This fifty-six-line poem is dedicated to Harry Clifton, who gave to William Butler Yeats on his seventieth birthday an eighteenth century Chinese carving in lapis lazuli, an azure-blue semiprecious stone. It was a traditional scene representing a mountain with temple, trees, paths, and tiny human beings about to climb the mountain. Yeats uses the carving to meditate on the role of art in an essentially tragic world.
The poem begins by acknowledging certain complaints from “hysterical women” who say that they “are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,/ Of poets that are always gay.” The implication is that artists are frivolous and irresponsible, playing around in the face of imminent disaster instead of doing something to save the world. Unless something “drastic” is done, the hysterical voices go on,
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls inUntil the town lie beaten flat.
The second stanza does not deny the probability of violence, but it deplores the hysterical wailing and defends art as a way of coping with tragedy. Yeats uses the Shakespearean analogy that all the world is a stage and further states that the play enacted there is always tragedy. “There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,/ That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia.” All these Shakespearean characters die. Yet, when the...
(The entire section is 552 words.)