From The Leader, February 6, 1909. The following is a scathing review of Pádraig Pearse’s Íosagán agus Sgéalta Eile.

In short, this is written to the standard of revolt which is called Impressionism. As a position of course it is a blank negation of the efficiency of ours. All things that affect or impress our senses are the sacred and inviolable objects of art. The canons of this code are enforced by some universal spirit which moves the artist by ineludable necessity, he being the passive medium for expressing the eternal mind and sense of the all-pervading afflatus. A too submissive obedience to such artistic demands has produced modern French realism. And so imperious have the artists of that nation found this aesthetic dictation that they needs must include as artistic pabulum the things which atavistic instinct forces even very little children to regard with shame and abhorrence. Indeed it tells somewhat against the universality of their art spirit to find that those some artists are rather inclined to specialise in such things. So that this great impressionist motive when ravelled to its ultimate shreds is found to be flatulency or worse. Yet of such very sort is the gospel preached to us constantly by the Dublin week-end ‘art for art’s sake’ youngster. And indeed nothing brings home to one so poignantly the direly decadent efforts of the English literature absorbed in our schools as the cackle of our juvenile art critics. For they have been mercilessly fed upon the products of Ruskin and Carlyle and Macaulay and Wordsworth and all the other crockery poodles of the English chimney-piece, and having half-learned the patter of those they regard as their betters nothing will serve them but they must bestow their rancid information upon us. These poor boys are an overwhelming sample of the handiwork of our educators.

It is rather a comic situation, if we had the sense or knowledge to see it, that we should find ourselves in revolt who have never been in subjection. But to our Revivalists Irish literature is a sealed book. They are not to blame. They were delivered as helpless children into the hands of the English school ogre, and he gorged them with the purulent draff already specified. The Irish-speaking lads who read the Táin Bó Cualgne with me in Ring are of a different mettle and may be depended on to produce literature of a different cast. For the eructation will savour of the provender. Hence Irish literature being entirely unknown our writers naturally turn to the only literature they know, and so make contemporary English their model. But contemporary English standards vacillating, flaccid, undecided, unconvinced happen to be the very antithesis of ours. Still our writers for want of knowing better, swoop down upon and grab them, dish them up for us in Irish of a sort, and we are supposed to bolt them errant, passant and rampant. And for their dear sakes we are invited to turn our backs on Irish literature.

We are not so in revolt, for we were never Hellenised. Amidst the outer barbarians all is anarchy and pandemonium. That is not our affair. Still it may be good for them. They have bravely cast off the yoke of the old man of the sea, and are now wandering in the desert. Vaguely, purposelessly they roam, and stretch out blind hands in the dark to grasp something. We have that which they seek, let us hold fast to it. Let us sit down seriously and read and study and practise our own literature. Let us display it, and then it may be they will turn to the light. If they do not, at least let us have the light ourselves, and in order to follow them into the dark let us not blow out that already flickering flame with such windy rhodomontade as ‘Old Matt was sitting beside his door.’ (By the way this individual having been projected upon our notice without the least ceremony of introduction has slightly the advantage of us.) ‘Old Matt heard the crooning of the waves upon the rocks, and the murmurs of the streamlet dripping down along the rockery. He heard the screech of the crane from the moorland, the lowing of the cows from the pasture, and the joyous laughter of the children from the lawn.’ ‘….’ coming to him upon the wind in the morning calm,’1 etc.

Even in its final development Impressionism is related to Hellenism. There the Beautiful is the Good, and the highest effect is to be produced by overloading. A modern Hellenistic describer of a sunset exhausts the catalogue of colours in the paint-box. Impressionism proceeds a little further and maintains all colours may be blurred on promiscuously. The Glasgow school of painting actually tried to produce pictures by that process about fifteen years ago. But the function of art is strictly selective and nowhere more than in Irish art. For instance given the body of melodic tones that compose the ordinary singing register, what consummate, what superhuman skill must the artist have who strung them together to make that access of cosmic complaining called Atáim-se im chodluḋ or he who put into rhythm that weeping for an irreparable loss called ‘The Bench of Rushes,’ or he who put the irresistible ‘Come away, come away’ call into the reel ‘Rakish Paddy.’ Yet all of those are examples of the highest class of work in rejection and selection. For in those and countless other tunes notes are present or absent as by a sort of antecedent necessity, and still the result is as perfect and as natural as the trees that grow. So if anything was ever called by the name of art these tunes are in the category that deserve that title. Because the pre-historic singer who made them could think thoughts illimitably profound, illimitably exalted, he could express them adequately, and after the lapse of untold ages he, by his art, could generate identical thoughts in me, and thus bring me into mental communion with an infinitely greater mind. And so of the literature. For the supreme passages there, and they are legion, are produced not by the piling up of verbiage, but, as it were, by a process of denudation. And so the ultimate effect of Irish art is an outcome of the principle of reticence. Compare the glib garrulity of contemporary English poetry, and they will bear me out here who are far better acquainted with it than I am. There a minimum of thought never formulated to anything approaching the vulgar but intelligible plane of two and two are four, is soused in a gush of meaningless language, whereof the individual vocables are wrenched as far as possible from their ordinary signification. If it proceeds an ace further its cryptic subject matter will become so hugely mysterious and recondite that poetry can be made only by signs on the pattern of a celebrated scholastic disputation. And this is called profundity. But it is as barren as the East wind. For the dead are dead and this bantling has leave to crow. Our fathers are gone, our poets, musicians and writers have passed beyond. But their voice still lives. It is for us to hear this voice and respond to this ‘cry at a ferry.’

Impressionism is bad enough, but this sample is tinctured with a more deadly ingredient. Whatever may be said about the ‘dead man’ and the ‘listening’ there is no overlooking the significance of that reference to a bog. We stand face to face with the ‘Keltic note!’

Now of all the faculties that the human brain can devise this standard is for us the most foreign, the most fearsome. It is so diametrically opposed to everything that ever was in or ever came out of the Irish heart and mind, it is so cavalling, so pettish, so utterly abhorrent to every Irish sense of the right and fitting, that to classify it intelligibly I should do violence to the English dictionary. An Englishman named Arnold once made the stupendous discovery that Keltic literary standards are not Hellenic, and he mentioned the fact. A number of followers then decided to be Keltists, and as they knew only English they had perforce to make use of it for their purposes. They betook themselves to the beautiful English renderings with which Dr. Whitley Stokes has illustrated the mass of Middle Irish Literature he edited, and thence evolved the ‘Keltic note.’ Stokes once laughingly remarked to me in London that it was a marvel how they managed to get everything awry and contrary to the facts. For whereas they were all mist and fog Irish literature was if anything more crystalline, more limpid, and more logically accurate than French. This ‘note’ came to our Revival Irish along with all other motives from English Literature, and as it was ‘Keltic’ it had the title deeds for its occupancy. And it helps largely to besmirch the poor efforts of the Revival extending even to the little wood-cuts that adorn the little yellow books. For these latter on examination will be found as much out of plumb as the letter-press.

Now the ‘Keltic note’ and the English ‘Poetry’ produced in Dublin, together with energies of the stupendous immortals that write significant, etc., plays for the Abbey Theatre, and the activities of the Pan-Kelts, etc., and all that sort of people may do some good and can do no very great harm if they are kept strictly in their place. The frothy head on liquor is a sign that there is something working down below. When coming to drink you blow off the top. (So I have been informed.) The Revivalists will have it that the froth must be whipped with the liquor and hence their tipple is unspeakably vapid.

This and the previous sample having been both a little ambitious in the literary way caused delay and trouble by reason of the very grave additional elements they presented for stricture. It would seem the more stylistic a writer tries to appear in Irish the greater the mess he makes of it. The present specimen is particularly vile, though apparently intended for a classic. That so great unconsciousness abounds is a sign how far we are not only from a correct appreciation of Irish standards, but even from a well-grounded suspicion that any such exist. The writer should not be blamed if an otherwise praiseworthy effort has miscarried, he could not rise superior to his educational influences any more than the rest of us. Considered as an emanation from these, then if Irish literature is the talk of big, broad-chested men, this is the frivolous petulancy of latter-day English genre scribblers, and their utterance is as the mincing of the under-assistant floor-walker of a millinery shop.

1 Pádraig Pearse’s Íosagán agus Sgéalta Eile, first published 1907. Pearse would write of Henebry’s review: ‘[Íosagán] has been described by an able but eccentric critic as a ‘standard of revolt.’ It was meant as a standard of revolt, but my critic must pardon me if I say that the standard is not the standard of Impressionism. It is the standard of definite art form as opposed to the folk form. I may or may not be a good standard bearer, but at any rate the standard is raised and the writers of Irish are flocking to it.