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THE ADVANCE OF ENGLISH POETRY IN THE TWENTIETH
BY WILLIAM LYON PHELPS
Irish poetry a part of English Literature-common-sense the basis of romanticism-misapprehension of the poetic temperament-passing of the "typical” Irishman.-William Butler Yeats—his education—his devotion to art—his theories—his love poetry-resemblance to Maeterlinck-the lyrical element paramount—the psaltery-pure rather than applied poetry.—John M. Synge—his mentality—his versatility-a terrible personality-his capacity for hatred—his subjectivity—his interesting Preface-brooding on death. A. E.—the Master of the island—his sincerity and influence-disembodied spirits—his mysticism-homesickness—true optimism.-James Stephenspoet and novelist-realism and fantasy.--Padraic Colum. Francis Ledwidge. --Susan Mitchell.—Thomas MacDonagh.- Joseph Campbell.–Seumas O'Sullivan.-Maurice Francis Egan.—Norreys Jephson O'Conor.—The advance of English poetry in Ireland.
IN WHAT I have to say of the work or American literary aspirant will of the Irish poets, I am thinking of serve his country not according to it solely as a part of English litera- his local flavour or fervour, but acture. I have in mind no political bias cording to his ability to write the whatever, for political questions in English language.
English language. The language bethe field of art seem to me of sub- longs to Ireland and to America as ordinate importance. During the last much as it belongs to England; excel. forty years Irishmen have written lence in its command is the only mainly in the English language, test by which Irish, American, Canawhich assures to what is good in their dian, South African, Hawaiian and compositions an influence bounded
Australian poets and novelists will only by the dimensions of the earth. be judged. The more difficult the Great creative writers are such an test, the stronger the appeal to naimmense and continuous blessing to tional pride. the world that the locality of their In a recent work, called The Celtic birth pales in importance in com- Dawn, I found this passage:
“The parison with the glory of it, a glory thesis of their contention is that modin which we all profit. We need ern English, the English of contemoriginal writers in America; but I porary literature, is essentially an imhad rather have a star of the first poverished language incapable of magnitude appear in London than a directly expressing thought." I am star of lesser power appear in Los greatly unimpressed by such a stateAngeles. Everyone who writes good ment. The chief reason why there is English contributes something to really a Celtic Dawn, or
a Celtic English literature and is a benefactor Renaissance, is because Irishmen like to English-speaking people. An Irish Synge, Yeats, Russell and others have succeeded in writing English so well among all the children of men for that they have attracted the atten. his poise, balance, calm-in other tion of the whole world.
words, for common sense. Ireland has never contributed to It is by no accident that the BritEnglish literature a poet of the first ish-whom foreigners delight to call class. By a poet of the first class I stodgy and slow-witted, have contribmean one of the same grade with uted to the literature of the world the leading half-dozen British poets the largest amount of high-class of the nineteenth century. This poetry. English literature is instincdearth of great Irish poets is all the tively romantic, as French literature more remarkable when we think of is instinctively classic. The glory of her splendid contributions to Eng. French literature is prose; the glory lish prose and to English drama. of English literature is poetry. Possibly, if one had prophecy rather As the tallest tree must have the than history to settle the question, deepest roots, so it would seem that one might predict that Irishmen the loftiest edifices of verse must would naturally write more and bet- have the deepest foundations. Certer poetry than Englishmen; for the tainly one of the many reasons why common supposition is that the po- American poetry is so inferior to etic temperament is romantic, senti- British is because our roots do not mental, volatile, reckless. If this go down sufficiently deep.
Great were true, then the lovable, careless, poetry does not spring from natures impulsive Irish would completely too volatile, too susceptible, too outclass in original poetry the sen- easily swept by gusts of emotion. sible, steady-headed, cautious Eng- Landor was one of the most violent lishmen. What are the facts about men we have on record; he was a the so-called poetic temperament? prey to uncontrollable outbursts of
Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, rage, caused by trivial vexations; but Gray, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, his poetry aimed at cold, classical Browning, Arnold, were in character, correctness. In comparison with Landisposition, and temperament pre- dor, Tennyson's reserve was almost cisely the opposite of what is super. glacial—yet out of it bloomed many ficially supposed to be “poetic.” gorgeous garden of romance. Some of them were deeply erudite; Splendid imaginative masterpieces all of them were deeply thoughtful. seem to require more often than not They were clear-headed, sensible men a creative mind marked by sober -in fact, common
reason, logical processes, orderly basis of their mental life.
thinking. can read the letters of Byron John Morley, who found the manwithout seeing how well supplied he agement of Ireland more than a was with the shrewd common sense handful, though he loved Ireland and of the Englishman. He was more
the Irish with an affection greater selfish than any one of the men enu. than that felt by any other Englishmerated above—but he was no fool. man of his time, has, in his RecollecThere is nothing inconsistent in his tions, placed on opposite pages-all being at once the greatest romantic the more striking to me because so poet and the greatest satirist of his wholly unintentional - illuminating age. His masterpiece, Don Juan, is testimony to the difference between the expression of a nature at the far- the Irish and the British temperathest possible remove from senti- ment. And this testimony powerfully mentality. And the greatest poet in supports the point I am trying to any language since Shakespeare, the make—that the “typical" logicless, author of Faust, was remarkable inconsequential Irish mind, so win
some and so exasperating, is not the Quiet in its cleft broods—what the after kind of brain to produce permanent age poetry.
Knows and names a pine, a nation's heri. “A peasant was in the dock for a tage. violent assault. The clerk read the indictment with all its legal jargon. People who never grow up may The prisoner to the warder: “What's have a certain kind of fascination, all that he says?” Warder: "He but they will not write great poetry. says ye hit Pat Curry with yer spade It is exactly the other way with creaon the side of his head.” Prisoner: tive artists; they grow up faster than "Bedad an' I did." Warder: "Then the average. The maturity of Keats plade not guilty." This dialogue, is astonishing. Now I believe that loud and in the full hearing of the in the last forty years Ireland has court.
really begun to grow up. The fan“Read Wordsworth’s two poems tastic, happy-go-lucky Irishman is on Burns; kind, merciful, steady, becoming as rare in real life as he is glowing, manly they are, with some on the stage. Spirituality has taken strong phrases, good lines, and hu
the place of frivolity. Mr. Yeats's man feeling all through, winding wonderful lamentation, September up in two stanzas at the close. These 1913, that sounds like the wailing
among the pieces that make of the wind, actually gives us a reaWordsworth a poet to live with; he son why Irishmen are getting the atrepairs the daily wear and tear, puts tention of the world in poetry, as back what the fret of the day has well as in fiction and drama. rubbed thin or rubbed off, sends us forth in the morning whole.”
What need you, being come to sense, Robert Browning, whose normality But fumble in a greasy till in appearance and conversation
And add the halfpence to the pence pleased sensible folk and shocked
And prayer to shivering prayer, until idolaters, summed up in two stanzas
You have dried the marrow from the bone; the difference between the popular
For men were born to pray and save, conception of a poet and the real
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, truth. One might almost take the
It's with O'Leary in the grave. first stanza as representing the Irish, and the second the English tempera
Yet they were of a different kind. ment.
The names that stilled your childish play “Touch him ne'er so lightly, into song he
They have gone about the world like broke:
But little time had they to pray Soil so quick-receptive,-not one feather
For whom the hangman's rope was spun, seed, Not one flower-dust fell but straight its
And what, God help us, could they save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, fall awoke
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Was it for this the wild geese spread
Indeed? The grey wing upon every tide; Rock's the song-soil rather, surface hard For this that all that blood was shed, and bare:
For this Edward Fitzgerald died, Sun and dew their mildness, storm and And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, frost their rage
All that delirium of the brave; Vainly both expend,--few flowers awaken Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, there:
It's with O'Leary in the grave.
Yet could we turn the years again,
propaganda, a merely elementary And call those exiles as they were, conception of the principle of divi. In all their loneliness and pain
sion of labour should make us all reYou'd cry “some woman's yellow hair joice when the artist confines himHas maddened every mother's son:" self to art.
True artists are scarce They weighed so lightly what they gave, and precious; and although practical But let them be, they're dead and gone, men of business often regard them They're with O'Leary in the grave.
as superfluous luxuries, the truth is
that we cannot live without them. William Butler Yeats has done As poet and dramatist, Mr. Yeats has more for English poetry than any done more for his country than he other Irishman, for he is the great- could have accomplished in any other est poet in the English language that way. Ireland has ever produced. He is a Never was there more exclusively notable figure in contemporary liter
He writes pure, not apature, having made additions plied poetry. I care little for his verse, prose and stage-plays. He theories of symbolism, magic and has by no means obliterated Clarence what not. Poets are judged not by Mangan, but he has surpassed him. their theories, not by the “schools”
Mr. Yeats was born at Dublin, June to which they give passionate adher13, 1865. His father was an honour ence, but simply and solely by the man at Trinity College, taking the quality of their work. No amount of highest distinction in Political Econ. theory, no correctness of method, no omy. After practising law, he be- setting up of new or defence of old
a painter, which profession standards, no elevated ideals can he still adorns. The future poet stud- make a poet if he have not the divine ied art for three years, but when gift. Theories have hardly more ef. twenty-one years old definitely de- fect on the actual value of his poetry voted himself to literature. Apart than the colour of the ink in which from his original work, one of his he writes. The reason why it is inforemost services to humanity was teresting to read what Mr. Yeats says his advice to that strange genius, about his love of magic and of sym- . John Synge-for it was owing to the bols is not because there is
truth influence of his friend that Synge be. or falsehood in these will-o'-the-wisps, came a creative writer, and he had, but because he is such an artist that alas! little time to lose.
even when he writes in prose, his Mr. Yeats published his first poem style is so beautiful, so harmonious in 1886. Since that date, despite his that one is forced to listen. Literary preoccupation with the management art has enormous power in propelling of the Abbey Theatre, he has pro- a projectile of thought. I do not duced a long list of works in verse doubt that the chief reason for the and prose, decidedly unequal in immense effect of such a philosophy merit, but shining with the light of as that of Schopenhauer or that of a luminous mind.
Nietzsche is because each man was From the first, Mr. Yeats has a literary artist-indeed I think both seemed to realise that he could serve were greater writers than thinkers. Ireland best by making beautiful and A good thing this is for their fame, enduring works of art, rather than for art lasts longer than thought. by any form of political agitation. The fashion of a man's thought may This is well; for despite the fact pass away; his knowledge and his that a total ineptitude for statesman- ideas may lose their stamp, either ship seldom prevents the enthusiast because they prove to be false or from issuing and spreading dogmatic because they become universally
current. Everybody believes Coper- Fasten your hair with a golden pin, nicus, but nobody reads him. Yet And bind up every wandering tress; when a book, no matter how obso- I bade my heart build these poor rhymes: lete in thought, is marked by great
It worked at them, day out, day in, beauty of style, it lives forever. Building a sorrowful loveliness Consider the case of Sir Thomas Out of the battles of old times. Browne. Art is the great preservative.
You need but lift a pearl-pale hand, Mr. Yeats has a genius for names
And bind up your long hair and sigh;
And all men's hearts must burn and beat; and titles. His names, like those of Rossetti's,
And candle-like foam on the dim sand, sweet symphonies. The Wind Among the Reeds, The
And stars climbing the dew-dropping sky, Shadowy Waters, The Secret Rose,
Live but to light your passing feet. The Land of Heart's Desire, The
A still more characteristic loveIsland of Statues are poems in themselves, and give separate pleasure
poem is the one which gleams with like an overture without the opera.
the symbols of the cloths of heaven. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to ob
Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, serve that The Wind Among the
Enwrought with golden and silver light, Reeds suggests better than any other
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths arrangement of words the lovely
Of night and light and the halflight, minor melodies of our poet, while
I would spread the cloths under your feet; The Shadowy Waters gives exactly
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; the picture that comes into one's
I have spread my dreams under your feet; mind in thinking of his poems. There Tread softly because you tread on my is an extraordinary fluidity in his
dreams. verse, like running water under the shade of overhanging branches. One In mysticism, in symbolism, and in feels that Mr. Yeats loves these titles, the quality of his imagination, Mr. and chooses them with affectionate Yeats of course reminds us of Maesolicitude, like a father naming beau- terlinck. He has the same twilit attiful children.
mosphere, peopled with elusive The love poetry of Mr. Yeats, like dream-footed figures, that make no the love poetry of Poe, is swept with more noise than the wings of an owl. passion, but the passion is mingled He is of imagination all compact. with unutterable reverence. It is un- He is neither teacher like much modern love poetry in its prophet; he seems to turn away from spiritual exaltation. Just as manners the real sorrows of life, yes, even have become more free, and intima- from its real joys, to dwell in a world cies that once took months to de- of his own creation. He invites us velop, now need only minutes, so thither, if we care to go; and if we much contemporary verse-tribute to go not, we cannot understand either women is so detailed, so bold, so his art or his ideas. But if we wancock-sure, that the elaborate compli. der with him in the shadowy darkments only half-conceal a sneer. In ness, like the lonely man in Titanic all such work love is born of desire alleys accompanied only by Psyche, its sole foundation—and hence is we shall see strange visions. We may equally short-lived and fleeting. In be led to the door of a legended the poems of Mr. Yeats, desire seems tomb; we may be led along the borto follow rather than to precede love. der of dim waters; but we shall live Love thus takes on, as it ought to, for a time in the realm of Beauty, something of the beauty of holi. and be the better for the experience, ness.
even though it resemble nothing