enlarge this window                      close this window

Reviews of A Vision

A Vision A (Wade 149)
13 February 1926 The Irish Statesmanreview AEG482
27 March 1926 The New Statesman ‘The Visionary Yeats’ anon.G479
22 April 1926 The Times Literary Supplement ‘Mr. Yeats’s Occultism’ [de Selincourt] G481
October 1926 The Quest ‘A Vision’ [G. R. S. Mead]G480
October 1926 Adelphi short notice anon.G478
16 January 1929 New Republic ‘Yeats’s Guide to the Soul’ Edmund WilsonCB527
A Packet for Ezra Pound (Wade 163)
7 September 1929 The Irish Statesman reviewAE G553
18 September 1929 Commonweal ‘Mr. Yeats’s Trivia’ Seán O’FaoláinG551
4 December 1929 The Nation ‘Mr. Yeats’s Kubla Khan’ Seán O’FaoláinG552
A Vision B (Wade 191 & 192)
18 October 1937 The Scotsman ‘Mr. Yeats’s Vision: Messages of the “Communicators”’ Edwin Muir G791
November 1937 Ireland To-day ‘Mummy Is Become Merchandise’ Cecil Ffrench Salkeld G798
November 1937 The London Mercury ‘Mr. Yeats’s Metaphysical Man’ Seán O’Faoláin G792
2 November 1937 The Irish Independent ‘Invisible Beings Communicated with Mr. Yeats, He Says’ R[oibeárd] O
8 November 1937 The Irish News ‘Mr. W. B. Yeats’s Latest Book’ C. E. G785
9 November 1937 The Liverpool Daily Post ‘Beyond the Normal’ O[liver] E[dwards]G786
15 November 1937 Boekenschouw ‘Het visioen van William Butler Yeats’ Jos[eph] Panhuysen G793
19 November 1937 The Cambridge Review ‘Yeats’s Mysticism’ J. Bronowski G781
19 November 1937 The Spectator ‘The Source of Poetry’Michael Roberts G797
4 December 1937 Time and Tide ‘Staring at Miracle’ Charles Williams G801
8 December 1937 The Listener reviewanon. G775
20 January 1938 The New English Weekly reviewanon. G776
22 January 1938 The New Statesman reviewanon. G777
22 January 1938 The Illustrated London News review C. E. B.G778
4 February 1938 The Church of Ireland Gazette reviewanon. G774
March 1938 New Verse ‘Thy Chase Had a Beast in View’ G. E. G[rigson]G788
March-April 1938 Poetry Review ‘A Poet’s Dream’ H. T. Hunt Grubb G789
12 March 1938 The Saturday Review ‘Speculations of a Poet’William Rose BenétG780
13 March 1938 The New York Times Book Review ‘W. B. Yeats Expounds His “Heavenly Geometry”’ Horace Reynolds G795
25 March 1938 The Commonweal ‘Doom’ Michael WilliamsG802
April 1938 Criterion reviewStephen Spender G799
April 1938 Forum and Century ‘A Poet’s Philosophy’ Mary M. Colum G783
20 April 1938 New Republic ‘Yeats’s Vision’ Edmund Wilson G803
23 April 1938 Boston Evening Transcript ‘Poetry Now’ John Holmes G790
May-June 1938 Les Langues Modernes reviewA. Rivoallan G796
8 May 1938 New York Herald Tribune Books ‘Bones of a Poet’s Vision’ Babette Deutsch G784
Summer 1938 Yale Review ‘Through Frenzy to Truth’ Kerker Quinn G794
July-September 1938 Études Anglaises reviewM. L. Cazamian G782
9 July 1938 The Nation ‘Lend a Myth to God’ Eda Lou Walton G800
March 1939 Philosophical Review review R. C. BaldG779

  The Irish Statesman

13 February 1926

pp. 714-16

AE [George Russell]

Jochum: G482

A Vision.*

A SAGE out of the ancient world possibly might write with more understanding of A Vision than any of Mr. Yeats’ contemporaries. It is an interpretation of life and history, but the interpreter has a compass in his hand, and he measures and divides the cycles as if he had at heart more than any other saying that profundity of Plato, “God Geometrises”. It might be compared with Henry Adams’ mathematical interpretation of history in the astonishing essay on Phase, but it is infinitely more complicated, infinitely more difficult to understand. Subtle as the thought was in Phase it was an exercise in simplicity compared with A Vision. Here I fall away from a mind I have followed, I think with understanding, since I was a boy, and as he becomes more remote in his thought I wonder whether he has forgotten his own early wisdom, the fear lest he should learn “to speak a tongue men do not know”. I allow myself to drift apart because I feel 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. I know how much our life is fated once life animates the original cell, the fountain from which the body is jetted; how much bodily conditions affect or even determine our thought, but I still believe in Free Will and that, to use the language of the astrologers, it is always possible for a man to rise above his stars. Now Mr. Yeats would have me believe that a great wheel turns ceaselessly, and that I and all others drop into inevitable groove after groove. It matters not my virtue to-day, my talent which I burnish, the wheel will move me to another groove where I am predestined to look on life as that new spiritual circumstance determines, and my will is only free to accept or rebel, but not to alter what is fated.

      The Vision is so concentrated, the thought which in other writers would be expanded into volumes, is here continually reduced to bare essences, to tables of the faculties and their interactions, that I may have missed some implication, and there may be some way out, and it may be that in his system we are more masters of our fate than my study of the book has led me to suppose. The weighty core of the book is relieved by a preliminary fantasy. Owen Aherne and Michael Robartes, old creatures of the poet’s imagination, meet, and Robartes tells Aherne of his wanderings, and how in Cracow he discovered a mediæval tractate, Speculum Angelorum et Hominorum, written by one Giraldus, and how later in Arabia, among the Judwalis, he found men learned to the same philosophy. He instructs Aherne in this, then quarrels with him, and Aherne brings his notes to Yeats, who writes from them his Vision. All this fantasy and the philosophical poems set in the book create about its hard geometrical core an air of cold beauty like a wintry sunrise playing on a pyramid of stony rock, and once the difficult geometry of Anima Mundi is expounded there is a long and brilliant meditation upon history, its changes and cycles related to the movements of divine powers. As I looked at the diagrams and tables, so difficult to relate to life, I encouraged myself to explore by remembering what Neander wrote in his Church History when he was confronted by the task of elucidating the bewildering mythology of the Gnostics. We must remember, he said, that the mind of man is made in the image of God, and therefore even in its wildest speculations it follows an image of truth. That is, there is something in the very anatomy of the soul which prohibits its adventure into that which is utterly baseless and unrelated to life. It may discolour what is true, but by its very nature it cannot escape from a truth. Just as we find shapely or unshapely people, but they all conform to a human model, so the soul in it remotest imaginations conforms in some transcendental way to its microcosmic relation to the macrocosm.

      We live our lives in an erratic rhythm, waking and sleeping alone sure in their return, for in our lives one day never repeats exactly the rhythm of another. But let us imagine an Oversoul to humanity whose majestic motions have the inevitability of the rising and setting of the constellations. Let us assume, as we well might, that that majesty in its in-breathing and out-breathing casts a light upon our own being as the sun in its phases of dawn, noon and sunset makes changing the colours of all it illuminates. Well, Mr. Yeats takes the Great Year of the Ancients, a cycle of Anima Mundi symbolised by the passage of the sun through the Zodiacal constellations, a period of about 26,000 years of our time, but in his system it is considered but as one year of that mightier being whose months and days, all with their own radiant vitality, influence our own evolution. One of its days may be the spiritual light of many of our generations. It moves from subjective to objective. There are cycles within cycles, action and recoil, contrasted and opposing powers, all of a bewildering complexity, and caught within this great wheel the lesser wheel of our life revolves, having phases as many as the days of a lunar month, all re-echoing the lordlier cycle and its phases. When he illustrates these phases of human life, thirty in all, by portraits of men and women, dead and living, typical of the phase, I suspect the author to be animated not only by a desire to elucidate the system, but by an impish humour. I ask myself was it insight or impishness which made him link Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and George Moore as typical men of the twenty-first phase, or what old lady did he discover in Mr. Galsworthy to make him unite that novelist with Queen Victoria? I am a little uncomfortable with some of my fellow-prisoners in phase twenty-five. I welcome George Herbert, but am startled to find myself along with Calvin, Luther and Cardinal Newman, as no doubt the last three would be incredulous of their own affinities to associate pilgrim souls. I am inclined to think all the good qualities of Carlyle were pruned by Mr. Yeats’ geometrical scissors to make him fit into his phase. But these character tellings, illustrative of the phases, will be to many the most interesting part of the book. For all its bewildering complexity the metaphysical structure he rears is coherent, and it fits into its parts with the precision of Chinese puzzle-boxes into each other. It coheres together, its parts are related logically to each other, but does it relate so well to life? Do we, when we read about the cycles and their attributions, say to ourselves, yes, so men have gone changed from mood to mood. We can say from our reading of history that there is action and reaction, that the philosophers of one age are antithetical to those who preceded them, that the political ideas of our age must face in the next a recoil of contrary, equal and opposing forces; nay, that the very moment one power starts out for dominion over the spirit, it calls into activity an opposing power, “one lives the other’s death, one dies the other’s life”. But as they are immortals they never truly die, and the life of the antithetical powers is like that combat of hero and demon the poet imagined so many years ago in his Wanderings of Usheen. Yes, we see this interaction, recoil and succession of mood in history, but are they the interaction, recoil and succession of moods Mr. Yeats sees? We have a tendency to make much of all that has affinity with our mood or our argument, and not to see or to underrate the importance of all that is not akin. I, with a different mentality from Mr. Yeats, see figures as important which are without significance to him. If I summed up the character of an age I might read black where he reads white. Doubtless, every age has a distinctive character, or predominant mood, and I am not learned enough in history to oppose confidently my own reading against his. I have written round and round this extraordinary book, unable in a brief space to give the slightest idea of its packed pages, its division of the faculties of man, the Will, the Creative Genius, the Mask and the Body of Fate and their lunar gyrations, or of its division of the transcendental man, the daimoniac nature and its cycles and their relations to our being, or of the doctrines of the after life. Almost any of its crammed pages would need a volume to elucidate its meanings. It is not a book which will affect many in our time. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blake’s prophetic books so ignored, so unintelligible a hundred years ago, are discussed by many editors in our time, and he is found to be the profoundest voice of his own age. It is possible A Vision may come to be regarded as the greatest of Mr. Yeats’ works. It is conceivable also that it may be regarded as his greatest erring from the way of his natural genius, and the lover of his poetry may lament that the most intense concentration of his intellect was given to this book rather than to drama or lyric. Personally, I am glad it was written. I do not doubt that though the seeds of his thought do not instantly take root and fructify in my mind that they will have their own growth, and later I may find myself comprehending much that is now unintelligible. So far as the mere writing is concerned, the part dealing with the Great Wheel and History is as fine as any prose he has ever written, and the verses set here and there have a fine, clear, cold and wintry beauty. The poetic intellect has devoured the poetic emotion, but through the transformation, beauty, the spirit animating both, maintains its unperturbed life.

A. E.

*A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Published by T. Werner Laurie, London. Price 63s.).

Return to Top

  The New Statesman

March 27, 1926

pp. 749-750




A Vision. By WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS. Privately printed. Werner Laurie. £3 3s.

      It is a truism to say that an artist’s work is part of himself, but in the case of Mr. Yeats it is true in a special way. Most men, having finished a job, are content to put it aside as done with and detached from them, and to turn to something new. Mr. Yeats, though he has often spoken of doing so, has never quite been able to do this. Whatever he has written remains somewhere constantly in his memory, and when he has grown out of sympathy with the mood which produced a poem he has hankered to make it consistent with his later temper or, failing that, to belittle it. Hence the note of satire against himself which is frequent in his later poetry; and hence those revisions the protests against which, from those who would have him spend his life in repeating Inisfree, moved him to write:

The friends that have it I do wrong
Whenever I remake a song,
Should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.

      This habit of “remaking himself,” of living with the whole body of his work, or rather of his thought, is responsible both for the machinery and the substance of the remarkable book in which he has essayed to communicate his “explanation of life.” One of his earliest interests was in mystical philosophy and the search to find the truth about the nature of things by the curious methods of the alchemists. Out of those studies sprang such stories as Rosa Alchemica, The Tables of the Law and The Adoration of the Magi ; in which figured two mystical philosophers, Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne. Into the mouth of Robartes, also, were placed some of the most symbolical poems in The Wind Among the Reeds. Much has happened to Mr Yeats since those early studies and those early writings. He has turned playwright and plunged into the practical business of the theatre. He has become a public man, who, it is said, is by no means without influence in the politics of his country. In writing he has deserted his old vague and lovely rhythms for a plainer and harsher style, and what he has had to say has often been correspondingly harsh and even mocking. Nevertheless he ever and again returns to the garden of the Alchemical Rose, and it is still probably his most congenial haven. Michael Robartes has quite recently reappeared in his verse, and to the collection of his Later Poems he appended the following note (dated 1922), which is of great interest in connection with this new book of his:

    Years ago I wrote three stories in which occur the names of Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne. I now consider that I used the actual names of two friends, and that one of these friends, Michael Robartes, has but lately returned from Mesopotamia where he has partly found and partly thought out much philosophy. I consider that John Aherne is either the original of Owen Aherne or some near relation of the man that was, and that both he and Robartes, to whose namesake I had attributed a turbulent life and death, have quarrelled with me. They take their place in a phantasmagoria in which I endeavour to explain my philosophy of life and death, and till that philosophy has found some detailed exposition in prose certain passages in the poems named above may seem obscure. To some extent I wrote them as a text for exposition.

      A Vision is the promised “detailed exposition” of the philosophy which Robartes found in his wanderings, partly in the Speculum Angelorum et Hominorum (sic) of a certain Giraldus, a sixteenth century book printed at Cracow, and partly in the traditions of the Judwali tribe of Arabs handed down from one Kusta Ben Luka. All this is explained in an introduction by Owen Aherne, in which he describes his meeting, after thirty years, with Robartes, their talk of their old relations with Mr. Yeats and their quarrel with him, and Robartes’s decision, nevertheless, to ask him to write a commentary on his manuscripts; although Aherne objects that “you will give them to a man who has thought more of the love of woman than of the love of God.” The introduction is followed by a dialogue-poem (Robartes and Aherne the speakers) reprinted from Later Poems and another note by Aherne.

      It is clear that these two inventions of his have become very real figures to Mr. Yeats, and it may be conjectured (for it is no use pretending that one can do more) that they stand for the self and the anti-self of which he wrote in that attractive but obscure little book, Per Amica Silentia Lunae, in which the philosophy of A Vision is adumbrated.

      To paraphrase that philosophy in a small space would hardly be possible. Its cardinal point is the division of incarnate man into four faculties: the Will, the Creative Mind, the Body of Fate, and the Mask.

    By Will is understood feeling that has not become desire because there is no object to desire . . . an energy as yet uninfluenced by thought, action, or emotion. . . . By Mask is understood the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence. . . . By Creative Mind is meant intellect . . . all the mind that is consciously constructive. . . . By Body of Fate is understood the physical and mental environment, the changing human body, the stream of Phenomena as this affects a particular individual, all that is forced upon us from without, Time as it affects sensation.

“The Will and Mask are predominantly Lunar or antithetical the Creative Mind and the Body of Fate predominantly Solar or primary.” They affect one another according to their respective positions in the Phases of the Moon. There are true and false Masks, true and false Creative Minds, perfections and automatonisms, discords, oppositions and contrasts, cones and gyres. All this and much more Mr. Yeats explains with elaborate precision, studying the character of man, often with reference to actual persons, living or dead, under each of the twenty-eight phases at which Will may be; applying his doctrine also to historical epochs; illustrating his theses with mathematical figures.

      It is a dark and difficult study, and many readers will be content to take the author’s advice, leave the “Great Wheel” alone, and “dip here and there in the verse and into my comments upon life and history.” They will come with delight upon the beautiful and lucid sonnet, Leda. But no one interested in Mr. Yeats should altogether ignore a book which, if as an explanation of life it is as bewildering as life itself, does at any rate out of its very darkness throw a certain light on one of the most curious minds of our time.

Return to Top

  Times Literary Supplement

22 April 1926

p. 296

[TLS: Ernest de Selincourt]
[Jochum: Basil de Selincourt]



A VISION : An Explanation of Life founded upon the Writings of Giraldus and upon certain doctrines attributed to Kusta Ben Luka. By WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS. (Werner Laurie. £3 3s. net.)

    Mr. Yeats’s latest excursion in the realms of the ambiguous renews for criticism, in a singularly acute form, the problem which the history of his literary activities has long evoked. Here is one of the most sensitive and most brilliant of contemporary writers, from whose tongue or pen words flow in streams as clear as they are rapid, making music in their passage and reflecting the delicate beauties of earth and heaven, who is yet fundamentally incredulous and unsatisfied: perpetually engaged in probing and refining his impressions and searching ever for deep and deeper significances of things, yet never wholly accepting, never yielding himself to the significances he actually unveils. It is as if, the realities of life being infinite, one should plead this infinity as a ground for rating at no worth the infinitesimal of our actual experience of them; whereas the fact that we have an endless lesson to learn increases for us really the importance of laying sound foundations and doing our best, in these first totterings, to go straight. For, of course, the infinite of reality is not, if we may put it so, an attribute reserved, but an attribute exhibited from the first and matched in us by a quality of infinity in our perception. It is not necessary to plunge into darkness, to explore what is subterranean or supra-lunar, in order to touch the mysteries of things, seeing that it is impossible to touch anything without at the same time touching mystery.

    With Blake and others like him the impassioned pursuit of the mysterious came of a defect of the understanding, a warping of the grain of the mind established too early to be outgrown; and one can but admire the convulsed and knotty growth in which a giant of the forest, crippled yet undefeated, still contrived to rear its defiant head and greet the sun with smiling leaf and flower. Indeed for Blake, though he often seems to assert the contrary, his mysticism was not an escape from life, but a continuance, a justification; because he was satisfied with his life, he was satisfied with its sustaining mysteries. Both engrossed him, in both alike he was the pilgrim of eternity. Mr. Yeats’s mysticism, however, seems to be the outcome of a slightly wistful, slightly petulant, distaste for the surface of things. He dives, whenever he has breath to do so and for as long as he has breath to do so, in order to avoid the fidgety contact of wind and wave. But the lonely deeps, when he reaches them, are themselves a little uncongenial, a little unreal, and there is that in his account of them which suggests that the impulse which took him there has been the desire to prove, to himself and others, how long he can stay under water. He dedicates the present volume (a work which, with its elaborate blend of astrology and psychology, its modest parade of medieval scholastic allusion, its ruminative absorption of the wisdom of the nomads of Arabia, must have haunted him for years) to a lady named Vestigia, whom in his third sentence he addresses thus:—

    You with your beauty and your learning and your mysterious gifts were held by all in affection, and though, when the first draft of this dedication was written, I had not seen you for more than thirty years, nor knew where you were nor what you were doing, and though much had happened since we copied the Jewish Schemahamphorasch with its seventy-two names of God in Hebrew characters, it was plain that I must dedicate my book to you.

Pretty as this is, it is obviously not serious; it is “style”; and so we know that it is style again, when Mr. Yeats declares later,

    I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created or could create part of one history, and that the soul’s.

just as it is style again when he tells us

    I remember a learned brassfounder in the North of England who visited us occasionally and was convinced that there was a certain moment in every year which, once known, brought with it “the Summum Bonum, the Stone of the Wise.”

This learned northern brassfounder is just as likely know his moment and find his stone as is Mr. Yeats to have struck the system which will free his imagination for the unrolling of final poetic truth. And his book, with its accomplishment, its genius of intuition, its fleeting beauty, is tiresome because of the conviction it leaves with us that he knows this as well as anyone and yet cannot detach himself from the delights of dalliance.

Return to Top

  The Quest

(October 1926)

pp. 96-98

[G. R. S. Mead]



An Explanation of Life founded upon the Writings of Giraldus
  and upon Certain Doctrines attributed to Kusta ben Luka.
  By William Butler Yeats. Privately printed for Subscribers
  only. London (T. Werner Laurie): pp. 256; 63s. n.

IN the exposition of his very occult theme Mr. Yeats has, in our opinion, fallen between two stools, either of which might have supported his reputation, had he chosen to sit on one or the other squarely. The matter purports to be a scheme of lunar astrology, which claims to throw light on individual life and general history. Mr. Yeats tells us repeatedly that he holds it in highest estimation, that it has fascinated him, obsessed him even, for years. If there be any such real value in it, surely it would have been better if the exponent had told us quite frankly how he became possessed of the information. If he has actually any original documents, printed or written, in expository or note form, why not make them directly accessible? Students could then have chance to judge for themselves how far Mr. Yeats is justified in his forth-setting and speculation. As it is, they cannot follow systematically the genesis of his lunar scheme; and above all they are left entirely in the dark as to the authority for the values assigned to the several phases and moments in his selenic time-symbolism. If, on the contrary, Mr. Yeats bases himself on psychic communications, then we might as well be told so, and accordingly be able to assign the many dogmatic statements to their proper source. Had this open course been followed, we might have had some material of interest either in the one case to students of astrology acquainted with the lunar aspects of the art, as set forth, for instance, in its development in India, or in the other to students of psychical research. Unfortunately the author has chosen for his narrative and forth-setting the form of romance, the success of which, in such a case, depends, not on the free flight of the imagination only, but on a good equipment in science, philosophy, history and scholarship, so that the fiction may ‘intrigue’ the educated as well as the casual reader. True it is that Mr. Yeats excuses himself form being a scholar, historian, philosopher or scientist; but why then enter such fields at all? Take his mythical Giraldus. If he supposes that the famous Humanist of that name, Gregory of Ferasa, the friend of Picus de Mirandula, could supply sufficient camouflage for his purpose, he is greatly mistaken. For though Gyraldus did address to his friend an ‘Interpretation of the Symbols of the Philosopher Pythagoras,’ and though he has a monograph on the Calendar,—‘On Years and Months,’—there is not a word in the two fat folios of his works that can make him serviceable for Mr. Yeats’ purpose. We have a woodcut portrait of G. facing The Vision’s title-page, which will doubtless impress the unwary. But, as we are assured by a student of such cuts, the ‘hatching’ is not mediæval, but characteristic of modern German reproductions. This would be of little moment if a genuine original exists; but unfortunately the portrait bears the legend: ‘From the Speculum Angelorum et Homenorum.’ Now Gyraldus wrote good Latin and Mr. Yeats’ fictive hero should at least write ‘inferior Latin.’ But ‘Homenorum’ is a ‘howler’ for which Smith Minor at Preparatory School would receive condign punishment. Nor is this mitigated by Mr. Yeats’ ‘Hominorum’ on p. xvii. But indeed our author’s Latinity is disconcerting, to say the least of it. Witness, for instance: simulacrae for simulacra (p. 222), arcon for archon (p. 242), sybil for sibyl (p. 248). Proper names not infrequently follow suit. Let us excuse ‘Heroditus’ as a printer’s error, perhaps even also Ammonius ‘Sacca’ for A. ‘Saccas’ (p. 189); but what, for instance, of ‘Diotime’ for ‘Diotima,’ not once but twice (pp. 248, 252)? Modern names again are far from impeccable: for example, ‘Homell’ for that of our veteran Assyriologist’s Prof. Fritz Hommel—or ‘Furtwingler’ for that of the well-known critic of ancient art, Prof. Furtwängler.

      It is to be regretted that Mr. Yeats did not get some competent reader to go over his proofs so as to remove such palpable blemishes. There are again no references to quotations anywhere. But as Mr. Yeats has chosen the form of fiction it is not worth while trying to verify passages we cannot ‘spot’ at once, even when we are morally certain they do not reproduce the original. When, however, we do remember the original, we find our author embroidering it. Take, for instance, the famous reference of Epiphanius to the Epiphany æon-ceremony in the Koreion at Alexandria. In this regard we find Mr. Yeats saying (p. 163) that the symbolic processional image was marked on the forehead, hands and knees, not only with a cross, but also with a ‘star,’ which is not in the text of the Church Father, and that the worshippers in carrying the image round the shrine cried out: “The Virgin has given birth to the God.” But Epiphanius says that the explanation given (sc. by the priests) was: “To-day at this hour the Virgin hath given birth to the Æon.” In all such classical references indeed our author shows clearly that he has for the most part not got his information from full versions, but from quotations or phrases out of their context. When, moreover, we come to his schematic working out of Western history according to his symbolic lunar plan, we are little content with its adequacy. If critical moments there be in that history, surely two such outstanding events as the Discovery of the New World and the Beginning of the Reform cannot be omitted; and yet there is not a word about either of them. Oswald Spengler might have helped Mr. Yeats to a more plausible survey. Some friend might have given him the gist of this stimulating work from the German original, and conveyed to him some idea of what the philosophy of history means and what enormous labour must go to acquiring a knowledge of the facts to be analyzed. (Spengler’s Untergang des Abenlandes [sic], we are glad to know, has just been made accessible in English.) There is, it is true, something in our author’s use of the symbolism of the mutually interpenetrating equilateral triangles (the so-called Solomon’s seal), when taken up into the sphere of the ‘Platonic solids’ and then made to live in the form of progressively interpenetrating twin cones, or ‘gyres,’ as Mr. Yeats calls them; but until he lays all his cards on the table, it is useless to deal with his treatment of it. It is distasteful to criticise a work to the perusal of which we looked forward with keen expectation. But when we are asked to subscribe £3 3s. for a copy of a book, we expect it to be either one that contains some very valuable reliable information or a literary masterpiece; and it cannot be said that A Vision as a whole comes up to either expectation. This is a pity; for lovers of Mr. Yeats’ poetry will find some fine verse-pieces in it.

Return to Top


IV: 4
(October 1926)

p. 266



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Werner Laurie.) £3 3s. net.

It has long been clear that Mr. Yeats is becoming increasingly dissatisfied; and he is seeking solace in ways increasingly unlikely to solace his admirers. Whether le roi s’amuse, or whether he is persuaded he is more likely to find the heart of reality by attacking the superficies at wholly new points, is a question. But it is less important since one can have no doubt that the satisfaction he seeks (we cannot believe he is, in any profound sense, gaining it) is almost purely personal. This adventuring in the mystical—or rather, the occult—discourages in its very approach by preciosity and a kind of dramatic mystification. It may be Giraldus; it may be Kusta Ben Luka; it is certainly Mr. Yeats—a phase of him—but it moves us neither as confession nor as literature. The book is handsomely produced; and the episodic poetry is often good, if not good from Mr. Yeats.

Return to Top

  New Republic

16 January 1929

pp. 249-51

Edmund Wilson


Much of the text is substantially the same as that of Axel’s Castle (47 ff.), though the text is reorganized and even the passages which are included almost verbatim show some variations. The article silently adopts US spelling in three quotations.

Yeats’s Guide to the Soul

    A Vision, by W. B. Yeats. London: T. Werner Laurie. 256 pages.

MR. W. B. YEATS has now finally published his “system”—that work on the human mind of which rumors have occasionally reached us and to which he has sometimes referred us in his writings for the fuller explanation of his symbolism. The book has as yet been published only in a limited edition; but it will no doubt eventually appear, like those of Yeats’s other writings which have first been brought out in this way, in a more easily accessible form. In any case, it may be of interest to describe, in so far as that is possible, a work to which, though Yeats’s admirers may find it disappointing, the writer himself apparently attaches so much importance.

    “A Vision” is presented, then, as “an explanation of life” purporting to be “founded upon the writings of Giraldus and upon certain doctrines attributed to Kusta Ben Luka.” The “system” is introduced by an imaginary character of Yeats’s, familiar to readers of his early short stories and poems, Owen Aherne, who tells how another imaginary character of Yeats’s, Michael Robartes, discovered in the course of his wanderings the doctrines of the two philosophers—which turned out strangely to coincide—and brought them to Yeats’s attention. Giraldus is described as a seventeenth-century writer in Latin, the author of a book entitled, in what appears to be singularly bad Latin, “Speculum Angelorum et Hominorum”; and Kusta Ben Luka, the author of “The Way of the Soul Between Sun and Moon,” is supposed to have been a “Christian Philosopher at the Court of Harun Al-Raschid.”

    The legend, in regard to this latter, the Christian Philosopher, is that “a Caliph who reigned after the death of Harun Al-Raschid discovered one of his companions climbing the wall that encircled the garden of his favorite slave, and because he had believed this companion entirely devoted to his interests, gave himself up to astonishment. After much consideration, he offered a large sum of money to any man who could explain human nature so completely that he should never be astonished again.” The philosopher, Kusta Ben Luka, presented himself before the Caliph and expounded the system which follows.

    Now it should in the beginning be understood, in connection with “A Vision,” which is likely to prove rather puzzling, not only by reason of its complexity, but also because one may be perplexed as to precisely how far Yeats himself intends us to take it seriously—that it belongs to a class of compositions rather rare in modern literature of which Poe’s “Eureka” is perhaps the readiest example. One notes a tendency in contemporary criticism to dismiss “Eureka” contemptuously, as if it were to be judged as a contribution to professional scientific and philosophical thought. But Poe, for all his feverish excitement about it, did not intend it so: he called “Eureka” a “prose poem.” And so with this “Vision” of Yeats’s, which he surrounds with mystifications, if we would extract from it such truth as it contains, we must regard it, for all its abstract language and its geometrical diagrams, as primarily the production of a poet. Yet is Yeats really attempting, in a sense, to eat his cake and have it, too? Would he be glad to have us take him at face value and swallow him entire, at the same time that, if we were inclined to laugh at him, he has protected himself with a device for passing the whole thing off as a fantasy? In “A Vision,” he seems alternately to suggest that his “system” is literally true, that his “daimons” and “tinctures,” his “cones” and “gyres,” his “husks” and “passionate” bodies, are things which actually exist; and then to intimate that, after all, they are not to be taken too seriously: “However,” he writes in one place, after some abstruse astrological calculations, “I but suggest and wait judgment, being no scholar; and it may be, but seek a background for my thought, a painted scene.” His vision ranges all the way from comparatively realistic estimates of Bernard Shaw, George Moore, Shakespeare, Napoleon and other famous people, to revelations such as the following upon the behavior of the soul after death: “The Spirit first floats horizontally within the man’s dead body, but then rises until it stands at his head. The Celestial Body is also horizontal at first but lies in the opposite position, its feet where the Spirit’s head is, and then rising, as does the Spirit, stands up at last at the feet of the man’s body. The Passionate Body rises straight up from the genitals and stands in the center. The Husk remains in the body until the time for it to be separated and lost in Anima Mundi.” But even Yeats’s ideas about history and about human personality are here so closely bound up with these mysteries that it is impossible to consider them separately, and even in endeavoring to disengage what seems most credible and intelligible in his books, we find ourselves deeply involved among supernatural phantoms and astrological machinery.

    Yeats, then, appears to believe that human personality—that is, the different types of personality to be found in different individuals—varies in a kind of closed circle. The different types of people possible are all, as it were, regular stages in a circular journey to and fro between complete objectivity at one pole and complete subjectivity at the other; and this journey may be represented by the orbit of the moon, to which it corresponds. Let the moon represent subjectivity and the sun, objectivity; then the dark of the moon, when it is closest to the sun, is the phase of complete objectivity; and the full moon, which is farthest from the sun, is the phase of complete subjectivity. At these two poles of the circle, human life is impossible: there exist only antipodal types of supernatural beings. But along the circumference of the circle, between these two ultra-human poles, there occur twenty-six phases which cover all possible types of human personality.

    The theory of the variation of these types is, however, extremely complicated: Yeats has invented for himself a set of psychological components, with their own special terminology, which owes nothing to any other. He begins by assigning to “incarnate man” four “Faculties”; the Will, “by which is understood feeling that has not become desire . . . an energy as yet uninfluenced by thought, action, or emotion”; the Mask, which means “the image of what we wish to become, or of that to which we give our reverence”; the Creative Mind, “the intellect . . . all the mind that is consciously constructive”; and the Body of Fate, “the physical and mental environment, the changing human body, the stream of Phenomena as this affects a particular individual, all that is forced upon us from without.” The Will is always opposite the Mask: “it looks into a painted picture.” The Creative Mind is opposite the Body of Fate: “it looks into a photograph; but both look into something which is the opposite of themselves.” The characters of the different phases are, accordingly, ascertained by combining four different elements found at the four different points where two diameters meet the circumference of the circle. The diameters are always drawn so that these points are equidistant from the points chosen for the sun and moon; and it is the Will which, as it were, we follow around the clock—from whose place we count each phase. The characters of the individual faculties are determined by their farness or nearness from or to the opposite poles of objectivity and subjectivity.

    Starting with the first of the human phases, to the right of the objective pole, the soul passes first through phases of almost purely physical life (where the examples are drawn from the Bacchuses and shepherds of the poets). It is, however, moving towards subjectivity (Walt Whitman, Alexandre Dumas): it is seeking itself, and as it does so, it becomes more beautiful. The ultra-human subjective phase, which apparently includes Christ, is described as “a phase of complete beauty,” where “Thought and Will are indistinguishable, effort and attainment are indistinguishable . . . nothing is apparent but dreaming Will and the Image that it dreams.” This is preceded and followed by phases which include Baudelaire and Beardsley; Keats and Giorgione; Blake and Rabelais; Dante and Shelley; and presumably Yeats himself: these may roughly be described as men who have withdrawn from the life of the world in order to live in their dream. But once the all-subjective phase is past, the soul

    would be the world’s servant, and as it serves,
Choosing whatever task’s most difficult
Among tasks not impossible, it takes
Upon the body and upon the soul
The coarseness of the drudge. Before the full
It sought itself and afterwards the world.

And it is now leaving beauty behind and is headed toward deformity:

Reformer, merchant, statesman, learned man,
Dutiful husband, honest wife by turn,
Cradle upon cradle, and all in flight and all
Deformed because there is no deformity
But saves us from a dream.

The soul has now come full circle: the three final human phases before the phase of complete objectivity are the Hunchback, the Saint and the Fool.

    Yeats has worked all this out with great care and with considerable ingenuity. He has described each of the twenty-eight phases and supplied us with typical examples. What we find in this part of the book is Yeats’s familiar preoccupation with the conflict between action and philosophy, reality and imagination. (It is amusing and characteristic that, according to his system, the part of humanity closest to the sun—that is, closest the objective nature—should be the part that is bathed in darkness, whereas the part which is furthest from the sun—that is, nearest the subjective nature—should be the part that is bright!) His sense of this conflict is profound, and it has usually inspired him well in his poetry and his essays. But in spite of the admirable poem, already published some time ago, from which I have quoted above and with which he has prefaced “A Vision,” we rebel against the “Great Wheel”: we decide that it and its accompanying wheels have ended by grinding to bits both Yeats’s intelligence and his taste. We contrast with his turbid horoscopes the clear and distinguished outline of the portraiture of his memoirs.

    There are, to be sure, certain passages of “A Vision” as brilliant as Yeats at his best. He writes, for example, of the phase of “the Receptive Man,” to which he assigns Rembrandt and Synge: “The man wipes his breath from the window pane, and laughs in his delight at all the varied scene.” And of the phase of “the Obsessed Man,” to which he assigns Giorgione and Keats: “When we compare these images with those of any subsequent phase, each seems studied for its own sake; they float as in serene air, or lie hidden in some valley, and if they move it is to music that returns always to the same note, or in a dance that so returns upon itself that they seem immortal.” And there follows what is perhaps the most eloquent passage in the book: “Here are born those women who are most touching in their beauty. Helen was of the phase; and she comes before the mind’s eye elaborating a delicate personal discipline, as though she would make her whole life an image of a unified antithetical (that is, subjective) energy. While seeming an image of softness, and of quiet, she draws perpetually upon glass with a diamond. Yet she will not number among her sins anything that does not break that personal discipline, no matter what it may seem according to others’ discipline; but if she fail in her own discipline she will not deceive herself, and for all the languor of her movements, and her indifference to the acts of others, her mind is never at peace. She will wander much alone as though she consciously meditated her masterpiece that shall be at the full moon, yet unseen by human eye, and when she returns to her house she will look upon her household with timid eyes, as though she knew that all powers of self-protection had been taken away, and that of her once violent primary Tincture (that is, objective element) nothing remained but a strange irresponsible innocence.” And there is a strange imaginative power in the conception of the final sequence of the Hunchback, the Saint and the Fool.

    But, after all, it is not Yeats’s purpose here to dramatize, or to write fine prose: he is intent upon his system; and, as I say, I am convinced that that system has made mincemeat of his natural intelligence. One of the really interesting features of the scheme is its grouping together in the same phase of figures from very different fields or of figures whose human destiny seems to have been completely different: in the case of these latter personalities, he tries to show that of two individuals who differ in most superficial qualities, one of them may represent a kind of miscarriage of the type, while the other represents the type realizing its true possibilities. But the queer juxtaposition of names, which so startle and amuse us at first—George Moore and Bernard Shaw; Galsworthy and Queen Victoria; Napoleon and Shakespeare—though they do, no doubt, in certain cases, arise from deep intuitions into the underlying realities of character seem more often—as in the wild combination of Flaubert, Herbert Spencer, Swedenborg and Dostoyevsky—excessively far-fetched. One can’t help feeling that it would be equally easy to make out a case for putting many of these names at any one of several other phases. And the more closely one examines the system, the more arbitrary it seems. With such a variety of components in each phase, and with these components so variously influenced by other circumstances (I have greatly simplified the system in my account of it), it would not seem very difficult or wonderful to make them accommodate the whole of humanity. In the first place, Yeats’s antithesis of objective and subjective seems open to grave objections. One feels that Yeats has been aware of these objections, and has invented, in order to meet them, an apparatus so complex that it entirely fails to impose itself by convincing us of its inevitability, because it could apparently be used to justify almost anything.

    And the same sort of criticism applies to Yeats’s philosophy of history. For the matter is complicated further by imagining humanity as a whole, apart from the cycle of phases which may all be found at the same time in different individuals, to pass through a cycle of its own. This cycle is the “Great Year” of the ancients, and it is governed by the signs of the zodiac. By means of astrological calculations which, as he tells us in one place, have cost him “months of exhausting labor,” he traces the revolution of western civilization through two of these historical cycles: the first of these completing itself in the course of the two thousand years preceding the Christian era; and the second, in the two thousand years since, so that it is drawing to a close in our own time. Yeats’s summary of human history, by reason of the brilliance of his style and the excitement of his imagination, is not without its interest—is in fact the most readable part of his book; but like his discussion of personality, it seems blurred, encumbered and confused, by the fixed and intricate theories which he has tried to make it fit. Into his elaborate discussion of the adventures—the trances, returns and transformations—of the human soul after death, which makes up the fourth part of his book, I shall not attempt to follow him, even at a distance. Unlike the late Harry Houdini, Yeats appears to believe that the tappings and ectoplasms of spiritualistic seances are genuine manifestations. One feels, however, even here, the ambiguity of which I have spoken, in regard to the author’s real beliefs. Most of his instances of the supernatural are drawn either from peasants’ stories or from poetry itself, or ascribed to the Arabian wanderings of the imaginary personage, Owen Aherne; yet Yeats has written about them as drily, as technically and as solemnly as if he were composing a zoölogical textbook.

    Since finishing Yeats’s “Vision,” I have been reading that other compendious treatise on human nature and destiny by that other great Irish writer of Yeats’s generation: Shaw’s “Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.” In his “Great Wheel” of twenty-eight phases, Yeats has situated Bernard Shaw at a phase which I calculate is removed from Yeats’s own by about a quarter of the circumference and which is headed straight for the deformity of seeking, not the soul, but the world. I have already pointed out in these pages, in writing of Yeats’s autobiography, the striking and dramatic contrast between the careers of these two remarkable men, coming from eighteenth-century Dublin into the outside modern world. Shaw accepted the technique of science and set himself to master the problems of industrial democratic society. Yeats rejected the methods of naturalism and applied himself to the problems of the individual mind. And while Shaw lives in the middle of London, Yeats has secluded himself in a tower on the farthest Irish coast. Their respective literary testaments, published almost at the same time, mark as it were the final points of their divergence: in his “Intelligent Woman’s Guide,” Shaw bases all human hope and happiness on an equal distribution of income, which he says will finally make impossible even the pessimism of a Swift or a Voltaire; while Yeats, a Protestant like Shaw, has, in “A Vision,” made the life of humanity contingent on the movements of the stars. “The day is far off,” he concludes, “when the two halves of man can define each its own unity in the other as in a mirror, Sun in Moon, Moon in Sun, and so escape out of the Wheel.”

    The misapplication on this scale in the field of psychology and history of one of the first intellects of our time is probably the price that our time has to pay for the possession of a great poet.


Return to Top

  The Irish Statesman

7 September 1929

pp. 11-12

AE [George Russell]



FEW POETS have been so bountiful to their biographers as Yeats. The intellectual biographer of the poet will never suffer for lack of matter about which he may speculate. Indeed, to understand the poet in his later phases one must have gone into the psyches’ own world, which the ancients fixed between earth and heaven, or have listened to the reveries of the dead, so remote from the normal is his thought; and the effort to interpret is made more difficult because he has invented a symbolism of his own. One would retreat from the effort but for the atmosphere of beauty which is inseparable from almost every motion of the poet’s mind. I read, allured by the cold, lazy dignity of the writing in the poet’s latest book, which he calls A Packet for Ezra Pound. I call it lazy writing because he tells me little in detail of the circumstance in which were set these psychic experiences. Yet, it may not be laziness at all, but some enchantment upon the intellect when it enters into the dream world, so that it loses the alert waking questioning habit, and it becomes dreamlike itself, for in dream we are never inquisitive, we suffer or endure or gaze in joy or terror at the pageant of which we are part. Once we are inquisitive the pageant dissolves and we wake. The most important part of this book is that which the poet has named Introduction to the Great Wheel, and in this he tells how the geometrical philosophy in his book, the Vision, came to be written. It is a collaboration between the dreaming consciousness of his wife and his own, with possibly other entities not of this plane of being. The poet speaks of them as if he believed they were external to consciousness, but when we enter into the dream world there is a dramatic sundering of the Ego, and while we dream we are persuaded of the existence of many people which, when we wake, we feel were only parts of our own protean nature. I do not suggest that these philosophic entities who communicated to the poet and his wife the substance of the Vision may be simply some submerged part of the soul, because I am sceptical of the possibility. I merely say that the poet has not given me enough material to decide. There is a great deal of confusion both in the thought of the Vision and in this later Introduction, and the poet is conscious of this. I do not complain about it, for all journeying into hitherto untravelled forests must be confused, and differ from travel upon beaten high roads. We shall probably come to an understanding of these psychic interactions between the consciousness of the poet and his wife, and whether the beings he speaks of were entities of another sphere, or the emergence into waking consciousness of some hitherto deep hidden portion of their own natures, by study of other books rather than the poet’s own narrative. There are many subtle minds pursuing truth into the deeps of being, many tentative and confused as Mr. Yeats is, but all contributing something to a psychology which will probably later become more luminous, and may make it easy for us to reach that ancestral wisdom which Keats said was in us all, so that we can drink that old wine of heaven, and come to that wisdom with ease where we now get blinded and lost in the search. I confess, while I find many things exciting in the Vision, I would like to re-write it, leaving out almost all that over precise movement of his cycles. The virtue of the soul is to be free, and Mr. Yeats’ spirits condemn us all to a cyclic progression, which is like the judgment of a mad dictator willing it that men should be imprisoned in one cell after another in a great prison, from which there is no escape, and in the imprisonments there is no justice only a kind of destiny willed by a divinity as indifferent as that Setebos brooded upon by Caliban. It is very dangerous to believe that life is becoming mechanised, for that mysterious mind within us may take the hint and dress up a complete philosophy of mechanisation for us, and if we accept it, we weave our own enchantment, build our own prison cell, enter it, lock ourselves in and throw the key out of the window. It is of much more importance to us to have experience than to have philosophies, and those who can tell us how to rise above ourselves into mid-world or heaven world are the only people in whose thought I have any profound interest. Philosophies of the universe are all very well, excellent intellectual exercises. But I know the moment I get out of that rational everyday mentality which enjoys such exercises, the moment I rise within myself and draw nigh to deep own-being all these philosophies vanish. Plato said, “If there be any gods they certainly do not philosophise.” This is my growl about the Vision and the Decline in the West, and Phase, and other attempts to show how God geometrises, though when I cannot have spiritual experience I turn to them and devour their chaff and find it excellent food for the waking consciousness. I cannot really review a book like this unless I write another book twice or thrice its length. I can only talk round and round it, making a springboard from which I might leap into the depths of the Vision if I had time, but these creatures the poet speaks of as the “Frustraters,” [sic] operate as a host against me, and while I would like to know the core of this philosophy I feel I must wait until I come to that intensity of being which, when we attain it, the sage Patangali tells us, will enable us to penetrate to the essential essence of anything, and comprehend it fully merely by directing our attention to it. Then I might know in a second what otherwise must take me many years. I will wait for that myriad instant, and be content with my half knowledge of what the poet means. I think with more delight upon two poems which he has inserted into his Packet than upon anything else in the book. It is possible that the poet had to go through all that hard intellectual labour of the Vision and his after study of philosophy to write the Tower, in which his verse achieved a new power and dignity. It is possible the Muse will forsake us unless we keep the intellect athletic, and she will reward us even if we forsake her and go mountain climbing if we return to her more athletic than when we left. Yes, I think after every book of poetry the poet should exercise himself in some hard intellectual labour before he begins to supplicate the Muse again. That dweller in the innermost will feel then we approach her with reverence, and will breathe on us the holy breath with a more intense flame than before.

A. E.

A Packet for Ezra Pound. By William Butler Yeats. (The Cuala Press, Dublin. 10/6).

Return to Top


18 September 1929

pp. 512-13

Seán O’Faoláin


Mr. Yeats’s Trivia

    A Packet for Ezra Pound, by William Butler Yeats. Dublin: the Cuala Press. 10s. 6d.

FROM his winter retreat at Rapallo, where he walks of nights, argues and doubtless quarrels a little with Mr. Ezra Pound comes this little book from Mr. Yeats’s pen. Its chief content is a new introduction for that portion of the book called A Vision which goes by the name of The Great Wheel. A Vision is a strange unphilosophic attempt to explain the characters of men and their fated composition, and their effect on and recurrence in history. It appeared originally in a limited expensive edition with a fantastic preface purporting to explain how the documents on which it is based came into the hands of Mr. Yeats—an account he here confesses to be a mere story: it had many geometrical figures and was written in a difficult and often unintelligible symbolism. Yet it was of the utmost interest to lovers of Yeats’s poetry and many could see in it the struggles of a man, who had never read philosophy, who had never practised lucidity in prose, to explain in another medium those thoughts which are constantly to be found at the back of even his earliest verse.

    It is not difficult, for instance, to trace the doctrine of the anti-self, as described there, to lines of great and simple beauty in such early books as The Wanderings of Oisin, and it will be an interesting task some day for the biographer of the poet to follow the development of that embryonic thought through the years up to its description, at last fully realized, in the pages of the rewritten Vision. For Mr. Yeats is evidently rewriting that volume, and here explains why it was so arcane and so unexplicit: if the new preface is to be believed the book originated in his wife’s successful attempt at automatic writing, the messages later coming by speech in sleep. Much of what was said and written baffled the poet and confused him when he came to write the book but now, though still under the influence of his other-world messengers, he says he will publish only what he understands.

    On the whole it becomes evident that this somewhat artificial connection with spirituality has not benefited Mr. Yeats’s work, whether in prose or in verse. In his earliest verse there was an air of the other world that was far more charming and far more persuasive, nor is it at all evident that the poetry of his later years which derives from this reasoned doctrine of the communion of heaven and earth is really, as the poet believes it is, of a toughter [sic] or more passionate fibre. The poetry of The Wild Swans at Coole, the poetry of a lost love and a seared life, is as passionate as any poetry in the Vita Nuova, but it may well be questioned if the obscure private symbolism of The Cat and the Moon, let us say, is not the product of an easy sentimentality, a sort of play-acting with the hard work of poetry. It would be hard to blame readers if they felt that they had exchanged the charm and sorrow of the quite early poems for the lines of an entirely charmless, unsorrowing, befuddled old poseur. There is a great gap between spirits and spirituality, and none of Mr. Yeats’s spiritistic verse has succeeded in bridging it.


Return to Top

  The Nation

4 December 1929

pp. 681-82

Seán O’Faoláin


The article silently adopts US spelling in one quotation.

Mr. Yeats’s Kubla Khan

    A Packet for Ezra Pound. By William Butler Yeats. Dublin: The Cuala Press. 10s. 6d.

THIS slight book consists of a few pages of autobiographic gossip about Mr. Yeats and Mr. Pound at Rapallo, a new preface to The Great Wheel (from “A Vision”), a poem, and a letter declaring that that book will proclaim a new divinity—the Oedipus-Christ, apparently, who sank into the earth body and soul instead of ascending into the abstract heavens like the son of God. The new preface, the only portion of the book that may claim any interest, replaces the old preface to “A Vision” which told an impossible story of the finding of the documents which led to the preparation of that strange book. It is now explained that shortly after his marriage Yeats found his wife an adept at 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.”

      We are not told why the poet disregarded this warning, and those of us who have tried to understand “A Vision” wish fervently that he had not. By 1920 fifty copy-books were filled with this automatic writing and a lesser number with the revelations in sleep that took the place of the writing. These books seem to have played a large part in the making of “A Vision,” of which the author now says:

      All of “A Vision” except the section on the twenty-eight phases, and that called Dove or Swan which I repeat without change, fills me with shame. I had misinterpreted the geometry, and in my ignorance of philosophy failed to understand distinctions upon which the coherence of the whole depended, and as my wife was unwilling that her share should be known, and I to seem sole author, I had invented an unnatural story of an Arabian traveler which I must amend and find a place for some day because I was fool enough to write half a dozen poems that are unintelligible without it.

      The remainder of this part of the present book consists of a more or less detailed account of the circumstances and difficulties attending these spirit messages. Assuming that the account bears some actual relation to genuine experiences—Mr. Yeats has a way of preferring the symbolic truth to the literal truth—it will be of some interest to the psychologist if of none to the literary man. Meanwhile it is interesting to observe the implications of the above confession. For all the fragility of the early poetry, so faery, so charming, so bewitching, nobody ever thought of complaining that it was remote from human interests as the critics did of the arcane symbolism in the “Wind among the Reeds” and other volumes that have appeared since. This symbolism came largely from Yeats’s interest in Blake, who led him for a long time by two roads—the road of the divine imagination, the revelatory imagination, and the road of the divine passions. The farther he went along the former the more he became lost in its dark mazes, for he was Yeats and not Blake, and he was very sane and Blake was very mad. In his attempts to distinguish the false from the true imagination, which is the problem of this gospel, he was sidetracked by his unfortunate interest in the world of the daemons of whom he speaks most lucidly in “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”—which is his retelling of the thoughts of the Cambridge Platonist, Henry More, in his book “The Immortality of the Soul.” This was tantamount to exchanging the fairies of Sligo for the spooks of Soho, and the spirituality of the one was poorly bargained away for the spiritism of the other.

      Yeats would himself deny, I think, that he made this exchange, for he has said somewhere that the magical ideas of such men as More are but the same body of ancient tradition that we find in the superstitions of rural Ireland which were his early love; but they are indeed two very different worlds that he has created for himself out of these two interests. The world of imagination in which the Wanderings of Oisin was born was one to which all have access; it is magical and innocent, and as near us as the wonder-world of our own private childhood. But what of the mysterious darkness of this other world? It is really not one-half as mysterious as the fairy world his Sligo peasants created for him. That world throbbed with life for them and him, it was an elaborate starlight; this other world was conceived intellectually and is supported by such invention as the impossible story of the Arabian traveler. He has made his journey to it by a road as tortuous as the road to Babel in the old scriptural cuts, and the readers who choose to follow him do so more from loyalty than natural attraction, feeling when they get there, I make no doubt, as uncomfortable as a skeptic at a seance. It is hard on Yeats’s admirers: he invents a world of unattractive spooks, then invents stories about it to give it color, then writes poems that are only intelligible when read with these invented stories, and for the sake of the verse we put up with the story and the spooks only to be told of a sudden that it was a foolish story anyway and that the spooks had misled him. We are left with the suspicion that it is not the spooks but Yeats’s critical faculty that is at fault.

      It is not impossible that the experiences recounted in the new preface are genuine. From the point of view of the literary man it makes no difference which story Yeats prefers to keep; he will be tempted to disregard both of them, as Professor J. L. Lowes disregarded Coleridge’s story about the composition of Kubla Khan in writing his “Road to Xanadu.” In that book, a monument of industry, every single line in the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan was most plausibly traced to its sources in Coleridge’s reading, and if some indefatigable student were to apply a little of the same method to Yeats’s “Vision” he would probably find that the sources of that book lie just as snugly within the realms of this fleshly world. Mr. Yeats avers that in all his readings among the philosophers he has come on nothing, save the vortex of Empedocles, that suggests the geometrical symbolism communicated by his “messengers” and reproduced in “A Vision.” It is most likely that the notion originated, as his dream originated, with the group of thoughts that were sifted down to “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”—thoughts that gathered into the city of his brain from a thousand places. A million things might have suggested his geometrical symbolism to him: the strange geometrical designs by Henry More, for example, the pictures of the Wheel of Life he must have seen over and over again in his readings in Indian philosophy, the Tantric symbols from the same source, and so on. This is not said to deride Yeats’s belief but to show its irrelevance to literature, for in the end it will make little matter which be true since the only thing of interest or importance to anybody will be the beauty and the poetry strained from all this brew. The brew itself tasted very flat indeed in “A Vision,” and it tastes so very flat in this little book that it drives one to the thought that writers nowadays do far too much of their brewing in public, and do it far too quickly.


Return to Top

  The Scotsman

18 October 1937

p. 13

Edwin Muir



Messages of the “Communicators”

A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. (15s. Macmillan)

    This is a book of the highest interest, both as a vision of terrestrial and superterrestrial life seen by Mr Yeats, or rather given to him by his “communicators,” and as a light on his poetry. In 1917, just after his marriage, his wife attempted automatic writing, and what came “was so exciting, sometimes so profound,” that he persuaded her to “give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer,” and after the first few attempts offered “to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences.” The communicators replied, “No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

    The unknown writer took as his theme a distinction which Mr Yeats had made in “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” between the perfection that comes from a man’s combat with himself and that which comes from a combat with circumstances, and on this “he built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or the other.” In his essay, Mr Yeats had asked “whether some prophet could not prick upon the calendar the birth of a Napoleon or a Christ,” and the unknown writer, in Mr Yeats’s opinion, successfully answered this question by a series of geometrical symbols arranged in a certain order. When Mr Yeats inquired how long it would take to explain the whole system, he was told years.

Written and Spoken Word

    The communications came first in automatic writing, and through Mrs Yeats; but in 1919 the communicators decided to change from the written to the spoken word, as that would be less fatiguing to the recipient. Nothing happened for some time, but then Mrs Yeats began to talk in her sleep, and from that time almost all the communications came in this way. They were sometimes disturbed by dreams caused by a chance word the sleeper had heard while awake. The communicators did not seem to be aware of the physical circumstances of their hearers, and once they suddenly put Mrs Yeats in a trance while she was sitting in a chair; another time they gave their signal while she was in a restaurant, thinking she was in a garden because a garden had been mentioned in conversation. Their work was also frequently interrupted by beings called Frustrators, and Mr Yeats would be warned: “From such and such an hour, on such and such a day, all is frustration.”

Exposition of the Messages

    These communications during sleep came to an end in 1920, and Mr Yeats began an exhaustive study of his many books of automatic writing and verbal communication. He had not quite mastered the system given to him when he was told that he must write and “seize the moment between ripe and rotten.” He felt the guidance of his preceptors all this time, sometimes in dreams, sometimes being stopped when he was framing some sentence, and by other means. The main part of this volume is a systematic exposition of the messages he received, which describe a universal scheme of human life both in this world and after death. Mr Yeats’s circumstantial and objective and extremely interesting account of the manner in which these communications were received is a model of what such things should be. But it is difficult to see by what criterion anyone can judge an actual system thus given. It depends on knowledge accessible to very few and knowledge which cannot be verified even by that few. To approach it with suspense of belief is not to deny the immortality of the soul, which has no need to depend on such demonstrations. Our images of immortality are innumerable, and are all touched by some particular human imperfection. There is certainly a great deal of Mr Yeats in Mr Yeats’s vision of eternal life. To accept such a vision, which is complex, logical, entire, and at the same time quite unlike the traditional vision known to us, would be to accord it a special objective truth, valid in every particular, for everything fits into everything, everything depends upon everything. We may admit that Mr Yeats’s vision is an impressive structure, and that its genesis was truly remarkable, without feeling within it any compulsive truth to make us believe it.

Revolving Cones

    To outline this structure would take far more space than is available in a review. Mr Yeats sees existence as two cones revolving against each other in different directions, the one subjective or antithetical, the other objective or primary. The ruling faculties in the first he calls Will and Mask, in the second Creative Mind and Body of Fate. These pairs of opposites revolve in contrary directions, advancing upon each other’s area and retreating again. But this autonomous revolution is only part of a greater one, a wheel with twenty-eight stations, in which one pair of opposites is now predominant and now another. To these stations belongs naturally a special composition of the faculties, and therefore a particular type of man. Thus, if the wheel revolves as Mr Yeats says it does, and if we knew more than we do of the four faculties, it might indeed be possible to prophesy the moment when a Napoleon or a Christ would be born. The classifications of human types is [sic] often illuminating, like all simplifications. But we feel even here that the judgments are Mr Yeats’s, not those of the wheel; he estimates such people as Wordsworth, Parnell, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky nearly as we might have expected him to estimate them: and the light the shining revolution of the wheel throws upon them is perhaps more apparent than real.

A Religious Vision

    The account of the journeyings of the soul after death, or between one incarnation and another, are equally real or unreal; we give pretty much the same kind and degree of belief to the one as to the other. The division of history into great days, all related to the wheel, all determined by that awful geometrical revolution, is just as impressive and as remote as the rest. Mr Yeats’s vision is a religious one; it has touched his heart, as his poetry shows; it is the vision of a man in love with perfection and impatient of imperfection. The religious vision of Western Europe, thought at its highest a structure of inconceivable complexity, can be understood by the simplest mind, for it implies throughout certain simple facts of experience: the knowledge of imperfection and desire for perfection, the knowledge of death and desire for immortality. This simplicity seems to me to be quite refined out of Mr Yeats’s plan, and that plan is perhaps more than anything else an object of æsthetic pleasure. What a powerful one it is can be seen from reading some of Mr Yeats’s greatest poetry, such as the magnificent sonnet on Leda included in this volume. It may be, after all, that the communicators merely wanted to give him metaphors for his poetry.


Return to Top

  Ireland To-day

November 1937 (2:11)

pp. 77-79

Cecil Ffrench Salkeld



A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.). pp.305.

      “When the trumpet sounded in the sky at Sulla’s time the Etruscan sages according to Plutarch, declared the Etruscan cycle of 11,000 years at an end, and that ‘another sort of men were coming into the world.’” Syncellus, however, is of the opinion that “a new epoch began when the constellation of Aries returned to its original position, and that this was the doctrine of ‘Greeks and Egyptians . . . as stated in the Genetica of Hermes and the Cyrannic books.”

      A fabulous book of this sort too often conjures up its own critic. He is, alas, some centuries dead. How Sir Thomas would have harried Dr. Yeats about his Magnus Annus, his phase of Will in the Wheel of 26,000 years, or Hipparchus’ discovery of precession! A surmise as to what he might have written concerning “lunar water,” seems to bring that defunctive nobleman to my very elbow.

      The book is beautifully planned and balanced. The opening section, entitled, “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” is the purest English since Bacon. Lithe and sinewy, the words are hushed like the reserved and inward singing of the old people. As the book widens into the “Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends,” the quiet autobiographical note changes slowly and cunningly into a calm delirium. The rollicking little nursery-rhyme of Messrs. Huddon, Duddon, and Daniel O’Leary (the latter, Dr. Yeats tells us in a footnote, rhymes with “dairy,” though actually he rhymes with nothing), is horribly uncanny, yet does not lessen the shock of these eerie gentlemen’s intrusion upon the narrative in company with a lady called Denise de L’Isle Adam, who shares with the Muses the faculty of renewing virginity with the moon. Those Muses indeed! Resembling “women who creep out at night and give themselves to unknown sailors and return to talk of Chinese porcelain.” Porcelain is best made where the conditions of life are hard, says some Japanese critic, or philosopher, or Saint, or Labour Leader . . . for many such haunt these pages. Michael Robartes, who is responsible for this motley crew “between sleeping and waking, or in the morning before they bring him his early cup of tea,” disentangling himself from verse, clambers into the narrative with a scrap of autobiography suggesting that he is no better than Daniel O’Leary, who “always had the idea that some day a musician would do him an injury.” He, Robartes, has apparently been murdering his goods with some dancer from whom he is finally parted in Vienna where he hires rooms “ostentatious in their sordidness,” little guessing that the last tenant, an unfrocked and now gypsy priest, had propped up the bed with a broken chair and a tattered book, entitled, Speculum Angelorum et Hominum, Cracow, 1594, with a woodcut of Dr. Yeats, bearded, be-turbaned, and Kabbala-eyed, masquerading under the name of Giraldus, as frontispiece. Unquestionably a literary find . . . but there is also the death-bed consolation of Mr. Bell by Mary Bell: Mr. Bell had devoted his life to reforming cuckoos by inducing them to build nests . . .

      These are but harbour waters.

      After the verse dialogue known as “The Phases of the Moon,” we come to Book 1 proper, under the title “The Great Wheel,” divided again into three. This important section, probably for Dr. Yeats the most important, cannot be dealt with critically for the following reasons:—

      (a) There is no critical terminology wherewith to treat of a technical work having no border-line between metaphysics, astrology, history, spiritualism, “school” philosophy, poetry, symbolism, geometry (conic sections) and a great deal of humour. (An unfortunate man whose Guardian Angel is jealous of his sweetheart, is a case in point);
      (b) Symbol and Dogma are both modes that invalidate analysis. This whole section might be termed Dogmatic Symbolism, and, as such, either personally valid or invalid in toto. In no case can the original and arbitrary symbol be questioned, since we are at no time on common or verifiable ground, as indicated above.

      It is none the less interesting to attempt a parallel with modern, Post-Russell, mathematical thought. Wittgenstein, prince of Positivists, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus advances the bold doctrine that a relation between objects can ultimately only be indicated “not by a symbol, but by a relation between symbols, so that the symbolic structure of the expression shows forth . . . it does not in the strict sense ‘symbolize’ the structure of the fact, but expresses the meaning by a kind of ‘pictorial’ relation.”

      If it seems a far cry from “A Vision” to the Tractatus, it should be remembered that Logical Positivism considers “the relation of language and fact” to be the subject-matter of philosophy, if such a word may still be used. The contractive tendency of modern thought opens new gateways in its own despite.

      Personally, I think Dr. Yeats advances his Dogmatic Symbolism as a form of spiritual adventure, a mode of thought conveyed in a personal system of symbols, to be experienced rather than understood in the common sense of the word.

      And so the Books march past with their glittering titles—“The Soul in Judgment,” “The Great Year of the Ancients,” “Dove or Swan”—a horde of heresies reaping their mummy wheat. In “Dove or Swan” the same tense note is sounded as in the opening “Packet,” hinting at the Wheel’s full turn. It is the moment of Dr. Yeats’ perfection: he will look neither further back nor further forward; looking back—“I can but see bird and woman blotting out some corner of the Babylonian mathematical starlight”; looking forward he wonders “what discords will drive Europe to that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilization?”

      Is Doubt the key to “A Vision?” Dr. Yeats writes:

      I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

      Has not Dr. Yeats deliberately chosen a moment of Antiquity pregnant with change, the air hanging heavy with dumb antagonisms and dying modes of thought? I seem to see that worker in mosaic a shrill and violent partisan. And what of Nemesius, that Bishop of Emessa who, I note with pleasure, and appreciation, had an early and watchful eye on the Yeatsian Anschauung? Does he not warn “certain Christians” that the Resurrection “could not happen more than once,” thereby nipping in the bud earlier efforts to identify the Doctrine of the Resurrection with “recurrent cycles,” with—Karma?

      Is it an answer that Dr. Yeats is seeking? Is it not rather the anguished bed of Doubt, that “fabulous, formless dark” where the breeding imagination begets “the uncontrollable mystery upon the bestial floor?”

      “A Vision” will mean many things to many men; if it does not show us the bare bright craters of Truth, it will suggest the penumbral aspect of the moon, revealing to the listening mind the tortured stirrings of the imagination, the heavy sweep and beating of its wings through the dark night of the soul.


Return to Top

  The London Mercury

November 1937

pp. 69-70

Seán O’Faoláin



By Seán O’Faoláin

VISION. By W. B. Yeats. Macmillan. 15s.

Mr. Yeats is daring; or, perhaps, arrogant. He has written a Sibylline book that I could easily imagine falling into this cynical, fragmentary, analytical age like a lark into a lime-kiln; as I can image it being read equally with pleasure and disgust, fascination and rage, seized on with glee by a Night and Day, trumpeted by a Hibbert Journal. And yet, what more analytical book has ever been written—unless, of another kind, the Anatomy of Melancholy? What more impersonal, aloof book? In this time of a return to the seventeenth-century poets (or have the Reds finished all that?) what more topical, of-the-period, classification of the contraries and opposites, the harmonious discords, in life and thought and the nature of man? If he had not been forced by his nature and his literary ancestry to wrap it up in a romantic fable of Michael Robartes, which will discourage many, if, that is, he could have written it in the crisp fashion of our day, I could imagine it echoing for a long time among the cognoscenti. Even yet it may—with whatever derision for its folly mingled with delight in its ripeness and wisdom.

    For years now Yeats has worked towards this book, teasing out his ideas about the contrast between fluid personality and static character, elaborating his fascination at the antinomies in man until he has, at last, in this book, come to “a classification of every possible movement of life and thought.” For this vast classification he uses a symbolism of interlocked, gyring cones, whose contraction and expansion bring the faculties of man into relationship with one another; to this he adds the symbolism of the waxing and waning moon to indicate the development of character, and its consolidation at given stages into certain typical conditions commonly found in life. The possible combinations of four faculties and twenty-eight phases are obviously immense.

Wheel from A Vision B p. 81

    The faculties are four—Will, or selfhood; Creative Mind, or thought; Body of Fate, or the thing we know, such as environment; and Mask, which is the desired or chosen Destiny, the Ought against the Is, the object of the will, or that (to borrow from Hindu philosophy, of which much of this Yeatsian metaphysic is evidently a development) towards which the Kharma moves, or is moved by will or desire, or chance, or fate.

    Every man, proceeds the metaphysician, has these faculties in a special quality according as he is an Objective, Primary man, or a Subjective, Antithetical man. They are rarely in alignment or in harmony; for out of conflict comes the condition of life. Starting from complete objectivity, the progress is from character—the imposed unity, mob- and environment-formed—to self-won, or fate-given personality, a condition of fire; and thence back towards social character again. The illustration of all this by types, forms the most interesting part of the book, and must excite the brain of every pious reader. As we enter the Antithetical section of the Great Wheel, we thus come on the Image Burner (Savonarola), the Forerunner (Nietzsche)—the first type capable of Unity of Being—Sensuous Ego (Baudelaire); the Obsessed Man (Keats); the Positive Man (Blake or Rabelais); until social character begins to dominate again with the intense but disillusioned Emotional Man (Arnold) and the Concrete Man (Shakespeare); we pass on with Wells, Shaw, George Moore—Acquisitive Men—through men like AE, dependent on local conditions, obsessed by social conscience, and not capable of personal expression, to the Saint (Socrates) and the Fools of Shakespeare. It is all shrewd and persuasive though too many types are taken from men of letters. And when I begin to test with, say, Tchekov or O’Connell, I got an uncomfortable feeling that it was like the fortune-teller’s “dark man” and “fair man” which inveigles only the predisposed.

    There is no ethic, no morality. The actor and the play are one. The drama is inclusive and illuminating—as absolute as a poem; a poem—however prosy with tables and numbers—whose subject is the oldest subject in the world—the nature of man in relation to his human destiny. With such a subject and such a poet, I cannot (once the pseudo-romantic trappings have been flicked away) imagine anybody form an assayer to a tea-tester, a Communist to a pious Roman Catholic, who will not find it an exasperating, provoking, stimulating delight.

    It is the Yeats who loved Blake and Shelley, who detested Sargent and admired Whistler, who wished he could prefer Chaucer to Shakespeare, who disliked the Flemish satirists, who has always been seeking a unifying image and bewails the falling asunder of life before the fraying of the intellect; it is the Yeats of the personal, fiery poems, the dramatic, hammering, and hammered poems of the middle and later period; and nobody who would read these poems in a mood with the poet, extract from them the ultimate pleasure of their implications and overtones, can afford not to wind his way, with this book, into their cavern-sources in one of the most complex and solitary minds among lyric poets since the death of Keats.

Return to Top

  The Irish Independent

2 November 1937

R[oibeárd] O


Invisible Beings

Communicated with
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.

Return to Top

  The Irish News

8 November 1937

p. 3

C. E.



“The Shoemaker Should Stick to his Last”

A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan & Co., tLd. [sic]; 15s net.)

    Mr W. B. Yeats is deservedly highly esteemed as a poet and a dramatist but his latest publication is a definite exposition of the old saying that “The shoemaker should stick to his last.”

    He has had a revelation. One can safely predict that it cannot upset the progress of the world. Thus it came about. His wife some years ago discovered that she had the gift of “automatic writing.”

    This was discovered when the whole matter was being treated as a “joke.” Perhaps adventurous young people may take warning from what followed. The automatic writing began to take shape as a series of messages from disembodied spirits whom the poet now calls his instructors. A different prefix might be less poetic but more true.

    The poet and his wife began to build up out of these messages a nebulous system which seemed to promise a surprising revelation. Soon Mrs. Yeats began to go into subconscious states during which she amplified the automatic writing by spoken messages from the “instructors.”

    And out of these messages the poet has compiled a system of philosophy (if you dare call it that) which is a strange mixture of astrology, transmigration, fatalism, spiritism, and every other will-o’-the-wisp that men, blind to the light of divine revelation, have ever followed to their destruction.

    One has neither time nor patience to analyse this wonderful “system.” It is so wonderful that it even explains the rise of great men of the ages.

    But a book of this kind coming from the hand of a man of Mr W. B. Yeats’s position in the world of letters is dangerous, because the foolish may think that eminence in poetry and drama is a sign of eminence in philosophy and metaphysics. Moreover its obvious sincerity is an added danger.

    None but a fool would attempt to impugn the good faith of Mr. Yeats in the matter. Let it be confessed that this book moves the reader to a profound pity for the writer. The significance of the whole thing becomes apparent from the poet’s own description.

    In addition to his “instructors” there were other beings whom he calls “frustrators.” These interfered with the continuity of the revelation and made it unintelligible. Let me quote a significant passage.

    “For the same reason they asked me not to read philosophy until their exposition was complete. Apart from two or three of the principal Platonic Dialogues, I knew no philosophy . . .

    “Because they must, as they explained, soon finish, others whom [sic] the Frustrators attempted to confuse us or waste time. Who these Frustrators were or why they acted so was never adequately explained, nor will be unless I can finish ‘The Soul in Judgment’ (Book III. of this work), but they were always ingenious and sometimes cruel. The automatic script would deteriorate, grow sentimental or confused, and when I pointed this out the communicator would say ‘From such and such an hour, on such and such a day, all it frustration’ . . . but had I not divined frustration he would have said nothing . . . and a Frustrator doubtless played upon my weakness when he described a geometrical model of the soul’s state after death which could be turned upon a lathe . . . One said, as though it rested with me to decide what part I should play in their dream, ‘Remember, we will deceive you if we can.’” (The italics are the reviewers’ [sic].)

    There were other signs and wonders—flashes of light, strange perfumes etc., etc. Out of a conglomeration of rubbish arises the conviction that there is more in the poet’s vision than its intrinsic nonsense, and a memory of R. H. Benson’s cats on the roof came to me — a vivid impression of a personal feeling as urgent as their instinct to fly from something which, though understood not, was for that reason all the more repulsive.

C. E.

Return to Top

  The Liverpool Daily Post

9 November 1937

p. 4

O[liver] E[dwards]


Beyond the Normal

A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillan and Co. 15s.

      The documents for the vision are a series of automatic writings, and of utterances in sleep or trance, by Mrs. W. B. Yeats. They came to her in the years 1917 to 1920, and were recorded by her husband. He, in turn, had many supernormal experiences (sights, sounds and odours), some of which would usually be called telepathic. All this Mr. Yeats describes in his most lucid and delicate prose. He then sat down to edit his notes and to interpret the message. This, he is convinced, came from certain “communicators,” or “instructors,” on whose nature he does not pronounce; but of “popular spiritualism” he disapproves. The instructors, however, complained that they were often baulked, and their message marred, by “frustrators”—rogues who remind us in some measure of the Freudian “censors.” Mr. Yeats has always been a visionary, and we shall not ask him to think that the revelation simply rose up from the mundane experience, or under-mind, of the two recorders. Whatever its origin, it is offered as providing a great scheme of metaphysical and historical truth, and as such it asks to be judged.

      The question is whether it will ever admit of being judged at all, or described, or understood. The reviewer, who is baffled, wishes others better fortune. Summary is here impossible. One section, “The Great Wheel,” is filled with diagrams of intersecting cones, or “vortices,” which partly symbolise the distinction between subjective and objective. There is an array of terms, “Will” and “Mask,” “Creative Mind” and “Body of Fate,” “the four perfections” and “the four automatonisms,” which seem to be tossed about like jugglers’ balls. There follows a string of some twenty-eight “phases,” which are, it seems, to “classify every possible movement of thought and life.” They answer, moreover, to types of character, “the daimonic man,” “the Fool desiring his Mask,” and the like. “The Completed Symbol” and “The Historical Cones” are no less cryptic. These cones trace the course of history from 2000 B.C. to 1927 A.D., and the successive “phases” are fitted into them. Real persons, Plotinus, Donatello, Christ, whirl about together as in a dream. In the end, Mr. Yeats is loth to take his “periods” too literally; they are, rather, “stylistic arrangements of experience.” The names of many thinkers, Empedocles, Hegel, Spengler, flit over the page. But it is vain for the reader to be acquainted with the ordinary terms and issues of philosophy. The vision is self-enclosed, and the author rightly claims that it is unborrowed. We may fear that its meaning and its value will remain his own secret.

      Not that a writer like Mr. Yeats can ever leave us quite unsatisfied. In “The Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends,” a revision of an earlier work, the drift is as dim as ever; but there is the race and lively movement of talk. The opening pages on the characters (and cats) of Rapallo, and on the converse with Mr. Ezra Pound, restore to us Mr. Yeats, the humorist and observer. And the poet, here at his best, is restored in the beautiful lines, written at Oxford in 1920, and now reprinted. “All Souls’ Night, an Epilogue” commemorates, to the sound of “the great Christ Church bell,” Miss Florence Farr and other friends departed. There are those in Liverpool who will remember Mr. Yeats discoursing in the Arts Theatre, and Miss Farr speaking his verses to the notes of her dulcimer; then suddenly, in her splendid pealing voice, breaking into the psalm “By the waters of Babylon.”

O. E.

Return to Top

31, 15 November 1937, pp. 315Ð20

‘Het visioen van William Butler Yeats’

Jos. Panhuysen


Het visioen van William Butler Yeats


Geen, die de gedichten van William Butler Yeats las, en eenigszins gevoelig is voor poëzie, zal niet herhaaldelijk getroffen zijn door de verblindende schoonheid en de adembenemende intensiteit er van, maar hoe herhaaldelijk zal ook hij niet wanhopig zijn geworden, omdat deze helderheid, die hij intuïtief als helderheid waardeerde, hem duister bleef. Menigerlei zijn de gezichten die u aanstaren, de gestalten, schoon bewegend, die ons voorbijgaan in deze verzen, zij zijn zeer werkelijk, zeer persoonlijk, karaktervol, onderscheiden, precies, hun uitdrukking, hun gebaren, de woorden, die hun mond spreekt. Zij zijn ook reëel, in den zin, dat bijvoorbeeld een bedelaar er verschijnt als een bedelaar en dat hij spreekt als een bedelaar. Maar in de uiterste preciesheid, in de onomwondenheid en onverbiddelijkheid van zijn verschijning is iets, dat hem afzondert van de bedelaars, de individueele bedelaars, die we kennen en al zijn zijn woorden juist de woorden, die bij zijn karakter passen, al is het bedelaarswijsheid, die hij spreekt, deze wijsheid blijkt door haar strenge beperktheid een eeuwige geldigheid te verkrijgen, die aan het accidenteele cynisme van den in het leven ontmoeten landlooper ontbreekt. De fiquren in Yeats' verzen hebben daarom altijd eenigermate het karakter van het type, terwijl ze terzelfdertijd, in hooge mate gedifferentieerde persoonlijkheid vertoonen, zij zijn vrij tot in het ongebondene somwijlen, maar, van een andere zijde bezien, zijn zij strikt bepaald. Fataliteit en vrijheid samen zijn doorgaans het kenmerk van deze poëzie.

Maar niet alleen om deze onmiddellijk waarneembare, maar meer algemeene dualiteit is een groot deel van het werk van dezen dichter geheimzinnig. Men ontdekt in zijn Collected Poems herhaaldelijk bepaalde gevallen, namen, uitdrukkingen, uitspraken, die om een verklaring vragen. Nu kan men van meening zijn, dal het geheim somtijds schooner is dan de wetenschap, dat de wetenschap schade zou kunnen doen aan de betoovering van het gedicht. Er zijn inderdaad gedichten, waarop men beter geen uitleg beproeft, omdat een uitleg tot een banale wijsheid voert, die, eenmaal gekend, de stemmingsfeer, die het vers zijn bekoorlijkheid schonk, aantast en niet zelden vernietigt.

Bij de verzen van Yeats is dit, naar mijne meening, vrijwel nooit het geval, ook al begrijpt men ze niet, men voelt onmiddelijk, dat hun verborgen beteekenis wel voort kan komen uit een valsch, maar niet uit een banaal inzicht. Meer wetenschap kan hier niet schaden, want de wetenschap krijgt hier haar ware hoogere doel, niet het wegnemen van het geheim, dit doodende element der beperkte wetenschap, maar het door verheldering nog meer [316] duidelijk maken van het geheim, dit levende element eener wijder schouwende, dienende wetenschap.

Het heeft misschien zijn nut, hier enkele voorbeelden te geven. Ik wil beginnen met het korte gedicht The Saint and the Hunchback.
HUNCHBACK. Stand up and lift your hand and bless
    A man that finds great bitterness
    In thinking of his lost renown.
    A Roman Caesar is held down
    Under this hump.
SAINT.         God tries each man
    According to a different plan.
    I shal [sic] not cease to bless because
    I lay about me with the taws
    That night and morning I may trash [sic]
    Greek Alexander from my flesh,
    Augustus Caesar, and after these
    That greet rogue Alcibiades.
HUNCHBACK. To al [sic] that in your flesh have stood
    And blessed, I give my gratitude,
    Honoured by all in their degrees,
    But most to Alcibiades.

Eenieder, die dit gedicht met aandacht leest, zal bemerken, dat het allerminst een vaag, of onduidelijk gedicht is, er is sfeer, maar aan de sfeer wordt niet het minste geofferd, iedere regel is tot aan den boord gevuld met beteekenis, maar toch is het gedicht, althans zoo was het dit voor mij, zonder nadere aanduiding, niet te begrijpen. Men weet wat een heilige is, maar niet wat Yeats hier onder den heilige verstaat en zoo week man ook wat en gebochelde is, maar niet van welke geestelijk persoonlijkheid, de gebochelde, volgens Yeats, het symbool is.

Nog bepaalder welhaast van beteekenis en daarom zonder nadere aanduiding nog onbegrijpelijker is de uiteenzetting, die Michael Robartes over de phasen van de maan geeft voor zijn leerling Aherne.
Twenty-and-eight the phases of the moon,
The full and the moon's dark and all the crescents,
Twenty-and-eight, and yet but six-and-twenty
The cradles that a man must needs be rocked in:
For there's no human life at the full or the dark.
From the first crescent to the half, the dream
But summons to adventure and the man
Is always happy like a bird or a beast:
But while the moon is rounding towards the full
He follows whatever whim's most difficult
Among whims not impossible, and though scarred,
As with the cat-o'-nine-tails of the mind,
His body moulded from within his body
Grows comelier. Eleven pass, and then
Athena takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the heroes [sic] crescent is the twelfth.
And yet, twice born, twice buried, grow he must,
Before the full moon, helpless as a worm.
The thirteenth the moon but sets the soul at war
In its own being, and when that war's begun
There is no muscle in the arm; and after,
Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon,
The soul begins to tremble into stillness,
To die into the labyrinth of itself!

Wie dit leest weet onmiddelijk, dat het zin heeft, dat het zin moet hebben, dat Athena en Achilles en Hector, en eeuwen, eeuwen later, Nietzsche verband met elkaar houden, maar welk verband? Wat zijn deze phasen, deze acht en twintig phasen, die een wiel, een cyclus vormen? Is het het leven van een mensch in symbolen? Is het een onderscheiding van menschelijke personen naar hun karakter, hun lotsbestemming, en hun droom of ideaal? Of is het, daar personen uit ver uiteengelegen tijden genoemd worden, een verdeeling van de opeenvolgende beschaving in de wereldgeschiedenis? Niemand had dit zonder meer, dunkt me, bevredigend kunnen oplossen. Op het oogenblik echter, na het verschijnen van A Vision in een uitgebreide en grootere oplage kunnen we dit wel. Wij weten nu dat dit wiel van de phasen der maan zoowel een onderscheiding der menschen naar lot en droom en talent beteekend, maar evenzeer, enkel levenslot en ook de ontwikkeling van de geschiedenis der wereld binnen het tijdperk, dat Yeats, met een term aan de oudheid ontleent, het Groote Jaar noemt.

[Preceding paragraph includes photograph of Yeats, captioned "BUTLER YEATS"]

A Vision is een zeer eigenaardig boek, dat zonder twijfel met groote voorzichtigheid dient behandeld te worden. De grondslag ervoor is verkregen door de vrouw van Yeats door middel van automatisch schrift en door mondelinge uitspraken in droomtoestand. Nu kan men hier denken aan para-psychologie en telepathie. Men kan ook denken aan inwerking van engelen of duivelen. Indien men de tweede mogelijkheid wil aanvaarden en, evenals Yeats zelf, aan een overdracht door geesten gelooft, dan zullen velen eenige geneigdheid vertoonen tot de hypothese der duivelen. Ik had A Vision bij me op een treinreis, een man tegenover me voerde eerst een blijmoedig en welwillend gesprek met me over de stralende schoonheid van dit najaar, maar toen hij in het [318] boek, dat ik even later opensloeg, enkele vrij occult uitziende teekeningen bemerkt had, keek hij me met een zekeren weerzin en zelfs eenigen angst aan.

Een groot gedeelte van het gevaar van het boek wordt echter weggenomen, dunkt me, wanneer men het beschouwt als een fantasie, wat het ten slotte is, een fantastische uitleg van de geheimen des levens, die we niet kennen en op deze aarde niet kunnen kennen. Deze uitleg is dan herhaaldelijk, ook als fantasie, onaanvaardbaar, maar ook zeer veel is wel aanvaardbaar, dat wil zeggen, dat hij, hoe fantastisch hij ook mag zijn, dingen toont, die vooraf onzichtbaar waren voor onzen geest Acht en twintig zijn de phasen van de maan, van de eerste phase, de volkomen objectiviteit tot de vijftiende phase, de volkomen subjectiviteit en dan weer terug tot de eerste phase. Behalve de eerste en de vijftiende phase beantwoordt iedere phase aan een bepaald menschentype, een bepaalde periode in een enkel menschelijk leven, en een bepaalde periode in het Groote Jaar der wereldgeschiedenis. Wiel in wiel in wiel, zooals men ziet, men duizelt, als men het zich voorstelt, en de eigenlijke voorstelling wordt in A Vision dan ook niet gegeven; het is eigenlijk geen visioen dit boek, het is de analyse van een visioen. In iederen mensch als type, in ieder menschenlot, in het lot eener geheele beschaving is een strijd, die tegelijkertijd een trachten naar eenheid is, tusschen het gekende en strever, tusschen objectiviteit en subjectiviteit, tusschen het gekende en hetgeen kent, het geleverde, primaire en het daarentegenovergestelde, het nieuwe, tusschen het nagestreefde en hetgeen nastreeft, tusschen het overgeleverde, gekende en het kennende, de Creative Mind, en willende, antithetische. Deze strijd, die een trachten naar eenheid is, heeft Yeats uitgedrukt in zijn vier faculteiten: Body of Fate, en daarnaast het ideaal, het nagestreefde, de Mask en het nastrevende, de Will. Hierdoor wordt niet alleen de strijd geschapen, die het kenmerk van het menschelijk leven is, maar hier vindt men ook de verklaring van het fatale in de scheppingen van Yeats naast het vrije, soms haast ongebondene. Door dere vier faculteiten, die in alle phasen verschillen, worden de menschelijke karakters onderscheiden, waarin nu eens het primaire, dan weer het antithetische overheerscht. Zoo ziet men bijvoorbeeld in de zes en twintigste en de zevenentwintigste phasen, wanneer de antithetische, subjectieve periode reeds overschreden is, den Gebochelde en den Heilige, den Gebochelde, den man, die zijn persoonlijk gevoel verloren heelt en nu in andere verschijningen zich een gevoel moet scheppen en dus een voorkeur heeft voor gepassionneerden [sic] als Alcibiades en den Heilige, die zich zichzelven de minste alter menschen vindt, maar daardoor tegelijkertijd wordt bekoord door den hoogmoed en dus inderdaad Greek Alexander en Augustus Caesar in zichzelven bestrijden zal.

Deze zelfde vier faculteiten bepalen ook de phasen van het Groote Jaar der wereldgeschiedenis. Het geheele vierde boek van [319] A Vision is aan dit Ouden gewijd, en ondanks alle bemerkingen en bezwaren, kan men niets anders dan bewondering hebben ten slotte voor deze magistrale samenvatting.

A Vision geeft, zooals men uit dit zeer schetsmatig en buitengewoon onvolledig overzicht reeds zien kan, een geestelijke waardeering van mensch en wereld. Zonder twijfel is deze waardeering, hoezeer men ze ook achten kan in verschillende opzichten, verkeerd, maar zij is veelbeteekenend en zij is, om een gevaarlijk woord te gebruiken, modern. De dingen, waar het vooral om gaat in dit boek, zijn de typologie van den mensch en de philosophie, of zoo men wil, de morphologie der geschiedenis, en deze typologie en deze morphologie houden, zooals men weet, op het oogenblik veel geesten bezig.

Nu moet men waardeeren in het werk van Yeats, dat hij zoowel het menschelijk karakter als de geschiedenis een geestelijken achtergrond geeft, die verder reikt dan een beperkte wetenschap, hij laat duidelijk zien, dat hij in een bedoeling gelooft, dat met het karakter in een bepaalden mensch, of in een bepaalden tijd, God een bedoeling heeft. En juist deze bedoeling is, dunkt me, inderdaad een zeer voorname, een gewichtige zaak. Ik ben een leek in deze dingen, maar ik geloof, dat zoowel in de typologie van den mensch als in de morphologie der geschiedenis op het oogenblik een belangrijker taak ligt voor den katholieken geleerde. Op het laatste gebied werd reeds zeer veel verhelderend werk verricht door Christopher Dawson.

Ik geloof dit te meer, omdat ik me de betoovering voorstellen kan, die A Vision op vele menschen van onzen tijd uitoefenen zal, een betoovering, die gedeeltelijk zonder twijfel te betreuren zou zijn, want A Vision is ondanks alles toch een te somber boek, in de vele dooreenwentelende wielen draait immers ook het wiel der reïncarnatie en dit wiel geeft ons den indruk, dat er geen ontsnappen aan is. Waar men terecht komt, als de reincarnatie ophoudt, is niet recht duidelijk althans. Er is veel in A Vision, dat aan de Upanishads herinnert, de tegenoverstelling van primair en antithetisch, van zon en maan, en de reïncarnatie zelfs. Toch verklaart Yeats dat hij de Upanishads eerst na het schrijven van A Vision beter leerde kennen. Onlangs publiceerde hij van een gedeelte der Upanishads een zeer mooie vertaling tesamen met Shree Purohit Swami. Het ware misschien te wenschen geweest, dat deze nadere kennismaking aan A Vision vooraf was gegaan. Want in de Upanishads vindt men iets van de christelijke wijsheid, die iederen mensch, in staat van genade, een tempel van den Heiligen Geest verklaart, en ons leert, dat wij van God zijn, „in Wien wij leven ons bewegen en zijn.” Wie aan de hergeboorte weet te ontkomen gaat, volgens de Upanishads, ook het Koninkrijk der Hemelen binnen

„In this body, in this town of Spirit, theirs is a little house shaped like [320] a lotus, and in that house there is a little space. One should know what is there.
What is there? Why is it so important?
There is as much in that little space within the heart, as there is in the whole world outside, Heaven, earth, fire, wind, sun, moon, lightning, stars; what ever [sic] is and whatever is not, everything is there.
If everything is in man's body, every being, every desire, what remains when old age comes, when decay begins, when the body falls?
What lies in that space, does not decay when the body falls [sic]. That space is the home of Spirit.”

God en het koninkrijk der Hemelen verschijnen te weinig in dit werk van Yeats, en dat is jammer.

YEATS (W. B,) A VISION. Macmillan and Co., Ltd. London.


Return to Top

  The Cambridge Review

p. 113

J. Bronowski



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. Macmillan. 15/-.

    Yeats is one of the great poets of the last hundred years; perhaps the greatest. His poems are often hard to understand: because Yeats masks his thought, which has changed a good deal, under images which he has never changed. Yeats has always given greater weight to the images than to the thought. Early in his poetic life he wrote,

    It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, than [sic] any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature.

Now, late in his life, he has come to tell us how many unspoken and unknown meanings his images have had. That is the point of this book. The book was dictated to Yeats’s wife by spirits who know these meanings; and these spirits begin by saying,

      “We have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

The metaphors are not new ; but the book is a key to Yeats’s old metaphors.

    It is not a very useful key. Those readers who think about Yeats’s images will always find the key to them in the poems themselves. Those who do not think about them will not find that this book saves thought. For example, most of this book is taken up with the mystic meanings of the twenty-eight phases of the moon. But nothing in the book gives these meanings as richly as the poem The Phases of the Moon, which Yeats reprints here. Nothing in the book by-passes the though for which this poem calls.

    The one claim to new meaning which the book can make is that it enlarges these meanings into a system. But the system does not make one think highly of Yeats’s thought. Yeats himself points the likeness of his system to Spengler’s shabby system of history. Yeats’s prose thought and his prose share this shabbiness. It is the shabbiness of a thought which zigzags between factual truth and symbolic truth, and which never makes up its mind what kind of truth it claims. For example, Yeats never makes up his mind whether the spirits who speak to him are supernatural, whether they are dreams, or whether they are his own images come to life. He never makes up his mind whether the historical likenesses which he finds are actual or fanciful. He writes,

    I am amused to notice, though I do not give it great significance, that the Etruscans, who, according to Frobenius, had a mythology of the central Altar, turned like the Creative Mind from East to West when they prayed, whereas the races of the Cavern turned like the Will from West to East.

But the likeness is not more amusing, not less significant than a hundred others in the book. Neither Yeats nor the reader can make up his mind when to be amused and when to give significance. There is nothing in the book to tell him.


Return to Top

  The Spectator

19 November 1937

pp. 14-15

Michael Roberts



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.)

MR. YEATS has written on of the simplest accounts of poetic composition that has ever appeared, but he has written it in his own language, in terms that many readers will find distracting and confusing. Most people today like to describe the poet’s activity in terms of subconscious forces: they do not like to say that the poet is inspired by unknown spirits; it reminds them too strongly of spiritualist claptrap and bogus religions. But anyone who has ever written any poetry will admit that, after a period of conscious preparation and unsuccessful effort, a poem (not always the poem that the writer intended) sometimes begins to write itself, and at such times he feels that the work is not his own: it is written by forces over which he has no conscious control at all. The material that comes in this way may be drivelling or mediocre: often, after a good beginning, it tails off into futility and nonsense. It may need wearisome revision and correction, and the final product of such work is sometimes indistinguishable from the passages that came so easily.

    The spirits that have spoken to Mr. Yeats do not differ very much in their methods and advice from those that have guided the work of other poets. They encouraged him to read history and biography in relation to the abstract scheme they laid before him, and if he neglected their advice and returned too soon to their unmixed abstraction they would say: “We are starved.” Sometimes the messages grew sentimental or confused, and when this was pointed out, the communicator would say: “From such and such an hour, on such and such a day, all is frustration.”

    All this, and much more in Mr. Yeats’ book, is quite normal, and the authors to whom Mr. Yeats returns most willingly—Plotinus, John Dee, the alchemists, Pico della Mirandola, Berkeley—have been a source of reassurance to poets before, for they offer coherent structures that take into account much that is neglected in Aristotelian science and the metaphysics based upon it. But much of this book is taken up with a description of the Great Wheel and the Twenty-eight Incarnations, and to many readers this part will seem to be a willingly perverse account of history and psychology. The interpretation of history in terms of cones and vortices sounds like a stranger version of Spengler, and the twenty-eight incarnations sound like the psychologies of the sixteenth century—psychologies that are not demonstrably wrong (often they are demonstrably right) but do not serve the purposes that the scientific psychologist would wish.

    Here we may regret the early accident that set Mr. Yeats against material science: there are moments when his voice is like the voice of an angel recorded by a cracked and dusty phonograph. It would have been so easy, on thinks, to make more use of the knowledge and discoveries of other men, and to speak in terms already familiar. Many of the abstract truths that Mr. Yeats draws from his own philosophy might equally well have been drawn from more orthodox sources, and it may seem that in the long run the poetry of Mr. Yeats suffers by the awkwardness and inadequacy of the home-made philosophy behind it. But all this is perhaps mistaken: the neat divisions of orthodox thought end by cramping all but the toughest of minds. An inconsistent or outlandish theory is often the one that leads to new and surprising discoveries; like the devices of rhyme and metre, it leads the mind off its habitual track and releases it from all the inhibitions that hold it down to familiar knowledge. Mr. Yeats knows his own weakness, and in posing to himself as the Great Poet with a disdain of science he is protecting his own imaginative power:

    Some will ask me whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called ‘the pulsaters of an artery,’ are plainly symbolical, but what of those that are fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer 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 has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in single thought reality and justice.

    To hold the inner and the outer worlds in balance, and to liberate the imagination from the intellect that deals with outer reality alone, these are the purposes of the poet’s personal myths, and these myths are not to be confused with scientific theories; and yet, if they are to be effective, there must be moments when the poet takes them as being true in every sense. At one time, Mr. Yeats was inclined to assert his myths as if he could see no difference between them and a theory of physics: he now speaks more temperately and more accurately, and builds a story round them that leaves the reader guessing. One part of that story is perhaps the most significant revelation in the book: many of the messages are said not to have come to him directly, but through the automatic writing of his wife.


Return to Top

  Time and Tide

4 December 1937

1674, 1676

Charles Williams


“Staring at Miracle”

A Vision. W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.)

Mr. Yeats’s style imposes attention on his readers; no other living writer arouses so easily a sense of reverie moving into accurate power. But to express that attention properly would need more time than any review can take; and more than usually one must feel here the absurdity of trying to define patterns in other words than their own.

    The book consists largely of “a revised and amplified version” of an edition published in 1926. A bibliographical note on all the contents would have been convenient. Those who know or possess the previous volume may still be glad, for Mr. Yeats has altered the exterior arrangements of his Vision, and what he calls the “unnatural story of an Arabian traveller” is still peculiar to that edition. Certain poems are also reprinted to combine into a new volume. I have not yet been able to compare the two volumes, and must not, therefore, discuss the differences further.

    The Vision itself is presented as a philosophical diagram of the nature of man and of the universe as known to man. It is said to have been communicated by invisible instructors, beginning with sentences delivered to Mrs. Yeats in automatic writing from 1917 to 1919. The method of communication was changed to speech in sleep during 1919. “Exposition in sleep came to an end in 1920, and I began an exhaustive study of some fifty copy-books of automatic script, and of a much smaller number of books recording what had come in sleep.” There had been interference at times which the communicating intelligences called Frustration or the Frustrators. Of the nature of this communication Mr. Yeats says that one intelligence said in the first month that “spirits do not tell a man what is true, but create such conditions, such a crisis of fate, that the man is compelled to listen to his Daimon.” Mere spirits are “a reflection and a distortion”; reality is found by the Daimon in the Ghostly Self and “the blessed spirits must be sought within the self which is common to all.”

    The symbolism of the Vision is geometrical, as all such imagery must be. In a sudden reminiscence Mr. Yeats alludes to the diagrams in Law’s Boehme “where one lifts a flap of paper to discover both the human entrails and the starry heavens.” In another myth something of the same idea related the spiritual heavens and the womb of the mother of Galahad, and that last porphyry is like the porphyry room in Byzantium where the Emperors were born. Here, however, it is a matter of cones or vortices, states of being struggling against each other, the “antithetical tincture” and the “primary tincture.” “Within these cones move what are called the Four Faculties : Will and Mask, Creative Mind and Body of Fate.”

    The movement of the Faculties covers “every possible movement of thought and of life,” and these movements are marked by numbers corresponding to the phases of the moon. Mr. Yeats examines “the twenty-eight incarnations” one by one, describing the kind of humanity observable in each and occasionally naming a few examples. Thus Phase Seventeen is distinguished as follows:

Will – The Daimonic Man
Mask (from Phase 3). True – Simplification through intensity. False – Dispersal.
Creative Mind (from Phase 13). True – Creative imagination through antithetical emotion. False – Enforced self-realization.
Body of Fate (from Phase 27) – Loss.
Examples: Dante, Shelley, Landor.

    Beside and beyond the Faculties are the Principles, Husk, Passionate Body, Spirit, and Celestial Body. “The wheel or cone of the Faculties may be considered to complete its movement between birth and death, that of the Principles to include the period between lives as well.” But even the full individual existence is only a part of the grand diagram; history also is measured by the mathematics. Not the least fascinating part of the book is made of the 34 pages in which Mr. Yeats makes a pattern of Europe from 2000 B.C. to the present day, in a style which is dream, and in the dream diagram, and at that a diagram of greatness and terror.

    In a period when our cleverest men may write wisdom but do not habitually write English, the style is itself a refreshment. The sentence which refers to the Byzantium saints “staring at miracle” is an example; another is that at which by chance I opened the book: “Love is created and preserved by intellectual analysis.” The intellect is so often nowadays regarded as merely destructive, or if constructive, then only in convenient and sterile things, that the phrase is near to being immediately rejected. But in fact it encourages the mind and more than the mind. Given the will, then the greater the analysis the greater the love, as has elsewhere been said: “Love is the chief art of knowledge and knowledge is the chief art of love.”

    Yet perhaps, to some minds in a different stage of thought, the most thrilling sentence in the book is the one which Mr. Yeats quotes from Heraclitus. It is quoted in relation to the opposing cones: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” If indeed the world is founded on an interchange so profound that we have not begun to glimpse it, such sentences for a moment illuminate the abyss. If so, it is the principle of some such exchange that must be sought before all national and international evils can be righted. “A civilization,” Mr. Yeats says, “is a struggle to keep self-control.” Only by discovery of the principle of exchanged life can we keep our self-control by losing it, and without losing it we cannot keep it.


Return to Top

  The Listener

8 December 1937

p. 1271



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. Macmillan. 15s.

PERHAPS IT IS TRUE, as A. E. is quoted on the wrapper to have said, that this book will be as much discussed in a hundred years’ time as are Blake’s Prophetic Books now, which were so neglected in their day. Certainly A Vision provides a rich, not to say alarming, mine of information for research students into Yeats’ poetry in the Universities of tomorrow. Yet, suggestive as they are, can we truthfully say that Blake’s Prophetic Books, with all their unresolved meanings and unexplained yet consistent symbolism, have been more of a help than a hindrance even to an understanding of Blake? In any case, the Prophetic Books are surely more of a warning than an example to future writers. It is this warning which Mr. Yeats has disregarded.

    The vision in A Vision is not really so much a vision as a kind of running commentary on the universe, on life, on death, this world and the next, on history, man and civilisation, made to Mr. Yeats by ‘spirits’ to whom he refers as ‘his instructors’. In the first pages he explains, not very precisely, how during the first days of his marriage his wife showed a great aptitude for spirit writing, and how, through this medium he got in touch with ‘the instructors’. There were also certain obstructors and practical jokers of the ‘other world’ who occasionally frustrated Mr. Yeats’ reception of messages. This part of his book is not in any sense proven, it is written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way without any attempt to convince the sceptical reader. At some moments it is difficult, with the best will in the world, to be convinced by Mr. Yeats’ experiences, for even if all his spiritual geese are not swans, yet every board that creaks in his house becomes an act of intervention, by diabolic forces, with his spiritualist intercourse.

    Yet the serious aspect of Mr. Yeats’ book is not the degree in which it convinces us as a real experience, but the degree in which it convinces us as a real experience, but the degree in which it seems illuminating as a system of values and as a view of the universe. It is here that the parallel with Blake becomes most obvious. For, like Blake, Mr. Yeats does not give us sufficient clues to translate his symbolic system back into terms of reality. This does not mean that Mr. Yeats’ system is vague and unorganised. On the contrary, it is intricate, precise and astonishingly clear. The trouble is that it is so complete an abstraction that its reference back to reality seems deceptive and perhaps non-existent. For example, the phases of existence tabulated by Mr. Yeats are as complete as a logarithmic table. However, when we examine the categories into which Mr. Yeats subdivides the Fate of man, Will, Mask, Creative Mind, Body of Fate, we find that the form in which these symbols really come to life is poetry, and that this analysis is largely a dictionary of the symbols in Mr. Yeats’ own poetry.

    Most disappointing of all are the generalisations at the end of the book, which seem to show how barren are the statements of poetry when they are stripped of the particular significance with which their poetic form endows them. A section entitled ‘A.D.1050 to the Present Day’ opens as follows: ‘When the tide changed and faith no longer sufficed, something must have happened in the courts and castles of which history has perhaps no record, for with the first vague dawn of the antithetical revelation man, under the eyes of the Virgin, or upon the breast of his mistress, became but a fragment’. And thus we embark on a misty excursion through the Renaissance, Byzantium, Merlin, Gothic Architecture, Parsifal, Arthur, Dante, Greece, Rome, Elizabeth, Rabelais, Sophocles, Cowley, Dryden, ‘the period from 1875 to 1927’, all in fifteen pages, the whole illuminated by a dim, sad light from Spengler’s philosophy.

Return to Top

  The New English Weekly

20 January 1938

pp. 291-292




    There are some books of which it may be useful to give an account, on the strict understanding that one is not presuming to deliver any judgment or valuation. An example of this is Yeats’ “A Vision,”* now published in a revised edition, but originally given some circulation—apparently privately—some twelve years ago. Æ then wrote of it:—

    “Almost any of its crammed pages would need a volume to elucidate its meanings. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blake’s prophetic books—so ignored, so unintelligible, a hundred years ago—are discussed by many editors in our time.”

    However, if the commentators ever get as busy about “A Vision” as they have long been around the books of Blake, they will find the Yeats an oracle more articulate. Or, if it is a case of reading their own imaginations into the work as into a crystal globe, they will find it more pellucid. For Yeats uses, to build up the symbols and illustrations of his visions, material mostly familiar to any highly educated contemporary mind, which was far from being the case with Blake, even in his own day. In intellectual structure, too, Yeats’ vision is relatively transparent and systematic.

    But as much as Blake and Swedenborg, Yeats claims for his prophetic writing an inspiration directly spiritual although less divine. The vision was written from communications made to him by his wife, by “automatic” writing or by dictating in a state resembling sleep; the communications beginning in 1917 and extending over a period of a few years. This mediumistic origin of the work will in itself be enough to prejudice many against it. Others, versed in the more scientific lore of such phenomena which began from the researches of C. G. Jung, will interpret the spirit “instructors” of this record as the pseudo-personalities of a dream that Yeats and his wife, in their condition of extreme psychic intimacy and attachment, were able to share. Yeats himself, while “partly accepting and partly rejecting” that explanation, believes in a Communion between the living and the dead, and is in no doubt that he has been vouchsafed a period of miraculous insight into the nature of the universe. But for this conviction, of course, he would never have allowed his wife to undergo such an ordeal; for by his own statement she seems to have suffered intensely from the fatigue that invariably follows mediumistic practices. Both seem to have found it more than worth while, and they have certainly more to show for it than usually follows upon experiments in psychism.

    In brief, we are given an occult system of psychology and a philosophy of history, both of considerable interest and presented with all of Yeats’ elusive charm as a writer. The system is very much like that of astrology. Men and women, instead of being classified into twelve types corresponding with the months of the solar year, are divided into twenty-eight types, one for each day of the lunar circuit. But whereas astrology has always claimed the ability to determine, by casting a horoscope of birth, which zodiacal sign a person belongs to, no such empirical method is given for verifying the typology of this system. When Yeats tells us that Dumas belongs to phase 7 and Bernard Shaw and Wells to phase 21, he is either writing from his instructors’ dictation, or else using his own intuition. This I do not raise as an objection: indeed, I have always considered that astrology should be learnt as the sublime philosophy and traditional symbology that it is, rather than as a means of divination. The psychological conceptions used by Yeats are much more modern than those of astrology—the four faculties, for instance, Will, Creative Mind, Mask and Body of Fate—soon acquire some precision of meaning in the mind of the fairly omnivorous modern reader, for all are related to notions now familiar.

    The philosophy of history is of a cyclic pattern not dissimilar to those of Petrie and Spengler. Cultures wax and wane like moons. Each is a vast psycho-physical construction which the human spirit cannot keep up beyond a certain point.

    “A civilization is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this it is like some great tragic person, some Niobe who must display an almost superhuman will or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first the sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation—the scream of Juno’s peacock.”

    But Yeats’ philosophy of history, though exemplified from the history of the Christian era with many touches of artistic felicity, is only a sketch, and he says he did not know there were such things as philosophies of history before he received these intimations. Which suggests an interesting question. Is there, either in the matter or the method of this work, anything we can be confident is extraneous, anything most unlikely to have been in the minds of Yeats and Mrs. Yeats? No. She had read German philosophy: and, knowing something as we do of the people with whom Yeats consorted before the War, it would be surprising if his subconscious memory were not over-laden with memories of occult symbolisms and systems. So those who want to explain away the spookish origin of this book, will find little difficulty. That a poet, over-cultivating sensitivity and the aesthetic all his life, should have another side of him yearning always for a scaffolding of systematic understanding—that is no more strange than to read of Newton, his intellect crucified on applied mathematics, breaking out between-whiles into wild religious eschatology. Much more remarkable is a man’s finding his wife so close to him as to be able to perform for him that function of interiorizing and re-organizing his ideas into a growing pattern, which must usually be done by the “feminine side” of his own psyche.

    To sum up, the vision does not impress one as in any sense dynamic, or prophetic. It is a vision of understanding, nor creation: of some vast wisdom deepening into twilight, the glimmering light of intuition fading into mental complication. It may be typical of the kind of psychism that breaks out at the end of a dispensation, as Spengler tells us; but it is not the “scream of Juno’s peacock.” True, this is a good book to read, with its pleasant talk about, and to, Ezra Pound; with its delicious, fantastic story of the cuckoo’s nest. Yet about its serious passages there is a fragrance of sweet death, of anointment for a pagan burial, and we wonder, after all, if the author has not found some ingenious way of winding his mind up in its own cocoon: indeed, that may be his own self-criticism, in the last stanza of the Epilogue:—

Such thought—such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts,
Nothing can stay my glance
Until that glance run in the world’s despite
To where the damned have howled away their hearts,
And where the blesséd dance;
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.


*A Vision. By W. B. YEATS. Macmillan, 15s.

Return to Top

  The New Statesman and Nation

22 January 1938

p. 140



A Vision. By W. B. YEATS. Macmillan. 15s.

    Yeats’ name does not require a blurb to claim that a book of his is “important”; still less a book that sets out “the esoteric principles, doctrines and experiences from which much of his most notable work . . . derives its inspiration and significance.” A Vision not only has this claim, but also a puff from A. E. suggesting that it “may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence”—offering the parallel of Blake’s prophetic books, “so unintelligible a hundred years ago.” But prolonged struggles with the “system” and comparisons with those poems in which the same symbols are used suggest that their significance is not increased by the confused notions of gyres and phases, lunar cycles and zodiacal houses, in which Mr. Yeats’ psychic dictators materialise their mediaeval doctrine of fundamental antinomies and revolutions. If he is right about the causes of the maturity of “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair,” the affable familiar ghosts who spoke nightly through his wife’s lips must indeed have given him “intelligence”; but that the record of this “intelligence” is necessary to the poetic significance of his later works does not follow. The “Instructors,” the “Singing-masters of my soul,” as he called them in “Sailing to Byzantium,” elected to formulate their “system” in terms of uncommon and unnecessary obscurity and to illustrate it with mechanic-parallels with no relation to ordinary mechanics. The complicated gyrations of the four energies, Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate, symbolised by the lunar phases, firstly enable Mr. Yeats to classify a number of celebrated names, such as: Spinoza and Savonarola; Keats, Giorgione and many beautiful women. The last section, though contributing nothing to the significance of “Two Songs from a Play,” passes on to prophecy. The next religious era, or the start of the succeeding “antithetical” civilisation, will occur when the vernal equinox is associated with the sign of Aries. Well, there may be something in it. But the system as it is gives too wide a latitude of interpretation. The classification is well worth reading for such random comments as those on Carlyle, Byron and A. C. Bradley: “he hated the common heart; an arrogant sapless man.” The “system” is, however, too private. The best part of the book is the “Stories of Michael Robartes,” where the prose has a spirit and vitality which vanishes for good on p. 67: the exposition of the Giraldine system is in language that is dry, sapless and insensitive. Perhaps the “Ille” of “Ego Dominus Tuus” was near it with his

“Those men that in their writings are most wise
Own nothing but their blind stupefied hearts.”

Return to Top

  The Illustrated London News

22 January 1938

p. 126

C. E. B.


The review takes a number of Irish books together, reviewing Seventy Years Young: Memories of Elizabeth, Countess of Fingall, told to Pamela Hinkson, A Memoir of Æ, George William Russell, by John Eglinton, and The Living Torch, essays of AE, edited by Monk Gibbon, before coming to A Vision.


    One of Æ’s closest friends—a famous living poet—has published a revised and amplified version of a book setting forth the principles, doctrines, and experiences behind his inspiration—namely, “A VISION,” By W. B. Yeats. With Portrait by Augustus John (Macmillan; 15s.). This abstruse work, with its intricate symbolism and esoteric philosophy, baffles me, but I am consoled to find that Æ himself was similarly affected. In a review of it (included in “The Living Torch”) he says: “I have written round and round this extraordinary book, unable in a brief space to give the slightest idea of its packed pages. . . .  It may come to be regarded as the greatest of Yeats’ works. It is conceivable also that it may be regarded as his greatest erring from the way of his natural genius.”

    Æ, however, extracts a little fun even from such grave material. After indicating Yeats’s system of cycles and phases, “all of a bewildering complexity,” he remarks (in a passage recalling the circles of Dante’s “Inferno”): “When he - Yeats - illustrates these phases of human life by portraits of men and women, dead and living, typical of the phase, I suspect the author to be animated . . . by an impish humour. . . .  I am a little uncomfortable with some of my fellow prisoners in phase twenty-five. I welcome George Herbert, but am startled to find myself along with Calvin, Luther and Cardinal Newman.” In another essay given in “The Living Torch,” Æ pays a high tribute to his poet-friend. “Yeats,” he affirms, “has made the name of his country shine in imagination to the rest of the world a hundred times more than any of the political notorieties. . . .  It was by the literary movement of which Yeats was the foremost figure that Ireland for the first time for long centuries came to any high international repute.”

    Just as Æ was disconcerted by Yeats’ visionary philosophy, so Yeats himself appears puzzled by another poet’s magnum opus, continued in “THE FIFTH DECAD OF CANTOS,” By Ezra Pound (Faber; 6s.). In “A Vision,” Mr. Yeats writes of “Ezra Pound, whose art is the opposite of mine, whose criticism commends what I most condemn, a man with whom I should quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection.”

Return to Top

  The Church of Ireland Gazette

4 February 1938

p. 77



The review takes a number of books in series, reviewing The Farm at Lough Gur, by Mary, Lady Carbery, from accounts by Mary Fogarty, which contains much folklore, such as banshees, fairy doctors, “giants and ghosts, saints’ wells and fairy thorns”. It concludes, “Paganism in religion is by no means extinct in Ireland”, and then comes to A Vision. Apart from the first paragraph here, the piece is less a review than a meditation.

If there were a Poet Laureate for Ireland there can be no doubt that Mr. W. B. Yeats is the man for the post, and accordingly it is with no common delight that we welcome a revised and amplified version of “A Vision” (Macmillan : 15s.) which in its new form will meet with at least as many admirers as in its old. Book I. gives us the great wheel with the main spokes as the principal symbol, the examination of the wheel, and the twenty-eight incarnations; Book II. gives the completed symbol; Book III. the soul in judgment; Book IV. the great year of the ancients; and Book V. concludes it with dove or swan. The only way to do justice to a noble piece of work is to read it and to re-read it, and the oftener it is read the more beauty and the more meaning disclose themselves. A. E. wrote: “I am unable in a brief space to give the slightest idea of its packed pages, its division of the faculties of man, the will, the creative genius, the mask and the body of fate and their lunar gyrations, or of its division of the transcendental man, the demoniac nature and its cycles and their relation to our being, or of the doctrines of the after-life. Almost any of its crammed pages would need a volume to elucidate its meanings. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blake’s prophetic books—so ignored, so unintelligent [sic] a hundred years ago—are discussed by many editors in our time.” These strong words of praise are not a whit too strong, and we warmly endorse them.

* *

    It is very fortunate for us that the poet sees fit to tell us the genesis of his great work. Part of it was thought out in All Souls’ Chapel, Oxford, and part in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. We note that Mr. Yeats seems to have derived most from both buildings when empty of worshippers. It is a plea, if plea were required, for the opening of our churches more on week days that they are. Sometimes in a sacred building we have felt what Newman felt, “Never less alone than when alone.” Between the genius of solitude and the solitude of genius there is an intimate connection. Schopenhauer draws attention to the fact that he describes a genius as one whose centre of gravity lies in himself. The solitude of genius is the inevitable outcome of its enforced submission to the unwritten laws of the genius of solitude. Yet the record of the solitary bears melancholy witness to the cruel disabilities under which they have lived, and we suspect that Mr. Yeats himself could bear similar testimony. He has been never less alone than when alone, and his introduction to his poem stirred us to the very depths of our nature.

* *

    In his “Dialogue Between Nature and a Soul,” Leopardi compels the soul to refuse the offer of the highest gifts of genius on account of the inevitable suffering connected with them. Lassitude and desolate feelings appear in the lives of two thinkers so unlike as Coleridge and J. S. Mill. Goethe exhibits this with insight, and Mr. Yeats will understand the lines of the German poet:

Who never ate his bread with tears,
    Nor through the sorrow-laden hours,
Sat nightly face to face with fears,
    He knows you not, ye heavenly powers.

No doubt Dante was able to stand four-square to the world, but how many other men of genius have been able? We wish Mr. Yeats would answer this question. The genius is generally alone, comforted by the Alone. Dante stood alone, pondering his poem in the sylvan solitudes of Fonte Avellana. St. Paul, after his experience on the road to Damascus, spent over a year in the solitudes near Mount Sinai, a spot hallowed by the retirement to it of Moses and Elijah.

* *

    It is noteworthy that the profoundest book St. Paul wrote, the Epistle to the Ephesians, and the greatest work of uninspired religious genius, the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” were written in jail. Mohammed meditated his message on the mount above Mecca, and Cervantes wrote the saddest book in world in the seclusion of a prison. Marcus Aurelius lived in self-denying holiness, with little conscious support save from his own lonely heart. St. Augustine felt that in the chamber of his friend Alypius, “I was alone even in his presence.” It is, of course, possible to be alone in a crowd, for the crowd, in fact, to intensify the feeling of loneliness. Michael Angelo lived among the creations of his brain, heedless of the feet that passed by his studio. The world approved of him, but what cared he for its approval? Mr. Yeats, too, has lived among the creations of his brain, notably of “A Vision,” heedless of the feet that passed by his study. The world now approves of him, but what cares he for its approval? He cares for the approval of men like A.E., of course, but he cares for little else in the way of approval.

Return to Top

  New Verse

March 1938

pp. 20-22

G. E. G[rigson]



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.)

The Herne’s Egg. A Stage Play. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 5s.)

Essays. 1931 to 1936. By W. B. Yeats. (Cuala Press. 12s 6d.)

The Living Torch. by A. E. (Selections from his periodical criticism. Macmillan. 12s. 6d.)

    A good way to think of A Vision, indeed to think of Yeats just now, is to think of Goya’s Caprices and Disasters of War. Each in the second half of his life, how did Goya, and how does Yeats, employ his idiosyncrasy, his peculiar interests and particular experiences? How much did Goya and how much does Yeats answer to the real quality of the disasters of his time? Yeats has had affinity with magical authors, Goya had affinity with Jerome Bosch. Goya made his affinity serve other men. And Yeats? To emphasise by exaggeration, Yeats has compelled his magic to serve Mr. Yeats.

    Yeats, and the poets of his year, believed they should be always on the track of BEAUTY. If finding, or following beauty served other men, the service, in order of rather more than words, came second. Art obtrudes too much. “The passion of the artist for perfection” must be talked about (AE p. 252); and poetry (AE p. 344) must be “the spiritual essence of life.” It is true that A Vision has been cut and concentrated since it first appeared in a private edition, but it remains an entirely impossible monster. The partly symbolic system which it presents for world, life and time, was arranged by Yeats from his wife’s automatic writing. Provided through Mrs. Yeats for the benefit of Yeats by “the Instructors,” this partly symbolic system, for all that, is subjective, arbitrary, and magical. However: “Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called ‘the pulsaters of an artery,’ are plainly symbolical, but what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer 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 has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” Very well. Yeats may hold, and we all may agree, that his poetry “has gained in self-possession and power,” and Yeats may ascribe this rightly to his Instructors. Their “instructions” forced Yeats to a more severe meditation, and he planted out new co-ordinates for himself. But quack remains quack. Quack remedies from a quack doctor leave—they must leave—some traces of their fraudulence. As for that, there is fraudulence in The Herne’s Egg, which is probably extravagant beyond the extravagance justified by meaning, and in the Essays as well, which include Yeats’s broadcast fantasia about modern poets. One noticed in that essay, and also in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, how little in a poem is needed by Yeats to make him read into it his desires and his fantasies and his significance. A child will draw three lines and then call them a banana or a train passing over a bridge.

    And how much hold of reality and justice is there in Yeats now? Respect for an able and aged poet does not preclude scepticism about his opinions. The hunt for beauty in Yeats, the rather ridiculous preference for aristocrats on the assumption that there must be aristocratic liquor in the aristocratic vessel, the submission of reason to the instructions of magic, make him something of a gigantic wraith in the Europe of 1938. Compare the statement by Thomas Mann, quoted later in this NEW VERSE, with Yeats’s

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon shot;
A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot;
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again,
The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on

in the London Mercury for March, or with his new Lapis Lazuli. If one asks the aristocratic-democratic Tory (Eden, for example) his view of fascism, he is careful to reply: “I deplore the political philosophy of Herr Hitler, Signor Mussolini and Stalin.” Is Yeats, too, to make the politician’s answer? If one’s chase has Beauty, or Reality, in view, the danger is the danger of not recognising beauties or realities (which explains the insubstantiality of the AE and his poems and his pronouncements, the ineffectuality of many prophets, philosophers and Liberals, and perhaps the weakness of Stephen Spender). The value of Yeats is nothing but the sum of his expressed moments of reality: the value of Communism, or the value of Fascism, is the sum of its working truths or realities. What is shocking about Yeats is asking us to declare only for Reality, in general, in the singular. All things fall and are built again. How comfortable! We have no right to listen to Yeats, no right at least to stay outside. To be free as a poet, to be free and to be allowed to have Reality in view, enjoins upon us, that, as clearly as we can with our imperfections of reason and sensibility, we must recognise, and not evade, realities of the present. We must risk (this is for Eliot as well as Yeats) having a bad press with posterity; or else the Beauty in view becomes a beast. What Goya remarked to Yeats was “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

G. E. G.

Return to Top

  Poetry Review

March-April 1938

pp. 123-141

H. T. Hunt Grubb


This long review is footnoted by the page. For this reason, rather than changing the numbering of the footnotes, the page numbers are include in square brackets. The note should also be visible if you place the cursor on the reference number without clicking.

Hunt Grubb refers to hearing Yeats talk about the System before reading A Vision and, for instance, uses the early term ‘Creative Genius’ rather than the book’s ‘Creative Mind’. The review, however, continually promises slightly more in terms of insight than it finally gives.


I HAVE had the pleasure of reviewing on various occasions works in both poetry and prose by W. B. Yeats, but in order to do justice to his latest book,—that is to explain as far as possible its highly complex system of philosophy,—I have found it necessary to study its contents very deeply; and even if I were thoroughly conversant with all the complexities of the geometrical philosophy he had embodied in A Vision (Macmillan, 15s.), and furthermore having to take for granted that a certain percentage of readers are unacquainted with such profundities,—although some may take a passing interest in esoteric lore,—I would have to limit my observations to within—comparatively speaking—a small space.

    Not having previously read A Vision in its original issue, for private circulation some years ago, has made this present undertaking all the more difficult, and now Messrs. Macmillan and Co., Ltd., have brought out a handsome revised edition containing additional matter, and with illustrations. In my previous article on the Poems and Plays in THE POETRY REVIEW, I gave details as to the sources from whence some of W. B. Yeats’s best known poems derived their inspiration, but the fresh source from which has emanated such cryptic knowledge was even more evanescent than any mythical or pseudo-historic basis, and thus throws a light upon his intuitive faculties, or else, as he explains they were details conveyed to him, and also to his wife, by those discarnate beings whom he calls his “instructors.”

    Nevertheless the work contains what I consider to be a glorified nucleus of arcane philosophic principles whose expansion would fill volumes with transcendental knowledge, that is unless one happens to be so prejudiced as to regard those products of what could be named his own intellectual activities as mere “ben trovato,” otherwise “nebulous moonshine.” At the same time we must admit that there is a more or less hypothetic region regarded by many advanced thinkers to-day as “the borderland of science,” or rather I should say those concepts of what may transcend [124] ordinary phenomena, and yet if anybody had the temerity to place these propositions in any form of category with the most advanced scientific observations a generation or more ago, such a thing would have been considered tantamount to lunacy, or else sacrilege, by the scientific faculty. Yet psychical research has discovered certain phenomena tending to prove if not actually, the existence of discarnate minds, as it has evidence to the effect that there is something which is akin to mind, and this has been named a “psychic factor,” and in order to form a temporary mind this amorphous intelligence must unite with a physical brain.

    This is not a pleasant notion for serious contemplation, but I am inclined to take this conception from an agnostic standpoint, although I hold with a scientific writer who considers the view taken of the psychic conjunction with the living brain more credible than the so-called demoniacal possession. Nevertheless it can be generally admitted that his “instructors,” to have communicated such a magnitude of abstruse philosophy, must be extremely intellectual, and as they say in W. B. Yeats’s native country “all there,” whereas that composite mentality of nondescript entities may be regarded as no good at all.

    A Vision, although written by a poet, is devoted to the philosophic conception of the analogy between the cyclic progression of the human ego, that is the soul, in twenty-eight incarnations, and the eight and twenty phases of the moon during its revolution in the synodic month, and he has further taken as a symbol the passage of the sun, moon and planets along the imaginary path through the zodiacal constellations, thus making a period of about 26,000 years of our reckoning, and in the spiritual light a single day may be one of several generations. This is the Great Year of the Ancients, the Anno Mundi, in which a thousand years of Spiritual Ecstasy may seem only a day; a beautiful idea so perfectly expressed by Longfellow in his poem The Legend of Monk Felix, 1 that saintly character, who whilst listening to the song of a bird was so entranced that a hundred years had passed him by. W. B. Yeats’s [125] poem, The Wanderings of Usheen, is based on the same theme.

    This philosophy of life and death, which he has called a phantasmagoria, he made the subject of a poem, The Phases of the Moon, and which I briefly dealt with in my previous article. This poem is reprinted with All Soul’s Night [sic] in the present work. I will now go more fully into the scheme of this poem in which two personages are introduced, viz. Robartes and Aherne, both of whom figure in others of his poems, also in his prose works, notably Rosa Alchemica and The Tables of the Law, and it consists of a dialogue between the two.

    These are not persons, however, but symbols,1 and are as Æ said of his Rosa Alchemica, “images of phantasy,” and these images he changed to what objective objects symbolized, and to him they do not exist for themselves but are only shadows of the unseen. He believes with Æ, that the Anima Mundi, “The Memory of Nature,” associates symbols with certain events, moods and persons, and whatever the passions of men have gathered about them become a symbol in that great memory. William Blake calls such images “the bright sculptures in Los’s Halls”; Æ also contended that this memory can be evoked by symbols, as did Blake who held that all events, all love stories renew themselves from those images. One is reminded of Walter de la Mare’s Henry Brocken. It has been suggested that his symbolism was adapted from Gerard de Nerval, Stéphane Mallarmé, Verlaine and other French symbolists.

    Robartes is a symbol of the mind, and it points in particular to the Poet’s mind, and not being a student of magical tradition, I do not understand what the symbol of “fire reflected in water” means; nor do I know what symbol Aherne represents.


    In the poem the two symbolic personalities as friends had been tramping the country road and it is evidently very late at night. Aherne listens as they reach a bridge; he hears a sound. There is a tower near at hand, and a man is within: he is evidently reading books of wisdom on account of a light being seen in his window. Robartes says:

And the light proves that he is reading still.
He has found, after the manner of his kind,
Mere images; chosen this place to live in
Because, it may be, of the candle light
From the far tower where Milton’s platonist
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book and manuscript
What he shall never find.

Aherne advises Robartes to ring at his door and tell him that all his life’s labour

Will scarcely find for him a broken crust
Of all those truths that are your daily bread;
And when you have spoken take the roads again?
        *     *     *     *     *
Sing me the changes of the moon once more;
True song, though speech: mine author sing it me. [sic]

Then at Aherne’s request follows an account of the philosophy in verse, spoken by Robartes whom Aherne addresses as author.

    I will not tax my reader’s patience or intelligence by giving even an epitomized account of what occupies pages and pages of the book, viz., the soul through each phase of its development, that is twenty-eight incarnations in accordance with twenty-eight phases of the moon, the light part of the moon in varying degrees being the symbol of the subjective and the dark portion in like manner being that of the objective,—also the Celestial Body, the four faculties which man had made in past and present lives, then the Will, the Creative Genius, the Mask and the Body of Fate, how subjectivity separates man from man, whilst objectivity brings all back to the mass where they began.

    Yet despite wheels within wheels, complexity following [127] complexity, the building up of the whole system of primary and antithetical amounts to a wonderful mechanism no part of which appears to be out of place.1

    In this geometrical symbolism he has employed Phase No. 1 the moonlight [sic] night as that of complete objectivity; it is the phase before the first crescent appears, and therefore all is dark. Within it human entities become instruments of supernatural manifestation, and they transact any purpose imposed upon them. According to psychical investigations these have temporary bodies composed of an organized plastic material drawn from living bodies, and are thus enabled to manifest themselves to us as they appeared when in the flesh. These shapes are dominated by an intelligence in the same manner as our bodily organisms are ruled by our minds, and their activities display both will and intention similar to living beings.

When all the dough has been so kneaded up
    That it can take what form cook Nature fancies,
The first thin crescent is wheeled round once more.

I heard W. B. Yeats once declare that such etheric, or I should say ectoplasmic bodies,2 are composed of what he termed “plastic dough,” and that all knowledge becomes instinct and faculty. I have also been informed that may rich and worldly minded people who have “passed over” prefer to remain in a sort of counterpart of their earthly life when they go through the same routine of luxurious living rather than progress in higher planes of being. Or else as he wrote of Thoor Ballylee:
                    for centuries,
Rough men-at-arms, cross-gartered to the knees
Or shod in iron, climbed the narrow stairs,
And certain men-at-arms they were
Whose images, in the Great Memory stored
Came with loud cry and panting breast
To break upon a sleeper’s rest
While their great wooden dice beat on the board.

Phase 15, the full moon, is what he calls the phase of complete subjectivity, which is a phase of entire beauty, and where every beloved image has bodily form, and every bodily form is loved. This love being the highest attainment of the intellect and has nothing of desire implies effort, and although there is still separation from the loved object, love accepts the separation as necessary to its own existence. This is then the “Land of Heart’s Desire”

Where beauty has no ebb, decay, no flood,
But joy is wisdom, Time an endless song.

He states in A Vision that as we approach Phase 15, personal beauty increases, and at Phase 14 and Phase 16 the greatest human beauty becomes possible, and he thus wrote of womanly beauty:

O cloud-pale eyelids, dream-dimmed eyes
The poets labouring all their days
To build a perfect beauty in rhyme
Are overthrown by a woman’s gaze
And by the unlabouring brood of the skies:
And therefore my heart will bow, when dew
Is dropping sleep, until God burn time,
Before the unlabouring stars and you.


A woman’s beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a white sea-bird alone
At daybreak after stormy night.    * * *
How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toils of measurement
Beyond eagle and mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes guess,
To raise into being
That loveliness.

In a note to his play The Only Jealousy of Emir, [sic] he says:

        “Objective natures are destined to be always ugly, hence the disagreeable appearance of politicians, reformers, philanthropists, scientists,” and to which might be added financiers, usurers, company promoters, pugilists, and so on.

    The Rose is symbol of spiritual love as well as supreme beauty, also intellectual beauty, and was once regarded as a symbol of the sun. Thus the Poet dreams as did Dante of [129] Beatrice, or like Rudel the troubadour who set out upon a pilgrimage to gaze at last upon the beauty of the Lady of Tripoli,1 which the singers of Provence had exalted in heavenly music, and who he had never seen. Yeats wrote of another of equal beauty, thus:

And him who sold tillage and house and goods,
And sought through lands and islands numberless years
Until he found with laughter and with tears
A woman of so shining loveliness
That men threshed corn at midnight by a tress,
A little stolen tress.

Being does not fade in passing on to other states of existence, but the shade is said to fade out at last. The shade appears to correspond to the psychic factor, but the Celestial Body which is spiritual attains a spiritual state between earthly lives of which the surroundings as well as the aptitudes of early earthly lives are experienced and displayed:

He grows younger every second
That were all his birthdays reckoned,
Much too solemn seemed
Because of what he had dreamed,
On the ambition that he served
Much too solemn and reserved.
Jaunting, journeying
In his own dayspring     * * *
At some old whitethorn root
He’ll practise the shepherd’s flute,
Or on the close-cropped grass
Court his shepherd lass.

and so on back to years of infancy.

    He names this “dreaming back,” which can also have very unpleasant associations, and quotes from a modern poem about “a beloved ghost,” whom another poet saw reflected in a looking-glass, and thinking herself unobserved was powdering her face in order to save her beauty from decay. Years ago I was told by a student of the occult, that in one or other of the earth’s encircling planes, which is constituted of that protyle substance out of [130] which all material elements and forms in course of ages had granulated, and thus formed atoms, there is a region he named “Vanity Fair” where, as he explained it to me, feminine leaders of fashion, and their followers, can set off their charms in the most magnificent and becoming apparel,1 as well as adorn their perfect and immaculate forms with precious stones of splendour and brilliance beyond human conception. But there is a very unhappy “snag” connected with that supersensory world, and that is on account of there being no personalities present to admire, or what may be still worse any of those entities they come into contact with turn out to be hopelessly indifferent to any allurements, as there are far more important issues at stake.

    I must confess that this revelation aroused within me a sense of humour, for being a callous male I failed to realize such a dreadful prospect. Probably he attributed my sudden risibility to honest doubt, and he was not far wrong.

    This nevertheless may be a much exaggerated instance of what W. B. Yeats puts forward in explaining how memories of events which took place during a previous life upon earth come in the form of dreams to the daimon, that is the ultimate self, and he holds that those events, or combinations of circumstances during life, had been shaped as it were by intuitive recollections, yet unknown to the ego, of circumstances that had surrounded it whilst inhabiting the flesh when living upon earth, perhaps centuries previously.

    That former existence may have been a short and a merry one when amidst splendour and luxury in the zenith of their beauty, or else one or other may have grown old, and still lives in her youth once more:

Pendant in passion, learned in old courtesies,
Vehement and witty she had seemed to glide
To some intrigue in her red shoes,
Her domino, her panniered skirt copied from Loughi,
The meditative critic.

And of her he might also have written as he did upon the lady of old distinguished grace when she was dying:

When her soul flies to the predestined dancing-place
. . . . . let her come face to face,
Amid the first astonishment, with Grania’s shade
All but the terrors of the woodland flight forgot
That made her Dermuid dear, and some old cardinal
Pacing with half-closed eyelids in a sunny spot
Who had murmured of Giorgione at his latest breath—
Aye and Achilles, Simor, Babar, Barham all
Who have lived in joy and laughed into the face of death.

and besides those beauties of old-time who had ever joyed in the dance, where those fair daughters of dreams and of stories who in the Poet’s imagination had charmed with their vivacity and lustrous eyes, kings, courtiers and warriors amidst the long Celtic twilight, with dim shadowy queens upon their jewelled thrones, such as the golden Maeve, “divine to many thousand eyes” and

She could have called over the rim of the world
Whatever woman’s lovers had hit her fancy,

and like other queens, who were counselled by Danaan gods from glittering realms of faery, and those phantoms from the past as he wrote “cleave the waters of sleep, and come to us from Eden on flying feet,” such as Deirdre the Celtic conception of fair womanhood, Etain who was crazed by love for Baile, Niamh “with love-lorn face,” the Aphrodite of Irish myth, Grania[1] beloved of Diamuid, and others. [sic]

    And there were those fair women too, with creative poetic minds to whom came dreams wherewith to beautify the world, and they between birth and death had, as did Sappho and others, vied with any man, and their spontaneous utterances telling of strange and beautiful things were oftentimes sad-voiced and sweet, for what their waking souls imagined were pre-natal memories of noble characters and wonder deeds of goodness, they having found these realities in some bygone historic era, which had flashed through their minds during unexpected moments of exaltation.


    Beauty in womanhood was to him in his early days that quality as having reached the highest pinacle [sic] of excellence, and he made it a mystical acquisition to his many excursions amidst the realms of faerydom where the spirit of his poetry in glowing phrases revealed to the mind a magical world, when he had changed many sad olden stories to burdens of song, and made tender or tragic semi-material images seem as if they had arisen from the borderland of dreams.

    Thus his imagination bore him far away back into that far remote past when Helen herself had lived, and “in her sight was Elysium, her smile was heaven; her voice was enchantment,” and he wrote of her who was the World’s Desire, “that she of all other women was the most touching in her romantic beauty” when amidst those perilous early years a sound continually rang in her ears of armed men, with

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

In her succeeding phase, the next turn of the wheel, she still possesses her ancient beauty, yet wanders alone, still her past languorous movements have changed to power and responsibility, and her whole life becomes an image of unified energy in its antithesis to when it had been made noble by irresponsible simplicity, and who spoke of Hector in tears, “grief-ful Helen1 has no friend now that thou art gone.”

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Was it she who by her beauty gathered great crowds from the slums, and spoke of “Mother Ireland with a crown of stars above her head?”

    My memory travels back to the evening when I listened to W. B. Yeats deliver a lecture before the Theosophical Society in Dublin on “The Phases of the Moon,” which was valuable to me insomuch that it gave me a key to what otherwise might have proved to be a far more difficult undertaking. He opened a packet and took out a chart of the moon in its varied phases, as applied to his philosophy of metempsychosis, which was in a slightly damaged condition and he apologized for its having been torn, and began by saying, “My Persian,” and while he paused for a second or two, I visualized a Persian attendant in oriental costume, but when he mentioned claws, not finger nails, from which he had rescued it only barely in time I awoke to the fact that it was his pet Persian cat had torn it, and which animal figures in one of his prose writings. I remember how his wife was as well conversant as himself with all the intricacies of this almost uncanny philosophy, and she once set him right where he had made a slip.

    He spoke of his “instructors” as if they were real living people; he called them “my friends,” and mentioned as well how he had in mind to issue an edition of a book upon the subject with illustrations engraved on wood by using the graving tools that had been handled by Albrecht Dürer.

    There is one strange detail in particular in A Vision where the author draws attention in a footnote to William Blake’s poem The Mental Traveller, which no commentator has been able to explain satisfactorily, and yet after a careful study of that portion of A Vision he calls “The Completed Symbol,” one certainly obtains not only an inkling, but a perception of the poem’s extraordinary symbolism, and assuming that the concepts are purely the result of intensified imagination, is it not very peculiar that one form of cryptic philosophy should provide as it were a key to another of equal complexity, and furthermore that the two individuals should have lived in different centuries? [134] It would indeed take a separate article in order to go deeply into their correlation.

    What led up to the writing of the book was no doubt W. B. Yeats’s study of mysticism in his youth, and he also studied and dabbled in magic, but nothing bordering on the Black Art, or Satanism.

    It was a mysticism entirely his own which I have endeavoured to fathom, having read his Rosa Alchemica containing what Æ called the images of phantasy. His study of alchemy1 was not, I take it, what is popularly know by that word, that is changing the baser metals into gold, but philosophically speaking, what is in all bodies known as the “prima materia” a spiritual principle, and an infusion of this immaterial substance into natural things, and which when tinctured, would change bodies into souls, and weariness into ecstasy; the doctrine being that all human beings without being aware of the fact are weary, and he longed for some power, an essence, that would bring about a dissolution of all mortal things.2 Tinctures from this point of view occur very frequently in his philosophic scheme set out in A Vision.

    There is an interesting point I must draw attention to, and that is in later Brahman [sic] theology a tendency was displayed to connect the souls of the departed with the waning and waxing of the moon, and in one of the Upanishads it is stated that all who leave the world go directly to the moon, and which we must regard as the moon at the fall, and how by their lives its waxing crescent is increased, and by its waning it brings them to second birth; and it was a doctrine of the Manichæan sect, third century A.D., that the souls of men rise after death from the twelve [135] signs of the Zodiac in symbols of light, one of the two principles, viz. light and darkness; and the sun and moon were likened to ships, the moon the smaller ship carried the burden of souls for fifteen days and the sun the larger for fifteen days, making the twenty-eight crescents the full moon and the moon during complete occultation. According to the ancient doctrines soul and body are united, but the compact is unequally binding upon either one or the other, for the soul by its own nature aspires to freedom, but the body even “when an immortal passion breathes in mortal clay” holds it in fetters whilst “our hearts endure the scourge,” and it is only death that can dissolve the partnership. But alas! for those who eternal freedom is the heart’s desire, and even “when the flaming lute-thronged angelic door is wide” that compact must again be renewed, and it may be only after a short while, or perhaps a thousand years.

    Plato wrote of the souls having to pass out of the underworld, after a long and tedious journey from a gap in the earth, or cave, and others from the heaven-world who described enjoyments and sights of marvellous beauty. All save those unfortunate souls who were condemned to Tartarus had the selection of what they would become during the next unity of soul with body and thus the wheel of birth continues to revolve alternating between post-mortem existence and a fresh incarnation round the wide circle of necessity.

    In Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI there is an episode on the same theme where in a fourth dimensional space or locality, heroes who had died in the Trojan war exist simultaneously with kings and consuls of ancient Rome, and all are awaiting the time when they will reach the borders of day, and pass back through the Ivory Gate, or the Gate of Horn, to where deep in the forest are the waters of Lethe, or forgetfulness.

    The belief in metempsychosis was held by the Chaldeans whose history extends so far back as to be lost in the mists of antiquity, and Egypt, which has been called “the timeless”, took this doctrine from anterior civilizations.

    It was also a doctrine held by the Celts, whose conceptions [136] of the three worlds, according to W. B. Yeats, are supposed to have given Dante the plan of the Divina Commedia; he himself has written concerning an Irish mythical hero:

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies:
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

Aengus Master of Love would not grant him this boon until his next life upon Earth.

    When lecturing on the Great Wheel, W. B. Yeats introduced an additional hypothesis to which he refers in his book, and that is based upon the conception that some souls would drop behind or some run ahead, which may shorten or lengthen the whole in succeeding circles and so on and on as each circle becomes smaller so that the entire system becomes a cone or spiral and in the course of thousands of years the circle becomes that of one individual forming an apex; and then he went still further by stating that it would restart, that is to say, wheels or gyres increasing in size from point of contact so as to form an inverted cone point to point, and when the great circle is again reached the system begins all over again. I will not enter however into any further prolixities.

    He describes the manner by which the so-called communications came to his wife, he would ask them various questions, and she in automatic writing would set down the answers on paper.

    The unknown communicator at first took his theme from W. B. Yeats’s essay called Per Amica Silentia Lunae where the author draws a distinction between the perfection that is from a man’s combat with himself, and that which is [137] a combat with circumstances, and the communicators built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or another, that is man’s combat with himself, the subjective, and the other his combat with circumstances, the objective, and that hypothetic entity supported the classification with a series of symbolisms unknown to his wife, and himself. I need not go into further details, except one interesting point, and that is that she would at times talk in her sleep and upon receiving a signal he would write down whatever she said, or replies to his questions, and in this manner the work was completed; also that the communicators (sic) had drawn up their symbolic map of European history some days before the publication of the first German edition of Decline of the West, which I had the good fortune to come across in a public library about two years and a half ago, and which, although it is as Yeats wrote, “founded upon a different philosophy” gives the same years of crisis, and draws the same general conclusions.

    After hearing Yeats deliver his lecture on the Phases of the moon I reread his poem under the same title, and found it to be quite intelligible, but what flashed through my mind upon hearing its explanation was the thought,—and the same idea occurred to George W. Russell (Æ)—that it displayed a tendency towards the horrible doctrine of predestination, and he wrote that it is always possible for a man to rise above his stars, and I believe, as he did, in Free Will.

    The whole conception of A Vision, as the title denotes, is dreamlike, indeed some people might call it a nightmare procession of beings born into this world in order to carry out a predestined purpose, possibly being the result of whatever had been done, or left undone, during a former existence, 1 also predestined, and thus back and back; [138] whilst on the other hand progression is both acted upon and predestined; and what is eventually in store does not by any means appear inviting, even when the phase of complete objectivity is reached.1

    This phase appears to me like the dreaming back to an age of innocence, for hunchback, saint and fool are the last crescents, they having no active intelligence, so that they obey obscure subconscious fantasies, while at their best they would know all wisdom if they could know anything, and so on. He had written elsewhere that there is a certain wisdom which the fool has acquired from supernatural sources, that he knows all things but is afraid to repeat what is known to himself, for if he did that power would be taken away.

    In his play The Hour Glass, the Poet has made the fool wiser than the wise man, for the fool has intuitive knowledge given him by the Angel.

    Typical of each phase of the lunar revolution, in order to illustrate such a correlation with a phase of human life he gives examples of men and women both living and dead, and in this wise several personalities are grouped together in a single phase, and that does not strike one as successful in many instances.

    Personally I have not taken the trouble even to guess at which of the grooves of the Great Wheel I am in at present, although it might be interesting to know, and I think the same would apply to most people; but in whose company we shall next find ourselves would be still more interesting to discover.

    If I take for my present life at random say Phase 17 as my creative mind is subjective truth, as I am when writing articles or reviews most particular in regard to facts, then in the next phase I shall be in company with Goethe and Matthew Arnold whose works I have always appreciated, especially Goethe; but I will have to wait for a very long period to elapse before I am once again in the same company with my late friend Æ; but meanwhile [139] I shall have the consolation of meeting Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Synge and probably Queen Victoria. I repeat that this whole conception is nothing more than a dream, for he is a poet of dreams. “The Shadowy Waters” was the outcome of a dream, and so was “Cathleen ni Hoolihan,” as well as many of his poems, especially The Cap and Bells.

    A critic has thus written “at his best, Mr. Yeats has a command of sweet sonambulistic language unequalled by any writer in our generation.

But I being poor have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

    Samuel Butler in Erewhon showed that individuals are wrapped in transparent veils which, if torn off, would display their voluntary illusions, and Bernard Shaw has done the same thing in his plays. The antithetical phase such as the Creative Mind and Body of Fate enforced emotion, enforced intellectual action, and so on, is illustrative of this in A Vision.

    A Vision, notwithstanding its many complexities, is without doubt an amazing book, and anybody who takes the trouble to devote a little time to its study will be amply rewarded. The two chapters name “The Great Year of the Ancients” and “Dove and Swan” [sic] are richly strewn with his historic affirmations and astrological lore, and written in his most engaging style, being quite dissimilar to the more or less characteristic manner he had previously adopted in his many prose works, but none the less attractive; for his entire conception, mental or extraneous, of the Great Wheel of History, where salient incidents as well as prominent characters, are taken in periodic succession over a couple of millenniums1 in accordance with astrological reckonings, is altogether an undoubtedly marvellous achievement.

    This then is the Poet’s dream concept of the immortal part of man, that Divine emanation which in far remote æons [140] first had entered the initial circle of transmigration including this world, where it had time after time undergone unlimited trials, endless struggles, and before it lay the great hope of final atonement.1

    In the Earth-world the ancient religions including that of dogmatic Christianity, located their hells, although in the early Christian Church their material fires were taught as symbolical of the torments of conscience; but it was during the dark ages of ignorance, cruelty and superstition that such horrors became a fixed tenet, the outcome of perverted imagination born out of fear of warring devils where in may instances the death of the body was concerned. It was William Blake, the mystic, who wrote:

Why should Punishment weave the veil with Iron Wheels of war
When Forgiveness might weave it with Wings of Cherubim.

W. B. Yeats too had cooler judgment:

The heavy boughs, the burnished dove
That moans and sighs a hundred days:
How when we die our shades may rove,
When eve has hushed the feathered ways,
With vapoury footsale among the water’s drowsy blaze,

and of their terrible warnings which men of old believed had come to them for the dead in dreams:

Have not old writers said
That dizzy dreams can spring
From the dry bones of the dead?
And many a night it seems
That all the valley fills
With those fantastic dreams.
That overflow the hills,
So passionate is a shade.

    At the end of the book there is a poem,—there are only about four altogether,—he has named “All Souls’ Night,” [141] which is beautiful in many respects, and there is one stanza where he refers to a lady who before her death had taught native children at a school in some foreign land, and this refers to the same philosophy:

Before the end much had she ravelled out
From the discourse in figurative speech
By some learned Indian.
On the soul’s journey. How it wheeled about
Wherever the orbit of the moon can reach,
Until it plunge into the sun.
And there, free and yet fast,
Being both Chance and Choice,
Forget its broken toys
And sink into its own delight at last.


1 [page 124] I think that the same story is contained in The Gesta Romanorum. Return to text.

1 [page 125] W. B. Yeats declared in one of his books that directly a symbolism has possessed the imagination of large numbers of men, it becomes, as he believed, an embodiment of disembodied powers and repeats itself in dreams and visions, age after age. Æ found this to be strangely true, and I gave an account of one very remarkable instance in The Occult Review as well as Æ’s recollections of past incarnations. Thus Aedh which is the Irish for fire, that is fire burning by itself, and it is also the myrrh and frankincense that the imagination offers continuously before all that it loves. Return to text.

1 [page 127] The Poet I fancy discovered his geometrical symbolism, as in his early use of symbols when writing poetry, had an aesthetic aspect like Silvester, the mathematician, who saw all the colours of the rainbow in a page of algebra. Return to text.

2 [page 127] The late Dr. Crawford, of Belfast University, showed me and some others, photographs of ectoplasmic rods taken by the glow from oxysulphide of calcium, being invisible in any specific, or ordinary light. Return to text.

1 [page 129] Both Swinburne and Browning here made this incident a subject for their poetry. Return to text.

1 [page 130] These clothes are illusionary, but the force exercised to produce such an illusion is a mystery. It is said that in the psychic world illusionary garments are always to be obtained by the act of willing, for purposes of identification. Return to text.

1 [page 131] Pronounced Grawnia. Return to text.

1 [page 132] According to Herodotus Helen, after she had left her husband King Menelaus, did not reach Troy with Paris as their ship was driven ashore on the Egyptian coast, where King Proteus detained the real Helen, and it was only a phantom of that old world beauty was carried off to Troy, and the real Helen was discovered by her husband and taken back with him after the Trojan war. Return to text.

1 [page 134] According to legend the fallen angels “who saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and took them wives of all that they chose,” taught the laws of alchemy to those women they married, these instructions being recorded in a book called Chema. The text from the Book of Genesis gave Byron the foundation for his dramatic poem Heaven and Earth. Return to text.

2 [page 134] In one of his books W. B. Yeats draws an analogy between the arts and the labour of the alchemists, each being an attempt to condense out of “the flying vapour of the world an image of human perfection for its own and not for art’s sake,” and the Alchemists were called artists in their day. Also that “we live with images, that is our renunciation, for only the silent sage or saint can make himself [i]nto that perfection.” Return to text.

1 [page 137] Aldous Huxley considers the Indian notion of Karma, the Buddhist conception of the quality of actions, that is the law of cause and effect as applied to the doctrine of reincarnation, helps us to explain the existence of the many cases of what we consider undeserved suffering. Poets have made the doctrine of reincarnation a subject for poetry, particularly G. D. Rossetti [sic], W. E. Henley, Andrew Lang, and the present Poet Laureate [John Masefield], whose poem A Creed was inspired by the notion of Karmic law. Upon several occasions I have heard [from] Æ how he could remember pre-natal events, which may have been his own imagination. He declared that those memories of the past were attained by his system of concentration. Return to text.

1 [page 138] I remember a lady who was present inquired of the Poet which Phase he was in during his present term on Earth, and he pointed to the chart without any hesitation, and as well as I can remember it was either Phase 24 or 25. Return to text.

1 [page 139] Twelve such wheels or gyres constitute a single great year or cone of twenty-six thousand years. Return to text.

1 [page 124] Origen, one of the early Christian Fathers, who had studied Plato and Pythagoras, gave offence because he believed in the pre-existence of the soul, final restoration and the plurality of worlds. I have always been interested in this Pythagorean doctrine, and I first read of it in one of Dumas’ novels when a boy. It principle character was that arch-charlatan who called himself Cagliostro, and who was said to have been beloved by the ladies, being reported to have discovered a mixture that would make ugly women beautiful. He is the guest of a nobleman, and in the course of conversation tells his host how a certain general was killed in a famous battle, and on being asked how he got the information he replied “I was that general,” or something to that effect. Return to text.

Return to Top

  The Saturday Review

12 March 1938

p. 19

William Rose Benét


Speculations of a Poet

A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1938. $3


SOME twenty years ago, through his wife’s experiments in automatic writing, the greatest poet of our time believes that he received communications from the other world at first purporting “to give you metaphors for poetry.” The communications finally built themselves into an entire geometrical system of symbolism, including “cones” and “gyres,” aided by exposition in sleep, and thwarted by those the communicators referred to as the Frustrators. It will all seem as bewilderingly esoteric to the layman as the prophetic books of Blake or the Swedenborgianism of Coleridge. The poet Yeats, of course, has always possessed a metaphysical mind of great subtlety, and the fabulous, from childhood, has been his meat and drink. He is the most psychic of Celts. But what surpasses all this in importance is that he is a great poet, a magician with language. His conjurations with words are the most extraordinary in our time. And whatever you may make of his Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne—in both the stories and the poem “The Phases of the Moon” that here concern them, there is magical writing. Perhaps it is a limitation of my mind that it can consign the diagram of the Historical Cones to limbo since, on the facing page stands that superb poem concerning Leda —and I had rather read “All Souls’ Night” at the end of the book than the thorough-going explication of the symbolism of the “Vision.”

    Yeats is a poet of imagination all compact, but also an artist whose hand has never swerved or botched. There is a decided kinship with Blake, for these reasons despite the differences of nationality.

Return to Top

  The New York Times Book Review

13 March 1938

p. 2

Horace Reynolds


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.

Return to Top

  The Commonweal

25 March 1938

p. 611

Michael Williams



A Vision, by W. B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00.

MANY years ago, in one of his early books of essays, “Ideas of Good and Evil,” W. B. Yeats wrote about his belief that poets were more and more becoming the real religious leaders of the world, and that the priests of the Church were discredited. The opinion was a common one, at that time, at least among writers who had cast off what they considered to be the “chains of dogma,” “ecclesiastic superstitions” and the like, and felt themselves to be the emancipated prophets and leaders of humanity.

      For many of them, “science” appeared to be the substitute for Deity, which their art must serve; others, among them Mr. Yeats, discovered in their own subjective impulses and dreams the evidences of a spiritual truth superior to materialistic science. Few of them ever bothered to construct any system of thought by which to guide their new gospels, and so long as their work justified itself artistically, apart from their nebulous theories, what they believed or did not believe hardly mattered except to themselves.

      In Mr. Yeats’s case, in particular, the lovers of poetry could enjoy what he produced as poet without paying much heed to his occasional utterances as a religious “seer” or prophet. Nor will the book in which he has now given the world his fundamental doctrine change the situation, except, possibly, for a few devotees of Spiritualism, who may find it a new revelation, as they have discovered such revelations before in Swedenborg and Thomas Lake Harris and other modern visionaries. In the mumbo-jumbo flooding the pages of a host of lesser luminaries of the fantastic underworld of modern superstition, are to be found, although not so well expressed, much of the farrago of automatic writing, “direct voice” utterances, trance mediumship, “guides” and “frustrators,” out of which Mr. Yeats builds up his 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.

      Such a dream is the utter denial of the Christian revelation, the negation, indeed of all belief in God. Man’s free will is banished in such a system. The “great wheel” of life merely turns and re-turns, forever, through cycle after cycle, so that each and every human soul, born again and again without cessation into different environments, will go on doing so eternally.

      This idea is supposed to be illustrated and, apparently, even demonstrated by a series of geometrical plates and statistical tables. It is all very depressing, if taken seriously; but why should any sane person feel constrained to bother his head with such stuff when there is Mr. Yeats’s poetry to read and enjoy?


Return to Top

  The Criterion

April 1938

pp. 536-537

Stephen Spender


A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan.) 15s.

Four days after his marriage, Mr. Yeats’s wife surprised him by attempting automatic writing. The attempt was soon very successful and the unknown writer, on receiving an offer from Mr. Yeats that he should spend the rest of his life putting together these disjointed phrases, replied, ‘No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’.

    The spirit which made this remark deserves a literary prize, for not only is it responsible for some of the greatest poetry in the English language, but also it has provided a valuable hint towards the critical attitude which the reader may perhaps—fortified by that voice from the ‘other world’—take up towards A Vision. For, whatever the merits of Mr. Yeats’s philosophy, here we have a valuable and illuminating dictionary of the symbols and metaphors in his later poems. Here we are able to discover what precisely is the significance of symbols such as the mask, the gyre, the lunar phases; what are the uses in Yeats’s poetry of his ideas of Fate and the Will. Many readers will also find that this dictionary, in common with all definitions of words for that matter, is not only an explanation and an end of inquiry, it is also a starting off point in a search for new meanings and a stimulus to poetry as yet unwritten. For example, I myself am stimulated by the idea in Yeats of the Mask, which I take to be the fixed character which the will, like a chisel, sculpts on the face of man; just as in books on economics I am stimulated by the images suggested by the Law of Marginal Productivity.

    Later on, Mr. Yeats’s ‘instructors’ dropped their secondary role of giving him metaphors and supplied him with what one can only call an Encyclopedia of knowledge, life, death, the universe, history, etc.— an Encyclopedia Fascista, edited by Spengler, would perhaps be the best account of it, had not Spengler written his own. Here, I am unable to follow Mr. Yeats in anything like his entirety. I can only echo the tactful words of A.E. on the wrapper: ‘I am unable in a brief space’ (this goes for me as well) ‘to give the slightest idea of its packed pages, its division of the faculties of man, the Will, the Creative Genius, the Mask and the Body of Fate and their lunar gyrations, or of its division of the transcendental man, the daimonic nature and its cycles and their relation to our being, or of the doctrines of the after-life. Almost any of its crammed pages would need a volume to elucidate its meanings. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blake, . . .’ etc.

    The name of Blake pulls me up, for I should have thought that anyone desiring to make himself understood beyond the mere ferment of ‘feverish discussion’ would beware of falling into the jungles of the Prophetic Books. Like Blake, Mr. Yeats is prodigiously systematic, often illuminating, clear and even precise. The difficulty is, though, to discover on what plane he is being clear and to what he is consistent—where, in fact, his system, with its extensive philosophic claims, actually links up with reality. It is perhaps typical of Mr. Yeats’s whole method, that although the nature of his spiritualist experiences is described, no serious attempt is made to prove to the reader that the creaking of boards in his house, the sudden appearance of smells and so on, have really the significance which Mr. Yeats attributes to them. It is a pity that people who have Mr. Yeats’s experiences do not attempt to establish them with proofs which are acceptable to the sceptical, because if such experiences are real they are vastly important. On the other hand, if the physical universe has a special kind of behaviour which it hoards up for Mr. Yeats, it is difficult to see how to relate this to the rest of human experience.

    Mr. Yeats’s diagrams and tables are extremely logical and clear, in their mediaeval way; it is when I come to his summing up of the history of civilization that everything is so generalized as either to seem meaningless or else to be matter which could only assume shape and significance in Mr. Yeats’s poetry. However, occasionally the puzzle clears up, and we recognize behind the lulling self-loving fervour of Mr. Yeats’s prose a voice which, whether from this world or the next, is after all not so unfamiliar. For example, in the Examination of the Wheel, the voice appears in an illuminating footnote: ‘A similar circular movement fundamental in the works of Giovanni Gentile is, I read somewhere, the half-conscious foundation of the political thought of modern Italy. . . . It is the old saying of Heraclitus, “War is God of all, and Father of all, some it has made Gods and some men, some bond and some free,” and the converse of Marxian socialism.’ It did not altogether surprise me to read that when Yeats read Spengler, he discovered so many parallels with both the ideas and the sources of his own instruction as to suggest a common ‘instructor’.

    Spengler, Stefan George, D’Annunzio, Yeats: is it really so impossible to guess at the ‘instructors’ who speak behind these mystic veils? It is interesting, too, to speculate whether Fascism may not work out through writers such as these a mystery which fills its present yawning void of any myth, religion, law or even legal constitution, which are not improvised.


Return to Top

  Forum and Century

April 1938


Mary M. Colum


The review proper starts in the section ‘A Poet’s Philosophy’ but, because of the linked approach Colum takes, the starting point of her treatment of A Vision makes more sense if taken with the previous section, which is therefore also included. (The section preceding this one is a review of The Caissons Roll: A Military Survey of Europe, by Hanson W. Baldwin.)


      A WHILE AGO I was asked to recommend for a mental patient a few contemporary novels in which there would be no talk of war, as the patient’s condition had been brought about through suffering connected with the last war. I had real difficulty in thinking of even one.

    One cannot help wondering if all this concern with war in books is not going to be a factor in bringing about the catastrophe by making it an obsessive mood. A few years ago at the International Peace Congress in Paris the Belgian delegate to the League of Nations assured us that among the chief inciters to war were the gens de plume. It looks actually as if we were being written into a war, and the most urgent communication that I have had for some time from any of the writers’ organizations was a demand to know my attitude with regard to the war in Spain.

    This, asks the document addressed to a group of writers, “is the question we would have you answer:”

Are you for or are you against Franco and Fascism? Are you for or are you against the legal government and the people of Republican Spain? We desire to print your answer; we desire the whole country to know what is felt by the most sensitive instruments of the national life — you American writers?

    Why should it be the business of a writers’ league to make any such inquisition, turning itself into a sort of Gestapo? Is not this an attempt at regimentation of opinion on this particular issue? Was not this the sort of thing that put Americans into the war in 1917? Are you for or are you against the rape of Belgium?—one remembers that question. And, as for writers being the most sensitive instruments of the national life, the bulk of them have no more sensitiveness than drummers, taxi drivers, or waiters. The bulk of the gens de plume, we should say from experience, are hard-working people who lead rather dull lives, who have not a great sense of proportion or knowledge of the world, who are easily enough imposed on by salesmen of ideologies which can offer them any emotion or any intellectual agitation, any easy way to get over the ennui, the disappointment that assail many of them toward middle age — especially those who in their youth engaged in the pursuit of none of the causes natural to youth and who in any case cut no great figure in the world.


      WRITERS FROM Rabelais to Voltaire have satirized this ballyhoo for taking sides in wars whose slogans people have got hold of. Rabelais tells us what Diogenes did in such a time of propaganda for a war: He held fast to his tub; he kept thumping and rolling it to the top of a hill and rolling and thumping it back again.

    It is with considerable reassurance that we find William Butler Yeats doing just this in his latest book, A Vision. He thumps his tub up and down the hill with great perseverance and disinterestedness. And what is this tub that he persists in rolling in these days of war preparations, armaments, and regimentation of opinion? It is a strange philosophical system, a system of symbolism which has been at the back of his whole intellectual life and a great deal of his poetry. He works it out here in an elaborate and arcane way, with geometrical symbols from instructions given him, he tells us, by mysterious beings in automatic writing done by his wife. He flings in the face of the public one of the most fantastic constructions of the intellect that has ever been produced, a remarkable medley of astrology, spiritualism, philosophy, Hermetic wisdom, poetry, credulity, and necromancy.

    The usual spiritualistic impedimenta of odors, sounds, trances make their appearance in A Vision. If we did not know Mr. Yeats to be a very sane man, we should regard his revelations as having come over from that other region where the mind is no longer in control and where what little individual consciousness we mortals have becomes more and more diminished.

    But, whatever land his visions and his symbols take him to, he is certainly not alone there: at least half a dozen of the correspondents of this department have sent in carefully worked-out systems of symbolism with mathematical illustrations in a like vein. I do not doubt their sanity any more than I doubt Mr. Yeats’s, but they are working outside the zone that the ordinary man, for his safety, has set for the adventures of his mind. However, whereas my correspondents are trying to account for the state of the universe, Mr. Yeats is trying in his book to account for the individual and his destiny.

    The chief symbol he makes use of it the Great Wheel, representing an astrological year of something like 25,000 years of ours; this wheel is divided into what he calls Phases, 28 in all; then there are other symbols, cones, and gyres, which, as far as I can make out, belong to the working of the Great Wheel, and in them move what his occult instructors reveal as the Four Faculties: Will and Mask (the Will and its Object), Creative Mind and the Body of Fate (the Knower and the Unknown).

    The working of these faculties, over which, however, the individual seems not to have much power, decides his whole destiny and, apparently, the phase of the Great Wheel to which he belongs. The three supreme figures of Phase 20, Mr. Yeats informs us, for example, are Shakespeare, Balzac, and Napoleon; and in his explanation of how the Four Faculties worked in their cases he achieves in a few sentences that illuminating revelation which his mind is always able to strike out.

    Of Shakespeare he writes:

    Unlike Ben Jonson, he fought no duels, he kept out of quarrels in a quarrelsome age, not even complaining when someone pirated his Sonnets; he dominated no Mermaid Tavern, but through Mask and Image reflected in a multiplying mirror he created the most passionate art that exists. He was the greatest of modern poets, partly because, entirely true to Phase, creating always from Mask and Creative Mind, never from situation alone, never from Body of Fate alone.

    I understand very little of this book. Mr. Yeats undoubtedly believes that a number of readers will devote their whole intellectual lives to a study of A Vision and its conclusions. “I send you,” he writes in a letter to Ezra Pound printed here, “the introduction to a book which will when finished proclaim a new divinity.”

    This divinity appear to be the Oedipus of the ancient legend who sank, soul and body, into the earth that opened to receive him. “I would have him balance Christ who went into the abstract skies, soul and body.”

    And then there comes this sentence, a revealing description of one sort of creative mind, perhaps the greatest sort of creative mind:

    He [Oedipus] knew nothing but his mind, yet because he spoke that mind Fate possessed it and kingdoms changed according to his blessing or his cursing. Delphi, that rock at earth’s navel, spoke through him.

    To know nothing but one’s own mind is, maybe, to know everything. Mr. Yeats himself knows little but his own mind, for the life of others is so much a mystery to him that he can be deceived by the simplest human devices. Yet our of what he knows of his own mind he has made wonderful poetry — out, also, of the image, reflected in many mirrors, of that one emotion which has dominated his mind (though not his life), the emotion for the woman about whom so much of his poetry is written.

    It would be a mistake to imagine that this emotion has much to do with ordinary human love, as it would be a mistake to imagine it of Dante’s emotion for Beatrice, for she is partly what Mr. Yeats himself would call a “created being,” a construction of his mind from some material provided by experience. That he is willing to admit, too, that the mysterious instructors in A Vision may also be “created beings,” an invention of his dream life, does not, for him, in the least detract from their authenticity, their power, or their influence —

Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul.
Aye, sun and moon and star, all.

Return to Top

  New Republic

20 April 1938

p. 339

Edmund Wilson


Yeats’s Vision

A Vision, by W. B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. 312 pages. $3.

THE FIRST EDITION of “A Vision,” which was privately printed in 1925, has already been discussed in The New Republic. This book is the exposition of a system, rather mystical and astrological than philosophical, which, though it has provided some of the imagery of Yeats’s poems, and contains passages of beautiful writing not without psychological and historic insight, will be of relatively little interest to anybody but spiritualists and theosophists. Yeats has written a new introduction in a vein of playful fantasy rather unlike anything else he has done and reminiscent of Stevenson’s “New Arabian Nights.” He seems today to be a little apprehensive lest he be thought to take his “vision” too literally. His historical periods, he says, he regards as “stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi.” In a note at the end, he seems troubled by “socialistic” and “communistic prophecies,” which he tends to think may have something in them but which he has difficulty in accommodating to his system. The volume also includes “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” now first printed in a commercial edition, which throws some light on Pound’s design in his “Cantos” and tells how Yeats’s own conceptions were conveyed to him through the automatic writing of his wife.


Return to Top

Boston Evening Transcript

23 April 1938

‘Poetry Now’

John Holmes


Poetry Now   By John Holmes

FEW major poets have provided such self-analysis, such a key to a system, as William Butler Yeats has given his many readers in "A Vision." But, having long regarded him as unsurpassed by any living poet, and equalled only by one or two, I am depressed to learn how he wrote the poetry that made him so tall in my sight. The new knowledge is neither less nor more than I expected, but it has more of the arbitrariness of obsession, and less of indescribable inspiration than I like.

Into one volume Yeats has now put "A Packet for Ezra Pound," in revised form, and "The Stories of Michael Robartes," a poem called "The Phases of the Moon," and a very complex explanation in five books of the origins of his symbolism. The purpose of "A Vision" is, of course, to tell finally and fully how Yeats discovered soon after his marriage that his wife was a medium, and heard voices speak through her to him. In first writing of this, he disguised his wife with the name Robartes, and invented other circumstances for the event. For some times they applied themselves to recording all that the voices said, and when the visitations ceased, Yeats spent years studying and organizing the messages into the body of thought to which all his poetry has reference, all, that is, except his earliest work.

In "A Packet for Ezra Pound" the style is Yeats' finest. But after that one is repelled by the elaborate system which he takes so seriously, and the reading is dull, even for the devout. One could guess from reading the poetry faithfully all that he reveals now in detail, and some how the revelation does not greatly matter. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed; somehow it hurts his dignity, makes him look publicly foolish. The importance of the book is, as R. P. Blackmur has pointed out in an excellent essay called "The Later Poetry of W. B. Yeats," that it shows that the system is logical and complete, providing "an adequate mechanics of meaning and value." It is not important that Yeats seems now and then a little absurd as he tells of the messages and his interpretation of them, but so he does seem. It will be necessary to add "A Vision" to Yeats' collected poems, his collected essays, and his biographies.

The rest of the column looks at other books.

Return to Top

Les Langues Modernes

avril-mai 1938, pp. 384-85

‘A Vision’

A. Rivoallan


A Vision,   by W. B. Yeats (Londres, Macmillan, 1937, 306 p., 15 sh. net).

On trouve ici réunis divers curieux aspects de l'activité intellectuelle la plue récente de Yeats. Le début cependant remonte à 1928 (A Packet for Ezra Pound) y compris l'Introduction, si précieuse comme jalon dans l'histoire de son développement. Puis viennent des Récits de notre vielle connaissance Robartes, avec son inséparable Aherne: des prémonitions extraordinaires y conduisent à des action surprenantes, sous le signe un peu lointain de Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. Là-dessus, dans un poème d'une veine assez inattendue, puisqu'on y voit Yeats faire de l'homour et, à ses propres dépens, Robartes et Aherne, accoudés sur un pont rustique, guettent la Tour du poète (Thorballylee), où une lumière attardée révèle le solitaire acharné à la poursuite d'une sagesse que ses livres savants ne lui donneront jamais (The Phases of the Moon).

C'est alors la Vision proprement dite, et les mystères de la Grande Roue: elle serait bientôt pour nous la roue de torture, avec ses cônes tournoyants qui s'entrepénètrent, en des alternances où se pourchassent le Vouloir et l'Esprit Créateur, le Masque et le Corps du Destin, l'être primordial et l'être antithétique. Mais par bonheur, Yeats ne sait pas maintenir dans ce jargon: il se repose, et nous délasse, en revenant au concret. Là, les moroses «Facultés», étroitement associées aux phases le [sic] la lune, aux signes du Zodiaque, à la Grande Armée [sic] des Anciens, aux vingt-huit Incarnations, s'humanisent en des applications littéraires, parfois savoureuses dans leur imprévu, car les bêtes noires du poète y défilent sous de tout autre signes que ses amis. Ajoutons que cette science et [sic] dictée à Yeats par des instructeurs invisibles, à des heures qu'il ne choisit point.

Ne nous plaignons pas trop cependant, si ce grinçant appareil cabalistique co-spirite tient en haleine la belle imagination que naguère suffisait à entretenir le folklore grandiose de l'Irlande, et qui maintenant reçoit son inspiration d'un monde surnaturel, à travers ce médium d'ailleurs si averti, raffiné et cultivé, qu'est la femme du poète. De sa Vision touffue, sombre, inextricable, jaillira quelque prochain jour, comme d'un bûcher, tenacement reconstruit, la flamme noble et haute et s'envolera une fois de plus le merveilleux oiseau qui renaît de ses cendres.


Return to Top

  New York Herald Tribune Books

8 May 1938

16 IX

Babette Deutsch


Bones of a Poet’s Vision


By W. B. Yeats . . . 305 pp. . . . New York: The Macmillan Company . . . $3
Reviewed by

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.

Return to Top

  Yale Review

Summer 1938


Kerker Quinn




MR. YEATS’S new volumes will convince many that he has gone unquestionably, though perhaps serviceably, mad, without awaiting the permission he asked of us in a recent poem:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself I must remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call.

Yet, like Blake’s prophetic poems, they plentifully repay even those readers who feel incapable of or uninterested in following him to such truth as may be hidden deep in myth and mysticism. The incidental attractions of the books are genuine.

    Ever since the original private edition of “A Vision” appeared in 1926, we have been piqued at the mystifying attempts of Edmund Wilson and others to elucidate it, and we have anticipated curiously the commercial edition, confident of understanding the book when meeting it face to face. As we guessed, it is more comprehensible through first-hand acquaintance although, positively, it defies brief elucidation. It is a vast, tenuous web of concepts, from which threads cannot be snipped without severing relationships and obscuring special connotations. One may call it Mr. Yeats’s ideas of order—or rather, a condensation and interpretation of ideas of order which unknown spirits conveyed to him through his mediumistic wife. One may add that the scheme adjusts every sort of human personality into precisely defined phases between the extremes of subjectivity and objectivity, and explains historical epochs as likewise governed by a predestining cosmic rhythm. More than that one should not say, but should send readers to the book itself, which, in its own inimitable way, gives the scheme shape and meaning in patient minds.

    How much or how little “A Vision” may eventually be found to contribute to the study of complex human nature and changing society, it is futile to guess. Even Yeats cannot answer the question. But we and he can be consoled, in moments of skepticism, by remembering that his two decades of labor on the spiritual dictation have immeasurably enriched his poetry—indeed, making it the best poetry written in English during our time. Yet this is no mere source book for his poetic ideas and symbols. It must be independently treasured for containing some of his finest prose—prose different in tone and texture from that of his best-known autobiographical and critical writing of the past, prose more varied and more direct than one would hitherto have suspected him capable of producing. (The occasional ragged passages issue, we assume, from his inability to refine the more amorphous sections of the automatic writing.) In addition, “A Vision” offers any number of piercing comments of men and times. As examples, there come to mind his flaring attack on Carlyle as demonstrating the Individualist phase at its worst, his view of Gothic architecture which must be raising havoc with Ruskin’s ghost, his bracketing of Newman, Luther, Calvin, Herbert, and A.E. as examples of one phase (the Conditional Men). A.E., at least, lived long enough to express his discomfort in being imprisoned with these ill-assorted churchmen.

    Three plays in verse make up “The Herne’s Egg.” One of the, “The King of the Great Clock Tower,” was published three years ago in an acting version. In another, “A Full Moon in March,” he has simplified the same tale. What a fat variorum can some day be made of Yeats, the most inveterate re-worker of his own writing in the annals of English literature! By cutting out the character of the King, who is but a foil for the Queen and the swineherd-poet, whose head she dances with Salome-wise, Yeats weakens his play dramatically, though increasing its unity and firmness as a poem.

    The title play is far more substantial and compelling; it ranks, by virtue of its novelty, sharp characterization, and enchanting lines, among the four or five best he has ever written. Based on a Celtic transmigration legend, it juxtaposes blunt, fleshy humor and supernatural wonder with all the gusto of a thirteenth-century lay. But, again, while its story will perplex few readers, its meaning will perplex almost all, so strange and perverse is the symbolism. Meantime surrealism is growing in popularity, for in it nobody expects to find a meaning for the grotesque things which transpire.


Return to Top

  Études Anglaises

July-September 1938

p. 315

M. L. Cazamian


W. B. YEATS : A Vision. — Macmillan, 1937; 305 p., in-12, 15s.

      Version revue et amplifiée d’un livre important qui n’a pas été jusqu’ici accessible au grand public, et qui expose les principales doctrines et expériences ésotériques d’où une grande partie des œuvres les plus importantes de Mr. Yeats, en prose ou en vers, dérive son inspiration et sa signification » — imprime l’éditeur...

      Et, certes, rien de ce qui touche à la vie mentale et morale d’un artiste tel que Yeats ne saurait être indifférent. Le lecteur non initié tournera donc avec curiosité ces pages où le poète trace l’historique de ses rapports avec le monde des esprits, grâce à la capacité d’écriture automatique soudain révélée chez sa jeune femme d’abord; puis par des manifestations directes, dans l’hypnose et le rêve, accompagnées de parfums soudain répandus; le poète transcrit la philosophie et la mystique dictées par ses «communicators», lorsqu’ils ne sont point troublés et chassés par des «frustrators»; et il donne à cette révélation la forme d’un système où s’associent étrangement la logique et l’incohérence, illustré par des graphiques, tables et figures géométriques. La pureté, la lucidité du style, les signes évidents d’une culture universelle défendent seuls de penser que l’auteur, ici, s’évade entièrement du monde de notre raison.

      Il est permis de maintenir toutefois que, quelle que soit l’opinion de Yeats lui-même ou de son éditeur, sur «l’inspiration et la signification» de ses œuvres maîtresses, leur charme et leur puissance de suggestion sont indépendants de ses expériences surnaturelles et de son spiritisme; et le jugement d’un autre «voyant», le poète celtique A. E., nous dispensera d’insister davantage sur ce livre:

      «Chacune de ses pages», dit-il, «pour être élucidée, demanderait un volume de commentaires».


Return to Top

  The Nation

9 July 1938

pp. 51-52

Eda Lou Walton


“Lend a Myth to God”

A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. The Macmillan Company. $3.

THE HERNE’S EGG, AND OTHER PLAYS. By W. B. Yeats. The Macmillan Company. $2.

POETS need a synthesis of values. And Yeats, who had no traditional religion to give him this, found it, in his youth, in Irish tradition and myth. In his middle years, through the help of his wife as a medium, he began to work out a scheme by which reality could be fused with vision. The result is “A Vision” (now for the first time in an American edition), a book which will be more interesting on the whole to spiritualists and astrologists than to historians or philosophers. Yeats’s imagination fed on ritual and myth; he needed some scheme which made the supernatural seem natural and the natural seem supernatural. Man’s consciousness, according to his spiritualistic directors, could be pictured as moving between the sun, or the purely objective, and the moon, or the purely subjective. History too moved between these two poles. And curiously enough, Yeats, independently of other historians, determined with the aid of his spiritual advisers certain dates which historians accept. Asked how seriously one may take all this discussion of states of discord and concord between dark and light, Yeats replies that it is all really a “stylistic arrangement of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi.” He adds that these arrangements “have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.”

      The reader may, I think, take his cue from this quotation. The whole of this very strange book is a poet’s scheme for seizing upon symbols whereby reality and vision may, in the imagination, fuse. Through this scheme Yeats renewed his imaginative vitality and was enabled to face a chaotic world as if it were not chaotic. He had ceased to believe in his Irish fairyland. He required an arrangement of values which would allow his mind to roam into the past or the future, to bring the future, or the purely visionary, to illuminate the present. The Michael Robartes poems are clearly related to the group of dream stories told in this book, and most of Yeats’s later poetic symbolism of sun and moon is drawn from the scheme which he here sets down, with, for most of us, a few too many passes through the air, too many psychic phenomena. The poems are perfectly clear; the prose account of how the poet conceived the poems or their symbols is not so clear.

    The introduction to “A Vision” is a charming bit of lyric prose. “The Packet for Ezra Pound” gives us the most complete account, received directly for Pound, of what he is doing with his Cantos. We plunge then into the “gyres” and “converging triangles,” black and white, which illustrate for Yeats the various phases of concord and discord. Few readers will wade through all this to come upon the occasional brilliant comments concerning this or that poet whom Yeats places in their respective spheres closer or farther from the moon, or the subjective mind.

    In “The Herne’s Egg, and Other Plays” (two others, to be exact) Yeats makes use of some of the symbols—particularly those of sun and moon—which he explains in his “Vision.” These plays are far removed from the pretty fantasies of Yeats’s earlier dramatic writing. The poet has left reality entirely and writes of myth, but of myth which has an amazing way of throwing tangential light upon our ordinary world. The meaning of the plays lies in myth and suggestion and is to be caught at but not to be paraphrased. “The Herne’s Egg” is based on an old myth of a thunder bird, the Herne, which is all spirit. The old warriors offend this god and meet their death, but not before, in much beautiful poetry, we have caught suggestions of the follies of mankind. The two other plays resemble the Salome story. Both deal with women who must be cruel in order to love. Both are an acknowledgment of the power of death and love to impregnate. “The King of the Great Clock Tower” has appeared before in a prose version. It is more beautiful in poetry. The others are new. Symbolic and ritualistic in style, all three cut through man’s deception of himself.


Return to Top

  Philosophical Review

March 1939
38: 284

p. 239

R. C. Bald


A Vision. By W. B. YEATS. New York, The Macmillan Company, 1938. Pp. viii, 306.

      This is a very remarkable book which, in the quality of some of its prose and in its use of symbolism, can be compared to nothing in English literature except perhaps to the shorter works of Sir Thomas Browne. It is the work of a consummate literary artist, a man of unusual clarity of mind, and a poet, yet it is based on communications from the author’s wife through automatic writing and by speech in sleep and trance. To express the phases of human personality and human history, it makes use of a symbolism as formal and remote as that which descended by devious routes from the early Greek philosophers to the mages of the Renaissance, yet, for all its formalism, the logic is that of poetry rather than of philosophy, and the symbolism has a validity, if only because it has provided a mould for the thought of one of the most sensitive minds of modern times.


enlarge this window                      close this window

Return to Index of Reviews


Site map