The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Volume XIII: A Vision is part of a fourteen-volume series under the general editorship of eminent Yeats scholar George Bornstein and formerly the late Richard J. Finneran and George Mills Harper. One of the strangest works of literary modernism, A Vision is Yeats's greatest occult work.
Edited by Yeats scholars Catherine E. Paul and Margaret Mills Harper, the volume presents the "system" of philosophy, psychology, history, and the life of the soul that Yeats and his wife George (née Hyde Lees) received and created by means of mediumistic experiments from 1917 through the early 1920s. Yeats obsessively revised the book, and the revised 1937 version is much more widely available than its predecessor. The original 1925 version of A Vision, poetic, unpolished, masked in fiction, and close to the excitement of the automatic writing that the Yeatses believed to be its supernatural origin, is presented here in a scholarly edition for the first time.
The text, minimally corrected to retain the sense of the original, is extensively annotated, with particular attention paid to the relationship between the published book and its complex genetic materials. Indispensable to an understanding of the poet's late work and entrancing on its own merit, A Vision aims to be, all at once, a work of theoretical history, an esoteric philosophy, an aesthetic symbology, a psychological schema, and a sacred book. It is as difficult as it is essential reading for any student of Yeats.
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William Butler Yeats is generally considered to be Ireland’s greatest poet, living or dead, and one of the most important literary figures of the twentieth century. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.
Catherine E. Paul is Associate Professor of English at Clemson University. She is the author of Poetry in the Museums of Modernism: Yeats, Pound, Moore, Stein and of numerous articles relating to modernist studies.
Margaret Mills Harper, a coeditor of Yeat’s “Vision” Papers (volumes 3 and 4), is the author of Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W.B. Yeats, The Aristocracy of Art in Joyce and Wolfe, and numerous articles on Yeats, Irish literature, and literary modernism. She is Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Georgia State University.
It is a constant thought of mine that what we write is often a commendation of, or expostulation with the friends of our youth, and that even if we survive all our friends we continue to prolong or to amend conversations that took place before our five-and-twentieth year. Perhaps this book has been written because a number of young men and women, you and I among the number, met nearly forty years ago in London and in Paris to discuss mystical philosophy. You with your beauty and your learning and your mysterious gifts were held by all in affection, and though, when the first draft of this dedication was written, I had not seen you for more than thirty years, nor knew where you were nor what you were doing, and though much had happened since we copied the Jewish Schemahamphorasch with its seventy-two Names of God in Hebrew characters, it was plain that I must dedicate my book to you. All other students who were once friends or friends' friends were dead or estranged. Florence Farr coming to her fiftieth year, dreading old age and fading beauty, had made a decision we all dreamt of at one time or another, and accepted a position as English teacher in a native school in Ceylon that she might study oriental thought, and had died there. Another had become a Buddhist monk, and some ten years ago a traveller of my acquaintance found him in a Burmese monastery. A third lived through that strange adventure, perhaps the strangest of all adventures -- Platonic love. When he was a child his nurse said to him -- 'An Angel bent over your bed last night', and in his seventeenth year he awoke to see the phantom of a beautiful woman at his bedside. Presently he gave himself up to all kinds of amorous adventures, until at last, in I think his fiftieth year but when he had still all his physical vigour, he thought 'I do not need women but God.' Then he and a very good, charming, young fellow-student fell in love with one another and though he could only keep down his passion with the most bitter struggle, they lived together platonically, and this they did, not from prejudice, for I think they had none, but from a clear sense of something to be attained by what seemed a most needless trampling of the grapes of life. She died, and he survived her but a little time during which he saw her in apparition and attained through her certain of the traditional experiences of the saint. He was my close friend, and had he lived I would have asked him to accept the dedication of a book I could not expect him to approve, for in his later life he cared for little but what seemed to him a very simple piety. We all, so far as I can remember, differed from ordinary students of philosophy or religion through our belief that truth cannot be discovered but may be revealed, and that if a man do not lose faith, and if he go through certain preparations, revelation will find him at the fitting moment. I remember a learned brassfounder in the North of England who visited us occasionally, and was convinced that there was a certain moment in every year which, once known, brought with it 'The Summum Bonum, the Stone of the Wise'. But others, for it was clear that there must be a vehicle or symbol of communication, were of opinion that some messenger would make himself known, in a railway train let us say, or might be found after search in some distant land. I look back to it as a time when we were full of a phantasy that has been handed down for generations, and is now an interpretation, now an enlargement of the folk-lore of the villages. That phantasy did not explain the world to our intellects which were after all very modern, but it recalled certain forgotten methods of meditation and chiefly how so to suspend the will that the mind became automatic, a possible vehicle for spiritual beings. It carried us to what we had learned to call Hodos Chameliontos.II
Some were looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power, but I had a practical object. I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul's. The Greeks certainly had such a system, and Dante -- though Boccaccio thought him a bitter partisan and therefore a modern abstract man -- and I think no man since. Then when I had ceased all active search, yet had not ceased from desire, the documents upon which this book is founded were put into my hands, and I had what I needed, though it may be too late. What I have found indeed is nothing new, for I will show presently that Swedenborg and Blake and many before them knew that all things had their gyres; but Swedenborg and Blake preferred to explain them figuratively, and so I am the first to substitute for Biblical or mythological figures, historical movements and actual men and women.III
I have moments of exaltation like that in which I wrote 'All Souls' Night', but I have other moments when remembering my ignorance of philosophy I doubt if I can make another share my excitement. As I most fear to disappoint those that come to this book through some interest in my poetry and in that alone, I warn them from that part of the book called 'The Great Wheel' and from the whole of Book II, and beg them to dip here and there in the verse and into my comments upon life and history. Upon the other hand my old fellow students may confine themselves to what is most technical and explanatory; thought is nothing without action, but if they will master what is most abstract there and make it the foundation of their visions, the curtain may ring up on a new drama.
I could I daresay make the book richer, perhaps immeasurably so, if I were to keep it by me for another year, and I have not even dealt with the whole of my subject, perhaps not even with what is most important, writing nothing about the Beatific Vision, little of sexual love; but I am longing to put it out of reach that I may write the poetry it seems to have made possible. I can now, if I have the energy, find the simplicity I have sought in vain. I need no longer write poems like 'The Phases of the Moon' nor 'Ego Dominus Tuus', nor spend barren years, as I have done some three or four times, striving with abstractions that substituted themselves for the play that I had planned.IV
Doubtless I must someday complete what I have begun, but for the moment my imagination dwells upon a copy of Powys Mather's Arabian Nights that awaits my return home. I would forget the wisdom of the East and remember its grossness and its romance. Yet when I wander upon the cliffs where Augustus and Tiberius wandered, I know that the new intensity that seems to have come into all visible and tangible things is not a reaction from that wisdom but its very self. Yesterday when I saw the dry and leafless vineyards at the very edge of the motionless sea, or lifting their brown stems from almost inaccessible patches of earth high up on the cliff-side, or met at the turn of the path the orange and lemon trees in full fruit, or the crimson cactus flower, or felt the warm sunlight falling between blue and blue, I murmured, as I have countless times, 'I have been part of it always and there is maybe no escape, forgetting and returning life after life like an insect in the roots of the grass.' But murmured it without terror, in exultation almost.
Capri, February, 1925
Copyright © 1925 by William Butler Yeats
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