The Works of "Fiona Macleod", Volume V, The Winged Destiny

The Winged Destiny


In tragic drama it is authenticity of emotion and not authenticity of episode that matters. It is of lesser moment whether the theme be imaginary, or historically of this country or of that, or of this age or of another age. What does matter is the veritable action of the elemental emotions, and primarily the emotion of the inevitableness of destiny and the emotion of tragical loveliness. One does not need to know the Scandinavian story of Gunhild, or the Arthurian story of Tristran and Yseult, or the Gaelic story of Deirdrê and the Sons of Usna, in order to know the mystery and the silent arrivals of destiny, or to know the emotion of sorrow at the passage of beauty. These emotions are not the properties of drama, which is but a fowler snaring them in a net. These deep elementals are the obscure chorus which plays upon the silent flutes, upon the nerves wherein the soul sits enmeshed. They have their own savage or divine energy, and the man of the woods and the dark girl of the canebrakes know them with the same bowed suspense or uplifted lamentation or joy as do the men and women who have great names and to whom the lords of the imagination have given immortality.

Many kings have desired, and the gods forbidden. Concobar has but lain down where Caesars have fallen and Pharaohs closed imperial eyes, and many satraps and many tyrants have bent before the wind. All old men who in strength and passion rise up against the bitterness of destiny are the kindred of Lear: those who have kept love as the crown of years, and seen it go from them like a wreath of sand, are of the kin of Concobar. There is not one Lear only, or one Concobar, in the vast stage of life: but a multitude of men who ask, in the dark hour of the Winged Destiny, Am I in truth a king? or who, incredulous, whisper, Love is dead, Love the immortal is dead!

The tradition of accursed families is not the fantasy of one dramatist or of one country or of one time. The Oresteia of Aischylos is no more than a tragic fugue wherein one hears the cries of uncountable threnodies. The doom of the clan of Usna is not less veiled in terror and perpetuated in fatality than the doom of the Atredai: and even "The Fall of the House of Ussher"(sic.) is but a single note of the same ancient mystery over which Sophocles brooded in the lamentations which eddy like mournful winds around the House of Labdacus.

Whether the poet turn to the tragedy of the Theban dynasty, wherein Laios and Iokaste and Oidipus move like children of fire in a wood doomed to flame; or to the tragedy of the Achaian dynasty wherein Pelops and Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaos, Helen and Iphigeneia, Klytaimnestra prophesying and the prophet Kalchas, are like shadowy figures, crowned with terror and beauty, on the verge of a dark sea where the menace of an obscure wind is continually heard beyond the enchanted shore; or to the tragedy of Lear weeping, where all kingship seems as a crown left in the desert to become the spoil of the adder or a pillow for wandering dust; or to the Celtic tragedy of the House of Fionn, where Dermid and Grania, where Oisin and Malveen, are like the winds and the waters, the rains and the lamentations of the hills: or to that other and less familiar Gaelic tragedy, where an old king knows madness because of garnered love spilt and wasted, and where a lamp of deathless beauty shines like a beacon, and where heroes die as leaves fall, and where a wind of prophesying is like the sound of dark birds flying over dark trees in the darkness of forgotten woods--whether one turn to these, or to the doom of the House of Malatesta, or to the doom of the House of Macbeth, or to the doom of the House of Ravenswood, one turns in vain if he be blind and deaf to the same elemental forces as they move through the blood that has to-day's warmth in it, that are the same powers, though they be known of the obscure and the silent, and are committed like wandering flame to the torch of a ballad as well as to the starry march of the compelling words of genius; are of the same dominion, though that be in the shaken hearts of islesfolk and mountaineers, and not with kings in Mykênai, or by the thrones of Tamburlaine and Aurungzebe, or with great lords and broken nobles and thanes.

The poet, the dramatist, is not able--is not yet able--to express in beauty and convey in symbol the visible energy of these emotions without resort to the artifice of men and women set in array, with harmonious and arbitrary speech given to them, and a background of illusion made unreal by being made emphatic.

If one were to express the passion of remorse under the signal of a Voice lamenting, or the passion of tears under the signal of a Cry, and be content to give no name to these protagonists and to deny them the background of history or legend: and were to unite them in the sequence of significant and essential things which is drama in action, but in a sequence of suggestion and symbol rather than of statement and pageant: he would be told that he had mistaken the method of lyrical music passing into musical drama for the method of verbal emotion passing into poetic drama. But that is too subtle a dream for realisation to seem possible yet, save for those who, hungering after the wild honey of the mind and thirsting for the remoter springs, foresee a time when the imagination shall lay aside words and pigments and clay, as raiment needless during the festivals of the spirit, and express itself in the thoughts which inhabit words--as light inhabits water or as greenness inhabits grass.

But so long as the imagination dwells in the accepted convention that imposes upon us the use of events which chime to the bells of the past, and the use of names which are at once congruous and traditional . . . in this convention of episode and phrase in the concert of action and suspense . . . it will be well ever and again to turn to those ancestral themes of destiny past which so many generations have slipt like sea-going winds over pastures, and upon which the thoughts of many minds have fallen in secret dews. I do not say, for I do not so think, that there might not be drama as moving whether it deal with the event of to-day and the accent of the hour as with a remote accent recovered and with remote event. But, to many minds, there must always be a supreme attraction in great themes of the drama of destiny as familiar to us as the tales of faerie and wonder to the mind of childhood. The mind, however, need not be bondager to formal tradition. I know one who can evoke modern dramatic scene by the mere iterance of the great musical names of the imagination. . . . Menelaos, Helen, Klytaimnestra, Andromache, Kassandra, Orestes, Blind Oidipus, Eklektra, Kreusa, and the like. This is not because these names are in themselves esoteric symbols, or are built of letters of revelation as the fabled tower of Ys was built of evocatory letters made of wind and water, of brownness of earth, of greenness of grass, and of dew, all of which the druids held in the hollows of the five vowels. And here, he says, in his delight. "For I do not live only in the past, but in the present, in these dramas of the mind. The names stand for the elemental passions, and I can come to them through my own gates of to-day as well as through the ancient portals of Aischylos or Sophocles or Euripides: and for background I prefer the flame-light and the sound of the wind to any of the crude illusions of stagecraft."

It is no doubt in this attitude that Racine, so French in the accent of his classical genius, looked at the old drama which was his inspiration; that Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Bridges, so English in the accent of their genius, have looked at it; that Etchegaray, in Spain, looked at it before he produced his troubled modern Elektra which is so remote in shapen thought and coloured semblance from the colour and idea of its prototype; that Gabriele D'Annunzio looked at it before he became obsessed with the old terrible idea of the tangled feet of Destiny, so that a tuft of grass might withhold or a breath from stirred dust empoison, and wrote that most perturbing of all modern dramas, La Città Morta.

That sense of the fatality which may have become native to certain localities where Destiny has been fulfilled, which is the fundamental idea of La Città Morta, has been felt by others also of our day. Readers of Walter Pater's "Apollo in Picardy," for example, will remember how when the Prior Saint-Jean was about to be transferred to "the wild lands" where lay the "Obedience" of Notre-Dame de Pratis, he was warned by the old Abbot to take heed of his ways when he was come to that place--for "the mere contact of one's feet with soil might change one." Elsewhere the same writer reminds us how the Greeks had a special word for the Fate which accompanied one who will come to a violent end, how the common Destinies of men, M o i r a , Moerae, accompany all men indifferently; but K h r , the extraordinary Destiny, one's Doom, has a scent for distant blood-shedding--"and, to be in at a sanguinary death, one of their number came forth to the very cradle, followed persistently all the way, over the waves, through powder and shot, through the rosegardens; where not? Looking back, one might trace the red footsteps all along, side by side."

This sense of a doom which is not only an implacable personal fatality but can be a terrible and incomprehensible Fate which will involve innocent and guilty, a whole house, a whole clan, a race even, which will even embitter the wind, add a more cruel and relentless terror to the sea, which, most appalling of all, will tangle its trailing threads in the roots of grass and in the green life of flower and weed, because, there, that was once accomplished which was the sowing of seed or the reaping of whirlwind--this sense finds expression in a deep and terrifying sigh throughout literature, from the fierce singers of Israel to the last Gaelic rhapsode, from the first of the dramatists of destiny even to the latest.


There is no inherent reason why a poet of to-day should not overtake the same themes, as Aischylos overtook from Phrynicus, and Sophocles from Aischylos, and Euripides, from all three. The difficulty is not in the remoteness of the theme, still less in the essential substance. It is in the mistaken idea that the ancient formal method is inevitable, and in the mistaken idea that a theme sustained on essential and elemental things and therefore independent of unique circumstance can be exhausted by the flashing upon it of one great light. Kassandra and Helen and lphigeneia . . . they live: they are not dead.

It is not the themes that have receded but the imaginations that have quailed.

Merely to parody the Greek tragedians, by taking a great theme and putting one's presumption and weakness beside it--that is another thing altogether. One hesitates, after Shelley and Robert Browning, after Mr. Swinburne and Mr. Robert Bridges, to say that no modern English poet has achieved a play with a Greek heart . . . no play written as a nineteenth century Sophocles or Euripides or Agathon would have written it. Even on Prometheus Unbound and Atalanta in Calydon, even on Erechtheus, the Gothic genius of the North has laid a touch as delicate as frost. yet as durable as fire on the brows of immemorial rock. Perhaps the plays of Mr. Bridges are more truly classical than any modern drama since Racine. But their flame is flame seen in a mirror: we see the glow, we are intellectually warmed by it, but we do not feel it . . . our minds only, not our hearts that should burn, our nerves that should thrill, respond.

The reason, I do not doubt, is mainly a psychical rather than an intellectual difficulty. It is the indwelling spirit and not the magnetic mind that is wayward and eager to evade the compelling wand of the imagination. For the spirit is not under the spell of tradition. It wishes to go its own way. Tradition says, if you would write of the slaying of Klytaimnestra you must present a recognisable Elektra and a recognisable Orestes and Dioskoroi against a recognisable background: but to the spirit Elektra and Orestes are simply abstract terms of the theatre of the imagination, the Dioskoroi are august powers, winnowers of fate, and the old Greek background is but a remembered semblance of a living stage that is not today what it was yesterday or shall be tomorrow, and yet is ever in essentials the same.


We are, I believe, turning towards a new theatre. The theatre of Ibsen, and all it stands for, is become outworn as a compelling influence. Its inherent tendency to demonstrate intellectually from a series of incontrovertible material facts is not adequate for those who would see in the drama the means to demonstrate symbolically from a sequence of intuitive perception. A subtle French critic, writing of the theatre of Ibsen, appreciates it as a theatre more negative than positive, more revolutionary than foundational, more intellectual than religious. "A ce théâtre amer et sec," he adds, "l'âme moderne ne peut stancher toutes ses soifs d'infini et d'absolu."

I think that, there, the right thing is said, as well as the significant indication given. "More intellectual than religious": that is, more congruous with the method of the mirror that gathers and reveals certain facets of the spirit, than with the spirit who as in a glass darkly looks into the mirror. "More intellectual than religious": that is, more persuaded by the sight that reveals the visible than by the vision that perceives what materially is not visible. "At this bitter and parched theatre of the intellect, the modern soul cannot quench its thirst for the infinite and absolute": and that is the reason, alone adequate, why to-day the minds of men are turning to a new drama, wherein thoughts, and ideas and intuitions shall play a more significant part than the acted similitudes of the lesser emotions that are not so much the incalculable life of the soul as the conditioned energies of the body. The Psychic drama shall not be less nervous: but the emotional energy shall be along the nerves of the spirit, which sees beneath and above and beyond, rather than merely along the nerves of the material life, which sees only that which is in the line of sight.

And as I have written elsewhere, it may well be that, in a day of outworn conventions, many of us are ready to 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

. . . . dream-coloured dramas of the mind
Best seen against imagined tapestries . . .

against revealing shadows and tragic glooms and radiances as real, and as near, as the crude symbols of painted boards and stereotyped phrase in which we still have a receding pleasure.

I think the profoundest utterance I know, witnessing to the fundamentally Psychical nature of the drama, is a phrase of Chateaubriand which I came upon recently in Book v. of his Mémoires . . . "to recover the desert I took refuge in the theatre." The whole effort of a civilisation become anoemic and disillusioned must be to "recover the desert." That is a central truth, perceived now of many who are still the few. This great writer knew that in the théâtre de l'âme lay the subtlest and most searching means for the imagination to compel reality to dreams, to compel actuality to vision, to compel the symbolic congregation of words the bewildered throng of wandering and illusive thoughts and ideas. By "the desert " he meant that wilderness, that actual or symbolic solitude, to which the creative imagination goes as the curlew to the wastes or as the mew to foam and wind.

Other writers speak of "nature" and "solitude" as though regarding them as sanctuaries where the passions may, like the wild falcons, cover their faces with their wings, and be still. Chateaubriand was of those few who look upon the solitudes of nature as enchanted lands, where terror walks with beauty, and where one sees on the dew the marks of invisible and hurrying feet. He was of those who looked upon solitude as, of old, anchorites looked upon waste places where the vulture had her eyrie and the hyena wailed and in desolate twilights the lioness filled the dark with the hunger of her young. "Be upon your guard against solitude: the great passions are solitary, and to transport them to the desert is to restore them to their triumph."


It is in "the desert," whether in the wilderness of the unpeopled waste or in that of the mind where the imagination wanders like a lonely hunter on the trail of the obscure and the unknown, that the whisper of Destiny is supremely audible. It is on the eddying air. It is in the sigh of the grass. The green branch whispers it. It is in the brown leaf, on the grey wind.

When we are companioned or are in crowds, when we are in the fellowship of our illusions, when we can banish "the desert," shut out the wilderness, we turn from this perturbing thought, this Idea, so vast and menacing. We talk lightly, then, of the fatality of things. Our egotisms, even, feed on the ground-flame: we speak of "the fatality that made me do this"; "my usual fate that has brought this about"; "there is a fatality in this date, in that number, in the inevitable event, in what has occurred." If we speak of Fate, it is as an omnipresent force, indifferent at best, jealous it may be, perhaps hostile, even malign. But oftenest we disguise Destiny in Luck, and feel as safe in the use of the subterfuge as we feel uneasy in that of the sinister thing for which it stands.

It is only when we turn to imaginative literature, to the drama in particular, that we can hear Destiny as a theme, as a present reality. To many minds it is a solace, a wall, rather, behind their weakness, that "a force greater than ourselves" is responsible for vicissitude, misfortune, miscarriage, circumstance, temperament even, even mien of mind and body. It is not we, they say, but Destiny who willed it so. For many others, who would refuse this confusion of the invited, the what but compelled fatalities, with the obscure Destiny which works afar off, at long range, behind many years it may be, perhaps even a generation or more, many generations even, and whose slow, inevitable workings are as relentless as they are inscrutable, there is a "fatalism" hardly less disastrous. They will not admit the feeble plea of the weak, but in their hearts they say "our best shall be set at nought, our strength shall avail nothing, in the end." It is only when we turn aside from the shifting images which make up the phantasmagoria of life, and look, though it be as in a glass darkly, into our own hearts, that we may have an imagination of the Winged Destiny: that spiritual force which is at once as remote from us, as far above us, as the dancing fires of the Pleiades, and yet in which we have our being and by which we are controlled and toward which we inevitably move, even as our little world with all our universe about it and beyond it moves orderly to the incalculable rein of one of these little dancing fires.

In life, as in that pictorial show of life in flashing or dimmed mirrors which we call drama, or poetry, or this or that art, there is no arbitrary destiny so omnipotent that the soul cannot proudly meet it, none, it may be, that the soul cannot overcome. But, alas, it is not the soul that is called upon to meet Fate, as we call the terrible logic of rhythmic order, but our distempered selves, and our frail wills, and our vain, impossible dreams.


It is easy, then, by the illusions of the imagination, to avoid the dread shadow. Man has shaped and coloured many beautiful dreams, as much, perhaps, to elude this shadow as to create enchantment. Is it not for this, in so great a part, that he has taken the sigh of the sea and the cadence of the wind and the murmur of the leaf, and lamentations and delight and whispers, and made Music; that he has taken from the silent flower and wave-haunted shell, and wrought so the colour and sound of verse; that he has surprised the secret of light and shade, and the secret of the columnar suspense of the cypress in moonlight or the single image of life silhouetted against dawn or sunglow, and the secret of the sombre avenues of pine-forest at sunset or moonrise, and the secret of the swaying branch and the blue smoke of woods and the wave of the sea, and created painting and sculpture and architecture and the dance?

But below all art there is an austere whisper: How would it be with you, O Soul, in the wilderness; how would it be with you alone there, naked amid the great silence and before the eternal shadow, and with no least of your illusions to hide the one or inhabit the other? It is here, in this spiritual wilderness, whether of an actual or symbolical desert, that the soul may know the mystery of the Winged Destiny. No poor fatalities wander here: here Fate herself does not reach, but leans brooding on the silent horizon.

Long ago, to Delphi, where that recovered memory sleeps beneath the "Shining Rocks" and dreams from the slopes of Parnassos to the meeting of the seas, a sculptor came who had fashioned a beautiful image which troubled all who looked upon it. His master, Agathôn, had made a statue, and some called it Eros and some Destiny. But now the younger man's work was held to be more beautiful, to be strange and beautiful to disquietude, to trouble the soul. Some thought it to be Anteros. In that day, in sculpture, only the Son of Ouranos and Aphroditê knew the symbolic beauty of wings. This winged one, was he that most ancient and dread god, imaged in changeless youth, Eros ? Or was he that mysterious otherself, or a sombre brother, son of one older than Ouranos, Anteros?

Men wondered, for no one could say. The sculptor had suddenly laid aside life when he laid aside the chisel. He was a man of deep meanings, they knew. When, a year before, in the city of Athena, Agathôn had made for a Thracian prince his statue of Destiny, that image had been a woman, but with the brows and mien of Athena herself. Only, the downlooking eyes were all but closed. This other Destiny was a youth, they saw, but with uplifted face, and eyes looking out through time and change and circumstance: young, yet with weight of deep thought on the brows: serene, yet somehow appalling, as though a most ancient presence out of eternity looked from the newly carven marble. He was winged too, with great wings, as though he had come from afar, and was but a moment earth-lit. They would have acclaimed Anteros, but that the sculptor's handman said the statue was of The Winged Destiny. Long afterward, the wandering priest of an obscure faith, preaching before what had been the great Pythian fane, told his hearers that Agathôn had meant Nemesis, the Following Fate: but that this other pagan dreamer, whose glory was now safe at Delphi, meant a deeper mystery, the Following Love. The stern Mistress of the veiled eyes was Retribution: the Divine Youth was Redemption. The one was born of Man and the Spirit of Time: the other was born of God and the Spirit of Eternity.


I, too, in common doubtless with many of my readers, have thus pondered often, and perplexedly, this problem of destiny in the uses of the imagination, above all in tragic drama, and the deeper and more complicated problem of destiny in life. The more I have thought, the more it is borne in upon me that, in its final expression, the secret of Destiny must besought within, in the interior life: in a word, that Destiny, as we commonly understand it, is but the vague term of a quality of spiritual energy, and not the designation of an immutable and inevitable force. I turned with eagerness, as doubtless many another turned, to M. Maeterlinck's La Sagesse cl la Destinée, when that remarkable book was published; to find there a solution of, or at least a signal clue to the heart of the mystery.  But, amid much that is beautiful and no little that is significant in interpretation and direction, I found nothing uttered with the authenticity of one who has put away visions because he has attained the source of visions, nothing revealed in the signature of the absolute. That fine book, indeed, in itself knows a continual hesitancy in nomenclature even, for the author speaks now of "le Destin" and now of "la Destinée," apparently by the one meaning that immaterial and secret and divine manifestation which we call Fate, the incommensurable vision and irresistible will of the Unknown; and, by the other, that material and obvious and mortal sequence of circumstance which we indicate in Fatality.

It is clear that he found; it is clear, I think, that each of us, pondering individually this problem, must find; it is possible that of old the Greek tragedians, those masters of illusion in the eternal drama of our mortal "yea" and the immortal "nay," found, and more intimately than we have found  . . . the same distinction which, soon or late, confronts every thinker: the distinction between the Destiny, or the Fate, which compels through the invisible and the untraceable, and the lesser destiny or fatality, which from without allures, or from within impels the overmastering throng of recognised or recognisable forces and influences, the things of our inheritance, of our creation, the things of our passions, the things of our desire.

But, surely, there is a further reach than this for the questing mind. In Destiny itself--in that great, abstract, overwhelming mystery of Fate, sitting as one enthroned above the turmoil of the lesser destinies of time and circumstance and the unceasing maelstrom of the myriad inextricable fatalities are there not two mighty forces at work? Is there not the sombre and inscrutable Genius of this world, which weaves with time and races and empires, with life and death and change, and in the weft of whose web our swift-passing age, our race, our history, are no more than vivid gleams for a moment turned to the light? And is there not also a Winged Destiny, a Creature of the Eternal, inhabiting infinitude, so vast and incommensurable that no eye can perceive, no imagination limn, no thought overtake, and yet that can descend upon your soul or mine as dew upon blades of grass, as wind among the multitudinous leaves, as the voice of sea and forest that can rise in the silence of mountain-brows or sink in whispers through the silence of a child's sleep?--a Destiny that has no concern with crowns and empires and the proud dreams of men, but only with the soul, that flitting shadow, more intangible than dew, yet whose breath shall see the wasting of hills and the drought of oceans.

It is because I believe there is, in Fate, first the destiny which we make and invite, and name fatality: and above it the Destiny which calls to us as a tide calling in the night, and to which we respond from within, as creatures that must inevitably go with that tide, whether we know it or believe in it or ignore it, but yet who on that tide may compel our own way, and avoid the whirlpool, and attain the fortunate shores: and, beyond this, the Winged Destiny, which leans from Eternity into Time, and whispers to the soul through symbol and intuition the inconceivable mystery of the divine silence--it is because of this belief that I have placed these few words at the end of this book.

For, throughout, there breathes in it, I hope, not only the faith in the things which the spirit may compel and dreams achieve; not only the belief that the secret of redemption, alike for the individual, the generation, and the race, lies in the well in each heart and not in the clouds that float on the dim horizons of the mind of man; but also the belief, the faith, that for each of us, for all, there is the Winged Destiny, the Shepherd with whom, in the dark hour, we must go at last, to whose call we must answer when the familiar passions and desires and longings are as dust on the wind, and only that remains which so little we consider, only that little shaken flame of the spirit, which is yet of the things that do not pass, which is of the things immortal.

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