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.