Reviews of A Vision B

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Ireland To-day

November 1937 (2:11)

pp. 77-79

Cecil Ffrench Salkeld



A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. (Macmillan. 15s.). pp.305.

      “When the trumpet sounded in the sky at Sulla’s time the Etruscan sages according to Plutarch, declared the Etruscan cycle of 11,000 years at an end, and that ‘another sort of men were coming into the world.’” Syncellus, however, is of the opinion that “a new epoch began when the constellation of Aries returned to its original position, and that this was the doctrine of ‘Greeks and Egyptians . . . as stated in the Genetica of Hermes and the Cyrannic books.”

      A fabulous book of this sort too often conjures up its own critic. He is, alas, some centuries dead. How Sir Thomas would have harried Dr. Yeats about his Magnus Annus, his phase of Will in the Wheel of 26,000 years, or Hipparchus’ discovery of precession! A surmise as to what he might have written concerning “lunar water,” seems to bring that defunctive nobleman to my very elbow.

      The book is beautifully planned and balanced. The opening section, entitled, “A Packet for Ezra Pound,” is the purest English since Bacon. Lithe and sinewy, the words are hushed like the reserved and inward singing of the old people. As the book widens into the “Stories of Michael Robartes and his Friends,” the quiet autobiographical note changes slowly and cunningly into a calm delirium. The rollicking little nursery-rhyme of Messrs. Huddon, Duddon, and Daniel O’Leary (the latter, Dr. Yeats tells us in a footnote, rhymes with “dairy,” though actually he rhymes with nothing), is horribly uncanny, yet does not lessen the shock of these eerie gentlemen’s intrusion upon the narrative in company with a lady called Denise de L’Isle Adam, who shares with the Muses the faculty of renewing virginity with the moon. Those Muses indeed! Resembling “women who creep out at night and give themselves to unknown sailors and return to talk of Chinese porcelain.” Porcelain is best made where the conditions of life are hard, says some Japanese critic, or philosopher, or Saint, or Labour Leader . . . for many such haunt these pages. Michael Robartes, who is responsible for this motley crew “between sleeping and waking, or in the morning before they bring him his early cup of tea,” disentangling himself from verse, clambers into the narrative with a scrap of autobiography suggesting that he is no better than Daniel O’Leary, who “always had the idea that some day a musician would do him an injury.” He, Robartes, has apparently been murdering his goods with some dancer from whom he is finally parted in Vienna where he hires rooms “ostentatious in their sordidness,” little guessing that the last tenant, an unfrocked and now gypsy priest, had propped up the bed with a broken chair and a tattered book, entitled, Speculum Angelorum et Hominum, Cracow, 1594, with a woodcut of Dr. Yeats, bearded, be-turbaned, and Kabbala-eyed, masquerading under the name of Giraldus, as frontispiece. Unquestionably a literary find . . . but there is also the death-bed consolation of Mr. Bell by Mary Bell: Mr. Bell had devoted his life to reforming cuckoos by inducing them to build nests . . .

      These are but harbour waters.

      After the verse dialogue known as “The Phases of the Moon,” we come to Book 1 proper, under the title “The Great Wheel,” divided again into three. This important section, probably for Dr. Yeats the most important, cannot be dealt with critically for the following reasons:—

      (a) There is no critical terminology wherewith to treat of a technical work having no border-line between metaphysics, astrology, history, spiritualism, “school” philosophy, poetry, symbolism, geometry (conic sections) and a great deal of humour. (An unfortunate man whose Guardian Angel is jealous of his sweetheart, is a case in point);
      (b) Symbol and Dogma are both modes that invalidate analysis. This whole section might be termed Dogmatic Symbolism, and, as such, either personally valid or invalid in toto. In no case can the original and arbitrary symbol be questioned, since we are at no time on common or verifiable ground, as indicated above.

      It is none the less interesting to attempt a parallel with modern, Post-Russell, mathematical thought. Wittgenstein, prince of Positivists, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus advances the bold doctrine that a relation between objects can ultimately only be indicated “not by a symbol, but by a relation between symbols, so that the symbolic structure of the expression shows forth . . . it does not in the strict sense ‘symbolize’ the structure of the fact, but expresses the meaning by a kind of ‘pictorial’ relation.”

      If it seems a far cry from “A Vision” to the Tractatus, it should be remembered that Logical Positivism considers “the relation of language and fact” to be the subject-matter of philosophy, if such a word may still be used. The contractive tendency of modern thought opens new gateways in its own despite.

      Personally, I think Dr. Yeats advances his Dogmatic Symbolism as a form of spiritual adventure, a mode of thought conveyed in a personal system of symbols, to be experienced rather than understood in the common sense of the word.

      And so the Books march past with their glittering titles—“The Soul in Judgment,” “The Great Year of the Ancients,” “Dove or Swan”—a horde of heresies reaping their mummy wheat. In “Dove or Swan” the same tense note is sounded as in the opening “Packet,” hinting at the Wheel’s full turn. It is the moment of Dr. Yeats’ perfection: he will look neither further back nor further forward; looking back—“I can but see bird and woman blotting out some corner of the Babylonian mathematical starlight”; looking forward he wonders “what discords will drive Europe to that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle—which is the decadence of every civilization?”

      Is Doubt the key to “A Vision?” Dr. Yeats writes:

      I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St. Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine shop some philosophical worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even, for the pride of his delicate skill would make what was an instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, show as a lovely flexible presence like that of a perfect human body.

      Has not Dr. Yeats deliberately chosen a moment of Antiquity pregnant with change, the air hanging heavy with dumb antagonisms and dying modes of thought? I seem to see that worker in mosaic a shrill and violent partisan. And what of Nemesius, that Bishop of Emessa who, I note with pleasure, and appreciation, had an early and watchful eye on the Yeatsian Anschauung? Does he not warn “certain Christians” that the Resurrection “could not happen more than once,” thereby nipping in the bud earlier efforts to identify the Doctrine of the Resurrection with “recurrent cycles,” with—Karma?

      Is it an answer that Dr. Yeats is seeking? Is it not rather the anguished bed of Doubt, that “fabulous, formless dark” where the breeding imagination begets “the uncontrollable mystery upon the bestial floor?”

      “A Vision” will mean many things to many men; if it does not show us the bare bright craters of Truth, it will suggest the penumbral aspect of the moon, revealing to the listening mind the tortured stirrings of the imagination, the heavy sweep and beating of its wings through the dark night of the soul.


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