THE FOUR WINDS OF EIRINN FOREWORD "Belles et puissantes sont les harmonies nouvelles
des gens de Thulé."--MELCHIOR DE VOGUÉ.
This essay originally appeared in The Fortnightly Review (February 1903), on the publication of the volumes entitled Cuchulain of Muirthemne Arranged and Retold by Lady Gregory, and The Four Winds of Eirinn: Poems by the late Ethna Carbery (Anna Macmanus). Since its appearance, and just as the contents of the present volume had been completed for printing, two books reached me, which, coming out of the heart of Ireland, should be mentioned under a title so distinctive as that which heads this page. The Divine Vision, the new volume of poetry of Mr. George Russell ("A. E."), has the spiritual intensity, the rapt ecstasy of his most characteristic verse. It is the poetry of a mystic who is caught in the heavenly nets. But though it is lifted at times on the Gaelic spirit and has allusions to what is intimate in the spiritual life of the Gael, it is not Gaelic in the sense in which either of the two books discussed in the following essay is Gaelic. Ethna Carbery's poems are the poems of the Irish heart, and Miss Hull's and Lady Gregory's retold saga-tales are the mirror of the ancient Irish genius, as Mr. Yeats's poetry is preeminently the poetry of the Irish spirit: but the poems of "A. E." are the poems of a strayed visionary, of a visionary strayed into Ireland, and in love with that imagination and with that dream, but obviously in himself of no country set within known frontiers, of no land withheld by familiar shores. Surcharged with the intensest spirit of Ireland in the less mystical and poetic sense, is the slim volume of a handful of prose papers by Miss Ethel Goddard, entitled Dreams for Ireland. This book is uplifted with a radiant hope and with an ecstasy of spiritual conviction that make the heart young to contemplate: and would God that its glad faith and untroubled prophecies could be fulfilled in our time, or that in our time even the shadows of the great things to come could lighten the twilight road. If I am too sad to share in full the radiant faith, too sad to see with such glad eyes or to be so joyously dissuaded by lovely phantoms from the bitterness of things that are, I am sure-set enough in the hope that great things are yet to be accomplished, that a great destiny is yet possible of achieve-. ment, an achievement greater than the shaping of proud kingdoms and empires. But of that I will say no more here, having already said what I have to say in this paper, and in the first part of the section called "For the Beauty of an Idea." Only, to the little volume of Dreams for Ireland, and to all who write and strive in a like spirit, the spirit that brings victory or transforms defeat, I would give this word of the great Pindar, noblest of poets: But sowing in the fairflower of this spirit . . . be not too careful for the cost: loose free like a mariner thy sail unto the wind.
If, with two books before me on which I have something to say, I have chosen the title of the lesser, that is because of its peculiar fitness. The four winds of Eirinn breathe through each, if with a stronger sound and more primitive voice in that which deals with a spiritual and material order long ago remote from us, with the heroic passions and beauty of a world that ceased before English was grown a language. Even in the order of importance I am not prepared to admit that the small posthumous book of verse by Ethna Carbery is so far behind the admirable compilation we owe to Lady Gregory. But by that I do not mean literary importance. The poems of The Four Winds of Eirinn have already appeared in Nationalist papers and circulated throughout Ireland, and are loved and treasured in innumerable hill-crofts and moorside cabins. A thousand readers knew the author's name who had no idea whether she was of the small band of living singers or of that great Irish company whose songs are the treasure of a whole people. Only a few knew that Ethna Carbery was the wife of a Donegal patriot and writer, of distinction, Seumas Macmanus; but long before her recent premature death she had become a familiar presence at many hearths. Her slender posthumous volume may now be had at a sum which is within the reach of all save the poorest of her own land. That, however, need not trouble any. There is not a poem in her book unknown to hundreds who could not purchase the little volume or could read it were it possessed. One copy of a book such as The Four Winds of Eirinn is enough to light many unseen fires. Few readers out of touch with the Gaelic peasant have any idea of the power of a single enthusiast; of how one man, speaking in a barn at harvest-time, or by the croftside, or on the long road, or by the fireside at the winter ceilidh, or at the rising of the moon in the dusks of summer, can spread from one to one, to a little group, to a gathering clan, to countless unknown brothers and sisters, tidings that are sprung from a living heart and march in music and are clothed in the speech of beauty. For there is perhaps no people so susceptible to the charm of verbal rhythm as the Gaelic Irish. To put a sorrow or a joy into mournful or dancing music is as natural to them as, to the English temperament, it is natural to secrete sorrow and to veil joy.
It would be uncritical to say that the poetry of Ethna Carbery is compelling because of its art.
Poetry may express itself subtly in the "signature of symbol," or immediately in the utterance of unveiled emotion. The one method is not necessarily superior to the other. But only the artist may dare to move beyond elemental emotion. He who would pass from the cries and tumult of the unloosened passions, and create anew in symbol those ancient cries and that unresting tumult, must be as Orpheus descending into the inferno of defeated dreams, to come again, in the serene mystery of song, with lovelier music and more far-seeing eyes. "I tell you," says Nietzsche, "one must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star."
In each there is one perfection: simplicity. In art, whose controlling spirit is deliberation, there is nothing so deliberate as simplicity. It may be an innate quality, a habit of the mind; it is more often, perhaps, the disdain of the imagination for artifice, the pride of the imagination in a noble economy.
In itself, poetry is, to put an old definition in a new way, the emotion of life rhythmically remembering beauty: as pictorial art and the art of verbal romance are the vision of life seen in beauty and in beauty revealed: and as music is the echo of life heard in beauty. But the poet, in emotion rhythmically remembering beauty, must, in the purging fire of creation, be not less the artist than the poet-he who knows how to shape and control, what to enhance, above all what to forgo, for supreme art is the irreducible economy of the imagination accepting the last austere law of beauty. Emotion is not enough, nor, even, is the passage of emotion into rhythmic utterance enough. The thyme and marjoram are not yet honey, as Emerson said beautifully of the poetry of Thoreau. In the rarest lyric verse there must be unseen lightning-"the fiery lightning that goeth with all victory," as Pindar has it in one of his great odes. There are few poets in a generation to whom the "fiery lightning" is a reality. That generation is fortunate, indeed, which produces wrestlers in song worthy of an Olympian wreath of wild olive, or a Pythian wreath of bay, or Isthmian pine-garland, or the wild parsley of Nemea.
Ethna Carbery had not time to become a rare artist, for she died in those early years when emotion does not readily come under the yoke of that severe discipline which is the first commandment of art. She is not a poet to compare with Mr. Yeats, for example. In technical quality she has not the metrical facility of Nora Hopper or Katharine Tynan.. Her lyrics lack the precision and distinction of the verse of Moira O'Neill. But in essential poetic faculty she stands high among the Irish poets of to-day; in this respect indeed she falls behind none save Mr. Yeats and "A. E."; and as an Irish writer for an Irish public I doubt if any of those just named has more intimately reached the heart of the people. The poetry of Mr. Yeats is a poetry that appeals to those for whom the charm of beauty is beyond any other charm, and to whom beauty means a trained and ordered loveliness, and in whom is a more or less trained and ordered sense of that loveliness. The poetry of "A. E." is a poetry that appeals to those to whom the charm of spiritual ecstasy is beyond any other charm. The poetry of writers such as Katharine Tynan and Nora Hopper, and in a less degree of Moira O'Neill, is a poetry written rather for the delight of those in sympathy with the keen and warm life of the people than for the people themselves. Their poetry is rarely in the signature of interpretation ; they are minnesingers of charm and distinction. There are not many of their verses which would come naturally to the lips of an Irish peasant, as would come one or two of Moira O'Neill's Songs of the Glens of Antrim; for, to mention only the most significant reason, they are commonly shaped in the English and not in the Gaelic form of thought--and the form of thought is a still subtler thing than the form of literary style. True, most of Mr. Yeats's poetry is Gaelic in its inward life, partaking of the Gaelic colour and shaped in the Gaelic mould; but he has the esoteric manner of those ancient poetic ancestors of his who were renowned for their obscurity. In one of the old Irish tales a bard is alluded to with great praise, for after he had spoken before the king and the assembled warriors, priests, and other bards, it was admitted that no other showed so great wisdom or so irrefutably cut away the ground from the matter in debate, because neither king nor any other could understand him, "so great was his high, noble, beautiful obscurity." And in another episode, that Dr. Whiteley Stokes has translated for us in the Irische Texte, we learn how one Senchan went on a circuit into Scotland, and how there "the Spirit of Poetry met him on the road in the shape of a loathly monster, and conversed with him in the obscurity of poetry." Truly, the chronicler of Senchan must have suffered much ere he committed himself to that "loathly monster!"
Well, I am sure that if Irish peasants were to hear The Shadowy Waters, or even the greater number of the poems of The Wind Among the Reeds, they would, while responsive to the music and the charm of atmosphere, rank the author as the greatest of living bards by virtue of his "high, noble, beautiful obscurity." That they could really follow The Shadowy Waters, as they have proved they can follow with sympathy and delight The Countess Cathleen--or as they could follow the stories of Hanrahan the Red in The Secret Rose, or the episodical essays in The Celtic Twilight--is hardly to be believed. This is not to disparage one side of Mr. Yeats's genius, nor is it to disparage a poem of great beauty that I for one account among the excelling things he has done. It is merely to state what seems to be a fact, and to emphasise the difference of approach in the work of a poet like Ethna Carbery, a writer not less saturated with the Gaelic atmosphere but with a simplicity of thought and diction foreign to the most subtle of contemporary poets, who is never more subtle than when he creates a verbal simplicity as a veil for occult thought and remote allusion.
We hardly need the tribute of proud love paid to Anna Macmanus, in the pathetic little memoir contributed by Mr. Macmanus to this posthumous edition of the poems of "Ethna Carbery." In these poems we find everything that the husband says of the wife and the friend of the friend. No reader, surely, could fail to recoginse how "before the tabernacle of poor Ireland's hopes a perpetual flame burned in her bosom"; how that from childhood even, "every fibre of her frame vibrated with the love of Ireland"; how that her love went out to the hills of Tir-Chonaill long before her joy quickened among the Donegal mountains, because of the passion come to her upon the Hills of her Heart!
"Hills o' my heart!
For sake of the yellow head that drew me wandering over
Your misty crests from my own home where sorrow bided then,
I set my seven blessings on your kindly heather cover,
On every starry moorland loch, and every shadowy glen,
Hills o' my heart!"
Her earliest as her latest verse has the quality of song and the vibration of poetry. And from first to last there is in it the Gaelic note--so distinctive from any other note. Here Ethna Carbery is Irish in a sense in which the other women poets of her hour and nation cannot claim to be: for there is no reason why much of the poetry of Katharine Tynan, for example, might not be written by one who had lived away from Ireland and permitted a foreign colour to be the colour of her songs of life, or why much of the poetry of Norah Hopper might not be written by one who had never lived in Ireland and knew the Ireland of the heart only imaginatively and is one among many dreams in the secret gardens of the imagination. But with Ethna Carbery Ireland is always the Motherland, and she the child that will not be put away from her, no, not by any wandering of longing nor by any chance of accident. How unmistakable the note in the very first lines of this little collection of some seventy poems--only two thirds of which had been revised by the author before her early death:
"There's a sweet sleep for my love by yon glimmering blue wave,
But alas! it is a cold sleep in a green-happed narrow grave.
O shadowy Finn, move slowly,
Break not her peace so holy,
Stir not her slumber in the grass your restless ripples lave."
And what an added pathos to this poem of "The Cold Sleep of Brighidin " that it was the singer's own death-lament as well as that of the "Breedyeen" of her song; and that she too lies in the sleep by the "glimmering blue wave" of Loch Finn!
Again, in the second poem, "Shiela Ní Gara":
"Shiel Ní Gara, is it lonesome where you bide,
With the plover circling over and the sagans spreading wide?
* * * *
"Is it a sail ye wait, Shiela? 'Yea, from the westering sun.'
Shall it bring joy or sorrow? 'Oh joy, sadly won.'
Shall it bring peace or conflict? 'The pibroch in the glen,
And the flash and crash of battle where my banner shines again.
Green shears of Hope rise round you like grassblades after drouth,
And there blows a red wind from the East, a white wind from the South,
A brown wind from the West, gràdh, a brown wind from the West--
But the black, black wind from Northern hills, how can you love it best ? "
"Said Shiela Ní Gara, ' 'Tis a kind wind and a true,
For it rustled soft through Aileach's balls and stirred the hair of Hugh:
Then blow, wind! and snow, wind! What matters storm to me.
Now I know the fairy sleep must break and let the sleepers free?'
"But, Shiela Ní Gara, why rouse the stony dead,
Since at your call a living host will circle you instead?
Long is our hunger for your voice, the hour is drawing near--
Oh, Dark Rose of our Passion--call, and our hearts shall hear!"
Again, in the third, "In Tir-Na'n-Og":
Summer and spring go hand in hand, and in the radiant weather
Brown autumn leaves and winter snow come floating down together.
* * * *
All in a drift of apple-blooms my true love there is roaming,
He will not come although I pray from dawning until gloaming.
The Sidhe desired my heart's Delight, they luredhim from my keeping.
He stepped within a fairy ring while all the worldwas sleeping.
He hath forgotten hill and glen where misty shadows gather,
The bleating of the mountain sheep, the cabin of his father.
No memory hath he of my face, no sorrow for my sorrow,
My flax is spun, my wheel is husht, and so I wait the morrow."
But, in truth, one might quote from each poem in the book. All are Gaelic in mould of thought and colour of art. Of the sixtyeight there are at least sixty whose very names have a cradle-song for some of us, but must be strangely foreign to many. "Shiela Ní' Gara," "The Song of Ciabhan," "Mo Chraoibhin Cno," "Páisín Fionn," "Niamh," "The Brown Wind of Connaught," "Mo Bhuachaill Cael-Dubh," "I-Breasil," "To the Comely Four of Aran," "Vein o' my Heart," "Nial Glondubh to Gormlai," "The Shadow-House of Lugh," and the like.
These poems of the Four Winds of Eirinn fall into four groups, though (and wisely) not so arranged--poems of the Gaelic past, poems of love, poems of a national longing and a burning patriotism, and poems of the Gaelic imagination and of the unquenchable longing and desire of the heart for an Avalon of which it dreams, but whose foam-white coasts it cannot see--for the "Well o' the World's End" which it cannot reach:
"Beyond the four seas of Eri, beyond the sunset's rim,
It lies half forgot, in a valley deep and dim,
Like a star of fire from the skies' gold tire,
And who so drinks the nine drops shall win his heart's desire--
At the Well o' the World's End.
"What go ye seeking, seeking, seeking,
O girl white-bosomed, O girl fair and young?
"I seek the well-water, the cool well water,
That my love may have love for me ever on his tongue."
* * * * * * * * *
Perhaps the poems which longest will lie close to the Irish heart are those which show the shadow of Irish sorrow and the rainbow-gleam of Irish hope-that sorrow and that hope which from the grey glens of Donegal to Kerry of the Kings inspire, all the songs that are sung, and all that is imperishable in the nation's heart. Of these a typical example is "Mo Chraoibhín Cno " (Mo chreeveen--no-literally "My cluster of nuts," figuratively "My brown-haired girl"--here used by the poet as an analogue of Ireland, one of her many secret names of love):
MO CHRAOIBHÍN CNO!
"A sword of light hath pierced the dark, our eye have seen the star.
O Mother, leave the ways of sleep now days of promise are;
The rusty spears upon your walls are stirring to and fro,
In dreams they front uplifted shields--Then wake,
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"The little waves keep whispering where sedges fold you in,
And round you are the barrows of your buried kith and kin;
O famine-wasted, fever-burnt, they faded like the snow
Or set their hearts to meet the steel--for you,
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"Their names are blest, their caoine sung, our bitter tears are dried;
We bury sorrow in their graves, Patience we cast aside;
Within the gloom we heard a voice that once was ours to know--
It was Freedom--Freedom calling loud, Arise!
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"Afar beyond that empty sea, on many a battleplace,
Your sons have stretched brave hands to death before our foeman's face--
Down the sad silence of your rest their war-notes, faintly blow,
And they bear an echo of your name -of yours,
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"Then wake, a gradh! we yet shall win a gold crown for your head,
Strong wine to make a royal feast--the white wine and the red--
And in your oaken mether the yellow mead shall flow,
What day you rise, in all men's eyes--a Queen,
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"The silver speech our fathers knew shall once again be heard;
The fire-lit story, crooning song, sweeter than lilt of bird;
The quicken-tree shall break in flower, its ruddy fruit shall glow,
And the gentle people dance beneath its shade--
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!
"There shall be peace and plenty--the kindly open door,
Blessings on all who come and go--the prosperous or the poor--
The misty glens and purple hills a fairer tint shall show.
When your splendid Sun shall ride the skies again--
Mo Chraoibhín Cno!"
Alas! It is but the old sweet impossible dream for what is gone away upon the wind. Not now, never again in this little world that is our world, as we know it to-day, can come this golden age, heralded by our returning prayers. For us, the Gentle People have no longer a life common with our own. They have gone beyond grey unvisited hills. They dwell in far islands perhaps, where the rains of Heaven and the foam of the sea guard their fading secrecies. Not here, in any Avalon betwixt the last beaches of the Hebrides and the stones of Carnac, shall that glen be found, that shore be touched, where the old Gaelic world shall live anew. An evil has fallen upon us, that may or may not have been inevitable; that may or may not be from within ourselves as well as from without. It is inevitable now.
In Tir na'n-Og,
The blackbird lilts, the robin chirps, the linnet wearies never,
They pipe to dancing feet of Sidhe and thus shall pipe for ever."
Yes, but that is in Tir-na'n-Og, the land of the ever-young. That is in I-Breasil, the Isle of Youth. That is in Flatheanas, where the strong of soul are. It has no shores, that land; no boat's prow cleaves the surf around that isle; we do not hear the laughing voices yonder. Alas! yes--in Tir-na'n-Og. But now we front new ways. The spirit has changed within us; and with the changing of the spirit in the soul of a nation all that was its treasure must be lost too, all that cannot be preserved against Time and the bitter moth. And indeed we lament often for what never was: only the same old desire of the heart, the same old longing, that a thousand years ago dreamed against to-day, and that to-day re-dreams the dream of the world a thousand years ago.
The happy years may come. Who shall dare say No? But they cannot come, as things are: not for us, at least, longing in our own way. For we long for what is gone, and going, and we are caught in the great net which has swept in our kindred, and all the nations. Can any Gael honestly say that Ireland, that the Highlands, that the Isles are in the deep sense nearer true wellbeing now than they were half a century ago, twenty years ago, ten years ago? Depopulation, the decay of the old language, the ceaseless pressure of what in bitter unconscious irony is called the civilising factor; the deadening of a new and dull ideal of prosperity, not a blithe weal but a restless discontent; the cancer of racial hate in Ireland, the levelling and crushing curse of a growing materialism in Scotland; the paralysing selfishness of both native and alien landowners; and, with these, and much else, the losing of old virtues in the half-eager, half-sullen assumption of other ways and manners--all this has made, and is making, the passing of the old order bitter and tragic for those whose hearts are bound up in it, whose life is part of it, whose souls are the offspring of its soul.
If I and others of my generation feel this, how much more must those feel it whose memories go far back; who remember the homeless glens, when the smoke of many hearths rose in peace; the deer-forests, where the hillside crofts held a contented people; the islands where now the flocks of the capitalist sheep-farmer are the only inhabitants? A few days ago I met a grey-haired Highland gentleman on his way back to the far Isles, to take farewell of the last of his clan who upheld the old ways and kept to the old traditions and used the ancient speech. "For it is all going," he said; "no, it is all gone. Soon I will be the last, there. They have no Gaelic now, the young people. They and the others have forgotten all that our fathers had of tale and song. Our old world is passed away. It is a new world we are in now. For them that like it, it may be well; it is not well for us who do not like it. For me, as with Donnacha' Bàn:
"' 'S mithich teàrnadh do na gleannaibh
O'n tha gruaimich air na beannaibh,
'S ceathach dùinte mu na meallaibh
A' cur dallaidh air ar léirsinn.'"
"It is time now to go down into the glens, for gloom is fallen on the mountains, and mists shroud the hills, darkening our vision."
There are still many of us who are of this broken clan. We have not wholly lost heart; there is much left to fight for; there is still one inspiring hope: but we know that nearly all of what we would see stay must go, that nothing of what we see going shall turn back, that nothing of what we know gone shall come again.
The secret of the Celtic muse is veiled in tears. The poetry of the Gael is the poetry of sorrow. It is not impossible that one day a new triumphal paean may be heard, the clarions of joy. That, indeed, would be a divine ministry of the patient and watching gods.
Years ago, when writing went with drifting thought and not with thought rising from the depths, I wrote this: without pain as a memory, and without despair as a will-o'-th wisp, there would be no lyric beauty of enduring worth.
But now I do not think this, though up to a point its truth is obvious. For joy can be, and ought to be, the supreme torch of the mind; and hope can be and ought to be the inspiration of that grave ecstasy which is art become religious, that is . . . art expressing an august verity, with the emotion of the life that is mortal deepened by the passion of the soul that is immortal.
"So simple is the heart of man,
So ready for new hope and joy;
Ten thousand years since it began
Have left it younger than a boy."
Nevertheless it is true that pain is a wind that goes deep into the obscure wood, and stirs many whispers and lamentations among the hidden leaves, and sends threnodies on long waves from the swaying green shores of oak and pine and beech. "It is that which gives artists the strongest power of expression," wrote one who for himself knew the truth of what he said, the great Millet. But despair . . . that is a quality of the mind, while pain is an elemental condition of life. It is in nature for all that lives to know pain: it is not natural for anything that lives to know despair. So while despair may have its beauty, as a desolate polar sea has its own desolate beauty, or as a barren hillside without green of grass or song of bird may have a wild and barren beauty, it is the beauty of what redeems--light and cloud, mist and shadow and air--not a beauty inherent, not the beauty of those things which fundamentally are elemental and eternal. The clouds of man's hopes and dreams which drift through the human sky, and the wind of the spirit that shepherds them, belong to the higher regions. Here, by some subtlety of association, I recall those beautiful lines in The Last Adventure of Balaustion:
"Why should despair be? Since,distinct above
Man's wickedness and folly, flies the wind
And floats the cloud. . . ."
And this poor girl, with her heart of song and her frail reed of life, who died so young among the mountains of Donegal, she, too knew it. What a caoine of world-old sadness in that poem she wrote not long before her death, "The Passing of the Gael":
"The whip of hunger scourged them from the glens and quiet moors,
But there's a hunger of the heart that plenty never cures;
And they shall pine to walk again the rough road that is yours.
* * * * *
"They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay;
The fields are now the strangers', where the strangers' cattle stray
Oh; Kathaleen Ni Hoolihan, your way's a thorny way!"
But pain wearies even the sense of pain, and it is a relief to turn to this dead young singer's poetry of fantasy. How fine much of,"this is, whether simple as "The King of Ireland's Cairn":
"Blow softly down the valley,
O wind, and stir the fern
That waves its green fronds over
The King of Ireland's cairn.
* * * * * *
"Say, down those halls of Quiet
Doth he cry upon his Queen?
Or doth he sleep contented
To dream of what has been?"
Or of more subtle thought and remoter expression in poems such as that ("Angus the Lover") which begins:
"I follow the silver spears flung from the hands of dawn"--
or as "The Green Plover," or as "The Shadow-House of Lugh":
Dream-fair beside dream waters, it stands alone:
A winging thought of Lugh made its corner stone:
A desire of his heart raised its walls on high.
* * * * *
"He hath no vexing memory of blood in slanting rain,
Of green spears in hedges on a battle plain;
But through the haunted quiet his love's silver words
Blew round him swift as wing-beats of enchanted birds.
* * * * *
"He plays for her pleasure on his harp's gold wire
The laughter-tune that leaps alone in trills of fire;
She hears the dancing feet of Sidhe where a white moon gleams,
And all her world is joy in the House of Dreams.
"His days glide to night, and his nights glide to day:
With circling of the amber mead, and feasting gay:
In the yellow of her hair his dreams lie curled,
And her arms make the rim of his rainbow world."
Or in poems of the longing of love, as "Feithfailge":
"The blue lake of Devenish!
I vex the purple dark with sighs--
(The blue lake of Devenish)
Across the world my sorrow flies,
A-hunger for the grey and wistful
Beauty of Feithfailge's eyes."
Or as "At the Well of the Branchy Trees," or "Hills o' My Heart," or " Mo Bhuachaill Cael-Dubh," or "The Sad Song of Finian" with its true Gaelic hyperbole of lament in--
"I am adrift on the waves of the world--
Tossed by the storm, by the green seas whirled,
All for the sake of the yellow-curled
Slender girl that I wished my own"--
or a half-score more as fine."
There is a legend common throughout the Highlands and Isles, and current in many parts of Ireland, about the Lennan-Shee (Leannain-Sidhe), or Fairy Lover. Only the other day I heard a striking variant of the usual tale, and at the same time a good answer. One of the hearers objected that all these stories of the Lennan-Shee were untrue, for he had lived many years in the Highlands and had never heard of any who had met or seen or known of a fairy lover, and that what one was not aware of in a country would not be existing in that country. "As for that," said the narrator,"'s iomadh rud a bhios am measg an 't sluaigh air nach bi fios agaibh-sa" ("There's many a thing among the people of which you are left in ignorance"), a remark greeted all round with "Tha sin fior" ("That is true"). And of the many who in one way or another have dealt with this legend, I recall none who has done so more subtly than Ethna Carbery in "The LoveTalker":
"I know not what way he came, no shadow fell behind,
But all the sighing rushes swayed beneath a fairy wind:
The thrush ceased its singing, a mist crept about,
We two clung together--with the world shut out.
"Beyond the ghostly mist I could hear my cattle low
The little cow from Ballina, clean as driveri'snow,
The dun cow from Kerry, the roan from Inisheer,
Oh, pitiful their calling--and his whispers in my ear!
"His eyes were a-fire; his words were a snare;
I cried my mother's name, but no help was there;
I made the blessed Sign: then he gave a dreary moan,
A wisp of cloud went floating by, and I stood alone."
How natural it seems to turn from this Gaelic singer of to-day to the unknown shenachies who told the primitive Gaelic legends of the Cuchulain cycle at a time when the Angels had not troubled the fens of England--to that largely lost and much confused cycle of legendary lore from which, in Cuchulain of Muirthemne (Coohoolin of Mur-ev-na, as pronounced), Lady Gregory has with much skill and no little beauty evolved a sequent narrative! For the two worlds meet, thus: or rather, they are one. Time makes no division when the mental outlook, the mental life, remains unchanged save in what is unessential in manner and method. The Gael who believes in the fairy lover can also well believe in the story of the love of Angus, son of the Dagda, for Caer Ormaith, daughter of Ethel Anbual; and how for one year Caer would be a beautiful woman and for the next year be a white swan on a mountain loch, and how Angus, because of the longing of his love, took swan-shape upon him by the lockside, so that the lovers spread their wings and rose from the loch, in their going their wings making a music so sweet that all who heard it fell asleep for three days and three nights. Or in that tale of how Cathbad the Druid told the childless Fedlimid that his wife would bear a daughter for whom many great heroes and bright candles of the Gael would lose their lives; and of how the girl was born, she for whom heroes would fight and kings go seeking; and how Cathbad said: "Let Dêirdrê be her name, sweet menace that she is": and how he chanted to her:
"Many will be jealous of your face, O flame of beauty; for your sake heroes shall go to exile. For there is harm in your face: it will bring banishment and death on the sons of kings. In your fate, O beautiful child, are wounds and ill-doings, and shedding of blood.
"You will have a little grave apart to yourself; you will be a tale of wonder for ever, Dêirdrê."
Or in that tale of how Fedelm of the Sidhe--the young girl of the mouth of red berries, with voice sweeter than the strings of a curved harp, and skin showing through her clothes like the snow of a single night--was of a sudden seen by Maeve, the Warrior-Queen, sitting on a shaft of her chariot, and had no word to say to the Queen about her hosts of Cruachan gathered for battle against Cuchulain and the Ultonians, but only, over and over, "I see crimson on them, I see red." And how true that foretelling was, when that great army of Ireland was swept away, "wandering and going astray like a mare among her foals that goes astray in a strange place, not knowing what path to talke"; and how the remnant crossed the ford of the Sionnan at Athluain, notwithstanding that in Maeve's company were unvanquishable heroes and three princes of the Sidhe in shining armour, Delbaeth, and Cermat Honey-mouth, and Angus Òg, son of the Dagda--for even the lords do not always prevail against the souls of the greatest.
Or in that tale of how the harpers of Cainbile came to Maeve's camp, and played on magic harps; but how they were driven forth as spies, and followed with spears till they reached the great stone of Lecmore, when the harpers took on themselves the shape of-wild deer and went away. Or in that tale of the Wedding of Maine, son of Ailell and Maeve, where beauty and death are as subtly interwoven as in the familiar Gaelic sgeul of the love of Bailê the Sweet-Spoken and Ail-linn, when, after death, grave-wood grew into grave-wood and green branches from the North and the South became one overhanging branch under which the four winds moved. Or in that tale of how, after the heavy wound of Fraech, "boy darling of the King of the Sidhe of Ireland," a sorrowful crying was heard on Cruachan, and strange women in beautiful raiment were seen on the hill, and how Fraech in his sickness called suddenly, "Lift me out of this, for that is the cry of my mother and of the women of Boann"; and how he was carried to Cruaeban, and left upon the hill, and how thrice fifty queens bore him to the secret gates, crying a sorrowful cry ; and how it is from this cry that the musicians of Ireland learned the sorrowful cry of the women of the Sidhe.
Or in a hundred tales akin to these tales, in this book and in other books, and in many minds, might belief as well be.
To come under the enchantment of a book such as this legendary lore-gathered by Lady Gregory from many sources, with constant excellence in choice, retold with careful art of simplicity, and not rarely in that spellbound prose which is born of the enchanted mind--one must be, as Mr. Yeats says in his finely persuasive rather than critical preface to this book, as were the people of old-time, who were in love with a story and gave themselves up to imagination as if to a lover. Not otherwise can this sea of troubling winds and troubled waters, and of bewildering currents and rising and falling tides, be rightfully enjoyed. To change the image, the book must be approached as one approacbes a forest, dense with intricate byways, proud with wide glades, given over to the wilderness at times, and to enter which with the dews of dawn means that one need not look to emerge till the stars are come. The paths may be difficult, sometimes the way seem trackless. But "delight will always overtake one in the end."
Cuchulain of Muirthemne is no mere book of pleasure for the eager or the weary reader. It is the initial part of a work which, possibly, may ultimately be considered worthy to rank with the Arthurian chronicle of Malory and with the Mabinogion which Lady Charlotte Guest (in some such manner as Lady Gregory has now done) gave to the world. Had Macpherson been profoundly intimate with Gaelic life, and had he been a Gaelic scholar--had he been free from the ideals of a Lowland bourgeois, and not caught in the intellectual sentimentality of the eighteenth century of his day--he might have achieved a triumph as great, I think greater, perhaps, than any of these. For with all my appreciation of Lady Gregory's achievement, I cannot think with Mr. Yeats that it is so great a book as he maintains. This is not to disparage a work which calls for gratitude. But Lady Gregory's Cuchulain is not the shapen triumph of imagination; it is--and how different this is, while so fine--the skilful and in the main satisfying relation of many imaginations by an enthusiast, and an enthusiast who shows that she is also an artist in the use of words.
Surely one need not mistake the editorial faculty for the creative faculty. A year or two ago Miss Eleanor Hull summarised the Cuchulain Saga, achieving therein a work of great value as well as of interest. Without it, it is very doubtful if Lady Gregory's book would be as nearly excellent as it is. For students of Gaelic legend and literature, moreover, Miss Hull's "Saga" is much the more valuable work: and I am glad of this opportunity to draw attention to its unfair neglect since the appearance of its more literary but in one or two vital respects much less satisfying rival. Cuchulain of Muirtheinne is the ordered and artistic narration; the Cuchulain Saga is the careful analysis, or, to put it another way, the crude architectural structure from which a symmetrical edifice was to emerge. But one knows that there is another and greater way: the way that a Gaelic poet of the first order might take--the way that would give us all the beauty and wonder gathered out of the past, with a new beauty, a new wonder, gathered somehow, we know not how, out of the present--and yet, when we look curiously, neither the floating wonder nor the rising and falling beauty being dissociate in time, but one wonder, and one beauty. A new and greater Macpherson, working from deep knowledge truly in a true way; a new Villemarqué, with more scrupulous heed and with a familiarity as great and a power greater than that of Brizieux; a Celtic William Morris--what might such an one make of the Cuchulain Cycle, the Fionn Cycle, of Oisin of the Deer?
Sir Samuel Ferguson might have done it, but he was never on the crest, only alone for a time on the uplift of the great wave, and he lacked the supreme gift of the Celt, the gift of an incommunicable charm. Mr. Yeats might do it: the Wanderings of Oisin uphold the chance. But I fear the work is for one far less preoccupied than he with the many subtle problems of art and of the shaken mind and of life turning for ever among her revolving mirrors. It will have to be the lifework of a single-minded dreamer and maker, as, with all its insincerities and banalities, Ossian was the life-work of that perplexing genius, at once so high and so small, so universal and so provincial, James Macpherson.
For I feel this about Cuchulain of Muirthemne, that it is a fine ideal finely fulfilled (and how much that is in a day of few ideals and few fulfillings!), but that it is--I know not what?--over-scholarly in its unwavering heed to be consciously the thing it sets out to be: over-cold in its strange sameness of emotion: a little chill with the chill of studious handicraft. Once, with two-thirds of the book read, and somewhat weary of its even waters, I turned to the earlier and fragmentary and in every way cruder telling of Standish O'Grady. It was like leaving the banks of a still loch for the slippery heather slopes of a mountain torrent--but the sudden freshness, the leap, the vigour, the cry in the ears, the stir, the rush! In a word, it seems to me that the literary flaw in Lady Gregory's version is its monotonous passionlessness. Rightly or wrongly, I have the idea that her mind may have quickened continually when she was writing this book, but that her pulse never quickened. "It is not the book for the beating of my heart to be heard in," the author might reply. But can that plea be averred of any book of the imagination, whether primary or reflected? It is here that style--that subtle revealer--brings to the test. And to me the style of this book, simple and gracious as it is, reveals rather an enamoured mind than an enthralled heart. Perhaps, however, one less familiar than the present writer with the themes and legends which Lady Gregory has woven in sequence could better estimate the general value of this book. That I am indeed ready to admit. For I miss, too often, a wilder but a native note that she has purposefully ignored; sometimes wisely perhaps, sometimes inevitably I suppose, sometimes I cannot but feel to the weakening of her tale and the adumbrating of that tale's features for those whose approach is new. Again and again I have felt her rendering to be, from this standpoint, disastrous. The wind was out of.the leaves, the fires had faded, the authentic voices were the dim, echoes of phantoms. And though, again, I feel with others the charm and recognise the art of Lady's Gregory's style, I find in it, constantly, a lack of virility that is at times almost prettiness--as, to take the first instance I can come upon at random, the fatal vulgarism (once indulged in not once only but again and again) of the misuse of "nice" in the story of Aileel's treachery upon Fraech--"So he went and broke a branch off the tree . . . and it is beautiful he looked over the black water, his body without fault and his face so nice," etc.
But lapses of the kind are perhaps inevitable. In the main the fine and quiet art of the telling is the justification of the aim the writer had in view--to write an English as nearly as possible the vernacular of those who now have the foreign language as their own language, but still retain the Gaelic mind.
To say that every lover of Celtic literature should obtain, should become familiar with this book, is to say what is obvious. But surely others also may read it with pleasure: as, a century ago, readers, knowing nothing of the mabinogi of Bronwen, or the mabinogi of Pwyll, or the mabinogi of Manwyddan, turned with curiosity, and then with interest, and then with delight to these and other mabinogion in the beautiful English retelling of Lady Charlotte Guest; as, later, readers, turned to the Arthurian romances under the compelling spell of a great poet; as, later, readers ignorant of Scandinavian poetry and mythology turned to a new world, led by the chanting voice of the poet of Sigurd the Volsung. One does not need knowledge of Celtic myth and legend in order to find charm and delight in Cuchulain, though the wider the knowledge and the deeper the intimacy the greater that charm and the greater that delight. If one love the tale of Homeric war, if one quicken at the name of Achilles, or at the doom of the house of Agamemnon, or at, the wanderings of Odysseus, or at mention of the place where Kronos is the silent King, or at the tale of DanaE imprisoned in her tower, or at the tale of Penelope, or at the tale of Helen, surely he can turn also to like ancestral tales of the mighty warfare of Moytura, of the Titanic conflict by the Ford of the two champions of the Gael, of that terrible battle at Muirthemne, of Cuchulain that peerless lord, of the doom of the House of Usna, of the Odyssey of the sons of Turenn, of Conann's Tower of Death, of Ethne in the rock-set Dûn of Balor, of Emer the lovely and noble wife of Cuchulain,, and of Deirdrê, whose beauty is undying legend in the songs and memories of the Gael to this day.*
*The greatest living Celticist, M. d'Arbois deJubainville, reminds the general reader, what to the specialist is obvious, that Celtic mythology is not copied from Greek mythology. "It is based," he says, "upon conceptions originally identical with those from which Greek mythology is derived, but has developed the fundamental elements of the myth in a manner of its own, which is as independent as it is original." As again, in an earlier chapter, he writes: "The characteristics common to Gaelic and to Greek mythology come from an old foundation of Grgeco-Celtic legends anterior to the separation of the two races, at that unknown period when the Hellenes, or Greeks, abandoning to the Celts the cold valley of the Danube and the mist-laden regions of Western Europe, settled down to the warm plains and the splendid coasts of the peninsula lying to the south of the Balkans."
Not in the Mabinogion, not in the Scandinavian Sagas, not even in the Arthurian romances are there women who hold us more enthralled than Emer holds us, than Dêirdrê holds us, than wild Maeve holds us as with a spear, than Findabair, that frail reed shaken in the wind, that Fand of the Sidhe. How beautiful this Fand--"And the meaning of the name Fand is, a tear that passes over the fire of the eye: it was for her purity she was called that, and for her beauty: for there was nothing in life with which she could be compared beside it." How beautiful this queenly Emer, in girlhood and womanhood, and beautiful the manner of her death beyond that of any other, I think. And is there any pathos of great love in sight of the House of Borrow greater than that renouncing bitterness of Emer when she bids Cuchulain go with Niamh, since he says that she only can save him? . . . "And after that Emer bade Conall to make a wide, very deep grave for Cuchalain: and she laid herself down beside her gentle comrade, and she put her mouth to his mouth, and she said: 'Love of my life, my friend, my sweetheart, my one choice of the men of the earth, many is the woman wed or unwed, envied me until to-day; and now I will not stay living after you.'" If there is any loveliness of pathos beyond this loveliness, in any literature, I do not know it. And the last words of this saga, how fitting are they:
"And her life went out from her, and she herself and Cuchulain were laid in the one grave by Conall. And he raised the one stone over them, and he wrote their names in Ogham, and he himself and all the me of Ulster keened them.
"But the three times fifty queens that loved Cuchulain saw him appear in his Druid chariot, going through Emain Macba; and they could hear him singing the music of Sidhe."
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