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The CENTURY MAGAZINE
VOL. 103 November, 1921 No. I
The Opinions of A.E.
By R. C. FELd
Frontispiece by WILLIAM
THING to which I most looked
"Have you been here long?" she asked. "I did n't hear you come in.
W. Russell) and getting from him a formal interview on the poetry of Ireland in rebellion. I should have known better than to expect a formal interview from any one in Ireland, least of all from A.E., most certainly so after stepping foot on the side-cars of Dublin. There is nothing formal about Dublin. Formality is the last thing that will be allowed to cross the channel, and when that comes knocking at their gates, the Irish will go down, fighting to the last man to prevent its invasion.
I knocked at the door of the room next to the top floor of Plunkett House where I was told A.E. edited his paper, "The Irish Homestead." Nobody answered, so I walked in. I had learned that much of Irish custom. In a corner of the room, at a desk near the window, sat a woman reading copy. I shut the door behind me with a bang. She did n't hear me. I coughed raucously. She did not hear me. Then I walked up to her and said, "Hello." She looked up, startled. I apologized for my intrusion. She waved the apology aside.
In America the word secretary covers a multitude of sins in human form, ranging from the girl who is supposed to file your letters, and loses them, to the Vassar graduate who wants to discuss the new woman with your visitors. In England and Ireland it means something entirely different. I have n't yet discovered the exact definition, but one thing I have learned, and that is when a person tells you he or she is a secretary, you are to come back with the question, "What have you written and when was it published?"
In that Susan Mitchell is not extraordinary. In wit, in humor, in intellect, in human warmth, she is. Besides several small volumes of poetry, she has written a life of George Moore that is a gem. How true it is and how well it hits the target at which it is aimed can be told in one succinct sentence of Miss Mitchell's:
"He used to call me Susan before I wrote it; he calls me Mitchell now."
Copyright, 1921, by THE CENTURY Co. All rights reserved.
Some day, soon, America ought to invite Susan Mitchell to come over and tell us the things we want to know about Moore, about A.E., about Yeats, Synge, St. John Ervine, about all the Irish men of letters, in fact, whom she knows the way we do our next-door neighbors. The comparison is bad; the way we know the people we work with and fret with is better. A.E., I was told, was in County Wicklow on his vacation, painting. Nobody knew when he would return; most probably before the week was over. He always came back in the middle of his vacation, Susan Mitchell said. That was the way he did things. He needed a rest and never took it; he needed clothes and never bought them. His best coat was all rags, with the pockets burned out by his pipes. Instead of putting his arms through the sleeves, as any sane man would do to keep the wind and rain from his back, he slings it cape-wise over his shoulders, and very often lets it slip behind him in the dust and mud. He is careless, stupid about himself and his requirements, untidy, but
"Ah, well, he 's A.E., and that 's all there's to it. You can't be cross with him. He is a child."
A person could get not a little idea of A.E., poet, painter, mystic, economist, from the appearance of the room. The walls, originally papered in dark tan, had been used as huge canvasses. On them were painted immense pictures of whimsical and mystic woodland scenes. Over the mantlepiece sat two half-clad figures, with their bare limbs carelessly thrown out beyond the sides of the marble shelf beneath them. One could almost hear the pipes of Pan held to the lips of one of them.
In the midst of this sylvan setting was the furniture of the room, if such it can be called. It consisted of an old table, an old couch, an arm-chair, one or two plain chairs, also old, and two desks. The floor was bare. Both desks were piled high and untidily with sheafs of dusty paper, books, manuscript, circulars of nondescript appearance, and topped with a vast, dirty blotter, which vainly sought anchorage on the mountainous surface on which it rested. Some idea of what that desk looks like can be gained from the following comment made upon it by a friend of A.E.'s:
"I am certain that if a slice were cut out of the mass of material on A.E.'s desk, going from the top right down to the bottom, provided of course, one could get a knife long enough, a very good history of Ireland could be compiled."
"But how does the man write?" I asked in bewilderment.
"Ah, that is indeed a sight worth seeing. He writes on the blotter on top of the mass of material, and as the blotter slips over the hills and valleys of the topography of his desk, he follows it. Never does he finish an article or a poem in the same writing position that he began it."
There was much of interest in the room of A.E. and much that Susan Mitchell told me. What was most important to me then, however, was the fact that she could tell me definitely when he would return if I came in to see her after my visit to Belfast. I forthwith went to Belfast to see the "show" of his Majesty opening the Ulster Parliament, which nobody wanted and nobody understood, and
took the earliest possible train back to Dublin. The train left Belfast at seven-thirty in the morning, which meant that I had to get up at five, for I was staying in a suburb, a number of miles away from the station. So disaSo disagreeable is the thought of early rising to me that getting up at five means not sleeping at all, but drowsing and waking in nervous, enervating spasms. All of this is said in explanation of my state of mind, nerves, and temper on arriving at Dublin at eleven the next morning. I went straight to Susan Mitchell. She looked at me and grinned.
"You poor child! You look as though you had just come from Belfast. Cheer up; you are in Dublin
A.E. won't be back for a couple of days. Sir Horace Plunkett is coming here at three to take you out to Kilteragh, where you will talk Irish politics and where you may hear something more definite about A.E.'s plans. Now suppose you go out and get something to eat and come back here and rest. I sha'n't talk to you, nor will you talk to me. I am reading page proof for next week's "Homestead."
I did as I was told,-I was too weary to think of anything better to do, and came back, about an hour later, heavy and sick with lack of sleep. Again Susan Mitchell grinned.
"The way of the pilgrim is hard, is n't it? Ah, well, it 's worth it." One must visit Ireland before one can appreciate the amount of expression which can be put into the words "Ah, well." "No, I won't talk to you," she went on. "I have n't time to. You have at least two hours before Sir Horace comes. Take off your hat and shoes, sit down in the arm-chair here, -it 's creaky, but comfortable, put
your feet on this chair, and go to sleep." She went to the closet in the corner of the room while I sleepily followed the amazing instructions. From its depths she brought forth an old, dusty tweed coat.
"This looks old and dusty," she said, "but it is n't. Not as old and dusty as it looks, anyway. It's A.E.'s best. I am going to tuck it around your feet to keep you warm." She did, in steamer-rug fashion.
"Now go to sleep," was her last admonition. "I sha'n't hear you if you snore. I am deaf, you know."
My qualms that this was not the correct procedure for an editorial office fell from me in the face of Susan Mitchell's total indifference to my presence from the moment she turned her back on me. Dim memories of my own American newspaper office notwithstanding, I fell asleep, my shoes reposing on the floor at one side of the chair, my hat on the table on the other. I awoke about two hours later to find Susan Mitchell standing over
"Sir Horace was here ten minutes ago, and will be back for you at threethirty. Don't move yet. You have another half-hour to sleep in. He won't mind seeing you this way." It never dawned on Susan Mitchell that I might have some misgivings about being seen by Sir Horace in stocking feet and disheveled hair. I never could learn from her whether the mischief had already been done. She did n't think the subject worthy of thought. She was above it. Funny Susan Mitchell! For only one day later, when in preparation of A.E.'s home-coming she had cleaned some the shelves behind his desk, how disappointed and crestfallen she looked
when, catching me off my guard, she asked what I thought of her job, and I had dazedly answered, surveying the book-littered wall, "Which are the shelves you cleaned?"
The next time I opened the door on the floor next to the top in Plunkett House, three days later, it was not Susan Mitchell who rose from behind the recesses of the desk, but A.E. himself. I knew him from the pictures I had seen of him in the homes of people I had visited in Dublin.
It is hard to describe A.E. The upper part of his face looks like that of a smiling faun; his eyes are young and clear, and his hair falls over his forehead like that of a careless child. It looked damp, like that of a boy who had been running. The lower half of his face is the strange feature of A.E. It is bearded in a way unusually attractive—attractive not in the sense of being becoming or handsome or beautiful, but attractive in the sense that its effect is compelling. His beard is brown and long, somewhat wavy, and cut square across the botton. "Druidic" is the only word I can think of to describe it. Or perhaps it is not his beard alone that is attractive or druidic, but the effect of it completing the picture of a face whose eyes, forehead, mouth, and expression are exceedingly young. It is not hard to understand the pictures and poetry of A.E. after one has seen him, and certainly inexpressibly easy after one has heard him.
He pulled out the arm-chair for me, the one I had slept in. He placed his chair next to the mantelpiece and sat down under the feet of the piping figure. He drew up his heels under him until they rested on one of the rungs. I told him what I had come
for, and he began at once to tell me what I wanted, simply and directly, the way one might answer a request to pass the butter at the table.
There was definite movement in Irish poetry to-day, he said, growing out of the rebellion of arms and of spirit under which the country was living, but it was hard to say which were the figures who were caught in it. It was hard, especially, to say which were the younger figures who were awakening to the call of poetry, even as they were awakening to the call of nationality, because of the danger which surrounded national prominence of any kind. The leaders of song of the future, he pointed out, were the leaders of battle of to-day. Those whom the outside world knew-James Stephens, Austin Clarke, and Synge— were still, perhaps, the greatest names in modern Irish verse. All of these, he said, owed their strength to the fact that they had cast off their English heritage and stood to-day robed in the colors of an ancient Ireland, which was once again coming into the glory that had been hers.
"These poets," he said, "have stood up bravely, strongly, fearlessly; have stripped themselves naked of everything tinged with alien tradition and influence. They have gone to the waters of Irish legend and story and have bathed in its warmth. They have washed the grit of foreign sands from their hair and eyes, and have arisen new-born, with new vision, and a spirit steeped in the poetry of Gaelic lore. In the lakes of wisdom of the land of sorrows and ineffable beauty they have found everlasting youth. The gift that is theirs is power."
“Druid, druid, druid," was the one word that kept going through my mind as A.E. sat there talking. Men Men in America do not talk that way. I think they would be ashamed to; or perhaps they can't. The voice of A.E. went on in the strangely fascinating woodland timbre which is his:
"Take James Stephens. He was beautiful in his expression in the first birth of his youth; it was I who stood godfather to his first volume of poetry. But the beauty and the color and the magic went from him in time. He was aping and imitating when he should have been creating. He was not himself, and he was not Ireland. He was an Irish plant trying to live on the soil of English poetry. There is nothing but death in such an effort.
"And then came truth and inspiration to him. Humbly and reverently, he turned to the deep, many-colored waters of Gaelic legend and let them flow over his tired body. Like a lost child, tired of its wanderings, he gave himself up to their soothing and caressing depths and let them have their will of him. When he arose, renewed in spirit and rejuvenated in power, he was a disciple no longer of gods that were false, but a prophet of gods that were true true because they were made of the heart and the mind of him and of those who had lived before him. Today James Stephens is doing work that will live. Right now he is translating the Gaelic legends of the Red Branch. These will appear in five volumes. I have seen part of the finished work, and much of it is beautiful.
"Take also John Synge and Austin Clarke. At the beginning of their lives as poets both wrote verse that was not only English in language, but English in form and expression. Synge, in
deed, tried to imitate Shelley, and I think he would have succeeded greatly had he gone along on that path. But his success would have been that of the imitative craftsman and not that of the master. Vision was given him to see clearly, and he cast the lesser gift from him. With the spirit of worship in his heart he went to a group of Gaelic islands, learned the Gaelic language, and buried himself in the myth and legend of the people, whom he made his friends. When he came forth again he was the poet of power and of beauty you know him to be. So is it true of Austin Clarke.
"The sorrows and the strivings of these men have not been in vain. Today the younger poets of Ireland, those who will be the poets of the future, knowing the tale of travail of those who have gone before them, go direct to the waters of Gaelic story and bathe therein. Everything written in Ireland to-day shows unmistakable signs of the taking of the ritual.
"Just now all the young men of Ireland are engaged in fighting a battle for national freedom. It is the Gaelic soul awakened; it is seven hundred years of dreams that have not perished, that is fighting that battle. When once peace descends upon this land, the Gaelic soul that will be free and the dreams that are not dead will seek expression in more beautiful form. They will live in the poetry of the new nation.
"You ask whether they will write in the Gaelic. I think not. They do not need to. The language does n't matter. It is the spirit, the form, the inspiration. Take this of James Stephens. It is English, but the sound of it, the heart of it, the rhythm of it, are Gaelic. Gaelic. Listen and tell me whether a