The Poetry Of James Stephens by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

For a generation the Irish bards have endeavored to live in a palace of art, in chambers hung with the embroidered cloths and made dim with pale lights and Druid twilights, and the melodies they most sought for were half soundless. The art of an early age began softly, to end its songs with a rhetorical blare of sound. The melodies of the new school began close to the ear and died away in distances of the soul. Even as the prophet of old was warned to take off his shoes because the place he stood on was holy ground, so it seemed for a while in Ireland as if no poet could be accepted unless he left outside the demesnes of poetry that very useful animal, the body, and lost all concern about its habits. He could not enter unless he moved with the light and dreamy foot-fall of spirit. Mr. Yeats was the chief of this eclectic school, and his poetry at its best is the most beautiful in Irish literature. But there crowded after him a whole horde of verse-writers, who seized the most obvious symbols he used and standardized them, and in their writings one wandered about, gasping for fresh air land sunlight, for the Celtic soul seemed bound for ever pale lights of fairyland on the north and by the by the darkness of forbidden passion on the south, and on the east by the shadowiness of all things human, and on the west by everything that was infinite, without form, and void.

It was a great relief to me, personally, who had lived in the palace of Irish art for a time, and had even contributed a little to its dimness, to hear outside the walls a few years ago a sturdy voice blaspheming against all the formula, and violating the tenuous atmosphere with its “Insurrections.” There are poets who cannot write with half their being, and who must write with their whole being, and they bring their poor relation, the body, with them wherever they go, and are not ashamed of it. They are not at warfare with the spirit, but have a kind of instinct that the clan of human powers ought to cling together as one family. With the best poets of this school, like Shakespeare and Whitman, one rarely can separate body and soul, for we feel the whole man is speaking. With Keats, Shelley, Swinburne, and our own Yeats, one feels that they have all sought shelter from disagreeable actualities in the world of imagination. James Stephens, as he chanted his Insurrections, sang with his whole being. Let no one say I am comparing him with Shakespeare. One may say the blackbird has wings as well as the eagle, without insisting that the bird in the hedgerows is peer of the winged creature beyond the mountain-tops. But how refreshing it was to find somebody who was a poet without a formula, who did not ransack dictionaries for dead words, as Rossetti did to get living speech, whose natural passions declared themselves without the least idea that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, or be thrice refined in the crucible by the careful alchemist before they could appear in the drawing-room. Nature has an art of its own, and the natural emotions in their natural and passionate expression have that kind of picturesque beauty which Marcus Aurelius, tired, perhaps, of the severe orthodoxies of Greek and Roman art, referred to when he spoke of the foam on the jaws of the wild boar and the mane of the lion.

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There were evidences of such an art in Insurrections, the first book of James Stephens. In the poem called “Fossils,” the girl who flies and the boy who hunts her are followed in flight and pursuit with a swift energy by the poet, and the lines pant and gasp, and the figures flare up and down the pages. The energy created a new form in verse, not an orthodox beauty, which the classic artists would have admitted, but such picturesque beauty as Marcus Aurelius found in the foam on the jaws of the wild boar.

I always want to find the fundamental emotion out of which a poet writes. It is easy to do this with some, with writers like Shelley and Wordsworth, for they talked much of abstract things, and a man never reveals himself so fully as when he does this, when he tries to interpret nature, when he has to fill darkness with light, and chaos with meaning. A man may speak about his own heart and may deceive himself and others, but ask him to fill empty space with significance, and what he projects on that screen will be himself, and you can know him even as hereafter he will be known. When a poet puts his ear to a shell, I know if he listens long enough he will hear his own destiny. I knew after reading “The Shell” that in James Stephens we were going to have no singer of the abstract. There was no human quality or stir in the blind elemental murmur, and the poet drops it with a sigh of relief:

O, it was sweet
To hear a cart go jolting down the street.

From the tradition of the world too he breaks away, from the great murmuring shell which gives back to us our cries and questionings and protests soothed into soft, easeful things and smooth orthodox complacencies, for it was shaped by humanity to whisper back to it what it wished to hear. From all soft, easeful beliefs and silken complacencies the last Irish poet breaks away in a book of insurrections. He is doubtful even of love, the greatest orthodoxy of any, which so few have questioned, which has preceded all religions and will survive them all. When he writes of love in “The Red-haired Man’s Wife” and “The Rebel” he is not sure that that old intoxication of self-surrender is not a wrong to the soul and a disloyalty to the highest in us. His “Dancer” revolts from the applauding crowd. The wind cries out against the inference that the beauty of nature points inevitably to an equal beauty of spirit within. His enemies revolt against their hate; his old man against his own grumblings, and the poet himself rebels against his own revolt in that quaint scrap of verse he prefixes to the volume:

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What’s the use
Of my abuse?
The world will run
Around the sun
As it has done
Since time begun
When I have drifted to the deuce:
And what’s the use
Of my abuse?

He does not revolt against the abstract like so many because he is incapable of thinking. Indeed, he is one of the few Irish poets we have who is always thinking as he goes along. He does not rebel against love because he is not himself sweet at heart, for the best thing in the book is its unfeigned humanity. So we have a personal puzzle to solve with this perplexing writer which makes us all the more eager to hear him again. A man might be difficult to understand and the problem of his personality might not be worth solution, but it is not so with James Stephens. From a man who can write with such power as he shows in these two stanzas taken from “The Street behind Yours” we may expect high things. It is a vision seen with distended imagination as if by some child strayed from light:

And though ’tis silent, though no sound
Crawls from the darkness thickly spread,
Yet darkness brings
Grim noiseless things
That walk as they were dead,
They glide and peer and steal around
With stealthy silent tread.

You dare not walk; that awful crew
Might speak or laugh as you pass by.
Might touch or paw
With a formless claw
Or leer from a sodden eye,
Might whisper awful things they knew,
Or wring their hands and cry.

There is nothing more grim and powerful than that in The City of Dreadful Night. It has all the vaporous horror of a Dore grotesque and will bear examination better. But our poet does not as a rule write with such unrelieved gloom. He keeps a stoical cheerfulness, and even when he faces terrible things we feel encouraged to take his hand and go with him, for he is master of his own soul, and you cannot get a whimper out of him. He likes the storm of things, and is out for it. He has a perfect craft in recording wild natural emotions. The verse in this first book has occasional faults, but as a rule the lines move, driven by that inner energy of emotion which will sometimes work more metrical wonders than the most conscious art. The words hiss at you sometimes, as in “The Dancer,” and again will melt away with the delicacy of fairy bells as in “The Watcher,” or will run like deep river water, as in “The Whisperer,” which in some moods I think is the best poem in the book until I read “Fossils” or “What Tomas an Buile said in a Pub.” They are too long to print, but I must give myself the pleasure of quoting the beautiful “Slan Leat,” with which he concludes the book, bidding us, not farewell, but to accompany him on further adventure:

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And now, dear heart, the night is closing in,
The lamps are not yet ready, and the gloom
Of this sad winter evening, and the din
The wind makes in the streets fills all the room.
You have listened to my stories–Seumas Beg
Has finished the adventures of his youth,
And no more hopes to find a buried keg
Stuffed to the lid with silver. He, in truth,
And all alas! grew up: but he has found
The path to truer romance, and with you
May easily seek wonders. We are bound
Out to the storm of things, and all is new.
Give me your hand, so, keeping close to me,
Shut tight your eyes, step forward… where are we?

Our new Irish poet declared he was bound “out to the storm of things,” and we all waited with interest for his next utterance. Would he wear the red cap as the poet of the social revolution, now long overdue in these islands, or would he sing the Marsellaise of womanhood, emerging in hordes from their underground kitchens to make a still greater revolution? He did neither. He forgot all about the storm of things, and delighted us with his story of Mary, the charwoman’s daughter, a tale of Dublin life, so, kindly, so humane, so vivid, so wise, so witty, and so true, that it would not be exaggerating to say that natural humanity in Ireland found its first worthy chronicler in this tale.

We have a second volume of poetry from James Stephens, The Hill of Vision. He has climbed a hill, indeed, but has found cross roads there leading in many directions, and seems to be a little perplexed whether the storm of things was his destiny after all. When one is in a cave there is only one road which leads out, but when one stands in the sunlight there are endless roads. We enjoy his perplexity, for he has seated himself by his cross-roads, and has tried many tunes on his lute, obviously in doubt which sounds sweetest to his own ear. I am not at all in doubt as to what is best, and I hope he will go on like Whitman, carrying “the old delicious burdens, men and women,” wherever he goes. For his references to Deity, Plato undoubtedly would have expelled him from his Republic; and justly so, for James Stephens treats his god very much as the African savage treats his fetish. Now it is supplicated, and the next minute the idol is buffeted for an unanswered prayer or a neglected duty, and then a little later our Irish African is crooning sweetly with his idol, arranging its domestic affairs and the marriage of Heaven and Earth. Sometimes our poet essays the pastoral, and in sheer gaiety: flies like any bird under the boughs, and up into the sunlight. There are in his company imps and grotesques, and fauns and satyrs, who come summoned by his piping. Sometimes, as in “Eve,” the poem of the mystery of womanhood, he is purely beautiful, but I find myself going back to his men and women; and I hope he will not be angry with me when I say I prefer his tinker drunken to his Deity sober. None of our Irish poets has found God, at least a god any but themselves would not be ashamed to acknowledge. But our poet does know his men and his women. They are not the shadowy, Whistler-like decorative suggestions of humanity made by our poetic dramatists. They have entered like living creatures into his mind, and they break out there in an instant’s unforgettable passion or agony, and the wild words fly up to the poet’s brain to match their emotion. I do not know whether the verses entitled “The Brute” are poetry, but they have an amazing energy of expression.

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But our poet can be beautiful when he wills, and sometimes, too, he has largeness and grandeur of vision and expression. Look at this picture of the earth, seen from mid-heaven:

And so he looked to where the earth, asleep,
Rocked with the moon. He saw the whirling sea
Swing round the world in surgent energy,
Tangling the moonlight in its netted foam,
And nearer saw the white and fretted dome
Of the ice-capped pole spin back a larded ray
To whistling stars, bright as a wizard’s day,
But these he passed with eyes intently wide,
Till closer still the mountains he espied,
Squatting tremendous on the broad-backed earth,
Each nursing twenty rivers at a birth.

I would like to quote the verses entitled “Shame.” Never have I read anywhere such an anguished cowering before Conscience, a mighty creature full of eyes within and without, and pointing fingers and asped tongues, anticipating in secret the blazing condemnation of the world. And there is “Bessie Bobtail,” staggering down the streets with her reiterated, inarticulate expression of grief, moving like one of those wretched whom Blake described in a marvelous phrase as “drunken with woe forgotten”; and there is “Satan,” where the reconcilement of light and darkness in the twilights of time is perfectly and imaginatively expressed.

The Hill of Vision is a very unequal book. There are many verses full of power, which move with the free easy motion of the literary athlete. Others betray awkwardness, and stumble as if the writer had stepped too suddenly into the sunlight of his power, and was dazed and bewildered. There is some diffusion of his faculties in what I feel are byways of his mind, but the main current of his energies will, I am convinced, urge him on to his inevitable portrayal of humanity. With writers like Synge and Stephens the Celtic imagination is leaving its Timanoges, its Ildathachs, its Many Colored Lands and impersonal moods, and is coming down to earth intent on vigorous life and individual humanity. I can see that there are great tales to be told and great songs to be sung, and I watch the doings of the new-comers with sympathy, all the while feeling I am somewhat remote from their world, for I belong to an earlier day, and listen to these robust songs somewhat as a ghost who hears the cock crow, and knows his hours are over, and he and his tribe must disappear into tradition.

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