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

"THE SHADOWY WATERS"

"I have flown out of the sorrowful weary wheel."--PYTHAGORAS, Tlze Golden Verses.

It is hardly a decade since the rise of a new Gaelic or Anglo-Celtic "school" in literature was looked at as the idle dream of an enthusiast here, a visionary there. As for a Celtic Drama--a drama that would have nothing in common with the accepted Irish melodrama so popular in England, but would have everything in common with the dreams of Irish poets and the tragic history of Ireland; a drama that would not set itself to please through a facile laughter and an easy pathos, but through the magic of legendary associations and the spell of a timeless imagination working within a passionate nationalism of mind and spirit--for a Celtic drama such as this, there was not even derision. The idea was too remote.

To ignore, now, the Anglo-Celtic school--I prefer to say the Anglo-Celtic--group would be too parochial even for a London critic trained in the narrowest academical and literary conventions. One may ignore this or that writer: all cannot be ignored, for they are now many, and some have that distinction which rebukes the sullen. One may deprecate the movement, may decry it, may more insolently patronise it--as some French critics patronise Aubanel, Mistral and the Provençal school, or as they patronise the poets and romancists of the Breton people: but one can no longer say it is not present, or is not to be reckoned with. There are, of course, faults on both sides. On each are wrong claims as well as wrong refusals, wrong assertions as well as wrong denials. In time, these adverse influences will combine in understanding, and, later, in sympathy and amity. If on the one side there has been, and still is, obtuseness (to speak of a sullen ill-will on the part of England towards Gaelic Ireland and Gaelic Scotland is now untrue), there is on the other a worse quality than obtuseness, a cultivated hate. It is almost inconceivable to what lengths this cult of revenge or hatred, this blind irreconcilabilty, will go. Not only the ignorant and idly passionate yield to its facile contamination, but those who would be spiritual guides and leaders pin to it all their hopes. These influences and blind advocates, of course, must exist, so that out of evil good may come: but.meanwhile they are the subtlest foes of Ireland and of that whole Anglo-Gaelic world which is now gathering itself for a last effort to resist extinction.

At present, however, there is, of the Irish group, one writer who stands apart. Whether one care for or dispute "the Celtic movement," none denies that Mr. Yeats is of the very few writers of the younger generation who can persuade us to the use of that sadly abused word "genius." As essayist, romancist, dramatist, but above all as poet, he has a unique place.

The colour of his style is the colour of his thought, and the colour of his thought is the colour of a genius larger than his own, the genius of a race.

With the romances of "The Secret Rose," the fantasies and episodes of "The CelticTwilight," or the several fascinating and suggestive essays in which, I think, is to be found Mr. Yeats's finest work in prose, I do not now attempt to concern myself. Nor, indeed, do I wish at present to consider his poetry as a whole: for his work in verse is familiar to most of us, and has been widely considered by others. But I would say a few words concerning his latest book of verse, and his "Shadowy Waters " and other dramatic work.

In a small book of verse, "The Wind among the Reeds," recently given us by Mr. Yeats, I think a note is touched which is significant. It is the beginning of a new music, and of a new motive. It is not often, I imagine, that titles are so apt as that chosen for this little book. These fewer than two score poems, most of them within the boundary of a page, are small and slight as reeds; and the wind which moves in them a delicate music is as invisible, as mysterious, as elemental as that "strong creature, without flesh, without bone, that neither sees nor is seen," of which long ago Taliesin sang. To understand its intimate music, certainly to feel that music translate itself into the rhythm of dream, one must go to this book as to a solitary place where reeds rise in the moonshine. To know intimately the mystery of these solitudes, it must be when the wind is the only traveller, and sunlight and shadow, the stars and darkness and the wandering plover are the sole visitants. How else is one (though, indeed, the blind bird in the heart must have sung the same song) to feel as Hanrahan felt, with the curlew wailing overhead, and an old memory beating with bewildered wind against a sense of further sorrow yet to come:

"O, Curlew, cry no more in the air,
  Or only to waters in the West;
  Because your crying brings to my mind
  Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
  That was shaken out over my breast;
  There is enough evil in the crying of wind."

This little book has the remoteness, the melancholy, of all poetry inspired by spiritual passion. It has, too, that other melancholy of which one of the subtlest of modern poets wrote in a forgotten early tale: "Les rêves du poète el de l'amant--rêves qui, par une loi inexplicable de notre nature, ont toujours une teinte de mélancolie, même dans leurs plus splendides rayonnements, et qui ne sont les les délicieux des rêves que grâce à cette même mélancolie."  Here we are aware of the stillness of things that are past or are not again to be:

"I bring you with reverent hands
  The book of my numberless dreams;
  White woman that passion has worn
  As the tide wears the dove-grey sands,
  And with heart more old than the horn
  That is brimmed from the pale fire of time,
  White woman with numberless dreams,
  I bring you my passionate rhyme."

This note of loss, of regret, finds constant expression.

"I hear the shadowy Horses, their long manes a-shake,
  Their hoofs heavy with tumult, their eyes glimmering white;
  The North unfolds above them clinging, creeping night,
  The East her hidden joy before the morning break,
  The West weeps in pale dew, and sighs passing away,
  The South is pouring down roses of crimson fire.
  O vanity of Sleep, Hope, Dream, endless Desire,
  The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay.
  Beloved, let your eyes half close, and your heart beat
  Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast
  Drowning love's lonely hour in deep twilight of rest,
  And biding their tossing manes and their tumultuous feet."

Mr. Yeats is assuredly of that small band of poets and dreamers who write from no other impulse than because they see and dream in a reality so vivid that it is called imagination. With him the imagination is in truth the second-sight of the mind. Thus it is that he lives with symbols, as unimaginative natures live with facts.

Of his work might be said what in effect an eminent critic said of François Millet, that he is so intent upon the expression of poetry that sometimes he prefers his ideas to his material, that sometimes he dematerialises his ideas, and suggests mystery instead of realising beauty.

A symbolist stands in some danger here. The obvious peril is a confusion of the spiritual beauty behind the symbol with the arbitrary expression of that spiritual beauty through that particular symbol. There are blind alleys and lost roads in symbolism, and few of those who follow that loveliest trail into "the undiscovered Eden " of Beauty but sometimes lose themselves, and go after shadows, and idly name the stars, and inhabit planets with their own desires, putting their vain dreams upon these unheeding children of eternity.

Perhaps a truer wisdom is that which would see the symbols in the facts, and the facts translated from their material body to their spiritual significance. It is the constant reminder of the man who breaks stones to the man who measures the stars, that he concerns himself with remote speculations; but the star-gazer is also apt to forget that without broken stones no road would be paven. And I cannot but think that Mr. Yeats is a star-gazer too reluctant to listen to the plaint of those who break stones or are spiritually dumb hewers of wood and drawers of water. He does not always sing of things of beauty and mystery as the things of beauty and mystery are best sung, so that the least may understand; but rather as those priests of Isis who, when bidden to chant the Sun-Hymn to the people, sang, beautifully, incomprehensible algebraical formulae.

"The Powers whose name and shape no living creature knows
  Have pulled the Immortal Rose:
  And though the Seven Lights bowed in their dance and wept,
  The Polar Dragon slept,
  His heavy rings uncoiled from glimmering deep to deep:
  When will he wake from sleep?"

Or, again

"We who still labour by the cromlech on the shore,
  They grey cairn on the hill, when day sinks drowned in dew,
  Being weary of the world's empires, bow down to you,
  Master of the still stars and of the flaming door."

Or that strange poem of love with its fantastic dream-beauty, beginning:

"Do you not hear me calling, white deer with no horns?
  I have been changed to a hound with one red ear."

To some there is no need to explain "the white deer with no horns," "the hound with one red ear," "the boar without bristles, out of the West"; to some the symbols of the "Polar Dragon" and the "Immortal Rose" stand evident. But these must be few: and though in a sense all excelling poetry is mystical, in the wider and not less true sense it should be as water is, or as air is, or as flame is. For it too is an elemental, being in the spiritual life what wind is in the natural life.

When the reader, unfamiliar with, "the signature of symbol", shall read these and kindred lines, will he not feel that this new priest of the Sun should translate to a more human key his too transcendental vision? What, he will ask, is the Immortal Rose, and what the Polar Dragon? Who is the guardian of the flaming door, and of what is it the portal? If a Gael, he may have heard of the white fawn that is Love, of the white hound that is Death. Is it this symbol that lives anew in the hound with one red ear, in the white deer without horns?

For all who may not be able readily to follow his honey of old wisdom, Mr. Yeats has added notes. It would be more exact to say that one-half of the book comprises the prose equivalent of the verse. If all notes afforded reading such as one may read here! Mr. Yeats turns round mentally and shows us the other side, where the roots grow and the fibres fill with sap, and how they grow to that blossom we have already seen, and what the sap is. In their kind, these notes have something of the charm of the poems which they illuminate. Yet they should be superfluous. It is not their presence that one objects to, but their need. Poetry is an art which should be as rigorously aloof from the explicative as the art of painting is, or as sculpture is, or music. When Mr. Yeats gives us work on a larger scale, with a greater sweep, he will, let us hope, remember that every purely esoteric symbol is a vague image--and vagueness is the inevitable defect against which the symbolist has to contend.

But, when all is said that criticism is called upon to say, what a lovely gift of music and spiritual intensity and beauty is here. I have an incalculable pleasure in this subtle magic which creates so much loveliness out of a few words. If, at times, the motive has triumphed at the expense of the manner, it is rare that music and meaning do not go in delectable harmony. What lover of perfect verse but could take keen pleasure in a little poem so rose-like in its intricate symmetry as this:

"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
     Enwrougbt with golden and silver light;
  The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half light;

"I would spread the cloths under your feet
    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
  I have spread my dreams under your feet,
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

The nobler use of symbolism--which is but an analogue of the soul's speech--gives a strange spiritual intensity to these poems. All do indeed live with an intense life, though of conventional actuality they have little or nothing. Some seem to be written in accordance with "the magical tradition"; some conform to the complex legend of Celtic mythology; some have no other shape or aspect than their own, as they issued like moths out of twilight, from the twilight of the poetic imagination. All come

          "from a more dream-heavy land,
A more dream-heavy hour than this";

and it is the infinite, because never wholly to be overtaken, charm of these breaths--breaths of the reeds of the spirit shaken in that wind which comes out of the past of time and the past of the heart--that, in them, we too, as the poet himself, may hear "white Beauty sighing." In no descriptive sense, but in a deeper sense, this book is one of a small company that are pioneers in that intimate return to nature from which we may and do expect so profound and beautiful a revelation. For a few come with new vision, to reveal what is so old, what is younger than all else, and new always.

It is a return, that in some sense, if only for solace and strength, all of us who feel life acutely must make.

I remember an old Highland fisherman saying to me once, when asked if he thought God could ever tire: "I think He has the sea in His right hand, and all the moors and hills of the world in His left, and when He is tired o' lookin' at the wickedness o' man, He washes it out in the sea, an' then watches His mercy like a soft shadow creepin' across the moors an' hills." I do not profess to give the exact words, for the old islander spoke in Gaelic; but this is the drift of them. "It's all obair an doill, the work of the blind," he added--meaning the vanity of the human heart. And, recalling this, I think that true poets and all the silent kindred of poets must often seek remote places, the loneliness of hill or moor, must often listen to the desert wind, to the whispering reeds, as a refuge from the dull trouble of the habitual life; that so they, too, may take comfort from the stealing forth of soft and kindly shadow-symbol of natural rest and spiritual re-birth.

A larger note is struck in "The Shadowy Waters." In this dramatic poem--in this poetic vision, told in verse cast in a dramatic form--Mr. Yeats has forsaken the acute emotion become lyrical for the lyrical thought become continuous. It is not a drama, because it is a symbolical reflection of what is in the poet's mind, rather than the architectonic revelation of what his imagination has definitely shaped. It is not, strictly, a poetical drama, even structurally, for action and speech are subservient to the writer's entranced vision of the symbolism of the action and of the speech. It is one of those new and strange utterances, so perplexing to many minds, wherewith conventional methods are used for novel, perturbing, sometimes bewildering, at times bewildered, thought: one of those dramas of the mind, best seen against imagined tapestries, which reveal so much more to us than do the common or familiar tapestries, the dramas of the obvious, of merely spectacular life.

I wonder how many who read this short drama of a score pages understood straightway what they read? The personages are mythical: even the famous name of Dectora (or Dectera) does not indicate that lovely queen with whose beauty old legend is fragrant: indeed, the poet has but taken the anglicised name of Cuchulain's mother and given it to an imaginary crowned woman out of Lochlann. This Dechtire is not a king's bride seeking a new kingdom, but the symbol or image of the Desire in the poet's heart, in the hearts of poets. And Forgael, what is he? A Gaelic prince, weary of songs and women and war, a lost king with a forgotten kingdom? Yes, but more: is he not the inappeasable ideal that calls to the Desire that is in our heart, but, having won it, and led it from shadowy lands across shadowy waters till the grey wave is all that is left of the visible world, will not lift it up nor wed it unless it will relinquish its own flame--unless, in a word, the beautiful mortal shall put on immortality, shall leave the warmth and the dream for a perhaps too stellar radiance, a certitude too divinely impassive?

Many an one, besides Dectora, who has relinquished all for the divine dream of imperishable and perfect love, has, at the last, cried out in the extreme bitterness of a new dismay:

"Where are these bought? Where are the holy woods?
  That can change love to imperishable fire?
  O! I would break this net the gods have woven
  Of voices and of dreams."

It is the cry, not of Dectora only, but of all women, nay, of all who through dream and passion love to the extreme:

                                                     "Beloved,
We will . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . escape
The nets the gods have woven and our own hearts,
And will find out valleys and woods and meadows
    To wander in";

and it is the answer of that inexorable Ideal which echoes in:

"All that know love among the winds of the world
  Have found it like the froth upon the ale."

Not the plea of one shaken heart but of all the troubled hearts of mortal love is uttered, when Dectora suddenly cries passionately to Forgael:

"Love was not made for darkness and the winds
  That blow when heaven and earth are withering,
  For love is kind and happy. O come with me!
  Look on this body and this heavy hair;
  A stream has told me they are beautiful.
  The gods hate happiness and weave their nets
  Out of their hatred,"

and when her mysterious lover abruptly bids her farewell, and tells her to seek Aibric, who loves her also, and with him go back to her lost and regretted land, it is not Forgael only that speaks, but again that inexorable Ideal which will not temporise, which offers but wind and shadow and yet demands all that clinging hands and turning feet are loth to leave. And the tragic pity of that final word is, that it always comes too late for the man or woman who would turn again to the beloved and the mortal:

                                        "I should wander
Amid the darkness, now that all my stars
Have fallen and my sun and moon gone out."

Shall we have this visionary love, with its terrible renunciations, or the light in loved eyes, the touch of hands, the whisper in the shadow? Dectora is a woman and knows but one love:

"The love I know is hidden in these hands
  That I would mix with yours, and in this hair
  That I would shed like twilight over you."

Forgael is not a man but a spirit, for to him love is idle as the unfolding of a rainbow, the colour of a moment on the grey eternities:

"The love of all under the light of the sun
  Is but brief longing, and deceiving hope,
  And bodily tenderness";

and he adds (alas, the cold radiance of precious stones after the glow and flame of that little infinite trouble in the dark, the human heart)

                      "but love is made
Imperishable fire under the boughs
Of chrysoberyl and beryl and chrysolite
And chrysoprase and ruby and sardonyx."

It is lovely rhetoric, but the heart's silence is more eloquent. "The Shadowy Waters" has a continual loveliness. Many lines dwell with one:

                                                    "already
The cloudy waters and the glimmering winds
Have covered them."

Many passages sink into the mind as dews sink through the dusk:

"The pale hound and the deer wander forever
  Among the winds and waters; and when they pass
  The mountain of the gods, the unappeasable gods
  Cover their faces with their hair and weep.
  They lure us to the streams where the world ends"---

Or:

                                                   "Crumbled away
The grass and the blue shadow on the stream
And the pale blossom"---
                                                     "With a sound
I had woven of the sleep that is in pools,
Among great trees, and in the wings of owls'--

Or:

". . . . . . . . .  he who longs
  For happier love but finds unhappiness,
  And falls among the dreams the drowsy gods
  Breathe on the burnished mirror of the world,
  And then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh."

In his symbolical and mythological allusions, Mr. Yeats is again, as in "The Wind among the Reeds," at times too esoteric, at times too vague. One may speak with the tongue of angels, but the accent must be human and familiar. Nor will the critical reader be blind to the over use of certain words: "winds and waters," "the pale hound," "heart's desire," and others, come too readily from Mr. Yeats's generally so heedful art. Mannerism begets disillusion when it becomes a common use, as when in close conjunction Mr. Yeats thrice uses a favourite, but at best dubious epithet, druid, uses it as an adjective for 'mystic" or kindred word: "a druid vapour," "druid moons," "with druid applewood." It has contagion, for a day or two ago I saw in a paper an allusion to ''the druid spell of Mr. Yeats's poetry, its druid lights and shadows." I can understand a druid spell, though "druidic" is the fit word: but not druid lights and shadows.

"The Shadowy Waters" does not yield all its beauty at once. It is like that flower which Moan, a dark queen of the Hidden People, showed to Cuchulain in his madness: a flower of a pale hue and faint fragrance, which every day disclosed a richer hue, the colour of a moment, or that loosed, passing as a moth's wing, a new fragrance. It is the story of a dream, of a symbolic vision; but its enchantment lies in its subtly beautiful interpretation of a dream that is not of one mind but of many minds, of a vision that has not sustained one heart's desire only but the desire of many hearts in the troubled congregation of men and women.

The miscarriage which awaits the pioneer lurks in the probable failure between theory and fulfilment. Mr. Yeats has written carefully concerning dramatic ideals and the Celtic Theatre: but he has not yet seemed explicit to the reader eager to sympathise with both, nor has his published dramatic work fulfilled the desired end. Like so many of us, he mistakes sometimes the gossamer drama woven inwardly of the wind of the spirit and the light of the imagination, for the tangible drama woven to represent adequately the things of the imagination and the spirit. He thinks in light and dreams in shadow, but forgets that the translation of these into thought made visible must be as explicit as the translation of the wind's cry on the wave or murmur among the leaves, when through a formal and exact notation the musician would convey the mystery of the one and the troubled deeps of the other. Hitherto, he has stood overmuch by the inner sureties of the loom of thought: now, if he has to achieve what he has in aim, he must study the outward weaving of the web, the external aspect of the woven dream, with not less careful heed, with careful, careful art. In "The Land of Heart's Desire," in "Countess Cathleen," in "The Shadowy Waters," he does not convince dramatically. In these he persuades. It may be the finer way for the imagination: to persuade by the thing seen, rather than by the thing shown. But it is not the way accepted of Drama, which has to be achieved by methods of illusion other than those of cadence and colour. Mr. Yeats seems to ignore that the particular method of illusion demanded by the Drama necessitates both an acceptance of certain conventions, and an avoidance of certain scenic imaginative realities inept as visible scenic actualities. "The Countess Cathleen" ranks first in what he has done in dramatic form, a play of great beauty, and whose repeated public performance delighted those who saw it. Yet it is impossible not to feel that something is wanting. This want is not of the obvious: we do not mean that it should be longer or shorter, swifter or slower, more humorous or more tragic, more wrought in poetry or sustained in prose. We take it as it is, and judge it for its shape and colour, its own life, its spirit, its aim. It is, then, that below the charm of the verse we are aware of a lack. It is not that the thought is slight, though it is not strenuous or deep; or that the phrase is inadequate in suggestion; or that unrealities wave conflicting plumes among the ordered march of the words, though insurgent unrealities there are at moments, and rebel insincerities, unconscious traitors no doubt. But something is lacking; as in a still, breathless wood we miss the lifting airs that are the wind. And the wind whose airs Mr. Yeats does not yet command is the wind of the dramatic spirit. He does not think, shape, reveal dramatically. This is as obvious in his dramatic poems as in his tales. A dramatic conception of an event or a linked sequence of events is not enough: there must be a dramatic vision of the coherent and actual congregation of the symbols in which that conception is to be made unique and visible: there must further, be that faculty of mental economy which can use the few words only, the slight detail, which can relinquish the literary idea for the visible actuality: and there must be the power to distinguish between the method of illusion that lies with reverie and inward vision, and the method of illusion that lies with concentrated thought and its immediate expression, with their demonstration in the visible.

The flaw in Mr. Yeats's dramatic work seems to me to be just this, that he is not primarily a dramatist. That he can write a beautiful dramatic poem is evident in "The Shadowy Waters": that he can write a beautiful poetic drama is evident in "The Countess Cathleen": that he can transmute into dramatic form the essential spirit of poetry is evident in "The Land of Heart's Desire." But these are not dramas in the sense that they are the outward and actual representation, through men and women and the actual world, of the dreams and thoughts and ideas of which men and women and the actual world are the shadows and vivid phantoms. It is not the visible, the dramatic interpretation that Mr. Yeats gives us, but the woven shape and colour of his dreams. "The Shadowy Waters" is a vision related as a dramatic poem: it could have been related in dramatic prose, or in the continuous linked prose of reverie, or in the deftly entangled prose of dialogue, or in the mirroring lucidities of the prose of narrative. We are glad of it as it stands: we may consider that it could not appeal to us more finely in another form. But it has not inevitableness. Even in the one drama more nearly suited for external representation which Mr. Yeats has written, there are spiritual truths, symbols, images which are as foreign voices crying for interpretation: images, symbols, and truths which, in their reality to him, he has forgotten are, to others, unrelated voices, wandering shapes, the idle loveliness of stars falling from abyss to abyss.

And yet since I have re-read "The Shadowy Waters" I believe that Mr. Yeats may give us, may at least lead us towards a signal compromise that shall be almost a new art; a new art perhaps. He may find the way where the dreaming spirit and the shaping mind are not two companions but one traveller: he may stoop by a well we have not seen, and hear the forgotten voice of Connla, and out of old wisdom fashion newly a new thing. In words already quoted,

     "dramas of the mind there are,
Best seen against imagined tapestries,"

and it may well be that, in a day of outworn conventions, many of us may turn gladly from the scenic illusions of the stage-carpenter, and the palpable illusions of the playwright, to the ever-new illusions of the dreaming mind, woven in a new intense dramatic reality against "imagined tapestries" as real, and as near, as the crude symbols of painted boards and stereotyped phrase in which we still have a receding pleasure.


NOTE

This essay was published before the issue of Mr. Yeats's recent dramatic ventures, "The King's Threshold," "On Baile's Strand," and other short Irish dramas of old and of to-day, of unchanging Ireland. My commentary on his work must be read as applying to what, at the time of its writing, Mr. Yeats had published.


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