See also the Overview for more general background about the Yeatses and A Vision.
On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, 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 day after 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.’
|‘Introduction to “A Vision” ’ from ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’ (1937), AV B 8|
Some will ask if I believe all that this book contains, and I will not know how to
answer. Does the word belief, used as they will use it, belong to our age, can I think of the world
as there and I here judging it? I will never think any thoughts but these, or some modification
or extension of these; when I write prose or verse they must be somewhere present though not
it may be in the words; they must affect my judgment of friends and of events; but then
there are many symbolisms and none exactly resembles mine. What Leopardi in Ezra Pound’s translation calls that ‘concord’ wherein ‘the arcane spirit of the whole mankind turns hardy pilot’. . . persuades
me that he has best imagined reality who has best imagined justice.
‘Introduction to “A Vision” ’ from A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929), PEP 32-33.|
(The revised version from A Vision B appears further down this page.)
Though a few details may not be entirely accurate, Yeats's account of the genesis of A Vision is evidently what happened, and the papers of the Automatic Script are now published, so that the series of questions and answers that accumulated "day after day" show how much work Yeats expended on organising the material into his two editions of A Vision (see The Two Editions). His wife, George, later told Richard Ellmann that the first attempt had been a fake on her part to distract Yeats from worrying that he might have made a mistake in marrying her, but that almost immediately an unknown force had taken over (YM&M xiv-xv). Exactly what was involved and where the content of the Automatic Script came from is difficult to be sure (see Automatic Script), and depends more upon the individual reader’s ideas about the supernatural than anything in A Vision itself, but it makes little real difference to the ideas that emerged if the spirits involved were themselves just symbolic entities, standing for George’s unconscious or even conscious mind. Yeats himself noted in a draft that: ‘In Per Amica Silentia Lunae I have described the whole of human life as man’s attempt to become the opposite of himself and to create the opposite of his fate, and if I were to judge by accepted psychology I would describe this system as an elaboration by my wife’s unconscious of those few crude sentences’ (see ‘The Remaking of A Vision’).
Yeats wrote the “Dedication” of A Vision A (1925) to Vestigia (Moina Mathers), who had been a colleague in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the 1890s, and considered the underlying motives that had brought their fellow magicians together, while contrasting his own reason for taking part:
Yeats indicates that he had been seeking a vision of reality that conformed adequately to his own character and predispositions to sustain him creatively, yet which was more than an expression of personal idiosyncrasy and had a universal validity: ‘Then when I had ceased all active search, yet had not ceased from desire, the documents upon which [A Vision] is founded were put into my hands, and I had what I needed’ (AV A xi).
He dedicated the revised version, A Vision B, to Ezra Pound, not an occultist like Moina Mathers but a fellow poet and a sceptic, who thought his ideas ‘very very very bughouse’. To him, Yeats felt the need to justify the aesthetic confidence which the System had brought: ‘I put The Tower and The Winding Stair into evidence to show that my poetry has gained in self-possession and power’ (AV B 8). In his ‘Packet’ of introductions to Pound, he went on to explain the origins of the System and to assert that it was going to affect his outlook from then onwards, not least in his poetry (see above).
Certainly what is most important about A Vision is the effect that the ideas had on Yeats's own thought. It is impossible to say where Yeats's poetry would have gone if the System of A Vision had not provided him with renewed stimulus, but much of the writing that has made Yeats one of the foremost poets in English of the twentieth century came after his marriage and the Automatic Script, and it is not common for poets to produce their best work after the age of 50. However, neither A Vision nor the Automatic Script is a key to the metaphors and symbols that Yeats used in his poetry, rather they provide a context of a complete and coherent body of thought from which certain ideas and themes enter the poetic domain, while others remain very much in the background. A few poems and plays become clearer when the details of the System are known but there is relatively little direct use of the scheme.
The paragraph quoted at the top of this page came after many drafts, tweaking the language, but when Yeats came to make a more public statement concerning his attitude towards the System he did not draw attention to how much it affected his thinking, focusing rather on the nature of symbolic thought:
The imaginative effort implied by holding reality and justice in a single thought shows that Yeats did not find reality obviously just and it recalls his letter of 1924 to Edmund Dulac: ‘I do not know what my book will be to others - nothing perhaps. To me it means a last act of defense against the chaos of the world; & I hope for ten years to write out of my renewed security’. The System helps Yeats to reconcile justice with reality because it enables him to fit his perception of the world into an intellectual structure and, in a 1926 review of A Vision A, George Russell (AE) remarked on how ‘the metaphysical structure [Yeats] rears is coherent, and it fits into its parts with the precision of Chinese puzzle boxes into each other’, though Russell was less certain that it related ‘so well to life’ for anyone apart from Yeats.
Many readers find the whole approach of A Vision, with its predetermined cycles, its breakdown of the human being into a multiplicity of individual elements and its whiff of astrology, uncongenial. Some of the first reviewers were struck by the relentlessness of the progression that Yeats envisages, and one characterised the System as a ‘re-creation of one of the oldest and most ruinous illusions of humanity—the awful nightmare of doom, the idea of “Eternal Recurrence,” which for thousands of years has sporadically appeared in the literature of pessimism’ (1938; full review). Yeats himself is partly to blame for such a reading, since A Vision concentrates on the predictable and cyclical elements of the System and gives less space to the unpredictable and singular. In part this was because he himself found the prospect of unceasing return more attractive than grim:
As a poet, Yeats’s commitment is to the world of phenomena as much as to the world of ideas, and as an antithetical man, to the world of action and creation rather than to that of contemplation or spiritual concerns. His System predicts that within a few more lifetimes his emphasis will shift towards the impersonal and collective, but that for the moment his poetic focus on the creative and the personal, and his attachment to the sensuous world are entirely appropriate.
The impression of remorseless return is also, however, the product of a superficial reading, which is understandable in a reviewer, but less so now. Indeed the central symbol is not one of simple recurrence, since the gyre represents the cycle of flux and reflux on all levels of existence, and the Yeatses’ System is centred on the idea of change and progression. George Russell’s immediate response to A Vision was, certainly, that ‘to follow in the wake of Mr. Yeats’ mind is to surrender oneself to the idea of Fate and to part from the idea of Free Will’, but he also acknowledged that, ‘though the seeds of [Yeats’s] thought’ might not ‘instantly take root and fructify in my mind’, he did not doubt that they would ‘have their own growth’ and that he might later find himself ‘comprehending much that is now unintelligible’ (1926; full review). Understanding the ideas does require time and some familiarity: though its compass is universal, much of the form is so idiosyncratic and the terminology so particular that at the beginning it is all too easy to become entangled in the abstruse detail of A Vision in a way that obscures more general ideas. It is necessary, on the one hand, to keep in mind the broad outlines, in order not become bewildered by detail and, on the other hand, not to shrink from the detail, in order to see how the process works. The purpose of this web site is to help with a reading of A Vision and to make some of the general ideas, as well as some of the detail, more readily approachable.