Mr. Yeats, He Says
A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (London: Macmillan. 15/-.).
THERE can be no question of dealing adequately with this latest book by Mr. W. B. Yeats in a newspaper review. Even with more space and leisure the task would be difficult.
The difficulties begin with the Introduction, in which we are told that the doctrines contained in “A Vision” have been communicated to the writer by invisible beings—I want to use the most general term I can find—who are styled “communicators,” “instructors,” “the philosophic voices.”
The “communications” began in 1917 when “my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing! What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two every day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. ‘No’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’ ”
The Invisibles Speak!
In 1919 the spoken word (spoken through the mouth of the writer’s wife) took the place of the written. Sensible phenomena—smells, bursts of music, flashes of light: some of these symbolising events till then hidden, as the illness of the writer’s son, the knowledge of which had been kept from him—many instances of the occurrence of these are recorded.
The “instructors” are described as swifter and deeper in thought than men, though “on the other hand they seem like living men, are interested in all that interests living men.” Opposed to the “instructors” are “frustrators” who attempted to confuse (the communications) or waste time. “Much that has happened, much that has been said suggests that the communicators are the personalities of a dream shared by my wife, by myself, occasionally by others.”
Anticipating an obvious interpretation Mr. Yeats says: “Some will associate the story I have just told with that popular spiritualism which has not dared to define itself . . . “ but offers no clear objection to the interpretation.
Leaving the Reader Mystified.
One thing only is clear: that the story has not been set down here with sufficient circumstance or cogency to enable the reader to decide: (a) whether the phenomena occurred as the writer believes; (b) whether, if they did, they were the work of preternatural agents. Mr. Yeats shows nowhere that he employed any critical power in the investigation of the phenomena.
He mentions that he has read a great deal of medieval mysticism, but he has apparently made no use of the systematic directions for the discernment of spirits which mystical theology has drawn from the experiences and the writings of the Christian mystical saints. His part in the strange colloquies has been, it seems, purely receptive; the Church regards this passivity as extremely perilous.
From these experiences and from later reading in philosophy he has worked out a system of thought mainly psychological based on a scheme of Faculties and Principles, accompanied and “elucidated ” by a symbolism based on the gyre and the vortex.
The development of character under the influence of the phases of the moon is set out; then a table of the phases of the human soul; follows a concretisation of these phases in the study of men who lived in them; a section on the soul in judgment; and an interpretation of history in the light of the phases. That is as nearly as I can summarise the matter of the book.
The Author’s Philosophers
Wherever Mr. Yeats seeks the assistance of philosophy it is to thinkers outside the main stream of traditional European thought he goes. Plato, he mentions often, Aristotle, once or twice, St. Thomas Aquinas twice (I think); but his reading of the last two seems negligible, and from Plato and Plotinus he takes only the more esoteric conceptions.
He has a fondness for the more outré amongst the medievalists, and one might almost believe that Eriugena’s heresy was a recommendation to him. But the chief trouble is the almost unintelligible terminology (thus the Faculties are Will—which is voluntas not the Liber Arbitrium—Mask, Body of Fate and Creative Mind—which again means more than we are accustomed to understand by it), and the indefensible eclecticism.
Perhaps it is this ignoring of the philosophia perennis which gives the thought the general appearance of being trivial and unprofitable.
R. O F.