Reviews of A Vision B

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The Scotsman

18 October 1937

p. 13

Edwin Muir



Messages of the “Communicators”

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

    This is a book of the highest interest, both as a vision of terrestrial and superterrestrial life seen by Mr Yeats, or rather given to him by his “communicators,” and as a light on his poetry. In 1917, just after his marriage, his wife attempted automatic writing, and what came “was so exciting, sometimes so profound,” that he persuaded her to “give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer,” and after the first few attempts offered “to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences.” The communicators replied, “No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

    The unknown writer took as his theme a distinction which Mr Yeats had made in “Per Amica Silentia Lunae” between the perfection that comes from a man’s combat with himself and that which comes from a combat with circumstances, and on this “he built up an elaborate classification of men according to their more or less complete expression of one type or the other.” In his essay, Mr Yeats had asked “whether some prophet could not prick upon the calendar the birth of a Napoleon or a Christ,” and the unknown writer, in Mr Yeats’s opinion, successfully answered this question by a series of geometrical symbols arranged in a certain order. When Mr Yeats inquired how long it would take to explain the whole system, he was told years.

Written and Spoken Word

    The communications came first in automatic writing, and through Mrs Yeats; but in 1919 the communicators decided to change from the written to the spoken word, as that would be less fatiguing to the recipient. Nothing happened for some time, but then Mrs Yeats began to talk in her sleep, and from that time almost all the communications came in this way. They were sometimes disturbed by dreams caused by a chance word the sleeper had heard while awake. The communicators did not seem to be aware of the physical circumstances of their hearers, and once they suddenly put Mrs Yeats in a trance while she was sitting in a chair; another time they gave their signal while she was in a restaurant, thinking she was in a garden because a garden had been mentioned in conversation. Their work was also frequently interrupted by beings called Frustrators, and Mr Yeats would be warned: “From such and such an hour, on such and such a day, all is frustration.”

Exposition of the Messages

    These communications during sleep came to an end in 1920, and Mr Yeats began an exhaustive study of his many books of automatic writing and verbal communication. He had not quite mastered the system given to him when he was told that he must write and “seize the moment between ripe and rotten.” He felt the guidance of his preceptors all this time, sometimes in dreams, sometimes being stopped when he was framing some sentence, and by other means. The main part of this volume is a systematic exposition of the messages he received, which describe a universal scheme of human life both in this world and after death. Mr Yeats’s circumstantial and objective and extremely interesting account of the manner in which these communications were received is a model of what such things should be. But it is difficult to see by what criterion anyone can judge an actual system thus given. It depends on knowledge accessible to very few and knowledge which cannot be verified even by that few. To approach it with suspense of belief is not to deny the immortality of the soul, which has no need to depend on such demonstrations. Our images of immortality are innumerable, and are all touched by some particular human imperfection. There is certainly a great deal of Mr Yeats in Mr Yeats’s vision of eternal life. To accept such a vision, which is complex, logical, entire, and at the same time quite unlike the traditional vision known to us, would be to accord it a special objective truth, valid in every particular, for everything fits into everything, everything depends upon everything. We may admit that Mr Yeats’s vision is an impressive structure, and that its genesis was truly remarkable, without feeling within it any compulsive truth to make us believe it.

Revolving Cones

    To outline this structure would take far more space than is available in a review. Mr Yeats sees existence as two cones revolving against each other in different directions, the one subjective or antithetical, the other objective or primary. The ruling faculties in the first he calls Will and Mask, in the second Creative Mind and Body of Fate. These pairs of opposites revolve in contrary directions, advancing upon each other’s area and retreating again. But this autonomous revolution is only part of a greater one, a wheel with twenty-eight stations, in which one pair of opposites is now predominant and now another. To these stations belongs naturally a special composition of the faculties, and therefore a particular type of man. Thus, if the wheel revolves as Mr Yeats says it does, and if we knew more than we do of the four faculties, it might indeed be possible to prophesy the moment when a Napoleon or a Christ would be born. The classifications of human types is [sic] often illuminating, like all simplifications. But we feel even here that the judgments are Mr Yeats’s, not those of the wheel; he estimates such people as Wordsworth, Parnell, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky nearly as we might have expected him to estimate them: and the light the shining revolution of the wheel throws upon them is perhaps more apparent than real.

A Religious Vision

    The account of the journeyings of the soul after death, or between one incarnation and another, are equally real or unreal; we give pretty much the same kind and degree of belief to the one as to the other. The division of history into great days, all related to the wheel, all determined by that awful geometrical revolution, is just as impressive and as remote as the rest. Mr Yeats’s vision is a religious one; it has touched his heart, as his poetry shows; it is the vision of a man in love with perfection and impatient of imperfection. The religious vision of Western Europe, thought at its highest a structure of inconceivable complexity, can be understood by the simplest mind, for it implies throughout certain simple facts of experience: the knowledge of imperfection and desire for perfection, the knowledge of death and desire for immortality. This simplicity seems to me to be quite refined out of Mr Yeats’s plan, and that plan is perhaps more than anything else an object of æsthetic pleasure. What a powerful one it is can be seen from reading some of Mr Yeats’s greatest poetry, such as the magnificent sonnet on Leda included in this volume. It may be, after all, that the communicators merely wanted to give him metaphors for his poetry.


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