts have a fruitful role to play in a world overwhelmed by war hysteria). Look at the tragic characters in a play. There walks Hamlet on the stage and there is Lear. There is Ophelia and there is Cordelia. They do not break down in tears or collapse even when the last scene is being enacted and the curtain is about to drop. They play their roles efficiently. They do not interrupt their words with weeping. They know that Hamlet and Lear are happy. Their joy in acting transforms their fear and tragedy. They know that human life is basically tragic.

      Their acceptance of fate leads to their inner illumination and tragedy enlarges their understanding of life. Though Hamlet raves and Lear falls into fits and even if all the drop seems to occur at once on a thousand stages, world-wide destruction of human lot cannot be worse or more tragic than what it really is. Piling of horror on horror cannot add further to the tragedy of life.

Stanza III

      (Civilizations have come and gone; why should we feel sorry if our civilization is destroyed). Conquerors came with armies, some on foot, some on ship, camel-back, horse-back, ass-back and mule-back. They destroyed the old civilization and their wisdom, too, came to an end. Callimachus, the Athenian sculptor created wonderful things of marble as if it were bronze. Yet none of his sculptures exist today. He with his winning drill made dress of human beings in marble as if they would move with a gust of wind. He made the bronze lamp in the form of a stem and of a slender palm leaf Nothing of this exists today. All things are destroyed and are built up again. So all those who build again, can be happy again.

Stanza IV

      (The poet gives an account of the carved China-ware which supplies the title to the poem). Before me lies this Chinese gift of semi-precious blue stone called Lapis Lazuli. Here are three human beings—two Chinamen—an ascetic and his disciple and the third one who follows them carried a musical instrument and is their servant. Above the three flies a long-legged bird whose presence indicates that these three men will have a long life.

Stanza V

      On this China-ware, every discoloration of the stone or crack or dent indicates a water-course (stream) or avalanche or some lofty slope covered with snow. The plum and cherry branches are found near the half-way house towards which those China-men climb. I feel happy with the thought that the China-men are seated in that house. From the mountain, they view the tragic scene all around. One of them desires that some mournful song be sung and the expert artist begins to play on the instrument. The eyes of the two Chinese listeners shine brightly in their faces full of wrinkles. They appear to be quite happy, in spite of the tragic scene around. (Poets and artists can view with balance and equanimity the world tragedy, as well as the rise and fall of civilizations).

Critical Analysis


      The poem Lapis Lazuli by W. B. Yeats was written on 25th July, 1936 was published in the volume entitled Last Poems. The poem owes its origin to the receipt of a gift of a large piece of Lapis Lazuli “carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temples, trees, paths and an ascetic and his pupil about to climb the mountain.” The poet began to reflect on this scene in this poem. It is so to say the thoughts of the poet on art, civilization and survival. There are two main themes—the rise and fall of civilizations and the triumph of art and philosophy.

Development of Thought

      The poet looks around and finds the people, particularly ladies, full of war-hysteria. The memories of the First World War were still fresh in the minds of the people. People got panicky and the atmosphere was full of anxiety and frustration. Women were disgusted with fine arts, such as painting, music and poetry. They thought that they offered no solutions to the problems of the present. Moreover, the gaiety of the artist was objectionable to the people facing a crisis. Urgent steps were necessary to avert the impending catastrophe. People were afraid that cities might be destroyed by aerial warfare and dropping of bombs. The poet particularly refers to the both-balls thrown hy King Billy of Orange in 1690 and by his name sake Kaiser Wilhelm II in the First World War.

The Utility of Fine Arts

      The poet feels that the practice and study of fine arts is not useless even in a time of crisis. Their study enables us to lace the tragic realities of life courageously and heroically. Like actors in a tragedy, who enjoys playing their roles, we must play our parts bravely. The actor never breaks down in the middle of the tragedy. His joy in acting, changes the hour of tragedy into gaiety. Human life has never been a bed of roses. Man has always suffered and lost. His tragedy has given him wisdom and a philosophy of life. The study of art is helpful in understanding the realities of life. Today, there is a universal tragedy; it is not confined to a particular nation or country. The arts are as relevant today as in the times of crisis in the past.

Rise and Fall of Civilization

      The history of man indicates the rise of civilization and their fall - The ancient civilizations lasted for a span of years, and were destroyed. Armies conquered nations and destroyed ancient civilizations. The artist who contributes his mite to a civilization is also defeated but he is never upset or gloomy. Callimachus, the Greek sculptor created wonderful things in marble. He simulated the folds of a dress in marble. But now no work of his survives. Man destroys but the mind can create too. So those who built again became happy. The cyclic chain of history shows how new civilizations arise out of the ruins of the old. No civilization can be eternal. The artist feels happy in the act of creation, though he knows that his work will not last forever.

Lapis Lazuli Carving

      The poet describes the Chinese carving in his possession. There are two Chinamen—an ascetic and his disciple followed by a singer who carries a musical instrument. A long-legged bird flies over the tree, indicating that the tree will have a long life. The poet sees a mountain slope fall of waterfalls and streams. Halfway stands a rest-house and the Chinesemen are climbing towards it. As they reach the house, they survey the tragic scene around. One of them wants mournful music to echo the tragic scene, but the artist plays on the musical instrument and the eyes of the two Chinamen shine brightly. They are delighted by the music though they are surrounded by misery around. The poet feels that the crisis in world history is a matter of course and a necessary art of the human drama. There is no need to loose heart and create panic.


      The poem sees the silver lining in the cloud of the European situation in 1936. For Yeats “the arts are all the bridal chambers of joy.” The war hysteria makes him impatient because he feels that crises are a part of human tragedy.

      Tragedy can be a source of joy and satisfaction, as in the case of a tragic hero, a creative artist or builder, and a prophet or sage who sees the seeds of a new life in the festering decay. The poem is full of images—Fiddle-bow, Bomb-balls, draperies, lamp-chimney, halfway-house, avalanche and cherry-branch. The second stanza contains glowing description of tragic heroes. There is enough justification for the poet’s calling the poem “almost the best I have made in recent years.”

Critical Opinions

      Stock remarks: “The poem thus begins with an account of the ' war-phobia and panic that swept across Europe during the year 1934-39. It was a time of deepening frustration and the foreknowledge !! that war, more destructive than the first one, was in the offing. The circle of terror the violence was widening, and people were waiting for air-raids and incendiary bombs with horror in their hearts. They were nervous and hysterical, like women. It was generally felt that the fine arts like poetry, painting and music are of no good in such tragic times. The gaiety of poets and artists, jarred upon their nerves and seemed to be out of place in the tragic times in which they lived. What they needed was not art, but some drastic steps to prevent the out break of the Second War. So the poet is impatient.”

      B. Rajan says: “The stock of disaster is softened by ‘mournful’ and ‘accomplished fingers’ which suggest not only technical powers but the tragic experience soothed into artistic order. The zest of performance, creates a certain gaiety, irrespective of the theme that is performed; but eventually one discovers that the theme itself is gaiety. The repetition of ‘eye’ emphasizes the changelessness of vision in the wrinkled face which itself becomes the mask of an ancient wisdom, and ‘glittering’ suggests both the inner life of art and the manner in which artistic vision animates and gives significance to context. The result is not gaiety alone but gaiety in balance with tragic recognition—the sense of life asserting itself in complete confrontation of all that seems to make life meaningless.”

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