Lapis , deep blue in color and opaque, this gemstone was highly prized by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, as can be seen by its prominent use in many of the treasures recovered from pharaonic tombs.
W. B. Yeats’ poem, Lapis Lazuli has for its themes the recurring rise and fall of civilizations, the impending end of our civilization, and the triumph of art and philosophy over the tragedy of events.
The opening stanza focuses on modern times. Even worse than the impending destruction are those hysterical women who reject painting, music and poetry, all “gay” art, in favour of politics. These arts are called gay since they have the power of transfiguring tragedy into tragic joy. The hysterical women are tired of the artist’s gaiety because they prefer action to contemplation, politics to art.
In the second stanza Yeats says that unlike hysterical women who “break up their lives to weep”, heroes like Hamlet and Lear are “gay”. They are gay because they have the last laugh. The tragedy that overtook them could crush their bodies, but not the spirit.
The third stanza refers to the fall of civilizations. “All things fall and are built again”, and Yeats accepts the cycles of history with “tragic joy” asserting that “those that build them again will be gay. ”
In the fourth and fifth stanzas Yeats crystallizes the idea of tragic gaiety in the image of the three Chinamen carved on a piece of lapis lazuli. The three old men are pictured as climbing towards a little half-way house sweetened, Yeats supposes, by plum or cherry branch. Then he imagines that seated there they stare on the “Tragic scene” spread below them. And amid many wrinkles, their eyes
“Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay”
The gaiety is a result not only of their ancient wisdom which profoundly comprehends the tragic scene, but also of the “mournful melodies” played on a musical instrument by the serving-man. The music enables the Chinamen to “transfigure” all the dread of the tragic scene. Art, no mater how tragic, how mournful, transfigures all tragedy with the defiant overpowering gaiety of the hero.
Heroes react to tragic reality with courageous gaiety and meet death with a defiant smile. This is the prevailing mood of Lapis Lazuli.
Yeats’ reaction to the chaos of civilization is not one of horror, nor of stoical impassivity, nor even of a desire for escape or transcendence, but of a heroic transmutation of tragic defeat into tragic joy.
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