Reviews of A Vision A

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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 a 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.

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