W. B. Yeats Systems: “A Vision” in his Poetry

Also Read

      Yeats’s prose work A Vision is considered by many to be indispensable to a thorough understanding of his poetry. This work presents an elaborate systems in which human personality, human history and matters of the soul are treated at length.

      In his system the moon represents subjectivity and the sun represents objectivity. Between the two extremes of complete subjectivity and complete objectivity there are twenty-six phases which account for all possible types of human personality.

‘Unity of Being’

      Another thing central to Yeats’s system is his concept of what he called the ‘Unity of Being.’ He said: “...true Unity of Being, where all murmurs in response if but a single note be touched, is found emotionally, instinctively by the rejection of all experience not of the right quality and by the limitation of its quantity.” Conflict between notion and philosophy and between reality and imagination is another matter which is treated at length in A Vision.

      A very interesting fact about A Vision is the theories set forth in it are said to have been communicated to Yeats by supernatural beings through his wife who served as a medium.

Doctrine of the ‘Mask’

      Yeats’s view of history and the categories into which human beings fall are the main subjects of A Vision. Another very important subject is the doctrine of the Mask about which Yeats himself said in his diary. ‘All human happiness depends upon having the energy to assume the mask of some other self; all joyous or creative life is a re-birth as something not one self.’

Yeats’s Views of History

      As for Yeats’s view of History, Yeats saw history as a series of cyclical processes. He saw time made up of opposing cycles lasting two thousand years, and he used the diagram of opposing gyres to illustrate them. Each age was seen as the reversal of the previous age. The Second Coming thus has one of its themes the terror of a coming antithetical civilization.

      A Vision amounts to summing up of Yeats’s own sense of values in a system of thought about the soul in and beyond life and also about the meaning of history, all worked out in a geometrical symbolism. All this rests on an abstract idea of two movements, one towards perfect, ‘self-realization the other toward.s perfect self-abnegation.’ When the soul achieves self-realization, there is a moment of perfect poise which is called ‘Unity of Being.’

      The creative mind, according to Yeats’s system is a kind of memory of ideas of general principles, learned in past lives, and in the power of the thought which is inborn. Man tries to understand the world objectively but his image for what he desires to be may distort what he sees.

“A Vision”

      A Vision can be divided into three parts. The first outlines a cyclical view of history, the second a view of human psychology and the third a description of the soul’s immigration after death.

      The idea of the history of civilization and also of man’s incarnation as a microcosmic being in 2000 years cycles comes from certain Eastern religions from Plato, from the Neo-Platonists and Vico. Yeats divides the growth, maturity and decline of a civilization into twenty-eight phases. In this cycle, maturity or the zenith is at the full moon of phase sixteen to twenty either of which is the dark side of the moon. History turns on the great wheel which Yeats thinks of as three-dimensional and refers to as gyres. The gyres can be seen as conical spirals of history through which events and men move. These gyres are therefore space, time and symbols, gyrating as if anyone point moved from one place in the axis, tracing widening gyres as it does so, until it reaches the circumference of the sphere. At the same time, simultaneously another point is gyring its way from the opposite sphere as if unwinding the thread spirally. The phases of the moon and the gyres are exactly summed up in Michael Robartes’s reply to Owen Aheme in the poem The Phases of the Moon:

Twenty and eight the phase of the moon.

      And little later in the same poem we have:

Under the frenzy of the fourteenth moon
The soul begins to tremble into stillness
To die into the labyrinth of itself.

      In the second section of A Vision, men are classified by the amount of subjective and objective qualities they possess. But with regard to man, there are only twenty six phases rather than twenty-eight, because phases one and fifteen—complete objectivity and complete subjectivity, are never possible.

      A further detail in this section is Yeats’s division of the soul into what he terms four faculties, two pairs of contraries, called will and mask i.e., creative mind and the body of rate. These four faculties are gyres which are superimposed on the existing ones.

      In the third section of A Vision which deals with life after death, the soul goes through relieving its earthly life, gradually reaching a blessed state, after many incarnations. For Yeats, an important addition in this section is his belief that it is possible for the souls of the dead to communicate through Anima Mundi with writers and artists.

      Many critics have attacked A Vision and some of them have gone to the extent of calling it ‘‘philosophic jungle”, “enormous, cranky, pseudo-philosophy” or “home made-gimcrack”, etc.


      But for Yeats “poetry cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of how, by myth, he was searching for a unity.” A Vision is ultimately the summary of Yeats’s philosophic thought and therefore vital to a full understanding of how his poetry was nourished. Yeats’s attempt to unify life and the art into one immense achieved form—a complex and organic interconnected whole which could contain in an image all the universe which comes very close to success. The frame work of autobiography, essays, philosophical speculation and cosmology in which Yeats suspended a body of delicately engineered poetry becomes almost what Yeats says A Vision which was intended to be a last act of defence against the chaos of the world.


“One very remarkable thing about Yeats was his continued search for a “system of thought.” How far did this search help Yeats in writing his poems?

“Yeats’s prose-work A Vision is considered by many to be indispensable to a thorough understanding of his poetry.” Do you agree? Give examples from the poems you have read.

Previous Post Next Post