Page:EB1922 - Volume 31.djvu/22

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Celtic life in Ireland, Bard Ethell and The Wedding of the Clans, represent his strongest work. Dr. Sigerson, in his generation, made metrical translations of Irish poetry from the 8th to the i8th century, and his collection, Bards of the Gael and Gall, was an important influence on the new Irish poetry.

With the 'eighties came a period of social and political conflict in Ireland. But out of the political welter emerged the Gaelic League. And it was this organization that henceforth provided a soil and a shelter for the new poetry, although this new poetry was still to be in English.

It must be said, "however, that, despite the heroic activity dis- played during well-nigh thirty years, the Gaelic movement as such, with its classes, societies, athletic clubs, readings and revivals, represented in 1921 something of a provincialism, with its future (to use a Hibernicism) rather behind it than before it. The Gaelic School is remarkably lacking in Irish jollity. The historic Irishman of literature, as shown by Moore, Thackeray, Lover, Lever, " George Birmingham," Somerville and Ross, has managed somehow to survive any modern Celtic presentment. At no time has Irish poetry as a whole been distinctly national; and the epithet " Celtic " is a misnomer if it be used to appro- priate to Irish poets the characteristics of brooding melancholy, wistful mysticism and fervent idealism. The inspiration of the Irish poets is at least as much climatic and local as racial. It is no depreciation of the work done by Irish writers in recent years, aggressively self-conscious and artificial though much of it is, to say that, even in those faculties more peculiarly attributed to the Celt, he has never approached the depth and breadth of the Teuton; the whole literary output of the" Celtic fringe, "so called, sinks into insignificance in comparison with the work of the Teuton and the Saxon.

The unbiassed observer who does not allow his vision to be blurred by the rose-coloured haze that wraps the propaganda literature of Sinn Fein will indeed have no hesitation in declaring that, judged by its own aims and ideals, the Gaelic movement has, on the whole, been a failure. Gaelic may indeed survive and may even prosper, although the fruits of its revival as a language are likely to remain inaccessible to all but the elect, but it can never dominate, least of all will it be able to oust its rival, English. The odds are too great on the other side. This does not mean, of course, that the movement has been barren of results. It has provided a meeting-ground for thousands of Irish men and women who prior to 1893 seemed almost hopelessly separated by their own local political or sectarian associations. It has helped to bring to light again the old world of ancient Ireland from its manuscript tomb in Irish and Continental libraries. More im- portant than this, it has circulated the glad news that there is indeed a native Irish literature, and an Irish tradition.

Such as it is in Irish literary circles, the group of writers which stands for distinct contemporary ideas is of almost exactly the generation of H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett - W. B. Yeats (b.i86s), George W. Russell (" A. E. "), Douglas Hyde, Standish O'Grady, J. M. Synge and George Moore. The linguistic and dry-as-dust part, but much also that stands for the Irish Ireland idea that is for an Irish-speaking, -writing and -thinking country is mainly due to Hyde and O'Grady. But much also is due to the counter-influence of George Moore and of J. M. Synge, the latter of whom wrote unrivalled dialect, often poetic but often, too, rather quizzical comedy.

For a good many people, Protestant and un-Irish in speech, the most self-conscious representative of the group, artificial though he be, William Butler Yeats, is, nevertheless, the in- dicating number of the Celtic revival. None of Yeats's lyric rises perhaps to the plane of the more inspired lines of " A. E." or the happier dialectic efforts of J. M. J5ynge, but in three poems of his earlier period, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), The Coun- tess Cathleen (1892) and The Landof Heart's Desire (1894), Yeats has conceived and written something which is peculiarly his own. In the volume of The Wind among the Reeds (1899), Yeats reaches his finest and most original work in shorter lyrics. Yeats's mystical broodings of spirit lie outside the highway of poetry. They are as unintelligible to the common mind as the arcana of

Blake. But Yeats has lived among men, and he is not guiltless of conscious artifice where Blake would have been wholly natural. Perhaps the most beautiful poems of the volume are " The Host of the Air," " Into the Twilight " and " The Song of Wandering Angus." The first-named, considered only as prosody, does not come short of " The Lake Isle of Innisfree."

The year 1899 not only saw the publication of The Wind among the Reeds; it found the poet busied with the workings of the Irish Literary Theatre, and it marked a point of declination in his lyric powers. In the Seven Woods (1903) contains no poetry as individual as the preceding volume, though it includes the stir- ring stanzas of " Red Hanrahan's Song," a poem which, with splendid imagery of clouds, winds, yellow pools and "flooding waters, breathes the love of Ireland's bare hills, bog waters and warm soft rain. Other songs, however, suggest English and Elizabethan rather than Celtic models. The short series of love poems printed in The Green Helmet (1910) is metaphysical and not very distinctive; in The Wild Swans of Coole (1919) Yeats touches again the old melodies .skilfully, but in the mood of an imitation of his earlier self. If not altogether with the short lyric, with poems of a different kind Yeats has shown himself the poet of an esoteric beauty, in a character and a manner that are all his own. Further, the three poems already mentioned may be re- garded as the prelude to Yeats's phase as a dramatic poet. The first of these is in form derived from the Middle Irish dialogues of St. Patrick and Oisin, and represents the mythical hero relating to the saint the story of his wanderings in the paradises of pagan mythology, and his passionate love of Niam. The most striking characteristic of this early poem is that magical impression seldom surpassed or even approached in the modern mythology of poetic dream. We are caught once more in the faerie to which Huon of Bordeaux, of the mediaevals, primitively introduced the mechan- icals of Athens.

George W. Russell, whose work appears under the monogram "A. E.," is, in the proper sense of the word, a mystic, though mysticism is scarcely a characteristic of the Irish; the Irish mind is rather intellectual than mystical. Like all mystics he is con- tent to express a single idea. In all his volumes of verse, in Homeward, in the Earth Breath, in the Divine Vision, he has put into pregnant verse his all-sufficing thought. Men are the strayed heaven-dwellers the angels who " willed in silence their own doom," the Gods who " forgot themselves to men." Involved in matter, now they are creating a new empire for the spirit. He has been drawn, too, to the study of Celtic remains; the old Irish mythology seems to him a fragment of the doctrine that was held by the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Indians. He alludes to the Irish divinities as if they were as well known as Zeus or Eros or Apollo. He is the mystical poet of our civilization, and nearly all of what the West has found in the Indian poet, Rabin- dranath Tagore, is in the poems of " A. E."

In the 'nineties the ascendancy of the national drama of Nor- way made a few Irish writers, W. B. Yeats, George Moore, Edward Martyn, think of experimenting with a national theatre for Ireland. They began by producing in Lublin, for three successive seasons, plays written by Irish writers but presented by English actors. The experiment closed unsuccessfully in 1901. Meanwhile the activities of the Gaelic League and olher national societies had produced a company of Irish players. The company was now ready to further any experiments that Yeats, as the leader of the Irish dramatic movement, might make. Yeats brought into the company a writer who was to elucidate the movement, John M. Synge (1871-1909). Synge wrote six plays for the Irish theatre, five of which they produced, The Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, The Well of the Saints, The Playboy of the Western World and Deirdre of the Sorrows, the last a powerful dramatization of the Exile of the Sons of Usnech, which forms one of the three " Sorrows of Story Telling " and has persisted in Irish tradition for at least a thousand years.

Amid the outpouring of new books, pointing in no special literary direction, creative English literature at its best, viewed from the standpoint of 1921, showed a stability of purpose, fundamentally unaltered by the advent of new ideas. In spite