Reviews of A Vision B

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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.

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