A Note On Seumas O’Sullivan by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

As I grow older I get more songless. I am now exiled irrevocably from the Country of the Young, but I hope I can listen without jealousy and even with delight to those who still make music in the enchanted land. I often searched in the “Poet’s Corner” of the country papers with a wild surmise that there, amid reports of Boards of Guardians and Rural Councils, some poetic young kinsman may be taking council with the stars, watching more closely the Plough in the furrows of the heavens than the county instructor at his task of making farmers drive the plough straight in the fields. I found many years ago in a country paper a local poet making genuine music. I remember a line:

And hidden rivers were murmuring in the dark.

I went on in the strength of this poem through the desert of country journalism for many years, hoping to find more hidden rivers of song murmuring in the darkness. It was a patient life of unrequited toil, and I have returned to civilization to search publishers’ lists for more easily procurable pleasure. A few years ago I mined out of the still darker region of manuscripts some poetic crystals which I thought were valuable, and edited New Songs. Nearly all my young singers have since then taken flight on their own account. Some have volumes in the booksellers and some in the hands of the printers. But there is one shy singer of the group of writers in New Songs who might easily get overlooked because his verse takes little or no thought of the past or present or future of his country: yet the slim book in which is collected Seumas O’Sullivan’s verses reveals a true poet, and if he is too shy to claim his country in his verses there is no reason why his country should not claim him, for he is in his way as Irish as any of our singers. He is, as Mr. W. B. Yeats was in his earlier days, the literary successor of those old Gaelic poets who were fastidious in their verse, who loved little in this world but some chance light in it which reminded them of fairyland, or who, if they were in love, loved their mistress less for her own sake than because some turn of her head, or “a foam-pale breast,” carried their impetuous imaginations past her beauty into memories of Helen of Troy, Deirdre, or some other symbol of that remote and perfect beauty which, however man desires, he shall embrace only at the end of time. I think the wives or mistresses of these old poets must have been very unhappy, for women wish to be loved for what they know about themselves, and for the tenderness which is in their hearts, and not because some colored twilight invests them with a shadowy beauty not their own, and which they know they can never carry into the light of day. These poets of the transient look and the evanescent light do not help us to live our daily life, but they do something which is as necessary. They educate and refine the spirit so that it shall not come altogether without any understanding of delicate loveliness into the Kingdom of Heaven, or gaze on Timanoge with the crude blank misunderstanding of Cockney tourists staring up at the stupendous dreams pictured on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. These fastidious scorners of every day and its interests are always looking through nature for “the herbs before they were in the field and every flower before it grew,” and through women for the Eve who was in the imagination of the Lord before she was embodied, and we all need this refining vision more than we know. It may be asked of us hereafter when we would mount up into the towers of vision, “How can you desire the beauty you have not seen, who have not sought or loved its shadow in the world?” and the Gates of Ivory may not swing open at our knock. This will never be said to Seumas O’Sullivan, who is always waiting on the transient look and the evanescent light to build up out of their remembered beauty the Kingdom of his Heaven:

Round you light tresses, delicate,
Wind blown, wander and climb
Immortal, transitory.

Earth has no steady beauty as the calm-eyed immortals have, but their image glimmers on the waves of time, and out of what instantly vanishes we can build up something within us which may yet grow into a calm-eyed immortality of loveliness, we becoming gradually what we dream of. I have heard people complain of the frailty of these verses of Seumas O’Sullivan. They want war songs, plough songs, to nerve the soul to fight or the hand to do its work. I will never make that complaint. I will only complain if the strife or the work ever blunt my senses so that I will pass by with an impatient disdain these delicate snatchings at a beauty which is ever fleeting. But I would ask him to remember that life never allures us twice with exactly the same enchantment. Never again will that tress drift like a woven wind made visible out of Paradise; never again will that lifted hand, foam-pale, seem like the springing up of beauty in the world; never a second time will that white brow remind him of the wonderful white towers of the city of the gods. To seek a second inspiration is to receive only a second-rate inspiration, and our poet is a little too fond of lingering in his verse round a few things, a face, the swaying poplars, or sighing reeds which had once piped an alluring music in his ears, and which he longs to hear again. He lives not in too frail a world, but in too narrow a world, and he should adventure out into new worlds in the old quest. He, has become a master of delicate and musical rhythms. I remember reading Seumas O’Sulivan’s first manuscripts with mingled pleasure and horror, for his lines often ran anyhow, and scansion seemed to him an unknown art, but I feel humbly now that he can get a subtle quality into his music which I could not hope to acquire. I would like him to catch some new and rare birds with that subtle net of his, and to begin to invent more beauty of his own and to seek for it less. I believe he has got it in him to do well, to do better than he has done if he will now try to use his invention more. The poems with a slight narrative in them, like “The Portent” or the “Saint Anthony,” seem to me the most perfect, and it is in this direction, I think, he will succeed best. He wants a story to keep him from beating musical and ineffective wings in the void. I have not said half what I want to say about Seumas O’Sullivan’s verses, but I know the world will not listen long to the musings of one verse-writer on another. I only hope this note may send some readers to their bookseller for Seumas O’Sullivan’s poems, and that it may help them to study with more understanding a mind that I love.

1909

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