The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, For the Beauty of and Idea

CELTIC

"Search first at home: a fitting glory, hast thou got there."--PINDAR

OED.: "And where are the young men, thy brothers, at our need?"

ISMĘNĘ: "They are . . .where they are: 'tis their dark hour."
                                                           SOPHOCLES: Oedipus at Kolonos.

 

"Yea, point thine arrow at a noble spirit, and thou shalt not miss."
                                                                                      --SOPHOCLES: Aias.

A writer might well be proud to be identified with a movement that is primarily spiritual and eager, a movement of quickened artistic life.  I, for one, care less to be identified with any literary movement avowedly partisan. That is not the deliberate view of literature, which carries with it the heat and confused passions of the many. It is not the deliberate view, which confers passions that are fugitive upon that troubled Beauty which knows only a continual excellence. It is not the deliberate view, which would impose the penury of distracted dreams and desires upon those who go up to the treasure house and to white palaces.

But I am somewhat tired of an epithet that, in a certain association, is become jejune, through use and misuse. It has grown familiar wrongly; is often a term of praise or disdain, in each inept; is applied without moderation; and so now is sometimes unwelcome--even when there is none other so apt and right.

The "Celtic Movement," in the first place, is not, as so often confusedly stated, an arbitrary effort to reconstruct the past; though it is, in part, an effort to discover the past. For myself (as one imputed to this "movement") I would say that I do not seek merely to reproduce ancient Celtic presentments of tragic beauty and tragic fate, but do seek in nature and in life, and in the swimming thought of timeless imagination, for the kind of beauty that the old Celtic poets discovered and uttered. There were poets and mythmakers in those days; and to-day we may be sure that a new Mythus is being woven, though we may no longer regard with the old wonder, or in the old wonder imaginatively shape and colour the forces of Nature and her silent and secret processes; for the mythopocic faculty is not only a primitive instinct but a spiritual need.

I do not suppose our Celtic ancestors--for all their high civilisation and development, so much beyond what obtained among the AngloSaxon or Teutonic peoples at the same date--theorised about their narrative art; but from what we know of their literature, from the most ancient bardic chants to the sgeul of today, we cannot fail to see that the instinctive ideal was to represent beautiful life. It is an ideal that has lain below the spiritual passion of all great art in every period. Phidias knew it when he culled a white beauty from the many Athenian youth, and Leonardo when he discerned the inexplicable in woman's beauty and painted Mona Lisa, and Palestrina when from the sound of the pines and the voice of the wind in solitudes and the songs of labourers at sundown he wove a solemn music for cathedral aisles. With instinct the old Celtic poets and romancists knew it: there are no Breton ballads nor Cymric mabinogion nor Gaelic sgeulan which deal ignobly with pretty life. All the evil passions may obtain there, but they move against a spiritual background of pathetic wonder, of tragic beauty and tragic fate.

The ideal of art should be to represent beautiful life. If we want a vision of life that is not beautiful, we can have it otherwise: a multitude can depict the ignoble; the lens can replicate the usual.

It should be needless to add that our vision of the beautiful must be deep and wide and virile, as well as high and ideal. When we say that art should represent beautiful life, we do not say that it should represent only the beautiful in life, which would be to ignore the roots and the soil and the vivid sap, and account the blossom only. The vision of beautiful life is the vision of life seen not in impossible but in possible relief: of harmonious unity in design as well as in colour. To say that art should represent beautiful life is merely to give formal expression to the one passionate instinct in every poet and painter and musician, in every artist. There is no "art" saved by a moral purpose, though all true art is subtly informed of the spirit; but I know none, with pen or brush, with chisel or score, which, ignobly depicting the ignoble, survives in excellence.

In this, one cannot well go astray. Nor do I seek an unreal Ideal. In the kingdom of the imagination, says Calvert, one of our forgotten mystics, the ideal must ever be faithful to the general laws of nature--elsewhere adding a truth as immanent: "Man is not alone: the Angel of the Presence of the Infinite is with him.''  I do not, with Blake, look upon our world as though it were at best a basis for transcendental vision, while in itself "a hindrance and a mistake," but rather, as a wiser has said, to an Earth spiritualised, not a Heaven naturalised. With Calvert, too, I would say: "I have a fondness for the earth, and rather a Phrygian way of regarding it, despite a deeper yearning to see its glades receding into the Gardens of Heaven."

There is cause for deep regret when anyword, that has peculiar associations of beauty or interest, or in which some distinction obtains, is lightly bandied. Its merit is then in convenience of signal rather than in its own significance. It is easy to recall some of these unfortunates; as our Scottish word "gleaming," that is so beautiful, and is now, alas, to be used rarely and with heed; as "haunting," with its implicit kinship with all mysteries of shadow, and its present low estate; as "melody," that has an outworn air, though it has three secrets of beauty; as others, that one or two use with inevitableness, and a small number deftly, till the journal has it, and it is come into desuetude.

We have of late heard so much of Celtic beauty and Celtic emotion that we would do well to stand in more surety as to what we mean and what we do not mean.

I do not myself know any beauty that is of art to excel that bequeathed to us by Greece. The marble has outlasted broken dynasties and lost empires; the word is to-day fresh as with dews of dawn. But through the heart I travel into another land. Through the heart I go to lost gardens, to mossed fountains, to groves where is no white beauty of still statue, but only the beauty of an old forgotten day remembered with quickened pulse and desired with I know not what of longing and weariness.

Is it remembrance, I wonder often, that makes many of us of the Celtic peoples turn to our own past with a longing so great, a love perfected through forgotten tribulations and familiar desires of the things we know to be impossible but so fair? Or do we but desire in memory what all primitive races had, and confuse our dreams with those which have no peace because they are immortal?

If one can think with surety but a little way back into the past, one can divine through both the heart and the mind. I do not think that our broken people had no other memories and traditions than other peoples had. I believe they stood more near to ancient forgotten founts of wisdom than others stood: I believe that they are the offspring of a race who were in a more fraternal communion with the secret powers of the world. I think their ancient writings show it, their ancient legends, their subtle and spiritual mythology. I believe that, in the East, they lit the primitive genius of their race at unknown and mysterious fires; that, in the ages, they have not wholly forgotten the ancestral secret; that, in the West, they may yet turn from the grey wave that they see, and the grey wave of time that they do not see, and again, upon new altars, commit that primeval fire.

But to believe is one thing, to convince is another. Those of us who believe thus have no warrant to show. It may well be that we do but create an image made after the desire and faith of the heart.

It is not the occasion to speak of what I do believe the peculiar and excelling beauty of the Celtic genius and Celtic literature to be; how deep its wellsprings, how full of strange new beauty to us who come upon it that is so old and remote. What I have just written will disclose that wherever else I may desire to worship, there is one beauty that has to me the light of home upon it; that there is one beauty from which, above all others now, I hope for a new revelation; that there is a love, there is a passion, there is a romance, which to me calls more suddenly and searchingly than any other ancient love or ancient passion or ancient romance.

But having said this, I am the more free to speak what I have in view. Let me say at once, then, that I am not a great believer in "movements," and still less in "renascences"; to be more exact, I hold myself in a suspicion towards these terms; for often, in the one, what we look for is riot implicit, and in the other, we are apt rather to find the excrescent and the deciduous.

So far as I understand the 'Celtic Movement," it is a natural outcome, the natural expression of a freshly inspired spiritual and artistic energy. That this expression is coloured by racial temperament is its distinction; that it is controlled to novel usage is its opportunity. When we look for its source we find it in the usufruct of an ancient and beautiful treasure of national tradition. One may the more aptly speak thus collectively of a mythology and a literature, and a vast and wonderful legendary folklore, since to us now, it is in great part hidden behind veils of an all but forgotten tongue, and of a system of life and customs, ideals and thought, that no longer obtains.

I am unable, however, to see that it has sustenance in continuity of revolt. A new movement need not be a revolt, but rather a sortie to carry a fresh position. If a movement has any inherent force, it will not destroy itself in forlorn hopes, but, where the need is vital, will fall into line, and so achieve where alone the desired success can be achieved.

There is no racial road to beauty, nor to any excellence. Genius, which leads thither, beckons neither to tribe nor clan, neither to school nor movement, but only to one soul here and to another there; so that the Icelander hears and speaks in Saga, and the brown Malay hears and carves delicately in ivory; and the men in Europe, from the Serb and the Finn to the Basque and the Breton, hear, and each in his kind answers; and what the Englishman says in song and romance and the deep utterance of his complex life, his mountain-kindred say in mabinogi or sgeul.

Even in those characteristics which distinguish Celtic literature--intimate natural vision; a swift emotion that is sometimes a spiritual ecstasy, but sometimes is also a mere intoxication of the senses; a peculiar sensitiveness to the beauty of what is remote and solitary; a rapt pleasure in what is ancient and in the contemplation of what holds an indwelling melancholy; a visionary passion for beauty, which is of the immortal things, beyond the temporal beauty of what is mutable and mortal--even in these characteristics it does not stand alone, and perhaps not preeminent. There is a beauty in the Homeric hymns that I do not find in the most beautiful of Celtic chants; none could cull from the gardens of the Gael what in the Greek anthology has been gathered out of time to be everlasting; perhaps only the love and passion of the stories of the Celtic mythology surpass the love and passion of the stories of the Hellenic mythology. The romance that of old flowered among the Gaelic hills flowered also in English meads, by Danish shores, along Teutonic Woods and plains. I think Catullus sang more excellently than BailE Honeymouth, and that Theocritus loved nature not less than Oisin, and that the ancient makers of the Kalevala were as much children of the wind and wave and the intimate natural world as were the makers of the ancient heroic chronicles of the Gael.

There is no law set upon beauty. It has no geography. It is the domain of the spirit. And if, of those who enter there, peradventure any comes again, he is welcome for what he brings; nor do we demand if he be dark or fair, Latin or Teuton or Celt, or say of him that his tidings are lovelier or the less lovely because he was born in the shadow of Gaelic hills or nurtured by Celtic shores.

It is well that each should learn the mothersong of his land at the cradle-place of his birth. It is well that the people of the isles should love the isles above all else, and the people of the mountains love the mountans above all else, and the people of the plains love the plains above all else. But it is not well that because of the whistling of the wind in the heather one should imagine that nowhere else does the wind suddenly stir the reeds and the grasses in its incalculable hour.

When I hear that a new writer is of the Celtic school, I am left in some uncertainty, for I know of many Anglo-Celtic writers but of no "school," or what present elements would form a school. What is a Celtic writer? If the word has any exact acceptance, it must denote an Irish or a Scottish Gael, a Cymric or Breton Celt, who writes in the language of his race. It is obvious that if one would write English literature, one must write in English and in the English tradition.

When I hear, therefore, of this or that 'ter as a Celtic writer, I wonder if the term is not apt to be misleading. An English writer is meant, who in person happens to be an Irish Gael, or Highland, or Welsh.

I have already suggested what other misuse of the word obtains: Celtic emotion, Celtic love of nature, Celtic visionariness. That, as admitted, there is in the Celtic peoples an emotionalism peculiar in kind and certainly in intensity, is not to be denied; that a love of nature is characteristic is true, but differing only, if at all, in certain intimacies of approach; that visionariness is relatively so common as to be typical, is obvious. But there is English emotion, English love of nature, English visionariness, as there is Dutch, or French, or German, or Russian, or Hindu. There is no exclusive national heritage in these things, save in the accident of racial physiognomy, of the supreme felicity of contour and colour. At a hundred yards a forest is seen to consist of ash and lime, of elms, beeches, oaks, horn-beams; but a mile away it is, simply, a forest.

I do not know any Celtic visionary so rapt and absolute as the Londoner William Blake, or the Scandinavian Swedenborg, or the Flemish Ruysbroek; or any Celtic poet of nature to surpass the Englishman Keats; nor do I think even religious ecstasy is more seen in Ireland than in Italy.

Nothing but harm is done by a protestation that cannot persuade deliberate acceptance.

When I hear that "only a Celt" could have written this or that passage of emotion or description, I am become impatient of these parrot-cries, for I remember that if all Celtic literature were to disappear, the world would not be so impoverished as by the loss of English literature, or French literature, or that of Rome or of Greece.

But above all else it is time that a prevalent pseudo-nationalism should be dissuaded. I am proud to be a Highlander, but I would not side with those who would "set the heather on fire." If I were Irish, I would be proud, but I would not lower my pride by marrying it to a ceaseless ill-will, an irreconcilable hate, for there can be a nobler pride in unvanquisbed acquiescence than in futile revolt. I would be proud if I were Welsh, but I would not refuse to learn English, or to mix with English as equals. And proud as I might be to be Highland, or Scottish, or Irish, or Welsh, or English, I would be more proud to be British--for, there at last, we have a bond to unite us all, and to give us space for every ideal, whether communal or individual, whether national or spiritual.

As for literature, there is, for us all, only English literature. All else is provincial or dialetic.

But gladly I, for one, am willing to be designated Celtic, if the word signify no more than that one is an English writer who by birth, inheritance, and temperament has an outlook not distinctively English, with some memories and traditions and ideals not shared in by one's countrymen of the South, with a racial instinct that informs what one writes, and, for the rest, a common heritage.

The Celtic element in our national life has a vital and great part to play. We have a most noble ideal if we will but accept it. And that is, not to perpetuate feuds, not to try to win back what is gone away upon the wind, not to repay ignorance with scorn, or dulness with contempt, or past wrongs with present hatred, but so to live, so to pray, so to hope, so to work, so to achieve, that we, what is left of the Celtic races, of the Celtic genius, may permeate the greater race of which we are a vital part, so that with this Celtic emotion, Celtic love of beauty, and Celtic spirituality a nation greater than any the world has seen may issue, a nation refined and strengthened by the wise relinquishings and steadfast ideal of Celt and Saxon, united in a common fatherland, and in singleness of pride and faith.

As I have said, I am not concerned here with what I think the Celtic genius has done for the world, and for English literature in particular, and, above all, for us of to-day and to-morrow; nor can I dwell upon what of beautiful and mysterious and wonderful it discloses, or upon its bitter-sweet charm. But of a truth, the inward sense and significance of the "Celtic Movement" is, as has been well said by Mr. Yeats, in the opening of a fountain of legends, and, as scholars aver, a more abundant fountain than any in Europe, the great fountain of Gaelic legends. "None can measure of how great importance it may be to coming times, for every new fountain of legends is a new intoxication for the imagination of the world. It comes at a time when the imagination of the world is as ready, as it was at the coming of the tales of Arthur and of the Grail, for a new intoxication. The arts have become religious, and must, as religious thought has always done, utter themselves through legends; and the Gaelic legends have so much of a new beauty that they may well give the opening century its most memorable symbols."

Perhaps the most significant sentence in M. Renan's remarkable study of the Poetry of the Celtic Races is that where he speaks of the Celtic race as having worn itself out in mistaking dreams for realities. I am not certain that this is true, but it holds so great a part of the truth that it should make us think upon how we stand.

I think our people have most truly loved their land, and their country, and their songs, and their ancient traditions, and that the word of bitterest savour is that sad word exile. But it is also true that in that love we love vaguely another land, a rainbow-land, and that our most desired country is not the real Ireland, the real Scotland, the real Brittany, but the vague Land of Youth, the shadowy Land of Heart's Desire. And it is also true, that deep in the songs we love above all other songs is a lamentation for what is gone away from the world, rather than merely from us as a people, or a sighing of longing for what the heart desires but no mortal destiny requites. And true, too, that no tradition from of old is so compelling as the compelling tradition that is from within; and that the long sorrow of our exile is in part because we ourselves have driven from us that company of hopes and dreams which were once realities, but are now among beautiful idle words.

In a word, we dwell overmuch among desired illusions: beautiful, when, like the rainbow, they are the spiritual reflection of certainties; but worthless as the rainbow-gold with which the Shee deceive the unwary, when what is the phantom of a spiritual desire is taken to be the reality of material fact.

And I think that we should be on guard against any abuse of, that we should consider this other side of, our dreams and ideals, wherein awaits weakness as well as abides strength. It is not ill to dream, in a day when there are too few who will withdraw from a continual business, a day when there are fewer dreams. But we shall not greatly gain if we dream only of beautiful abstractions, and not also of actual or imaginative realities and possibilities. In a Highland cottage I heard some time ago a man singing a lament for "Tearlach Og Aluinn," Bonnie Prince Charlie; and when he ceased tears were on the face of each that was there, and in his own throat a sob. I asked him, later, was his heart really so full of the Prionnsa Ban, but he told me that it was not him he was thinking of, but of all the dead men and women of Scotland who had died for his sake, and of Scotland itself, and of the old days that could not come again. I did not ask what old days, for I knew that in his heart he lamented his own dead hopes and dreams, and that the prince was but the image of his lost youth, and that the world was old and grey because of his own weariness and his own grief.

Sometimes I fear that we who as a people do so habitually companion ourselves with dreams may fall into that abyss where the realities are become shadows, and shadows alone live and move. And then I remember that dreamers and visionaries are few; that we are no such people; that no such people has ever been; and that of all idle weaving of sand and foam none is more idle than this, the strange instinctive dread of the multitude, that the few whose minds and imaginations dwell among noble memories and immortal desires shall supersede the many who are content with lesser memories and ignoble desires.


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