BL. W. B. Yeats


38. A Vision. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1937. Reprint, ‘with the author’s final revisions’, 1956.

Yeats’s ‘defence against the chaos of the world’ outlines a complex philosophical, ontological, and symbolic system he ‘learned’ from his ‘instructors’, the spirits speaking through the mediumship of his wife, her automatic script, and her dreams (see 57) between October 1917 and March 1924. The system is self-consciously inclusive, yet includes very little directly traceable to Japanese sources—nothing whatever in the first edition of 1925—even though the automatic script and notebooks on which it is based were completed during the years of Yeats’s greatest interest in and most direct mediation of the nô. Yeats’s encounter with the nô at Stone Cottage (see, especially, BK183) provided seeds that have here taken root—early formulations of the ontology of ‘The Phases of the Moon’, particularly in Book II, ‘The Completed Symbol’, and III, ‘The Soul in Judgment’, may be found in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (13), where Yeats explicitly ties his emerging understanding of the nature of ghosts to the Japanese poets and the authors of nô—but ultimately the developing and developed system itself informs Yeats’s ‘nô plays’ more than the nô plays inform the system. Certainly the concept of the ‘dreaming back’ remains important here, and cannot be separated from Yeats’s encounter with the nô, but beyond this critics wishing to place Japan in a central position in the mature Yeatsian symbology would do well to note the virtual absence of Japanese subjects in this larger symbolic system that he himself believed central to his work. His understanding of the nô and of Suzuki’s Zen (see D28) have affected the understandings outlined here, but of more central importance are doctrines deriving from, among widely diverse sources, medieval European occultism, medieval astrology, and the Vedas.

a. ‘The Completed Symbol, XVIII’. Book II of ‘The Phases of the Moon’ closes with this section, in which Yeats notes that his ‘instructors identify consciousness with conflict’, and ‘substitute for subject and object and their attendant logic a struggle towards harmony, towards Unity of Being’. Several passages that illustrate the point, Yeats writes, ‘run in [his] head’, and he cites three ‘written by Japanese monks on attaining Nirvana’. These in fact are anecdotes from Chinese tradition, mainly as handed down in the Ch’an/Zen texts Wu-men kuan (Jpn.: Mumonkan) and Pi-yen-luï (Jpn.: Hekiganroku), though all appear in the first series of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism (see D28), which is Yeats’s acknowledged source: he remarks in a footnote that he has ‘compared [his] memories with their source in Zazuki’s [sic] Zen Buddhism, an admirable and exciting book’, and finds that they are accurate except that he has ‘substituted here and there better-sounding words’. See also 46b.

b. ‘The Soul in Judgement’. Book III of the ‘The Phases of the Moon’ is Yeats’s most thorough non-dramatic working through of the concept of the ‘dreaming back’ of the passions of the dead, which he first described in print—and connected to the ontology of the nô—in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (13), and aided by what he had learned from the nô had dramatised, most notably in The Dreaming of the Bones (14a), Calvary (17a), and The Words Upon the Window Pane (34), and to which he would return in Purgatory (44b). Once again here, nineteen years after the publication of Per Amica, he turns to the nô in explanation of the concept, the same examples, it turns out, that had occupied him in those earlier years:

1. Section III. As he had done earlier (see particularly 11) Yeats associates the ontological foundation of the mugen nô with perceived similarities in Irish and occultist tradition: ‘The Spirit,’ he writes, ‘at last draws backward into itself . . . all it has felt or known. I am convinced that this ancient generalisation  . . . once was a universal belief. . . . Certainly I find it in old Irish literature, in modern Irish folk-lore, in Japanese plays, in Swedenborg, in the phenomena of spiritualism, accompanied as often as not by the belief that the living can assist the imaginations of the dead’. He recalls again the ‘ghost lovers in a Japanese play [Nishikigi (BK8)] asking a wandering Buddhist priest to marry them’, and the ‘two that appeared to a Catholic priest in Aran, according to an Aran tale, with a like object’, a similarity to which he first had called attention in notes to Lady Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (see 15a-b) in the second decade of the century.

2. Section VI. As he had done two decades earlier in ‘Swedenborg, Mediums, and the Desolate Places’ (15a) and Per Amica Silentia Lunae (13), Yeats turns to the nô in general and to Motomezuka (see D23) in particular to work through his understanding of the ontology of ghosts, though here he adds a new distinction. A ‘spirit’ that has experienced intense passion in life ‘is compelled to live over and over again the events that had most moved it’, like ‘those apparitions haunting the places where they have lived that fill the literature of all countries and are the theme of the Japanese nô drama’. Spirits whose passions in life were associated with physical constraints, and whose working out of unreconciled passion serves to ‘perfect an event that concerns the living’, may be said to inhabit this ‘state’ of the ‘dreaming back’. But whereas Yeats had earlier attributed the relived passions of all spirits to the ‘dreaming back’, here he finds a new ‘state’: ‘the various legends of spirits that appear under impulse of moral and emotional suffering’, and whose reliving of passions concerns not the living but the moral and emotional peace of the spirit itself, must be ‘attributed’ to a ‘state’ Yeats calls ‘Phantasmagoria’. He recalls in this regard the ‘girl in a Japanese play whose ghost tells a priest of a slight sin, if indeed it was a sin, which seems great because of her exaggerated conscience’. ‘She is surrounded by flames’, he continues, ‘and though the priest explains that if she but ceased to believe in those flames they would cease to exist, believe she must, and the play ends in an elaborate dance, the dance of her agony’. This example, from Motomezuka, had been in Yeats’s mind since the winter of 1914 with Pound at Stone Cottage, and arguably informs his poetry more than other material traceable to Japan (see D23). The distinction between the ‘dreaming back’ and the ‘phantasmagoria’ is given voice by the old man in Purgatory (44b), in Yeats’s last return to dramatic principles developed from the mugen nô. After describing the ‘souls in Purgatory’ who cannot escape the earthly habitation of their ‘transgressions’, the old man notes that they are of two kinds, those whose transgressions are ‘Upon others, [that] others may bring help, / For when the consequence is at an end / The dream must end; if upon themselves, / There is no help but in themselves / And in the mercy of God’ (ll. 38-42).



Home | Top | Previous | Next

Previous | Next


Creative Commons License