Friday, April 30, 2010


by William Butler Yeats

In 1935, on his 70th birthday, Yeats received a gift from his friend Harry Clifton: a piece of lapis lazuli dating from the Ch'ien Lung period (1731-95). A description of the object begins at the verse, "Two Chinamen . . .” Yeats had long been impressed by an idea of Nietzsche, that tragedy, individual and public, should be faced bravely, gaily.

(For Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say          1
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done                        2
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.             3
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in                    4
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;                          5
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.                6
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head:          7; 8
Tragedy wrought to its uttermost.
Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages,
And all the drop-scenes drop at once               9
Upon a hundred thousand stages,
It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.            10

On their own feet they came, or on shipboard,
Camel-back; horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilisations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,                          11
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem     12
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again,
And those that build them again are gay.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli,
Over them flies a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving-man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Every discolouration of the stone,
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

--William Butler Yeats
[Written July 1936, published 1938]

1. "hysterical women" – obsessed by fear of the coming war
2. "nothing drastic is done" – to stop the aggression of the Fascists and Nazis
3. Zeppelin – a German airship; Zeppelins had bombed London in the 1914-18 war
4. King Billy bomb-balls – In an Irish Protestant ballad, The Battle of the Boyne, we find:
King James has pitched his tent between
The lines for to retire
But King William threw his bomb-balls in
And set them all on fire
5. Hamlet…. Lear…. Ophelia…. Cordelia – Hamlet and King Lear are very serious, tragic plays. But Yeats did not think any tragedy was an excuse for emotional wallowing in the audience (therefore the "hysterical women" of line 1), as it can never be for the (professional) actors
6. "lines to weep" – see previous note
7. Black out – 1) darkening stage in a play; 2) darkening lights as measure against air-raids; 3) temporary loss of memory or consciousness. Yeats 'means' all three, but not oppressively so
8. "blazing into the head" – Yeats thought that Shakespearean heroes (Hamlet and Lear are the prime examples) conveyed "a sudden enlargement of vision, an ecstasy at the approach of death" (N. Jeffares), quoting Lady Gregory (Irish dramatist): "Tragedy must be a joy to the man who dies."
9. drop-scenes – curtains let down between the acts of a play
10. "It" – tragedy of the highest
11. Callimachus – Greek sculptor of late 5th century BC, famous for his technical skill and ingenuity
12. "lamp-chimney" - according to Pausanias' Description of Greece, an ingenious golden lamp invented by Callimachus hung in the Erechtheion,which needed to be refilled with oil only once a year, and above it hung a bronze palm branch which trapped any rising smoke.

Lapis lazuli is a highly prized semi-precious stone of a very deep blue colour. Lapis is the Latin for 'stone', lazuli ultimately derives from the Persian name for a place where the stone was mined, Lazvard.

[Acknowledging debt to Norman Jeffares' books on W.B. Yeats]

Saturday, April 03, 2010



Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise,
Weav’d in my low devout melancholy,
Thou which of good, hast, yea, art treasury,
All changing unchanged Ancient of days;
But do not, with a vile crown of frail bays,
Reward my Muse’s white sincerity,
But what thy thorny crown gain’d, that give me,
A crown of Glory, which doth flower always;
The ends crown our works, but thou crown’st our ends,
For, at our end begins our endless rest;
The first last end, now zealously possess’d,
With a strong sober thirst, my soul attends.
‘Tis time that heart and voice be lifted high,
Salvation to all that will is nigh.


Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is All everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful Virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and yet though he there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet he will wear
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in his mind, who is thy son, and brother;
Whom thou conceiv’st, conceiv’d; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark; and shutt’st in little room,
Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb.


Immensity cloister’d in thy dear womb,
Now leaves his well-belov’d imprisonment,
There he hath made himself to his intent
Weak enough, now into our world to come;
But Oh, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent *
The effect of Herod’s jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitièd by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
*prevent: not forestall, but anticipate, be ahead of


With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe
Joseph, turn back; see where your child doth sit,
Blowing, yea blowing out those sparks of wit,
Which Himself on the Doctors did bestow;
The Word but lately could not speak, and lo,
It suddenly speaks wonders; whence comes it,
That all which was, and all which should be writ,
A shallow seeming child, should deeply know?
His Godhead was not soul to His manhood,*
Nor had time mellowed Him to this ripeness,
But as for one which hath a long task, ‘tis good,
With the Sun to begin his business,*
He in His age’s morning thus began
By miracles exceeding power of man.
*As perfect man, Christ had a soul distinct from his Godhead
*probably to be pronounced as busyness


By miracles exceeding power of man,
He faith in some, envy in some begat,
For, what weak spirits admire, ambitious, hate;
In both affections many to Him ran,
But oh! the worst are most, they will and can,
Alas, and do, unto the immaculate,
Whose creature Fate is, now prescribe a Fate,
Measuring self-life’s infinity to a span,
Nay to an inch. Lo, where condemnèd He
Bears his own cross, with pain, yet by and by
When it bears Him, He must bear more and die.
Now Thou are lifted up, draw me to Thee,
And at Thy death giving such liberal dole,
Moist, with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul.


Moist, with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly be
Freed by that drop, from being starv’d, hard or foul,
And life, by this death abled, shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death, bring misery,
If in Thy little book my name Thou enroll,
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrefied,
But made that there, of which, and for which ‘twas;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep, and death’s, soon from me pass,
That wak’d from both, I again risen may
Salute the last, and everlasting day.


Salute the last, and everlasting day,
Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose just tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay;
Behold the Highest, parting hence away;
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon,
Nor doth He by ascending, show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me,
Mild Lamb, which with Thy blood, hast mark’d the path;
Bright Torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see,
Oh, with Thy own blood quench Thy own just wrath,
And if Thy holy Spirit, my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

~ John Donne

quirks and quarks

Why is it that warm yields, not warmness but warmth, yet cool yields, not coolth but coolness?
When the powers that decide on what is acceptable ‘modern usage’ accept all sorts of modern crudities, barbarisms, and real solecisms (the infamous “hopefully”), yet exclude some beautifully expressive words which our forefathers used, (with discretion or boldness as the occasion required), one asks: who are these powers and by whom appointed?
Coolth does not match coolness for fusion of sound and sense; that much is true. But what of “hopefully” misused?