Revised version: September 2008; minor corrections April 2009
An Aphoristic Summary of the System
When considering how Yeats absorbed and reformulated the ideas of A Vision in his art, it is worth bearing in mind that A Vision is not the only representation of the ideas which Yeats developed from the System. Yeats gives a brief primary or Solar version of the ideas in the ‘Seven Propositions’, viewing reality from the perspective of spirit rather than phenomenon, and using an aphoristic style, which owes more than a little to Leibniz or Berkeley. The Propositions are given in full by: Virginia Moore The Unicorn, 378-89; Richard Ellmann The Identity of Yeats, 236-37; Hazard Adams Blake and Yeats, 287-88.
The Dating of the Propositions
Critics in the past have tended to see these ‘Propositions’ as late formulations of Yeats’s thinking, and to consider that they indicate a move away from the System of A Vision towards a more remote and Eastern form of wisdom. Virginia Moore was told by George Yeats herself that these were dictated to her ‘in 1937, at Cannes’, so understandably Moore takes them to represent ‘his ideas a year or so after he gave the 1937 Vision to his publisher’ (The Unicorn 378). Moore was somewhat puzzled by the apparent advance in Yeats’s thought towards an ‘explicit belief in community’ together with a relapse towards ‘a teaching of ultimate partial freedom’ and so pressed George Yeats on the dating, but ‘Mrs Yeats was positive in word and tone when, on being questioned closely, and having given the matter further thought, she repeated, 'The Riviera—Cannes—in 1937'’ (The Unicorn, note 223, p.470). Given such authority, there should be no reason to doubt the dating or to disagree with Richard Ellmann that ‘late in life he formed a schematization which was more explicit than the chapter, 'The Completed Symbol', in A Vision’ (The Identity of Yeats, 236). Hazard Adams too thought that, ‘Late in life Yeats wrote down in ‘Seven Propositions’ what he called his ‘private philosophy’. . .’ (Blake and Yeats, 287), but this more accurately describes the ideas surrounding the Moments of Crisis (viz L 916-17); if anything these are more public since they abandon the idiosyncrasies of A Vision and give a more conventional formulation of his ideas.
However it is clear that, though George Yeats may well have remembered the dictation and its date correctly, the ‘Propositions’ themselves had been formulated almost a decade earlier in Rapallo. Elizabeth Heine notes that ‘Yeats wrote the 'Propositions' as 'Astrology and the Nature of Reality' in his Rapallo Notebook of 1928-29, now in the National Library of Ireland (NLI 13,581)’ (‘Yeats and Maud Gonne’, YA 13, note 15, 33). There are two drafts, the first of six propositions and the second of seven. The first draft covers a page and a half (23 verso, 24 recto) and is completely cancelled; the second draft starts on the same page (24 recto, points 1 to 3) but then jumps two pages (26 recto, points 4 to 7). The pages all around and intervening are dedicated to drafts of 'Coole Park, 1929' and the final fair draft of the poem is dated 'September 7' of 1929, which places the writing of the aphorisms in the late summer of 1929. Yeats sent Frank Pearce Sturm another slightly different version of these, entitled ‘Six Propositions’, in a letter of 9 October 1929, where he notes that they were intended for George Russell and his ‘ 'Hermetic Society'—I discuss them there the day after tomorrow—& shall send to some of my Kaballists as well as to the Dublin astrologers’. In keeping with the Rapallo title, Yeats considered that the Propositions ‘contain the first theoretical justification of Astrology made in modern times’; he acknowledges that they ‘are probably stiff’, but are a response to Russell’s reaction to A Packet for Ezra Pound since he ‘preferred to it certain Indian aphorisms, & seems to think that aphorism [is] the true method’ (see Frank Pearce Sturm, 100-101, for the text, see below). For further comment, see also Colin McDowell, ‘To ‘Beat Upon the Wall’: Reading A Vision’ (YA 4, 221).
The final version of "Seven Propositions" is a typescript, now National Library of Ireland MS 30,280, which was corrected in Yeats's hand in ink and pencil. It is a clean version of the Rapallo Notebook's second draft (NLI MS 13,581, pp. 47 [24r] and 51 [26r]) and the wording is extremely close. The folder in which it is found, NLI MS 30,280, also includes other brief formulations: ‘Genealogical Tree of Revolution’ including ‘A Race Philosophy’ (see Appendix to Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, 325-26), and a summary of the effects of recent developments in eugenics, psychical research and philosophy, this last dated ‘December 23 1938’. The dating of this last document would seem to support the idea that Yeats may have gone back to the Rapallo notebook in the late 1930s, as George remembered, and either dictated from it or had it typed up. The rewording and minor changes make the former more probable. However, the typescript is really just a fair copy not a major revision, so the Propositions date from 1929 and are thus contemporary with Yeats’s rewriting of A Vision and represent no radical departure from its thought, although the recasting is certainly radical. It is also arguable that the formulation for AE, retailed to Sturm, dating from October is therefore slightly later in terms of creative drafting. Both texts are included for comparison.
As outlined above, there are (at least) four versions of the Propositions, the first and second drafts in Rapallo Notebook D, the version sent to Frank Pearce Sturm (also given to AE's Hermetic Society), a typescript largely identical to the Rapallo Notebook's second draft.
The main text here is taken from National Library of Ireland MS 30,280, a typescript corrected in ink and pencil. This typescript is a clean version of the Rapallo Notebook's second draft (NLI MS 13,581, pp. 47 [24r] and 51 [26r]) and the wording is extremely close. In comparison, the Rapallo autograph draft shows minor variations of spelling and punctuation—commas, "spirit" is not usually capitalised (though Yeats’s capitals are often indistinguishable from lower case), "and" is usually ampersand, and there are misspellings, as well as some minor reordering and rewording (see the end for details).
This version is given by Richard Ellmann The Identity of Yeats. Like him, I have corrected minor errors (numbering section II, ‘III’, and typing ‘areunreal’ as a single word), but Ellmann gives only the corrections, which were handwritten (here in italics), whereas I also include the phrases from the original typescript that were substituted and represent the wording of the Rapallo Notebook (other differences are seen at the end). I have also preserved the lineation of the typescript, but the line numbering is purely to make the footnote references to the Rapallo Notebook clearer.
The Meaning of the Propositions
The Propositions were written to appeal to AE, who had found that with A Vision he fell away from a mind he had followed since he was a boy (see his review), and are couched in the more ‘conventional’ language of aphorism, but their succinct style and even their terminology seem to have led to their own misunderstandings. Part of this stems from the incorrect dating, but part of it from a failure to appreciate their idealist stance. Ellmann writes that ‘the obvious difficulty’ with the Propositions is that ‘if the Spirits alone are real, human beings have only a provisional, precarious existence’, although in the poetry, Yeats ‘could not quite concede to flesh and blood the minor role which his theory seemed to accord them’ (‘W. B. Yeats’s Second Puberty’ Four Dubliners, 38) and in The Identity of Yeats he writes that the Propositions ‘look at the more perfect world, the world of the daimons, by comparing it with life’ (236), concluding that, beside the Spirits’ brightness, ‘the natural, physical, material world is tentative, precarious, and shadowy’ (238). In this Ellmann seems to ignore that human beings are also spirits, albeit spirits differentiated and isolated by flesh, their ‘horoscopes’, or time and space. The Propositions do not look at a more perfect world, they look at this world as part of the whole, and ‘the natural, physical, material world’ may well be the subject matter of the poet but it is secondary to the saint (AE was placed at Phase 25 and Yeats considered him irredeemably primary).
Yeats is deliberately viewing existence from the Solar perspective of the Principles and the Daimon, not comparing it with life but viewing life from this vantage, which is also that of Eastern spirituality, seeing man as primarily his spiritual essence, before his temporary physical presence (in Eastern terms maya or illusion). He does not see flesh and blood as any less important than he had in Per Amica Silentia Lunae or A Vision: flesh and blood, the terrestrial, are the condition of power. The spirits include those who incarnate, the Daimons and the sundry other forms of spiritual existence in the Thirteenth Cone, and he seems to put to one side the totality of the Sphere. In this aspect, therefore, the vision is still antithetical since it looks to the congeries of beings rather than the single being (Ex 305, see below).
The illusion of the phenomenal universe is a manifestation of Spirits, ‘We are in the midst of life and there is nothing but life’ (L 728). Yeats holds back from saying that it is a manifestation of Spirit in the singular, which would be too close to an acknowledgement of deity and close to Berkeley or Advaita Vedanta, but he does assert that the ultimate reality is spiritual. He states the same in A Vision: 'The ultimate reality, because neither one nor many, concord nor discord, is symbolised as a phaseless sphere' (AV B 193) but A Vision takes the perspective of human experience and the antinomies, so views this sphere, refracted in the antinomies, as a cone, and not as phaseless but as the last in a succession of cycles, the thirteenth beyond twelve, or 'the thirteenth cone'. Yeats's treatment of the totality of existence or the ultimate reality is notoriously slight and he certainly passes very rapidly to the human world.
The Spirits of the Propositions choose birth and ‘reflect themselves into time and space’ through incarnation. Their relationship with this illusory web of space-time is a function of their intrinsic nature, so that they are born into the destiny which is an expression of their being’s state and needs. Expressed in the spatio-temporal terms which the antinomies impose, the Spirits’ present state, arising from their past lives, together with their future needs determine when and where they are born: ‘The moment of birth is not accidental – each new fate is the product of that which went before’ (first draft). In terms of A Vision, the spiritual Principles reflect into the incarnate Faculties (AV B 187), and the Faculties can also be described as ‘the result of the four memories of the Daimon or ultimate self’ (AV B 83). The nature of their emotional element dictates when they are born, while the nature of their intellectual character dictates where (cf. AV A 129, see panel right), so that they place themselves in relation to the great masses of the solar system and universe, which correspond to their coming fate. ‘During its sleep in the womb the Spirit accepts its future life, declares it just’ (AV B 235), but it is particularly at the moment of birth that the spatio-temporal coordinates completely express that character, which means that the horoscope of that moment gives an indication of the character of that particular life. The first draft implies that the mechanism is both sympathy and influence: ‘my empirical nature reflects the whole universe, including itself, as displayed at some one moment’ but ‘I am passive, or primary. Hence the state of the universe as recorded in the horoscope is impressed upon my subjective nature, as the form of my thought & perception, the channel in which it must flow’. In later versions the distinction is even more blurred, indicating that it is at the ‘moments of birth, or passivity’ that ‘the destiny receives its character until the next such moment from those Spirits who constitute the external universe’ which implies influence, while the concept that the ‘horoscope is a set of geometrical relations between the Spirit’s reflection and the principal masses in the universe and defines that character’ implies more sympathy or Jungian synchronicity. Whatever the mechanism, however, the astrologer can therefore use the principal masses of the universe, the stars and planets, to read the nature of the individual whose destiny has determined the place and time of its emergence into the physical. For this reason Yeats comments to Sturm that the Propositions ‘contain the first theoretical justification of Astrology made in modern times’, since they demonstrate why place and time of birth reflect character and destiny, since the planets and their geometrical relations represent the concerted action of the spirit world (Frank Pearce Sturm, 100).
Yeats is not, however, thinking only of the astrology of Zodiac and planets, but is also casting the ideas of A Vision into terms more current among Russell and his Hermetic Society: in incarnate existence the Principles reflect themselves into the Faculties, ‘from a concave to a convex mirror, or vice versa’ (AV B 187), the Spirit’s emotional character becoming the Will and its object (Mask), the intellectual character the Creative Mind and its object (Body of Fate). Human life then becomes the struggle of a single destiny against the collective, in an antithetical incarnation, or the transcending of the local horoscope, in a primary incarnation, while the cycle of a single life from birth to birth mirrors the greater spiritual cycle from unity to individuation and multiplicity back to unity.
Individual life is seen as intrinsically unhappy, because it is incomplete and because they are separated from the spiritual reality. To the spiritual saint, therefore, the aim is to follow the Buddhist ideal and to escape from the rounds of incarnation, to attain nirvana. Conversely the artist may follow Yeats's dictum that 'We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy' (Au 189). He never denies that the primary Phase 1 is the beginning and end of all existence, he just notes that it is not for him.
A Vision and ‘Seven Propositions’
Morton Irving Seiden, whose book Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker contains one of the more illuminating wrestlings with the actual nature of A Vision, tries to evaluate it as ‘a mythology: a restatement, in the twentieth century, of primitive religion’ (in YPM, 128; see ‘Introduction’ to The Resurrection). Seiden makes no reference to the Propositions and it seems that his analysis is drawn entirely from a considered reading of A Vision, but it shows significant similarities with the Propositions and is worth quoting at length:
Although this does not include the idea of community that is present in the Propositions, it identifies the sense of fundamental duality in Yeats’s peculiar idealism, the individual mind and external reality. Seiden goes on to identify what he sees as the fallacy within this reasoning: ‘In his identifying of the human mind with the physical universe, on the basis of their sharing in the same primordial substance, he again failed to realize that the differences among things are frequently as important as—perhaps even more important than—their similarities’ (YPM 134-35). But this is in part what Yeats addresses in the Propositions. The universe is not out there and separate, it is a manifestation of community, ‘I’ and ‘you plural’, though ‘each Spirit sees the others as thoughts, images, objects of sense’. It may seem a drastic necessity to see the rocks, tables, trees, stars and planets as illusory perceptions of other Spirits, but Yeats seems to have felt comfortable asserting that our ‘ancestors still live and that time and space would vanish if they closed their eyes’ (AV A 158).
The diary that Yeats kept in Rapallo in 1930 also shows him wrestling with the ideas of the System and their relation with other people’s thought, using both the language of A Vision (cf. AV B 190n & 187) and the ‘Propositions’:
Yeats champions the view of the congeries or community of Spirits, and writes of the multitudinous Sidhe with conviction. Coleridge and Burke see reality rather as a single being, God, with separate thoughts but unified. Each one is a partial view, but the two are irreconcilable, yet the tension of their dualism is what is necessary for life. The antithetical and the primary, the Lunar and the Solar, must remain whirling (AV A 149). Put another way, in terms of the Faculties, ‘Life is an endeavour, made vain by ther four sails of its mill, to come to a double contemplation, that of the chosen Image, that of the fated Image’ (AV B, 94), the chosen Image of selfhood, ‘the struggle of a destiny against all other destinies’, or the fated Image of godhead, ‘a transformation of the character defined in the horoscope into timeless and spaceless existence’. Neither of these goals is realisable within the partial gyre of a single life, and reach their closest point in the supernatural incarnations of Phase Fifteen and Phase One, while the ‘double contemplation’ is impossible within the antinomies.
DualismThe sixth proposition of the first draft states that ‘It is impossible to perceive Fate without experiencing freedom’, emphasising that there is no unmixed experience within the antinomies, and that the two terms form the eternal opposition, so that even at the moment of maximum primary Fate, the pendulum is swinging back towards antithetical freedom. The draft continues that ‘Every possible statement,in principle contains both terms – self and that which is perceived – but the perception of fate precedes the experience of freedom’, which asserts the primacy of the primary Tincture and reminds us of why it is the primary which the antithetical is that which struggles against it. In astrological terms, therefore, ‘The horoscope precedes the life’. However, vitally it is the illusory organic tissue in which we are incarnated that leads the antithetical struggle: ‘The body & mind of the new born child is the reply freedom makes to the horoscope’, and the incarnate human being is no after-thought of the Spiritual world, but in at least some senses a vehicle of liberation.
|42, Fitzwilliam Square,|
Oct 9th .
My dear Sturm: I was thinking about you & planning to write when your letter came. You would find life cheap in Rapallo. We do at any rate. We pay £100 a year for a small flat here, & but [for] the chance of getting it from friends who did not want strangers we would pay much more. We pay £90 in Rapallo for twice the number of rooms. Food too is cheap there. If you live there for more than 6 months in the year and had no habitation in England you would escape income tax. Our Dublin flat makes this impossible to us. Of course we should be glad to have you as neighbors.
I was about to ask you if you would read my proofs in my typed copy — I would of course make acknowledgements. Probably I would at the last moment have been afraid to do so but your letter emboldens me. The Vision, now ‘The Great Wheel’ requires another six months of simplification, but is already fairly simple. I enclose a set of ‘Propositions’ which I have sent to AE ‘Hermetic Society’— I discuss them there the day after tomorrow—& shall send to some of my Kaballists as well as to the Dublin astrologers. I want to find if we are in agreement. They contain the first theoretical justification of Astrology made in modern times, & even that which antiquity must have had has not come down to us.
W B Yeats
|The Propositions are probably stiff. They are mainly aimed at AE who in reading my Packet preferred to it certain Indian aphorisms, & seems to think that aphorism [is] the true method.|
|Reality is a timeless & spaceless community of spirits which perceive each other & perceive nothing else. . . . Each spirit is determined by, and determines those it perceives. Each spirit is unique.|
|When these spirits reflect themselves in Time & Space they are so many destinies which determine each other, & each spirit sees the others as thoughts, images, objects of sense.|
|This reflection into Time & Space is only complete at certain moments of birth, or passivity, which recur many times. At these moments the destiny receives its character until the next such moment from those spirits which constitute the external universe. The horoscope is a set of geometrical relations between the spirit’s reflection, or destiny, and the principal masses in the universe & defines that character.|
|The emotional (or volitional) character or a timeless & spaceless spirit reflects itself as its position in time, its intellectual character as its spatial position.|
|Human life is either the struggle of a destiny against other destinies, or a transformation of the character, defined by the horoscope, into timeless & spaceless existence. The whole passage from birth to birth should be an epitome of the whole passage of the universe through time & back into its spaceless & timeless condition.|
|The acts & nature of a spirit during any one life are a section or abstraction of reality & are unhappy because incomplete. They are a gyre or part of a gyre, whereas reality is a sphere.|
Each page of this first draft is scored through with a diagonal line. In addition, sections 1 and 4 are cancelled with a squiggly line. Cancellations of individual words are indicated below in the text.
|[Page 46]|||||[Page 47]|
Astrology & the nature of Reality
|1. Reality is a timeless & spaceless community of Spirits|||||by spirit as itself or as timeless and spaceless reality|
|Each perceives the others wills them & is willed by them|||||is truth. It is the state of the Spirit after the Beatific Vision.|
|into a state of changeless happiness.|||||It is followed by birth, & a new fate. |
||||of birth is not accidental – each new fate is the product|
|2. This reality reflects itself in time as |||||of that which went before it.|
|a series of abstractions. This is unhappiness because|||||experiencing|
||||6. It is impossible to |
|substantial reality. Time must continue ||||
|been completely displayed as a series.|||||contains both terms – self and that which is perceived –|
||||but the |
|3. My spirit reflects the timeless space less universe|||||The horoscope preceeds the life. The body & mind of the|
|my empirical nature reflects the whole universe, including|||||new born child is the reply freedom makes to the horoscope.|
|itself, as displayed at some one moment. Only||||
|the movements of the stars are sufficiently certain to||||
|permit the mapping of the universe as displayed.||||
|4. At the moment the part which I myself contribute[?]||||
|to this display is reduced almost to nothing. I||||
|am passive, or primary. Hence the state of the universe||||
|as recorded in the horoscope ||||
|is impressed upon my subjective nature, as the form of||||
|my thought & perception. The channel in which must flow.||||
|(5). Human life consists of the turning into timeless &||||
|spaceless existence thought ||||
|of this fate, or a vain struggle against. Fate [perceived?]||||
The essay "'Everywhere that antinomy of the One and the Many': The Foundations of A Vision," by Neil Mann in the collection W. B. Yeats's "A Vision": Explications and Contexts, edited by Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, and Claire Nally (Clemson University, 2012), provides useful further exploration of this subject.
This title is available for free download here or here from Clemson University Press (click here if seems the link may have changed). It is also accessible online via Liverpool Scholarhip Online and University Press Scholarship Online (simplest to search on "Yeats" and "Vision"; direct link functional April 2016), though this is by subscription or through a library.