The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, Anima Celtica

THE ANCIENT BEAUTY

[Dedicatory introduction for an American reprint of my versions of the old Gaelic tales of DeirdrÍ and the Sons of Usna and the Children of Lir.]

"Sogna, sogna, mia cara anima! Tutto
  Tutto sarŗ! come al tempo lontano."
                                 Poema Paradisaco.

Little girl, when you grow to maidhood and womanhood, it is a hope of mine that you will love these old legendary tales, of which the tale of DeirdrÍ and the Sons of Usna is one. Before you read this time-sweet story of great love you will come to the story of Fionnula and her brothers, because the Tale of the Children of Lir, or the Tale of the Four Swans as it is sometimes called, is first among the old beautiful stories for the delight of those standing in or passing beyond childhood. For a thousand years Gaelic youth has loved and wept over it. By many fires, by lonely seas, in hill-glens . . . in the great straths where old was no change but the changing colour of season following season and where no strangers came save birth and death, but where the deer now have their wilderness or vast flocks browse where the smoke of crofts and homesteads rose . . . from generation to generation children, and maids and youths keeping children's hearts, have had their lives deepened in love and devotion, because of this tale of endurance noble to the end, and of patience so great that the heart aches at the thought of it. You will hear much of the other virtues, dear: but do not forget these, which are so great, the stars of Christ . . . endurance and patience. It may help you to remember if you read of them in verse, as has been written in beauty

"Endurance is the noblest quality
  And Patience all the passion of great hearts."

But when you are older, I think there will be no tale on the high lift of love, of heroic love, to move you more than that now retold for you here, out of the dim beautiful past whose shadows sleep, in lengthening fans of twilight, across the sunset-lands of the imagination.

In all the regions of the Gael throughout Scotland, and in every isle, from Arran and Islay in the south to Iona in the west and Tiree in mid-sea and the Outer Hebrides, there is no story of the old far-off days so well known as that of DeirdrÍ. In some places she is called Darthool, or Dartuil, or Darthray, or Darrathray (the last I have heard once only), but DeirdrE is the one name common to all the Gaels; and in Ireland to this day there is not a cowherd who has not heard of that queenly name.

Her beauty filled the old world of the Gael with a sweet, wonderful, and abiding rumour. The name of DeirdrÍ has been as a lamp to a thousand poets. In a land of heroes and brave and beautiful women, how shall one name survive? Yet to this day and for ever, men will remember DeirdrÍ, the torch of men's thoughts, and Grainne whom Diarmid loved and died for, and Maev who ruled mightily, and Fand whose white feet trod faery dew, and many another. For Beauty is the most unforgettable thing in the world, and though of it a few perish, and the myriad dies unknowing and uncaring, beneath it the nations of men move as beneath their pilgrim star. Therefore he who adds to the beauty of the world is of the sons of God. He who destroys or debases beauty is of the darkness, and shall have darkness for his reward.

The day will come when you will find a subtle enchantment in these names. They will bring you a lost music, a lost world, and imperishable beauty. You will dwell with them, till you love DeirdrÍ as did the sons of Usna, and would die for her, or live to see her starry eyes; till you look longingly upon the Grainne of your dreams, and cry as Diarmid did, when he asked her, as death menaced them, if even yet she would go back, and she answered that she would not: "Then go forward, O Grainne!"

Empires become drifted sand, and the queens of great loveliness are dust on the wind. They shall not come again, towered cities of sand, palaces built upon the sea, roses of beauty that blossomed for an hour on the wind that is ever silently and swiftly moving out of darkness and turning a sunlit wing and then silently and swiftly moving into darkness again. But the wind is changeless in divine continual advent, and the sunlit wing is that immortal radiance we call Beauty, which we see as the mirage hung upon the brows of Life. In that mirage Death is but a beautful phantom walking among rainbows and white flowers; and the poets of the world--who have ever been in love with Love and Death which in the deep sense are one--look into that lovely mystery and see again the towers and palaces of white nameless cities, and hear the rejoicing of flutes and clarions, and see banners upon the wind and armies marching, and the loveliness of great queens of beauty, and gather dreams and inspiration there, and come again and bow down before the eternal Phantom in the heart of all of us.

For wisdom reneweth herself in beauty.

It will not suffice that you care for these beautiful old tales as one cares for a flower that one plucks by the wayside, that one gathers at whim and idly discards. It will not suffice to like them as we like something which amuses us for a moment, a fantasy at a theatre, a light air lightly played or a song lifting itself from twilights of silence, this painted idyll of what never was, this facile romance of the obvious or the impossible. These are things of pleasantry, and are good, or may be good, each in its kind: but they are not the things of the heart's desire, nor images of what the soul longs for and thirsts for.

But will you find anything of that which the soul longs for and thirsts for, will you find any unshaken or wavering image of your heart's desire, in the telling of an old tale? Many will ask that; some incredulously, some scornfully, some indifferently.

Perhaps. Perhaps not. It is of least moment what is in the tale: it is of moment what atmosphere of ideal beauty has remained with it out of the mind of the dreamer who shaped it, but of the love of generations for whom it has been full of a perpetual sweet newness as of summer-dawn, for whom it has been as fresh as moon-dew glistering on banks of thyme along old grassy ways. And it is of supreme moment what we ourselves bring: what every reader who would know the enchantment must bring, what you, dear, if you would know the enchantment, must bring.

Let me for a moment tell you something that bears upon what I say. Long ago, one of the old forgotten gods, the god of enchantment and illusion, made a glory of loveliness, a glory of sound, and a glory of delight. Then he watched seven mortals approach in turn. Three saw in it no loveliness, heard in it no ecstasy, caught from it no rapture. Of three others, one knew an inexplicable delight, and took away the wonder and the memory to be his while he lived: and one heard an ecstasy of sound, and went away rapt, and forgetting all things because of that dream and passion not seen but heard: and the third looked on that loveliness, and ever after his fellows spoke of him as one made insane by impossible dreams, though he had that in his life which rose in a white flame, and quenched his thirst at wells of the spirit, and rejoiced continually. But of the seven only one saw the glory as the god of enchantment and illusion had made it, seeing in it the spirit that is Beauty, and hearing in it the soul of Music, and uplifted by it to the rapture that is the passion of delight. And lest that evil Destiny which puts dust upon dreams, and silence upon sweet airs, and still songs, and makes the hand idle, and the mind an eddying leaf, and the spirit as foam upon the sea, should take from this dreamer what he had won, the god of enchantment and illusion gave the man a broken heart, and a mind filled with the sighing of weariness, and sorrow to be his secret friend and the silence upon his pillow by night.

I have told you this to help you to understand that it is what we bring to the enchantment that matters more than what the enchantment may disclose. And, when you have been kissed by sorrow--may the darker veiled Dread pass you, dear--you will understand why the seventh dreamer who looked upon the secret wonder was of the few whom the gods touch with the hands, of the chosen keepers and guardians of the immortal fire.

No, it will not suffice that you care for them as a flower plucked by the wayside, as a pleasure gathered in idleness, to be forgotten when gathered. You must come to these old tales to seek and to find the surviving beauty of gathered dreams and a silent world, the immortality of ideals treasured once, forgotten now. I do not say, I would not have you believe, for I do not so think, that all the old ideals of beauty have stolen away from the world, as twilight retreats from the grass in the pale greenness of dawns. But some have gone, or are changed, and we do not know them: and some have dimmed. And, at least I think so, some are so rare now as to be seen only in a few hearts, like the star in a woodland pool seen among slim spears of reed. One does not look into many enchanted hearts in that uncertain wandering of ours between the lighting and the ashes of the brief fire which we come to unknowingly, and carelessly tend, and regret with unavailing tears, and leave, cold. And I . . . I shall have bent above the fading warmth, and have risen at last, cold, and gone away, when that little wondering heart of yours shall have become a woman's heart: and so I do not know whether, if I were to look in it, I should see beyond the shaken reeds of the mind the depth-held star of the old passion of beauty, the old longing, the old enchantment. But I hope so.

And so, if, carrying a heart such as I hope for you and believe is yours, little one, you will bring with you the enchanted secret, the enchantment in your mind, and look into that dim, beautiful enchantment of the past--of a world that ended, that changed long ago, and whose light endures as the travelling light of a star may immeasurably survive the starI know you will find a compelling beauty in these old tales of the Gael, a beauty of thought against which to lay your thought, a beauty of dream against which to lay your dream, a beauty of desire against which to lay your desire. For they are more than tales of beauty, than tales of wonder. They are the dreams of the enchanted spirit of man, achieved in beauty. Shall the day come when the tale of Deirdr6 shall be no more told, when in the firelight moist eyes shall not deepen at the sorrows of Fionnula and her swan-brothers, when men's hearts and women's hearts shall not be quickened by the tale of Ailinn and BailE Honeymouth, when the madness of Cuchulain shall not trouble, when the love of Emer shall not be the very fragrance of great love, when the song of Niamh shall not enchant?

If so, it is not merely beautiful children of legend we shall lose, not the lovely raiment, but the very beauty and love themselves, the love of beauty, the love of love, the old wondering ecstasy, the lost upliftedness, which once were an ancestral possession in an old, simple, primitive way, and now, or in that way, are no more ours, but are changed for us, as rainbows are changed upon the brows of cloud.

So, little one, come in time to love these things of beauty. Lay your child's heart that is made of morning joy and evening longing to that mother-heart: and when you gather years, as now you gather the little white clan of the grass, it shall be well with you. And you, too, when your time is come, and you in turn pass on the mystery of life to another who will look up from your breast with eyes of still wonder and slowly shaping thought, forget not to tell that other to lay its child's heart of morning joy and evening longing against a more ancient and dream-filled heart than that of any woman, that mother-heart of which I speak to you, the Heart of Beauty.


Return to Volume V, Contents