Robert Lynd, ‘A.E.’ [George Russell], in I Tremble to Think (1936) [Chap. 4]

[Source: available at Internet Archive - online; accessed 21.06.2017; page numbers fall on top-of-page.]

A.E. (George Russell) occupied an extraordinary position in modern Ireland. He was recognized as a prophet by thousands of people, many of whom cared little for his poetry, disliked his painting, and could make nothing of the mystical philosophy that was at the heart of his prophetic genius. Apart from social and political matters, he made comparatively few converts to his opinions, but almost every one who met him became a convert, so to speak, to his greatness. Sitting at work in his upper room in Merrion Square, he was a magnet, not so much for disciples as for delighted listeners to some or the most wonderful talk ever heard in Dublin. Many of those who visited him for the first time must have thrown a perplexed glance at the walls of the room, on which he had painted his pictures of plumed spirit-forms with flames edging their backs, looking (as someone said) like Red Indians, and wondered whether the painter of such eccentric stuff could be taken seriously. But A.E had only to begin talking for the spell to begin [29] to work. And he talked to the most unimportant visitor as though talking were his life’s work and as though he could go on talking for ever. He was a monologuist - one of the few monologues to whom one could listen for hours without being bored.

Sitting in his chair and smoking a pipe - during the last twenty years he smoked a mixture of tobacco and dried coltsfoot leaves, a war-time invention - he was the very picture of copious benevolence as he talked. John Eglinton has described him in his early life as a tall youth, with shoulders scooped in the eagerness of perpetual talk, grey and kindly quizzical eyes twinkling behind his glasses, a mass of mouse-coloured hair, and a pugnacious mouth presently hidden behind a benevolent- looking beard; and one had much the same impression of A.E. till the end, His conversation might consist of a torrent of ideas or a succession of jocular memories, but ii was always entrancing because of its energy, its fire, its humour, and its kindliness. He had a marvellous memory, both for what be had read and for what he had experienced. He could illustrate something that he was saying by quoting verbatim a page of prose from a book about Russia, and he could remember every [30] comic detail about his relations with every odd character lie had ever known in Dublin, There are few traces of humour in his writings, but he had a boundless sense of fun in his talk, not least when he was talking of George Moore’s apostolic mission to Ireland. Towards the end of his life, he kept urging young writers to sit down and compose a comic saga, of Dublin life, based on the stories of the strange characters of the city while they were still remembered.

One of the astonishing things about A. E was that his talk was so universal in range and yet that he went about the world so little. He had not the ordinary passion for seeing things. Few Irishmen of his standing had visited England so seldom before the War, and even as regards Dublin, when I once spoke to him of the rebuilding of O’Connell Street, then in progress, he said that he had not seen it as he had not been across O’Connell Bridge - a few hundred yards from his office -for the last six months. His adventures were spiritual, not physical, ‘Sitting in your chair, he once wrote, ‘you can travel farther than ever Columbus travelled, and to lordlier worlds than his eyes had rested on. Are you tired of surfaces ? Come with me, and we will bathe in the Fountains [31] of Youth. I can point you the way to El Dorado.’ Many people find this kind of writing a little too transcendental for human nature’s daily food, but you had only to look at A.E.’s serene and unwrinkled face - smooth and serene as a baby’s , as someone said - to feel that here an least was a visionary who had bathed in those mystical fountains.

It was the visionary in him, I imagine, that enabled him to remain so imperturbable during years in which horror and tragedy were all around him. If is imperturbability, it is scarcely necessary to say, was never that of aloofness or indifference. No man was more quickly roused to passion by injustice. On the eve of the War, when Larkin had awakened the slum- dwellers of Dublin our of their apathy, A. E. thundered like an Old Testament prophet against employers who were content to perpetuate a system that left men and women with immortal souls to live in squalor and their children to starve. His spirit rose to celebrate an act of heroism, He was not a Sinn Feiner, but he wrote a flaming poem in honour of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork, who died as the result of a hunger-strike in an English prison. Standing outside party politics, he was on the side of all who fought the good fight [32] and seemed by their lives to be doing something to bring back the lost Heroic Age. In all his social propaganda, when he was preaching co- operation, he was inspired by the vision of an Ireland peopled by noble characters. ‘Wherever there is mutual aid …’ he declared, ‘wherever there is constant give-and-take, wherever the prosperity of the individual depends on the prosperity of the community about him, there the social order tends to produce fine types of character, with a devotion to public ideas; and this is the real object of all government.’ A. E believed in co-operative dairies, not because of the butter they would produce, but because of the character they would produce in the Irish people.

Thus A, E’s propaganda, his journalism, and his verse were all one. In all of them he called on his fellows, ‘outcasts from deity’, to return and regain their lost heritage. As editor of the Irish Homestead and the Irish Statesman, no less than in his poetry, he was the prophet of a vision. In his prose, however, he was more often a commingling prophet than in his verse, attacking what he regarded as the vices of the Irish people and on one occasion writing: ‘Dante had a place in his Inferno for the joyless souls - and, if his conception be true, the [33] population of that circle will be largely modern Irish.’

Loving his country and devoting his life to its service, he had none of the passions of a partisan, and cared little for national flags and anthems. He wrote his apologia as a somewhat detached visionary in a poem entitled “On Behalf of Some Irishmen Not Followers of Tradition”, ending with the lines:

We would no Irish sign efface,
   But yet our lips would gladlier hail
The first-born of the Coming Race
   Than the last splendour of the Gael.
No blazoned banner we unfold -
   One charge alone to give to youth,
Against the sceptred myth to hold
   The golden heresy of truth.

In reply to those who described heretics like himself as aliens, he wrote:

We fling our answer back with scorn:
   We are less children of this dime

Than of some nation yet unborn
   Or empire in the womb of time.
We hold the Ireland in the heart
   More than the land our eyes have seen,
And love the goal for which we stare
   More than the tale of what has been.

Freedom of the spirit, even more than social or political freedom, is the goal which A. E [34] sees -as the true goal of mankind- He thinks of men as oppressed and imprisoned, not by foreign governments. but by their own preoccupation with temporal things and their indifference to the things of eternity. The ‘outcasts from deity’ do not want to regain their lost divinity. In The Twilight of Earth he cries:

Will no one, ere it is too late,
Ere fades the last memorial gleam,
Recall for us our earlier state?
For nothing but so vast a dream
Thar it would scale the steeps of air
Could rouse us from so vast despair.
The power is ours to make or mar
Our fate as on the earliest morn,
The Darkness and the Radiance are
Creatures within the spirit born.
Yet. bathed in gloom too long, we might
Forget how we imagined light.
Nor yet are fixed the prison bars.
The hidden light the spirit owns.
If blown to flame would dim the stars
And they who rule them from their thrones:
And the proud sceptred spirits thence
Would bow to pay us reverence.

Many people find poetry of this kind nebulous, like the prose of Emerson. And it must be [35] owned that, while A.E.’s verse expresses nobly the vision of the spirit. too little of the vision of the eyes has gone to its making. The world represented in it seems at times to be a world of the disembodied moving among jewelled lights. At the same time, while scarcely anyone would, compare A.E’s stature as a poet with that of Mr. Yeats, he was a poet of as true and original genius. He was a man who increased the magnanimity of his age both by his life and by his writings, and he wrote poem upon poem that can enchant the imagination even of those who do not share his vision. [End.]

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