Reviews of A Vision A

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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.


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