Reviews of A Vision B

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Yale Review

Summer 1938


Kerker Quinn




MR. YEATS’S new volumes will convince many that he has gone unquestionably, though perhaps serviceably, mad, without awaiting the permission he asked of us in a recent poem:

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself I must remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call.

Yet, like Blake’s prophetic poems, they plentifully repay even those readers who feel incapable of or uninterested in following him to such truth as may be hidden deep in myth and mysticism. The incidental attractions of the books are genuine.

    Ever since the original private edition of “A Vision” appeared in 1926, we have been piqued at the mystifying attempts of Edmund Wilson and others to elucidate it, and we have anticipated curiously the commercial edition, confident of understanding the book when meeting it face to face. As we guessed, it is more comprehensible through first-hand acquaintance although, positively, it defies brief elucidation. It is a vast, tenuous web of concepts, from which threads cannot be snipped without severing relationships and obscuring special connotations. One may call it Mr. Yeats’s ideas of order—or rather, a condensation and interpretation of ideas of order which unknown spirits conveyed to him through his mediumistic wife. One may add that the scheme adjusts every sort of human personality into precisely defined phases between the extremes of subjectivity and objectivity, and explains historical epochs as likewise governed by a predestining cosmic rhythm. More than that one should not say, but should send readers to the book itself, which, in its own inimitable way, gives the scheme shape and meaning in patient minds.

    How much or how little “A Vision” may eventually be found to contribute to the study of complex human nature and changing society, it is futile to guess. Even Yeats cannot answer the question. But we and he can be consoled, in moments of skepticism, by remembering that his two decades of labor on the spiritual dictation have immeasurably enriched his poetry—indeed, making it the best poetry written in English during our time. Yet this is no mere source book for his poetic ideas and symbols. It must be independently treasured for containing some of his finest prose—prose different in tone and texture from that of his best-known autobiographical and critical writing of the past, prose more varied and more direct than one would hitherto have suspected him capable of producing. (The occasional ragged passages issue, we assume, from his inability to refine the more amorphous sections of the automatic writing.) In addition, “A Vision” offers any number of piercing comments of men and times. As examples, there come to mind his flaring attack on Carlyle as demonstrating the Individualist phase at its worst, his view of Gothic architecture which must be raising havoc with Ruskin’s ghost, his bracketing of Newman, Luther, Calvin, Herbert, and A.E. as examples of one phase (the Conditional Men). A.E., at least, lived long enough to express his discomfort in being imprisoned with these ill-assorted churchmen.

    Three plays in verse make up “The Herne’s Egg.” One of the, “The King of the Great Clock Tower,” was published three years ago in an acting version. In another, “A Full Moon in March,” he has simplified the same tale. What a fat variorum can some day be made of Yeats, the most inveterate re-worker of his own writing in the annals of English literature! By cutting out the character of the King, who is but a foil for the Queen and the swineherd-poet, whose head she dances with Salome-wise, Yeats weakens his play dramatically, though increasing its unity and firmness as a poem.

    The title play is far more substantial and compelling; it ranks, by virtue of its novelty, sharp characterization, and enchanting lines, among the four or five best he has ever written. Based on a Celtic transmigration legend, it juxtaposes blunt, fleshy humor and supernatural wonder with all the gusto of a thirteenth-century lay. But, again, while its story will perplex few readers, its meaning will perplex almost all, so strange and perverse is the symbolism. Meantime surrealism is growing in popularity, for in it nobody expects to find a meaning for the grotesque things which transpire.


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