Reviews of A Vision B

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New Verse

March 1938

pp. 20-22

G. E. G[rigson]



A Vision. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.)

The Herne’s Egg. A Stage Play. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 5s.)

Essays. 1931 to 1936. By W. B. Yeats. (Cuala Press. 12s 6d.)

The Living Torch. by A. E. (Selections from his periodical criticism. Macmillan. 12s. 6d.)

    A good way to think of A Vision, indeed to think of Yeats just now, is to think of Goya’s Caprices and Disasters of War. Each in the second half of his life, how did Goya, and how does Yeats, employ his idiosyncrasy, his peculiar interests and particular experiences? How much did Goya and how much does Yeats answer to the real quality of the disasters of his time? Yeats has had affinity with magical authors, Goya had affinity with Jerome Bosch. Goya made his affinity serve other men. And Yeats? To emphasise by exaggeration, Yeats has compelled his magic to serve Mr. Yeats.

    Yeats, and the poets of his year, believed they should be always on the track of BEAUTY. If finding, or following beauty served other men, the service, in order of rather more than words, came second. Art obtrudes too much. “The passion of the artist for perfection” must be talked about (AE p. 252); and poetry (AE p. 344) must be “the spiritual essence of life.” It is true that A Vision has been cut and concentrated since it first appeared in a private edition, but it remains an entirely impossible monster. The partly symbolic system which it presents for world, life and time, was arranged by Yeats from his wife’s automatic writing. Provided through Mrs. Yeats for the benefit of Yeats by “the Instructors,” this partly symbolic system, for all that, is subjective, arbitrary, and magical. However: “Some will ask whether I believe in the actual existence of my circuits of sun and moon. Those that include, now all recorded time in one circuit, now what Blake called ‘the pulsaters of an artery,’ are plainly symbolical, but what of those that fixed, like a butterfly upon a pin, to our central date, the first day of our Era, divide actual history into periods of equal length? To such a question I can but answer that if sometimes, overwhelmed by miracle as all men must be when in the midst of it, I have taken such periods literally, my reason has soon recovered; and now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi. They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” Very well. Yeats may hold, and we all may agree, that his poetry “has gained in self-possession and power,” and Yeats may ascribe this rightly to his Instructors. Their “instructions” forced Yeats to a more severe meditation, and he planted out new co-ordinates for himself. But quack remains quack. Quack remedies from a quack doctor leave—they must leave—some traces of their fraudulence. As for that, there is fraudulence in The Herne’s Egg, which is probably extravagant beyond the extravagance justified by meaning, and in the Essays as well, which include Yeats’s broadcast fantasia about modern poets. One noticed in that essay, and also in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, how little in a poem is needed by Yeats to make him read into it his desires and his fantasies and his significance. A child will draw three lines and then call them a banana or a train passing over a bridge.

    And how much hold of reality and justice is there in Yeats now? Respect for an able and aged poet does not preclude scepticism about his opinions. The hunt for beauty in Yeats, the rather ridiculous preference for aristocrats on the assumption that there must be aristocratic liquor in the aristocratic vessel, the submission of reason to the instructions of magic, make him something of a gigantic wraith in the Europe of 1938. Compare the statement by Thomas Mann, quoted later in this NEW VERSE, with Yeats’s

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon shot;
A beggar on horseback lashes a beggar on foot;
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again,
The beggars have changed places but the lash goes on

in the London Mercury for March, or with his new Lapis Lazuli. If one asks the aristocratic-democratic Tory (Eden, for example) his view of fascism, he is careful to reply: “I deplore the political philosophy of Herr Hitler, Signor Mussolini and Stalin.” Is Yeats, too, to make the politician’s answer? If one’s chase has Beauty, or Reality, in view, the danger is the danger of not recognising beauties or realities (which explains the insubstantiality of the AE and his poems and his pronouncements, the ineffectuality of many prophets, philosophers and Liberals, and perhaps the weakness of Stephen Spender). The value of Yeats is nothing but the sum of his expressed moments of reality: the value of Communism, or the value of Fascism, is the sum of its working truths or realities. What is shocking about Yeats is asking us to declare only for Reality, in general, in the singular. All things fall and are built again. How comfortable! We have no right to listen to Yeats, no right at least to stay outside. To be free as a poet, to be free and to be allowed to have Reality in view, enjoins upon us, that, as clearly as we can with our imperfections of reason and sensibility, we must recognise, and not evade, realities of the present. We must risk (this is for Eliot as well as Yeats) having a bad press with posterity; or else the Beauty in view becomes a beast. What Goya remarked to Yeats was “The sleep of reason produces monsters.”

G. E. G.

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