Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany/Introduction
Lady Wilde once told me that when she was a young girl she was stopped in some Dublin street by a great crowd and turned into a shop to escape from it. She stayed there some time and the crowd still passed. She asked the shopman what it was, and he said, 'the funeral of Thomas Davis, a poet.' She had never heard of Davis; but because she thought a country that so honoured a poet must be worth something, she became interested in Ireland and was soon a famous patriotic poet herself, being, as she once said to me half in mockery, an eagle in her youth.
That age will be an age of romance for an hundred years to come. Its poetry slid into men's ears so smoothly that a man still living, though a very old man now, heard men singing at the railway stations he passed upon a journey into the country the verses he had published but that morning in a Dublin newspaper; and yet we should not regret too often that it has vanished, and left us poets even more unpopular than are our kind elsewhere in Europe; for now that we are unpopular we escape from crowds, from noises in the street, from voices that sing out of tune, from bad paper made one knows not from what refuse, from evil-smelling gum, from covers of emerald green, from that ideal of reliable, invariable men and women, which would forbid saint and connoisseur who always, the one in his simple, the other in his elaborate way, do what is unaccountable, and forbid life itself which, being, as the definition says, the only thing that moves itself, is always without precedent. When our age too has passed, when its moments also, that are so common and many, seem scarce and precious, students will perhaps open these books, printed by village girls at Dundrum, as curiously as at twenty years I opened the books of history and ballad verse of the old 'Library of Ireland.' They will notice that this new 'Library,' where I have gathered so much that seems to me representative or beautiful, unlike the old, is intended for few people, and written by men and women with that ideal condemned by 'Mary of the Nation', who wished, as she said, to make no elaborate beauty and to write nothing but what a peasant could understand. If they are philosophic or phantastic, it may even amuse them to find some analogy of the old with O'Connell's hearty eloquence, his winged dart shot always into the midst of the people, his mood of comedy; and of the new, with that lonely and haughty person below whose tragic shadow we of modern Ireland began to write.
The melancholy, the philosophic irony, the elaborate music of a play by John Synge, the simplicity, the sense of splendour of living in Lady Gregory's lamentation of Emer, Mr. James Stephens when he makes the sea waves 'Tramp with banners on the shore' are as much typical of our thoughts and day, as was 'She dwelt beside the Anner with mild eyes like the dawn,' or any stanza of the 'Pretty girl of Lough Dan,' or any novel of Charles Lever's of a time that sought to bring Irish men and women into one nation by means of simple patriotism and a genial taste for oratory and anecdotes. A like change passed over Ferrara's brick and stone when its great Duke, where there had been but narrow medieval streets, made many palaces and threw out one straight and wide street, as Carducci said, to meet the Muses. Doubtless the men of 'Perdóndaris that famous city' have such antiquity of manners and of culture that it is of small moment should they please themselves with some tavern humour; but we must needs cling to 'our foolish Irish pride' and form an etiquette, if we would not have our people crunch their chicken bones with too convenient teeth, and make our intellect architectural that we may not see them turn domestic and effusive nor nag at one another in narrow streets.
Some of the writers of our school have intended, so far as any creative art can have deliberate intention, to make this change, a change having more meaning and implications than a few sentences can define. When I was first moved by Lord Dunsany's work I thought that he would more help this change if he could bring his imagination into the old Irish legendary world instead of those magic lands of his with their vague Eastern air; but even as I urged him I knew that he could not, without losing his rich beauty of careless suggestion, and the persons and images that for ancestry have all those romantic ideas that are somewhere in the background of all our minds. He could not have made Slieve-na-Mon nor Slieve Fua incredible and phantastic enough, because that prolonged study of a past age, necessary before he could separate them from modern association, would have changed the spontaneity of his mood to something learned, premeditated, and scientific.
When we approach subtle elaborate emotions we can but give our minds up to play or become as superstitious as an old woman, for we cannot hope to understand. It is one of my superstitions that we became entangled in a dream some twenty years ago; but I do not know whether this dream was born in Ireland from the beliefs of the country men and women, or whether we but gave ourselves up to a foreign habit as our spirited Georgian fathers did to gambling, sometimes lying, as their history has it, on the roadside naked, but for the heap of straw they had pulled over them, till they could wager a lock of hair or the paring of a nail against what might set them up in clothes again. Whether it came from Slieve-na-Mon or Mount Abora, Æ. found it with his gods and I in my 'Land of Heart's Desire,' which no longer pleases me much. And then it seemed far enough till Mr. Edward Martyn discovered his ragged Peg Inerney, who for all that was a queen in faery; but soon John Synge was to see all the world as a withered and witless place in comparison with the dazzle of that dream; and now Lord Dunsany has seen it once more and as simply as if he were a child imagining adventures for the knights and ladies that rode out over the drawbridges in the piece of old tapestry in its mother's room. But to persuade others that it is all but one dream, or to persuade them that Lord Dunsany has his part in that change I have described I have but my superstition and this series of little books where I have set his tender, pathetic, haughty fancies among books by Lady Gregory, by Æ., by Dr. Douglas Hyde, by John Synge, and by myself. His work which seems today so much on the outside, as it were, of life and daily interest, may yet seem to those students I have imagined rooted in both. Did not the Maeterlinck of 'Pelleas and Melisande' seem to be outside life? and now he has so influenced other writers, he has been so much written about, he has been associated with so much celebrated music, he has been talked about by so many charming ladies, that he is less a vapour than that Dumas fils who wrote of such a living Paris. And has not Edgar Allen Poe, having entered the imagination of Baudelaire, touched that of Europe? for there are seeds still carried upon a tree, and seeds so light they drift upon the wind and yet can prove that they, give them but time, carry a big tree. Had I read 'The Fall of Babbulkund' or 'Idle Days on the Yann' when a boy I had perhaps been changed for better or worse, and looked to that first reading as the creation of my world; for when we are young the less circumstantial, the further from common life a book is, the more does it touch our hearts and make us dream. We are idle, unhappy and exorbitant, and like the young Blake admit no city beautiful that is not paved with gold and silver.
These plays and stories have for their continual theme the passing away of gods and men and cities before the mysterious power which is sometimes called by some great god's name but more often 'Time.' His travellers, who travel by so many rivers and deserts and listen to sounding names none heard before, come back with no tale that does not tell of vague rebellion against that power, and all the beautiful things they have seen get something of their charm from the pathos of fragility. This poet who has imagined colours, ceremonies and incredible processions that never passed before the eyes of Edgar Allen Poe or of De Quincey, and remembered as much fabulous beauty as Sir John Mandeville, has yet never wearied of the most universal of emotions and the one most constantly associated with the sense of beauty; and when we come to examine those astonishments that seemed so alien we find that he has but transfigured with beauty the common sights of the world. He describes the dance in the air of large butterflies as we have seen it in the sun-steeped air of noon. 'And they danced but danced idly, on the wings of the air, as some haughty queen of distant conquered lands might in her poverty and exile dance in some encampment of the gipsies for the mere bread to live by, but beyond this would never abate her pride to dance for one fragment more.' He can show us the movement of sand, as we have seen it where the sea shore meets the grass, but so changed that it becomes the deserts of the world: 'and all that night the desert said many things softly and in a whisper but I knew not what he said. Only the sand knew and arose and was troubled and lay down again and the wind knew. Then, as the hours of the night went by, these two discovered the foot-tracks wherewith we had disturbed the holy desert and they troubled over them and covered them up; and then the wind lay down and the sand rested.' Or he will invent some incredible sound that will yet call before us the strange sounds of the night, as when he says, 'sometimes some monster of the river coughed.' And how he can play upon our fears with that great gate of his carved from a single ivory tusk dropped by some terrible beast; or with his tribe of wanderers that pass about the city telling one another tales that we know to be terrible from the blanched faces of the listeners though they tell them in an unknown tongue; or with his stone gods of the mountain, for 'when we see rock walking it is terrible' 'rock should not walk in the evening.'
Yet say what I will, so strange is the pleasure that they give, so hard to analyse and describe, I do not know why these stories and plays delight me. Now they set me thinking of some old Irish jewel work, now of a sword covered with Indian Arabesques that hangs in a friend's hall, now of St. Mark's at Venice, now of cloud palaces at the sundown; but more often still of a strange country or state of the soul that once for a few weeks I entered in deep sleep and after lost and have ever mourned and desired.
Not all Lord Dunsany's moods delight me, for he writes out of a careless abundance; and from the moment I first read him I have wished to have between two covers something of all the moods that do. I believe that I have it in this book, which I have just been reading aloud to an imaginative young girl more French than English, whose understanding, that of a child and of a woman, and expressed not in words but in her face, has doubled my own. Some of my selections, those that I have called 'A Miracle' and 'The Castle of Time' are passages from stories of some length, and I give but the first act of 'Argimēnēs,' a play in the repertory of the Abbey Theatre, but each selection can be read I think with no thoughts but of itself. If 'Idle Days on the Yann' is a fragment it was left so by its author, and if I am moved to complain I shall remember that perhaps not even his imagination could have found adventures worthy of a traveller who had passed 'memorable, holy Golnuz, and heard the pilgrims praying,' and smelt burned poppies in Mandaroon.
|Normandy 1912.||W. B. Yeats.|