Reviews of A Vision A

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The New Statesman

March 27, 1926

pp. 749-750




A Vision. By WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS. Privately printed. Werner Laurie. £3 3s.

      It is a truism to say that an artist’s work is part of himself, but in the case of Mr. Yeats it is true in a special way. Most men, having finished a job, are content to put it aside as done with and detached from them, and to turn to something new. Mr. Yeats, though he has often spoken of doing so, has never quite been able to do this. Whatever he has written remains somewhere constantly in his memory, and when he has grown out of sympathy with the mood which produced a poem he has hankered to make it consistent with his later temper or, failing that, to belittle it. Hence the note of satire against himself which is frequent in his later poetry; and hence those revisions the protests against which, from those who would have him spend his life in repeating Inisfree, moved him to write:

The friends that have it I do wrong
Whenever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

      This habit of “remaking himself,” of living with the whole body of his work, or rather of his thought, is responsible both for the machinery and the substance of the remarkable book in which he has essayed to communicate his “explanation of life.” One of his earliest interests was in mystical philosophy and the search to find the truth about the nature of things by the curious methods of the alchemists. Out of those studies sprang such stories as Rosa Alchemica, The Tables of the Law and The Adoration of the Magi ; in which figured two mystical philosophers, Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne. Into the mouth of Robartes, also, were placed some of the most symbolical poems in The Wind Among the Reeds. Much has happened to Mr Yeats since those early studies and those early writings. He has turned playwright and plunged into the practical business of the theatre. He has become a public man, who, it is said, is by no means without influence in the politics of his country. In writing he has deserted his old vague and lovely rhythms for a plainer and harsher style, and what he has had to say has often been correspondingly harsh and even mocking. Nevertheless he ever and again returns to the garden of the Alchemical Rose, and it is still probably his most congenial haven. Michael Robartes has quite recently reappeared in his verse, and to the collection of his Later Poems he appended the following note (dated 1922), which is of great interest in connection with this new book of his:

    Years ago I wrote three stories in which occur the names of Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne. I now consider that I used the actual names of two friends, and that one of these friends, Michael Robartes, has but lately returned from Mesopotamia where he has partly found and partly thought out much philosophy. I consider that John Aherne is either the original of Owen Aherne or some near relation of the man that was, and that both he and Robartes, to whose namesake I had attributed a turbulent life and death, have quarrelled with me. They take their place in a phantasmagoria in which I endeavour to explain my philosophy of life and death, and till that philosophy has found some detailed exposition in prose certain passages in the poems named above may seem obscure. To some extent I wrote them as a text for exposition.

      A Vision is the promised “detailed exposition” of the philosophy which Robartes found in his wanderings, partly in the Speculum Angelorum et Hominorum (sic) of a certain Giraldus, a sixteenth century book printed at Cracow, and partly in the traditions of the Judwali tribe of Arabs handed down from one Kusta Ben Luka. All this is explained in an introduction by Owen Aherne, in which he describes his meeting, after thirty years, with Robartes, their talk of their old relations with Mr. Yeats and their quarrel with him, and Robartes’s decision, nevertheless, to ask him to write a commentary on his manuscripts; although Aherne objects that “you will give them to a man who has thought more of the love of woman than of the love of God.” The introduction is followed by a dialogue-poem (Robartes and Aherne the speakers) reprinted from Later Poems and another note by Aherne.

      It is clear that these two inventions of his have become very real figures to Mr. Yeats, and it may be conjectured (for it is no use pretending that one can do more) that they stand for the self and the anti-self of which he wrote in that attractive but obscure little book, Per Amica Silentia Lunae, in which the philosophy of A Vision is adumbrated.

      To paraphrase that philosophy in a small space would hardly be possible. Its cardinal point is the division of incarnate man into four faculties: the Will, the Creative Mind, the Body of Fate, and the Mask.

    By Will is understood feeling that has not become desire because there is no object to desire . . . an energy as yet uninfluenced by thought, action, or emotion. . . . By Mask is understood the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence. . . . By Creative Mind is meant intellect . . . all the mind that is consciously constructive. . . . By Body of Fate is understood the physical and mental environment, the changing human body, the stream of Phenomena as this affects a particular individual, all that is forced upon us from without, Time as it affects sensation.

“The Will and Mask are predominantly Lunar or antithetical the Creative Mind and the Body of Fate predominantly Solar or primary.” They affect one another according to their respective positions in the Phases of the Moon. There are true and false Masks, true and false Creative Minds, perfections and automatonisms, discords, oppositions and contrasts, cones and gyres. All this and much more Mr. Yeats explains with elaborate precision, studying the character of man, often with reference to actual persons, living or dead, under each of the twenty-eight phases at which Will may be; applying his doctrine also to historical epochs; illustrating his theses with mathematical figures.

      It is a dark and difficult study, and many readers will be content to take the author’s advice, leave the “Great Wheel” alone, and “dip here and there in the verse and into my comments upon life and history.” They will come with delight upon the beautiful and lucid sonnet, Leda. But no one interested in Mr. Yeats should altogether ignore a book which, if as an explanation of life it is as bewildering as life itself, does at any rate out of its very darkness throw a certain light on one of the most curious minds of our time.

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