From An Claidheamh Soluis, 26 May, 1906
Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of the intellect of ancient Ireland was its spirit of daring. Both in the world of action and in the world of thought the old Gael was a brave adventurer. His mind was abnormally inquisitive, restless, venturous, original.
He mingled the spirit of the Vikings or of the Elizabethans with that of the olden Greeks and of the first Christian missionaries. It was his delight to make voyages of discovery on unknown seas, to penetrate virgin fastnesses, to climb untrodden heights, to venture down into unexplored depths; in general, to essay feats never before attempted or dreamt of.
He took a keen intellectual and imaginative pleasure in efforts to overcome matter; a still keener and subtler pleasure in his adventures in the realms of mind. In the domain of action he civilised Europe and discovered America. In the world of thought he speculated daringly in theology, sociology, and pure science, – being the first, for one thing, to teach formally the sphericity of the earth and to expound the law of gravitation.
In literature he invented the novel and (by contriving the rhymed stanza) laid the foundations of modern poetry. He gave Europe its first hymn, its first love-song, and its first mock-heroic. Among his minor achievements are the inventions of blank verse, chain-rhyme, entrance-rhyme, burthens, broken staves, dissyllabic and trisyllabic rhymes, bilingual or macaronic verse. The technique of the poetry of modern civilised nations is purely Irish, or at least Celtic; the inspiration largely so. Take away what the Greek and the Celt have gifted to European literature and what remains?
Eclipse came for the Irish Gael just at the moment when he stood on the threshold of modern philosophy. As he had anticipated Columbus, Galileo, and Newton, so he was about to anticipate Bacon, Pascal, and the great moderns. Tolstoy he partially anticipated, Ibsen wholly. We have said that he invented the novel. The statement, amazing as it may seem to some, does not represent the summit of his achievement in this particular direction. He invented the novel of psychology. In “Diarmuid agus Gráinne” we have the first patient and detailed analysis of the mind of a human being that was attempted in Europe since the days of Greek drama. Has it ever occurred to anyone that Gráinne is a prototype of Hedda Gabler?
To what purpose this disquisition? To this purpose. Is it possible that the Gael has lost all that gallant adventuresomeness of spirit, all that soaring originality of intellect which characterised him in his great ages? Have the Breandans and the Fearghals and the Aonghuses and the unknown shapers of the first European novels left no intellectual descendants? Do Kerry mountainsdies and Iar-Connacht heights and Tirconnell glens nurture today a race in which there lingers no breath of the old daring spirit, no spark of the old consuming fire, no trace of the old high resolve?
Our sires sang poetry which set Europe aglow and which still rings down the evening gale in remote country places at home; we, apart from a few pure and strenuous notes that have recently been heard, can produce nothing better than half-English jingles and frigid imitations of eighteenth-century decadents. Our sires invented the novel: amongst us (apart from the creator of “Séadna”) only two have attempted anything longer than a storyette, both of these have dealt with incident rather than with character, and only one is readable. Our sires expounded the motions of the spheres and explained the daily ebb and flow of the tide; we have produced a table-book, an elementary arithmetic, and a geography primer, – all three admirable as far as they go, but covering how small an expanse of the mighty ocean of science!
Of course, it were absurd at this stage of the movement to expect philosophical poetry, psychological novels, and deep treatises on metaphysics. But we do think that a little more originality, a little more boldness, a little more ambition on the part of Irish writers were both necessary and desirable. Last week we wrote a glorification of the folktale. But it must be distinctly understood that we hold the folktale to be a beautiful and a gracious thing only in its own time and place, – and its time and place are the winter fireside, or the spring sowing-time, or the summer hay-making, or the autumn harvesting, or the country road at any season. This week we lay down the proposition that a living modern literature cannot (and if it could, should not) be built up on the folktale.
The folktale is an echo of old mythologies, an unconscious stringing together of old memories and fancies; literature is a deliberate criticism of actual life. In point of form, the folktale is bound by a convention which, in essentials, obtains amongst the folk universally, whether in Ireland, in Bohemia, or in Afghanistan. Why impose the folk attitude of mind, the folk convention of form on the makers of a literature? Why set up as a standard for the Irish writers of today a standard at which Aonghus Ó Dálaigh and Seathrun Céitinn would have laughed?
“Because we have no other standard,” says someone who reads. But we have. We have the standard of the ancients. Irish literature gave models to Europe. Is it not high time that it should give models to Ireland? Let us, in attempting to remake a literature here, follow, not the folk, but the makers of literature who have preceded us. Will the ancients suffice as exemplars? Frankly, we are afraid not. We must get into touch also with our contemporaries, – in France, in Russia, in Norway, in Finland, in Bohemia, in Hungary, wherever, in short, vital literature is being produced on the face of the globe. Two influences go to the making of every artist, apart from his own personality, – if, indeed, personality is not, in the main, only the sum of these influences; the influence of his ancestors and that of his contemporaries.
Irish literature, if it to live and grow, must get into contact on the one hand with its own past and on the other with the mind of contemporary Europe. It must draw its sap of its life from the soil of Ireland; but it must be open on every side to the free air of heaven. We would have our literature modern not only in the sense of freely borrowing every modern form which it does not possess and which it is capable of assimilating, but also in texture, tone, and outlook. This is the twentieth century; and no literature can take root in the twentieth century which is not of the twentieth century.
We want no Gothic revival. We would have the problems of today fearlessly dealt with in Irish; the loves and hates and desires and doubts of modern men and women. The drama of the land war; the tragedy of the emigration-mania; the stress and poetry and comedy of the language movement; the pathos and vulgarity of Anglo-Ireland; the abounding interest of Irish politics; the relations of priest and people; the perplexing education riddle; the drink evil; the increase of lunacy; such social problems as (say) the loveless marriage; – these are matters which loom large in our daily lives, which bulk considerably in our daily conversation; but we find not the faintest echoes of them in the Irish books that are being written.
There would seem to be an amazing conspiracy amongst our writers to refrain absolutely from dealing with life, – the one thing with which, properly considered, literature has any concern! We would have every young writer remember that his first duty is to be unafraid. If he has a message to deliver to the world, let him speak out: and the fact that his message is one that has not hitherto been delivered in Irish should not deter him, but rather urge him on. All honour to the ancients: but they have not said everything that is to be said on any subject, and there are some millions of subjects on which they have said nothing at all.