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W.B. Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli" and Chinese Poetics.

"Lapis Lazuli" presents W. B. Yeats's apprehension of traditional Chinese poetics. The poem, which parallels the "Western" first three stanzas with the "Chinese" final two stanzas, creates a West-East contrast in terms of creative perception, poetic form, and aesthetic essence, and consequently discloses the difference between Western and Chinese aesthetic appreciation.

Yeats critics have discussed the theme oi tragic joy in the poem Lapis Lazuli": they either point out that it expresses "bitter and gay are to meet despair and show forth the heroic mood" (Jeffares 491), or are compelled to accept the irrational logic of the "gay" in the Chinamen's eyes while staring at the tragic scene (Bloom 439), or believe the poem "is about an inexpressible and illogical mood" (O'Donnell 367), or regard Yeats's "tragic joy" as a theory close to that of the sublime (Ramazani 163); yet few critics have attached great importance to the separable structure and different styles within the poem, and few have been aware of the different connotations of joy between the Western stanzas and Chinese stanzas. The West-East difference of joy is worth considering since Yeats had clear awareness a year before he completed the poem "Lapis Lazuli": "Ascetic, pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east. The heroic cry in the midst of despair. But no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry" (Letters 8-9). A reading of the poem from the Chinese poetic perspective will be helpful to apprehend Yeats's perception of Chinese arts and poetics. Such a reading may furthermore reveal Yeats's insight into the differences between Western and Chinese aesthetic perceptions, forms and essence, and more specifically between "tragic joy" and "natural joy."


Yeats's approach to China and to Chinese arts is by means of "the mind's direct apprehension of the truth," a phrase Yeats used to describe certain Indian, Chinese, and Japanese apprehensive approaches to the truth, which is a way of accessing the truth not merely through a particular physical organ, for instance eyes or ears or nostrils, but through the "heroic ecstatic passion prolonged through years, through many vicissitudes" (Yeats, Essays and Introductions 436). Such a "mind's direct apprehension" described by Yeats is somewhat close to the typical Chinese apprehensive approach clarified by Zhuangzi, a key figure in classical philosophical Taoism in the late fourth century BCE: "You must concentrate your attention. Do not listen with your ears, but with your mind; do not comprehend with your mind, but with your vital energy. Your ears can only hear and your mind can only comprehend. But the vital energy is an emptiness that is responsive to anything. The mighty Tao can only gather in an emptiness and that emptiness is the fasting of the mind" (Zhuangzi 55). (1) In other words, the apprehension of truth is an integral and comprehensive process, based on one's life experience through many years, which includes gradually developing phases from the organic to the intuitive, the rational, and finally the insightful. Yeats's understanding of China and Chinese arts underwent such a yearlong experience.

When Yeats began to conceive and create the poem "Lapis Lazuli" after he received a Chien Lung lapis lazuli carving on July 4, 1935, as a seventieth birthday present from Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton to whom the poem is dedicated, he had known about China for more than half a century. His first impression of Chinese art was his childhood view of some Chinese paintings in his grandfather William Pollexfen's house in Sligo, where Yeats's mother Susan Yeats and her children often visited and lived from 1867 to 1874 (Yeats, Autobiographies 419). These paintings were deeply imprinted in Yeats's mind at that time, when he was "still a very little boy, seven or eight years old perhaps" (43), and he recorded in detail his organic impression in his short memoir "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth": "I can remember no other pictures but the Chinese paintings, and some colored prints of battles in the Crimea upon the wall of a passage, and the painting of a ship at the passage end darkened by time" (Autobiographies 44). These Chinese paintings of the Crimea seemed to be products of Chinoiserie, European stories with Chinese styles or European retelling of Chinese stories, which had been popular in Europe since the eighteenth century. They were, however, attractive enough to stimulate Yeats's childhood fancy and interest in this mysterious foreign country. (2)

Even in 1910, Yeats still understood Chinese paintings from a European perspective; for instance, in the essay "The Tragic Theatre," he discussed the implicit meaning of some Chinese paintings through the eyes of Italian painter Titian: "when we look at the faces of the old tragic paintings, whether it is in Titian or in some painter of mediaeval China, we find there sadness and gravity, a certain emptiness even, as of a mind that waited the supreme crisis" (Essays and Introductions 244). To Yeats, the sadness and gravity of Chinese paintings were the same as those of Titian's paintings, yet he did not realize that there was no "mediaeval" in China, and there were no feelings of sadness and gravity in the faces of the traditional Chinese paintings, but only peace and serenity. For the supreme aesthetic state of Chinese art is to be natural. Liu An of the Han dynasty (3) says that "the essence of all things is nature" (274). Natural feelings (such as peace and serenity) are commonly painted instead of human subjective desires (such as sadness and gravity). The origin of these ideas may be traced back to Laozi's (4) philosophy of Tao, which says "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name--Therefore, he who rids himself forever of desire can perceive the subtleties of the Tao; he who has never rid himself of desire can only see the superficiality of the Tao" (Laozi 3).

Yeats's true understanding of Chinese arts developed during the 1910s and the 1920s through his close experience of Japanese and Chinese arts and his comprehension of the relationship between the two. His reading and watching of Japanese Noh plays helped him perceive the ideal beauty and common essence shared by Japanese and Chinese arts. Yeats's interest in Japanese Noh and Chinese poetry was largely ignited and strengthened by Ezra Pound, whom Yeats knew since in 1909. He invited Pound to accompany him as his secretary at Stone Cottage in Sussex during the winter of 1913-1914, early 1915, and early 1916. During this period, Pound was busy dealing with Ernest Fenollosa's material about Japanese Noh and Chinese poetry. Yeats was very much interested in Japanese Noh translated by Fenollosa and finished by Pound. Yeats described vividly the expressive performance of the Japanese dancer Michio Ito (5) in a drawing room, and believed that Ito "was able, as he rose from the floor, where he had been sitting cross-legged, or as he threw out an arm, to recede from us into some more powerful life. Because that separation was achieved by human means alone, he receded but to inhabit as it were the deeps of the mind" (Essays and Introductions 224). Yeats's "powerful life" is perceived through emotional resonance with Ito's dancing. Yeats disclosed that the ideal of beauty shared by Japanese Noh and Chinese paintings is presented through "rhythm." He wrote that he noticed that "their ideal of beauty, unlike that of Greece and like that of pictures from Japan and China, makes them pause at moments of muscular tension. The interest is not in the human form but in the rhythm to which it moves, and the triumph of their art is to express the rhythm in its intensity" (Essays and Introductions 230-31). To Yeats, "rhythm" is the vital force of Japanese and Chinese arts, which expresses "powerful life," "deeps of the mind," and "ideal of beauty." Yeats's intuitive grasp of "rhythm" shows the resemblance between his thinking and a common theory practiced by most Chinese artists--who believe that "vitality of rhythm is the first and foremost device of arts"--and seen for instance in the ideas of Xie He of the Nanqi dynasty (6) (Xie 137), and in "rhythm" being one of the most important terminologies in Chinese poetics.

Furthermore, Yeats believed the similarities of the poetic principles between Japanese and Chinese arts are established in their common attitudes to nature, with "the mountain scenery of China" as the public theme of the Japanese arts, just as Greek cyclic tales reflect the eternal themes of Greece, and Christian mythology reflects common European themes (Essays and Introductions viii-ix). Yeats thought highly of the Chinese arts, and his attitude echoes Pound's praise of Chinese arts at a similar period of time. Pound wrote in 1915, "It is possible that this century may find a new Greece in China" (228), yet Yeats's sharp and precise grasp of the value of "rhythm" in Japanese and Chinese arts was a breakthrough in terms of Western artists' understanding of Eastern arts at the very beginning of the twentieth century.

Yeats's reading of Arthur Waley's An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Paintings (1923) and Daisetz Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism (1927, 1933, and 1934), (7) and his reading and translation of Indian arts and philosophy made possible his rational understanding of Indian and Chinese aesthetic theories. His knowledge of India came mainly through his reading of Rabindranath Tagore's poems, Indian scriptures (especially The Upanishads), and his contact with Shri Purohit Swami. When he praised these great Indian poets and philosophers, he would naturally associate their arts and philosophy with Chinese paintings. For instance, he eulogized the great Indian poet Tagore for his poems "so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion," and associated Tagore's "images of heart" with a typical Chinese image of "a man sitting in a boat upon a river playing upon a lute, like one of those figures full of mysterious meaning in a Chinese picture, is God himself" (Essays and Introductions 391-92). For Yeats, the image of a whole civilization absorbed by the imagination is powerful not because of its strangeness, "but because we have met our own image" (392), for it simply and naturally comes from one's soul.

When he described the unique wisdom of the Indian monk Shri Purohit Swami, with whom he was in close contact between 1931 and 1936, as "heroic ecstatic passion prolonged through years, through many vicissitudes" (436), he would particularly point out that it was shared by "certain Indian, Chinese, and Japanese representations of the Buddha, and of other Divine beings" (437). Yeats believed the unique wisdom would present itself on their faces as a similar mark, "a little round lump on the centre of the forehead," signifying "the third eye, no physical organ, but the mind's direct apprehension of the truth, above all antinomies, as the mark itself is above eyes, ears, nostrils, in their duality--'splendour of that Divine Being'" (437). Yeats's description appears to be mysterious, yet in this phase of life, he succeeded in penetrating the surface to access Eastern poetic lines and artistic images. He disclosed the essential Eastern aesthetic way of thinking, a way beyond mere organ, intuition, or rationality but through the mind's apprehension based on one's lifelong experience. Such a way of thinking is defined to be a process "from Guan to Wu" in Chinese poetics, indicating an aesthetic process from the integral view of the visible things to the deep perception of the invisible spirit, and it holds that only when "the things" and "the spirit" unify into one, can we perceive the truth (Cheng 281).

The Chinese lapis lazuli carving Yeats received in 1935, with the typical mountain theme and usual temple, trees, and serene faces, gave Yeats insight into Chinese poetics, and brought him awareness that China "has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy" (Letters 9). The final two stanzas of the poem "Lapis Lazuli" are an expression of Yeats's mental apprehension of Chinese arts, just as the first three Western stanzas are a presentation of his profound comprehension of Western people, nations, and civilization.


In July 26, 1936, Yeats wrote a letter to Dorothy Wellesley informing her that he had just finished his poem "Lapis Lazuli," and that he believed "the poem Lapis Lazuli is almost the best I have made of recent years" (Letters 91). He did not explain in the letter why it was "the best." His assertion is of great importance in order to grasp the significance of the poem. Another of Yeats's great poems written during this late period, "The Gyres," is also dealing with the themes of civilization and "tragic joy." However, "The Gyres" is limited to Western civilization and is stylistically consistent; while in "Lapis Lazuli" Western and Chinese civilizations stand alongside each other cohered by the repeated keyword "gay" yet with different connotations from its modern one relating to sexuality, and the writing styles of different stanzas vary. "The Gyres" consists of three stanzas of ottava rima (eight iambic lines rhyming a-b-a-b-a-b-c-c) (8); "Lapis Lazuli" has five stanzas of tetrameter lines. Helen Vendler writes in Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form that these are lines of "frequent oscillations from the grotesque to the serious" in which the poet "inserts delays, emotional moments of lament and close-focus commentary" and "at other times ... slows down his tetrameters by means of middle- and end-punctuation" (237).

The implication of the parallel arrangement in "Lapis Lazuli" corresponds to Yeats's creative idea in his essay "Art and Idea":

Our appreciations of the older schools are changing too, becoming simpler, and when we take pleasure in some Chinese painting of an old man meditating upon a mountain path, we share his meditation, without forgetting the beautiful intricate pattern of the lines like those we have seen under our eyelids as we fell asleep ... Shall we be rid of the pride of intellect, of sedentary meditation, of emotion that leaves us when the book is closed or the picture seen no more; and live amid the thoughts that can go with us by steamboat and railway as once upon horseback, or camel-back, rediscovering, by our reintegration of the mind, our more profound Pre-Raphaelitism, the old abounding, nonchalant reverie? (Essays and Introductions 355)

For Yeats, the vitality of the arts and the truth of civilizations could be best expressed when placed amongst Eastern and Western civilizations, amid the modern steamboat and railway and the ancient horseback and camel-back. It is important to set poetry free from the limitation of "moral maxims," "received philosophy," or "politics, theology, science" (Essays and Introductions 348-49), from all those European conventional intellect-oriented subjects, and to rediscover the values of the artistic expression of "senses," "passions," "imagination" (351), and all those essential life elements specially preferred by the Eastern arts. Yeats wrote, "No two civilizations prove or assume the same things, but behind both hides the unchanging experience of simple men and women" (448).

"Lapis Lazuli" is a good illustration of such artistic ideas and displays various meanings of the word "gay." The first stanza presents the "hysterical" women's question and questions the value of the artistic "gay" (3) confronted with the threat of human disaster and war. (9) The second stanza expresses the tragic "gay" (16) of the European arts to the dread. The third is an expression of the heroic "gay" (36) of the Greeks from their origins to their collapse and reconstruction. The concluding two stanzas express the glittering "gay" (56) of the Chinese arts to "the tragic scene" (52). Critics argue that the first stanza serves an introductory function through drawing a general tragic picture or raising a doubtful question, followed by three different attitudes or answers to tragedy. These consist of the European, of the Greek, and of the Eastern. All the stanzas join forces to express Yeats's "heroic mood" (JefFares 491), his "tragic heroism and its expression and resolution in art" (Labistour and Yeats 14), or his "paradoxical tragic joy" (O'Donnell 366). A few critics, such as Richard Ellmann, contend that the poem presents a contrast between its Western stanzas and Eastern stanzas (Ellmann 185-87) as opposed to the view that the poem parallels the Western in the first three stanzas with the Chinese final two stanzas, displaying a West-East contrast in terms of creative perception, poetic form, and aesthetic essence.

In terms of creative perception, the poem charts a transitory course from a personal perception to an aesthetic perception, and finally to a Chinese aesthetic perception. Five stanzas present four pictures which are at different distances from their respective concerns. Yeats was aware of the subtle differences between Western and Chinese perceptions:

I opened my eyes and looked at some red ornament on the mantelpiece, and at once the room was full of harmonies of red, but when a blue china figure caught my eye the harmonies became blue upon the instant. I was puzzled, for the reds were all there, nothing had changed, but they were no longer important or harmonious; and why had the blues so unimportant but a moment ago become exciting and delightful? Thereupon it struck me that I was seeing like a painter, and that in the course of the evening every one there would change through every kind of artistic perception. (Essays and Introductions 282)

Through a painter's eyes, Yeats understood the secret of artistic perception by realizing the importance in the change of focus. The vision with the red ornament as the focal point and the vision with the blue china as the focus are both harmonious, yet the change of focus deconstructs the existing harmony, making the unimportant important, and the important unimportant, leading to a new vision. Consequently, the change of focus is a way to create a new perception. Such awareness is strong enough to make Yeats realize that different perceptions between West and East result from their various artistic concerns. He wrote: "whenever I have been tempted to go to Japan, China, or India for my philosophy, Balzac has brought me back, reminded me of my preoccupation with national, social, personal problems, convinced me that I cannot escape from our Comedie humaine" (Essays and Introductions 448).

To Yeats, the West focuses on human issues, those of the personal, the social, and the national, and various "distances" between the arts and their various preoccupations make possible the different styles; while the East focuses on the essence of human life itself, which is likely to express Taoist ideas through images from nature. His poem "Lapis Lazuli" parallels Western perceptions--focusing on issues of persons, nations, and civilizations, respectively--with the Chinese perceptions, focusing on life itself.

Personal perception is presented in the first stanza, which faithfully represents ordinary persons' complicated moods faced with the coming disaster, the war. Personal desires and feelings (expectations, anxiety, horror) are depicted audibly through the voices of "hysterical women" (1), and the drastic reality is displayed visually through images of the "Aeroplane," "Zeppelin," and "bomb-balls" (6-7). The whole picture mirrors reality and is not at a distance from everyday life as the poem itself declares, "For everybody knows or else should know" (4). Such a personal perception in arts is, as Yeats said, "without the memory of beauty and emotional subtlety" (Essays and Introductions 227). In other words, personal interests and the intellect restrict attention and taste to the physical world and personal desires only. Consequently, it is difficult to penetrate the depths of the mind.

The second stanza focuses upon the national issue. The poet's concern then shifts to the masterpieces of European arts, represented by the plays of William Shakespeare. Through the masks of Hamlet, Lear, Ophelia, and Cordelia and their performances over generations, the vicissitudes of the European nations are presented to us all. The last scenes of the plays symbolize tragic endings as they exemplify what Yeats refers to as the heroic "gay [ness]" of the players and the national heroic spirit they embody. Confronted with tragic endings that seem to be illogical in everyday life, the players are "gay." To emphasize, in this poem the ramifications of the word "gay" are an expression of Yeats's aesthetic perceptions. He writes that "All imaginative art remains at a distance and this distance, once chosen, must be firmly held against a pushing world" (Essays and Introductions 224).

For Yeats, it is the artistic distance between the subject and the tragedy that removes all the personal interests and desires, obstructing human imagination, taste, and state of mind. Artistic distance transcends the physical dangers and intellectual limitations and changes the normal "weep[ing]" confronted in a tragedy--neither Hamlet, Lear, Ophelia, or Cordelia "break up their lines to weep"--into the heroic "gay" (15-16). Yeats confirmed and presented such an aesthetic perception in his essays, poems, and plays, and declared that the arts which interest him are those "while seeming to separate from the world and us a group of figures, images, symbols, enable us to pass for a few moments into a deep of the mind that had hitherto been too subtle for our habitation" (Essays and Introductions 225). Yeats derived this aesthetic perception from Japanese Noh plays and Japanese dancers' performances, and he not only accepted the idea that imaginative arts should keep a distance from the world and the personal intellect, but believed that to create the distance is to use "a group of figures, images, symbols," and moreover, he was aware that the ultimate aim is to reach "a deep of the mind." Consequently, the differences between the first two stanzas demonstrate his skillful practice of his aesthetic perception.

The third stanza continues this aesthetic perception, yet as the focus is now on the issue of civilization, the distance between arts and reality is more extensive than that in the second stanza. On "feet," "shipboard," "camel-back," "horse-back," "ass-back," and "mule-back" (25-26), there rise and decline the ancient civilizations; and through the Greek artist Callimachus's (d. 240 BCE) artistic work "long lamp," which "stood but a day," the transitory nature of all things including civilization is revealed: "All things fall and are built again" (35). However, the aesthetic perception would not bring us to sadness or horror; instead, it would give us one of the ramifications of the word "gay": "And those that build them again are gay" (36). In the poem, symbols are used to keep the distance between the realistic world and artistic works. These are ancient and simple, representing both Western and the Eastern civilizations: the Greek Callimachus was the last to keep a half-Asiatic style, as Yeats himself made it clear in an essay, "In half-Asiatic Greece Callimachus could still return to a stylistic management of the falling folds of drapery, after the naturalistic drapery of Phidias" (Essays and Introductions 225). In view of the reference to Callimachus (29), a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene in Libya and a man who spent much time in Alexandra at its famed library, (10) the transient position of this third stanza is evident, especially since the final two stanzas of Yeats's poem are particularly devoted to a Chinese mountain picture.

The final two stanzas present the Chinese perception, one that recedes from the human world entirely, describing not a personal, national, or societal vision, but a broader vision of human beings in nature. Based on the Chien Lung lapis lazuli carving, a simple sketch of three Chinamen climbing a mountain is depicted, followed by an imaginative picture of the three men sitting "on the mountain and sky," on "all the tragic scene" listening to "mournful melodies" (51-53): their glittering eyes are "gay" (56). Such an unworldly picture is an expression of a most influential Chinese aesthetic perception, that of "Xujing." "Xujing"--in Chinese characters [phrase omitted]--the literary meaning of "xu" is void, and "jing" quietness. Originally, this was a way of cultivation advocated by Taoists, and subsequently developed into an important Chinese poetic category.

Laozi is the first philosopher to present the idea from two aspects. Firstly, only when personal desires are eradicated can Tao be perceived: "Truly, 'Only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences'; / He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes" (Laozi 3). Secondly, only when returning to the essence of things is Tao illumined: "Push far enough towards the Void, / Hold fast enough to Quietness.... See, all things howsoever they flourish / Return to the root from which they grew. / This return to the root is called Quietness; / Quietness is called submission to Fate; / What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always-so. / To know the always-so is to be illumined" (Laozi 33). To be more specific, "xu" refers to the void of personal desires, and "jing" refers to a return to the root of things. Also, Zhuangzi put forward the theory of "losing oneself" (15). Zhuangzi emphasizes the necessity and importance of losing one's "own fixed idea" (19), since "there is always the interchangeability and uniformity of things" (25), and the best way to see the world is "observing with a tranquil mind" (27).

Such a tranquil mind is exactly the mind of Xujing, which transcends personal desires and the appearances of things. Since the Han dynasty, this philosophical category is extensively used in the field of arts that advocates an aesthetic transcendence. There are four principles to follow in the practice the Xujing perception. Firstly, we should refine the existing things from their practical functions so as to discover their beauty. Secondly, we should take the existing things away from their specific time and space so as to seek their eternity. Thirdly, we should transcend the appearances of the existing things so as to understand their spirit. Fourthly, we must remove and transcend our personal desires, intellectual prejudices, and conscious activities (Zhu 238-42). Yeats's idea, "to separate from the world and us," shares a similar connotation with Xujing. The dominant artistic method to practice "Xujing" is the use of the image, which to Yeats is to use "a group of figures, images, symbols" (Essays and Introductions 225). The ultimate aim of Xujing is to release the imagination, to get to the depths of the mind, to create broad visions, and to gain insight into the subtlety of Tao. For Yeats it is "to pass for a few moments into a deep of the mind" (Essays and Introductions 225).

The Chinese aesthetic perception "Xujing" was intuitively interpreted by Yeats, and the practice of Xujing in "Lapis Lazuli" contains his poetic exposition. The depicted mountain picture in the poem is removed from its practical functions, from its specific time and space, from specific issues, and from the author's possible desires, intellectual prejudices, and conscious arrangement. What we can see, hear, and feel is the purity, peace, beauty, eternity, and spirit, shining in the unworldly and natural scene of "a long-legged bird," "water-course," "cherry-branch," "house," "mountain," "sky," "Chinamen," and "melodies," the core of which is "gay" in the "glittering eyes" (39-56) staring at the "tragic scene" (52). The deep mind is beyond the vision, for it never tells but shows, in the manner of Chinese arts.

In terms of poetic form, there is a contrast between European symbolism and Chinese Yixiang ([phrase omitted]) (11) in "Lapis Lazuli." As Pound said, "Yeats is a symbolist, but he has written des Images as have many good poets before him" (65). Yeats advocated and promoted symbolism, and was good at the arrangement of symbolic words, colors, images, and forms in his poetic writing. He shared the connotation of symbolism with William Blake's definition of imagination, and emphasized that the nature of symbolism is imagination: "William Blake has written, 'Vision or imagination'--meaning symbolism by these words--'is a representation of what actually exists, really or unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is formed by the daughters of Memory'" (Essays and Introductions 147). (12) Yeats believed that the ultimate aim of symbolic writing is to evoke "an infinite emotion, a perfected emotion, a part of the Divine Essence," and he held that symbolic writing is of a long tradition: "all art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is symbolic," for "it entangles, in complex colours and forms, a part of the Divine Essence" (Essays and Introductions 149). To Yeats, to express the depths of the essence is the ultimate aim of symbolism, while an imaginative arrangement of colors, sounds, and forms serves its realization.

The first three stanzas of "Lapis Lazuli" then display Yeats's practice of the theory of symbolism. (13) There are four pairs of contrasts in total: the contrast between "palette," "fiddle-bow," "poets" and "Aeroplane," "Zeppelin," "bombballs" (14) in the first stanza; between "Hamlet," "Lear," "Ophelia," "Cordelia" and the "drop" of "curtain" and "scenes" in the second stanza; between the civilizations on "feet," "shipboard," "camel-back," "horse-back," "ass-back," "mule-back," and the civilizations "went to rack" in the third stanza; and between "handiwork," "marble," "draperies," "long lamp chimney" of the Greek artist Callimachus and that the handiwork "stood but a day" in the third stanza.

All the symbolic contrasts focus on the same conflict between the living and the dead (or the end), and reveal the same confrontation between the "gay" and the tragic. Yet, they yield three different symbolic meanings: one is the hysterical women's contemptuous attitude to the "gay" arts and her calling for the "drastic"; one is the belief that "They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay / Gaiety transfiguring all that dread" (16-17); and the third is the truth that "All things fall and are built again / And those that build them again are gay" (35-36).

The differences in the ideas result from the differences of perspectives: from the realistic perspective, the threat of death stimulates the hysterical idea, to fight against the "bomb-balls" by means of the "drastic." Underpinning such an idea is neither wisdom nor humanity, but indignation and rage and a consequent impasse. From the aesthetic perspective, the drop of the final curtain of a tragic drama brings insight into human spirit: "Gaiety transfiguring all that dread" (17). This is what is meant by "All men have aimed at, found and lost" (18) and "heaven blazing into the head" (19), yet only the tragedy can reveal such a deep and fundamental idea, of what a tragedy is worthy. This is why "Hamlet and Lear are gay" (16).

From the historical perspective, the rise and fall of civilizations, and construction and destruction of handiwork, indicate the eternal truth that "All things fall and are built again" (35), which is why "those that build them again are gay" (36). To build and to fall are both parts of the natural changing course. It is not necessary to feel tragic while seeing things that "went to rack," just as it is never sad to build things anew. These Yeatsian lines are based on a well-designed arrangement of symbols and their contrasts, and elaborate shifts of perspectives such as Yeats clarified as the "Divine Essence" (Essays and Introductions 149) beneath the pairs of symbols.

The form of the Chinese stanzas is very different from that of the Western stanzas. The differences are as follows. Firstly, Chinese stanzas are composed of images of natural things only and are not personal, social, or civic issues. Secondly, no deep idea or belief is clarified. Thirdly, there is no presentation of the intellectual mind, but a sketch of natural things parallel to the human imagination. Fourthly, all things are harmonious, without contrast or confrontation. Since the fourth stanza is a faithful depiction of a Chinese lapis lazuli carving, and the fifth stanza is an imaginative representation of some typical Chinese paintings, this stanza is a good expression of Chinese Yixiang.

Yixiang (Chinese characters [phrase omitted]) is an influential term in Chinese poetics. It originally appeared in The Book of Changes of the pre-Qin period, indicating an organic unity between the image of a thing and its essence beyond. "Xiang" refers to the image of a thing, while "Yi" refers to the essence beyond the image and the thing. The philosophical origin can be traced back to Laozi, who interprets Tao as something with both the image of a thing (Xiang) and the essence (Yi): "For Tao is a thing impalpable, incommensurable. Incommensurable, impalpable. Yet latent in it are Xiang. Impalpable, incommensurable. Yet within it are things. Shadowy it is and dim; Yet within it there is the essence, the essence that is real and efficacious" (Laozi 42). (15) Accordingly, the principle of Yixiang is "to evoke both the metaphysical Tao and the living emotions and perception through images of things" (Chen 145), and the method to create Yixiang is to perceive the thing deeply so as to reach a sense of unification between human spirit and the things in nature. Generally, Yixiang refers to unification between life perception and the image of a thing, based on refining, selecting, and expressing. The different connotations between symbolism and Yixiang constitute the divergence between the Western stanzas and the Chinese stanzas: elaborate devices--such as contrasts, confrontation, clarification, and perspectives--are necessary to reveal the symbolic meanings in the European stanzas, while Chinese Yixiang simply presents natural images in order to show the natural Tao.

The fourth stanza is a sketch of the lapis lazuli carving--composed of images of "Chinamen," a "long-legged bird," a "musical instrument" (37, 39,42)--followed in the fifth stanza by an imaginative vision of a peaceful, harmonious, and happy scene of human beings in natural surroundings. The happy atmosphere is described by beautiful and agreeable scenes from nature: the "water-course" or "avalanche" or "slope" with "snows," "plum," or "cherry-branch" (45-47). The flexibility of the natural images makes possible a display of the different seasons. Then the verse is strengthened by the peaceful and delightful "Chinamen" (49), whose unworldly position may be emphasized by their being seated on the "mountain" and in the "sky" (51). Their "mournful melodies" seem to correspond to "the tragic scene" they are staring at, yet their eyes are "glittering" and "gay," as if they have long accepted "the tragic scene" (52), and regard it as part of their life. Human beings and nature are one; "the tragic" (52) and the "gay" (56) are one. The picture is simple, visual, yet integrated and abundant. The aesthetic implication is beyond the picture itself, "Incommensurable, impalpable" as Laozi says (42), yet perceivable to the deep mind.

In terms of aesthetics, there is a contrast between the Western division of the intelligible and the visible, and the Chinese unification between human beings and nature. Both the Western stanzas and the Chinese stanzas express the deep and subtle essence, which is infinite and eternal, innate and imaginative. Yeats believes that "True art is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, every color, every gesture, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence," and "True art is the flame of the Last Day, which begins for every man when he is first moved by beauty, and which seeks to burn all things until they become 'infinite and holy"' (Essays and Introductions 140). However, the Western essence as expressed in "Lapis Lazuli" is different from that of the Chinese.

What is expressed in the Western stanzas of the poem is a sense of "tragic joy" indicated by critical commentators of the poem. Yeats clarified his aesthetic ideas in 1936, the year he conceived of "Lapis Lazuli." In a letter to Wellesley, he pointed out that "the true poetic movement of our time is towards some heroic discipline," and that '"Bitter and gay' ... is the heroic mood. When there is despair, public or private, when settled order seems lost, people look for strength within or without. The lasting expression of our time is not this obvious choice but in a sense of something steel-like and cold within the will, something passionate and cold" (Letters 8). This "passionate and cold" spirit is "to make one rejoice in the midst of tragedy" (13). This "tragic joy" in the poem is fully expressed by the use of the word "gay" (16) to refer to Shakespearean characters who are confronted with the "drop" of the "curtain" (13), and in the "gay" of those who rebuild the civilization again from the ruins. This "tragic joy" is, as Jahan Ramazani indicates, not something newly created by Yeats, but an expression of the traditional aesthetic theory of the sublime: "the theory of the sublime is close to being a theory of what Yeats calls 'tragic joy,' for the sublime transforms the painful spectacle of destruction and death into a joyful assertion of human freedom and transcendence" (163).

Such a transcendent attitude to dread can be traced back to the famous Platonic division between "the intelligible" and "the visible" (Plato 210), which builds a long-lasting model of the cosmos: "a world of appearances is subordinated to a world of reality somewhere beyond. All aspects of reality are ultimately emanations of the Divine One, the first being, to which they aspire to return" (Seiden 10). Owing to the hypothetical division between the intellectual spirit and physical appearances, transcending the appearances to seek the metaphysical divine essence turns out to be the everlasting subject of philosophy and arts. The Western stanzas of "Lapis Lazuli" are an expression of this. In other words, the only way to transcend the tragic is to remove the fear and terror of physical destruction (of human beings, nations, and civilization) through an awareness of returning to the divine essence.

In conclusion, what is expressed in the Chinese final two stanzas of the poem is absolutely different from in the Western stanzas. Yeats was aware of the difference and clarified in his letter to Wellesley that the lapis lazuli carving displayed the "eternal theme of the sensual east," and there was "nothing of tragedy" (Letters 8-9). He chose the mountain and Chinamen and "a musical instrument" (Labistour and Yeats 16, line 42) as the key elements in artistic expression, not merely because of the visual lapis lazuli carving itself, but because he had already a deep understanding of Chinese poetics. Yeats realized "the mountain" (51) was the sacred place where the Gods dwell: "To Indians, Chinese, and Mongols, mountains from the earliest times have been the dwelling-places of the Gods" (Essays and Introductions 455). For Yeats, the Chinese mountains were just like "the letters of an alphabet, into great masterpieces, traditional and spontaneous" (454). Above all, he knew of the implied unified relationship between human beings and nature in the Chinese landscape paintings. He wrote that "a man sitting in a boat upon a river playing upon a lute, like one of those figures full of mysterious meaning in a Chinese picture, is God Himself" (392). Yeats's "God" in this passage is an equivalent of Chinese "Nature" ([phrase omitted]) which includes the metaphysical Tao (the essence) and all the physical things (including Heaven, Earth, and all natural things in between). As Laozi says, "Man follows the way of Earth, Earth follows the way of Heaven, Heaven follows the way of the Tao, and the Tao follows the way of Nature" (50). (16) Yeats comprehends the essence of Chinese aesthetics: human beings and nature are unified; they are of the same origin physically and spiritually. Nature is the whole, while human beings, the soul, form an integral part.

Generally speaking, nature and human beings can perceive and communicate with each other. The human's highest state of mind is to follow the way of nature, or in other words, to unify with nature. Confrontation with death or destruction or loss is not tragic at all, for every individual thing goes from birth to death, as an essential part of the whole. Yeats succeeds in expressing the basic Chinese aesthetic essence by foregrounding the "Chinamen" on the "mountain," in the "sky" (49-50), and in the "tragic scene," playing "mournful melodies" (52-53) while their "glittering" eyes are yet "gay" (56). There is no contradiction between things and feelings. There is no necessity to transcend the "mournful" (53) if human beings unify themselves with nature (or God, as Yeats said in his Essays and Introductions 392). No doubt, the Chinamen's "gay" is a kind of natural joy, a joy to accept both the "mournful" (53) and the "gay" (56)--the final word of "Lapis Lazuli"--to accept both birth and death.


Fen Gao would like to express thanks for the support of the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (PR China). William Baker would like to thank Dr. Qin Lin for her helpful elucidation of Chinese historical and cultural references.

Fen Gao


William Baker


FEN GAO is Professor of English and Director of the Institute of Foreign Literature Studies at Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, PR China). Her scholarship has focused on English literature, comparative literature, and formalist aesthetics. She has published more than fifty articles on British and American modernist works, especially those of Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her latest monograph is Towards Life Poetics: Virginia Woolf's Theory of Fiction (2016).

WILLIAM BAKER is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Northern Illinois University and Visiting Professor, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of World Literature, Zhejiang University (Hangzhou, PR China). His latest book is Pinter's World: Relationships, Obsessions, and Artistic Endeavors (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; Rowman & Litdefield, 2018), and his two-volume Jewish Writing: A Reference and Critical Guide to Anglo-Jewish Writing in the UK (coauthored with Jeanette Shumaker) is forthcoming from Edward Everett Root Publishers. Yeats's poetry is a special interest of his.


(1.) For Zhuangzi, see Hansen.

(2.) According to Dr. Tom Walker of Trinity College Dublin, Yeats in his Autobiographies was "pretty liberal with the truth ... in line with his ideas about textual self-making more generally. Also, in this passage he is referring to separate pictures as regards the Chinese paintings and the Crimean battleprints'" (e-mail to William Baker, February 6, 2018): for some discussion of Yeats and Eastern art, see Richard Rupert Arrowsmith, Modernism in the Museum.

(3.) Liu An (c. 179-122 BCE) of the Han dynasty was adviser to his nephew, the Emperor: see "Liu An." The Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was the second imperial Chinese dynasty.

(4.) For Laozi, the ancient Chinese philosopher (fl. sixth century BCE), see Chan.

(5.) See Daniel Albright's "Pound, Yeats, and the Noh Theater."

(6.) Xie He, author of the "Six Principles of Chinese Painting," lived during the unstable Nanqi (Southern dynasty), 479-502 BCE.

(7.) See Ishibashi.

(8.) See O'Neill (171-72).

(9.) Yeats's poem "Lapis Lazuli" is quoted from Pethica (115-16). All the following quoted lines will be indicated by the line number only.

(10.) For Callimachus see entry "Callimachus."

(11.) Yixiang (Chinese characters [phrase omitted]) is a unique and influential terminology in Chinese poetics; its complex connotations will be expressed in the following discussion.

(12.) For more on the Yeats-Blake connection, see for instance Vendler (419) and O'Neill (189).

(13.) See Gould "Yeats and Symbolism" and cf. Vendler (421).

(14.) "Lapis Lazuli" was written in 1936, "the year of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and of Hitler's occupation of the Rhineland, and a time of great political tension" (O'Neill 173).

(15.) The book Laozi is a Chinese-English bilingual book. Quoted here is the Chinese version by Laozi, translated by Fen Gao. Arthur Waley's English translation reads: "For the way is a thing impalpable, incommensurable. Incommensurable, impalpable. Yet latent in it are forms. Impalpable, incommensurable. Yet within it are entities. Shadowy it is and dim; Yet within it there is a force. A force that though rarefied is none the less efficacious" (21).

(16.) Cited here is the Chinese version by Laozi, translated by Fen Gao. Arthur Waley's English translation reads: "The ways of men are conditioned by those of earth. The ways of earth, by those of heaven. The ways of heaven, by those of Tao, and the ways of Tao, by the Self-so" (64).


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Zhu, Liangzhi. Life Spirit of Chinese Arts. Anhui Education Press, 2006.

Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi. Translated by Wang Rongpei, Hunan People's Publishing House, 1999.

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Author:Gao, Fen; Baker, William
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Date:Mar 22, 2019
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