The Two Editions of A Vision

Once A Vision appeared in published form on 15 January 1926, in a limited edition of 600 copies, Yeats was almost immediately considering how to revise it for a new trade edition. In the end, the second edition did not appear until Macmillan published it in 1937 (US edition, 1938), and it is so different that it can be seen as a completely remade book. Yet large parts are repeated from the first edition, little changed: the description of the twenty-eight incarnations, the account of history and the poems, in all some 130 pages out of 305. Although it is usual to refer to them as editions of the same book, it is perhaps more accurate to think of them as two versions of the same material, sharing common elements, but substantially different. Connie Kelly Hood’s essay, “The Remaking of A Vision”, (YAACTS 1) provides an excellent account of the processes involved.

The table below gives a brief overview of how the two books compare. Sections which are substantially the same have the same colour in the two versions. Though the area of interest of Book II in each case is deepening the symbol, the material is substantially different, and the same is true of AV A Book IV and AV B Book III, which both deal with the soul’s states between death and birth but contain largely different material.

A Vision A (1925)pagesA Vision B (1937)pages
    A Packet for Ezra Pound 3-30
Dedication to Vestigiaix-xiii  Rapallo 3-7
      Introduction to ‘A Vision’ 8-25
      To Ezra Pound 26-30
Introduction by Owen Ahernexv-xxiiiStories of Michael Robartes and His Friends 32-55
    The Phases of the Moon 59-64
Book I: What the Caliph Partly Learned 3-117Book I: The Great Wheel 67-184
  1. The Wheel and the Phases of the Moon 3-8    
  2. The Dance of the Four Royal Persons 9-11    
  3. Part I: The Great Wheel 12-37  Part I: The Principal Symbol 67-80
      Part II: Examination of the Wheel 80-104
  4. The Twenty-Eight Embodiments 38-117  Part III: The Twenty-Eight Incarnations 105-184
Book II: What the Caliph Refused to Learn 121-176Book II: The Completed Symbol 187-215
  1. Desert Geometry or the Gift of Harun Al-Raschid 121-127    
  2. The Geometrical Foundation of the Wheel 128-176    
Book III: Dove or Swan 179-215Book III: The Soul in Judgment 219-240
  1. Leda 179    
  2. The Great Wheel and History 180-215    
Book IV: The Gates of Pluto 219-256Book IV: The Great Year of the Ancients 243-263
  1. The Fool by the Roadside 219    
  2. The Great Wheel and from Death to Birth 220-252    
    Book V: Dove or Swan 267-302
      I: Leda 267
      II-V 267-300
      The End of the Cycle 301-302
  3. All Souls’ Night 253-256All Souls’ Night: An Epilogue 303-305

A glance shows that in both versions the body of the exposition is framed by two poems, ‘The Phases of the Moon’ and ‘All Souls’ Night’, though placed outside the whole in the second version rather than within it. The exposition of the soul’s successive embodiments or incarnations, and of the Great Wheel in relation to history are also largely identical. One other element is expanded only slightly: the tables and lists which end the initial exposition. Otherwise the two versions diverge significantly, and Barbara Croft’s study, ‘Stylistic Arrangements’, gives a good examination of the shifts in material and emphasis, while Thomas Parkinson’s article ‘This Extraordinary Book’ (YA 1) gives an excellent, brief consideration of the nature of the two versions, particularly AV A.

Some critics have considered AV A as premature, and AV B certainly shows greater control of the material that indicates a deeper understanding. AV A was, however, a very necessary stage in the development of a public version for Yeats himself, and it is because of the effort which he expended on this version, that he clarified ideas and identified the areas which needed further attention. Writing to T. Werner Laurie in April 1924, Yeats noted, ‘I have but one overwhelming longing and that is to finish it, for it [is] my old man of the sea, and all I can say is that I see no reason why I should not, illness apart, do so in about six weeks’. Odysseus needed to wrestle with Proteus, the old man of the sea, in order to find out how to move on and to return to Ithaca, and the metaphor indicates a certain urgency in Yeats’s desire to master the material and reminds us that he was not certain how much life he would have left to work on it. Taken overall, AV B is clearly the more considered version of the System; however, from a developmental point of view and as an illumination of Yeats’s understanding in the mid-Twenties, when much of the poetry based upon the System was written, AV A provides a valuable insight for the student of Yeats as a creative artist. If one thinks of Yeats as having taken a course from the Instructors, AV A was written in the first flush of excitement near the end of the course, perhaps before the ideas had fully settled or been put in context, but with a sense of the problems which a beginner might face. AV B was written once the course had been digested rather further, and considered with relation to other writers, philosophers and historiographers, and with a certain distance from the material.

From the point of view of the student, the two versions therefore have different strengths, and in some areas A Vision A is a clearer introduction to the material than A Vision B, for instance in the explanation of how the various diagrams which Yeats uses are derived from each other. In other areas Yeats’s ideas developed considerably, so that in relation to the after-life, for instance, the account given in AV A is often confused and must not be taken as Yeats’s final thought upon the subject. Yeats appears to have found the Solar Principles less interesting initially, and therefore gives them scant attention in AV A, yet he came to see them as of fundamental importance to the System’s construction, though with less direct impact upon human life than the Faculties (AV B 187). He acknowledges his neglect of the Principles in AV A, on account of his imperfect understanding, but when they are expounded in A Vision B, these spiritual constituents of being are treated with a cool impersonality, dominated by metaphysical geometry rather than spiritual insight. Indeed almost all of the text created specifically for AV B has more distance, so that ‘The Completed Symbol’ and ‘The Soul in Judgment’ are less elaborately written than ‘The Twenty-Eight Incarnations’ and ‘Dove or Swan’, carried over from AV A. There is also an increased uncertainty or honesty about the material, since some expositions of the after-life, which had been relatively well-developed and elucidated in AV A, are far more condensed and cryptic in AV B, in ways that indicate that Yeats was no longer willing to hazard likely conjecture to supply the deficiencies of the Automatic Script. When he is dealing with the Principles, there is a further factor, their natural distance from daily life, which had made them perhaps less engaging in the first place, and Yeats notes, in a draft of ‘The Soul in Judgment’ where he discusses the relations of the Principles to fate and destiny, that ‘this is yet another symbolism which taxes my mind so little capable of abstraction beyond its capacity’.

His very first drafts from the material of the Automatic Script are in those areas which he found most immediately congenial and straightforward. So his first expositions, in the form of a dialogue between Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne, concentrate upon the ways in which the System may illuminate human character and, though the System is not astrological, this catalogue has much in common with a delineation of the characteristics of people assigned to the various signs of the Zodiac, though with twenty-six pigeon-holes rather than twelve (since two of the full twenty-eight categories, the Full Moon and New Moon, are not bodily incarnations). The treatment of history also enthused him, and ‘Dove or Swan’ probably contains the most consistently fine writing in either version of A Vision. Yeats felt that he was little suited, however, to more expository writing: ‘I have no gift for explanation & am the least mathematical of men’ (to Frank Pearce Sturm, January 1926), while recognising that it was essential to the System.

In discussing the printing of A Vision A with Werner Laurie in 1924, Yeats strongly considered separate styles of printing to indicate his different purposes:

My greatest difficulty in giving some kind of form to the book is that there are purely technical portions which cannot have literary value. I have been thinking of asking you to put these portions into a different kind of type.  But it would not be reasonable to put them in smaller type for they are both difficult and necessary. Have you enough italics to print, say, one quarter of the book in italics? or perhaps you could print this quarter in red. I feel this would help the reader’s mood as it helps when one prints a stage direction in red or in italics. He would know when to expect beauty of form, or my attempt at it, and when to expect mere explanation.

Nothing came of this when Laurie printed AV A, and AV B is similarly lacking in typographic indicators. As a consequence readers have to identify the purpose of the writing for themselves, and may feel some of the frustration that Yeats feared. The explanations of AV B cannot be said to be any clearer than those of AV A, though they are more concise, and in general readers are still likely to feel most at ease with ‘The Twenty-Eight Incarnations’ and ‘Dove or Swan’, the sections which changed least.



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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.