Reviews of A Vision B

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The Commonweal

25 March 1938

p. 611

Michael Williams



A Vision, by W. B. Yeats. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00.

MANY years ago, in one of his early books of essays, “Ideas of Good and Evil,” W. B. Yeats wrote about his belief that poets were more and more becoming the real religious leaders of the world, and that the priests of the Church were discredited. The opinion was a common one, at that time, at least among writers who had cast off what they considered to be the “chains of dogma,” “ecclesiastic superstitions” and the like, and felt themselves to be the emancipated prophets and leaders of humanity.

      For many of them, “science” appeared to be the substitute for Deity, which their art must serve; others, among them Mr. Yeats, discovered in their own subjective impulses and dreams the evidences of a spiritual truth superior to materialistic science. Few of them ever bothered to construct any system of thought by which to guide their new gospels, and so long as their work justified itself artistically, apart from their nebulous theories, what they believed or did not believe hardly mattered except to themselves.

      In Mr. Yeats’s case, in particular, the lovers of poetry could enjoy what he produced as poet without paying much heed to his occasional utterances as a religious “seer” or prophet. Nor will the book in which he has now given the world his fundamental doctrine change the situation, except, possibly, for a few devotees of Spiritualism, who may find it a new revelation, as they have discovered such revelations before in Swedenborg and Thomas Lake Harris and other modern visionaries. In the mumbo-jumbo flooding the pages of a host of lesser luminaries of the fantastic underworld of modern superstition, are to be found, although not so well expressed, much of the farrago of automatic writing, “direct voice” utterances, trance mediumship, “guides” and “frustrators,” out of which Mr. Yeats builds up his re-creation of one of the oldest and most ruinous illusions of humanity—the awful nightmare of doom, the idea of “Eternal Recurrence,” which for thousands of years has sporadically appeared in the literature of pessimism.

      Such a dream is the utter denial of the Christian revelation, the negation, indeed of all belief in God. Man’s free will is banished in such a system. The “great wheel” of life merely turns and re-turns, forever, through cycle after cycle, so that each and every human soul, born again and again without cessation into different environments, will go on doing so eternally.

      This idea is supposed to be illustrated and, apparently, even demonstrated by a series of geometrical plates and statistical tables. It is all very depressing, if taken seriously; but why should any sane person feel constrained to bother his head with such stuff when there is Mr. Yeats’s poetry to read and enjoy?


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