Reviews of A Vision B

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The Cambridge Review

p. 113

J. Bronowski



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. Macmillan. 15/-.

    Yeats is one of the great poets of the last hundred years; perhaps the greatest. His poems are often hard to understand: because Yeats masks his thought, which has changed a good deal, under images which he has never changed. Yeats has always given greater weight to the images than to the thought. Early in his poetic life he wrote,

    It is only by ancient symbols, by symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, than [sic] any highly subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature.

Now, late in his life, he has come to tell us how many unspoken and unknown meanings his images have had. That is the point of this book. The book was dictated to Yeats’s wife by spirits who know these meanings; and these spirits begin by saying,

      “We have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

The metaphors are not new ; but the book is a key to Yeats’s old metaphors.

    It is not a very useful key. Those readers who think about Yeats’s images will always find the key to them in the poems themselves. Those who do not think about them will not find that this book saves thought. For example, most of this book is taken up with the mystic meanings of the twenty-eight phases of the moon. But nothing in the book gives these meanings as richly as the poem The Phases of the Moon, which Yeats reprints here. Nothing in the book by-passes the thought for which this poem calls.

    The one claim to new meaning which the book can make is that it enlarges these meanings into a system. But the system does not make one think highly of Yeats’s thought. Yeats himself points the likeness of his system to Spengler’s shabby system of history. Yeats’s prose thought and his prose share this shabbiness. It is the shabbiness of a thought which zigzags between factual truth and symbolic truth, and which never makes up its mind what kind of truth it claims. For example, Yeats never makes up his mind whether the spirits who speak to him are supernatural, whether they are dreams, or whether they are his own images come to life. He never makes up his mind whether the historical likenesses which he finds are actual or fanciful. He writes,

    I am amused to notice, though I do not give it great significance, that the Etruscans, who, according to Frobenius, had a mythology of the central Altar, turned like the Creative Mind from East to West when they prayed, whereas the races of the Cavern turned like the Will from West to East.

But the likeness is not more amusing, not less significant than a hundred others in the book. Neither Yeats nor the reader can make up his mind when to be amused and when to give significance. There is nothing in the book to tell him.


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