by William Butler Yeats
(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]