The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poet makes sensitive use of sound devices and connotations, the first stanza combining colloquial phrases (“sick of,” “beaten flat”) with explosive words and repeated consonants (“drasticdone,” “King Billy bomb-balls”) to suggest the hysterical, bombastic tone of the women. “King Billy” may have associations with English-Irish conflicts but also brings to mind “Kaiser Bill,” a popular term for Kaiser Wilhelm II, German emperor during World War I. Although zeppelins, rigid-framed airships, were obsolete as war machines in 1936, when Yeats wrote this poem, he remembered the zeppelin bombing raids on London during World War I. In 1936, the Germans reoccupied the Rhineland; other events in Europe were leading up to World War II. The threat of war was real enough, therefore, but the tone of the first stanza suggests that a melodramatic, frenzied reaction to that threat is not helpful.

The poet ironically points to dramatic art as offering a better model for learning to bear human tragedy than public screaming and moaning or the condemnation of artists. He maintains the note of violence, however, by equating the real tragedy of modern war with the descending final curtain of the play. “Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:/ Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.” The term “Black out” carries multiple, contradictory connotations. The final curtain blacks out the play, as a falling bomb blacks out human life. “Heaven blazing...

(The entire section is 410 words.)