CHAPTER VI. THE IRISH POETS
Irish poetry a part of English Literature—common-sense the
basis of romanticism—misapprehension of the poetic
temperament—William Butler Yeats—his education—his devotion
to art—his theories—his love poetry—resemblance to
Maeterlinck—the lyrical element paramount—the psaltery—pure
rather than applied poetry—John M. Synge—his mentality—his
versatility—a terrible personality—his capacity for
hatred—his subjectivity—his interesting Preface—brooding on
death—A. E.—The Master of the island—his sincerity and
mysticism—homesickness—true optimism—James Stephens—poet
and novelist—realism and fantasy—Padraic Colum—Francis
Ledwidge—Susan Mitchell—Thomas MacDonagh—Joseph
Campbell—Seumas O'Sullivan—Herbert Trench—Maurice Francis
Egan—Norreys Jephson O'Conor—F. Carlin—The advance in
In what I have to say of the work of the Irish poets, I am thinking of it solely as a part of English literature. I have in mind no political bias whatever, though I confess I have small admiration for extremists. During the last forty years Irishmen have written mainly in the English language, which assures to what is good in their compositions an influence bounded only by the dimensions of the earth. Great creative writers are such an immense and continuous blessing to the world that the locality of their birth pales in comparison with the glory of it, a glory in which we all profit. We need original writers in America; but I had rather have a star of the first magnitude appear in London than a star of lesser power appear in Los Angeles. Every one who writes good English contributes something to English literature and is a benefactor to English-speaking people. An Irish or American literary aspirant will be rated not according to his local flavour or fervour, but according to his ability to write the English language. The language belongs to Ireland and to America as much as it belongs to England; excellence in its command is the only test by which Irish, American, Canadian, South African, Hawaiian and Australian poets and novelists will be judged. The more difficult the test, the stronger the appeal to national pride.
In a recent work, called The Celtic Dawn, I found this passage: “The thesis of their contention is that modern English, the English of contemporary literature, is essentially an impoverished language incapable of directly expressing thought.” I am greatly unimpressed by such a statement. The chief reason why there is really a Celtic Dawn, or a Celtic Renaissance, is because Irishmen like Synge, Yeats, Russell and others have succeeded in writing English so well that they have attracted the attention of the world.
Ireland has never contributed to English literature a poet of the first class. By a poet of the first class I mean one of the same grade with the leading half-dozen British poets of the nineteenth century. This dearth of great Irish poets is the more noticeable when we think of Ireland's contributions to English prose and to English drama. Possibly, if one had prophecy rather than history to settle the question, one might predict that Irishmen would naturally write more and better poetry than Englishmen; for the common supposition is that the poetic temperament is romantic, sentimental, volatile, reckless. If this were true, then the lovable, careless, impulsive Irish would completely outclass in original poetry the sensible, steady-headed, cautious Englishman. What are the facts about the so-called poetic temperament?
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, were in character, disposition, and temperament precisely the opposite of what is superficially supposed to be “poetic.” Some of them were deeply erudite; all of them were deeply thoughtful. They were clear-headed, sensible men—in fact, common sense was the basis of their mental life. And no one can read the letters of Byron without seeing how well supplied he was with the shrewd common sense of the Englishman. He was more selfish than any one of the men enumerated above—but he was no fool. There is nothing inconsistent in his being at once the greatest romantic poet and the greatest satirist of his age. His masterpiece, Don Juan, is the expression of a nature at the farthest possible remove from sentimentality. And the author of Faust was remarkable among all the children of men for his poise, balance, calm—in other words, for common sense.
It is by no accident that the British—whom foreigners delight to call stodgy and slow-witted,—have produced more high-class poetry than any other nation in the history of the world. English literature is instinctively romantic, as French literature is instinctively classic. The glory of French literature is prose; the glory of English literature is poetry.
As the tallest tree must have the deepest roots, so it would seem that the loftiest edifices of verse must have the deepest foundations. Certainly one of the many reasons why American poetry is so inferior to British is because our roots do not go down sufficiently deep. Great poetry does not spring from natures too volatile, too susceptible, too easily swept by gusts of emotion. Landor was one of the most violent men we have on record; he was a prey to uncontrollable outbursts of rage, caused by trivial vexations; but his poetry aimed at cold, classical correctness. In comparison with Landor, Tennyson's reserve was almost glacial—yet out of it bloomed many a gorgeous garden of romance. Splendid imaginative masterpieces seem to require more often than not a creative mind marked by sober reason, logical processes, orderly thinking.
John Morley, who found the management of Ireland more than a handful, though he loved Ireland and the Irish with an affection greater than that felt by any other Englishman of his time, has, in hisRecollections, placed on opposite pages—all the more striking to me because unintentional—illuminating testimony to the difference between the Irish and the British temperament. And this testimony supports the point I am trying to make—that the “typical” logicless, inconsequential Irish mind, so winsome and so exasperating, is not the kind of brain to produce permanent poetry.
A peasant was in the dock for a violent assault. The clerk
read the indictment with all its legal jargon. The prisoner to
the warder: “What's all that he says?” Warder: “He says
ye hit Pat Curry with yer spade on the side of his head.”
Prisoner: “Bedad an' I did.” Warder: “Then plade
not guilty.” This dialogue, loud and in the full hearing of
Read Wordsworth's two poems on Burns; kind, merciful,
steady, glowing, manly they are, with some strong phrases,
good lines, and human feeling all through, winding up in two
stanzas at the close. These are among the pieces that make
Wordsworth a poet to live with; he repairs the daily wear
and tear, puts back what the fret of the day has rubbed thin
or rubbed off, sends us forth in the morning whole.
Robert Browning, whose normality in appearance and conversation pleased sensible folk and shocked idolaters, summed up in two stanzas the difference between the popular conception of a poet and the real truth. One might almost take the first stanza as representing the Irish and the second the English temperament.
“Touch him ne'er so lightly, into song he broke:
Soil so quick-receptive,—not one feather-seed,
Not one flower-dust fell but straight its fall awoke
Vitalising virtue: song would song succeed
Sudden as spontaneous—prove a poet-soul!”
Rock's the song-soil rather, surface hard and bare:
Sun and dew their mildness, storm and frost their rage
Vainly both expend,—few flowers awaken there:
Quiet in its cleft broods—what the after age
Knows and names a pine, a nation's heritage.
People who never grow up may have a certain kind of fascination, but they will not write great poetry. It is exactly the other way with creative artists; they grow up faster than the average. The maturity of Keats is astonishing.... Mr. Yeats's wonderful lamentation, September 1913, that sounds like the wailing of the wind, actually gives us a reason why Irishmen are getting the attention of the world in poetry, as well as in fiction and drama.
What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save,
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet they were of a different kind.
The names that stilled your childish play
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were,
In all their loneliness and pain
You'd cry “some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son:"
They weighed so lightly what they gave,
But let them be, they're dead and gone,
They're with O'Leary in the grave.
William Butler Yeats has done more for English poetry than any other Irishman, for he is the greatest poet in the English language that Ireland has ever produced. He is a notable figure in contemporary literature, having made additions to verse, prose and stage-plays. He has by no means obliterated Clarence Mangan, but he has surpassed him.
Mr. Yeats was born at Dublin, on the thirteenth of June, 1865. His father was an honour man at Trinity College, taking the highest distinction in Political Economy. After practising law, he became a painter, which profession he still adorns. The future poet studied art for three years, but when twenty-one years old definitely devoted himself to literature. In addition to his original work, one of his foremost services to humanity was his advice to that strange genius, John Synge—for it was partly owing to the influence of his friend that Synge became a creative writer, and he had, alas! little time to lose.
Mr. Yeats published his first poem in 1886. Since that date, despite his preoccupation with the management of the Abbey Theatre, he has produced a long list of works in verse and prose, decidedly unequal in merit, but shining with the light of a luminous mind.
From the first, Mr. Yeats has seemed to realize that he could serve Ireland best by making beautiful and enduring works of art, rather than by any form of political agitation. This is well; for despite the fact that a total ineptitude for statesmanship seldom prevents the enthusiast from issuing and spreading dogmatic propaganda, a merely elementary conception of the principle of division of labour should make us all rejoice when the artist confines himself to art. True artists are scarce and precious; and although practical men of business often regard them as superfluous luxuries, the truth is that we cannot live without them. As poet and dramatist, Mr. Yeats has done more for his country than he could have accomplished in any other way.
Never was there more exclusively an artist. He writes pure, not applied poetry. I care little for his theories of symbolism, magic and what not. Poets are judged not by their theories, not by the “schools" to which they give passionate adherence, but simply and solely by the quality of their work. No amount of theory, no correctness of method, no setting up of new or defence of old standards, no elevated ideals can make a poet if he have not the divine gift. Theories have hardly more effect on the actual value of his poetry than the colour of the ink in which he writes. The reason why it is interesting to read what Mr. Yeats says about his love of magic and of symbols is not because there is any truth or falsehood in these will-o'-the-wisps, but because he is such an artist that even when he writes in prose, his style is so beautiful, so harmonious that one is forced to listen. Literary art has enormous power in propelling a projectile of thought. I do not doubt that the chief reason for the immense effect of such a philosophy as that of Schopenhauer or that of Nietzsche is because each man was a literary artist—indeed I think both were greater writers than thinkers. A good thing this is for their fame, for art lasts longer than thought. The fashion of a man's thought may pass away; his knowledge and his ideas may lose their stamp, either because they prove to be false or because they become universally current. Everybody believes Copernicus, but nobody reads him. Yet when a book, no matter how obsolete in thought, is marked by great beauty of style, it lives forever. Consider the case of Sir Thomas Browne. Art is the great preservative.
Mr. Yeats has a genius for names and titles. His names, like those of Rossetti's, are sweet symphonies. The Wind Among the Reeds, The Shadowy Waters, The Secret Rose, The Land of Heart's Desire,The Island of Statues are poems in themselves, and give separate pleasure like an overture without the opera. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to observe that The Wind Among the Reeds suggests better than any other arrangement of words the lovely minor melodies of our poet, while The Shadowy Waters gives exactly the picture that comes into one's mind in thinking of his poems. There is an extraordinary fluidity in his verse, like running water under the shade of overhanging branches. One feels that Mr. Yeats loves these titles, and chooses them with affectionate solicitude, like a father naming beautiful children.
The love poetry of Mr. Yeats, like the love poetry of Poe, is swept with passion, but the passion is mingled with unutterable reverence. It is unlike much modern love poetry in its spiritual exaltation. Just as manners have become more free, and intimacies that once took months to develop, now need only minutes, so much contemporary verse-tribute to women is so detailed, so bold, so cock-sure, that the elaborate compliments only half-conceal a sneer. In all such work love is born of desire—its sole foundation—and hence is equally short-lived and fleeting. In the poems of Mr. Yeats, desire seems to follow rather than to precede love. Love thus takes on, as it ought to, something of the beauty of holiness.
Fasten your hair with a golden pin,
And bind up every wandering tress;
I bade my heart build these poor rhymes:
It worked at them, day out, day in,
Building a sorrowful loveliness
Out of the battles of old times.
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;
And candle-like foam on the dim sand,
And stars climbing the dew-dropping sky,
Live but to light your passing feet.
A still more characteristic love-poem is the one which gleams with the symbols of the cloths of heaven.
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the halflight,
I would spread the cloths under your feet;
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
In mysticism, in symbolism, and in the quality of his imagination, Mr. Yeats of course reminds us of Maeterlinck. He has the same twilit atmosphere, peopled with elusive dream-footed figures, that make no more noise than the wings of an owl. He is of imagination all compact. He is neither a teacher nor a prophet; he seems to turn away from the real sorrows of life, yes, even from its real joys, to dwell in a world of his own creation. He invites us thither, if we care to go; and if we go not, we cannot understand either his art or his ideas. But if we wander with him in the shadowy darkness, like the lonely man in Titanic alleys accompanied only by Psyche, we shall see strange visions. We may be led to the door of a legended tomb; we may be led along the border of dim waters; but we shall live for a time in the realm of Beauty, and be the better for the experience, even though it resemble nothing in the town and country that we know.
Mr. Yeats, like Browning, writes both lyrical poems and dramas; but he is at the opposite remove from Browning in everything except the gift of song. Browning was so devoted to the dramatic aspect of art, that he carried the drama even into its seemingly contradictory form, the lyric. Every lyric is a little one-act play, and he called them dramatic lyrics. Mr. Yeats, on the other hand, is so essentially a lyric poet, that instead of writing dramatic lyrics, he writes lyric dramas. Even his stage-plays are primarily lyrical.
Those who are interested in Mr. Yeats's theory of speaking, reciting, or chanting poetry to the psaltery should read his book, Ideas of Good and Evil, which contains some of his most significant articles of faith, written in shining prose. Mr. Yeats cannot write on any subject without illuminating it by the light of his own imagination; and I find his essays in criticism full of original thought—the result of years of brooding reflection. In these short pieces his genius is as clear as it is in his poems.
He is, in fact, a master of English. His latest work, with its musical title, Per Amica Silentia Lunae(1918), has both in spirit and form something of the ecstasy and quaint beauty of Sir Thomas Browne. I had supposed that such a style as that displayed in Urn-Burial was a lost art; but Mr. Yeats comes near to possessing its secret. This book is like a deep pool in its limpidity and mystery; no man without genius could have written it. I mean to read it many times, for there are pages that I am not sure that I understand. One looks into its depths of suggestion as one looks into a clear but very deep lake; one can see far down, but not to the bottom of it, which remains mysterious. He invites his own soul, but there is no loafing. Indeed his mind seems preternaturally active, as in a combination of dream and cerebration.
We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of
the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. Unlike the rhetoricians,
who get a confident voice from remembering the crowd they
have won or may win, we sing amid our uncertainty; and,
smitten even in the presence of the most high beauty by the
knowledge of our solitude, our rhythm shudders. I think,
too, that no fine poet, no matter how disordered his life, has
ever, even in his mere life, had pleasure for his end.... The
other self, the anti-self or antithetical self, as one may
choose to name it, comes but to those who are no longer
deceived, whose passion is reality. The sentimentalists are
practical men who believe in money, in position, in a marriage
bell, and whose understanding of happiness is to be so busy
whether at work or at play, that all is forgotten but the
momentary aim. They will find their pleasure in a cup that is
filled from Lethe's wharf, and for the awakening, for the
vision, for the revelation of reality, tradition offers us a
different word—ecstasy.... We must not make a false faith by
hiding from our thoughts the causes of doubt, for faith is the
highest achievement of the human intellect, the only gift man
can make to God, and therefore it must be offered in
sincerity. Neither must we create, by hiding ugliness, a false
beauty as our offering to the world. He only can create the
greatest imaginable beauty who has endured all imaginable
pangs, for only when we have seen and foreseen what we dread
shall we be rewarded by that dazzling unforeseen wing-footed
I admire his devotion to the art of poetry. He will not turn Pegasus into a dray-horse, and make him haul cart-loads of political or moral propaganda. In his fine apologia, The Cutting of an Agate, he states and restates his creed: “Literature decays when it no longer makes more beautiful, or more vivid, the language which unites it to all life, and when one finds the criticism of the student, and the purpose of the reformer, and the logic of the man of science, where there should have been the reveries of the common heart, ennobled into some raving Lear or unabashed Don Quixote.... I have been reading through a bundle of German plays, and have found everywhere a desire not to express hopes and alarms common to every man that ever came into the world, but politics or social passion, a veiled or open propaganda.... If Homer were alive today, he would only resist, after a deliberate struggle, the temptation to find his subject not in Helen's beauty, that every man has desired, nor in the wisdom and endurance of Odysseus that has been the desire of every woman that has come into the world, but in what somebody would describe, perhaps, as 'the inevitable contest,' arising out of economic causes, between the country-places and small towns on the one hand, and, upon the other, the great city of Troy, representing one knows not what 'tendency to centralization.'“
In other words, if I understand him correctly, Mr. Yeats believes that in writing pure rather than applied poetry, he is not turning his back on great issues to do filigree work, but is merely turning aside from questions of temporary import to that which is fixed and eternal, life itself.
John Millington Synge was born near Dublin on the sixteenth of April, 1871, and died in Dublin on the twenty-fourth of March, 1909. It is a curious thing that the three great Irishmen of the Celtic renaissance—the only men who were truly inspired by genius—originally studied another form of art than literature. Mr. Yeats studied painting for years; A. E. is a painter of distinction; Synge an accomplished musician before he became a of letters. There is not the slightest doubt the effect of these sister arts upon the literary work of the Great Three is pervasive and powerful. The books of Mr. Yeats and Mr. Russell are full of word-pictures; and the rhythm of Synge's strange prose, which Mr. Ernest Boyd ingeniously compares with Dr. Hyde's translations, is full of harmonies.
Dr. Hyde has not only witnessed a new and wonderful literary revival in his country, but he has the satisfaction of knowing that he is vitally connected with its birth and bloom.
Synge had the greatest mental endowment of all the Irish writers of his time. He had an amazingly powerful mind. At Trinity College he took prizes in Hebrew and in Irish, and at the same time gained a scholarship in harmony and counterpoint at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. As a boy, “he knew the note and plumage of every bird, and when and where they were to be found.” As a man, he could easily have mastered the note of every human being, as in addition to his knowledge of ancient languages, he seems to have become proficient in German, French, and Italian with singular speed and ease. He was an excellent performer on the piano, flute, and violin, did conjuring tricks, and delighted the natives of the Aran Islands with his penny whistle. He must have had a positive genius for concentration, obtaining a command over anything to which he cared to devote his attention. Mr. Yeats found him in that ramshackle old Hotel Corneille in the Latin Quarter, busily writing literary criticism in French and English, and told him as an inspired messenger to go to the primitive folk in Ireland and become a creative artist. He went; and in a few years reached the summit of dramatic achievement.
Synge was a terrible person, as terrible in his way as Swift. When Carlyle saw Daniel Webster, he said, “I should hate to be that man's nigger.” I do not envy any of the men or women who, for whatever reason, incurred the wrath of Synge. He was never noisy or explosive, like a dog whose barks are discounted, to whom one soon ceases to pay any attention; we all know the futile and petty irascibility of the shallow-minded. Synge was like a mastiff who bites without warning. Irony was the common chord in his composition. He studied life and hated death; hated the gossip of the world, which seemed to him the gabble of fools. Physically he was a sick man, and felt his tether. He thought it frightful that he should have to die, while so many idiots lived long. He never forgave men and women for their folly, and the only reason why he did not forgive God was because he was not sure of His existence. The lady addressed in the following “poem” must have read it with queasy emotion, and have unwillingly learned it by heart. A photograph of her face immediately after its perusal would look like futurist art; but who knows the expression on the face of the poet while preparing this poison?
To a sister of an enemy of the author's who disapproved of
Lord, confound this surly sister,
Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,
In her guts a galling give her.
Let her live to earn her dinners
In Mountjoy with seedy sinners:
Lord, this judgment quickly bring,
And I'm your servant, John M. Synge.
(Mountjoy is a prison.)
Irish exaggeration is as often seen in plenary curses as in plenary blessings; both have the quality of humour. The curses are partly compounded of robust delight, like the joy of London cabmen in repartee; and the blessings are doubtless commingled with irony. But Synge had a savage heart. He was essentially a wild man, and a friend of mine had a vision of him that seems not without significance. He was walking in a desolate part of Ireland in a bleak storm of rain; when suddenly over the hills came the solitary figure of Synge, dressed in black, with a broad hat pulled over his brows.
As a stranger and sojourner he walked this earth. In the midst of Dublin he never mentioned politics, read no newspapers, and little contemporary literature, not even the books of his few intimate friends. Every one who knew him had such immense respect for the quality of his intellect that it is almost laughable to think how eagerly they must have awaited criticism of the books they gave him—criticism that never came. Yet he never seems to have given the impression of surliness; he was not surly, he was silent. He must have been the despair of diagnosticians; even in his last illness, it was impossible for the doctors and nurses to discover how he felt, for he would not tell. I think his burning mind consumed his bodily frame.
Synge wrote few poems, and they came at intervals during a period of sixteen or seventeen years. Objectively, they are unimportant; his contributions to English literature are his dramas and his prose sketches. But as revelations of his personality they have a deep and melancholy interest; and every word of his short Preface, written in December, 1908, a few months before his death, is valuable. He knew he was a dying man, and not only wished to collect these fugitive bits of verse, but wished to leave behind him his theory of poetry. With characteristic bluntness, he says that the poems which follow the Preface were mostly written “before the views just stated, with which they have little to do, had come into my head.”
No discussion of modern verse should omit consideration of this remarkable Preface—for while it has had no effect on either Mr. Yeats or Mr. Russell—it has influenced other Irish poets, and many that are not Irish. Indeed much aggressively “modern” work is trying, more or less successfully, to fit this theory. In the advance, Synge was more prophet than poet.
Many of the older poets, such as Villon and Herrick and
Burns, used the whole of their personal life as their
material, and the verse written in this way was read by strong
men, and thieves, and deacons, not by little cliques only.
Then, in the town writing of the eighteenth century, ordinary
life was put into verse that was not poetry, and when poetry
came back with Coleridge and Shelley, it went into verse that
was not always human. [This last clause shows the difference
between Synge and his friends, Yeats and Russell.]
In these days poetry is usually a flower of evil or good; but
it is the timbre of poetry that wears most surely, and there
is no timbre that has not strong roots among the clay and
Even if we grant that exalted poetry can be kept successful
by itself, the strong things in life are needed in poetry
also, to show that what is exalted or tender is not made by
feeble blood. It may almost be said that before verse can be
human again it must learn to be brutal.
Like Herrick, he wrote verse about himself, for he knew that much biography and criticism would follow his funeral.
ON AN ANNIVERSARY
After reading the dates in a book of Lyrics.
With Fifteen-ninety or Sixteen-sixteen
We end Cervantes, Marot, Nashe or Green:
Then Sixteen-thirteen till two score and nine,
Is Crashaw's niche, that honey-lipped divine.
And so when all my little work is done
They'll say I came in Eighteen-seventy-one,
And died in Dublin.... What year will they write
For my poor passage to the stall of night?
I asked if I got sick and died, would you
With my black funeral go walking too,
If you'd stand close to hear them talk or pray
While I'm let down in that steep bank of clay.
And, No, you said, for if you saw a crew
Of living idiots pressing round that new
Oak coffin—they alive, I dead beneath
That board—you'd rave and rend them with your teeth.
The love of brutal strength in Synge's work may have been partly the projection of his sickness, just as the invalid Stevenson delighted in the creation of powerful ruffians; but the brooding on his own death is quite modern, and is, I think, part of the egoism that is so distinguishing a feature in contemporary poetry. So many have abandoned all hope of a life beyond the grave, that they cling to bodily existence with almost gluttonous passion, and are filled with self-pity at the thought of their own death and burial. To my mind, there is something unworthy, something childish, in all this. When a child has been rebuked or punished by its father or mother, it plays a trump card—“You'll be sorry when I am dead!” It is better for men and women to attack the daily task with what cheerful energy they can command, and let the interruption of death come when it must. If life is short, it seems unwise to spend so much of our time in rehearsals of a tragedy that can have only one performance.
In the modern Tempest of Ireland, Yeats is Ariel and A. E. is Prospero. He is the Master of the island. As a literary artist, he is not the equal of either of the two men whose work we have considered; but he is by all odds the greatest Personality. He holds over his contemporaries a spiritual sway that many a monarch might envy. Perhaps the final tribute to him is seen in the fact that even George Moore treats him with respect.
One reason for this predominance is the man's sincerity. All those who know him regard him with reverence; and to us who know him only through his books and his friends, his sincerity is equally clear and compelling. He has done more than any other man to make Dublin a centre of intellectual life. At one time his house was kept open every Sunday evening, and any friend, stranger, or foreigner had the right to walk in without knocking, and take a part in the conversation. A. E. used to subscribe to every literary journal, no matter how obscure, that was printed in Ireland; every week he would scan the pages, hoping to discover a man of promise. It was in this way he “found” James Stephens, and not only found him, but founded him. Many a struggling painter or poet has reason to bless the gracious assistance of George W. Russell.
It is a singular thing that the three great men of modern Ireland seem more like disembodied spirits than carnal persons. Synge always seems to those who read his books like some ghost, waking the echoes with ironical laughter; I cannot imagine A. E. putting on coat and trousers; and although I once had the honour—which I gratefully remember—of a long talk with W. B. Yeats, I never felt that I was listening to a man of flesh and blood. It is fitting that these men had their earthly dwelling in a sea-girt isle, where every foot of ground has its own superstition, and where the constant mists are peopled with unearthly figures.
I do not really know what mysticism is; but I know that Mr. Yeats and Mr. Russell are both mystics and of a quite different stamp. Mr. Yeats is not insincere, but his mysticism is a part of his art rather than a part of his mind. He is artistically, rather than intellectually, sincere. The mysticism of Mr. Russell is fully as intellectual as it is emotional; it is more than his creed; it is his life. His poetry and his prose are not shadowed by his mysticism, they emanate from it. He does not have to live in another world when he writes verse, and then come back to earth when the dinner or the door bell rings; he lives in the other world all the time. Or rather, the earth and common objects are themselves part of the Universal Spirit, reflecting its constant activities.
I heard them in their sadness say
“The earth rebukes the thought of God;
We are but embers wrapped in clay,
A little nobler than the sod.”
But I have touched the lips of clay,
Mother, thy rudest sod to me
Is thrilled with fire of hidden day,
And haunted by all mystery.
The above poem, taken from the author's first volume, Homeward: Songs by the Way, does not reflect that homesickness of which A. E. speaks in his Preface. Homesickness is longing, yearning; and there is little of any such quality in the work of A. E. Or, if he is really homesick, he is homesick not like one who has just left home, but more like one who is certain of his speedy return thither. This homesickness has more anticipation than regret; it is like healthy hunger when one is assured of the next meal. For assurance is the prime thing in A. E.'s temperament and in his work; it partly accounts for his strong influence. Many writers today are like sheep having no shepherd; A. E. is a shepherd. To turn from the wailing so characteristic of the poets, to the books of this high-hearted, resolute, candid, cheerful man, is like coming into harbour after a mad voyage. He moves among his contemporaries like a calm, able surgeon in a hospital. I suspect he has been the recipient of many strange confessions. His poetry has healing in its wings.
Has any human voice ever expressed more wisely or more tenderly the reason why Our Lord was a man of sorrows? Why He spake to humanity in the language of pain, rather than in the language of delight? Was it not simply because, in talking to us, He who could speak all languages, used our own, rather than that of His home country?
Though your eyes with tears were blind,
Pain upon the path you trod:
Well we knew, the hosts behind,
Voice and shining of a god.
For your darkness was our day,
Signal fires, your pains untold,
Lit us on our wandering way
To the mystic heart of gold.
Naught we knew of the high land,
Beauty burning in its spheres;
Sorrow we could understand
And the mystery told in tears.
Something of the secret of his quiet strength is seen in the following two stanzas, which close his poem Apocalyptic (1916):
It shall be better to be bold
Than clothed in purple in that hour;
The will of steel be more than gold;
For only what we are is power.
Who through the starry gate would win
Must be like those who walk therein.
You, who have made of earth your star,
Cry out, indeed, for hopes made vain:
For only those can laugh who are
The strong Initiates of Pain,
Who know that mighty god to be
Sculptor of immortality.
It is a wonderful thing—a man living in a house in Dublin, living a life of intense, ceaseless, and extraordinarily diversified activity, travelling on life's common way in cheerful godliness, and shedding abroad to the remotest corners of the earth a masculine serenity of soul.
James Stephens was not widely known until the year 1912, when he published a novel called The Crock of Gold; this excited many readers in Great Britain and in America, an excitement considerably heightened by the appearance of another work of prose fiction, The Demi-Gods, in 1914; and general curiosity about the author became rampant. It was speedily discovered that he was a poet as well as a novelist; that three years before his reputation he had issued a slim book of verse, boldly named Insurrections, the title being the boldest thing in it. By 1915 this neglected work had passed through four editions, and during the last six years he has presented to an admiring public five more volumes of poems, The Hill of Vision, 1912; Songs from the Clay, 1915; The Adventures of Seumas Beg, 1915; Green Branches, 1916, and Reincarnations, 1918.
A. E. believed in him from the start; and it was owing to the influence of A. E. that Insurrections took the form of a book, gratefully dedicated to its own begetter. Both patron and protégé must have been surprised by its lack of impact, and still more surprised by the immense success of The Crock of Gold. The poems are mainly realistic, pictures of slimy city streets with slimy creatures crawling on the pavements. It is an interesting fact that they appeared the same year of Synge's Poems with Synge's famous Preface counselling brutality, counselling anything to bring poetry away from the iridescent dreams of W. B. Yeats down to the stark realities of life and nature. They bear testimony to the catholic breadth of A. E.'s sympathetic appreciation, for they are as different as may be imagined from the spirit of mysticism. It must also be confessed that their absolute merit as poetry is not particularly remarkable; all the more credit to the discernment of A. E., who described behind them an original and powerful personality.
The influence of Synge is strong in the second book of verses, called The Hill of Vision, particularly noticeable in such a poem as The Brute. Curiously enough, Songs from the Clay is more exalted in tone than The Hill of Vision. The air is clearer and purer. But the author of The Crock of Gold and The Demi-Gods appears again in The Adventures of Seumas Beg. In these charming poems we have that triple combination of realism, humour, and fantasy that gave so original a flavour to the novels. They make a valuable addition to child-poetry; for men, women, angels, fairies, God and the Devil are treated with easy familiarity, in practical, definite, conversational language. These are the best fruits of his imagination in rime.
THE DEVIL'S BAG
I saw the Devil walking down the lane
Behind our house.—There was a heavy bag
Strapped tightly on his shoulders, and the rain
Sizzled when it hit him. He picked a rag
Up from the ground and put it in his sack,
And grinned and rubbed his hands. There was a thing
Moving inside the bag upon his back—
It must have been a soul! I saw it fling
And twist about inside, and not a hole
Or cranny for escape. Oh, it was sad.
I cried, and shouted out, “Let out that soul!“
But he turned round, and, sure, his face went mad,
And twisted up and down, and he said “Hell!“
And ran away.... Oh, mammy! I'm not well.
In 1916 Mr. Stephens published a threnody, Green Branches, which illustrates still another side of his literary powers. There is organ-like music in these noble lines. The sting of bitterness is drawn from death, and sorrow changes into a solemn rapture.
In commenting on Synge's poem, The Curse, I spoke of the delight the Irish have in hyperbolic curses; an excellent illustration of this may be found in Mr. Stephens' latest volume, Reincarnations. There is no doubt that the poet as well as his imaginary imprecator found real pleasure in the production of the following ejaculations:
The lanky hank of a she in the inn over there
Nearly killed me for asking the loan of a glass of beer;
May the devil grip the whey-faced slut by the hair,
And beat bad manners out of her skin for a year.
That parboiled imp, with the hardest jaw you will see
On virtue's path, and a voice that would rasp the dead,
Came roaring and raging the minute she looked at me,
And threw me out of the house on the back of my head!
If I asked her master he'd give me a cask a day;
But she, with the beer at hand, not a gill would arrange!
May she marry a ghost and bear him a kitten, and may
The High King of Glory permit her to get the mange.
Padraic Colum has followed the suggestion of Synge, and made deep excavations for the foundations of his poetry. It grows up out of the soil like a hardy plant; and while it cannot be called major work, it has a wholesome, healthy earthiness. It is realistic in a different way from the town eclogues of James Stephens; it is not merely in the country, it is agricultural. His most important book is Wild Earth, published in Dublin in 1901, republished with additions in New York in 1916. The smell of the earth is pungent in such poems as The Plougher and The Drover; while his masterpiece, An Old Woman of the Roads, voices the primeval and universal longing for the safe shelter of a home. I wonder what those who believe in the abolition of private property are going to do with this natural, human passion? Private property is not the result of an artificial social code—it is the result of an instinct. The first three stanzas of this poem indicate its quality, expressing the all but inexpressible love of women for each stick of furniture and every household article.
O, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped up sods upon the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!
To have a clock with weights and chains
And pendulum swinging up and down!
A dresser filled with shining delft,
Speckled and white and blue and brown!
I could be busy all the day
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor,
And fixing on their shelf again
My white and blue and speckled store!
Lord Dunsany brought to public attention a new poet, Francis Ledwidge, whose one volume, Songs of the Fields, is full of promise. In October, 1914, he enlisted in Kitchener's first army, and was killed on the thirty-first of August, 1917. Ledwidge's poetry is more conventional than that of most of his Irish contemporaries, and he is at his best in describing natural objects. Such poems as A Rainy Day in April, and A Twilight in Middle March are most characteristic. But occasionally he arrests the ear with a deeper note. The first four lines of the following passage, taken from An Old Pain, might fittingly apply to a personality like that of Synge:
I hold the mind is the imprisoned soul,
And all our aspirations are its own
Struggles and strivings for a golden goal,
That wear us out like snow men at the thaw.
And we shall make our Heaven where we have sown
Our purple longings. Oh! can the loved dead draw
Anear us when we moan, or watching wait
Our coming in the woods where first we met,
The dead leaves falling in their wild hair wet,
Their hands upon the fastenings of the gate?
A direct result of the spiritual influence of A. E. is seen in the poetry of Susan Mitchell. She is not an imitator of his manner, but she reflects the mystical faith. Her little volume, The Living Chalice, is full of the beauty that rises from suffering. It is not the spirit of acquiescence or of resignation, but rather dauntless triumphant affirmation. Her poems of the Christ-child have something of the exaltation of Christina Rossetti; for to her mind the road to victory lies through the gate of Humility. Here is a typical illustration:
THE HEART'S LOW DOOR
O Earth, I will have none of thee.
Alien to me the lonely plain,
And the rough passion of the sea
Storms my unheeding heart in vain.
The petulance of rain and wind,
The haughty mountains' superb scorn,
Are but slight things I've flung behind,
Old garments that I have out-worn.
Bare of the grudging grass, and bare
Of the tall forest's careless shade,
Deserter from thee, Earth, I dare
See all thy phantom brightness fade.
And, darkening to the sun, I go
To enter by the heart's low door,
And find where Love's red embers glow
A home, who ne'er had home before.
Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916) was, like so many of the young Irish writers of the twentieth century, both scholar and poet. In 1916 he published a prose critical work, Literature in Ireland, in which his two passions, love of art and love of country, are clearly displayed. His books of original verse include The Golden Joy, 1906; Songs of Myself, 1910, and others. He was a worshipper of Beauty, his devotion being even more religious than aesthetic. The poems addressed to Beauty—of which there are comparatively many—exhibit the familiar yet melancholy disparity between the vision in the poet's soul and the printed image of it. This disparity is not owing to faulty technique, for his management of metrical effects shows ease and grace; it is simply the lack of sufficient poetic vitality. Although his ambition as an artist appears to have been to write great odes and hymns to Beauty, his simple poems of Irish life are full of charm. The Wishes to My Son has a poignant tenderness. One can hardly read it without tears. And the love of a wife for “her man” is truly revealed in the last two stanzas of John-John.
The neighbours' shame of me began
When first I brought you in;
To wed and keep a tinker man
They thought a kind of sin;
But now this three years since you're gone
'Tis pity me they do,
And that I'd rather have, John-John,
Than that they'd pity you.
Pity for me and you, John-John,
I could not bear.
Oh, you're my husband right enough,
But what's the good of that?
You know you never were the stuff
To be the cottage cat,
To watch the fire and hear me lock
The door and put out Shep—
But there now, it is six o'clock
And time for you to step.
God bless and keep you far, John-John!
And that's my prayer.
Joseph Campbell, most of whose work has been published under the Irish name Seosamh Maccathmhaoil, writes both regular and free verse. He is close to the soil, and speaks the thoughts of the peasants, articulating their pleasures, their pains, and their superstitions. No deadness of conventionality dulls the edge of his art—he is an original man. His fancy is bold, and he makes no attempt to repress it. Perhaps his most striking poem is I am the Gilly of Christ —strange that its reverence has been mistaken for sacrilege! And in the little song, Go, Ploughman, Plough, one tastes the joy of muscle, the revelation of the upturned earth, and the promise of beauty in fruition.
Go, ploughman, plough
The mearing lands,
The meadow lands:
The mountain lands:
All life is bare
Beneath your share,
All love is in your lusty hands.
Up, horses, now!
And straight and true
Let every broken furrow run:
The strength you sweat
Shall blossom yet
In golden glory to the sun.
In 1917 Mr. Campbell published a beautiful volume, signed with his English name, embellished with his own drawings—one for each poem—called Earth of Cualann. Cualann is the old name for the County of Wicklow, but it includes also a stretch to the northwest, reaching close to Dublin. Mr. Campbell's description of it in his preface makes a musical overture to the verses that follow. “Wild and unspoilt, a country of cairn-crowned hills and dark, watered valleys, it bears even to this day something of the freshness of the heroic dawn.”
The work of Seumas O'Sullivan, born in 1878, has often been likened to that of W. B. Yeats, but I can see little similarity either in spirit or in manner. The younger poet has the secret of melody and his verses show a high degree of technical excellence; but in these respects he no more resembles his famous countryman than many another master. His best poems are collected in a volume published in 1912, and the most interesting of these give pictures of various city streets, Mercer Street (three), Nelson Street, Cuffe Street, and so on. In other words, the most original part of this poet's production is founded on reality. This does not mean that he lacks imagination; for it is only by imagination that a writer can portray and interpret familiar scenes. The more widely and easily their veracity can be verified by readers, the greater is the challenge to the art of the poet.
Although the work of Herbert Trench is not particularly identified with Ireland, he was born in County Cork, in 1865, and his first volume of poems (1901) was called Deirdre Wedded. He completed his formal education at Oxford, taking a first class in the Final Honour Schools, and becoming a Fellow of All Souls. His poetical reputation, which began with the appearance of Apollo and the Seaman, in 1907, has been perceptibly heightened by the publication in 1918 of his collected works in two volumes, Poems, with Fables in Prose, saluted rapturously by a London critic under the heading “Unforgettable Phrases.” No one can now tell whether they are unforgettable or not; but his poems are certainly memorable for individual lines rather than for complete architectural beauty. In the midst of commonplace composition single phrases stand out in a manner that almost startles the reader.
We may properly add to our list the names of three Irish poets who are Americans. Maurice Francis Egan, full of years and honours, a scholar and statesman, giving notable service to America as our Minister to Denmark, has written poetry marked by tenderness of feeling and delicacy of art. His little book, Songs and Sonnets, published in 1892, exhibits the range of his work as well as anything that he has written. It is founded on a deep and pure religious faith.... Norreys Jephson O'Conor is a young Irish-American, a graduate of Harvard, and has already published three volumes of verse, Celtic Memories,which appeared in England in 1913, Beside the Blackwater, 1915, and Songs of the Celtic Past, 1918; in 1916 he published a poetic play, The Fairy Bride, which was produced for the benefit of Irish troops at the front. American by birth and residence, of Irish ancestry, he draws his inspiration almost wholly from Celtic lore and Celtic scenes. He is a natural singer, whose art is steadily increasing in authority.
In 1918 immediate attention was aroused by a volume of poems called My Ireland, from Francis Carlin. This is the work of a young Irishman, a New York business man, who, outside of the shop, has dreamed dreams. Many of these verses are full of beauty and charm.
It will be seen from our review of the chief figures among contemporary Irish poets that the jolly, jigging Irishman of stage history is quite conspicuous by his absence. He still gives his song and dance, and those who prefer musical-comedy to orchestral compositions can find him in the numerous anthologies of Anglo-Irish verse; but the tone of modern Irish poetry is spiritual rather than hearty.
Whatever may be thought of the appropriateness of the term “Advance of English Poetry” for my survey of the modern field as a whole, there is no doubt that it applies fittingly to Ireland. The last twenty-five years have seen an awakening of poetic activity in that island unlike anything known there before; and Dublin has become one of the literary centres of the world. When a new movement produces three men of genius, and a long list of poets of distinction, it should be recognized with respect for its achievement, and with faith in its future.