The Boyhood Of A Poet by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

When I was a boy I knew another who has since become famous and who has now written Reveries over Childhood and Youth. I searched the pages to meet the boy I knew and could not find him. He has told us what he saw and what he remembered of others, but from himself he seems to have passed away and remembers himself not. The boy I knew was darkly beautiful to look on, fiery yet playful and full of lovely and elfin fancies. He was swift of response, indeed over-generous to the fancies of others because a nature so charged with beauty could not but emit beauty at every challenge. Even so water, however ugly the object we cast upon it, can but break out in a foam of beauty and a bewilderment of lovely curves.

Our fancies were in reality nothing to him but the affinities which by the slightest similitude evoked out of the infinitely richer being the prodigality of beautiful images with which it was endowed and made itself conscious of itself. I have often thought how strange it is that artist and poet have never yet revealed themselves to us except in verse and painting, that there was among them no psychologist who could turn back upon himself to search for the law of his own being, who could tell us how his brain first became illuminated with images, and who tried to track the inspiration to its secret fount and the images to their ancestral beauty. Few of the psychologists who have written about imagination were endowed with it themselves: and here is a poet, the most imaginative of his generation, who has written about his youth and has told us only about external circumstances and nothing about himself, nothing about that flowering of strange beauty in poetry in him where the Gaelic imagination that had sunk underground when the Gaelic speech had died, rose up again transfiguring an alien language until that new poetry became like the record of another mystic voyager to the Heaven-world of our ancestors. But poet and artist are rarely self-conscious of the processes of their own minds. They deliver their message with exultation but they find nothing worth recording in the descent upon them of the fiery tongues. So our poet has told us little about himself but much about circumstance, and I recall in his pages the Dublin of thirty years ago, and note how faithful the memory of eye and ear are, and how forgetful the heart is of its own fancies. Is nature behind this distaste for intimate self-analysis in the poet? Are our own emanations poisonous to us if we do not rapidly clear ourselves of them? Is it best to forget ourselves and hurry away once the deed is done or the end is attained to some remoter valley in the Golden World and look for a new beauty if we would continue to create beauty?

I know how readily our poet forgets his own songs. I once quoted to him some early verses of his own as comment on something he had said. He asked eagerly “Who wrote that?” and when I said “Do you not remember?” he petulantly waved the poem aside for he had forsaken his past. Again at a later period he told me his early verses sometimes aroused him to a frenzy of dislike. Of the feelings which beset the young poet of genius little or nothing is revealed in this Reverie. Yet what would we not give for a book which would tell how beauty beset that youth in his walks about Dublin and Sligo; how the sensitive response to color, form, music and tradition began, how he came to recognize the moods which incarnated in him as immortal moods. Perhaps it is too much to expect from the creative imagination that it shall also be capable of exact and subtle analysis. In this work I walk down the streets of Dublin I walked with Yeats over thirty years ago. I mix with the people who then were living in the city, O’Leary, Taylor, Dowden, Hughes and the rest; but the poet himself does not walk with me. It is a new voice speaking of the past of others, pointing out the doorways entered by dead youth. The new voice has distinction and dignity of its own, and we are grateful for this history, others more so than myself, because most of what is written therein I knew already, and I wanted a secret which is not revealed. I wanted to know more about the working of the imagination which planted the little snow-white feet in the sally garden, and which heard the kettle on the hob sing peace into the breast, and was intimate with twilight and the creatures that move in the dusk and undergrowths, with weasel, heron, rabbit, hare, mouse and coney; which plucked the Flower of Immortality in the Island of Statues and wandered with Usheen in Timanogue. I wanted to know what all that magic-making meant to the magician, but he has kept his own secret, and I must be content and grateful to one who has revealed more of beauty than any other in his time.

1916

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