Reviews of A Vision B

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Time and Tide

4 December 1937

1674, 1676

Charles Williams


“Staring at Miracle”

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

Mr. Yeats’s style imposes attention on his readers; no other living writer arouses so easily a sense of reverie moving into accurate power. But to express that attention properly would need more time than any review can take; and more than usually one must feel here the absurdity of trying to define patterns in other words than their own.

    The book consists largely of “a revised and amplified version” of an edition published in 1926. A bibliographical note on all the contents would have been convenient. Those who know or possess the previous volume may still be glad, for Mr. Yeats has altered the exterior arrangements of his Vision, and what he calls the “unnatural story of an Arabian traveller” is still peculiar to that edition. Certain poems are also reprinted to combine into a new volume. I have not yet been able to compare the two volumes, and must not, therefore, discuss the differences further.

    The Vision itself is presented as a philosophical diagram of the nature of man and of the universe as known to man. It is said to have been communicated by invisible instructors, beginning with sentences delivered to Mrs. Yeats in automatic writing from 1917 to 1919. The method of communication was changed to speech in sleep during 1919. “Exposition in sleep came to an end in 1920, and I began an exhaustive study of some fifty copy-books of automatic script, and of a much smaller number of books recording what had come in sleep.” There had been interference at times which the communicating intelligences called Frustration or the Frustrators. Of the nature of this communication Mr. Yeats says that one intelligence said in the first month that “spirits do not tell a man what is true, but create such conditions, such a crisis of fate, that the man is compelled to listen to his Daimon.” Mere spirits are “a reflection and a distortion”; reality is found by the Daimon in the Ghostly Self and “the blessed spirits must be sought within the self which is common to all.”

    The symbolism of the Vision is geometrical, as all such imagery must be. In a sudden reminiscence Mr. Yeats alludes to the diagrams in Law’s Boehme “where one lifts a flap of paper to discover both the human entrails and the starry heavens.” In another myth something of the same idea related the spiritual heavens and the womb of the mother of Galahad, and that last porphyry is like the porphyry room in Byzantium where the Emperors were born. Here, however, it is a matter of cones or vortices, states of being struggling against each other, the “antithetical tincture” and the “primary tincture.” “Within these cones move what are called the Four Faculties : Will and Mask, Creative Mind and Body of Fate.”

    The movement of the Faculties covers “every possible movement of thought and of life,” and these movements are marked by numbers corresponding to the phases of the moon. Mr. Yeats examines “the twenty-eight incarnations” one by one, describing the kind of humanity observable in each and occasionally naming a few examples. Thus Phase Seventeen is distinguished as follows:

Will – The Daimonic Man
Mask (from Phase 3). True – Simplification through intensity. False – Dispersal.
Creative Mind (from Phase 13). True – Creative imagination through antithetical emotion. False – Enforced self-realization.
Body of Fate (from Phase 27) – Loss.
Examples: Dante, Shelley, Landor.

    Beside and beyond the Faculties are the Principles, Husk, Passionate Body, Spirit, and Celestial Body. “The wheel or cone of the Faculties may be considered to complete its movement between birth and death, that of the Principles to include the period between lives as well.” But even the full individual existence is only a part of the grand diagram; history also is measured by the mathematics. Not the least fascinating part of the book is made of the 34 pages in which Mr. Yeats makes a pattern of Europe from 2000 B.C. to the present day, in a style which is dream, and in the dream diagram, and at that a diagram of greatness and terror.

    In a period when our cleverest men may write wisdom but do not habitually write English, the style is itself a refreshment. The sentence which refers to the Byzantium saints “staring at miracle” is an example; another is that at which by chance I opened the book: “Love is created and preserved by intellectual analysis.” The intellect is so often nowadays regarded as merely destructive, or if constructive, then only in convenient and sterile things, that the phrase is near to being immediately rejected. But in fact it encourages the mind and more than the mind. Given the will, then the greater the analysis the greater the love, as has elsewhere been said: “Love is the chief art of knowledge and knowledge is the chief art of love.”

    Yet perhaps, to some minds in a different stage of thought, the most thrilling sentence in the book is the one which Mr. Yeats quotes from Heraclitus. It is quoted in relation to the opposing cones: “dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.” If indeed the world is founded on an interchange so profound that we have not begun to glimpse it, such sentences for a moment illuminate the abyss. If so, it is the principle of some such exchange that must be sought before all national and international evils can be righted. “A civilization,” Mr. Yeats says, “is a struggle to keep self-control.” Only by discovery of the principle of exchanged life can we keep our self-control by losing it, and without losing it we cannot keep it.


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