Nationality Or Cosmopolitanism by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

As one of those who believe that the literature of a country is for ever creating a new soul among its people, I do not like to think that literature with us must follow an inexorable law of sequence, and gain a spiritual character only after the bodily passions have grown weary and exhausted themselves. In the essay called The Autumn of the Body, Mr. Yeats seems to indicate such a sequence. Yet, whether the art of any of the writers of the decadence does really express spiritual things is open to doubt. The mood in which their work is conceived, a distempered emotion, through which no new joy quivers, seems too often to tell rather of exhausted vitality than of the ecstasy of a new life. However much, too, their art refines itself, choosing, ever rarer and more exquisite forms of expression, underneath it all an intuition seems to disclose only the old wolfish lust, hiding itself beneath the golden fleece of the spirit. It is not the spirit breaking through corruption, but the life of the senses longing to shine with the light which makes saintly things beautiful: and it would put on the jeweled raiment of seraphim, retaining still a heart of clay smitten through and through with the unappeasable desire of the flesh: so Rossetti’s women, who have around them all the circumstance of poetry and romantic beauty, seem through their sucked-in lips to express a thirst which could be allayed in no spiritual paradise. Art in the decadence in our time might be symbolized as a crimson figure undergoing a dark crucifixion: the hosts of light are overcoming it, and it is dying filled with anguish and despair at a beauty it cannot attain. All these strange emotions have a profound psychological interest. I do not think because a spiritual flaw can be urged against a certain phase of life that it should remain unexpressed. The psychic maladies which attack all races when their civilization grows old must needs be understood to be dealt with: and they cannot be understood without being revealed in literature or art. But in Ireland we are not yet sick with this sickness. As psychology it concerns only the curious. Our intellectual life is in suspense. The national spirit seems to be making a last effort to assert itself in literature and to overcome cosmopolitan influences and the art of writers who express a purely personal feeling. It is true that nationality may express itself in many ways: it may not be at all evident in the subject matter, but it may be very evident in the sentiment. But a literature loosely held together by some emotional characteristics common to the writers, however great it may be, does not fulfill the purpose of a literature or art created by a number of men who have a common aim in building up an overwhelming ideal–who create, in a sense, a soul for their country, and who have a common pride in the achievement of all. The world has not seen this since the great antique civilizations of Egypt and Greece passed away. We cannot imagine an Egyptian artist daring enough to set aside the majestic attainment of many centuries. An Egyptian boy as he grew up must have been overawed by the national tradition, and have felt that it was not to be set aside: it was beyond his individual rivalry. The soul of Egypt incarnated in him, and, using its immemorial language and its mysterious lines, the efforts of the least workman who decorated a tomb seem to have been directed by the same hand that carved the Sphinx. This adherence to a traditional form is true of Greece, though to a less extent. Some little Tanagra terra-cottas might have been fashioned by Phidias, and in literature Ulysses and Agamemnon were not the heroes of one epic, but appeared endlessly in epic and drama. Since the Greek civilization no European nation has had an intellectual literature which was genuinely national. In the present century, leaving aside a few things in outward circumstance, there is little to distinguish the work of the best English writers or artists from that of their Continental contemporaries. Milliais, Leighton, Rossetti, Turner–how different from each other, and yet they might have painted the same pictures as born Frenchmen, and it would not have excited any great surprise as a marked divergence from French art. The cosmopolitan spirit, whether for good or for evil, is hastily obliterating all distinctions. What is distinctly national in these countries is less valuable than the immense wealth of universal ideas; and the writers who use this wealth appeal to no narrow circle: the foremost writers, the Tolstois and Ibsens, are conscious of addressing a European audience.

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If nationality is to justify itself in the face of all this, it must be because the country which preserves its individuality does so with the profound conviction that its peculiar ideal is nobler than that which the cosmopolitan spirit suggests–that this ideal is so precious to it that its loss would be as the loss of the soul, and that it could not be realized without an aloofness from, if not an actual indifference to, the ideals which are spreading so rapidly over Europe. Is it possible for any nationality to make such a defense of its isolation? If not, let us read Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoi, men so much greater than any we can show, try to absorb their universal wisdom, and no longer confine ourselves to local traditions. But nationality was never so strong in Ireland as at the present time. It is beginning to be felt, less as a political movement than as a spiritual force. It seems to be gathering itself together, joining men who were hostile before, in a new intellectual fellowship: and if all these could unite on fundamentals, it would be possible in a generation to create a national Ideal in Ireland, or rather to let that spirit incarnate fully which began among the ancient peoples, which has haunted the hearts and whispered a dim revelation of itself through the lips of the bards and peasant story tellers.

Every Irishman forms some vague ideal of his country, born from his reading of history, or from contemporary politics, or from imaginative intuition; and this Ireland in the mind it is, not the actual Ireland, which kindles his enthusiasm. For this he works and makes sacrifices; but because it has never had any philosophical definition or a supremely beautiful statement in literature which gathered all aspirations about it, the ideal remains vague. This passionate love cannot explain itself; it cannot make another understand its devotion. To reveal Ireland in clear and beautiful light, to create the Ireland in the heart, is the province of a national literature. Other arts would add to this ideal hereafter, and social life and politics must in the end be in harmony. We are yet before our dawn, in a period comparable to Egypt before the first of her solemn temples constrained its people to an equal mystery, or to Greece before the first perfect statue had fixed an ideal of beauty which mothers dreamed of to mould their yet unborn children. We can see, however, as the ideal of Ireland grows from mind to mind, it tends to assume the character of a sacred land. The Dark Rosaleen of Mangan expresses an almost religious adoration, and to a later writer it seems to be nigher to the spiritual beauty than other lands:

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And still the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon her holy quietude.

The faculty of abstracting from the land their eyes beheld another Ireland through which they wandered in dream, has always been a characteristic of the Celtic poets. This inner Ireland which the visionary eye saw was the Tirnanoge, the Country of Immortal Youth, for they peopled it only with the young and beautiful. It was the Land of the Living Heart, a tender name which showed that it had become dearer than the heart of woman, and overtopped all other dreams as the last hope of the spirit, the bosom where it would rest after it had passed from the fading shelter of the world. And sure a strange and beautiful land this Ireland is, with a mystic beauty which closes the eyes of the body as in sleep, and opens the eyes of the spirit as in dreams and never a poet has lain on our hillsides but gentle, stately figures, with hearts shining like the sun, move through his dreams, over radiant grasses, in an enchanted world of their own: and it has become alive through every haunted rath and wood and mountain and lake, so that we can hardly think of it otherwise than as the shadow of the thought of God. The last Irish poet who has appeared shows the spiritual qualities of the first, when he writes of the gray rivers in their “enraptured” wanderings, and when he sees in the jeweled bow which arches the heavens–

The Lord’s seven spirits that shine through the rain

This mystical view of nature, peculiar to but one English poet, Wordsworth is a national characteristic; and much in the creation of the Ireland in the mind is already done, and only needs retelling by the new writers. More important, however, for the literature we are imagining as an offset to the cosmopolitan ideal would be the creation of heroic figures, types, whether legendary or taken from history, and enlarged to epic proportions by our writers, who would use them in common, as Cuculain, Fionn, Ossian, and Oscar were used by the generations of poets who have left us the bardic history of Ireland, wherein one would write of the battle fury of a hero, and another of a moment when his fire would turn to gentleness, and another of his love for some beauty of his time, and yet another tell how the rivalry of a spiritual beauty made him tire of love; and so from iteration and persistent dwelling on a few heroes, their imaginative images found echoes in life, and other heroes arose, continuing their tradition of chivalry.

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That such types are of the highest importance, and have the most ennobling influence on a country, cannot be denied. It was this idea led Whitman to exploit himself as the typical American. He felt that what he termed a “stock personality” was needed to elevate and harmonize the incongruous human elements in the States. English literature has always been more sympathetic with actual beings than with ideal types, and cannot help us much. A man who loves Dickens, for example, may grow to have a great tolerance for the grotesque characters which are the outcome of the social order in England, but he will not be assisted in the conception of a higher humanity: and this is true of very many English writers who lack a fundamental philosophy, and are content to take man as he seems to be for the moment, rather than as the pilgrim of eternity–as one who is flesh today but who may hereafter grow divine, and who may shine at last like the stars of the morning, triumphant among the sons of God.

Mr. Standish O’Grady, in his notable epic of Cuculain, was in our time the first to treat the Celtic tradition worthily. He has contributed one hero who awaits equal comrades, if indeed the tales of the Red Branch do not absorb the thoughts of many imaginative writers, and Cuculain remain the typical hero of the Gael, becoming to every boy who reads the story a revelation of what his own spirit is.

I know John Eglinton, one of our most thoughtful writers, our first cosmopolitan, thinks that “these ancient legends refuse to be taken out of their old environment.” But I believe that the tales which have been preserved for a hundred generations in the heart of the people must have had their power, because they had in them a core of eternal truth. Truth is not a thing of today or tomorrow. Beauty, heroism, and spirituality do not change like fashion, being the reflection of an unchanging spirit. The face of faces which looks at us through so many shifting shadows has never altered the form of its perfection since the face of man, made after its image, first looked back on its original:

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For these red lips, with all their mournful pride,
Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam,
And Usna’s children died.

These dreams, antiquities, traditions, once actual, living, and historical, have passed from the world of sense into the world of memory and thought: and time, it seems to me, has not taken away from their power, nor made them more remote from sympathy, but has rather purified them by removing them from earth to heaven: from things which the eye can see and the ear can hear they have become what the heart ponders over, and are so much nearer, more familiar, more suitable for literary use than the day they were begotten. They have now the character of symbol, and, as symbol, are more potent than history. They have crept through veil after veil of the manifold nature of man; and now each dream, heroism, or beauty has laid itself nigh the divine power it represents, the suggestion of which made it first beloved: and they are ready for the use of the spirit, a speech of which every word has a significance beyond itself, and Deirdre is, like Helen, a symbol of eternal beauty; and Cuculain represents as much as Prometheus the heroic spirit, the redeemer in man.

In so far as these ancient traditions live in the memory of man, they are contemporary to us as much as electrical science: for the images which time brings now to our senses, before they can be used in literature, have to enter into exactly the same world of human imagination as the Celtic traditions live in. And their fitness for literary use is not there determined by their freshness but by their power of suggestion. Modern literature, where it is really literature and not book-making, grows more subjective year after year, and the mind has a wider range over time than the physical nature has. Many things live in it–empires which have never crumbled, beauty which has never perished, love whose fires have never waned: and, in this formidable competition for use in the artist’s mind, today stands only its chance with a thousand days. To question the historical accuracy of the use of such memories is not a matter which can be rightly raised. The question is–do they express lofty things to the soul? If they do they have justified themselves.

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I have written at some length on the two paths which lie before us, for we have arrived at a parting of ways. One path leads, and has already led many Irishmen, to obliterate all nationality from their work. The other path winds upward to a mountain-top of our own, which may be in the future the Mecca to which many worshippers will turn. To remain where we are as a people, indifferent to literature, to art, to ideas, wasting the precious gift of public spirit we possess so abundantly in the sordid political rivalries, without practical or ideal ends, is to justify those who have chosen the other path, and followed another star than ours. I do not wish any one to infer from this a contempt for those who, for the last hundred years, have guided public opinion in Ireland. If they failed in one respect, it was out of a passionate sympathy for wrongs of which many are memories, thanks to them, and to them is due the creation of a force which may be turned in other directions, not without a memory of those pale sleepers to whom we may turn in thought, placing–

A kiss of fire on the dim brow of failure,
A crown upon her uncrowned head.

1899

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