THE IRISH LITERARY REVIVAL
By HORATIO S. KRANS, Ph.D.
In the closing decade of the nineteenth century and in the opening years of the twentieth, no literary movement has awakened a livelier interest than the Irish Literary Revival, a movement which, by its singleness and solidarity of purpose, stood alone in a time of confused literary aims and tendencies. Movements, like individuals, have their ancestry, and that of the Irish Literary Revival is easily traced. It descends from Callanan and Walsh, and from the writers of ’48. It is to this descent that the lines in William Butler Yeats’s “To Ireland in Coming Times” allude:
Know that I would accounted be
True brother of that company,
Who sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song.
With the passing of the mid-nineteenth-century writers, the old movement waned, and in the field of Irish letters there was, in the phrase of a famous bull, nothing stirring but stagnation. A witty critic of the period, commenting upon this unhappy state of affairs, declared that, though the love of learning in Ireland might still be, as the saying went, indestructible, it was certainly imperceptible. But after the fall of Parnell a new spirit was stirring. Politics no longer absorbed the whole energy of the nation. Groups of men inspired with a love of the arts sprang up here and there. In 1890 Yeats proved himself a real prophet when he wrote: “A true literary consciousness–national to the centre–seems gradually to be forming out of all this disguising and prettifying, this penumbra of half-culture. We are preparing likely enough for a new Irish literary movement–like that of ’48–that will show itself in the first lull in politics.”
Responsive to the need of the young writers associated with Yeats, the National Literary Society was founded in Dublin in 1892, and a year later London Irishmen, among them men already distinguished in letters, founded in the English metropolis the Irish Literary Society. From the presses in Dublin, in London, and in New York as well, books began to appear in rapid succession–slender volumes of verse, novels, short stories, essays, plays, translations, and remakings of Irish myths and legends, all inspired by, and closely related to, the past or the present of Ireland, voicing an essentially national spirit and presenting the noblest traits of Irish life and character.
Not content with the organization of the two literary societies, Yeats, with courage and relentless tenacity, cast about to realize his long-cherished dream of a theatre that should embody the ideals of the Revival. In Lady Gregory, and in Edward Martyn, an Irishman of large means, who with both pen and purse lent a willing hand, he found two ardent laborers for his vineyard. George Moore, who in the event proved a fish out of water in Ireland, Yeats and Martyn contrived to lure from his London lodgings and his cosmopolitan ways, and to enlist in the theatrical enterprise. The practical knowledge of the stage which this gifted enfant terrible of literature contributed was doubtless of great value in the early days of the dramatic adventure, though Moore’s free thoughts, frank speech, and mordant irony brought an element of discord into Dublin literary circles, which may well have left Yeats and his associates with a feeling that they had paid too dear for a piper to whose tunes they refused to dance. Be that as it may, in 1899 Yeats’s dream was measurably realized, and the Irish Literary Theatre established, to be succeeded a little later by the Irish National Theatre Society. Enough, however, of the dramatic aspect of the Revival, which receives separate treatment elsewhere in these pages, as does also the dramatic work of certain of the authors considered here.
From what has already been said, it should be plain that in the last decade of the last century the ranks of the Irish Literary Revivalists filled rapidly, and that the movement was really under way. The renascent spirit took various forms. To one group of poets the humor, pathos, and tragedy of peasant life deeply appealed, and found expression in a poetry distinctively and unmistakably national, from which a kind of pleasure could be drawn unlike anything else in other literatures. In this group Alfred Perceval Graves and Moira O’Neill cannot pass unmentioned. Who would ask anything racier in its kind than the former’s “Father O’Flynn”?
Of priests we can offer a charmin’ variety,
Far renowned for larnin’ and piety,
Still I’d advance you without impropriety,
Father O’Flynn as the flower of them all.
Here’s a health to you, Father O’Flynn,
Slainte, and slainte, and slainte agin.
And tinderest teacher,
And kindliest creature in Old Donegal.
[Footnote 1: “Your health.”]
Or was the homing instinct, the homesick longing for the old sod, ever more truly rendered than in Moira O’Neill’s song of the Irish laborer in England?
Over here in England I’m helpin’ wi’ the hay,
An’ I wish I was in Ireland the livelong day;
Weary on the English, an’ sorra take the wheat!
Och! Corrymeela an’ the blue sky over it.
D’ye mind me now, the song at night is mortial hard to raise,
The girls are heavy-goin’ here, the boys are ill to plase;
When ones’t I’m out this workin’ hive, ’tis I’ll be back again–
Aye, Corrymeela in the same soft rain.
Here, too, should be named Jane Barlow, whose poems and stories are faithful imaginative transcripts of the face of nature and the hearts of men as she knew them in Connemara. Finally there is William Butler Yeats, who, on the whole, is the representative man of the Revival. Except in the translator’s sphere, his writings have given him a place in almost all the activities of this movement. As a lyric poet, he has expressed the moods of peasant and patriot, of mystic, symbolist, and quietist, and it is safe to say that in lyric poetry no one of his generation writing in English is his superior. We cannot resist the pleasure of quoting here from his “Innisfree”, which won the praise of Robert Louis Stevenson, and which, if not the high mark of Yeats’s achievement, is still a flawless thing in its way:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnets’ wings.
In this place, and for convenience sake, it may be permitted to speak of aspects of Yeats’s work other than that by virtue of which he is to be classed with the group we have just considered. In his narrative poem, “The Wanderings of Usheen”, as well as in his plays and lyrics, he is of the best of those–among them we may mention by the way Dr. John Todhunter, Nora Hopper (Mrs. W.H. Chesson), and William Larminie–who have revealed to our day the strange beauty of the ancient creations of the Gaelic imagination. In prose he has written short stories, a novelette, John Sherman and Dhoya, and essays that reveal a subtle critical insight, and a style of beautiful finish and grace, suggestive of the style of Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. Yeats’s plays constitute a considerable and an important part of his work, but these must be reserved for treatment elsewhere in this book. In prefaces to anthologies of prose and verse of his editing, in the pages of reviews, and elsewhere, he appears as the chief apologist of the aims of the Literary Revival, and in particular of the methods of the dramatists of the Revival. Whatever he has touched he has lifted into the realm of poetry, and this is in large measure true of his prose, which proceeds from the poet’s point of view and breathes the poetic spirit. A man of rare versatility, a finished artist with a scrupulous artistic conscience, he has done work of high and sustained quality, and is certain to exert a good and lasting influence upon the literature of his country.
In a literary movement in the “Isle of Saints”, we look naturally for religious poetry, and we do not look in vain. This poetry, chiefly Catholic, has a quality of its own as distinctive as that of the writers of the group we have just left. Now it voices a naïve, devoted simplicity of Christian faith; now it attains to a high and keen spirituality; now it is mystic and pagan. Among the religious poets, Lionel Johnson easily stands first–perhaps the Irish poet of firmest fibre and most resonant voice of his generation. A note of high courage and of spiritual triumph rings through his verse, even from the shadow of the wings of the dark angel that gives a title to one of the saddest of his poems. Often he strikes a note of genuine religious ecstasy and exaltation rarely heard in English, as in “Te Martyrum Candidatus”:
Ah, see the fair chivalry come, the companions of Christ!
White Horsemen, who ride on white horses, the Knights of God!
They, for their Lord and their Lover who sacrificed
All, save the pleasure of treading where He first trod.
These through the darkness of death, the dominion of night,
Swept, and they woke in white places at morning tide:
They saw with their eyes, and sang for joy of the sight,
They saw with their eyes the Eyes of the Crucified.
Among the men of the Revival, no personality is stronger or more attractive than that of G.W. Russell–“Æ”, as he is always called–who may be regarded as the hero of George Moore’s Hail and Farewell, and who alone in that gallery of wonderful pen-portraits looks forth with complete amiability. He is a pantheist, a mystic, and a visionary, with what would seem a literal and living faith in many gods, though strongly prepossessed in favor of the ancient divinities of the Gael, now long since in exile. Impressive and striking by a certain spiritual integrity, so to say, “Æ” unites gifts and faculties seldom combined. He is a poet of rare subtlety, a painter in whose genius so good a judge as George Moore believed, and a most practical man of affairs, who, as assistant to Sir Horace Plunkett, held up the latter’s hands in his labors on behalf of co-operative dairies and the like. His poems have their roots in a pantheism which half reveals the secrets of an indwelling spirit, speaking alike “from the dumb brown lips of earth” and from the passions of the heart of man.
Of novelists, both men and women, the Irish Revival can, in the words of “Father O’Flynn”, offer a charming variety, and among their novels and short stories are some books of high quality and not a few in a high degree interesting and entertaining. To Standish O’Grady we turn for tales, with a kind of bardic afflatus about them, of the hero age of legendary Ireland–tales which drew attention to the romantic Celtic past of myth and saga, and must have been an inspiration to more than one writer of the younger generation. In contrast to the broad epic sweep and remote romantic backgrounds of O’Grady, are the stories of Jane Barlow, whose genre pictures of peasant life in the west of Ireland, like her poems mentioned above, show how sympathetically she understands the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting of her humble compatriots. A like minute and faithful knowledge is evident in the work of two story-tellers of the north, Seumas MacManus and Shan Bullock. The former’s outlook is humorous and pathetic. He tells fairy and folk tales well, and is a past master of the dialect and idiom that combine to give his old-wives’ yarns an honest smack of the soil. Let him who doubts it read Through the Turf Smoke or Donegal Fairy Stories. If Shan Bullock walks the same fields as Seumas MacManus, he does so with a different air and with a more definite purpose. Sometimes he turns to the squireens, small farmers, or small country gentry, and lays bare the hardness and narrowness that are a part of their life. Or, again, in pictures whose sadness and gloom are lightened, to be sure, with humor or warmed with love, he studies the necessitous life of the poor. The Squireen, The Barrys, and Irish Pastorals are some of his representative books.
In the novel as in poetry the ladies have worked side by side with their literary brethren. Miss Hermione Templeton, in her Darby O’Gill, and elsewhere, has written pleasantly and gracefully of the fairies. In a very different vein are the novels of the collaborators, Miss Somerville and “Martin Ross” (Miss Violet Martin), over which English and American readers have laughed as heartily as their own fellow countrymen. The Experiences of an Irish R.M.remains, perhaps, their best book. The work of these ladies, be it said by the way, is in the line of descent from that group of older Irish novelists who wrote in the spirit of the devil-may-care gentry, the novelists from Maxwell to Lover and Lever, who were ever questing “divilment and divarshion,” and who in their moods of boisterous fun forgot the real Irishman, and presented in his place a caricature–him of the Celtic screech and the exhilarating whack of the shillelagh, the famous stage Irishman who has made occasional appearances in English literature from the time of Shakespeare’s Henry V., on through the works of Fielding and the plays of Sheridan, to the present moment of writing.
Of a very different stripe from the work of the collaborating ladies just mentioned are the novels of the recently deceased Canon Sheehan–notable among them Luke Delmege and My New Curate–rambling, diffuse, and a trifle provincial from the artistic standpoint, but interesting as studies of manners, and for the pictures they afford of the priesthood of modern Ireland in the pleasantest light. If the stories of Miss Somerville and “Martin Ross” are related to the comic stories of the old novelists of the gentry, those of Canon Sheehan must be associated with the work of the older novelists who wrote more or less in the spirit of the peasantry, that is, with Gerald Griffin, the Banim brothers, and William Carleton, less famous than he deserves to be by his Traits and Stories and a long line of novels and tales.
No survey of Irish novelists, however brief, can afford to forget the Rev. James Owen Hannay (“George A. Birmingham”), canon of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, whose work is as distinctively Protestant in its point of view as Father Sheehan’s is Catholic. His more substantial novels are a careful transcript of the actualities of Irish life today, and in them one meets, incognito but easily recognizable, many Irishmen now prominent in literature or politics in Ireland. Of his numerous books may be mentioned The Seething Pot, Hyacinth, and Northern Iron.
Finally there is George Moore, whose enlistment in the Revival was responsible for the novel The Lake and the short stories of The Unfilled Field, and for a largely autobiographic and entirely indiscreet trilogy entitled Hail and Farewell, the separate volumes appearing as Ave, Salve, Vale, and the last of them as late as 1914. George Moore’s anti-Catholic bias is strong, but his is the pen of an accomplished artist. He has the story-teller’s beguiling gift, and he bristles with ideas which his books cleverly embody and to which the dramatic moments of his novels give point and relief.
Not the least important work of the Irish Literary Revival has been done by translators, who have put into English the old Gaelic romances and the folklore still current among the little remnant of Irish-speaking country folk. Dr. Douglas Hyde is in the forefront of this group. He it was who organized the Gaelic League, a band of enthusiasts zealous for the revival of the Irish language both as a spoken tongue and as the medium for a national literature, and eager, also, to breed up a race of Celtic scholars. The lyrics in his Love Songs of Connacht are full of grace, tenderness, and fire, and indicate the kind of gems which he and his fellow laborers have added to the treasury of poetry in English. But it is Lady Gregory, especially in her Cuchulain of Muirthemne and Gods and Fighting Men, who more than any other has found a way to stir the blood of readers of to-day by the romantic hero tales of Ireland. From the racy idiom of the dwellers on or about her own estate in Galway, she happily framed a style that gave her narratives freshness, novelty, and a flavor of the soil. Upon the work of scholars she drew heavily in making her own renderings, but she has justified all borrowings by breathing into her books the breath and the warmth of life, and her adaptation to epic purposes of the dialect of those who still retain the expiring habit of thinking in Gaelic was a real literary achievement. She has, indeed, in sins of commission and of omission, taken liberties with the old legends, but this may render them not less, and perhaps more, delightful to the general reader, however just complaints may be from the standpoint of the scholar.
Even so brief a sketch as this may suffice to bring home to those not already aware of it a realization of the delights to be drawn from the creations of a living literary movement, which is perhaps the most notable of its generation, and which has gathered together a remarkable group of poets, novelists, and dramatists, who, as men and women, are a most interesting company–a fact to which even George Moore’s Hail and Farewell, with its quick eye for defects and foibles and its ironic wit, bears abundant testimony.
Brooke and Rolleston: Treasury of Irish Poetry (New York and London, 1900); Krans: William Butler Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival (New York and London, 1904); Yeats: Ideas of Good and Evil (London, 1903); Moore: Hail and Farewell, 3 vols. (London and New York, 1912-1914); Lady Gregory: Our Irish Theatre (New York and London, 1913); Weygandt: Irish Plays and Playwrights (New York, 1913); Yeats: Introduction to Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London, 1889), Representative Irish Tales (London, 1890), Book of Irish Verse (London, 1895). There is much of interest, though chiefly as regards the drama, in the reviews, Beltaine (London and Dublin, 1899-1900) and Samhain (London and Dublin, 1901-1903).