A Foreign Mind. A review of The Cutting of an Agate, by W. B. Yeats
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72 ] A Foreign Mind A review of The Cutting of an Agate, by W. B. Yeats London: Macmillan, 1919. Pp. vii+ 224. The Athenaeum, 4653 (4 July 1919) 552-53 This book of collected essays and prefaces might be used as the text for an historical summary of the Irish Movement, or of the Abbey Theatre, or as the text for a disquisition upon the art of drama, or for a number of other inquiries with which we are already familiar.1 But the focus of all these topics is unquestionably Mr. Yeats himself; the question even whether Irish Literature exists is more manageable as a question of the form of existence enjoyed by Mr. Yeats. Whatever Mr. Yeats’s influence may have been, and however remote from his own the natures that have been exposed to it, Mr. Yeats has spent altogether a great deal of time in England and acquired here a degree of notoriety without being or becoming an Englishman.2 If there is a peculiar Irish genius, it ought to be discovered in him; and if we can reach any conclusions about him, they ought to illuminate our understanding of Irish Literature. Mr. Yeats, more than any of the subjects that have engaged his attention, is what engages our attention in this book. When we read it we are confirmed in the conviction – confirmed in a baffling and disturbing conviction – that its author, as much in his prose as in his verse, is not “of this world” – this world, of course, being our visible planet with whatever our theology or myth may conceive as below or above it. And Mr. Yeats’s cosmos is not a French world, certainly. The difference between his world and ours is so completeastoseemalmostaphysiologicalvariety ,differentnervesandsenses.Itis, therefore, allowable to imagine that the difference is not only personal, but national. If it were merely personal, it might be located, attached to ourselves as some eccentricity of our nature; but Mr. Yeats is not an eccentric. He eludes that kind of relationship to the comprehensible. Everywhere the difference is slight, but thorough. For when we say “not of this world,” we do not point to another. Ghosts, mediums, leprechauns, sprites, are only a few of the elements in Mr. Yeats’s population, and in this volume they hardly appear at all. Mr. Yeats cannot be localized as a rond de cuir of séances.3 [ 73 A Foreign Mind When an Englishman explores the mysteries of the Cabala, one knows one’s opinion of him, but Mr. Yeats on any subject is a cause of bewilderment and distress. The sprites are not unacceptable, but Mr. Yeats’s daily world, the world which admits these monsters without astonishment, which views them more familiarly than Commercial Road views a Lascar – this is the unknown and unknowable.4 Mr. Yeats’s mind is a mind in some way independent of experience; and anything that occurs in that mind is of equal importance. It is a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours. In Mr. Yeats’s verse, in particular, the qualities can by no means be defined as mere attenuations and faintnesses . When it is compared with the work of any English bard of apparently equivalent thinness, the result is that the English work in question is thin; you can point to something which it ought to be and is not; but of Mr. Yeats you cannot say finally that he lacks feeling. He does not pretend to more feeling than he has, perhaps he has a great deal; it is not feeling that standards can measure as passionate or insipid. Every reader of Gibbon is acquainted with the existence of one heretical sect, among the several which disturbed the fifth century, which the historian names the fantastic, condemned by the orthodox as well as by the Nestorians and Monophysites.5 This party of philosophers held that the visible Jesus, who grew to manhood and mixed with mankind, was a phantasm ; at a certain moment the son of God assumed by the banks of Jordan full-grown the similitude of humanity. He was not really incarnate, but divinely deceived the world; and controversy foamed about the question whether such a doctrine did not impeach divinity with the sin of lying. Mr. Yeats might be such a fantastic avatar; supported by adepts and narthekophoroi ,6 controversy might rage again about the question whether Mr. Yeats really feels...