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: