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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.


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