Reviews of A Vision B

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The Nation

9 July 1938

pp. 51-52

Eda Lou Walton


“Lend a Myth to God”

A VISION. By W. B. Yeats. The Macmillan Company. $3.

THE HERNE’S EGG, AND OTHER PLAYS. By W. B. Yeats. The Macmillan Company. $2.

POETS need a synthesis of values. And Yeats, who had no traditional religion to give him this, found it, in his youth, in Irish tradition and myth. In his middle years, through the help of his wife as a medium, he began to work out a scheme by which reality could be fused with vision. The result is “A Vision” (now for the first time in an American edition), a book which will be more interesting on the whole to spiritualists and astrologists than to historians or philosophers. Yeats’s imagination fed on ritual and myth; he needed some scheme which made the supernatural seem natural and the natural seem supernatural. Man’s consciousness, according to his spiritualistic directors, could be pictured as moving between the sun, or the purely objective, and the moon, or the purely subjective. History too moved between these two poles. And curiously enough, Yeats, independently of other historians, determined with the aid of his spiritual advisers certain dates which historians accept. Asked how seriously one may take all this discussion of states of discord and concord between dark and light, Yeats replies that it is all really a “stylistic arrangement of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi.” He adds that these arrangements “have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice.”

      The reader may, I think, take his cue from this quotation. The whole of this very strange book is a poet’s scheme for seizing upon symbols whereby reality and vision may, in the imagination, fuse. Through this scheme Yeats renewed his imaginative vitality and was enabled to face a chaotic world as if it were not chaotic. He had ceased to believe in his Irish fairyland. He required an arrangement of values which would allow his mind to roam into the past or the future, to bring the future, or the purely visionary, to illuminate the present. The Michael Robartes poems are clearly related to the group of dream stories told in this book, and most of Yeats’s later poetic symbolism of sun and moon is drawn from the scheme which he here sets down, with, for most of us, a few too many passes through the air, too many psychic phenomena. The poems are perfectly clear; the prose account of how the poet conceived the poems or their symbols is not so clear.

    The introduction to “A Vision” is a charming bit of lyric prose. “The Packet for Ezra Pound” gives us the most complete account, received directly for Pound, of what he is doing with his Cantos. We plunge then into the “gyres” and “converging triangles,” black and white, which illustrate for Yeats the various phases of concord and discord. Few readers will wade through all this to come upon the occasional brilliant comments concerning this or that poet whom Yeats places in their respective spheres closer or farther from the moon, or the subjective mind.

    In “The Herne’s Egg, and Other Plays” (two others, to be exact) Yeats makes use of some of the symbols—particularly those of sun and moon—which he explains in his “Vision.” These plays are far removed from the pretty fantasies of Yeats’s earlier dramatic writing. The poet has left reality entirely and writes of myth, but of myth which has an amazing way of throwing tangential light upon our ordinary world. The meaning of the plays lies in myth and suggestion and is to be caught at but not to be paraphrased. “The Herne’s Egg” is based on an old myth of a thunder bird, the Herne, which is all spirit. The old warriors offend this god and meet their death, but not before, in much beautiful poetry, we have caught suggestions of the follies of mankind. The two other plays resemble the Salome story. Both deal with women who must be cruel in order to love. Both are an acknowledgment of the power of death and love to impregnate. “The King of the Great Clock Tower” has appeared before in a prose version. It is more beautiful in poetry. The others are new. Symbolic and ritualistic in style, all three cut through man’s deception of himself.


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