George Russell, reviews of A Vision and A Packet for Ezra Pound, in The Irish Statesman (1926, 1929)
[Details: George Russell, Review of A Vision, in The Irish Statesman (13 Feb. 1926), pp.714-16 [infra]; review of A Packet for Ezra Pound, in The Irish Statesman (7 Sept. 1929), pp.11-12 [infra]; available on Yeats Vision website, ed. Neil Mann - online; accessed 27.04.2105. Note: Several paragraph have been added here for on-screen reading.]
Review of A Vision, in The Irish Statesman (13 Feb. 1926), pp.714-16.
A sage out of the ancient world possibly might write with more understanding of A Vision than any of Mr. Yeats contemporaries. It is an interpretation of life and history, but the interpreter has a compass in his hand, and he measures and divides the cycles as if he had at heart more than any other saying that profundity of Plato, God Geometrises. It might be compared with Henry Adams mathematical interpretation of history in the astonishing essay on Phase, but it is infinitely more complicated, infinitely more difficult to understand. Subtle as the thought was in Phase it was an exercise in simplicity compared with A Vision. Here I fall away from a mind I have followed, I think with understanding, since I was a boy, and as he becomes more remote in his thought I wonder whether he has forgotten his own early wisdom, the fear lest he should learn to speak a tongue men do not know. I allow myself to drift apart because I feel to follow in the wake of Mr. Yeats mind is to surrender oneself to the idea of Fate and to part from the idea of Free Will. I know how much our life is fated one life animates the original cell, the fountain from which the body is jetted; how much bodily conditions affect or even determine our thought, but I still believe in Free Will and that, to use the language of the astrologers, it is always possible for a man to rise above his stars. Now Mr. Yeats would have me believe that a great wheel turns ceaselessly, and that I and all others drop into inevitable groove after groove. It matters not my virtue to-day, my talent which I burnish, the wheel will move me to another groove where I am predestined to look on life as that new spiritual circumstance determines, and my will is only free to accept or rebel, but not to alter what is fated.
The Vision is so concentrated, the thought which in other writers would be expanded into volumes, is here continually reduced to bare essences, to tables of the faculties and their interactions, that I may have missed some implication, and there may be some way out, and it may be that in his system we are more masters of our fate than my study of the book has led me to suppose. The weighty core of the book is relieved by a preliminary fantasy. Owen Aherne and Michael Robartes, old creatures of the poets imagination, meet, and Robartes tells Aherne of his wanderings, and how in Cracow he discovered a mediæval tractate, Speculum Angelorum et Hominorum, written by one Giraldus, and how later in Arabia, among the Judwalis, he found men learned to the same philosophy. He instructs Aherne in this, then quarrels with him, and Aherne brings his notes to Yeats, who writes from them his Vision.
All this fantasy and the philosophical poems set in the book create about its hard geometrical core an air of cold beauty like a wintry sunrise playing on a pyramid of stony rock, and once the difficult geometry of Anima Mundi is expounded there is a long and brilliant meditation upon history, its changes and cycles related to the movements of divine powers. As I looked at the diagrams and tables, so difficult to relate to life, I encouraged myself to explore by remembering what Neander wrote in his Church History when he was confronted by the task of elucidating the bewildering mythology of the Gnostics. We must remember, he said, that the mind of man is made in the image of God, and therefore even in its wildest speculations it follows an image of truth. That is, there is something in the very anatomy of the soul which prohibits its adventure into that which is utterly baseless and unrelated to life. It may discolour what is true, but by its very nature it cannot escape from a truth. Just as we find shapely or unshapely people, but they all conform to a human model, so the soul in it remotest imaginations conforms in some transcendental way to its microcosmic relation to the macrocosm.
We live our lives in an erratic rhythm, waking and sleeping alone sure in their return, for in our lives one day never repeats exactly the rhythm of another. But let us imagine an Oversoul to humanity whose majestic motions have the inevitability of the rising and setting of the constellations. Let us assume, as we well might, that that majesty in its in-breathing and out-breathing casts a light upon our own being as the sun in its phases of dawn, noon and sunset makes changing the colours of all it illuminates. Well, Mr. Yeats takes the Great Year of the Ancients, a cycle of Anima Mundisymbolised by the passage of the sun through the Zodiacal constellations, a period of about 26,000 years of our time, but in his system it is considered but as one year of that mightier being whose months and days, all with their own radiant vitality, influence our own evolution. One of its days may be the spiritual light of many of our generations. It moves from subjective to objective. There are cycles within cycles, action and recoil, contrasted and opposing powers, all of a bewildering complexity, and caught within this great wheel the lesser wheel of our life revolves, having phases as many as the days of a lunar month, all re-echoing the lordlier cycle and its phases.
When he illustrates these phases of human life, thirty in all, by portraits of men and women, dead and living, typical of the phase, I suspect the author to be animated not only by a desire to elucidate the system, but by an impish humour. I ask myself was it insight or impishness which made him link Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and George Moore as typical men of the twenty-first phase, or what old lady did he discover in Mr. Galsworthy to make him unite that novelist with Queen Victoria? I am a little uncomfortable with some of my fellow-prisoners in phase twenty-five. I welcome George Herbert, but am startled to find myself along with Calvin, Luther and Cardinal Newman, as no doubt the last three would be incredulous of their own affinities to associate pilgrim souls. I am inclined to think all the good qualities of Carlyle were pruned by Mr. Yeats geometrical scissors to make him fit into his phase. But these character tellings, illustrative of the phases, will be to many the most interesting part of the book.
For all its bewildering complexity the metaphysical structure he rears is coherent, and it fits into its parts with the precision of Chinese puzzle-boxes into each other. It coheres together, its parts are related logically to each other, but does it relate so well to life? Do we, when we read about the cycles and their attributions, say to ourselves, yes, so men have gone changed from mood to mood. We can say from our reading of history that there is action and reaction, that the philosophers of one age are antithetical to those who preceded them, that the political ideas of our age must face in the next a recoil of contrary, equal and opposing forces; nay, that the very moment one power starts out for dominion over the spirit, it calls into activity an opposing power, one lives the others death, one dies the others life. But as they are immortals they never truly die, and the life of the antithetical powers is like that combat of hero and demon the poet imagined so many years ago in hisWanderings of Usheen. Yes, we see this interaction, recoil and succession of mood in history, but are they the interaction, recoil and succession of moods Mr. Yeats sees?
We have a tendency to make much of all that has affinity with our mood or our argument, and not to see or to underrate the importance of all that is not akin. I, with a different mentality from Mr. Yeats, see figures as important which are without significance to him. If I summed up the character of an age I might read black where he reads white. Doubtless, every age has a distinctive character, or predominant mood, and I am not learned enough in history to oppose confidently my own reading against his. I have written round and round this extraordinary book, unable in a brief space 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 daimoniac nature and its cycles and their relations 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 not a book which will affect many in our time. It is possible it may be discussed feverishly by commentators a century hence, as Blakes prophetic books so ignored, so unintelligible a hundred years ago, are discussed by many editors in our time, and he is found to be the profoundest voice of his own age. It is possible A Vision may come to be regarded as the greatest of Mr. Yeats works. It is conceivable also that it may be regarded as his greatest erring from the way of his natural genius, and the lover of his poetry may lament that the most intense concentration of his intellect was given to this book rather than to drama or lyric.
Personally, I am glad it was written. I do not doubt that though the seeds of his thought do not instantly take root and fructify in my mind that they will have their own growth, and later I may find myself comprehending much that is now unintelligible. So far as the mere writing is concerned, the part dealing with the Great Wheel and History is as fine as any prose he has ever written, and the verses set here and there have a fine, clear, cold and wintry beauty. The poetic intellect has devoured the poetic emotion, but through the transformation, beauty, the spirit animating both, maintains its unperturbed life.
Review of A Packet for Ezra Pound, in The Irish Statesman (7 Sept. 1929), pp.12-13.
Few poets have been so bountiful to their biographers as Yeats. The intellectual biographer of the poet will never suffer for lack of matter about which he may speculate. Indeed, to understand the poet in his later phases one must have gone into the psyches own world, which the ancients fixed between earth and heaven, or have listened to the reveries of the dead, so remote from the normal is his thought; and the effort to interpret is made more difficult because he has invented a symbolism of his own. One would retreat from the effort but for the atmosphere of beauty which is inseparable from almost every motion of the poets mind. I read, allured by the cold, lazy dignity of the writing in the poets latest book, which he calls A Packet for Ezra Pound.
I call it lazy writing because he tells me little in detail of the circumstance in which were set these psychic experiences. Yet, it may not be laziness at all, but some enchantment upon the intellect when it enters into the dream world, so that it loses the alert waking questioning habit, and it becomes dreamlike itself, for in dream we are never inquisitive, we suffer or endure or gaze in joy or terror at the pageant of which we are part. Once we are inquisitive the pageant dissolves and we wake. The most important part of this book is that which the poet has named Introduction to the Great Wheel, and in this he tells how the geometrical philosophy in his book, the Vision, came to be written. It is a collaboration between the dreaming consciousness of his wife and his own, with possibly other entities not of this plane of being. The poet speaks of them as if he believed they were external to consciousness, but when we enter into the dream world there is a dramatic sundering of the Ego, and while we dream we are persuaded of the existence of many people which, when we wake, we feel were only parts of our own protean nature.
I do not suggest that these philosophic entities who communicated to the poet and his wife the substance of the Vision may be simply some submerged part of the soul, because I am sceptical of the possibility. I merely say that the poet has not given me enough material to decide. There is a great deal of confusion both in the thought of the Vision and in this later Introduction, and the poet is conscious of this. I do not complain about it, for all journeying into hitherto untravelled forests must be confused, and differ from travel upon beaten high roads. We shall probably come to an understanding of these psychic interactions between the consciousness of the poet and his wife, and whether the beings he speaks of were entities of another sphere, or the emergence into waking consciousness of some hitherto deep hidden portion of their own natures, by study of other books rather than the poets own narrative.
There are many subtle minds pursuing truth into the deeps of being, many tentative and confused as Mr. Yeats is, but all contributing something to a psychology which will probably later become more luminous, and may make it easy for us to reach that ancestral wisdom which Keats said was in us all, so that we can drink that old wine of heaven, and come to that wisdom with ease where we now get blinded and lost in the search. I confess, while I find many things exciting in the Vision, I would like to re-write it, leaving out almost all that over precise movement of his cycles. The virtue of the soul is to be free, and Mr. Yeats spirits condemn us all to a cyclic progression, which is like the judgment of a mad dictator willing it that men should be imprisoned in one cell after another in a great prison, from which there is no escape, and in the imprisonments there is no justice only a kind of destiny willed by a divinity as indifferent as that Setebos brooded upon by Caliban.
It is very dangerous to believe that life is becoming mechanised, for that mysterious mind within us may take the hint and dress up a complete philosophy of mechanisation for us, and if we accept it, we weave our own enchantment, build our own prison cell, enter it, lock ourselves in and throw the key out of the window. It is of much more importance to us to have experience than to have philosophies, and those who can tell us how to rise above ourselves into mid-world or heaven world are the only people in whose thought I have any profound interest. Philosophies of the universe are all very well, excellent intellectual exercises. But I know the moment I get out of that rational everyday mentality which enjoys such exercises, the moment I rise within myself and draw nigh to deep own-being all these philosophies vanish. Plato said, If there be any gods they certainly do not philosophise. This is my growl about the Vision and the Decline in the West, and Phase, and other attempts to show how God geometrises, though when I cannot have spiritual experience I turn to them and devour their chaff and find it excellent food for the waking consciousness.
I cannot really review a book like this unless I write another book twice or thrice its length. I can only talk round and round it, making a springboard from which I might leap into the depths of the Vision if I had time, but these creatures the poet speaks of as the Frustraters, [sic] operate as a host against me, and while I would like to know the core of this philosophy I feel I must wait until I come to that intensity of being which, when we attain it, the sage Patangali tells us, will enable us to penetrate to the essential essence of anything, and comprehend it fully merely by directing our attention to it. Then I might know in a second what otherwise must take me many years. I will wait for that myriad instant, and be content with my half knowledge of what the poet means.
I think with more delight upon two poems which he has inserted into his Packet than upon anything else in the book. It is possible that the poet had to go through all that hard intellectual labour of the Vision and his after study of philosophy to write the Tower, in which his verse achieved a new power and dignity. It is possible the Muse will forsake us unless we keep the intellect athletic, and she will reward us even if we forsake her and go mountain climbing if we return to her more athletic than when we left. Yes, I think after every book of poetry the poet should exercise himself in some hard intellectual labour before he begins to supplicate the Muse again. That dweller in the innermost will feel then we approach her with reverence, and will breathe on us the holy breath with a more intense flame than before.