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W. B. Yeats Expounds His “Heavenly Geometry”
In “A Vision” He Sets Forth a System of Enormous Complexity and Range
A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. Illustrated. 305 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.
ONE of the remarkable things about Yeats’s long and distinguished literary career is his susceptibility to influence. His father, the painter, introduced him to Darwin, and promptly Yeats became a youthful materialist. Under the influence of the Irish theosophical movement, in which he was associated with AE, Charles Johnston, John Eglinton and others, he volte-faced from materialism to the vast vague mysticism of the East. John O’Leary, the fine old full-bearded Fenian, turned his imagination away from Indian sages to Cuchulain and Deirdre. Then came his immersion in Blake’s prophetical books, his study of modern cabalism at which George Moore gibed, his contact with the symbolism of the French decadents through his fellow-poets in the Rhymers Club, of which he and Ernest Rhys were the founders. Lady Gregory excited his interest in Irish folklore and peasant dialect; Ezra Pound later discovered to him the Nö plays of Japan out of which Yeats has made himself a small dramatic form. In the preface to his much-abused “Oxford Book of Modern Verse,” remembering the various schools to which he has belonged, he writes: “I would but for a failure of talent have been in that [school] of Turner and Dorothy Wellesley.” (At which I can hear an irreverent Irish voice exclaiming, “What in the name of God, W. B., have you to do with them?”) And his recent joy in the writing of lusty songs of sculduddery one suspects springs from the example of his young friend and fellow-editor, F. R. Higgins.
Always prominent in these easily traceable influences has been his interest in the occult, in table rapping, clairvoyance, thought transference, hypnotism, and spiritualism. Now out of the mouth of a medium, his wife, Georgie, has come this extraordinary book. First published privately in 1925 in a limited English edition of 600 copies, it now appears again, revised and rewritten.
The system which it sets forth is one of enormous complexity and range. It provides not only for the incarnate life between birth and death but for the discarnate life between death and birth; it explains not only the past and the present but also the future. It divided fleshed-and-blooded human life into twenty-eight categories of incarnations, each distinct, one from the other, in its relative mixture of subjective and objective. Two of these categories are supernatural, for human life cannot be purely objective or subjective. In this system, as far as I can make out, there is no place for free will, either in individual life or the communal life of society. Both man and civilization are as fated and destiny determined as a tragic character in the mind of Shakespeare.
What interests me much more than the system, for all its strangeness of thought and beauty of design, is Yeats’s apparent need of it. I can’t help relating the evolution of this geometric and astronomical psychology to the need Yeats has always felt for complicating both his personality and his thought, swathing each in veils of manner and symbol. He seems to crave and demand the stimulation of difficulty as some other poets have demanded drink and drugs. One feels that without the stimulation of his symbols he could not have written here what is of most general interest. His exposition of the six successive discarnate states between death and birth, for example, will mean little to most of his admirers, but they will read with deep interest his discussion of each of the phases, or categories of incarnation, in which he comments with characteristic insight on temperaments from Socrates to Synge. Humor even flashes out of some of the groupings: for instance, the unheavenly insight which associates Shaw, Wells and George Moore as typical examples of the same phase. And many will follow with excitement Yeats’s application of symbolical geometry to 4,000 years of history. The result is an essay on the philosophy of history full of magnificent metaphor and synthesis and exhilarative leap of generalization from age to age.
I am willing to go along with AE in saying that it is possible that some day this book will be regarded as Yeats’s greatest book. Indeed, I’ll go even further and say that it is possible that it may some day be regarded as one of the great milestones of discovery on man’s journey of exploration of the spirit world. Certainly it is no book for a mere reviewer to judge ex cathedra. In the first place, it would take the close study of weeks, if not months, to absorb its thesis, so complicated is its geometric symbolism, its wheels within wheels, cones within cones, gyres interpenetrating gyres, opposites, direct and diametric. And at the turn of every page one meets philosophical cruxes which require knowledge and judgment for the difficult decisions of acceptance or rejection. And even when one had absorbed its thesis, Yeats is still inviolate from criticism, because he has not made this: unbidden, the spirits have come and spoken, and he has simply acted as their secretary, writing down what they told him to write. This is, for the most part, recorded vision and revelation, and who are we to judge it? We are compelled to pass the buck to posterity and that we do, gladly.
But if the hands of judgment are tied, one is still free to guess, and my guess is that posterity will not put this book beside the Mosaic tablets; that it will be judged finally not so much revealed truth as a poet’s metaphor. The guess of my limited scepticism is that a lot of human fallibility has gone into the construction of what AE called this “heavenly geometry,” that this elaborate system sprang not so much from vision as from Yeats’s will to believe plus his wife’s telepathic power to read her husband’s mind. The cool stare of experts in spiritualism, mathematics and philosophy will doubtless flush inconsistencies and errors much more fundamental than this slip: “Mackenna’s translation of the most beautiful of the Aeneids,” which reminds me a bit of another Dubliner who said, that before going to bed at night, he always read “chapters of Sappho.” But this book is bounty, much of it bounty of great beauty, for his biographers and the students of his verse, who will no doubt pore over it as Yeats pondered Blake’s prophetical books: out of it some day may well unwind another “Road to Xanadu.” It reveals much of the man, among other things that either Yeats hasn’t a stime of humor, or—a Gargantuan one.
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