The System of W. B. Yeats’s A Vision

The Wheel by Dulac
Edmund Dulac’s woodcut of the Wheel of the 28 Phases of the Moon (1937 version; A Vision B 66)

This web site is dedicated to the work of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), specifically to the strange, esoteric system which he and his wife, George, created, and which he expounded in A Vision. It is intended primarily for students of this work, and also for those who are interested in the intellectual and symbolic background to his later poetry and prose. For those who are unfamiliar with Yeats or with A Vision, the Overview offers a brief introductory survey.

The System of Yeats’s A Vision lends itself to hypertext, and to the use of visual material and dynamic diagrams which it enables, since the organisation of the material is notoriously difficult in both editions of A Vision (the ‘A’ version of 1925 and the ‘B’ version of 1937: see The Two Editions). This can leave many readers frustrated by the use of terms which are poorly explained or explained elsewhere and by the lack of easy cross-referencing, areas which hypertext addresses very effectively.

In large part, however, the difficulty still remains, since: ‘A symbol system can only be understood and evaluated by entering its web of internal relationships and noting how and where external criteria impinge on it. The problem is that we cannot start with the complex whole all at once; and if we start at any one point, we immediately introduce distortions’ (The Construction of Reality). While hypertext links enable a more fluid approach, the individual reader still has to approach the material in some form of sequence. The topics on the main contents page are therefore arranged in a rough order of ascending development, from the fundamentals of the System to their effect upon Yeats’s vision of reality.

The Widening Gyre

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

from ‘The Second Coming’

The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form.

Note to ‘The Second Coming’, Michael Robartes and the Dancer [full text] (Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1922)

This site does not offer a hypertext of A Vision itself and does not aim to offer a substitute for Yeats’s A Vision; this is not only because of copyright reasons, but because the ‘book of A Vision’ is an artefact in itself (see The Book of Yeats's Vision by Hazard Adams). This link gives some notes about buying a copy over the internet .

Volume 14 of the Collected Edition of the work of W. B. Yeats, A Vision: The Revised 1937 Edition, edited by Margaret Mills Harper and Catherine E. Paul has come out (May 2015) at a list price of $60.

See also, which is offering it at $41.10 in hardback — and at £38.50. I have still to see the final version, but it looks like it is going to be superlative, having addressed many of the issues that gave me reservations about Volume 13, A Vision A (1925) (see my review of Volume 13).

Volume 13 of the Collected Edition of the Works of W. B. Yeats A Vision A (1925), also edited by Margaret Mills Harper and Catherine E. Paul came out in 2008, and is now available in paperback and e-book. Further details are available at: Scribner's/Simon and Schuster's page where the price is listed as $26.99 (out of stock) and the e-book is $14.99.

If you can afford it, or can get hold of a copy from a library, Volume 14 is the best start to A Vision, as it has full support and notes. Because of the series's purpose it does not set out to explain the material of the book, but it does give most of the references you could want and explains many of the details and sources, so should make approaching A Vision a little less daunting. Though it is cheaper and more widely available, I would have reservations about starting with A Vision A, since, if you have not yet read A Vision and if you are only going to read one version, it should probably be Yeats’s final, more considered version, A Vision B. However, Volume 13 also has a very good introduction and is fully annotated, offering a lot of help to the first-time reader in terms of factual detail and background. It also gives a good idea of how elements emerged from the Automatic Script, although again it doesn't really seek to explain any of the ideas. See the general caveats mentioned here , which I shall soon be updating more fully.

Volume 14 will remain expensive for a while, but for Volume 13 you should look around to see what is available. ABE Books often for less, as well as on eBay. For a fuller list of on-line booksellers click here.

Probably not many people's favorite these days, but still a useful possibility: is offering it at $18.65 in paperback — and at £12.14 for paperback (information correct November 26, 2014, but the prices change quite often).

BEWARE, though, of the Kindle version of A Vision (1925) being offered on Amazon. It is appallingly formatted (as is visible in the preview offered), probably pirated, and certainly shoddy goods.

The pages here do attempt to offer a clear and helpful guide to the ideas of A Vision and, in doing so, they sometimes extend and develop the material beyond what is explicitly contained in A Vision; some of the diagrams in particular represent significantly different reformulations of those created by the Yeatses.

The site does not aim to present a sustained argument either, although much of the material is associated with a doctoral thesis I presented at Oxford University and which I am preparing for book publication with a provisional title of Yeats's A Vision: Human and Divine Images; do contact me if you are interested in an electronic copy of the thesis. Inevitably, some complex themes have been simplified somewhat to make them more appropriate for this type of presentation, and much that is discussed in the book has been omitted, while there is more explanatory and descriptive treatment here. The majority of sources are noted, but the scholarly apparatus has also been abbreviated.

These pages are subject to continuing extension and improvement, and if you have any suggestions or comments, please contact me.

I have a (rather desultorily updated) blog which explores aspects of A Vision and the Yeatses' System that do not fall within the more scholarly and factual ambit of this website. It examines elements of the system that interest me, particularly looking at parallels and how the System fits with esoteric and symbolic systems more generally. Whereas the website aims to offer clear and direct interpretation of A Vision for readers and students, confining itself largely to what Yeats himself wrote and to the academic study of his work, the comments and articles in the blog will be rather more speculative, exploratory and possibly personal. I also hope that as and when people arrive they will feel able to enter into some dialogue about topics through the comments. I will be adding to the blog very slowly, and as it is far from topical and will only be minimally sequential, I hope that readers will feel able and welcome to respond to any post, whether it was nominally put up the day before or months or even years before. The blog is currently titled The Widening Gyre, even though that title has already been used quite a lot and I'm thinking about better alternatives, but the actual address is tied to this one: Like the title, quite a lot about the blog is still under consideration, so do leave any comments about what you think is good or bad, or what you are interested in.

Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts is available for purchase and free download:
The first ever volume of essays devoted to aspects of A Vision has been written by a range of scholars who examine a variety of themes and approaches, edited by Matthew Gibson, Claire Nally and me. It is published by the Clemson University Digital Press in South Carolina, under the aegis of the distinguished Yeats scholar Wayne K. Chapman, who has contributed to the volume as well. Apart from work by the editors and Professor Chapman, it also includes essays by Margaret Mills Harper, Catherine E. Paul, Nick Serra, Colin McDowell, Janis Haswell, Rory Ryan, Charles Armstrong, Matthew DeForrest and Graham Dampier. The book is published in both electronic and printed form. Check Clemson University Digital Press's site for the title, where the electronic version is available for free download and the paper version is available to order for $45 (+P&P).

W. B. Yeats's A Vision: Explications and Contexts book cover
Neil Mann'Everywhere that antinomy of the One and the Many': The Foundations of A Vision
Rory RyanThe Is and the Ought, the Knower and the Known: An Analysis of the Four Faculties in Yeats's System
Graham A. Dampier'The Spiritual Intellect's Great Work': A Discussion of the Principles and A Vision's Account of Death
Charles I. ArmstrongAncient Frames: Classical Philosophy in Yeats's A Vision
Matthew Gibson'Timeless and Spaceless': Modern Philosophy and Anthropology in A Vision
Matthew DeForrestW. B. Yeats's 'Dove or Swan'
Neil MannThe Thirteenth Cone
Colin McDowellShifting Sands: Dancing the Horoscope in the Vision Papers
Wayne K. Chapman'Metaphors for Poetry': Concerning the Poems of A Vision and Certain Plays for Dancers
Catherine E. PaulA Vision of Ezra Pound
Margaret Mills HarperReflected Voices, Double Visions
Janis HaswellYeats's A Vision and the Feminine
C. Nicholas SerraEsotericism and Escape
Claire V. NallyThe Political Occult: Revisiting Fascism, Yeats and A Vision

The National Library of Ireland, which, through the generosity of the Yeats family, holds the largest collection of Yeats’s papers and drafts, has mounted an excellent exhibition about Yeats, in all his aspects, which can be viewed on-line as a virtual tour of the physical exhibition in Dublin. It includes a fair portion on Yeats's esoteric interests, including A Vision. The exhibition opened on 25 May 2006 and is due to run for three years. (I have to acknowledge bias, from being involved with it, but it genuinely is very good.) See the Links page for further information and resources.

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This site is a work in progress, and the content is very gradually expanding, not least in response to readers’ comments and suggestions. There may be some links to pages that are projected but not yet completed, and the site-map gives a picture of the current and projected shape of the site. Any comment is welcome.

All the images and quotations used on these pages are believed to be used legitimately within the laws of copyright. If you notice any that are not, please contact me and they will be removed.

I would like to thank Professor Warwick Gould at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies for his encouragement in the creation of these pages, and Colin McDowell for his helpful comments on them.

This site was created and written, and is maintained by Neil Mann (contact).

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