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YEATS’ “A VISION”
There are some books of which it may be useful to give an account, on the strict understanding that one is not presuming to deliver any judgment or valuation. An example of this is Yeats’ “A Vision,”* now published in a revised edition, but originally given some circulation—apparently privately—some twelve years ago. Æ then wrote of it:—
However, if the commentators ever get as busy about “A Vision” as they have long been around the books of Blake, they will find the Yeats an oracle more articulate. Or, if it is a case of reading their own imaginations into the work as into a crystal globe, they will find it more pellucid. For Yeats uses, to build up the symbols and illustrations of his visions, material mostly familiar to any highly educated contemporary mind, which was far from being the case with Blake, even in his own day. In intellectual structure, too, Yeats’ vision is relatively transparent and systematic.
But as much as Blake and Swedenborg, Yeats claims for his prophetic writing an inspiration directly spiritual although less divine. The vision was written from communications made to him by his wife, by “automatic” writing or by dictating in a state resembling sleep; the communications beginning in 1917 and extending over a period of a few years. This mediumistic origin of the work will in itself be enough to prejudice many against it. Others, versed in the more scientific lore of such phenomena which began from the researches of C. G. Jung, will interpret the spirit “instructors” of this record as the pseudo-personalities of a dream that Yeats and his wife, in their condition of extreme psychic intimacy and attachment, were able to share. Yeats himself, while “partly accepting and partly rejecting” that explanation, believes in a Communion between the living and the dead, and is in no doubt that he has been vouchsafed a period of miraculous insight into the nature of the universe. But for this conviction, of course, he would never have allowed his wife to undergo such an ordeal; for by his own statement she seems to have suffered intensely from the fatigue that invariably follows mediumistic practices. Both seem to have found it more than worth while, and they have certainly more to show for it than usually follows upon experiments in psychism.
In brief, we are given an occult system of psychology and a philosophy of history, both of considerable interest and presented with all of Yeats’ elusive charm as a writer. The system is very much like that of astrology. Men and women, instead of being classified into twelve types corresponding with the months of the solar year, are divided into twenty-eight types, one for each day of the lunar circuit. But whereas astrology has always claimed the ability to determine, by casting a horoscope of birth, which zodiacal sign a person belongs to, no such empirical method is given for verifying the typology of this system. When Yeats tells us that Dumas belongs to phase 7 and Bernard Shaw and Wells to phase 21, he is either writing from his instructors’ dictation, or else using his own intuition. This I do not raise as an objection: indeed, I have always considered that astrology should be learnt as the sublime philosophy and traditional symbology that it is, rather than as a means of divination. The psychological conceptions used by Yeats are much more modern than those of astrology—the four faculties, for instance, Will, Creative Mind, Mask and Body of Fate—soon acquire some precision of meaning in the mind of the fairly omnivorous modern reader, for all are related to notions now familiar.
The philosophy of history is of a cyclic pattern not dissimilar to those of Petrie and Spengler. Cultures wax and wane like moons. Each is a vast psycho-physical construction which the human spirit cannot keep up beyond a certain point.
But Yeats’ philosophy of history, though exemplified from the history of the Christian era with many touches of artistic felicity, is only a sketch, and he says he did not know there were such things as philosophies of history before he received these intimations. Which suggests an interesting question. Is there, either in the matter or the method of this work, anything we can be confident is extraneous, anything most unlikely to have been in the minds of Yeats and Mrs. Yeats? No. She had read German philosophy: and, knowing something as we do of the people with whom Yeats consorted before the War, it would be surprising if his subconscious memory were not over-laden with memories of occult symbolisms and systems. So those who want to explain away the spookish origin of this book, will find little difficulty. That a poet, over-cultivating sensitivity and the aesthetic all his life, should have another side of him yearning always for a scaffolding of systematic understanding—that is no more strange than to read of Newton, his intellect crucified on applied mathematics, breaking out between-whiles into wild religious eschatology. Much more remarkable is a man’s finding his wife so close to him as to be able to perform for him that function of interiorizing and re-organizing his ideas into a growing pattern, which must usually be done by the “feminine side” of his own psyche.
To sum up, the vision does not impress one as in any sense dynamic, or prophetic. It is a vision of understanding, nor creation: of some vast wisdom deepening into twilight, the glimmering light of intuition fading into mental complication. It may be typical of the kind of psychism that breaks out at the end of a dispensation, as Spengler tells us; but it is not the “scream of Juno’s peacock.” True, this is a good book to read, with its pleasant talk about, and to, Ezra Pound; with its delicious, fantastic story of the cuckoo’s nest. Yet about its serious passages there is a fragrance of sweet death, of anointment for a pagan burial, and we wonder, after all, if the author has not found some ingenious way of winding his mind up in its own cocoon: indeed, that may be his own self-criticism, in the last stanza of the Epilogue:—
*A Vision. By W. B. YEATS. Macmillan, 15s.
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