The Poem

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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.

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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 curtain is about to fall, they do not “break up their lines to weep.” They transcend their fate, for “They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” They are an expression of everyone’s fate, for everyone dies.

The triumph of the tragic hero is to play that role with dignity and grace, finding beauty and inspiration in the performance. Even though the curtain drops on a “hundred thousand stages,” tragedy “cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.”

The third stanza presents a sweeping look at the course of history, with its endless succession of civilizations. The poet imagines them as a great caravan, coming on foot, by ship, on camels, horses, and mules. “Old civilisations put to the sword./ Then they and their wisdom went to rack.” Moreover, their great art died as well. He gives one example: the superlative achievements of Callimachus, an ancient Greek sculptor, “Who handled marble as if it were bronze.” Only a scrap of his art remains. “All things fall and are built again,/ And those that build them again are gay.” In other words, the joy of life is in the process of creating; it exists in the journey itself, not in some goal or object at the end of the trail which is going to live forever.

The fourth stanza, shorter than the others, introduces the carving in lapis lazuli. Three Chinese men, one apparently a serving man carrying a musical instrument, are climbing toward a “little half-way house.” Above them flies a long-legged bird, a crane, conventional Chinese symbol of longevity. The last stanza elaborates how the carving brings delight to the beholder. It evokes an imaginative journey that goes beyond the scene frozen in stone. The poet participates mentally in the climb and imagines the two old men sitting under flowering trees at the half-way house, listening to mournful music. They stare out on “all the tragic scene” below: “Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,/ Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”

Forms and Devices

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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,...

(The entire section contains 962 words.)

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Themes