IMAGINATIONS AND REVERIES
By AE [George William Russell]
The publishers of this book thought that a volume of articles and tales written by me during the past twenty-five years would have interest enough to justify publication, and asked me to make a selection. I have not been able to make up a book with only one theme. My temperament would only allow me to be happy when I was working at art. My conscience would not let me have peace unless I worked with other Irishmen at the reconstruction of Irish life. Birth in Ireland gave me a bias towards Irish nationalism, while the spirit which inhabits my body told me the politics of eternity ought to be my only concern, and that all other races equally with my own were children of the Great King. To aid in movements one must be orthodox. My desire to help prompted agreement, while my intellect was always heretical. I had written out of every mood, and could not retain any mood for long. If I advocated a national ideal I felt immediately I could make an equal plea for more cosmopolitan and universal ideas. I have observed my intuitions wherever they drew me, for I felt that the Light within us knows better than any other the need and the way. So I have no book on one theme, and the only unity which connects what is here written is a common origin. The reader must try a balance between the contraries which exist here as they exist in us all, as they exist and are harmonized in that multitudinous meditation which is the universe.—A.E.
PREFACE TO SECOND EDITION
To this edition four essays have been added. Two of these, "Thoughts for a Convention" and "The New Nation," made some little stir when they first appeared. Ireland since then has passed away from the mood which made it possible to consider the reconciliations suggested, and has set its heart on more fundamental changes, and these essays have only interest as marking a moment of transition in national life before it took a new road leading to another destiny.
NATIONALITY OR COSMOPOLITANISM STANDISH O'GRADY THE DRAMATIC TREATMENT OF LEGEND THE CHARACTER OF HEROIC LITERATURE A POET OF SHADOWS THE BOYHOOD OF A POET THE POETRY OF JAMES STEPHENS A NOTE ON SEUMAS O'SULLIVAN ART AND LITERATURE AN ARTIST OF GARLIC IRELAND TWO IRISH ARTISTS "ULSTER" IDEALS OF THE NEW RURAL SOCIETY THOUGHTS FOR A CONVENTION THE NEW NATION THE SPIRITUAL CONFLICT ON AN IRISH HILL RELIGION AND LOVE THE RENEWAL OF YOUTH THE HERO IN MAN THE MEDITATION OF ANANDA THE MIDNIGHT BLOSSOM THE CHILDHOOD OF APOLLO THE MASK OF APOLLO The CAVE OF LILITH THE STORY OF A STAR THE DREAM OF ANGUS OGE DEIRDRE
NATIONALITY OR COSMOPOLITANISM
As one of those who believe that the literature of a country is for ever creating a new soul among its people, I do not like to think that literature with us must follow an inexorable law of sequence, and gain a spiritual character only after the bodily passions have grown weary and exhausted themselves. In the essay called The Autumn of the Body, Mr. Yeats seems to indicate such a sequence. Yet, whether the art of any of the writers of the decadence does really express spiritual things is open to doubt. The mood in which their work is conceived, a distempered emotion, through which no new joy quivers, seems too often to tell rather of exhausted vitality than of the ecstasy of a new life. However much, too, their art refines itself, choosing, ever rarer and more exquisite forms of expression, underneath it all an intuition seems to disclose only the old wolfish lust, hiding itself beneath the golden fleece of the spirit. It is not the spirit breaking through corruption, but the life of the senses longing to shine with the light which makes saintly things beautiful: and it would put on the jeweled raiment of seraphim, retaining still a heart of clay smitten through and through with the unappeasable desire of the flesh: so Rossetti's women, who have around them all the circumstance of poetry and romantic beauty, seem through their sucked-in lips to express a thirst which could be allayed in no spiritual paradise. Art in the decadence in our time might be symbolized as a crimson figure undergoing a dark crucifixion: the hosts of light are overcoming it, and it is dying filled with anguish and despair at a beauty it cannot attain. All these strange emotions have a profound psychological interest. I do not think because a spiritual flaw can be urged against a certain phase of life that it should remain unexpressed. The psychic maladies which attack all races when their civilization grows old must needs be understood to be dealt with: and they cannot be understood without being revealed in literature or art. But in Ireland we are not yet sick with this sickness. As psychology it concerns only the curious. Our intellectual life is in suspense. The national spirit seems to be making a last effort to assert itself in literature and to overcome cosmopolitan influences and the art of writers who express a purely personal feeling. It is true that nationality may express itself in many ways: it may not be at all evident in the subject matter, but it may be very evident in the sentiment. But a literature loosely held together by some emotional characteristics common to the writers, however great it may be, does not fulfill the purpose of a literature or art created by a number of men who have a common aim in building up an overwhelming ideal—who create, in a sense, a soul for their country, and who have a common pride in the achievement of all. The world has not seen this since the great antique civilizations of Egypt and Greece passed away. We cannot imagine an Egyptian artist daring enough to set aside the majestic attainment of many centuries. An Egyptian boy as he grew up must have been overawed by the national tradition, and have felt that it was not to be set aside: it was beyond his individual rivalry. The soul of Egypt incarnated in him, and, using its immemorial language and its mysterious lines, the efforts of the least workman who decorated a tomb seem to have been directed by the same hand that carved the Sphinx. This adherence to a traditional form is true of Greece, though to a less extent. Some little Tanagra terra-cottas might have been fashioned by Phidias, and in literature Ulysses and Agamemnon were not the heroes of one epic, but appeared endlessly in epic and drama. Since the Greek civilization no European nation has had an intellectual literature which was genuinely national. In the present century, leaving aside a few things in outward circumstance, there is little to distinguish the work of the best English writers or artists from that of their Continental contemporaries. Milliais, Leighton, Rossetti, Turner—how different from each other, and yet they might have painted the same pictures as born Frenchmen, and it would not have excited any great surprise as a marked divergence from French art. The cosmopolitan spirit, whether for good or for evil, is hastily obliterating all distinctions. What is distinctly national in these countries is less valuable than the immense wealth of universal ideas; and the writers who use this wealth appeal to no narrow circle: the foremost writers, the Tolstois and Ibsens, are conscious of addressing a European audience.
If nationality is to justify itself in the face of all this, it must be because the country which preserves its individuality does so with the profound conviction that its peculiar ideal is nobler than that which the cosmopolitan spirit suggests—that this ideal is so precious to it that its loss would be as the loss of the soul, and that it could not be realized without an aloofness from, if not an actual indifference to, the ideals which are spreading so rapidly over Europe. Is it possible for any nationality to make such a defense of its isolation? If not, let us read Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoi, men so much greater than any we can show, try to absorb their universal wisdom, and no longer confine ourselves to local traditions. But nationality was never so strong in Ireland as at the present time. It is beginning to be felt, less as a political movement than as a spiritual force. It seems to be gathering itself together, joining men who were hostile before, in a new intellectual fellowship: and if all these could unite on fundamentals, it would be possible in a generation to create a national Ideal in Ireland, or rather to let that spirit incarnate fully which began among the ancient peoples, which has haunted the hearts and whispered a dim revelation of itself through the lips of the bards and peasant story tellers.
Every Irishman forms some vague ideal of his country, born from his reading of history, or from contemporary politics, or from imaginative intuition; and this Ireland in the mind it is, not the actual Ireland, which kindles his enthusiasm. For this he works and makes sacrifices; but because it has never had any philosophical definition or a supremely beautiful statement in literature which gathered all aspirations about it, the ideal remains vague. This passionate love cannot explain itself; it cannot make another understand its devotion. To reveal Ireland in clear and beautiful light, to create the Ireland in the heart, is the province of a national literature. Other arts would add to this ideal hereafter, and social life and politics must in the end be in harmony. We are yet before our dawn, in a period comparable to Egypt before the first of her solemn temples constrained its people to an equal mystery, or to Greece before the first perfect statue had fixed an ideal of beauty which mothers dreamed of to mould their yet unborn children. We can see, however, as the ideal of Ireland grows from mind to mind, it tends to assume the character of a sacred land. The Dark Rosaleen of Mangan expresses an almost religious adoration, and to a later writer it seems to be nigher to the spiritual beauty than other lands:
And still the thoughts of Ireland brood Upon her holy quietude.
The faculty of abstracting from the land their eyes beheld another Ireland through which they wandered in dream, has always been a characteristic of the Celtic poets. This inner Ireland which the visionary eye saw was the Tirnanoge, the Country of Immortal Youth, for they peopled it only with the young and beautiful. It was the Land of the Living Heart, a tender name which showed that it had become dearer than the heart of woman, and overtopped all other dreams as the last hope of the spirit, the bosom where it would rest after it had passed from the fading shelter of the world. And sure a strange and beautiful land this Ireland is, with a mystic beauty which closes the eyes of the body as in sleep, and opens the eyes of the spirit as in dreams and never a poet has lain on our hillsides but gentle, stately figures, with hearts shining like the sun, move through his dreams, over radiant grasses, in an enchanted world of their own: and it has become alive through every haunted rath and wood and mountain and lake, so that we can hardly think of it otherwise than as the shadow of the thought of God. The last Irish poet who has appeared shows the spiritual qualities of the first, when he writes of the gray rivers in their "enraptured" wanderings, and when he sees in the jeweled bow which arches the heavens—
The Lord's seven spirits that shine through the rain
This mystical view of nature, peculiar to but one English poet, Wordsworth is a national characteristic; and much in the creation of the Ireland in the mind is already done, and only needs retelling by the new writers. More important, however, for the literature we are imagining as an offset to the cosmopolitan ideal would be the creation of heroic figures, types, whether legendary or taken from history, and enlarged to epic proportions by our writers, who would use them in common, as Cuculain, Fionn, Ossian, and Oscar were used by the generations of poets who have left us the bardic history of Ireland, wherein one would write of the battle fury of a hero, and another of a moment when his fire would turn to gentleness, and another of his love for some beauty of his time, and yet another tell how the rivalry of a spiritual beauty made him tire of love; and so from iteration and persistent dwelling on a few heroes, their imaginative images found echoes in life, and other heroes arose, continuing their tradition of chivalry.
That such types are of the highest importance, and have the most ennobling influence on a country, cannot be denied. It was this idea led Whitman to exploit himself as the typical American. He felt that what he termed a "stock personality" was needed to elevate and harmonize the incongruous human elements in the States. English literature has always been more sympathetic with actual beings than with ideal types, and cannot help us much. A man who loves Dickens, for example, may grow to have a great tolerance for the grotesque characters which are the outcome of the social order in England, but he will not be assisted in the conception of a higher humanity: and this is true of very many English writers who lack a fundamental philosophy, and are content to take man as he seems to be for the moment, rather than as the pilgrim of eternity—as one who is flesh today but who may hereafter grow divine, and who may shine at last like the stars of the morning, triumphant among the sons of God.
Mr. Standish O'Grady, in his notable epic of Cuculain, was in our time the first to treat the Celtic tradition worthily. He has contributed one hero who awaits equal comrades, if indeed the tales of the Red Branch do not absorb the thoughts of many imaginative writers, and Cuculain remain the typical hero of the Gael, becoming to every boy who reads the story a revelation of what his own spirit is.
I know John Eglinton, one of our most thoughtful writers, our first cosmopolitan, thinks that "these ancient legends refuse to be taken out of their old environment." But I believe that the tales which have been preserved for a hundred generations in the heart of the people must have had their power, because they had in them a core of eternal truth. Truth is not a thing of today or tomorrow. Beauty, heroism, and spirituality do not change like fashion, being the reflection of an unchanging spirit. The face of faces which looks at us through so many shifting shadows has never altered the form of its perfection since the face of man, made after its image, first looked back on its original:
For these red lips, with all their mournful pride, Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam, And Usna's children died.
These dreams, antiquities, traditions, once actual, living, and historical, have passed from the world of sense into the world of memory and thought: and time, it seems to me, has not taken away from their power, nor made them more remote from sympathy, but has rather purified them by removing them from earth to heaven: from things which the eye can see and the ear can hear they have become what the heart ponders over, and are so much nearer, more familiar, more suitable for literary use than the day they were begotten. They have now the character of symbol, and, as symbol, are more potent than history. They have crept through veil after veil of the manifold nature of man; and now each dream, heroism, or beauty has laid itself nigh the divine power it represents, the suggestion of which made it first beloved: and they are ready for the use of the spirit, a speech of which every word has a significance beyond itself, and Deirdre is, like Helen, a symbol of eternal beauty; and Cuculain represents as much as Prometheus the heroic spirit, the redeemer in man.
In so far as these ancient traditions live in the memory of man, they are contemporary to us as much as electrical science: for the images which time brings now to our senses, before they can be used in literature, have to enter into exactly the same world of human imagination as the Celtic traditions live in. And their fitness for literary use is not there determined by their freshness but by their power of suggestion. Modern literature, where it is really literature and not book-making, grows more subjective year after year, and the mind has a wider range over time than the physical nature has. Many things live in it—empires which have never crumbled, beauty which has never perished, love whose fires have never waned: and, in this formidable competition for use in the artist's mind, today stands only its chance with a thousand days. To question the historical accuracy of the use of such memories is not a matter which can be rightly raised. The question is—do they express lofty things to the soul? If they do they have justified themselves.
I have written at some length on the two paths which lie before us, for we have arrived at a parting of ways. One path leads, and has already led many Irishmen, to obliterate all nationality from their work. The other path winds upward to a mountain-top of our own, which may be in the future the Mecca to which many worshippers will turn. To remain where we are as a people, indifferent to literature, to art, to ideas, wasting the precious gift of public spirit we possess so abundantly in the sordid political rivalries, without practical or ideal ends, is to justify those who have chosen the other path, and followed another star than ours. I do not wish any one to infer from this a contempt for those who, for the last hundred years, have guided public opinion in Ireland. If they failed in one respect, it was out of a passionate sympathy for wrongs of which many are memories, thanks to them, and to them is due the creation of a force which may be turned in other directions, not without a memory of those pale sleepers to whom we may turn in thought, placing—
A kiss of fire on the dim brow of failure, A crown upon her uncrowned head.
In this age we read so much that we lay too great a burden on the imagination. It is unable to create images which are the spiritual equivalent of the words on the printed page, and reading becomes for too many an occupation of the eye rather than of the mind. How rarely, out of the multitude of volumes a man reads in his lifetime, can he remember where or when he read any particular book, or with any vividness recall the mood it evoked in him. When I close my eyes, and brood in memory over the books which most profoundly affected me, I find none excited my imagination more than Standish O'Grady's epical narrative of Cuculain. Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass: "Camerado, this is no book. Who touches this touches a man," and O'Grady might have boasted of his Bardic History of Ireland, written with his whole being, that there was more than a man in it, there was the soul of a people, its noblest and most exalted life symbolized in the story of one heroic character.
With reference to Ireland, I was at the time I read like many others who were bereaved of the history of their race. I was as a man who, through some accident, had lost memory of his past, Who could recall no more than a few months of new life, and could not say to what songs his cradle had been rocked, what mother had nursed him, who were the playmates of childhood, or by what woods and streams he had wandered. When I read O'Grady I was as such a man who suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him, and knows he was born in a royal house, that he had mixed with the mighty of heaven and earth and had the very noblest for his companions. It was the memory of race which rose up within me as I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children of kings. That is what O'Grady did for me and for others who were my contemporaries, and I welcome the reprints, of his tales in the hope that he will go on magically recreating for generations yet unborn the ancestral life of their race in Ireland. For many centuries the youth of Ireland as it grew up was made aware of the life of bygone ages, and there were always some who remade themselves in the heroic mould before they passed on. The sentiment engendered by the Gaelic literature was an arcane presence, though unconscious of itself, in those who for the past hundred years had learned another speech. In O'Grady's writings the submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent, and I realized as I bathed in that stream, that the greatest spiritual evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the story of the national soul. For not all music can be played upon any instrument, and human nature for most of us is like a harp on which can be rendered the music written for the harp but nor that written for the violin. The harp strings quiver for the harp-player alone, and he who can utter his passion through the violin is silent before an unfamiliar instrument. That is why the Irish have rarely been deeply stirred by English literature, though it is one of the great literatures of the world. Our history was different and the evolutionary product was a peculiarity of character, and the strings of our being vibrate most in ecstasy when the music evokes ancestral moods or embodies emotions akin to these. I am not going to argue the comparative worth of the Gaelic and English tradition. All that I can say is that the traditions of our own country move us more than the traditions of any other. Even if there was not essential greatness in them we would love them for the same reasons which bring back so many exiles to revisit the haunts of childhood. But there was essential greatness in that neglected bardic literature which O'Grady was the first to reveal in a noble manner. He had the spirit of an ancient epic poet. He is a comrade of Homer, his birth delayed in time perhaps that he might renew for a sophisticated people the elemental simplicity and hardihood men had when the world was young and manhood was prized more than any of its parts, more than thought or beauty or feeling. He has created for us, or rediscovered, one figure which looms in the imagination as a high comrade of Hector, Achilles, Ulysses, Rama or Yudisthira, as great in spirit as any. Who could extol enough his Cuculain, that incarnation of Gaelic chivalry, the fire and gentleness, the beauty and heroic ardour or the imaginative splendor of the episodes in his retelling of the ancient story. There are writers who bewitch you by a magical use of words whose lines glitter like jewels, whose effects are gained by an elaborate art and who deal with the subtlest emotions. Others again are simple as an Egyptian image, and yet are more impressive, and you remember them less for the sentence than for a grandiose effect. They are not so much concerned with the art of words as with the creation of great images informed with magnificence of spirit. They are not lesser artists but greater, for there is a greater art in the simplification of form in the statue of Memnon than there is in the intricate detail of a bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Standish O'Grady had in his best moments that epic wholeness and simplicity, and the figure of Cuculain amid his companions of the Red Branch which he discovered and refashioned for us is, I think, the greatest spiritual gift any Irishman for centuries has given to Ireland.
I know it will be said that this is a scientific age, the world is so full of necessitous life that it is waste of time for young Ireland to brood upon tales of legendary heroes, who fought with enchanters, who harnessed wild fairy horses to magic chariots and who talked with the ancient gods, and that it would be much better for youth to be scientific and practical. Do not believe it, dear Irish boy, dear Irish girl, I know as well as any the economic needs of our people. They must not be overlooked, but keep still in your hearts some desires which might enter Paradise. Keep in your souls some images of magnificence so that hereafter the halls of heaven and the divine folk may not seem altogether alien to the spirit. These legends have passed the test of generations for century after century, and they were treasured and passed on to those who followed, and that was because there was something in them akin to the immortal spirit. Humanity cannot carry with it through time the memory of all its deeds and imaginations, and it burdens itself only in a new era with what was highest among the imaginations of the ancestors. What is essentially noble is never out of date. The figures carved by Pheidias for the Parthenon still shine by the side of the greatest modern sculpture. There has been no evolution of the human form to a greater beauty than the ancient Greek saw, and the forms they carved are not strange to us, and if this is true of the outward form it is true of the indwelling spirit. What is essentially noble is contemporary with all that is splendid today, and until the mass of men are equal in spirit the great figures of the past will affect us less as memories than as prophecies of the Golden Age to which youth is ever hurrying in its heart.
O'Grady in his stories of the Red Branch rescued from the past what was contemporary to the best in us today, and he was equal in his gifts as a writer to the greatest of his bardic predecessors in Ireland. His sentences are charged with a heroic energy, and, when he is telling a great tale, their rise and fall is like the flashing and falling of the bright sword of some great battle, or like the onset and withdrawal of Atlantic surges. He can at need be beautifully tender and quiet. Who that has read his tale of the young Finn and the Seven Ancients will forget the weeping of Finn over the kindness of the famine-stricken old men, and their wonder at his weeping, and the self-forgetful pathos of their meditation unconscious that it was their own sacrifice called forth the tears of Finn. "Youth," they said, "has many sorrows that cold age cannot comprehend."
There are critics repelled by the abounding energy in O'Grady's sentences. It is easy to point to faults due to excess and abundance, but how rare in literature is that heroic energy and power. There is something arcane and elemental in it, a quality that the most careful stylist cannot attain, however he uses the file, however subtle he is. O'Grady has noticed this power in the ancient bards and we find it in his own writing. It ran all through the Bardic History, the Critical and Philosophical History, and through the political books, The Tory Democracy and All Ireland. There is this imaginative energy in the tale of Cuculain, in all its episodes, the slaying of the hound, the capture of the Liath Macha, the hunting of the enchanted deer, the capture of the Wild swans, the fight at the ford, and the awakening of the Red Branch. In the later tale of Red Hugh which, he calls The Flight of the Eagle there is the same quality of power joined with a shining simplicity in the narrative which rises into a poetic ecstasy in that wonderful chapter where Red Hugh, escaping from the Pale, rides through the Mountain Gates of Ulster and sees high above him Sheve Gullion, a mountain of the Gods, the birth-place of legend "more mythic than Avernus"; and O'Grady evokes for us and his hero the legendary past and the great hill seems to be like Mount Sinai, thronged with immortals, and it lives and speaks to the fugitive boy, "the last great secular champion of the Gael," and inspires him for the fulfillment of his destiny. We might say of Red Hugh, and indeed of all O'Grady's heroes, that they are the spiritual progeny of Cuculain. From Red Hugh down to the boys who have such enchanting adventures in Lost on Du Corrig and The Chain of Gold they have all a natural and hardy purity of mind, a beautiful simplicity of character, and one can imagine them all in an hour of need, being faithful to any trust like the darling of the Red Branch. These shining lads never grew up amid books. They are as much children of nature as the Lucy of Wordsworth's poetry. It might be said of them as the poet of the Kalevala sang of himself: "Winds and waters my instructors."
These were O'Grady's own earliest companions, and no man can find better comrades than earth, water, air and sun. I imagine O'Grady's own youth was not so very different from the youth of Red Hugh before his captivity; that he lived on the wild and rocky western coast, that he rowed in coracles, explored the caves, spoke much with hardy natural people, fishermen and workers on the land, primitive folk, simple in speech but with that fundamental depth men have who are much in nature in companionship with the elements, the elder brothers of humanity. It must have been out of such a boyhood and such intimacies with natural and unsophisticated people that there came to him the understanding of the heroes of the Red Branch. How pallid, beside the ruddy chivalry who pass, huge and fleet and bright, through O'Grady's pages, appear Tennyson's bloodless Knights of the Round Table, fabricated in the study to be read in the drawing room, as anemic as Burne Jones' lifeless men in armour. The heroes of ancient Irish legend reincarnated in the mind of a man who could breathe into them the fire of life, caught from sun and wind, their ancient deities, and send them forth to the world to do greater deeds, to act through many men and speak through many voices. What sorcery was in the Irish mind that it has taken so many years to win but a little recognition for this splendid spirit; and that others who came after him, who diluted the pure fiery wine of romance he gave us with literary water, should be as well known or more widely read. For my own, part I can only point back to him and say whatever is Irish in me he kindled to life, and I am humble when I read his epic tale, feeling how much greater a thing it is for the soul of a writer to have been the habitation of a demi-god than to have had the subtlest intellections.
We praise the man who rushes into a burning mansion and brings out its greatest treasure. So ought we to praise this man who rescued from the perishing Gaelic tradition its darling hero and restored him to us, and I think now that Cuculain will not perish, and he will be invisibly present at many a council of youth, and he will be the daring which lifts the will beyond itself and fires it for great causes, and he will be also the courtesy which shall overcome the enemy that nothing else may overcome.
I am sure that Standish O'Grady would rather I should speak of his work and its bearing on the spiritual life of Ireland, than about himself, and, because I think so, in this reverie I have followed no set plan but have let my thoughts run as they will. But I would not have any to think that this man was only a writer, or that he could have had the heroes of the past for spiritual companions, without himself being inspired to fight dragons and wizardry. I have sometimes regretted that contemporary politics drew O'Grady away from the work he began so greatly. I have said to myself he might have given us an Oscar, a Diarmuid or a Caolte, an equal comrade to Cuculain, but he could not, being lit up by the spirit of his hero, he merely the bard and not the fighter, and no man in Ireland intervened in the affairs of his country with a superior nobility of aim. He was the last champion of the Irish aristocracy, and still more the voice of conscience for them, and he spoke to them of their duty to the nation as one might imagine some fearless prophet speaking to a council of degenerate princes. When the aristocracy failed Ireland he bade them farewell, and wrote the epitaph of their class in words whose scorn we almost forget because of their sounding melody and beauty. He turned his mind to the problems of democracy and more especially of those workers who are trapped in the city, and he pointed out for them the way of escape and how they might renew life in the green fields close to Earth, their ancient mother and nurse. He used too exalted a language for those to whom he spoke to understand, and it might seem that all these vehement appeals had failed but that we know that what is fine never really fails. When a man is in advance of his age, a generation, unborn when he speaks, is born in due time and finds in him its inspiration. O'Grady may have failed in his appeal to the aristocracy of his own time but he may yet create an aristocracy of character and intellect in Ireland. The political and economic writings will remain to uplift and inspire and to remind us that the man who wrote the stories of heroes had a bravery of his own and a wisdom of his own. I owe so much to Standish O'Grady that I would like to leave it on record that it was he made me conscious and proud of my country, and recalled to my mind, that might have wandered otherwise over too wide and vague a field of thought, to think of the earth under my feet and the children of our common mother. There hangs in the Municipal Gallery of Dublin the portrait of a man with melancholy eyes, and scrawled on the canvas is the subject of his bitter brooding: "'The Lost Land." I hope that O'Grady will find before he goes back to Tir na noge that Ireland has found again through him what seemed lost for ever, the law of its own being, and its memories which go back to the beginning of the world.
THE DRAMATIC TREATMENT OF LEGEND
"The Red Branch ought not to be staged.... That literature ought not to be produced for popular consumption for the edification of the crowd.... I say to you drop this thing at your peril.... You may succeed in degrading Irish ideals, and banishing the soul of the land. ... Leave the heroic cycles alone, and don't bring them down to the crowd..." (Standish O'Grady in All Ireland Review).
Years ago, in the adventurous youth of his mind, Mr. O'Grady found the Gaelic tradition like a neglected antique dun with the doors barred, and there was little or no egress. Listening, he heard from within the hum of an immense chivalry, and he opened the doors and the wild riders went forth to work their will. Now he would recall them. But it is in vain. The wild riders have gone forth, and their labors in the human mind are only beginning. They will do their deeds over again, and now they will act through many men and speak through many voices. The spirit of Cuculain will stand at many a lonely place in the heart, and he will win as of old against multitudes. The children of Turann will start afresh still eager to take up and renew their cyclic labors, and they will gain, not for themselves, the Apples of the Tree of Life, and the Spear of the Will, and the Fleece which is the immortal body. All the heroes and demigods returning will have a wider field than Erin for their deeds, and they will not grow weary warning upon things that die but will be fighters in the spirit against immortal powers, and, as before, the acts will be sometimes noble and sometimes base. They cannot be stayed from their deeds, for they are still in the strength of a youth which is ever renewing itself. Not for all the wrong which may be done should they be restrained. Mr. O'Grady would now have the tales kept from the crowd to be the poetic luxury of a few. Yet would we, for all the martyrs who perished in the fires of the Middle Ages, counsel the placing of the Gospels on the list of books to be read only by a few esoteric worshippers?
The literature which should be unpublished is that which holds the secret of the magical powers. The legends of Ireland are not of this kind. They have no special message to the aristocrat more than to the man of the people. The men who made the literature of Ireland were by no means nobly born, and it was the bards who placed the heroes, each in his rank, and crowned them for after ages, and gave them their famous names. They have placed on the brow of others a crown which belonged to themselves, and all the heroic literature of the world was made by the sacrifice of the nameless kings of men who have given a sceptre to others they never wielded while living, and who bestowed the powers, of beauty and pity on women who perhaps had never uplifted a heart in their day, and who now sway us from the grave with a grace only imagined in the dreaming soul of the poet. Mr. O'Grady has been the bardic champion of the ancient Irish aristocracy. He has thrown on them the sunrise colors of his own brilliant spirit, and now would restrain others from the use of their names lest a new kingship should be established over them, and another law than that of his own will, lest the poets of the democracy looking back on the heroes of the past should overcome them with the ideas of a later day, and the Atticottic nature find a loftier spirit in those who felt the unendurable pride of the Fianna and rose against it. Well, it is only natural he should try to protect the children of his thought, but they need no later word from him. If writers of a less noble mind than his deal with these things they will not rob his heroes of a single power to uplift or inspire. In Greece, after Eschylus and his stupendous deities, came Sophocles, who restrained them with a calm wisdom, and Euripides, who made them human, but still the mysterious Orphic deities remain and stir us when reading the earlier page. Mr. O'Grady would not have the Red Branch cycle cast in dramatic form or given to the people. They are too great to be staged; and he quotes, mistaking the gigantic for the heroic, a story of Cuculain reeling round Ireland on his fairy steed the Liath Macha. This may be phantasy or extravagance, but it is not heroism. Cuculain is often heroic, but it is a quality of the soul and not of the body; it is shown by his tears over Ferdiad, in his gentleness to women. A more grandiose and heroic figure than Cuculain was seen on the Athenian stage; and no one will say that the Titan Prometheus, chained on the rock in his age-long suffering for men, is not a nobler figure than Cuculain in any aspect in which he appears to us in the tales. Divine traditions, the like of which were listened to with awe by the Athenians, should not be too lofty for our Christian people, whose morals Mr. O'Grady, here hardly candid, professes to be anxious about. What is great in literature is a greatness springing out of the human heart. Though we fall short today of the bodily stature of the giants of the prime, the spirit still remains and can express an equal greatness. I can well understand how a man of our own day, by the enlargement of his spirit, and the passion and sincerity of his speech, could express the greatness of the past. The drama in its mystical beginning was the vehicle through which divine ideas, which are beyond the sphere even of heroic life and passion, were expressed; and if the later Irish writers fail of such greatness, it is not for that reason that the soul of Ireland will depart. I can hardly believe Mr. O'Grady to be serious when he fears that many forbidden subjects will be themes for dramatic art, that Maeve with her many husbands will walk the stage, and the lusts of an earlier age be revived to please the lusts of today. The danger of art is not in its subjects, but in the attitude of the artist's mind. The nobler influences of art arise, not because heroes are the theme, but because of noble treatment and the intuition which perceives the inflexible working out of great moral laws.
The abysses of human nature may well be sounded if the plummet be dropped by a spirit from the heights. The lust which leads on to death may be a terrible thing to contemplate, but in the event there is consolation; and the eye of faith can see even in the very exultation of corruption how God the Regenerator is working His will, leading man onward to his destiny of inevitable beauty. Mr. O'Grady in his youth had the epic imagination, and I think few people realize how great and heroic that inspiration was; but the net that is spread for Leviathan will not capture all the creatures of the deep, and neither epic nor romance will manifest fully the power of the mythical ancestors of the modern Gael who now seek incarnation anew in the minds of their children. Men too often forget, in this age of printed books, that literature is, after all, only an ineffectual record of speech. The literary man has gone into strange byways through long contemplation of books, and he writes with elaboration what could never be spoken, and he loses that power of the bards on whom tongues of fire had descended, who were masters of the magic of utterance, whose thoughts were not meant to be silently absorbed from the lifeless page. For there never can be, while man lives in a body, a greater means of expression for him than the voice of man affords, and no instrument of music will ever rival in power the flowing of the music of the spheres through his lips. In all its tones, from the chanting of the magi which compelled the elements, to those gentle voices which guide the dying into peace, there is a power which will never be stricken from tympan or harp, for in all speech there is life, and with the greatest speech the deep tones of another Voice may mingle. Has not the Lord spoken through His prophets? And man, when he has returned to himself, and to the knowledge of himself, may find a greater power in his voice than those which he has painfully harnessed to perform his will, in steamship or railway. It is through drama alone that the writer can summon, even if vicariously, so great a power to his aid; and it is possible we yet may hear on the stage, not merely the mimicry of human speech, but the old forgotten music which was heard in the duns of great warriors to bow low their faces in their hands. Dear O'Grady, if we do not succeed it is not for you to blame us, for our aims are at least as high as your own.
THE CHARACTER OF HEROIC LITERATURE
Lady Gregory, a fairy godmother, has given to Young Ireland the gift of her Cuchulain of Muirthemne, which should be henceforward the book of its dream. I do not doubt but there will be a great change in the next generation, for the character of many children will have grown to maturity brooding over the memories of heroes who were themselves half children, half demigods. Though the hero tales will have their greatest power over the young, no one mind could measure their depth. They seem simple and primitive, yet they draw us strangely aside from life, and the emotions they awaken are not simple but complex. Here are twenty tales, and they are so alike in imaginative character that they seem all to have poured from one mind; and to these twenty we could add a hundred others, all endlessly fertile in difference of incident, but all seeming to own the same imaginative creator. It was so for many centuries, and then the maker of the song seems to have grown weary, and distinct voices not overladen with the tradition of the ages were heard; and today every one wanders in a path of his own, finding or losing the way, the truth, and the life of art in the free play of his desires. There was something more to cause this later period of diverse utterance than the interruption of other races and the claims of the world upon us. Surely the ancient Egyptian met in Memphis or Thebes as many strangers as we did, but he wept on through many dynasties carving the same face of mystery and rarely altering the peculiar forms which were his inheritance from the craftsmen of a thousand years before. It was not the introduction of something new, but the loss of something which finally vexed the calm of the Sphinx and marred the Phidian beauty which in Greece was a long dream for many generations. It was not because the Dane or Norman came and dwelt among us that the signature of the Sidhe was withdrawn from the Gaelic mind. I do not know how to express this loss otherwise than by saying we appear to have fallen away from our archetype. We find in all the early stories the presence of one being who may be the genius of our land if that old idea of race divinities be a true one. A strange similitude unites all the characters. We infer an interior identity. The same spirit flashes out in hostile clans, and then Cuculain kisses Ferdiad. They all confidently appeal to; it in each other. Maeve flying after the great battle can ask a gift from her conqueror and obtains it. Fand and Emer dispute who shall make the last sacrifice of love and give the beloved to a rival. The conflicts seem half in play or in dream, and we do not know when an awakening of love will disarm the foes. In spite of the bloodshed the heroes seem like children who fight steadily through a mock battle, but the night will see these children at peace, and they will dream with arms around each other in the same cot. No literature ever had a more beautiful heart of childhood in it. The bards could hate no one consistently. If they took away the heroic chivalry from Conchobar in one tale they restored it to him in another. They have the confident trust—and expectation of goodness that children have, who may have suffered punishment, but who come later on and smile on the chastiser. It is this quality which gives the tales their extraordinary charm. I know no other literature which has it to the same degree. I do not like to speculate on the absence of this spirit in our later literature, which was written under other influences. It cannot be because there was a less spiritual life in the apostles than in the bards. We cannot compare Cuculain, the most complete ideal of Gaelic chivalry, with that supreme figure whose coming to the world was the effacement of whole pantheons of divinities, and yet it is true that since the thoughts of men were turned from the old ideals our literature has been filled with a less noble life. I think a due may be found in the withdrawal of thought from nature, the great mother who, is the giver of all life, and without whose life ideals become inoperative and listless dwellers in the heart. The eyes of the ancient Gael were fixed in wonder on the rocks and hills, and the waste places of the earth were piled with phantasmal palaces where the Sidhe sat on their thrones. Everywhere there was life, and as they saw so they felt. To conceive of nature in any way, as beautiful and living, as friendly or hostile, is to receive from her in like measure out of her fullness. With whatever face we approach the mirror a similar face approaches ours. "Let him approach it, saying, 'This is the Mighty,' he becomes mighty," says an ancient scripture, teaching us that as our aspiration is so will be our inspiration and power. Out of this comradeship with earth there came a commingling of natures, and we do not know when we read who are the Sidhe and who are human. The great energies are all in the heroes. They bound to themselves, like the Talkend, the strength of the fire, the brightness of the sun, and the swiftness of the wind. They seem truly the earth-born. The waves respond to their deeds; the elemental creatures respond and there are clashing echoes and allies innumerable, and armies in the air continuing their battles illimitably beyond: a proud race, who felt with bursting heart the heavens were watching them, who defied their gods and exiled them to have free play for their own deeds. A very different humanity indeed from those who have come to walk the earth with humility, who are afraid of heaven and its rulers, and whose dread is the greatest of all sins, for in it is a denial of their own divinity. Surely the sight heroes is more welcome to the King, in whose heaven are sworded seraphim, than the bowed knees and the spirits who make themselves as worms in His sight. In the symbolic expression of our spiritual life the eagle has become a dove brooding peace. Oh, that it might rebecome the eagle and take to the upper airs!
A generosity and greatness of spirit are in the heroes of the Red Branch, and out of their strength grows a bloom of beauty never fully revealed until Lady Gregory compiled these tales. As we read our eyes are dazzled by strange graces of color flowing over the pages: everywhere there is mystery and magnificence. Procession's pass by in Druid ritual, kings and queens, and harpers who look like kings. When the wind passes over them and stirs their garments a sweetness comes over the teller of the tale, who felt that delight in draperies blown over shapely forms which is the inspiration of the Winged Victory and many Greek marbles. The bards will not have the hands of those proud people touch anything which is not beautiful. "It was a beautiful chessboard they had, all of white bronze, and the chessmen of gold and silver, and a candlestick of precious stones lighting it." The wasting of time has spared us a few things to show that this rare and intricate metal work was not a myth, and we are forced by an inexorable logic to accept as mainly true the narration of the pride, the beauty, the generosity, and the large lovable character of the ancient heroes. We may come to realize that, losing their Druid vision of a more shining world mingling with this, we have lost the vision of that life into the likeness of which it is the true labor of the spirit to transform this life. For the Tirnanoge is that Garden where, in the mind of the Lord, the flowers and trees blossomed before they grew in the fields, where man lived in the Golden Age before the outer darkness of the earth was built and he was outcast from Paradise. There is no true art or literature which has not some image of the Golden Life lurking within it, and through the archaic rudeness of these legends the light shines as sunlight through the hoary branches of ancient oaks. Lady Gregory has done her work, as compiler with a judgment which could hardly be too much praised, and she has translated the stories into an idiom which is a reflection of the original Gaelic and is full of charm. We are indebted to her for this labor as much as to any of those who sang to sweeten Ireland's wrong.
A POET OF SHADOWS
When I was asked to write "anything" about Yeats, our Irish poet, my thoughts were like rambling flocks that have no shepherd, and without guidance my rambling thoughts have run anywhere.
I confess I have feared to enter or linger too long in the many-colored land of Druid twilights and tunes. A beauty not our own, more perfect than we can ourselves conceive, is a danger to the imagination. I am too often tempted to wander with Usheen in Timanoge and to forget my own heart and its more rarely accorded vision of truth. I know I like my own heart best, but I never look into the world of my friend without feeling that my region lies in the temperate zone and is near the Arctic circle; the flowers grow more rarely and are paler, and the struggle for existence is keener. Southward and in the warm west are the Happy Isles among the Shadowy Waters. The pearly phantoms are dancing there with blown hair amid cloud tail daffodils. They have known nothing but beauty, or at the most a beautiful unhappiness. Everything there moves in procession or according to ritual, and the agony of grief, it is felt, must be concealed. There are no faces blurred with tears there; some traditional gesture signifying sorrow is all that is allowed. I have looked with longing eyes into this world. It is Ildathach, the Many-Colored Land, but not the Land of the Living Heart. That island where the multitudinous beatings of many hearts became one is yet unvisited; but the isle of our poet is the more beautiful of all the isles the mystic voyagers have found during the thousands of years literature has recorded in Ireland. What wonder that many wish to follow him, and already other voices are singing amid its twilights.
They will make and unmake. They will discover new wonders; and will perhaps make commonplace some beauty which but for repetition would have seemed rare. I would that no one but the first discoverer should enter Ildathach, or at least report of it. No voyage to the new world, however memorable, will hold us like the voyage of Columbus. I sigh sometimes thinking on the light dominion dreams have over the heart. We cannot hold a dream for long, and that early joy of the poet in his new-found world has passed. It has seemed to him too luxuriant. He seeks for something more, and has tried to make its tropical tangle orthodox; and the glimmering waters and winds are no longer beautiful natural presences, but have become symbolic voices and preach obscurely some doctrine of their power to quench the light in the soul or to fan it to a brighter flame.
I like their old voiceless motion and their natural wandering best, and would rather roam in the bee-loud glade than under the boughs of beryl and chrysoberyl, where I am put to school to learn the significance of every jewel. I like that natural infinity which a prodigal beauty suggests more than that revealed in esoteric hieroglyphs, even though the writing be in precious stones. Sometimes I wonder whether that insatiable desire of the mind for something more than it has yet attained, which blows the perfume from every flower, and plucks the flower from every tree, and hews down every tree in the valley until it goes forth gnawing itself in a last hunger, does not threaten all the cloudy turrets of the Poet's soul. But whatever end or transformation, or unveiling may happen, that which creates beauty must have beauty in its essence, and the soul must cast off many vestures before it comes to itself. We, all of us, poets, artists, and musicians, who work in shadows, must sometime begin to work in substance, and why should we grieve if one labor ends and another begins? I am interested more in life than in the shadows of life, and as Ildathach grows fainter I await eagerly the revelation of the real nature of one who has built so many mansions in the heavens. The poet has concealed himself under the embroidered cloths and has moved in secretness, and only at rare times, as when he says, "A pity beyond all telling is hid in the heart of love," do we find a love which is not the love of the Sidhe; and more rarely still do recognizable human figures, like the Old Pensioner or Moll Magee, meet us. All the rest are from another world and are survivals of the proud and golden races who move with the old stateliness and an added sorrow for the dark age which breaks in upon their loveliness. They do not war upon the new age, but build up about themselves in imagination the ancient beauty, and love with a love a little colored by the passion of the darkness from which they could not escape. They are the sole inheritors of many traditions, and have now come to the end of the ways, and so are unhappy. We know why they are unhappy, but not the cause of a strange merriment which sometimes they feel, unless it be that beauty within itself has a joy in its own rhythmic being. They are changing, too, as the winds and waters have changed. They are not like Usheen, seekers and romantic wanderers, but have each found some mood in themselves where all quest ceases; they utter oracles, and even in the swaying of a hand or the dropping of hair there is less suggestion of individual action than of a divinity living within them, shaping an elaborate beauty in dream for his own delight, and for no other end than the delight in his dream. Other poets have written of Wisdom overshadowing man and speaking through his lips, or a Will working within the human will, but I think in this poetry we find for the first time the revelation of the Spirit as the weaver of beauty. Hence it comes that little hitherto unnoticed motions are adored:
You need but lift a pearl-pale hand, And bind up your long hair and sigh; And all men's hearts must burn and beat.
This woman is less the beloved than the priestess of beauty who reveals the divinity, not as the inspired prophetesses filled with the Holy Breath did in the ancient mysteries, but in casual gestures and in a waving of her white arms, in the stillness of her eyes, in her hair which trembles like a faery flood of unloosed shadowy light over pale breasts, and in many glimmering motions so beautiful that it is at once seen whose footfall it is we hear, and that the place where she stands is holy ground. This, it seems to me, is what is essential in this poetry, what is peculiar and individual in it—the revelation of great mysteries in unnoticed things; and as not a sparrow may fall unconsidered by Him, so even in the swaying of a human hand His sceptre may have dominion over the heart and His paradise be entered in the lifting of an eyelid.
THE BOYHOOD OF A POET
When I was a boy I knew another who has since become famous and who has now written Reveries over Childhood and Youth. I searched the pages to meet the boy I knew and could not find him. He has told us what he saw and what he remembered of others, but from himself he seems to have passed away and remembers himself not. The boy I knew was darkly beautiful to look on, fiery yet playful and full of lovely and elfin fancies. He was swift of response, indeed over-generous to the fancies of others because a nature so charged with beauty could not but emit beauty at every challenge. Even so water, however ugly the object we cast upon it, can but break out in a foam of beauty and a bewilderment of lovely curves.
Our fancies were in reality nothing to him but the affinities which by the slightest similitude evoked out of the infinitely richer being the prodigality of beautiful images with which it was endowed and made itself conscious of itself. I have often thought how strange it is that artist and poet have never yet revealed themselves to us except in verse and painting, that there was among them no psychologist who could turn back upon himself to search for the law of his own being, who could tell us how his brain first became illuminated with images, and who tried to track the inspiration to its secret fount and the images to their ancestral beauty. Few of the psychologists who have written about imagination were endowed with it themselves: and here is a poet, the most imaginative of his generation, who has written about his youth and has told us only about external circumstances and nothing about himself, nothing about that flowering of strange beauty in poetry in him where the Gaelic imagination that had sunk underground when the Gaelic speech had died, rose up again transfiguring an alien language until that new poetry became like the record of another mystic voyager to the Heaven-world of our ancestors. But poet and artist are rarely self-conscious of the processes of their own minds. They deliver their message with exultation but they find nothing worth recording in the descent upon them of the fiery tongues. So our poet has told us little about himself but much about circumstance, and I recall in his pages the Dublin of thirty years ago, and note how faithful the memory of eye and ear are, and how forgetful the heart is of its own fancies. Is nature behind this distaste for intimate self-analysis in the poet? Are our own emanations poisonous to us if we do not rapidly clear ourselves of them? Is it best to forget ourselves and hurry away once the deed is done or the end is attained to some remoter valley in the Golden World and look for a new beauty if we would continue to create beauty?
I know how readily our poet forgets his own songs. I once quoted to him some early verses of his own as comment on something he had said. He asked eagerly "Who wrote that?" and when I said "Do you not remember?" he petulantly waved the poem aside for he had forsaken his past. Again at a later period he told me his early verses sometimes aroused him to a frenzy of dislike. Of the feelings which beset the young poet of genius little or nothing is revealed in this Reverie. Yet what would we not give for a book which would tell how beauty beset that youth in his walks about Dublin and Sligo; how the sensitive response to color, form, music and tradition began, how he came to recognize the moods which incarnated in him as immortal moods. Perhaps it is too much to expect from the creative imagination that it shall also be capable of exact and subtle analysis. In this work I walk down the streets of Dublin I walked with Yeats over thirty years ago. I mix with the people who then were living in the city, O'Leary, Taylor, Dowden, Hughes and the rest; but the poet himself does not walk with me. It is a new voice speaking of the past of others, pointing out the doorways entered by dead youth. The new voice has distinction and dignity of its own, and we are grateful for this history, others more so than myself, because most of what is written therein I knew already, and I wanted a secret which is not revealed. I wanted to know more about the working of the imagination which planted the little snow-white feet in the sally garden, and which heard the kettle on the hob sing peace into the breast, and was intimate with twilight and the creatures that move in the dusk and undergrowths, with weasel, heron, rabbit, hare, mouse and coney; which plucked the Flower of Immortality in the Island of Statues and wandered with Usheen in Timanogue. I wanted to know what all that magic-making meant to the magician, but he has kept his own secret, and I must be content and grateful to one who has revealed more of beauty than any other in his time.
THE POETRY OF JAMES STEPHENS
For a generation the Irish bards have endeavored to live in a palace of art, in chambers hung with the embroidered cloths and made dim with pale lights and Druid twilights, and the melodies they most sought for were half soundless. The art of an early age began softly, to end its songs with a rhetorical blare of sound. The melodies of the new school began close to the ear and died away in distances of the soul. Even as the prophet of old was warned to take off his shoes because the place he stood on was holy ground, so it seemed for a while in Ireland as if no poet could be accepted unless he left outside the demesnes of poetry that very useful animal, the body, and lost all concern about its habits. He could not enter unless he moved with the light and dreamy foot-fall of spirit. Mr. Yeats was the chief of this eclectic school, and his poetry at its best is the most beautiful in Irish literature. But there crowded after him a whole horde of verse-writers, who seized the most obvious symbols he used and standardized them, and in their writings one wandered about, gasping for fresh air land sunlight, for the Celtic soul seemed bound for ever pale lights of fairyland on the north and by the by the darkness of forbidden passion on the south, and on the east by the shadowiness of all things human, and on the west by everything that was infinite, without form, and void.
It was a great relief to me, personally, who had lived in the palace of Irish art for a time, and had even contributed a little to its dimness, to hear outside the walls a few years ago a sturdy voice blaspheming against all the formula, and violating the tenuous atmosphere with its "Insurrections." There are poets who cannot write with half their being, and who must write with their whole being, and they bring their poor relation, the body, with them wherever they go, and are not ashamed of it. They are not at warfare with the spirit, but have a kind of instinct that the clan of human powers ought to cling together as one family. With the best poets of this school, like Shakespeare and Whitman, one rarely can separate body and soul, for we feel the whole man is speaking. With Keats, Shelley, Swinburne, and our own Yeats, one feels that they have all sought shelter from disagreeable actualities in the world of imagination. James Stephens, as he chanted his Insurrections, sang with his whole being. Let no one say I am comparing him with Shakespeare. One may say the blackbird has wings as well as the eagle, without insisting that the bird in the hedgerows is peer of the winged creature beyond the mountain-tops. But how refreshing it was to find somebody who was a poet without a formula, who did not ransack dictionaries for dead words, as Rossetti did to get living speech, whose natural passions declared themselves without the least idea that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, or be thrice refined in the crucible by the careful alchemist before they could appear in the drawing-room. Nature has an art of its own, and the natural emotions in their natural and passionate expression have that kind of picturesque beauty which Marcus Aurelius, tired, perhaps, of the severe orthodoxies of Greek and Roman art, referred to when he spoke of the foam on the jaws of the wild boar and the mane of the lion.
There were evidences of such an art in Insurrections, the first book of James Stephens. In the poem called "Fossils," the girl who flies and the boy who hunts her are followed in flight and pursuit with a swift energy by the poet, and the lines pant and gasp, and the figures flare up and down the pages. The energy created a new form in verse, not an orthodox beauty, which the classic artists would have admitted, but such picturesque beauty as Marcus Aurelius found in the foam on the jaws of the wild boar.
I always want to find the fundamental emotion out of which a poet writes. It is easy to do this with some, with writers like Shelley and Wordsworth, for they talked much of abstract things, and a man never reveals himself so fully as when he does this, when he tries to interpret nature, when he has to fill darkness with light, and chaos with meaning. A man may speak about his own heart and may deceive himself and others, but ask him to fill empty space with significance, and what he projects on that screen will be himself, and you can know him even as hereafter he will be known. When a poet puts his ear to a shell, I know if he listens long enough he will hear his own destiny. I knew after reading "The Shell" that in James Stephens we were going to have no singer of the abstract. There was no human quality or stir in the blind elemental murmur, and the poet drops it with a sigh of relief:
O, it was sweet To hear a cart go jolting down the street.
From the tradition of the world too he breaks away, from the great murmuring shell which gives back to us our cries and questionings and protests soothed into soft, easeful things and smooth orthodox complacencies, for it was shaped by humanity to whisper back to it what it wished to hear. From all soft, easeful beliefs and silken complacencies the last Irish poet breaks away in a book of insurrections. He is doubtful even of love, the greatest orthodoxy of any, which so few have questioned, which has preceded all religions and will survive them all. When he writes of love in "The Red-haired Man's Wife" and "The Rebel" he is not sure that that old intoxication of self-surrender is not a wrong to the soul and a disloyalty to the highest in us. His "Dancer" revolts from the applauding crowd. The wind cries out against the inference that the beauty of nature points inevitably to an equal beauty of spirit within. His enemies revolt against their hate; his old man against his own grumblings, and the poet himself rebels against his own revolt in that quaint scrap of verse he prefixes to the volume:
What's the use Of my abuse? The world will run Around the sun As it has done Since time begun When I have drifted to the deuce: And what's the use Of my abuse?
He does not revolt against the abstract like so many because he is incapable of thinking. Indeed, he is one of the few Irish poets we have who is always thinking as he goes along. He does not rebel against love because he is not himself sweet at heart, for the best thing in the book is its unfeigned humanity. So we have a personal puzzle to solve with this perplexing writer which makes us all the more eager to hear him again. A man might be difficult to understand and the problem of his personality might not be worth solution, but it is not so with James Stephens. From a man who can write with such power as he shows in these two stanzas taken from "The Street behind Yours" we may expect high things. It is a vision seen with distended imagination as if by some child strayed from light:
And though 'tis silent, though no sound Crawls from the darkness thickly spread, Yet darkness brings Grim noiseless things That walk as they were dead, They glide and peer and steal around With stealthy silent tread.
You dare not walk; that awful crew Might speak or laugh as you pass by. Might touch or paw With a formless claw Or leer from a sodden eye, Might whisper awful things they knew, Or wring their hands and cry.
There is nothing more grim and powerful than that in The City of Dreadful Night. It has all the vaporous horror of a Dore grotesque and will bear examination better. But our poet does not as a rule write with such unrelieved gloom. He keeps a stoical cheerfulness, and even when he faces terrible things we feel encouraged to take his hand and go with him, for he is master of his own soul, and you cannot get a whimper out of him. He likes the storm of things, and is out for it. He has a perfect craft in recording wild natural emotions. The verse in this first book has occasional faults, but as a rule the lines move, driven by that inner energy of emotion which will sometimes work more metrical wonders than the most conscious art. The words hiss at you sometimes, as in "The Dancer," and again will melt away with the delicacy of fairy bells as in "The Watcher," or will run like deep river water, as in "The Whisperer," which in some moods I think is the best poem in the book until I read "Fossils" or "What Tomas an Buile said in a Pub." They are too long to print, but I must give myself the pleasure of quoting the beautiful "Slan Leat," with which he concludes the book, bidding us, not farewell, but to accompany him on further adventure:
And now, dear heart, the night is closing in, The lamps are not yet ready, and the gloom Of this sad winter evening, and the din The wind makes in the streets fills all the room. You have listened to my stories—Seumas Beg Has finished the adventures of his youth, And no more hopes to find a buried keg Stuffed to the lid with silver. He, in truth, And all alas! grew up: but he has found The path to truer romance, and with you May easily seek wonders. We are bound Out to the storm of things, and all is new. Give me your hand, so, keeping close to me, Shut tight your eyes, step forward... where are we?
Our new Irish poet declared he was bound "out to the storm of things," and we all waited with interest for his next utterance. Would he wear the red cap as the poet of the social revolution, now long overdue in these islands, or would he sing the Marsellaise of womanhood, emerging in hordes from their underground kitchens to make a still greater revolution? He did neither. He forgot all about the storm of things, and delighted us with his story of Mary, the charwoman's daughter, a tale of Dublin life, so, kindly, so humane, so vivid, so wise, so witty, and so true, that it would not be exaggerating to say that natural humanity in Ireland found its first worthy chronicler in this tale.
We have a second volume of poetry from James Stephens, The Hill of Vision. He has climbed a hill, indeed, but has found cross roads there leading in many directions, and seems to be a little perplexed whether the storm of things was his destiny after all. When one is in a cave there is only one road which leads out, but when one stands in the sunlight there are endless roads. We enjoy his perplexity, for he has seated himself by his cross-roads, and has tried many tunes on his lute, obviously in doubt which sounds sweetest to his own ear. I am not at all in doubt as to what is best, and I hope he will go on like Whitman, carrying "the old delicious burdens, men and women," wherever he goes. For his references to Deity, Plato undoubtedly would have expelled him from his Republic; and justly so, for James Stephens treats his god very much as the African savage treats his fetish. Now it is supplicated, and the next minute the idol is buffeted for an unanswered prayer or a neglected duty, and then a little later our Irish African is crooning sweetly with his idol, arranging its domestic affairs and the marriage of Heaven and Earth. Sometimes our poet essays the pastoral, and in sheer gaiety: flies like any bird under the boughs, and up into the sunlight. There are in his company imps and grotesques, and fauns and satyrs, who come summoned by his piping. Sometimes, as in "Eve," the poem of the mystery of womanhood, he is purely beautiful, but I find myself going back to his men and women; and I hope he will not be angry with me when I say I prefer his tinker drunken to his Deity sober. None of our Irish poets has found God, at least a god any but themselves would not be ashamed to acknowledge. But our poet does know his men and his women. They are not the shadowy, Whistler-like decorative suggestions of humanity made by our poetic dramatists. They have entered like living creatures into his mind, and they break out there in an instant's unforgettable passion or agony, and the wild words fly up to the poet's brain to match their emotion. I do not know whether the verses entitled "The Brute" are poetry, but they have an amazing energy of expression.
But our poet can be beautiful when he wills, and sometimes, too, he has largeness and grandeur of vision and expression. Look at this picture of the earth, seen from mid-heaven:
And so he looked to where the earth, asleep, Rocked with the moon. He saw the whirling sea Swing round the world in surgent energy, Tangling the moonlight in its netted foam, And nearer saw the white and fretted dome Of the ice-capped pole spin back a larded ray To whistling stars, bright as a wizard's day, But these he passed with eyes intently wide, Till closer still the mountains he espied, Squatting tremendous on the broad-backed earth, Each nursing twenty rivers at a birth.
I would like to quote the verses entitled "Shame." Never have I read anywhere such an anguished cowering before Conscience, a mighty creature full of eyes within and without, and pointing fingers and asped tongues, anticipating in secret the blazing condemnation of the world. And there is "Bessie Bobtail," staggering down the streets with her reiterated, inarticulate expression of grief, moving like one of those wretched whom Blake described in a marvelous phrase as "drunken with woe forgotten"; and there is "Satan," where the reconcilement of light and darkness in the twilights of time is perfectly and imaginatively expressed.
The Hill of Vision is a very unequal book. There are many verses full of power, which move with the free easy motion of the literary athlete. Others betray awkwardness, and stumble as if the writer had stepped too suddenly into the sunlight of his power, and was dazed and bewildered. There is some diffusion of his faculties in what I feel are byways of his mind, but the main current of his energies will, I am convinced, urge him on to his inevitable portrayal of humanity. With writers like Synge and Stephens the Celtic imagination is leaving its Timanoges, its Ildathachs, its Many Colored Lands and impersonal moods, and is coming down to earth intent on vigorous life and individual humanity. I can see that there are great tales to be told and great songs to be sung, and I watch the doings of the new-comers with sympathy, all the while feeling I am somewhat remote from their world, for I belong to an earlier day, and listen to these robust songs somewhat as a ghost who hears the cock crow, and knows his hours are over, and he and his tribe must disappear into tradition.
A NOTE ON SEUMAS O'SULLIVAN
As I grow older I get more songless. I am now exiled irrevocably from the Country of the Young, but I hope I can listen without jealousy and even with delight to those who still make music in the enchanted land. I often searched in the "Poet's Corner" of the country papers with a wild surmise that there, amid reports of Boards of Guardians and Rural Councils, some poetic young kinsman may be taking council with the stars, watching more closely the Plough in the furrows of the heavens than the county instructor at his task of making farmers drive the plough straight in the fields. I found many years ago in a country paper a local poet making genuine music. I remember a line:
And hidden rivers were murmuring in the dark.
I went on in the strength of this poem through the desert of country journalism for many years, hoping to find more hidden rivers of song murmuring in the darkness. It was a patient life of unrequited toil, and I have returned to civilization to search publishers' lists for more easily procurable pleasure. A few years ago I mined out of the still darker region of manuscripts some poetic crystals which I thought were valuable, and edited New Songs. Nearly all my young singers have since then taken flight on their own account. Some have volumes in the booksellers and some in the hands of the printers. But there is one shy singer of the group of writers in New Songs who might easily get overlooked because his verse takes little or no thought of the past or present or future of his country: yet the slim book in which is collected Seumas O'Sullivan's verses reveals a true poet, and if he is too shy to claim his country in his verses there is no reason why his country should not claim him, for he is in his way as Irish as any of our singers. He is, as Mr. W. B. Yeats was in his earlier days, the literary successor of those old Gaelic poets who were fastidious in their verse, who loved little in this world but some chance light in it which reminded them of fairyland, or who, if they were in love, loved their mistress less for her own sake than because some turn of her head, or "a foam-pale breast," carried their impetuous imaginations past her beauty into memories of Helen of Troy, Deirdre, or some other symbol of that remote and perfect beauty which, however man desires, he shall embrace only at the end of time. I think the wives or mistresses of these old poets must have been very unhappy, for women wish to be loved for what they know about themselves, and for the tenderness which is in their hearts, and not because some colored twilight invests them with a shadowy beauty not their own, and which they know they can never carry into the light of day. These poets of the transient look and the evanescent light do not help us to live our daily life, but they do something which is as necessary. They educate and refine the spirit so that it shall not come altogether without any understanding of delicate loveliness into the Kingdom of Heaven, or gaze on Timanoge with the crude blank misunderstanding of Cockney tourists staring up at the stupendous dreams pictured on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. These fastidious scorners of every day and its interests are always looking through nature for "the herbs before they were in the field and every flower before it grew," and through women for the Eve who was in the imagination of the Lord before she was embodied, and we all need this refining vision more than we know. It may be asked of us hereafter when we would mount up into the towers of vision, "How can you desire the beauty you have not seen, who have not sought or loved its shadow in the world?" and the Gates of Ivory may not swing open at our knock. This will never be said to Seumas O'Sullivan, who is always waiting on the transient look and the evanescent light to build up out of their remembered beauty the Kingdom of his Heaven:
Round you light tresses, delicate, Wind blown, wander and climb Immortal, transitory.
Earth has no steady beauty as the calm-eyed immortals have, but their image glimmers on the waves of time, and out of what instantly vanishes we can build up something within us which may yet grow into a calm-eyed immortality of loveliness, we becoming gradually what we dream of. I have heard people complain of the frailty of these verses of Seumas O'Sullivan. They want war songs, plough songs, to nerve the soul to fight or the hand to do its work. I will never make that complaint. I will only complain if the strife or the work ever blunt my senses so that I will pass by with an impatient disdain these delicate snatchings at a beauty which is ever fleeting. But I would ask him to remember that life never allures us twice with exactly the same enchantment. Never again will that tress drift like a woven wind made visible out of Paradise; never again will that lifted hand, foam-pale, seem like the springing up of beauty in the world; never a second time will that white brow remind him of the wonderful white towers of the city of the gods. To seek a second inspiration is to receive only a second-rate inspiration, and our poet is a little too fond of lingering in his verse round a few things, a face, the swaying poplars, or sighing reeds which had once piped an alluring music in his ears, and which he longs to hear again. He lives not in too frail a world, but in too narrow a world, and he should adventure out into new worlds in the old quest. He, has become a master of delicate and musical rhythms. I remember reading Seumas O'Sulivan's first manuscripts with mingled pleasure and horror, for his lines often ran anyhow, and scansion seemed to him an unknown art, but I feel humbly now that he can get a subtle quality into his music which I could not hope to acquire. I would like him to catch some new and rare birds with that subtle net of his, and to begin to invent more beauty of his own and to seek for it less. I believe he has got it in him to do well, to do better than he has done if he will now try to use his invention more. The poems with a slight narrative in them, like "The Portent" or the "Saint Anthony," seem to me the most perfect, and it is in this direction, I think, he will succeed best. He wants a story to keep him from beating musical and ineffective wings in the void. I have not said half what I want to say about Seumas O'Sullivan's verses, but I know the world will not listen long to the musings of one verse-writer on another. I only hope this note may send some readers to their bookseller for Seumas O'Sullivan's poems, and that it may help them to study with more understanding a mind that I love.
ART AND LITERATURE
A LECTURE ON THE ART OF G. F. WATTS
After the publication of The Gentle Art of Making Enemies the writer who ventures to speak of art and literature in the same breath needs some courage. Since the death of Whistler, his opinions about the independence of art from the moral ideas with which literature is preoccupied have been generally accepted in the studios. The artist who is praised by a literary man would hardly be human if he was not pleased; but he listens with impatience to any criticism or suggestion about the substance of his art or the form it should take. I had a friend, an artist of genius, and when we were both young we argued together about art on equal terms. It had not then occurred to him that any intelligence I might have displayed in writing verse did not entitle me to an opinion about modeling; but one day I found him reading Mr. Whistler's Ten O'clock. The revolt of art against literature had reached Ireland. After that, while we were still good friends, he made me feel that I was an outsider, and when I ventured to plead for a national character in sculpture, his righteous anger—I might say his ferocity—forced me to talk of something else.
I was not convinced he was right, but years after I began to use the brush a little, and I remember painting a twilight from love of some strange colors and harmonious lines, and when one of my literary friends found that its interest depended on color and form, and that the idea in it could not readily be translated into words, and that it left him wishing that I would illustrate my poems or something that had a meaning, I veered round at once and understood Whistler, and how foolish I was to argue with John Hughes. I joined in the general insurrection of art against the domination of literature. But being a writer and much concerned with abstract ideas, I have never had the comfort and happiness of those who embrace this opinion with their whole being, and when I was asked to lecture, I thought that as I had no Irish Whistler to fear, I might speak of art in relation to these universal ideas which artists hold are for literature and not subject matter for art at all.
I must first say it was not my wish to speak. With a world of noble and immortal forms all about us, it seemed to me as unfitting that words without art or long labor in their making should be advertised as an attraction; that any one should be expected to sit here for an hour to listen to me or another upon a genius which speaks for itself. I was overruled by Mr. Lane. But it is all wrong, this desire to hear and hold opinions about art rather than to be moved by the art itself. I know twenty charlatans who will talk about art, but never lift their eyes to look at the pictures on the wall. I remember an Irish poet speaking about art a whole evening in a room hung round with pictures by Constable, Monet, and others, and he came into that room and went out of it without looking at those pictures. His interest in art was in the holding of opinions about it, and in hearing other opinions, which he could again talk about. I hope I have made some of you feel uncomfortable. This may, perhaps, seem malicious, but it is necessary to release artists from the dogmas of critics who are not artists.
I would not venture to speak here tonight if I thought that anything I said could be laid hold of and be turned into a formula, and used afterwards to torment some unfortunate artist. An artist will take with readiness advice or criticism from a fellow-artist, so far as his natural vanity permits; but he writhes under opinions derived from Ruskin or Tolstoi, the great theorists. You may ask indignantly, Can no one, then, speak about paintings or statues except painters or modelers? No; no one would condemn you to such painful silence and self-suppression. Artists would wish you to talk unceasingly about the emotions their pain of making pictures arouse in you; but, under lifelong enemies, do not suggest to artists the theories under which they should paint. That is hitting below the belt. The poor artist is as God made him; and no one, not even a Tolstoi, is competent to undertake his re-creation. His fellow-artists will pass on to him the tradition of using the brush. He may use it well or ill; but when you ask him to use his art to illustrate literary ideas, or ethical ideas, you are asking him to become a literary man or a preacher. The other arts have their obvious limitations. The literary man does not dare to demand of the musician that he shall be scientific or moral. The latter is safe in uttering every kind of profanity in sound so long as it is music. Musicians have their art to themselves. But the artist is tormented, and asked to reflect the thought of his time. Beauty is primarily what he is concerned with; and the only moral ideas which he can impart in a satisfactory way are the moral ideas naturally associated with beauty in its higher or lower forms. But I think, some of you are confuting me in your own minds at this moment. You say to yourselves: "But we have all about us the works of great artists whose inspiration not one will deny. He used his art to express great ethical ideas. He spoke again and again about these ideas. He was proud that his art was dedicated to their expression." I am sorry to say that he did say many things which would have endeared him to Tolstoi and Ruskin, and for which I respect him as a man, and which as an artist I deplore. I deplore his speaking of ethical ideas as the inspiration of his art, because I think they were only the inspiration of his life; and where he is weakest in his appeal as an artist is where he summons consciously to his aid ethical ideas which find their proper expression in religion or literature or life.
Watts wished to ennoble art by summoning to its aid the highest conceptions of literature; but in doing so he seems to me to imply that art needed such conceptions for its justification, that the pure artist mind, careless of these ideas, and only careful to make for itself a beautiful vision of things, was in a lower plane, and had a less spiritual message. Now that I deny. I deny absolutely that art needs to call to its aid, in order to justify or ennoble it, any abstract ideas about love or justice or mercy.
It may express none of these ideas, and yet express truths of its own as high and as essential to the being of man; and it is in spite of himself, in spite of his theories, that the work of Watts will have an enduring place in the history of art. You will ask then, "Can art express no moral ideas? Is it unmoral?" In the definite and restricted sense in which the words "ethical" and "moral" are generally used, art is, and must by its nature be unmoral. I do not mean "immoral," and let no one represent me as saying art must be immoral by its very nature. There are dear newspaper men to whom it would be a delight to attribute to me such a saying; and never to let me forget that I said it. When I say that art is essentially unmoral, I mean that the first impulse to paint comes from something seen, either beauty of color or form or tone. It may be light which attracts the artist, or it may be some dimming of natural forms, until they seem to have more of the loveliness of mind than of nature. But it is the aesthetic, not the moral or ethical, nature which is stirred. The picture may afterwards be called "Charity," or "Faith," or "Hope"—and any of these words may make an apt title. But what looms up before the vision of the artist first of all is an image, and that is accepted on account of its fitness for a picture; and an image which was not pictorial would be rejected at once by any true artist, whether it was an illustration of the noblest moral conception or not. Whether a picture is moral or immoral will depend upon the character of the artist, and not upon the subject. A man will communicate his character in everything he touches. He cannot escape communicating it. He must be content with that silent witness, and not try to let the virtues shout out from his pictures. The fact is, art is essentially a spiritual thing, and its vision is perpetually turned to Ultimates. It is indefinable as spirit is. It perceives in life and nature those indefinable relations of one thing to another which to the religious thinker suggest a master mind in nature—a magician of the beautiful at work from hour to hour, from moment to moment, in a never-ceasing and solemn chariot motion in the heavens, in the perpetual and marvelous breathing forth of winds, in the motion of waters, and in the unending evolution of gay and delicate forms of leaf and wing.
The artist may be no philosopher, no mystic; he may be with or without a moral sense, he may not believe in more than his eye can see; but in so far as he can shape clay into beautiful and moving forms he is imitating Deity; when his eye has caught with delight some subtle relation between color and color there is mysticism in his vision. I am not concerned here to prove that there is a spirit in nature or humanity; but for those who ask from art a serious message, here, I say, is a way of receiving from art an inspiration the most profound that man can receive. When you ask from the artist that he should teach you, be careful that you are not asking him to be obvious, to utter platitudes—that you are not asking him to debase his art to make things easy for you, who are too indolent to climb to the mountain, but want it brought to your feet. There are people who pass by a nocturne by Whistler, a misty twilight by Corot, and who whisper solemnly before a Noel Paton as if they were in a Cathedral. Is God, then, only present when His Name is uttered? When we call a figure Time or Death, does it add dignity to it? What is the real inspiration we derive from that noble design by Mr. Watts? Not the comprehension of Time, not the nature of Death, but a revelation human form can express of the heroic dignity. Is it not more to us to know that man or woman can look half-divine, that they can wear an aspect such as we imagine belongs to the immortals, and to feel that if man is made in the image of his Creator, his Creator is the archetype of no ignoble thing? There were immortal powers in Watts' mind when those figures surged up in it; but they were neither Time nor Death. He was rather near to his own archetype, and in that mood in which Emerson was when he said, "I the imperfect adore my own perfect." Touch by touch, as the picture was built up, he was becoming conscious of some interior majesty in his own nature, and it was for himself more than for us he worked. "The oration is to the orator," says Whitman, "and comes most back to him." The artist, too, as he creates a beautiful form outside himself, creates within himself, or admits to his being a nobler beauty than his eyes have seen. His inspiration is spiritual in its origin, and there is always in it some strange story of the glory of the King.
With man and his work we must take either a spiritual or a material point of view. All half-way beliefs are temporary and illogical. I prefer the spiritual with its admission of incalculable mystery and romance in nature, where we find the infinite folded in the atom, and feel how in the unconscious result and labor of man's hand the Eternal is working Its will. You may say that this belongs more to psychology than to art criticism, but I am trying to make clear to you and to myself the relation which the mind which is in literature may rightly bear to the vision which is art. Are literature and ethics to dictate to Art its subjects? Is it right to demand that the artist's work shall have an obviously intelligible message or meaning, which the intellect can abstract from it and relate to the conduct of life? My belief is that the most literature can do is to help to interpret art, and that art offers to it, as nature does, a vision of beauty, but of undefined significance.
No one asks or expects the clouds to shape themselves into ethical forms, or the sun to shine only on the just and not on the unjust also. It is vain to expect it, but there is something written about the heavens declaring the beauty of the Creator and the firmament showing His handiwork. If the artist can bring whatever of that vision has touched him into his work we should ask no more, and must not expect him to be more righteously minded than his Creator, or to add a finishing tag of moral to justify it all, to show that Deity is solemnly minded and no mere idle trifler with beauty like Whistler.