Like the falcon in Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” his “Lapis Lazuli” turns and turns in a widening gyre, taking in a widening sweep of history. Each verse paragraph marks a major turn, as the poem spirals outward. The first paragraph, which Helen Vender aptly terms an example of the grotesque, articulates a vision of hysteria rejecting the work of art for the urgencies of politics and war. Although this view might have a certain pragmatic appeal, were it to prevail, the life of human imagination would—like the town projected by the panicked imagination—“lie beaten flat.”
The first turn prompts the voice of the poet to respond to this panic by taking up the old trope of the world as a stage, “transfiguring” the dread of war into the artistry of tragedy, the rambling of Hamlet and the raging of Lear, not to mention Ophelia’s mad poetry and Cordelia’s nobility. This paragraph’s keynote is transfiguration, as dread becomes the gaiety sustained by art. “Gaiety” then echoes through the poem, a term with a great range of meanings, from nobility to joy to exuberance and expansiveness. Yeats’s biographer R. F. Foster glosses the term as “stoic courage” as well as “aristocratic insouciance.” It is an attitude that brings “Heaven blazing into the head” even as the world stage blacks out, an attitude that faces into time and its ravages with a kind of centered calm. Of course, all art forms take place in time, but this paragraph’s focus on theater—which performs the creation and destruction of a world with every curtain rise and fall—puts a forceful focus on time’s passing, and thus on the transience of all human drama and achievement.
The third paragraph turns toward this transience as the situation in which all art, as all human experience, happens. Especially poignant, then, is this paragraph’s focus on sculpture, the art form that would seem to hold out the best chance for the construction of a monument resistant to decay. But just as the great sculptures of Callimachus are said here to create an illusion of motion, so is the monumentality of any sculpture an illusion as well. The initial lines about Callimachus exquisitely draw out the idea of the art work’s transience with a periodic sentence that delays the verb until the final moment— “No handiwork of Callimachus / Who handled marble as if it were bronze, / Made draperies that seemed to rise / When sea-wind swept the corner, stands”—and when it finally arrives, the verb indicates exactly what even sculpture, given enough time, does not do. In other words, “All things fall and are built again,” and the note of gaiety on which this paragraph ends brings us to the poem’s major turn.
Here the gyres intersect. One continues its spiral outward as the poem takes in a consideration not only of European, but also of Asian civilizations. The other spirals inward, toward the individual imagination, as the poem focuses now on the particular sculpture at hand, the carving in lapis lazuli that Harry Clifton, to whom the poem is dedicated, gave to Yeats. The point of intersection is this carving, which stimulates the speaker’s imagination in his reflections on how civilizations respond to the forces of chance and decay.
The turn to the last verse paragraph takes up a meditation on how the work of art cooperates with chance and imperfection: “Every discolouration of the stone, / Every accidental crack or dent / Seems a water-course or an avalanche….” Thus, the work of art is more of a cooperation with, than sheer resistance to, the forces of transience. Here the poem brings us into deeper contact with the speaker’s own imagination, as occasioned by the little carving: “…and I / Delight to imagine them seated there; / There, on the mountain and the sky, / On all the tragic scene they stare.” These are all details supplied by the speaker’s imagination, his own version of the “little half-way house” that these carved figures climb toward. Here as well is the disclosure of the work that the work of art is to do, which is to stimulate the imagination in terms of the transfiguring gaiety this speaker describes. The artwork is not so much an end in itself as it is a way of keeping this energy of imagination alive in history.
At the intersection of the poem’s broad sweeps of history with the individual imagination, we are also given an image of the transfiguring effects of art, in those haunting lines delivering an image of words delivering immediate effects: “One asks for mournful melodies; / Accomplished fingers begin to play.” The stark juxtaposition of the request with the sympathetic response emphasizes the sheer efficacy of the asking; and the music does play, if only in the imagination of the reader, for by this point it has come to the fore that this poem is to bring the speaker into the transfiguring work of imagination as the carving has done for the poem’s speaker. The final two lines, then, with their repeated notes about the “ancient, glittering eyes,” emphasize how the gazes of these figures cast in stone have come to life in the speaker’s imagination. For readers who have entered, if only for a passing moment, this Yeatsian vision, the glittering eyes become our own; it is this energy of vision, the glittering eyes and gaiety of creation, that the poem honors. The carving in lapis lazuli can no more be expected to last than the sculptures of Callimachus, and for all we know the texts of Yeats will one day come to dust, their electronic traces fade; nevertheless, they will have participated in the service of stimulating humans’ transfiguring vision, which this poem emphasizes is the work of all art.
Jerry Harp’s books of poems are Creature (Salt, 2003), Gatherings (Ashland Poetry Press, 2004), Urban Flowers, Concrete Plains (Salt, 2006), and For Us, What Music: On the Life and Poetry of Donald Justice (Iowa Press, 2010). With Jan Weissmiller he co-edited A Poetry Criticism Reader (University of Iowa Press, 2006). His essays and reviews appear regularly in Pleiades. He teaches at Lewis & Clark College.