Reviews of A Vision B

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The New Statesman and Nation

22 January 1938

p. 140



A Vision. By W. B. YEATS. Macmillan. 15s.

    Yeats’ name does not require a blurb to claim that a book of his is “important”; still less a book that sets out “the esoteric principles, doctrines and experiences from which much of his most notable work . . . derives its inspiration and significance.” A Vision not only has this claim, but also a puff from A. E. suggesting that it “may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence”—offering the parallel of Blake’s prophetic books, “so unintelligible a hundred years ago.” But prolonged struggles with the “system” and comparisons with those poems in which the same symbols are used suggest that their significance is not increased by the confused notions of gyres and phases, lunar cycles and zodiacal houses, in which Mr. Yeats’ psychic dictators materialise their mediaeval doctrine of fundamental antinomies and revolutions. If he is right about the causes of the maturity of “The Tower” and “The Winding Stair,” the affable familiar ghosts who spoke nightly through his wife’s lips must indeed have given him “intelligence”; but that the record of this “intelligence” is necessary to the poetic significance of his later works does not follow. The “Instructors,” the “Singing-masters of my soul,” as he called them in “Sailing to Byzantium,” elected to formulate their “system” in terms of uncommon and unnecessary obscurity and to illustrate it with mechanic-parallels with no relation to ordinary mechanics. The complicated gyrations of the four energies, Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate, symbolised by the lunar phases, firstly enable Mr. Yeats to classify a number of celebrated names, such as: Spinoza and Savonarola; Keats, Giorgione and many beautiful women. The last section, though contributing nothing to the significance of “Two Songs from a Play,” passes on to prophecy. The next religious era, or the start of the succeeding “antithetical” civilisation, will occur when the vernal equinox is associated with the sign of Aries. Well, there may be something in it. But the system as it is gives too wide a latitude of interpretation. The classification is well worth reading for such random comments as those on Carlyle, Byron and A. C. Bradley: “he hated the common heart; an arrogant sapless man.” The “system” is, however, too private. The best part of the book is the “Stories of Michael Robartes,” where the prose has a spirit and vitality which vanishes for good on p. 67: the exposition of the Giraldine system is in language that is dry, sapless and insensitive. Perhaps the “Ille” of “Ego Dominus Tuus” was near it with his

“Those men that in their writings are most wise
Own nothing but their blind stupefied hearts.”

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