Reviews of A Vision B

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The Criterion

April 1938

pp. 536-537

Stephen Spender


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

Four days after his marriage, Mr. Yeats’s wife surprised him by attempting automatic writing. The attempt was soon very successful and the unknown writer, on receiving an offer from Mr. Yeats that he should spend the rest of his life putting together these disjointed phrases, replied, ‘No, we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’.

    The spirit which made this remark deserves a literary prize, for not only is it responsible for some of the greatest poetry in the English language, but also it has provided a valuable hint towards the critical attitude which the reader may perhaps—fortified by that voice from the ‘other world’—take up towards A Vision. For, whatever the merits of Mr. Yeats’s philosophy, here we have a valuable and illuminating dictionary of the symbols and metaphors in his later poems. Here we are able to discover what precisely is the significance of symbols such as the mask, the gyre, the lunar phases; what are the uses in Yeats’s poetry of his ideas of Fate and the Will. Many readers will also find that this dictionary, in common with all definitions of words for that matter, is not only an explanation and an end of inquiry, it is also a starting off point in a search for new meanings and a stimulus to poetry as yet unwritten. For example, I myself am stimulated by the idea in Yeats of the Mask, which I take to be the fixed character which the will, like a chisel, sculpts on the face of man; just as in books on economics I am stimulated by the images suggested by the Law of Marginal Productivity.

    Later on, Mr. Yeats’s ‘instructors’ dropped their secondary role of giving him metaphors and supplied him with what one can only call an Encyclopedia of knowledge, life, death, the universe, history, etc.— an Encyclopedia Fascista, edited by Spengler, would perhaps be the best account of it, had not Spengler written his own. Here, I am unable to follow Mr. Yeats in anything like his entirety. I can only echo the tactful words of A.E. on the wrapper: ‘I am unable in a brief space’ (this goes for me as well) ‘to give the slightest idea of its packed pages, its division of the faculties of man, the Will, the Creative Genius, the Mask and the Body of Fate and their lunar gyrations, or of its division of the transcendental man, the daimonic nature and its cycles and their relation to our being, or of the doctrines of the after-life. Almost any of its crammed pages would need a volume to elucidate its meanings. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blake, . . .’ etc.

    The name of Blake pulls me up, for I should have thought that anyone desiring to make himself understood beyond the mere ferment of ‘feverish discussion’ would beware of falling into the jungles of the Prophetic Books. Like Blake, Mr. Yeats is prodigiously systematic, often illuminating, clear and even precise. The difficulty is, though, to discover on what plane he is being clear and to what he is consistent—where, in fact, his system, with its extensive philosophic claims, actually links up with reality. It is perhaps typical of Mr. Yeats’s whole method, that although the nature of his spiritualist experiences is described, no serious attempt is made to prove to the reader that the creaking of boards in his house, the sudden appearance of smells and so on, have really the significance which Mr. Yeats attributes to them. It is a pity that people who have Mr. Yeats’s experiences do not attempt to establish them with proofs which are acceptable to the sceptical, because if such experiences are real they are vastly important. On the other hand, if the physical universe has a special kind of behaviour which it hoards up for Mr. Yeats, it is difficult to see how to relate this to the rest of human experience.

    Mr. Yeats’s diagrams and tables are extremely logical and clear, in their mediaeval way; it is when I come to his summing up of the history of civilization that everything is so generalized as either to seem meaningless or else to be matter which could only assume shape and significance in Mr. Yeats’s poetry. However, occasionally the puzzle clears up, and we recognize behind the lulling self-loving fervour of Mr. Yeats’s prose a voice which, whether from this world or the next, is after all not so unfamiliar. For example, in the Examination of the Wheel, the voice appears in an illuminating footnote: ‘A similar circular movement fundamental in the works of Giovanni Gentile is, I read somewhere, the half-conscious foundation of the political thought of modern Italy. . . . It is the old saying of Heraclitus, “War is God of all, and Father of all, some it has made Gods and some men, some bond and some free,” and the converse of Marxian socialism.’ It did not altogether surprise me to read that when Yeats read Spengler, he discovered so many parallels with both the ideas and the sources of his own instruction as to suggest a common ‘instructor’.

    Spengler, Stefan George, D’Annunzio, Yeats: is it really so impossible to guess at the ‘instructors’ who speak behind these mystic veils? It is interesting, too, to speculate whether Fascism may not work out through writers such as these a mystery which fills its present yawning void of any myth, religion, law or even legal constitution, which are not improvised.


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