“As Our Aspiration, So Is Our Inspiration.”
A friend writing of "A. E." has described him as "that tall and largely moulded form, the great head with its masses of dark brown hair and tawny beard, the imperturbable bearing holding in control the sensitive and burning spirit within, those deep-set, blue-grey eyes, full of benevolence and of rage, the low Irish voice equally capable of both." The writer patently was using a first hand knowledge of the appearance and character of Mr. George William Russell, known to many only as "A. E." Before I came across this description, it had already occurred to me that it was just such a man as the protagonist described, who would necessarily be the hero of an imaginary portrait constructed from the testimony which I had found in "A. E.'s" writing. Seldom have I seen a more complete dovetailing of the man and the work than that which became apparent to me in my consideration of "A. E." The purely physical characteristics set down above, "masses of dark brown hair and tawny beard," might of course belong to any man, poet, soldier, or what not; but it seems peculiarly requisite to Mr. Russell that there should be an "imperturbable bearing holding in control the sensitive and burning spirit", the spirit which is so clearly the immediate cause of "A. E.'s" poetry; certainly the least imaginative person in the world would feel that it is with "deep-set, blue-grey eyes, full of benevolence and of rage", that the poet sees the wonders beyond the hills as the veils are lifted one by one; I feel certain that it is not carrying the parallelism between my imaginary portrait of "A. E." and this valid description of him too far, to say that his poetry seems to a sympathetic ear to be spoken in a low Irish voice equally capable of both rage and benevolence.
There is an interesting, and to me conclusive, corroboration of this view of man and work in the interrelation of "The Candle of Vision," (the intimate autobiography of "A. E.'s" mind) and his poetry—"The Collected Poems" and his new book, "Voices of the Stones." Neither the prose nor the poetry can, I think, be adequately appreciated without reference to the other. The proper adjustment in relative position for the two is, it seems to me, to accept "The Candle of Vision" as a sort of parallel in prose to the poems. I may, perhaps, be wrong-minded here, but it is according to this arrangement that I have come to correlate "A. E.'s" work in my mind. This correlation is not difficult to follow through, because the dominant theme in both autobiography and poetry is the same.
"Like all mystics 'A. E.' is content to express in his poetry, a single vision, a single intention." The word mystic occurring in this sentence from an essay by Mr. Padraic Colum, can, I feel, be allowed to stand unchallenged, for the word is Flaubertian in its application to "A. E." It is obvious that "A. E." is a true mystic because for him nothing is mundane in its finality, everything is transmuted through some alchemy of vision. Indeed the dedication of "Voices of the Stones," addressed to Mr. Colum, is testimony sufficient in itself:
. . . "Only the humble stones have kept their morning starriness of purity immutable. Being unf alien they breathe only unf alien life; and with my cheek pressed to their roughness I had part regained my morning starriness, and made these songs half from the hidden world and half from this." In his mystic visions "A. E." is in diametric polarity to such a man as Mr. Alfred Edward Housman whose peculiar greatness finds its source in his unflinching and steadfast facing of those things in the world which we have named "realities." Mr. Housman's ethos is succinctly disclosed in:
"And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
Those foreign laws of God and Man."
while that of "A. E." is best voiced in "Star Teachers":
"These myriad eyes that look on me are mine;
Wandering beneath them I have found again
The ancient simple moment, the divine
The God-root within men."
That title, "Star Teachers," is a direct clue to the nature of "A. E.'s" vision. I imagine that the technical term for the philosophy which "A. E." has embraced is pantheism: that philosophy which accepts the existence of spirit in all things, the all pervading, all including oneness that is at once the past, the present, and more dimly the future. The source of "A. E.'s" acceptance of pantheism is, according to his testimony in "The Candle of Vision," a native proclivity to visions or disclosures of the truth of the great general plan. These revelations began to come to "A. E." when a boy and have continued with more and more clarity throughout his life. With this continuity of vision has come the mature conviction that enables him to write, first in "The Candle of Vision": "Every form on that tapestry appeared to be the work of the gods. Every flower was a word, a thought. The grass was speech; the trees were speech; the waters were speech; the winds were speech. They were the Army of the Voice marching over spirit; and I listened with my whole being, and then these apparitions would fade away and i would be the mean and miserable boy once more"; and later, as clearly in his new poem "Natural Magic":
. . . "Oh, it was magical!
Can I Recall? The blinding sunlight ran
Over the burning hyacinth to fall
Starry upon water. So began
The incantation of the light which brought
Rapt face and fiery wing,
The Heaven of Heavens: a myriad marvel wrought
And from so slight a thing."
The words which I have italicized in the prose passage are especially significant, because there is, I think, the final link between "A. E.'s" mystical experience and the matter of his poetry. He says in "The Candle of Vision," "as our aspiration so is our inspiration;" and certainly from the words, "and I listened with my whole being," we can judge that "A. E.'s" whole-hearted aspiration was to join irrevocably in himself the immensity of Past and Present.
"I climb by the phantom stair
To a whiteness older than Time."
To him "Earth seemed bathed in an sether of Deity" because "we have access to a memory greater than our own." Fortunately for the immediate peace of his own soul, for he finds salvation in his ecstacy, and for the aid to ultimate peace of some other souls, (for in "A. E.'s" vision, as he tells of it in his poetry, less clear-eyed men than he are able to see the completion of the mysteries which by themselves they have seen as through a glass darkly), "A. E.'s" vision has been of sufficient continuity to solidify his aspiration and to make constant his inspiration.
Glancing casually through his poetry, it is hard to see how truly encompassing his vision is. To read mechanically and thoughtlessly a few of his poems, one might easily dispose of him as a nature poet,—one of those men who write of nature in the superficial sense, because of the mere physical appeal of the brooks, of the clouds, and of the hills. This classification would of course be quite inadequate; "A. E." seems to cherish most beautiful sentences of Sir Thomas Browne's:
"The wisdom of God receives small honor from those vulgar heads that rudely stare about, and with a gross rusticity admire His works. Those highly magnify Him, whose judicious enquiry into His acts, and deliberate research with His creatures, return the duty of a devout and learned admiration."
"A. E." holds the country physician's doctrine high, though of course he accepts it in transmuted meaning, since to him the word "God" has not the same limitations that it had for the author of "Religio Medici". "A. E." writes, "I think of the earth as the floor of a cathedral where altar and Presence are everywhere." It is in such a house of God that "A. E." does homage and worships the author of his vision. He has written a poem which comes close to defining his idea of a prayer to God:
"Far up the dim twilight fluttered
Moth-wings of vapour and flame.
The lights danced over the mountains,
Stars after star they came.
The lights grew thicker unheeded
For silent and still were we;
Our hearts were drunk with a beauty
Our eyes could never see."
Such a prayer has in it nothing of formalism; it has everything of spontaneous communion. "A. E." allows no dogma, no theology, to constrain, to mitigate this vision of his. Mr. Colum says that "A. E.'s" vision like Santa Teresa's is heroic. This comparison may seem strange when the polarity of their respective conceptions of God is considered. Santa Teresa regarded God as a bulwark for man, while "A. E." thinks of man as a stone in the great bulwark God. Still there is the innate common denominator of faith between Santa Teresa's personal credo:
"Nada te turbe
Nada te espante
Todo se pasa
Dios no se muda
La paciencia todo lo alcanza
Quien a Dios tiene
Nada le falta
Solo Dios basta."
and "A. E.'s"
"Oh, at the eagle's height
To lie i’ the sweet of the sun
While veil after veil takes flight
And God and the world are one.
Oh, the night on the steep!
All that his eyes saw dim
Grows light in the dusky deep,
And God is alone with him."
I have said that there is no dogma nor theology to mitigate the vision; that is true; but vision, like everything else, must have a certain structure or fabric—it cannot exist formless and unrestricted. Structure is necessary, and to fulfill this universal requisite, "A. E." offers himself the recreated hierarchy of the Ancient Celts. As he notes in the last poem in "Voices of the Stones":
"As Michael read the Gaelic Scroll
It seemed the story of the soul,
And those who wrought, lest there should fail
From earth the legend of the Gael
Seemed warriors of Eternal Mind."
He has described this cosmogony in the last chapter of "The Candle of Vision," and has again and again used it as a matrix for his poetry. There are, of course, various levels in the hierarchy, but it seems to me that the fundamental Dana who holds all in herself, is explanatory of the whole scheme. Dana, the Hibernian Mother of the Gods, "is the first spiritual form of matter, and therefore is Beauty. As every being emerges out of her womb clothed with form, she is the mighty Mother, and as mother of all she is that divine compassion which exists beyond and is the final arbiter of the justice of the Gods. Her heart will be ours, when ours forgive." This passage, from "The Candle of Vision" sets down the guiding principle of "A. E.'s" thought and so of his poetry. Such poems as his "Dana" and "Earth Breath," are in direct parallelism to it; and perhaps most illuminating of all is "The Virgin Mother" which asks,
"Who is that goddess to whom men should pray,
But her from whom hearts have turned away,
Out of whose Virgin being they were born,
Whose mother nature they have named with scorn
Calling its holy structure common clay."
Such a goddess immediately calls to mind Swinburne's "Hertha", and indeed there is foundation for the association. Both are the consolation of men who have found orthodox Christianity impossible. Like so many others, among whom are Voltaire, Shelley and Swinburne, "A. E," has by the unthinking, been termed, atheist. The truth of the matter is that after going unhappily and thoughtfully through the slough of agnosticism, they have found the firm ground of a faith in this merging of personal identity with the immense oneness which they believe to be the truth of the universal plan.
The second verse of "The Virgin Mother" is especially significant, showing, as it does, the exact position in the general scheme which "A. E." sees man as assuming.
"But her from whom their hearts have turned away." Mathew Arnold, James Thomson, and other nineteenth century sceptics felt that man stood deserted by God and had nothing to which he might tether his belief. "A. E." reverses that order of things. To him as to Arnold, man is an exile, but the later poet sees man as the wilful exile, the recalcitrant, a sort of glorified Byronic type, who through his evil-doing has made himself a temporary outcast, an outcast who, however,
"is thrilled with fire of hidden clay,
And haunted by all mystery."
"A. E." never hears the Annoldian,
". . . melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world":
but writes in direct refutation of such pessimism and despair,
"And all I thought of heaven before
I find in earth below.
As sunlight in the hidden core
To dim the noonday glow.
And with the earth my heart is glad,
I move as one of old;
With mists of silver I am clad
And bright with burning gold."
"A. E.'s" vision is one of confidence and one of hope. There is in its light no need of allowing the "City of Dreadful Night" to loom as a chimera, because "the soul is its own witness and its own refuge," since the soul is part of the oneness that is God, and
"The mighty Mother bows at last;
She listens to her children's fears.
Where the last anguish deepens—there
The fire of beauty smites through pain
A glory moves amid despair
The Mother takes her child again."
The vision is one of complete conviction that the ultimate oneness with God is the final explanation of the universe, that the temporary loss of this unity is the immediate cause of the misery on earth; that the regaining of the primitive union with "The Everliving" is salvation.
In considering what a man says in prose or poetry—in trying to grasp a man's philosophy—one can best proceed by bringing to bear whatever elements of comparison one may have at command. In the case of "A. E." there are, it seems to me, two interesting elements for consideration. They are, first the very patent knowledge that he has of eastern mysticism, and second what I feel to be the obvious results of an intimate study of Carlyle's mystical theories. The eastern influence is everywhere in "A. E.'s" work. In "The Candle of Vision" he explains his reverence for the poets and seers who are responsible for the half-sacred traditions of the East. "I have not entered the paradise they have entered, but what little I know finds its place in the universe of their vision whether they are Syrian or Greek, Egyptian, or Hindu, the writers of the sacred books seem to me as men who had all gazed upon the same august vision and reported the same divinity." The Irish poet wished to join their holy circle, and "as our aspiration so is our inspiration." He has made in his poetry such outward manifestations of his inward interest or aspiration as Krishna (imitated from a fragment of the Vaishnava Scriptures) and has created an atmosphere wholly eastern. In "Refuge" the whole pattern, the whole fabric of the thing is eastern in its succinctness, its quietness, and its dark vividness:
"Twilight, a timid faun went glimmering by;
And Night, the dark-blue hunter, followed fast,
Ceaseless pursuit and flight were in the sky,
But the long chase had ceased for us at last.
We watched together while the driven faun
Hid in the golden thicket of the day.
We, from whose hearts pursuit and flight were gone
Knew on the hunter's breast her refuge lay."
Again in the poem, "The Voice of the Waters," there is the odor of that distant charm which permeates Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." The whole influence of this eastern sapience, which someone has termed, "a curious alliance of his whole being with Oriental mysticism which has given a universal mind to a man who has never travelled beyond England," seems to me to have been one of firm quieting of the turbulence of "A. E.'s" first sight of the vision. The eastern knowledge has given him something of the spiritual remoteness which is the characteristic strength of the Indian holy-man, the aloofness which is the force of the holy-man's inspiration. "A. E." himself in "The Candle of Vision" tells of the practical use of this eastern wisdom:
"If we brood with love upon this myriad unity, following the meditation ordained by Buddha for the brothers of his order, to let our minds pervade the whole wide world with heart of love, we come more and more to permeate, or to be pervaded by the lives of others."
I have mentioned the quieting influence of this eastern philosophic study—and in this quieting, I think, lies the inter-relation between the eastern and the Carlylean element of "A. E.'s" philosophy. Before I properly had noted the eastern influence, I had been struck by the resemblance of "A. E.'s" vision to Carlyle's transcendentalism. The theory of the all-present deity is a common factor, and there is too a certain parallelism in the subsidiary mechanics of their theories. Carlyle writes of Teufelsdrbckh:
"In a word, he had looked fixedly on Existence, till one after the other its Earthly hills and garnitures have all melted away; and now, to his rapt vision, the interior celestial Holy of Holies lies disclosed," and again, "That with God as it is a universal Here, so it is an everlasting Now."
Certainly the fundamental relation between Carlyle and "A. E." is so clear that it would be redundant to comment farther on it. This dovetailing of theories includes a similarity of what I have named "Subsidiary Mechanics"; "its earthly hills and garnitures have all melted away", wrote Carlyle, and surely that is descriptive of an exact parallel to the "lifting veils" from behind which "A. E.'s" vision comes to him. In "Sartor Resartus," Carlyle has a chapter upon Symbolism, the main kernel of which is: "For is not a symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the God-like;" while "A. E." defines symbolism as "clothing the vast with a familiar face," and elucidates again:
"In miracles of fire
He symbols forth his days;
In gleams of crystal light
Reveals what pure pathways
Lead to the souls desire,
The silence of the height."
"We rise, but by the symbol charioted,
Through loved things rising up Love's own ways,
By these the soul unto the vast has wings
Arid sets the seal celestial on all mortal things."
Indeed, "A. E." must at one time have accepted in its entir-ity Carlyle's tailor philosophy. As he received it from Carlyle, it was rough and over vigorous with the warmth of the forge; "A. E." seems somehow to have smoothed out the roughness and to have made of the almost harsh philosophy of Carlyle a more delicate, a more seemly, but a no less true thing. This partial metamorphosis has been accomplished, I feel, in large part by the passage of Carlyle's transcendentalism through the refining alembic of eastern wisdom;— the gentleness, the quietness, the remoteness of Oriental mysticism has transmuted the wild, unchastened philosophy of the Scotchman into the smooth almost hypnotic philosophy of the Irish man.
"Would the Mother of us all receive me again as one of her children? Would the winds with wandering voices be as before the evangelist of her love? Or would I feel like an outcast amid the mountains, the dark valleys, and the shining lakes?" Certainly "A. E." cannot be far from the end of his exile. He seems to see ineffably more than the rest of us. When like Blake, "A. E." is questioned by the Voice
"Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?"
he can answer evenly
"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."
Mr. Padraic Colum has described, in a few words and truly, the strength and the appeal that we feel in his prose and in his poetry, as much in his new "Voices of the Stones" as in his "Candle of Vision" and "Collected Poems."
"One has the sense of hearing a deep sound in nature, a sound that becomes more significant as one listens to it. How is it that these short poems, very many of them only three stanzas, give one the sense of fullness and profundity? It is because they are all glimpses of the same river of vision."