“AE” [George Russell] , “Nationality and Imperialism”, in Ideals in Ireland, ed. Lady Gregory (London [Unicorn] 1901)

Source: rep. in Mark Storey, Poetry and Ireland since 1800: A Source Book (London: Routledge 1988), pp.144-55.

The idea of the national being emerged at no recognisable point in our history. It is older than any name we know. It is not earth born, but the synthesis of many heroic and beautiful moments, and these it must be remembered are divine in their origin. Every heroic deed is an act of the spirit, and every perception of beauty is vision with the divine eye, and not with the mortal sense. The spirit was subtly intermingled with the shining of old romance, and it was no mere phantasy which shows Ireland at its dawn in a misty light thronged with divine figures, and beneath and nearer [138] to us, demigods and heroes fading into recognisable men. The bards took cognisance only of the most notable personalities who preceded them; and of these only the acts which had a symbolic or spiritual significance; and these grew thrice refined as generations of poets in enraptured musings along by the mountains or in the woods, brooded upon their heritage of story until, as it passed from age to age, the accumulated beauty grew greater than the beauty of the hour, the dream began to enter into the children of our race, and their thoughts turned from earth to that world in which it had its inception.

It was a common belief among the ancient peoples that each had a national genius or deity who presided over them, in whose all-embracing mind they were enclosed, and by whom their destinies were shaped. We can conceive of the national spirit in Ireland as first manifesting itself through individual heroes or kings; and, as the history of famous warriors laid hold upon the people, extending its influence through the sentiment engendered in the popular mind until it created therein the germs of a kindred nature.

An aristocracy of lordly and chivalrous heroes is bound in time to create a great democracy by the reflection of their character in the mass, and the idea of the divine right of kings is succeeded by the idea of the divine right of the people. If this sequence cannot be traced in any one respect with historical regularity, it is because of the complexity of national life, its varied needs, and its infinite changes of sentiment; but the threads are all taken up in the end, and ideas which were forgotten and absent from the voices of men will be found, when recurred to, to have grown to a rarer and more spiritual beauty in their quiet abode in the heart. The seeds which are sown at the beginning of a race bear their flowers and fruits towards its close; and those antique names which already begin to stir us with their power, Angus, Lu, Deirdre, Finn, Ossian, and the rest, will be found to be each one the symbol of enduring qualities, and their story a trumpet through which will be blown the music of an eternal joy, the sentiment of an inexorable justice, the melting power of beauty in sorrow, the wisdom of age, and the longings of the spirit.

The question arises how this race inheritance can best be preserved and developed. To some it is of no value, but these are voices of dust. To some the natural outcome is coalition with another power, and a frank and full acceptance of the imperial ideal. To some the solution lies in a self-centred national life. I [139] will not touch here upon the material advantages of one or other course, which can best be left to economists to discuss. The literary man, who is, or ought to be, concerned mainly with intellectual interests, should only intervene in politics when principles affecting the spiritual life of his country are involved. To me the imperial ideal seems to threaten the destruction of that national being which has been growing through centuries, and I ask myself, What can it profit my race if it gain the empire of the world and yet lose its own soul - a soul which is only now growing to self-consciousness, and this to be lost simply that we may help to build up a sordid trade federation between England and her Colonies? Was our divine origin for this end? Did the bards drop in song the seed of heroic virtues, and beget the mystic chivalry of the past, and flood our being with spiritual longings, that we might at last sink to clay and seek only to inherit the earth? The mere area of the empire bewitches the commonplace mind, and turns it from its own land; yet the State of Athens was not so large as the Province of Munster, and, though dead, the memory of it is brighter than the living light of any people on earth today. Some, to whom I would be the last to deny nobility of thought and sincere conviction, would lead us from ourselves through the belief that the moral purification of the empire could be accomplished by us. I wish I could believe it. I am afraid our own political and social ethics demand all the attention we can give. There is a reservoir of spiritual life in the land, but it is hardly strong enough to repel English materialism, while we are nominally hostile to English ideas; and shall it be triumphant when we have given over our hopes of a separate national existence, and merged our dreams and longings with a nation which has become a byword for materialism? Under no rule are people so free, - we are told. A little physical freedom more or less matters nothing. Men are as happy and as upright as we, in countries where a passport is necessary to travel from one town to another. No form of government we know is perfect, and none will be permanent. The federation of the world and its typical humanity, exists in germ in the spiritual and intellectual outcasts of our time, who can find no place in the present social order. A nation is sacred as it holds few or many of those to whom spiritual ideals are alone worth having; the mode of life, prosperous or unfortunate, which brings them to birth and enables them to live is the best of any; and the genius of our country has acted wisely in refusing any alliance offering only material prosperity and [140] power. Every race must work out its own destiny. England and the Colonies will, as is fit and right, work out theirs without our moral guidance. They would resent it if offered, just as we resent it from them. It may be affirmed that the English form of government is, on the whole, a good one, but it does not matter. It may be good for Englishmen, but it is not the expression of our national life and ideas. I express my ideals in literature; you, perhaps, in social reform. Both may be good; yours, indeed, may be best, but I would feel it a bitter injustice if I was compelled to order my life in accordance with your aims. I would do poorly what you shine in. We ask the liberty of shaping the social order in Ireland to reflect our own ideals, and to embody that national soul which has been slowly incarnating in our race from its cloudy dawn. The twentieth century may carry us far from Finn and Oscar and the stately chieftains and heroes of their time, far even from the ideals of Tone, Mitchell [sic], and Davis, but I hope it will not carry us into contented acceptance of the deadness, the dulness, the commonplace of English national sentiment, or what idealism remains in us, bequeathed from the past, range itself willingly under a banner which is regarded chiefly as a commercial asset by the most famous exponent of the imperial idea.

I feel that the idea expressed by several writers lately, that with many people in Ireland patriotism and nationality are only other names for race hatred, must be combated. It may be so with a few, but the charge has been levelled not at isolated individuals here and there, but at a much larger class who seriously think about their country.

We are told our attitude towards England and English things is a departure from the divine law of love. Let us look into the circumstances: a number of our rapidly dwindling race have their backs to a wall, they are making an appeal for freedom, for the right to choose their own ideals, to make their own laws, to govern their own lives according to the God-implanted law within them; seeing everywhere, too, the wreck of their hopes, the supremacy of an alien will, - to such people, striving desperately for a principle which is sacred and eternal, these moral platitudes are addressed. Is not freedom as necessary as love to my human soul or to any people? Can there be any real brotherhood without it? If we are debarred from the freedom we would have, how narrow is the range for human effort! We in Ireland would keep in mind our language, teach our children our history, the story of our heroes, and the long traditions of our race which stretch back to [141] God. But we are everywhere thwarted. A blockhead of a professor drawn from the intellectual obscurity of Trinity, and appointed as commissioner to train the national mind according to British ideas, meets us with an ultimatum: ‘I will always discourage the speaking of Gaelic wherever I can.’ We feel poignantly it is not merely Gaelic which is being suppressed, but the spiritual life of our race. A few ignoramuses have it in their power, and are trying their utmost, to obliterate the mark of God upon a nation. It is not from Shelley or Keats our peasantry derive their mental nourishment, now that they are being cut off from their own past. We see everywhere a moral leprosy, a vulgarity of mind creeping over them. The Police Gazettes, the penny novels, the hideous comic journals, replace the once familiar poems and the beautiful and moving memoirs of classic Ireland. The music that breathed Tir-nan-og and overcame men’s hearts with all gentle and soft emotions is heard more faintly, and the songs of the London music halls may be heard in places where the music of fairy enchanted the elder generations. The shout of the cockney tourist sounds in the cyclopean crypts and mounds once sanctified by druid mysteries, and divine visitations, and passings from the mortal to the immortal. Ireland Limited is being run by English syndicates. It is the descent of a nation into hell, not nobly, not as a sacrifice made for a great end, but ignobly and without hope .of resurrection. If we who watch protest bitterly at the racial degradation - for we have none of us attained all the moral perfections - we are assured that we are departing from the law of love. We can have such a noble destiny if we will only accept it. When we have lost everything we hoped for, lost our souls even, we can proceed to spiritualise the English, and improve the moral tone of the empire. Some, even those who are Celts, protest against our movements as forlorn hopes. Yet what does it matter whether every Celt perished in the land, so that our wills, inviolate to the last, make obeisance only to the light which God has set for guidance in our souls? Would not that be spiritual victory and the greatest success? What would be the success we are assured of if we lay aside our hopes? What could we have or what could we give to humanity if our mental integrity is broken? God gives no second gift to a nation if it flings aside its birthright. We cannot put on the ideals of another people as a garment. We cannot, with every higher instinct of our nature shocked and violated, express ourselves as lovers of the law that rules us. We would be slaves if we did. The incarnate love came not with peace but a [142] sword. It does not speak only with the Holy Breath, but has in its armoury death and the strong weapons of the other immortals. It is better to remain unbroken to the last, and I count it as noble to fight God’s battles as to keep His peace.

I confess I do not love England. Love is a spirit which will not, with me at least, come at all. It bestows itself, and will not be commanded, having laws and an end of its own. But for that myriad humanity which throngs the cities of England I feel a profound pity; for it seems to me that in factory, in mine, in warehouse, the life they have chosen to live in the past, the lives those born into that country must almost inevitably lead now, is farther ofF from beauty, more remote from spirit, more alien from deity, than that led by any people hitherto in the memory of the world. I have no hatred for them. I do not think any of my countrymen have, however they may phrase the feeling in their hearts. I think it is a spiritual antagonism they feel which they translate into terms of the more limited conscious mind. I think their struggle is in reality not against flesh and blood, but is a portion of the everlasting battle against principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high places, which underlies every other battle which has been or will be fought by men. I do not say that everything English is stupid, invariably and inevitably wrong. But I do say that every act by which England would make our people other than they would be themselves, is stupid, invariably and inevitably wrong. Not invariably wrong, perhaps, when judged from the external point of view, but invariably wrong when judged from the interior spiritual standpoint. How terrible a thing it is to hinder the soul in its freedom, let the wild upheavals and the madness of protest bear witness.

Though we are old, ethnologically considered, yet as a nation, a collective unit, we are young or yet unborn. If the stupefying influence of foreign control were removed, if we had charge of our own national affairs, it would mean the starting up into sudden life of a thousand dormant energies, spiritual, intellectual, artistic, social, economic, and human. The national spirit, like a beautiful woman, cannot or will not reveal itself wholly while a coarse presence is near, an unwelcome stranger in possession of the home. It is shy, hiding itself away in remote valleys, or in haunted mountains, or deep in the quiet of hearts that do not reveal themselves. Only to its own will it come and sing its hopes and dreams; not selfishly for itself alone, but sharing in the universal human hopes, and desirous of solving some of the eternal [143] problems. Being still so young as a nation, and before the true starting of our career, we might say of ourselves as the great American poet of his race, with which so many of our own have mingled.

Have the elder races halted? / Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied, over there beyond the seas? / We take up the task eternal, and the burden, and the lesson. / Pioneers! Oh, pioneers!


[ close ]
[ top ]