Reviews of A Vision B

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Forum and Century

April 1938


Mary M. Colum


The review proper starts in the section ‘A Poet’s Philosophy’ but, because of the linked approach Colum takes, the starting point of her treatment of A Vision makes more sense if taken with the previous section, which is therefore also included. (The section preceding this one is a review of The Caissons Roll: A Military Survey of Europe, by Hanson W. Baldwin.)


      A WHILE AGO I was asked to recommend for a mental patient a few contemporary novels in which there would be no talk of war, as the patient’s condition had been brought about through suffering connected with the last war. I had real difficulty in thinking of even one.

    One cannot help wondering if all this concern with war in books is not going to be a factor in bringing about the catastrophe by making it an obsessive mood. A few years ago at the International Peace Congress in Paris the Belgian delegate to the League of Nations assured us that among the chief inciters to war were the gens de plume. It looks actually as if we were being written into a war, and the most urgent communication that I have had for some time from any of the writers’ organizations was a demand to know my attitude with regard to the war in Spain.

    This, asks the document addressed to a group of writers, “is the question we would have you answer:”

Are you for or are you against Franco and Fascism? Are you for or are you against the legal government and the people of Republican Spain? We desire to print your answer; we desire the whole country to know what is felt by the most sensitive instruments of the national life — you American writers?

    Why should it be the business of a writers’ league to make any such inquisition, turning itself into a sort of Gestapo? Is not this an attempt at regimentation of opinion on this particular issue? Was not this the sort of thing that put Americans into the war in 1917? Are you for or are you against the rape of Belgium?—one remembers that question. And, as for writers being the most sensitive instruments of the national life, the bulk of them have no more sensitiveness than drummers, taxi drivers, or waiters. The bulk of the gens de plume, we should say from experience, are hard-working people who lead rather dull lives, who have not a great sense of proportion or knowledge of the world, who are easily enough imposed on by salesmen of ideologies which can offer them any emotion or any intellectual agitation, any easy way to get over the ennui, the disappointment that assail many of them toward middle age — especially those who in their youth engaged in the pursuit of none of the causes natural to youth and who in any case cut no great figure in the world.


      WRITERS FROM Rabelais to Voltaire have satirized this ballyhoo for taking sides in wars whose slogans people have got hold of. Rabelais tells us what Diogenes did in such a time of propaganda for a war: He held fast to his tub; he kept thumping and rolling it to the top of a hill and rolling and thumping it back again.

    It is with considerable reassurance that we find William Butler Yeats doing just this in his latest book, A Vision. He thumps his tub up and down the hill with great perseverance and disinterestedness. And what is this tub that he persists in rolling in these days of war preparations, armaments, and regimentation of opinion? It is a strange philosophical system, a system of symbolism which has been at the back of his whole intellectual life and a great deal of his poetry. He works it out here in an elaborate and arcane way, with geometrical symbols from instructions given him, he tells us, by mysterious beings in automatic writing done by his wife. He flings in the face of the public one of the most fantastic constructions of the intellect that has ever been produced, a remarkable medley of astrology, spiritualism, philosophy, Hermetic wisdom, poetry, credulity, and necromancy.

    The usual spiritualistic impedimenta of odors, sounds, trances make their appearance in A Vision. If we did not know Mr. Yeats to be a very sane man, we should regard his revelations as having come over from that other region where the mind is no longer in control and where what little individual consciousness we mortals have becomes more and more diminished.

    But, whatever land his visions and his symbols take him to, he is certainly not alone there: at least half a dozen of the correspondents of this department have sent in carefully worked-out systems of symbolism with mathematical illustrations in a like vein. I do not doubt their sanity any more than I doubt Mr. Yeats’s, but they are working outside the zone that the ordinary man, for his safety, has set for the adventures of his mind. However, whereas my correspondents are trying to account for the state of the universe, Mr. Yeats is trying in his book to account for the individual and his destiny.

    The chief symbol he makes use of it the Great Wheel, representing an astrological year of something like 25,000 years of ours; this wheel is divided into what he calls Phases, 28 in all; then there are other symbols, cones, and gyres, which, as far as I can make out, belong to the working of the Great Wheel, and in them move what his occult instructors reveal as the Four Faculties: Will and Mask (the Will and its Object), Creative Mind and the Body of Fate (the Knower and the Unknown).

    The working of these faculties, over which, however, the individual seems not to have much power, decides his whole destiny and, apparently, the phase of the Great Wheel to which he belongs. The three supreme figures of Phase 20, Mr. Yeats informs us, for example, are Shakespeare, Balzac, and Napoleon; and in his explanation of how the Four Faculties worked in their cases he achieves in a few sentences that illuminating revelation which his mind is always able to strike out.

    Of Shakespeare he writes:

    Unlike Ben Jonson, he fought no duels, he kept out of quarrels in a quarrelsome age, not even complaining when someone pirated his Sonnets; he dominated no Mermaid Tavern, but through Mask and Image reflected in a multiplying mirror he created the most passionate art that exists. He was the greatest of modern poets, partly because, entirely true to Phase, creating always from Mask and Creative Mind, never from situation alone, never from Body of Fate alone.

    I understand very little of this book. Mr. Yeats undoubtedly believes that a number of readers will devote their whole intellectual lives to a study of A Vision and its conclusions. “I send you,” he writes in a letter to Ezra Pound printed here, “the introduction to a book which will when finished proclaim a new divinity.”

    This divinity appear to be the Oedipus of the ancient legend who sank, soul and body, into the earth that opened to receive him. “I would have him balance Christ who went into the abstract skies, soul and body.”

    And then there comes this sentence, a revealing description of one sort of creative mind, perhaps the greatest sort of creative mind:

    He [Oedipus] knew nothing but his mind, yet because he spoke that mind Fate possessed it and kingdoms changed according to his blessing or his cursing. Delphi, that rock at earth’s navel, spoke through him.

    To know nothing but one’s own mind is, maybe, to know everything. Mr. Yeats himself knows little but his own mind, for the life of others is so much a mystery to him that he can be deceived by the simplest human devices. Yet our of what he knows of his own mind he has made wonderful poetry — out, also, of the image, reflected in many mirrors, of that one emotion which has dominated his mind (though not his life), the emotion for the woman about whom so much of his poetry is written.

    It would be a mistake to imagine that this emotion has much to do with ordinary human love, as it would be a mistake to imagine it of Dante’s emotion for Beatrice, for she is partly what Mr. Yeats himself would call a “created being,” a construction of his mind from some material provided by experience. That he is willing to admit, too, that the mysterious instructors in A Vision may also be “created beings,” an invention of his dream life, does not, for him, in the least detract from their authenticity, their power, or their influence —

Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul.
Aye, sun and moon and star, all.

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