| New York Herald Tribune Books |
8 May 1938
Bones of a Poet’s Vision
By W. B. Yeats . . . 305 pp. . . . New York: The Macmillan Company . . . $3
AT ODDS with scientific thought, ignorant of philosophy, William Butler Yeats shows in this strange book how far a subtle mind may stray without these aids. Yeats has repeatedly told of how, deprived of a traditional religion and hungering after a mythology that would satisfy a poet’s imagination, he contrived a kind of religious artifact out of old legends and venerable symbols. The major part of his work has drawn strength from these springs. But when, as here, he engages in a prose exposition of the ideas that lend so suggestive a magic to his lyrics and poetic plays, the reader can but wonder what alchemy of the mind changed this dross to potable gold.
Most of the material is not new. Indeed, “A Vision” was privately printed more than ten years ago, and admirably summarized for a more general public in Edmund Wilson’s essay on the poet in “Axel’s Castle.” The present book is a revised and amplified version of that earlier work and includes also another book which appeared previously in a limited edition—“A Packet for Ezra Pound.” This portion of the volume is interesting for certain remarks on the cantos and chiefly for its explanation of the basis of the vision in the automatic writings of the poet’s wife, who has the powers of a medium.
The theme of “A Vision” proper found expression some twenty years ago in Yeats’s essay, “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”: the “distinction between the perfection that is from a man’s combat with himself and that which is from a combat with circumstance.” But what that essay stated with so much lucidity and grace is here tangled in and all but obscured by a peculiar vocabulary, and exudes a deathy smell, as of the astrologer’s or the necromancer’s closet. We are offered a theory, as arid as it is elaborate, of personal destiny and general history, worked out on a mathematical basis in terms of cones and gyres, primary and antithetical tinctures, principles and faculties, passionate and celestial bodies. The various types of personality, following the twenty-eight phases of the moon, are arranged in a circle or “Great Wheel,” and pass from complete objectivity to complete subjectivity, human life being impossible at either extreme. The types vary according to the way in which the will affects or is affected by the mask, that which it desires, the “idea of the good,” the Creative Mind, or intellect, and the Body of Fate, the destiny forced upon a man from without. Equally elaborate and somewhat less rewarded is his theory of history and of the meaning of the Great Year of the ancients. It is all extremely tedious, not less so because it is all incredibly fantastic, and valuable mainly for a few good things said by the way, such as the descriptions of certain great personalities, or the quotation from an unnamed friend—Lady Gregory or Maud Gonne?—“I will fight until I die against the cruelty of small ambitions.”
It seems clear that Yeats himself, in spite of hallucinatory experiences that took on the character of supernatural phenomena and are certainly inexplicable, gives no large credence to his solar and lunar circuits. He observes that “if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason soon recovered [sic]; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in a drawing by Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” The single thought appears to be that “all the gains of man come from conflict with the opposite of his true being.” This was better said in “Per Amica Silentia Lunae,” and is scarcely sufficient warrant for the republication of this treatise—pace such enthusiastic mystics as the late A. E. Toward the end of the book Yeats says that he has set down certain statements “less for present use than because at some later date I may return to the theme and wake these dry astrological bones into breathing life.” One wishes constantly that he had allowed all that he learned from his mysterious “instructors” to wait until he should be able to perform that miracle.