Standish O’grady by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

In this age we read so much that we lay too great a burden on the imagination. It is unable to create images which are the spiritual equivalent of the words on the printed page, and reading becomes for too many an occupation of the eye rather than of the mind. How rarely, out of the multitude of volumes a man reads in his lifetime, can he remember where or when he read any particular book, or with any vividness recall the mood it evoked in him. When I close my eyes, and brood in memory over the books which most profoundly affected me, I find none excited my imagination more than Standish O’Grady’s epical narrative of Cuculain. Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass: “Camerado, this is no book. Who touches this touches a man,” and O’Grady might have boasted of his Bardic History of Ireland, written with his whole being, that there was more than a man in it, there was the soul of a people, its noblest and most exalted life symbolized in the story of one heroic character.

With reference to Ireland, I was at the time I read like many others who were bereaved of the history of their race. I was as a man who, through some accident, had lost memory of his past, Who could recall no more than a few months of new life, and could not say to what songs his cradle had been rocked, what mother had nursed him, who were the playmates of childhood, or by what woods and streams he had wandered. When I read O’Grady I was as such a man who suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him, and knows he was born in a royal house, that he had mixed with the mighty of heaven and earth and had the very noblest for his companions. It was the memory of race which rose up within me as I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children of kings. That is what O’Grady did for me and for others who were my contemporaries, and I welcome the reprints, of his tales in the hope that he will go on magically recreating for generations yet unborn the ancestral life of their race in Ireland. For many centuries the youth of Ireland as it grew up was made aware of the life of bygone ages, and there were always some who remade themselves in the heroic mould before they passed on. The sentiment engendered by the Gaelic literature was an arcane presence, though unconscious of itself, in those who for the past hundred years had learned another speech. In O’Grady’s writings the submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent, and I realized as I bathed in that stream, that the greatest spiritual evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the story of the national soul. For not all music can be played upon any instrument, and human nature for most of us is like a harp on which can be rendered the music written for the harp but nor that written for the violin. The harp strings quiver for the harp-player alone, and he who can utter his passion through the violin is silent before an unfamiliar instrument. That is why the Irish have rarely been deeply stirred by English literature, though it is one of the great literatures of the world. Our history was different and the evolutionary product was a peculiarity of character, and the strings of our being vibrate most in ecstasy when the music evokes ancestral moods or embodies emotions akin to these. I am not going to argue the comparative worth of the Gaelic and English tradition. All that I can say is that the traditions of our own country move us more than the traditions of any other. Even if there was not essential greatness in them we would love them for the same reasons which bring back so many exiles to revisit the haunts of childhood. But there was essential greatness in that neglected bardic literature which O’Grady was the first to reveal in a noble manner. He had the spirit of an ancient epic poet. He is a comrade of Homer, his birth delayed in time perhaps that he might renew for a sophisticated people the elemental simplicity and hardihood men had when the world was young and manhood was prized more than any of its parts, more than thought or beauty or feeling. He has created for us, or rediscovered, one figure which looms in the imagination as a high comrade of Hector, Achilles, Ulysses, Rama or Yudisthira, as great in spirit as any. Who could extol enough his Cuculain, that incarnation of Gaelic chivalry, the fire and gentleness, the beauty and heroic ardour or the imaginative splendor of the episodes in his retelling of the ancient story. There are writers who bewitch you by a magical use of words whose lines glitter like jewels, whose effects are gained by an elaborate art and who deal with the subtlest emotions. Others again are simple as an Egyptian image, and yet are more impressive, and you remember them less for the sentence than for a grandiose effect. They are not so much concerned with the art of words as with the creation of great images informed with magnificence of spirit. They are not lesser artists but greater, for there is a greater art in the simplification of form in the statue of Memnon than there is in the intricate detail of a bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Standish O’Grady had in his best moments that epic wholeness and simplicity, and the figure of Cuculain amid his companions of the Red Branch which he discovered and refashioned for us is, I think, the greatest spiritual gift any Irishman for centuries has given to Ireland.

I know it will be said that this is a scientific age, the world is so full of necessitous life that it is waste of time for young Ireland to brood upon tales of legendary heroes, who fought with enchanters, who harnessed wild fairy horses to magic chariots and who talked with the ancient gods, and that it would be much better for youth to be scientific and practical. Do not believe it, dear Irish boy, dear Irish girl, I know as well as any the economic needs of our people. They must not be overlooked, but keep still in your hearts some desires which might enter Paradise. Keep in your souls some images of magnificence so that hereafter the halls of heaven and the divine folk may not seem altogether alien to the spirit. These legends have passed the test of generations for century after century, and they were treasured and passed on to those who followed, and that was because there was something in them akin to the immortal spirit. Humanity cannot carry with it through time the memory of all its deeds and imaginations, and it burdens itself only in a new era with what was highest among the imaginations of the ancestors. What is essentially noble is never out of date. The figures carved by Pheidias for the Parthenon still shine by the side of the greatest modern sculpture. There has been no evolution of the human form to a greater beauty than the ancient Greek saw, and the forms they carved are not strange to us, and if this is true of the outward form it is true of the indwelling spirit. What is essentially noble is contemporary with all that is splendid today, and until the mass of men are equal in spirit the great figures of the past will affect us less as memories than as prophecies of the Golden Age to which youth is ever hurrying in its heart.

O’Grady in his stories of the Red Branch rescued from the past what was contemporary to the best in us today, and he was equal in his gifts as a writer to the greatest of his bardic predecessors in Ireland. His sentences are charged with a heroic energy, and, when he is telling a great tale, their rise and fall is like the flashing and falling of the bright sword of some great battle, or like the onset and withdrawal of Atlantic surges. He can at need be beautifully tender and quiet. Who that has read his tale of the young Finn and the Seven Ancients will forget the weeping of Finn over the kindness of the famine-stricken old men, and their wonder at his weeping, and the self-forgetful pathos of their meditation unconscious that it was their own sacrifice called forth the tears of Finn. “Youth,” they said, “has many sorrows that cold age cannot comprehend.”

There are critics repelled by the abounding energy in O’Grady’s sentences. It is easy to point to faults due to excess and abundance, but how rare in literature is that heroic energy and power. There is something arcane and elemental in it, a quality that the most careful stylist cannot attain, however he uses the file, however subtle he is. O’Grady has noticed this power in the ancient bards and we find it in his own writing. It ran all through the Bardic History, the Critical and Philosophical History, and through the political books, The Tory Democracy and All Ireland. There is this imaginative energy in the tale of Cuculain, in all its episodes, the slaying of the hound, the capture of the Liath Macha, the hunting of the enchanted deer, the capture of the Wild swans, the fight at the ford, and the awakening of the Red Branch. In the later tale of Red Hugh which, he calls The Flight of the Eagle there is the same quality of power joined with a shining simplicity in the narrative which rises into a poetic ecstasy in that wonderful chapter where Red Hugh, escaping from the Pale, rides through the Mountain Gates of Ulster and sees high above him Sheve Gullion, a mountain of the Gods, the birth-place of legend “more mythic than Avernus”; and O’Grady evokes for us and his hero the legendary past and the great hill seems to be like Mount Sinai, thronged with immortals, and it lives and speaks to the fugitive boy, “the last great secular champion of the Gael,” and inspires him for the fulfillment of his destiny. We might say of Red Hugh, and indeed of all O’Grady’s heroes, that they are the spiritual progeny of Cuculain. From Red Hugh down to the boys who have such enchanting adventures in Lost on Du Corrig and The Chain of Gold they have all a natural and hardy purity of mind, a beautiful simplicity of character, and one can imagine them all in an hour of need, being faithful to any trust like the darling of the Red Branch. These shining lads never grew up amid books. They are as much children of nature as the Lucy of Wordsworth’s poetry. It might be said of them as the poet of the Kalevala sang of himself: “Winds and waters my instructors.”

These were O’Grady’s own earliest companions, and no man can find better comrades than earth, water, air and sun. I imagine O’Grady’s own youth was not so very different from the youth of Red Hugh before his captivity; that he lived on the wild and rocky western coast, that he rowed in coracles, explored the caves, spoke much with hardy natural people, fishermen and workers on the land, primitive folk, simple in speech but with that fundamental depth men have who are much in nature in companionship with the elements, the elder brothers of humanity. It must have been out of such a boyhood and such intimacies with natural and unsophisticated people that there came to him the understanding of the heroes of the Red Branch. How pallid, beside the ruddy chivalry who pass, huge and fleet and bright, through O’Grady’s pages, appear Tennyson’s bloodless Knights of the Round Table, fabricated in the study to be read in the drawing room, as anemic as Burne Jones’ lifeless men in armour. The heroes of ancient Irish legend reincarnated in the mind of a man who could breathe into them the fire of life, caught from sun and wind, their ancient deities, and send them forth to the world to do greater deeds, to act through many men and speak through many voices. What sorcery was in the Irish mind that it has taken so many years to win but a little recognition for this splendid spirit; and that others who came after him, who diluted the pure fiery wine of romance he gave us with literary water, should be as well known or more widely read. For my own, part I can only point back to him and say whatever is Irish in me he kindled to life, and I am humble when I read his epic tale, feeling how much greater a thing it is for the soul of a writer to have been the habitation of a demi-god than to have had the subtlest intellections.

We praise the man who rushes into a burning mansion and brings out its greatest treasure. So ought we to praise this man who rescued from the perishing Gaelic tradition its darling hero and restored him to us, and I think now that Cuculain will not perish, and he will be invisibly present at many a council of youth, and he will be the daring which lifts the will beyond itself and fires it for great causes, and he will be also the courtesy which shall overcome the enemy that nothing else may overcome.

I am sure that Standish O’Grady would rather I should speak of his work and its bearing on the spiritual life of Ireland, than about himself, and, because I think so, in this reverie I have followed no set plan but have let my thoughts run as they will. But I would not have any to think that this man was only a writer, or that he could have had the heroes of the past for spiritual companions, without himself being inspired to fight dragons and wizardry. I have sometimes regretted that contemporary politics drew O’Grady away from the work he began so greatly. I have said to myself he might have given us an Oscar, a Diarmuid or a Caolte, an equal comrade to Cuculain, but he could not, being lit up by the spirit of his hero, he merely the bard and not the fighter, and no man in Ireland intervened in the affairs of his country with a superior nobility of aim. He was the last champion of the Irish aristocracy, and still more the voice of conscience for them, and he spoke to them of their duty to the nation as one might imagine some fearless prophet speaking to a council of degenerate princes. When the aristocracy failed Ireland he bade them farewell, and wrote the epitaph of their class in words whose scorn we almost forget because of their sounding melody and beauty. He turned his mind to the problems of democracy and more especially of those workers who are trapped in the city, and he pointed out for them the way of escape and how they might renew life in the green fields close to Earth, their ancient mother and nurse. He used too exalted a language for those to whom he spoke to understand, and it might seem that all these vehement appeals had failed but that we know that what is fine never really fails. When a man is in advance of his age, a generation, unborn when he speaks, is born in due time and finds in him its inspiration. O’Grady may have failed in his appeal to the aristocracy of his own time but he may yet create an aristocracy of character and intellect in Ireland. The political and economic writings will remain to uplift and inspire and to remind us that the man who wrote the stories of heroes had a bravery of his own and a wisdom of his own. I owe so much to Standish O’Grady that I would like to leave it on record that it was he made me conscious and proud of my country, and recalled to my mind, that might have wandered otherwise over too wide and vague a field of thought, to think of the earth under my feet and the children of our common mother. There hangs in the Municipal Gallery of Dublin the portrait of a man with melancholy eyes, and scrawled on the canvas is the subject of his bitter brooding: “‘The Lost Land.” I hope that O’Grady will find before he goes back to Tir na noge that Ireland has found again through him what seemed lost for ever, the law of its own being, and its memories which go back to the beginning of the world.

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