Reviews of A Vision A

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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 surfaces 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 to 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.

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