Yeats – Lapis Lazuli (1938)

From New Poems (1938), this poem’s title refers to a blue rock that serves as the medium of a sculpture given to him by Harry Clifton (to whom the poem is dedicated). Opens with an indictment of detached artists by “hysterical women,” who claims that l’art pour l’art has no place within the context of the impending second world war. Yeats calls for a poetry that engages catastrophe, but refrains from adopting the tragic as its final note. The poem will come around to a “tragic joy” that is achieved in and through the human capacity to create.

The long second stanza talks about Shakespearean tragedy, and introduces “gay” as a crucial word: Gaiety transfiguring all that dread. This gaiety is Nietzschean in its ability to affirm. The poem engages in this affirmation through a rewriting of “The Second Coming”:

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

This locates a certain joy amidst the process of historical, political and aesthetic tragedy. The final stanzas describe the Lapis Lazuli sculpture in detail. The importing of an Eastern sculpture directly rewrites Keats “Grecian Urn,” thereby offsetting the Western “solution” of the static truth-beauty onto an Eastern paradigm of Eternal Recurrence. In the temple, where Yeats imagines the “Chinamen” going, they engage in a song of worship, suitably rustic:

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

The repetition of eyes is curious in the context of modernism’s exaltation of vision as the medium of aesthetic judgment (cf. Conrad, Ford, etc.). Also, the statue which started the revelry ends by producing a song, thus securing for lyric a privileged status. Lastly, ancient and glittering recall Yeats early work: the fish in Wandering Aengus is glittering, and everything is ancient. Here we have a return, a resignation, a joy, one that has been hard won.


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