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

"The first necessity for peoples, as for man, is to die."
                                                                  --CHATEAUBRAND, Mémoires, pt. xi. bk. iv.

"In the life of cities nothing preserves like early overthrow,
nothing destroys like continuous life."--FREEMAN, Essay on Argos.

"When a man has attained those things which are necessary to life, there is another alternative than to attain the superfluities; he may adventure on life now."--Thoreau.

For the Beauty of an

Idea

I

PRELUDE

The short essay, entitled "Celtic," which forms the second of the three parts of this study in the spiritual history of the Gael, appeared first in Tlte Contemporary Review, and a few months later in the volume entitled The Divine Adventure: Iona: and other Studies in Spiritual History, and was a signal for divided comment. But for the moment I would recur only to the aspect it wore for many in that country for whose more eager spirits it was above all intended--Ireland being today not only the true home of lost causes, and a nursery of the heroic powers and influences that go out to conquer and die, but of the passionate and evil powers and influences which seek to conquer and are slow to die.

Although in Ireland, then, this essay towards a worthy peace, where peace may be and towards a compromise, in nothing ignoble, for the sake of union in a noble destiny, was welcomed by many--there were others, and among them one or two of those deservedly held in honour, who execrated the attempt.*

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
*As it has been "authoritatively" stated that no Irish journal has endorsed these views, one out of six or seven of the leading Irish journals representative of all degrees of opinion, which have more or less "endorsed" the views here set forth, may be selected. In the reprinting of so personal a note the author trusts to be absolved of any other intent than to refute in what seems the simplest and most direct way a statement calculated to mislead:
"It seems an unexpected utterance from Miss Macleod. Yet, in points of fact, it only shows the awakening of the same philosophic spirit which we have observed in other parts of this book and in other regions of her thought. Miss Macleod has noticed the narrow separatism of sentiment which has sometimes marked the Celtic literary revival, and sees that it can only keep the Celtic spirit in a hopeless and sterile conflict with fact and truth. . . . In her own words:--
"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 has 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 ideals of Celt and Saxon, united in a common fatherland, and in singleness of pride and faith."
                                                                          * * * * * *
These are great, wise, and courageous words. . . When the Irish Celt begins to heed them he will cease to be the type of self-torturing futility which, with all his gifts, he so largely is at the present day."--(From an article, "A Celtic Thinker," in the Dublin Express.)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have no ill-will to those who, no doubt in part through a hurried habit of mind, sought by somewhat intemperate means to discredit the plea. I believe--would say I know, so sure am I--these had at heart the thought of Ireland, that passion which is indeed the foremost lamp of the Gael, the passion of nationality; and having this thought and this passion, considered little or for the time ignored the "sweet reasonableness," the courtesy cherished by minds less sick with hope deferred, less desperate with defeated dreams. But in controversy nothing else was revealed than that enthusiasm can sometimes lead to confused thought and hasty speech, and (it may well be) that the writer of "Celtic" had failed to be lucid or adequate on that fundamental factor in Gaelic union, that essential element in the continued life and development of the Gael--the proud preservation of nationality. I can imagine no worse thing for Ireland than that, in exchange for a dull peace and a poor prosperity, it should sink to the vassalage of a large English shire. In the wise words of Thoreau, the cost of a thing is the amount of what may be called life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

The aim of this essay was to help towards a workable reconciliation: not between "inveterate and irreconcilable foes" (which is but the rhetoric of those fevered with an epileptic nationalism), but a reconciliation such as may be persuaded between two persons, each with divergent individual aims and ideals, yet able to unite with decency and courtesy in a league for the common good, the commonweal. It seemed, and seems, to the writer that common sense (there is no Celtic word for it) makes clear that an absolute irreconcilability is simply a cul-de-sac, down which baffled dreams and hopes and faiths come at last upon a blank wall. Strength is built out of forfeiture as well as of steadfastness, and the man or woman, cause or race wins, which on occasion can relinquish or forbear. Merely to be irreconcilable is to prefer the blank wall to the open road.

But when that is said, it does not follow that there are no subjects, no ideals, no aims which stand apart from this debatable ground of reconciliation. On the contrary, I believed, and believe, that there are subjects, ideals, and aims whose continuity lies only in an unswerving steadfastness. Nay, further, with the author of The Hearts of Men, I would say with all my faith, "the people that cannot fight shall die." On any such people the shadow of the end is already come. All signs and portents will have borne testimony. Before a nation dies, the soul of that nation is dead; and before the death of the soul of the nation its gods perish: God perishes. For God, who is eternal in the Spirit, is, in the image and in the symbol, as in "omnipotence" as we conceive it, mortal. Unto every nation of man God dies when in the Soul of the nation the altars are cold. There are the altars of divine faith, and the altars of spiritual ideals, and the altars of the commonweal. Beware the waning of these fires.

The keynote of "Celtic" is in the sentence, "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."

But I generalised too vaguely, I find, in this, merely indicative, merely suggestive paper, when I wrote, "What is a Celtic Writer? . . . It is obvious that if one would write English literature, one must write in English and in the English tradition."

Of course I meant nothing so narrow in claim, so foreign to my conviction, as that one must "be English." There is no "must," in the Academic sense, in literature: the most vivid and original literature has in truth everbeen an ignoring or overriding of this strong word of the weak.

Only I can see how some--I am glad to know the few, not the many--misread this sentence. For that, I welcome this opportunity of the open word. There is no need here to recur to the literal meaning of the designation, a "Celtic writer." I would merely add a further word of warning as to the sometimes apt epithet and definitive but often ill-considered use of racial terms in speaking of what are individual qualities and idiosyncrasies rather than the habit of mind or general characteristic of a people. Swedenborg, Blake, and Maurice Maeterlinck do not stand for Scandinavian, and English, and Flemish mysticism, nor is any of these a mystic by virtue of being a Fleming, an Englishman, or a Scandinavian. I recall the considered judgment of an acute French critic, M. Angellier, in his essay on Burns: "The idea of race is fluctuating, ill-established, open to dispute. . . you cannot obtain a conception of the soul of a portion of humanity by merely supplementing certain ethnological labels with a few vague adjectives."

To consider those only, then, who write in English, I would add to my statement that if one would write English literature one must write in English and in the English tradition, the rider that the English language is not the exclusive property of that section of our complex race which is distinctively English, the English nation--any more than it is the exclusive property of the Scots, who speak it or of the Australians; or of the Canadians; or of the vast and numerically superior American nation. The language is common to all: all share in the heritage shaped by the genius, moulded by the life and thought, and transmitted by the living spirit of the common essential stock--now as likely to be revealed in Massachusetts as in Yorkshire, in Toronto as in Edinburgh, in Sydney or Melbourne or Washington, as in Dublin, Manchester, or London. An American writes in his native language when he writes in English: so does a Scot, now: so does a Canadian, an Australian, a New Zealander. Therefore the literature--of the Australians, the Scots, the Irish, the Americans, must be in English. It is the language that determines, but the thought behind the language may come from any of the several founts of nationality, to reveal, in that language, its signature of the colour and form of distinctive life. It is not the language that compels genius, but genius that compels the language.

Again, literature has laws as inevitable as the laws which mould and determine the destiny of nations. These can be evaded by decay and death; they cannot be overridden. Every literature has its tradition of excellence--that is, the sum of what within its own limits can be achieved in beauty and power and aptitude. This tradition of excellence is what we call the central stream. Of course, if one prefer the tributary, the backwater, the offshoot, there is no reason why one should not be well content with the chosen course. To many it seems, for many it is, the better way; as the backwater for the kingfisher, the offshoot or tributary for the solitary heron. But one must not choose the backwater and declare that it is the main stream, or have the little tributary say that though it travels on the great flow it is not part of the river.

That is what I meant when I said that if one would write English literature one must write in English and in the English tradition. To say that was not to bid the Gael cease to be Gaelic, any more than it would imply that the American should cease to be American. On the contrary, I do most strenuously believe that the sole life of value in literature is in the preservation of the distinct racial genius, temper, colour, and contour. If the poetry of two of the foremost Irish poets of to-day did not conform to the laws and traditions of English poetry--since Mr. Yeats and Mr. George Russell write in their native language, English, the language to which they were born and in which alone they can express themselves--it might be very interesting "Celtic " or any other experimental verse, but it would not be English poetry. The beauty they breathe into their instrument is of themselves; is individual certainly, and, in one case at least, in spirit and atmosphere is more distitictively Gaelic than English. But the instrument, is English: and to summon beauty through it, and to give the phantom a body and spirit of excellence, one must follow in the footsteps of the master-musicians, recognising the same essential limitations, observing the same fundamental needs, fulfilling the like rigorous obligations of mastery.

Since we have to write in English, we must accept the burthen and responsibility. If a Cretan write in the Cretan dialect, he can be estimated by those who know Cretan; but if he is ambitious to have his irregular measures and corrupt speech called Greek poetry, he must write in Greek and conform in what is essential to the Greek tradition, to the laws and limitations of the Greek genius. The Englishman, the Scot, the Irishman, the American, each, if he would write English literature, has of necessity to do likewise.

In a very true sense, therefore, there can be an Irish literature, a Scottish literature, an Anglo-Gaelic literature, as well as an English literature; but in the wider sense it is all English literature--with, as may be, an Irish spirit and Irish ideals and Irish colour, or with a Highland spirit and Highland ideals and Highland colour, or with a Welsh spirit and Welsh ideals and Welsh colour--as Mr. Thomas Hardy's writings are English literature, with an English spirit and English ideals and an English colour.

It is the desire and faith of the Irish nation to mould a new a literature as distinctively its own as the English nation has a literature that is distinctively its own: and to do this, in Ireland or the like in Scotland, is possible only by the cultivation, the persistent preservation of the national spirit, of the national idiosyncrasy, the national ideals. I would see our peoples reconciled, where reconciliation is just and therefore wise; believing that in such reconciliation lie the elements of strength and advance, of noble growth and conquering influence; but I would not have reconciliation at any price, and would rather we should dwell isolate and hostile than purchase peace at the cost of relinquishment of certain things more precious than all prosperities and triumphs. The law of love is the nobler way, but there is also a divine law of hate. I do not advocate, and have never advocated, a reconciliation on, any terms. I am not English, and have not the English mind or the English temper, and in many things do not share the English ideals; and to possess these would mean to relinquish my own heritage. But why should I be irreconcilably hostile to that mind and that temper and those ideals? Why should I not do my utmost to understand, sympathise, fall into line with them so far as may be, since we have all a common bondand a common destiny?

To that mind and that temper and those ideals do we not owe some of the noblest achievements of the human race, some of the lordliest conquests over the instincts and forces, of barbarism, some of the loveliest and most deathless things of the spirit and the imagination?

Let us beware of kneading husks with Mâyâ's dew, and so--as in the ancient gnome attributed to Krishna--create but food for the black doves of decay and death.

As for the Gaelic remnant (and none can pretend that this means Scotland and Ireland, but only a portion of Scotland and only a divided Ireland) I am ever but the more convinced that the dream of an outward independence is a perilous illusion--not because it is impracticable, for that alone is a fascination to us, but because it does not, cannot alas, reveal those dominant elements which alone can control dreams become actualities. Another and greater independence is within our reach, is ours, to preserve and ennoble.

Strange reversals, strange fulfilments may lie on the lap of the gods, but we have no knowledge of these, and hear neither the high laughter nor the far voices. But we front a possible because a spiritual greater destiny than the height of imperial fortunes, and have that which may send our voices further than the trumpets of east and west. Through ages of slow westering, till now we face the sundown seas, we have learned in continual vicissitude that there are secret ways whereon armies cannot march. And this has been given to us, a more ardent longing, a more rapt passion in the things of outward beauty and in the things of spiritual beauty. Nor it seems to me is there any sadness, or only the serene sadness of a great day's end, that, to others, we reveal in our best the genius of a race whose farewell is in a tragic lighting of torches of beauty around its grave.


Return to Volume V, Contents