From An Macaomh, Vol II, May 1913.
The themes of Early Irish Literature are many of them the themes of modern romantic literature — in lyric poetry, nature and humanity: nature, the joy of natural things, the joy of the earth’ s beauty, the woods and the birds in the woods, the delight of summer, season surpassing, grateful to dwellers in a northern land, the terror of the white winter when not a bell is heard and no crane talks, when shapes are all gone, the joy of the sea, the plain of Ler, with its witching song, the delightful home of ships, the image of Hell with its dread tempest: humanity, men and women, love and destiny, humanity at odds with life, a king and a hermit, a girl who died for love, a warrior who kept his tryst after death, Deirdre, the predestined of sorrow, winning some joy from life before her fate falls, an old woman who has seen the passing away of her famous beauty, who sees the ebb tide carrying away her years, who sees the flood wave foaming in for others. Later, after the English are settled in the land, not humanity but the nation, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, is our heroic theme.
The manifestations of nationality are symbolised by man and nature. The silk of the kine goes lurking in the woods, weeping down tears while her foe has wine on his table. The little shining rose is black. No wonder that those who, lured by the felicity of gracious words, have learned to read with satisfaction in Shakespeare the easy hideous history of the English Wars of the Roses, half won to sympathy with ravening lust and barbarity, are perplexed by Gaelic Literature of the middle period.
And so all Irish Literature is set down as vague, mysterious, obscure. Nothing could be more clear, more direct, more gem-like, hard and delicate and bright, than the earlier lyric poetry, nothing more surely true to nature, full of natural piety, nothing of another kind greater in suggestion, however brief in form. Not till the advent of Wordsworth comes there anything like this intimacy with nature into other modern literature.
Not till we listen to the voice of Shelley do we hear in other lyric poetry such prophecy of song as has come down through folk poetry in Irish, a lyric poetry which, as Mr. John Eglinton said many years ago, “has far more in common with the later developments of English poetry— with poems, for example, like Shelley’s ‘When the lamp is shattered’ or George Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley’—than anything produced by the wits of the London coffee houses.”
A POET of the Celtic Note— I use the term as I find it, though I know how wrong it is; I use it without disrespect— has declared that to Standish O’Grady he and his comrades owe their introduction to Celtic hero-lore. The introduction, then, has been of a very special kind. Standish O’Grady is a poet who walks this earth as if it were another earth, who finds it and proves it another. In him vision is more than sight. Such as he, in this mean time of compromise and commerce and materialism, may find it hard not to forget that all times are, for aught we know, equally’ mean, and so, equally noble—mean to the low and noble to the high.
Poets in every generation regret the good times of a better past, seeing in the glass of death only the heavenly colours that the blessed have taken on, seeing sometimes in the glass of life only’ one commerce of their kind, the traffic of dross and the strife with hunger, and material utility in the mart outbidding the ideal. Such a one may forget or may not believe that commerce, even this one commerce, has not only – its material utility but also its glory, its intrepid adventure, its strangeness and richness of far off lands and seas and peoples, and so, its culture of wonder and imagination, its fosterage of the arts.
Such a one may forget or may’ not believe that this one commerce is the business set over against the dream, keeping the dream true. The shopkeeper of to-day is the father of the poet, of the hero, of the saint of to-morrow. Standish O’Grady, too, may have forgotten these things or may not have believed
them. He is different from many who keep only them in mind. For the poets of the Celtic Note it was he that found the dun in which the wild riders of ancient Irish hero-lore were confined. It was he that let them forth — them or phantasies of them. Phantasies, some believe who have gone later into the dun and seen the riders there. The things that he let forth were viewed by alien moderns as Oisin was viewed by the convertites of Patrick— and by some that were pagan still. They were a wonder as they rode, and they sang in a strange tongue. The moderns who sought to set down in alien letters their semblance and their song told of vague romantic mystery about them.
The others who have gone into the dun have known of no such mystery. They have listened to their song in its own language, and they hold that by the poets it has been misinterpreted quite. The poets have used the frame of Irish story as a frame whereon to weave the palpable stuff of their vision and their interpretation of the heroic in life. Their version is a mistranslation; not for the first time the world has owed a beautiful thing to a mistranslation of genius. The original is a work of genius in another way of beauty.
And yet for all that I have said here, for all their error of half-heard words, the poets may be nearer to the rhythm of the ancient song than those of us who spell the words in full. Some of the ancient tales, some passages in the epics, are altogether incredible and impossible to our modern ways of thought and life here. May- they not have other meanings? They have the impossibility of the fairy tale. Perhaps they have the enduring truth of the fairy tale, of the parable, of the fable, which is truer than a history that owes so much to accident and whim and personality.
It would be vain, even if unluckily we wished it or could do it, to set bounds to literary genius, which is always breaking new soil, or rather always coming in a new manifestation. It is at its best and highest a new epiphany. Some in our day or after our day may make a great new literature in the tradition of this old world of Early Irish Literature. But I rather expect that the literature of to-morrow will be in terms of the life of to-morrow, and that the old world is too different, too far apart, too much wronged now, I fear, by misrepresentation, by false praise that would make it good of another kind than of its way of goodness, by false blame that would call its culture barbarism, its strength brutality or impropriety, its mysticism magic, its austere sincerity in literature a defect of power and richness, its power and richness, when it has such, exaggeration.
We may admit that we cannot now feel those old emotions at first heart, so to put it. We have not reverence for the same things. We cannot pray to the old gods. We could not blaspheme the old gods. We are of a different day, a different light shines on us. History is between us and our heroes. We cannot rid our memories of the glories and the calamities of our story, of the mighty things, of the futile things. Our thought is woven of the stuff of memory and elder thought and of a knowledge that has gained on this side and lost on that like an island in the sea. Our dreams are children dreams and parent dreams. A part of the old world lives in us, tom large part we are alien not in speech only but in feeling, in sense, in instinct, in vision. We are true to the best of the old literature when we are true to that part of it which we inherit now in the twentieth century, when we discover in ourselves something of its good tradition, something that has remained true by the changing standards and measures.