Story type: Essay
“The Red Branch ought not to be staged…. That literature ought not to be produced for popular consumption for the edification of the crowd…. I say to you drop this thing at your peril…. You may succeed in degrading Irish ideals, and banishing the soul of the land. … Leave the heroic cycles alone, and don’t bring them down to the crowd…” (Standish O’Grady in All Ireland Review).
Years ago, in the adventurous youth of his mind, Mr. O’Grady found the Gaelic tradition like a neglected antique dun with the doors barred, and there was little or no egress. Listening, he heard from within the hum of an immense chivalry, and he opened the doors and the wild riders went forth to work their will. Now he would recall them. But it is in vain. The wild riders have gone forth, and their labors in the human mind are only beginning. They will do their deeds over again, and now they will act through many men and speak through many voices. The spirit of Cuculain will stand at many a lonely place in the heart, and he will win as of old against multitudes. The children of Turann will start afresh still eager to take up and renew their cyclic labors, and they will gain, not for themselves, the Apples of the Tree of Life, and the Spear of the Will, and the Fleece which is the immortal body. All the heroes and demigods returning will have a wider field than Erin for their deeds, and they will not grow weary warning upon things that die but will be fighters in the spirit against immortal powers, and, as before, the acts will be sometimes noble and sometimes base. They cannot be stayed from their deeds, for they are still in the strength of a youth which is ever renewing itself. Not for all the wrong which may be done should they be restrained. Mr. O’Grady would now have the tales kept from the crowd to be the poetic luxury of a few. Yet would we, for all the martyrs who perished in the fires of the Middle Ages, counsel the placing of the Gospels on the list of books to be read only by a few esoteric worshippers?
The literature which should be unpublished is that which holds the secret of the magical powers. The legends of Ireland are not of this kind. They have no special message to the aristocrat more than to the man of the people. The men who made the literature of Ireland were by no means nobly born, and it was the bards who placed the heroes, each in his rank, and crowned them for after ages, and gave them their famous names. They have placed on the brow of others a crown which belonged to themselves, and all the heroic literature of the world was made by the sacrifice of the nameless kings of men who have given a sceptre to others they never wielded while living, and who bestowed the powers, of beauty and pity on women who perhaps had never uplifted a heart in their day, and who now sway us from the grave with a grace only imagined in the dreaming soul of the poet. Mr. O’Grady has been the bardic champion of the ancient Irish aristocracy. He has thrown on them the sunrise colors of his own brilliant spirit, and now would restrain others from the use of their names lest a new kingship should be established over them, and another law than that of his own will, lest the poets of the democracy looking back on the heroes of the past should overcome them with the ideas of a later day, and the Atticottic nature find a loftier spirit in those who felt the unendurable pride of the Fianna and rose against it. Well, it is only natural he should try to protect the children of his thought, but they need no later word from him. If writers of a less noble mind than his deal with these things they will not rob his heroes of a single power to uplift or inspire. In Greece, after Eschylus and his stupendous deities, came Sophocles, who restrained them with a calm wisdom, and Euripides, who made them human, but still the mysterious Orphic deities remain and stir us when reading the earlier page. Mr. O’Grady would not have the Red Branch cycle cast in dramatic form or given to the people. They are too great to be staged; and he quotes, mistaking the gigantic for the heroic, a story of Cuculain reeling round Ireland on his fairy steed the Liath Macha. This may be phantasy or extravagance, but it is not heroism. Cuculain is often heroic, but it is a quality of the soul and not of the body; it is shown by his tears over Ferdiad, in his gentleness to women. A more grandiose and heroic figure than Cuculain was seen on the Athenian stage; and no one will say that the Titan Prometheus, chained on the rock in his age-long suffering for men, is not a nobler figure than Cuculain in any aspect in which he appears to us in the tales. Divine traditions, the like of which were listened to with awe by the Athenians, should not be too lofty for our Christian people, whose morals Mr. O’Grady, here hardly candid, professes to be anxious about. What is great in literature is a greatness springing out of the human heart. Though we fall short today of the bodily stature of the giants of the prime, the spirit still remains and can express an equal greatness. I can well understand how a man of our own day, by the enlargement of his spirit, and the passion and sincerity of his speech, could express the greatness of the past. The drama in its mystical beginning was the vehicle through which divine ideas, which are beyond the sphere even of heroic life and passion, were expressed; and if the later Irish writers fail of such greatness, it is not for that reason that the soul of Ireland will depart. I can hardly believe Mr. O’Grady to be serious when he fears that many forbidden subjects will be themes for dramatic art, that Maeve with her many husbands will walk the stage, and the lusts of an earlier age be revived to please the lusts of today. The danger of art is not in its subjects, but in the attitude of the artist’s mind. The nobler influences of art arise, not because heroes are the theme, but because of noble treatment and the intuition which perceives the inflexible working out of great moral laws.
The abysses of human nature may well be sounded if the plummet be dropped by a spirit from the heights. The lust which leads on to death may be a terrible thing to contemplate, but in the event there is consolation; and the eye of faith can see even in the very exultation of corruption how God the Regenerator is working His will, leading man onward to his destiny of inevitable beauty. Mr. O’Grady in his youth had the epic imagination, and I think few people realize how great and heroic that inspiration was; but the net that is spread for Leviathan will not capture all the creatures of the deep, and neither epic nor romance will manifest fully the power of the mythical ancestors of the modern Gael who now seek incarnation anew in the minds of their children. Men too often forget, in this age of printed books, that literature is, after all, only an ineffectual record of speech. The literary man has gone into strange byways through long contemplation of books, and he writes with elaboration what could never be spoken, and he loses that power of the bards on whom tongues of fire had descended, who were masters of the magic of utterance, whose thoughts were not meant to be silently absorbed from the lifeless page. For there never can be, while man lives in a body, a greater means of expression for him than the voice of man affords, and no instrument of music will ever rival in power the flowing of the music of the spheres through his lips. In all its tones, from the chanting of the magi which compelled the elements, to those gentle voices which guide the dying into peace, there is a power which will never be stricken from tympan or harp, for in all speech there is life, and with the greatest speech the deep tones of another Voice may mingle. Has not the Lord spoken through His prophets? And man, when he has returned to himself, and to the knowledge of himself, may find a greater power in his voice than those which he has painfully harnessed to perform his will, in steamship or railway. It is through drama alone that the writer can summon, even if vicariously, so great a power to his aid; and it is possible we yet may hear on the stage, not merely the mimicry of human speech, but the old forgotten music which was heard in the duns of great warriors to bow low their faces in their hands. Dear O’Grady, if we do not succeed it is not for you to blame us, for our aims are at least as high as your own.