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Title: The Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, Vol. 6 (of 8) - Ideas of Good and Evil
Author: Yeats, W. B. (William Butler)
Language: English
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    WHAT IS ‘POPULAR POETRY’?                         1

    SPEAKING TO THE PSALTERY                         13

    MAGIC                                            23

    THE HAPPIEST OF THE POETS                        55


    AT STRATFORD-ON-AVON                            111


        ‘DIVINE COMEDY’                             138

    SYMBOLISM IN PAINTING                           176

    THE SYMBOLISM OF POETRY                         185

    THE THEATRE                                     200


    THE AUTUMN OF THE BODY                          230

    THE MOODS                                       238


    THE RETURN OF ULYSSES                           243

    IRELAND AND THE ARTS                            249

    THE GALWAY PLAINS                               259

    EMOTION OF MULTITUDE                            264


I THINK it was a Young Ireland Society that set my mind running on
‘popular poetry.’ We used to discuss everything that was known to us
about Ireland, and especially Irish literature and Irish history. We
had no Gaelic, but paid great honour to the Irish poets who wrote in
English, and quoted them in our speeches. I could have told you at that
time the dates of the birth and death, and quoted the chief poems, of
men whose names you have not heard, and perhaps of some whose names I
have forgotten. I knew in my heart that the most of them wrote badly,
and yet such romance clung about them, such a desire for Irish poetry
was in all our minds, that I kept on saying, not only to others but
to myself, that most of them wrote well, or all but well. I had read
Shelley and Spenser and had tried to mix their styles together in a
pastoral play which I have not come to dislike much, and yet I do not
think Shelley or Spenser ever moved me as did these poets. I thought
one day—I can remember the very day when I thought it—‘If somebody
could make a style which would not be an English style and yet would
be musical and full of colour, many others would catch fire from him,
and we would have a really great school of ballad poetry in Ireland.
If these poets, who have never ceased to fill the newspapers and the
ballad-books with their verses, had a good tradition they would write
beautifully and move everybody as they move me.’ Then a little later on
I thought, ‘If they had something else to write about besides political
opinions, if more of them would write about the beliefs of the people
like Allingham, or about old legends like Ferguson, they would find
it easier to get a style.’ Then, with a deliberateness that still
surprises me, for in my heart of hearts I have never been quite certain
that one should be more than an artist, that even patriotism is more
than an impure desire in an artist, I set to work to find a style and
things to write about that the ballad writers might be the better.

They are no better, I think, and my desire to make them so was, it may
be, one of the illusions Nature holds before one, because she knows
that the gifts she has to give are not worth troubling about. It is for
her sake that we must stir ourselves, but we would not trouble to get
out of bed in the morning, or to leave our chairs once we are in them,
if she had not her conjuring bag. She wanted a few verses from me, and
because it would not have seemed worth while taking so much trouble
to see my books lie on a few drawing-room tables, she filled my head
with thoughts of making a whole literature, and plucked me out of the
Dublin art schools where I should have stayed drawing from the round,
and sent me into a library to read bad translations from the Irish,
and at last down into Connaught to sit by turf fires. I wanted to
write ‘popular poetry’ like those Irish poets, for I believed that all
good literatures were popular, and even cherished the fancy that the
Adelphi melodrama, which I had never seen, might be good literature,
and I hated what I called the coteries. I thought that one must write
without care, for that was of the coteries, but with a gusty energy
that would put all straight if it came out of the right heart. I had
a conviction, which indeed I have still, that one’s verses should
hold, as in a mirror, the colours of one’s own climate and scenery in
their right proportion; and, when I found my verses too full of the
reds and yellows Shelley gathered in Italy, I thought for two days of
setting things right, not as I should now by making rhythms faint
and nervous and filling my images with a certain coldness, a certain
wintry wildness, but by eating little and sleeping upon a board. I felt
indignant with Matthew Arnold because he complained that somebody,
who had translated Homer into a ballad measure, had tried to write
epic to the tune of Yankee Doodle. It seemed to me that it did not
matter what tune one wrote to, so long as that gusty energy came often
enough and strongly enough. And I delighted in Victor Hugo’s book
upon Shakespeare, because he abused critics and coteries and thought
that Shakespeare wrote without care or premeditation and to please
everybody. I would indeed have had every illusion had I believed in
that straightforward logic, as of newspaper articles, which so tickles
the ears of the shopkeepers; but I always knew that the line of Nature
is crooked, that, though we dig the canal beds as straight as we can,
the rivers run hither and thither in their wildness.

From that day to this I have been busy among the verses and stories
that the people make for themselves, but I had been busy a very little
while before I knew that what we call popular poetry never came from
the people at all. Longfellow, and Campbell, and Mrs. Hemans, and
Macaulay in his _Lays_, and Scott in his longer poems are the poets
of the middle class, of people who have unlearned the unwritten
tradition which binds the unlettered, so long as they are masters of
themselves, to the beginning of time and to the foundation of the
world, and who have not learned the written tradition which has been
established upon the unwritten. I became certain that Burns, whose
greatness has been used to justify the littleness of others, was in
part a poet of the middle class, because though the farmers he sprang
from and lived among had been able to create a little tradition of
their own, less a tradition of ideas than of speech, they had been
divided by religious and political changes from the images and emotions
which had once carried their memories backward thousands of years.
Despite his expressive speech which sets him above all other popular
poets, he has the triviality of emotion, the poverty of ideas, the
imperfect sense of beauty of a poetry whose most typical expression is
in Longfellow. Longfellow has his popularity, in the main, because he
tells his story or his idea so that one needs nothing but his verses
to understand it. No words of his borrow their beauty from those that
used them before, and one can get all that there is in story and
idea without seeing them as if moving before a half-faded curtain
embroidered with kings and queens, their loves and battles and their
days out hunting, or else with holy letters and images of so great
antiquity that nobody can tell the god or goddess they would commend
to an unfading memory. Poetry that is not popular poetry presupposes,
indeed, more than it says, though we, who cannot know what it is to be
disinherited, only understand how much more, when we read it in its
most typical expressions, in the _Epipsychidion_ of Shelley, or in
Spenser’s description of the gardens of Adonis, or when we meet the
misunderstandings of others. Go down into the street and read to your
baker or your candlestick-maker any poem which is not popular poetry.
I have heard a baker, who was clever enough with his oven, deny that
Tennyson could have known what he was writing when he wrote ‘Warming
his five wits, the white owl in the belfry sits,’ and once when I read
out Omar Khayyam to one of the best of candlestick-makers, he said,
‘What is the meaning of “we come like water and like wind we go”?’ Or
go down into the street with some thought whose bare meaning must be
plain to everybody; take with you Ben Jonson’s ‘Beauty like sorrow
dwelleth everywhere,’ and find out how utterly its enchantment depends
on an association of beauty with sorrow which written tradition has
from the unwritten, which had it in its turn from ancient religion; or
take with you these lines in whose bare meaning also there is nothing
to stumble over, and find out what men lose who are not in love with

   ‘Brightness falls from the air,
    Queens have died young and fair,
    Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.’

I pick my examples at random, for I am writing where I have no books to
turn the pages of, but one need not go east of the sun or west of the
moon in so simple a matter.

On the other hand, when Walt Whitman writes in seeming defiance of
tradition, he needs tradition for his protection, for the butcher and
the baker and the candlestick-maker grow merry over him when they meet
his work by chance. Nature, which cannot endure emptiness, has made
them gather conventions which cannot disguise their low birth though
they copy, as from far off, the dress and manners of the well-bred and
the well-born. The gatherers mock all expression that is wholly unlike
their own, just as little boys in the street mock at strangely-dressed
people and at old men who talk to themselves.

There is only one kind of good poetry, for the poetry of the coteries,
which presupposes the written tradition, does not differ in kind
from the true poetry of the people, which presupposes the unwritten
tradition. Both are alike strange and obscure, and unreal to all who
have not understanding, and both, instead of that manifest logic,
that clear rhetoric of the ‘popular poetry,’ glimmer with thoughts
and images whose ‘ancestors were stout and wise,’ ‘anigh to Paradise’
‘ere yet men knew the gift of corn.’ It may be that we know as little
of their descent as men knew of ‘the man born to be a king’ when they
found him in that cradle marked with the red lion crest, and yet we
know somewhere in the heart that they have been sung in temples, in
ladies’ chambers, and our nerves quiver with a recognition they were
shaped to by a thousand emotions. If men did not remember or half
remember impossible things, and, it may be, if the worship of sun and
moon had not left a faint reverence behind it, what Aran fisher-girl
would sing—

‘It is late last night the dog was speaking of you; the snipe was
speaking of you in her deep marsh. It is you are the lonely bird
throughout the woods; and that you may be without a mate until you find

‘You promised me and you said a lie to me, that you would be before me
where the sheep are flocked. I gave a whistle and three hundred cries
to you; and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

‘You promised me a thing that was hard for you, a ship of gold under a
silver mast; twelve towns and a market in all of them, and a fine white
court by the side of the sea.

‘You promised me a thing that is not possible; that you would give me
gloves of the skin of a fish; that you would give me shoes of the skin
of a bird, and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

‘My mother said to me not to be talking with you, to-day or to-morrow
or on Sunday. It was a bad time she took for telling me that, it was
shutting the door after the house was robbed....

‘You have taken the east from me, you have taken the west from me, you
have taken what is before me and what is behind me; you have taken the
moon, you have taken the sun from me, and my fear is great you have
taken God from me.’

The Gael of the Scottish islands could not sing his beautiful song
over a bride, had he not a memory of the belief that Christ was the
only man who measured six feet and not a little more or less, and was
perfectly shaped in all other ways, and if he did not remember old
symbolical observances—

    I bathe thy palms
    In showers of wine,
    In the cleansing fire,
    In the juice of raspberries,
    In the milk of honey.

           *       *       *       *       *

    Thou art the joy of all joyous things,
    Thou art the light of the beam of the sun,
    Thou art the door of the chief of hospitality,
    Thou art the surpassing pilot star,
    Thou art the step of the deer of the hill,
    Thou art the step of the horse of the plain,
    Thou art the grace of the sun rising,
    Thou art the loveliness of all lovely desires.

    The lovely likeness of the Lord
    Is in thy pure face,
    The loveliest likeness that was upon earth.

I soon learned to cast away one other illusion of ‘popular poetry.’ I
learned from the people themselves, before I learned it from any book,
that they cannot separate the idea of an art or a craft from the idea
of a cult with ancient technicalities and mysteries. They can hardly
separate mere learning from witchcraft, and are fond of the words and
verses that keep half their secret to themselves. Indeed, it is certain
that before the counting-house had created a new class and a new art
without breeding and without ancestry, and set this art and this class
between the hut and the castle, and between the hut and the cloister,
the art of the people was as closely mingled with the art of the
coteries as was the speech of the people that delighted in rhythmical
animation, in idiom, in images, in words full of far-off suggestion,
with the unchanging speech of the poets.

Now I see a new generation in Ireland which discusses Irish literature
and history in Young Ireland societies, and societies with newer names,
and there are far more than when I was a boy who would make verses for
the people. They have the help, too, of a vigorous journalism, and this
journalism sometimes urges them to desire the direct logic, the clear
rhetoric, of ‘popular poetry.’ It sees that Ireland has no cultivated
minority, and it does not see, though it would cast out all English
things, that its literary ideal belongs more to England than to other
countries. I have hope that the new writers will not fall into its
illusion, for they write in Irish, and for a people the counting-house
has not made forgetful. Among the seven or eight hundred thousand who
have had Irish from the cradle, there is, perhaps, nobody who has not
enough of the unwritten tradition to know good verses from bad ones, if
he have enough mother-wit. Among all that speak English in Australia,
in America, in Great Britain, are there many more than the ten thousand
the prophet saw, who have enough of the written tradition education has
set in room of the unwritten to know good verses from bad ones, even
though their mother-wit has made them Ministers of the Crown or what
you will? Nor can things be better till that ten thousand have gone
hither and thither to preach their faith that ‘the imagination is the
man himself,’ and that the world as imagination sees it is the durable
world, and have won men as did the disciples of Him who

    His seventy disciples sent
    Against religion and government.




I HAVE always known that there was something I disliked about singing,
and I naturally dislike print and paper, but now at last I understand
why, for I have found something better. I have just heard a poem spoken
with so delicate a sense of its rhythm, with so perfect a respect for
its meaning, that if I were a wise man and could persuade a few people
to learn the art I would never open a book of verses again. A friend,
who was here a few minutes ago, has sat with a beautiful stringed
instrument upon her knee, her fingers passing over the strings, and
has spoken to me some verses from Shelley’s _Skylark_ and Sir Ector’s
lamentation over the dead Launcelot out of the _Morte d’ Arthur_ and
some of my own poems. Wherever the rhythm was most delicate, wherever
the emotion was most ecstatic, her art was the most beautiful, and yet,
although she sometimes spoke to a little tune, it was never singing,
as we sing to-day, never anything but speech. A singing note, a word
chanted as they chant in churches, would have spoiled everything; nor
was it reciting, for she spoke to a notation as definite as that of
song, using the instrument which murmured sweetly and faintly, under
the spoken sounds, to give her the changing notes. Another speaker
could have repeated all her effects, except those which came from her
own beautiful voice that would have given her fame if the only art that
gives the speaking voice its perfect opportunity were as well known
among us as it was known in the ancient world.


Since I was a boy I have always longed to hear poems spoken to a harp,
as I imagined Homer to have spoken his, for it is not natural to enjoy
an art only when one is by oneself. Whenever one finds a fine verse
one wants to read it to somebody, and it would be much less trouble
and much pleasanter if we could all listen, friend by friend, lover
by beloved. Images used to rise up before me, as I am sure they have
arisen before nearly everybody else who cares for poetry, of wild-eyed
men speaking harmoniously to murmuring wires while audiences in
many-coloured robes listened, hushed and excited. Whenever I spoke of
my desire to anybody they said I should write for music, but when
I heard anything sung I did not hear the words, or if I did their
natural pronunciation was altered and their natural music was altered,
or it was drowned in another music which I did not understand. What
was the good of writing a love-song if the singer pronounced love,
‘lo-o-o-o-o-ve,’ or even if he said ‘love,’ but did not give it its
exact place and weight in the rhythm? Like every other poet, I spoke
verses in a kind of chant when I was making them, and sometimes, when
I was alone on a country road, I would speak them in a loud chanting
voice, and feel that if I dared I would speak them in that way to
other people. One day I was walking through a Dublin street with the
Visionary I have written about in _The Celtic Twilight_, and he began
speaking his verses out aloud with the confidence of those who have
the inner light. He did not mind that people stopped and looked after
him even on the far side of the road, but went on through poem after
poem. Like myself, he knew nothing of music, but was certain that he
had written them to a manner of music, and he had once asked somebody
who played on a wind instrument of some kind, and then a violinist,
to write out the music and play it. The violinist had played it,
or something like it, but had not written it down; but the man with
the wind instrument said it could not be played because it contained
quarter-tones and would be out of tune. We were not at all convinced
by this, and one day, when we were staying with a Galway friend who is
a learned musician, I asked him to listen to our verses, and to the
way we spoke them. The Visionary found to his surprise that he did
not make every poem to a different tune, and to the surprise of the
musician that he did make them all to two quite definite tunes, which
are, it seems, like very simple Arabic music. It was, perhaps, to some
such music, I thought, that Blake sang his _Songs of Innocence_ in Mrs.
Williams’ drawing-room, and perhaps he, too, spoke rather than sang. I,
on the other hand, did not often compose to a tune, though I sometimes
did, yet always to notes that could be written down and played on my
friend’s organ, or turned into something like a Gregorian hymn if one
sang them in the ordinary way. I varied more than the Visionary, who
never forgot his two tunes, one for long and one for short lines,
and could not always speak a poem in the same way, but always felt
that certain ways were right, and that I would know one of them if I
remembered the way I first spoke the poem. When I got to London I gave
the notation, as it had been played on the organ, to the friend who has
just gone out, and she spoke it to me, giving my words a new quality by
the beauty of her voice.


Then we began to wander through the wood of error; we tried speaking
through music in the ordinary way under I know not whose evil
influence, until we got to hate the two competing tunes and rhythms
that were so often at discord with one another, the tune and rhythm
of the verse and the tune and rhythm of the music. Then we tried,
persuaded by somebody who thought quarter-tones and less intervals
the especial mark of speech as distinct from singing, to write out
what we did in wavy lines. On finding something like these lines in
Tibetan music, we became so confident that we covered a large piece
of pasteboard, which now blows up my fire in the morning, with a
notation in wavy lines as a demonstration for a lecture; but at last
Mr. Dolmetsch put us back to our first thought. He made us a beautiful
instrument half psaltery half lyre which contains, I understand, all
the chromatic intervals within the range of the speaking voice; and he
taught us to regulate our speech by the ordinary musical notes.

Some of the notations he taught us—those in which there is no lilt, no
recurring pattern of sounds—are like this notation for a song out of
the first Act of _The Countess Cathleen_.

It is written in the old C clef, which is, I am told, the most
reasonable way to write it, for it would be below the stave on the
treble clef or above it on the bass clef. The central line of the stave
corresponds to the middle C of the piano; the first note of the poem
is therefore D. The marks of long and short over the syllables are not
marks of scansion, but show the syllables one makes the voice hurry or
linger over.

[Illustration: Music]

    Impetuous heart, be still, be still;
    Your sorrowful love may never be told;
    Cover it with a lonely tune
    He who could bend all things to his will
    Has covered the door of the infinite fold
    With the pale stars and the wandering moon

One needs, of course, a far less complicated notation than a singer,
and one is even permitted slight modifications of the fixed note when
dramatic expression demands it and the instrument is not sounding. The
notation which regulates the general form of the sound leaves it free
to add a complexity of dramatic expression from its own incommunicable
genius which compensates the lover of speech for the lack of complex
musical expression. Ordinary speech is formless, and its variety is
like the variety which separates bad prose from the regulated speech
of Milton, or anything that is formless and void from anything that has
form and beauty. The orator, the speaker who has some little of the
great tradition of his craft, differs from the debater very largely
because he understands how to assume that subtle monotony of voice
which runs through the nerves like fire.

Even when one is speaking to a single note sounded faintly on the
Psaltery, if one is sufficiently practised to speak on it without
thinking about it one can get an endless variety of expression. All
art is, indeed, a monotony in external things for the sake of an
interior variety, a sacrifice of gross effects to subtle effects, an
asceticism of the imagination. But this new art, new in modern life
I mean, will have to train its hearers as well as its speakers, for
it takes time to surrender gladly the gross effects one is accustomed
to, and one may well find mere monotony at first where one soon learns
to find a variety as incalculable as in the outline of faces or in
the expression of eyes. Modern acting and recitation have taught us
to fix our attention on the gross effects till we have come to think
gesture and the intonation that copies the accidental surface of life
more important than the rhythm; and yet we understand theoretically
that it is precisely this rhythm that separates good writing from
bad, that it is the glimmer, the fragrance, the spirit of all intense
literature. I do not say that we should speak our plays to musical
notes, for dramatic verse will need its own method, and I have hitherto
experimented with short lyric poems alone; but I am certain that, if
people would listen for a while to lyrical verse spoken to notes, they
would soon find it impossible to listen without indignation to verse
as it is spoken in our leading theatres. They would get a subtlety of
hearing that would demand new effects from actors and even from public
speakers, and they might, it may be, begin even to notice one another’s
voices till poetry and rhythm had come nearer to common life.

I cannot tell what changes this new art is to go through, or to what
greatness or littleness of fortune; but I can imagine little stories in
prose with their dialogues in metre going pleasantly to the strings.
I am not certain that I shall not see some Order naming itself from
the Golden Violet of the Troubadours or the like, and having among its
members none but well-taught and well-mannered speakers who will keep
the new art from disrepute. They will know how to keep from singing
notes and from prosaic lifeless intonations, and they will always
understand, however far they push their experiments, that poetry and
not music is their object; and they will have by heart, like the Irish
_File_, so many poems and notations that they will never have to bend
their heads over the book to the ruin of dramatic expression and of
that wild air the bard had always about him in my boyish imagination.
They will go here and there speaking their verses and their little
stories wherever they can find a score or two of poetical-minded people
in a big room, or a couple of poetical-minded friends sitting by the
hearth, and poets will write them poems and little stories to the
confounding of print and paper. I, at any rate, from this out mean to
write all my longer poems for the stage, and all my shorter ones for
the Psaltery, if only some strong angel keep me to my good resolutions.




I BELIEVE in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call
magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not
know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the
visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed;
and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed
down from early times, and been the foundations of nearly all magical
practices. These doctrines are—

(1) That the borders of our minds are ever shifting, and that many
minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a
single mind, a single energy.

(2) That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our
memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.

(3) That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by symbols.

I often think I would put this belief in magic from me if I could,
for I have come to see or to imagine, in men and women, in houses, in
handicrafts, in nearly all sights and sounds, a certain evil, a certain
ugliness, that comes from the slow perishing through the centuries of a
quality of mind that made this belief and its evidences common over the


Some ten or twelve years ago, a man with whom I have since quarrelled
for sound reasons, a very singular man who had given his life to
studies other men despised, asked me and an acquaintance, who is now
dead, to witness a magical work. He lived a little way from London,
and on the way my acquaintance told me that he did not believe in
magic, but that a novel of Bulwer Lytton’s had taken such a hold upon
his imagination that he was going to give much of his time and all his
thought to magic. He longed to believe in it, and had studied though
not learnedly, geomancy, astrology, chiromancy, and much cabalistic
symbolism, and yet doubted if the soul outlived the body. He awaited
the magical work full of scepticism. He expected nothing more than an
air of romance, an illusion as of the stage, that might capture the
consenting imagination for an hour. The evoker of spirits and his
beautiful wife received us in a little house, on the edge of some kind
of garden or park belonging to an eccentric rich man, whose curiosities
he arranged and dusted, and he made his evocation in a long room that
had a raised place on the floor at one end, a kind of dais, but was
furnished meagrely and cheaply. I sat with my acquaintance in the
middle of the room, and the evoker of spirits on the dais, and his wife
between us and him. He held a wooden mace in his hand, and turning to a
tablet of many-coloured squares, with a number on each of the squares,
that stood near him on a chair, he repeated a form of words. Almost
at once my imagination began to move of itself and to bring before me
vivid images that, though never too vivid to be imagination, as I had
always understood it, had yet a motion of their own, a life I could
not change or shape. I remember seeing a number of white figures, and
wondering whether their mitred heads had been suggested by the mitred
head of the mace, and then, of a sudden, the image of my acquaintance
in the midst of them. I told what I had seen, and the evoker of spirits
cried in a deep voice, ‘Let him be blotted out,’ and as he said it the
image of my acquaintance vanished, and the evoker of spirits or his
wife saw a man dressed in black with a curious square cap standing
among the white figures. It was my acquaintance, the seeress said, as
he had been in a past life, the life that had moulded his present,
and that life would now unfold before us. I too seemed to see the man
with a strange vividness. The story unfolded itself chiefly before
the mind’s eye of the seeress, but sometimes I saw what she described
before I heard her description. She thought the man in black was
perhaps a Fleming of the sixteenth century, and I could see him pass
along narrow streets till he came to a narrow door with some rusty
ironwork above it. He went in, and wishing to find out how far we had
one vision among us, I kept silent when I saw a dead body lying upon
the table within the door. The seeress described him going down a long
hall and up into what she called a pulpit, and beginning to speak. She
said, ‘He is a clergyman, I can hear his words. They sound like Low
Dutch.’ Then after a little silence, ‘No, I am wrong. I can see the
listeners; he is a doctor lecturing among his pupils.’ I said, ‘Do you
see anything near the door?’ and she said, ‘Yes, I see a subject for
dissection.’ Then we saw him go out again into the narrow streets, I
following the story of the seeress, sometimes merely following her
words, but sometimes seeing for myself. My acquaintance saw nothing; I
think he was forbidden to see, it being his own life, and I think could
not in any case. His imagination had no will of its own. Presently the
man in black went into a house with two gables facing the road, and up
some stairs into a room where a hump-backed woman gave him a key; and
then along a corridor, and down some stairs into a large cellar full of
retorts and strange vessels of all kinds. Here he seemed to stay a long
while, and one saw him eating bread that he took down from a shelf. The
evoker of spirits and the seeress began to speculate about the man’s
character and habits, and decided, from a visionary impression, that
his mind was absorbed in naturalism, but that his imagination had been
excited by stories of the marvels wrought by magic in past times, and
that he was trying to copy them by naturalistic means. Presently one of
them saw him go to a vessel that stood over a slow fire, and take out
of the vessel a thing wrapped up in numberless cloths, which he partly
unwrapped, showing at length what looked like the image of a man made
by somebody who could not model. The evoker of spirits said that the
man in black was trying to make flesh by chemical means, and though he
had not succeeded, his brooding had drawn so many evil spirits about
him, that the image was partly alive. He could see it moving a little
where it lay upon a table. At that moment I heard something like little
squeals, but kept silent, as when I saw the dead body. In a moment more
the seeress said, ‘I hear little squeals.’ Then the evoker of spirits
heard them, but said, ‘They are not squeals; he is pouring a red liquid
out of a retort through a slit in the cloth; the slit is over the mouth
of the image and the liquid is gurgling in rather a curious way.’ Weeks
seemed to pass by hurriedly, and somebody saw the man still busy in
his cellar. Then more weeks seemed to pass, and now we saw him lying
sick in a room up-stairs, and a man in a conical cap standing beside
him. We could see the image too. It was in the cellar, but now it could
move feebly about the floor. I saw fainter images of the image passing
continually from where it crawled to the man in his bed, and I asked
the evoker of spirits what they were. He said, ‘They are the images
of his terror.’ Presently the man in the conical cap began to speak,
but who heard him I cannot remember. He made the sick man get out of
bed and walk, leaning upon him, and in much terror till they came to
the cellar. There the man in the conical cap made some symbol over
the image, which fell back as if asleep, and putting a knife into the
other’s hand he said, ‘I have taken from it the magical life, but you
must take from it the life you gave.’ Somebody saw the sick man stoop
and sever the head of the image from its body, and then fall as if he
had given himself a mortal wound, for he had filled it with his own
life. And then the vision changed and fluttered, and he was lying sick
again in the room up-stairs. He seemed to lie there a long time with
the man in the conical cap watching beside him, and then, I cannot
remember how, the evoker of spirits discovered that though he would in
part recover, he would never be well, and that the story had got abroad
in the town and shattered his good name. His pupils had left him and
men avoided him. He was accursed. He was a magician.

The story was finished, and I looked at my acquaintance. He was white
and awestruck. He said, as nearly as I can remember, ‘All my life I
have seen myself in dreams making a man by some means like that. When
I was a child I was always thinking out contrivances for galvanizing
a corpse into life.’ Presently he said, ‘Perhaps my bad health in
this life comes from that experiment.’ I asked if he had read
_Frankenstein_, and he answered that he had. He was the only one of us
who had, and he had taken no part in the vision.


Then I asked to have some past life of mine revealed, and a new
evocation was made before the tablet full of little squares. I cannot
remember so well who saw this or that detail, for now I was interested
in little but the vision itself. I had come to a conclusion about the
method. I knew that the vision may be in part common to several people.

A man in chain armour passed through a castle door, and the seeress
noticed with surprise the bareness and rudeness of castle rooms. There
was nothing of the magnificence or the pageantry she had expected.
The man came to a large hall and to a little chapel opening out of
it, where a ceremony was taking place. There were six girls dressed
in white, who took from the altar some yellow object—I thought it was
gold, for though, like my acquaintance, I was told not to see, I could
not help seeing. Somebody else thought that it was yellow flowers, and
I think the girls, though I cannot remember clearly, laid it between
the man’s hands. He went out after a time, and as he passed through
the great hall one of us, I forget whom, noticed that he passed over
two gravestones. Then the vision became broken, but presently he stood
in a monk’s habit among men-at-arms in the middle of a village reading
from a parchment. He was calling villagers about him, and presently
he and they and the men-at-arms took ship for some long voyage. The
vision became broken again, and when we could see clearly they had
come to what seemed the Holy Land. They had begun some kind of sacred
labour among palm-trees. The common men among them stood idle, but the
gentlemen carried large stones, bringing them from certain directions,
from the cardinal points I think, with a ceremonious formality. The
evoker of spirits said they must be making some kind of masonic house.
His mind, like the minds of so many students of these hidden things,
was always running on masonry and discovering it in strange places.

We broke the vision that we might have supper, breaking it with some
form of words which I forget. When supper had ended the seeress cried
out that while we had been eating they had been building, and they
had built not a masonic house but a great stone cross. And now they
had all gone away but the man who had been in chain armour and two
monks we had not noticed before. He was standing against the cross,
his feet upon two stone rests a little above the ground, and his arms
spread out. He seemed to stand there all day, but when night came he
went to a little cell, that was beside two other cells. I think they
were like the cells I have seen in the Aran Islands, but I cannot be
certain. Many days seemed to pass, and all day every day he stood upon
the cross, and we never saw anybody there but him and the two monks.
Many years seemed to pass, making the vision flutter like a drift of
leaves before our eyes, and he grew old and white-haired, and we saw
the two monks, old and white-haired, holding him upon the cross. I
asked the evoker of spirits why the man stood there, and before he had
time to answer I saw two people, a man and a woman, rising like a dream
within a dream, before the eyes of the man upon the cross. The evoker
of spirits saw them too, and said that one of them held up his arms and
they were without hands. I thought of the two grave-stones the man in
chain mail had passed over in the great hall when he came out of the
chapel, and asked the evoker of spirits if the knight was undergoing a
penance for violence, and while I was asking him, and he was saying
that it might be so but he did not know, the vision, having completed
its circle, vanished.

It had not, so far as I could see, the personal significance of the
other vision, but it was certainly strange and beautiful, though I
alone seemed to see its beauty. Who was it that made the story, if it
were but a story? I did not, and the seeress did not, and the evoker
of spirits did not and could not. It arose in three minds, for I
cannot remember my acquaintance taking any part, and it rose without
confusion, and without labour, except the labour of keeping the mind’s
eye awake, and more swiftly than any pen could have written it out.
It may be, as Blake said of one of his poems, that the author was in
eternity. In coming years I was to see and hear of many such visions,
and though I was not to be convinced, though half convinced once or
twice, that they were old lives, in an ordinary sense of the word
life, I was to learn that they have almost always some quite definite
relation to dominant moods and moulding events in this life. They are,
perhaps, in most cases, though the vision I have but just described was
not, it seems, among the cases, symbolical histories of these moods and
events, or rather symbolical shadows of the impulses that have made
them, messages as it were out of the ancestral being of the questioner.

At the time these two visions meant little more to me, if I can
remember my feeling at the time, than a proof of the supremacy of
imagination, of the power of many minds to become one, overpowering one
another by spoken words and by unspoken thought till they have become a
single intense, unhesitating energy. One mind was doubtless the master,
I thought, but all the minds gave a little, creating or revealing for a
moment what I must call a supernatural artist.


Some years afterwards I was staying with some friends in Paris. I had
got up before breakfast and gone out to buy a newspaper. I had noticed
the servant, a girl who had come from the country some years before,
laying the table for breakfast. As I had passed her I had been telling
myself one of those long foolish tales which one tells only to oneself.
If something had happened that had not happened, I would have hurt my
arm, I thought. I saw myself with my arm in a sling in the middle of
some childish adventures. I returned with the newspaper and met my host
and hostess in the door. The moment they saw me they cried out, ‘Why,
the _bonne_ has just told us you had your arm in a sling. We thought
something must have happened to you last night, that you had been run
over maybe’—or some such words. I had been dining out at the other end
of Paris, and had come in after everybody had gone to bed. I had cast
my imagination so strongly upon the servant that she had seen it, and
with what had appeared to be more than the mind’s eye.

One afternoon, about the same time, I was thinking very intently of
a certain fellow-student for whom I had a message, which I hesitated
about writing. In a couple of days I got a letter from a place some
hundreds of miles away where that student was. On the afternoon when
I had been thinking so intently I had suddenly appeared there amid a
crowd of people in a hotel and as seeming solid as if in the flesh. My
fellow-student had seen me, but no one else, and had asked me to come
again when the people had gone. I had vanished, but had come again
in the middle of the night and given the message. I myself had no
knowledge of casting an imagination upon one so far away.

I could tell of stranger images, of stranger enchantments, of
stranger imaginations, cast consciously or unconsciously over as
great distances by friends or by myself, were it not that the greater
energies of the mind seldom break forth but when the deeps are
loosened. They break forth amid events too private or too sacred for
public speech, or seem themselves, I know not why, to belong to hidden
things. I have written of these breakings forth, these loosenings of
the deep, with some care and some detail, but I shall keep my record
shut. After all, one can but bear witness less to convince him who
won’t believe than to protect him who does, as Blake puts it, enduring
unbelief and misbelief and ridicule as best one may. I shall be content
to show that past times have believed as I do, by quoting Joseph
Glanvil’s description of the Scholar Gipsy. Joseph Glanvil is dead, and
will not mind unbelief and misbelief and ridicule.

The Scholar Gipsy, too, is dead, unless indeed perfectly wise magicians
can live till it please them to die, and he is wandering somewhere,
even if one cannot see him, as Arnold imagined, ‘at some lone ale-house
in the Berkshire moors, on the warm ingle-bench,’ or ‘crossing the
stripling Thames at Bablock Hithe,’ ‘trailing his fingers in the cool
stream,’ or ‘giving store of flowers—the frail-leaf’d white anemone,
dark bluebells drenched with dews of summer eves,’ to the girls ‘who
from the distant hamlets come to dance around the Fyfield elm in May,’
or ‘sitting upon the river bank o’ergrown,’ living on through time
‘with a free onward impulse.’ This is Joseph Glanvil’s story—

    There was very lately a lad in the University of
    Oxford, who being of very pregnant and ready parts and
    yet wanting the encouragement of preferment, was by
    his poverty forced to leave his studies there, and to
    cast himself upon the wide world for a livelihood. Now
    his necessities growing daily on him, and wanting the
    help of friends to relieve him, he was at last forced
    to join himself to a company of vagabond gipsies,
    whom occasionally he met with, and to follow their
    trade for a maintenance.... After he had been a pretty
    while well exercised in the trade, there chanced to
    ride by a couple of scholars, who had formerly been
    of his acquaintance. The scholar had quickly spied
    out these old friends among the gipsies, and their
    amazement to see him among such society had well-nigh
    discovered him; but by a sign he prevented them owning
    him before that crew, and taking one of them aside
    privately desired him with his friend to go to an inn,
    not far distant, promising there to come to them. They
    accordingly went thither and he follows: after their
    first salutation his friends inquire how he came to
    lead so odd a life as that was, and so joined himself
    into such a beggarly company. The scholar gipsy having
    given them an account of the necessity which drove
    him to that kind of life, told them that the people
    he went with were not such impostors as they were
    taken for, but that they had a traditional kind of
    learning among them and could do wonders by the power
    of imagination, and that himself had learned much of
    their art and improved it further than themselves
    could. And to evince the truth of what he told them,
    he said he’d remove into another room, leaving them to
    discourse together; and upon his return tell them the
    sense of what they had talked of; which accordingly
    he performed, giving them a full account of what had
    passed between them in his absence. The scholars
    being amazed at so unexpected a discovery, earnestly
    desired him to unriddle the mystery. In which he gave
    them satisfaction by telling them that what he did
    was by the power of imagination, his phantasy leading
    theirs; and that himself had dictated to them the
    discourse they had held together while he was from
    them; that there were warrantable ways of heightening
    the imagination to that pitch as to bend another’s, and
    that when he had compassed the whole secret, some parts
    of which he was yet ignorant of, he intended to leave
    their company and give the world an account of what he
    had learned.

If all who have described events like this have not dreamed, we should
rewrite our histories, for all men, certainly all imaginative men,
must be for ever casting forth enchantments, glamours, illusions; and
all men, especially tranquil men who have no powerful egotistic life,
must be continually passing under their power. Our most elaborate
thoughts, elaborate purposes, precise emotions, are often, as I think,
not really ours, but have on a sudden come up, as it were, out of
hell or down out of heaven. The historian should remember, should he
not? angels and devils not less than kings and soldiers, and plotters
and thinkers. What matter if the angel or devil, as indeed certain
old writers believed, first wrapped itself with an organized shape in
some man’s imagination? what matter ‘if God himself only acts or is in
existing beings or men,’ as Blake believed? we must none the less admit
that invisible beings, far wandering influences, shapes that may have
floated from a hermit of the wilderness, brood over council-chambers
and studies and battle-fields. We should never be certain that it was
not some woman treading in the wine-press who began that subtle change
in men’s minds, that powerful movement of thought and imagination about
which so many Germans have written; or that the passion, because of
which so many countries were given to the sword, did not begin in the
mind of some shepherd boy, lighting up his eyes for a moment before it
ran upon its way.


We cannot doubt that barbaric people receive such influences more
visibly and obviously, and in all likelihood more easily and fully
than we do, for our life in cities, which deafens or kills the passive
meditative life, and our education that enlarges the separated,
self-moving mind, have made our souls less sensitive. Our souls that
were once naked to the winds of heaven are now thickly clad, and have
learned to build a house and light a fire upon its hearth, and shut
to the doors and windows. The winds can, indeed, make us draw near
to the fire, or can even lift the carpet and whistle under the door,
but they could do worse out on the plains long ago. A certain learned
man, quoted by Mr. Lang in his _Making of Religion_, contends that the
memories of primitive man and his thoughts of distant places must have
had the intensity of hallucination, because there was nothing in his
mind to draw his attention away from them—an explanation that does not
seem to me complete—and Mr. Lang goes on to quote certain travellers to
prove that savages live always on the edges of vision. One Laplander
who wished to become a Christian, and thought visions but heathenish,
confessed to a traveller, to whom he had given a minute account of many
distant events, read doubtless in that traveller’s mind, ‘that he knew
not how to make use of his eyes, since things altogether distant were
present to them.’ I myself could find in one district in Galway but one
man who had not seen what I can but call spirits, and he was in his
dotage. ‘There is no man mowing a meadow but sees them at one time or
another,’ said a man in a different district.

If I can unintentionally cast a glamour, an enchantment, over persons
of our own time who have lived for years in great cities, there is
no reason to doubt that men could cast intentionally a far stronger
enchantment, a far stronger glamour, over the more sensitive people
of ancient times, or that men can still do so where the old order of
life remains unbroken. Why should not the Scholar Gipsy cast his spell
over his friends? Why should not St. Patrick, or he of whom the story
was first told, pass his enemies, he and all his clerics, as a herd
of deer? Why should not enchanters like him in the _Morte d’Arthur_
make troops of horse seem but grey stones? Why should not the Roman
soldiers, though they came of a civilization which was ceasing to be
sensitive to these things, have trembled for a moment before the
enchantments of the Druids of Mona? Why should not the Jesuit father,
or the Count Saint Germain, or whoever the tale was first told of, have
really seemed to leave the city in a coach and four by all the Twelve
Gates at once? Why should not Moses and the enchanters of Pharaoh have
made their staffs as the medicine men of many primitive peoples make
their pieces of old rope seem like devouring serpents? Why should not
that mediæval enchanter have made summer and all its blossoms seem to
break forth in middle winter?

May we not learn some day to rewrite our histories, when they touch
upon these things too?

Men who are imaginative writers to-day may well have preferred to
influence the imagination of others more directly in past times.
Instead of learning their craft with paper and a pen they may have
sat for hours imagining themselves to be stocks and stones and beasts
of the wood, till the images were so vivid that the passers-by became
but a part of the imagination of the dreamer, and wept or laughed or
ran away as he would have them. Have not poetry and music arisen,
as it seems, out of the sounds the enchanters made to help their
imagination to enchant, to charm, to bind with a spell themselves and
the passers-by? These very words, a chief part of all praises of music
or poetry, still cry to us their origin. And just as the musician or
the poet enchants and charms and binds with a spell his own mind when
he would enchant the minds of others, so did the enchanter create or
reveal for himself as well as for others the supernatural artist or
genius, the seeming transitory mind made out of many minds, whose work
I saw, or thought I saw, in that suburban house. He kept the doors too,
as it seems, of those less transitory minds, the genius of the family,
the genius of the tribe, or it may be, when he was mighty-souled
enough, the genius of the world. Our history speaks of opinions and
discoveries, but in ancient times when, as I think, men had their eyes
ever upon those doors, history spoke of commandments and revelations.
They looked as carefully and as patiently towards Sinai and its
thunders as we look towards parliaments and laboratories. We are always
praising men in whom the individual life has come to perfection,
but they were always praising the one mind, their foundation of all


I once saw a young Irish woman, fresh from a convent school, cast into
a profound trance, though not by a method known to any hypnotist. In
her waking state she thought the apple of Eve was the kind of apple
you can buy at the greengrocer’s, but in her trance she saw the Tree
of Life with ever-sighing souls moving in its branches instead of sap,
and among its leaves all the fowls of the air, and on its highest bough
one white fowl bearing a crown. When I went home I took from the shelf
a translation of _The Book of Concealed Mystery_, an old Jewish book,
and cutting the pages came upon this passage, which I cannot think I
had ever read: ‘The Tree, ... is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
of Evil ... in its branches the birds lodge and build their nests, the
souls and the angels have their place.’

I once saw a young Church of Ireland man, a bank clerk in the west of
Ireland, thrown in a like trance. I have no doubt that he, too, was
quite certain that the apple of Eve was a greengrocer’s apple, and yet
he saw the tree and heard the souls sighing through its branches, and
saw apples with human faces, and laying his ear to an apple heard
a sound as of fighting hosts within. Presently he strayed from the
tree and came to the edge of Eden, and there he found himself not by
the wilderness he had learned of at the Sunday-school, but upon the
summit of a great mountain, of a mountain ‘two miles high.’ The whole
summit, in contradiction to all that would have seemed probable to his
waking mind, was a great walled garden. Some years afterwards I found
a mediæval diagram, which pictured Eden as a walled garden upon a high

Where did these intricate symbols come from? Neither I nor the one
or two people present or the seers had ever seen, I am convinced,
the description in _The Book of Concealed Mystery_, or the mediæval
diagram. Remember that the images appeared in a moment perfect in
all their complexity. If one can imagine that the seers or that I
myself or another had read of these images and forgotten it, that the
supernatural artist’s knowledge of what was in our buried memories
accounted for these visions, there are numberless other visions to
account for. One cannot go on believing in improbable knowledge for
ever. For instance, I find in my diary that on December 27, 1897, a
seer to whom I had given a certain old Irish symbol, saw Brigit, the
goddess, holding out ‘a glittering and wriggling serpent,’ and yet I
feel certain that neither I nor he knew anything of her association
with the serpent until _Carmina Gadelica_ was published a few months
ago. And an old Irish woman who can neither read nor write has
described to me a woman dressed like Dian, with helmet, and short skirt
and sandals, and what seemed to be buskins. Why, too, among all the
countless stories of visions that I have gathered in Ireland, or that
a friend has gathered for me, are there none that mix the dress of
different periods? The seers when they are but speaking from tradition
will mix everything together, and speak of Finn mac Cool going to the
Assizes at Cork. Almost every one who has ever busied himself with such
matters has come, in trance or dream, upon some new and strange symbol
or event, which he has afterwards found in some work he had never read
or heard of. Examples like this are as yet too little classified, too
little analyzed, to convince the stranger, but some of them are proof
enough for those they have happened to, proof that there is a memory of
nature that reveals events and symbols of distant centuries. Mystics
of many countries and many centuries have spoken of this memory; and
the honest men and charlatans, who keep the magical traditions which
will some day be studied as a part of folk-lore, base most that is
of importance in their claims upon this memory. I have read of it in
Paracelsus and in some Indian book that describes the people of past
days as still living within it, ‘Thinking the thought and doing the
deed.’ And I have found it in the prophetic books of William Blake, who
calls its images ‘the bright sculptures of Los’s Halls’; and says that
all events, ‘all love stories,’ renew themselves from those images. It
is perhaps well that so few believe in it, for if many did many would
go out of parliaments and universities and libraries and run into the
wilderness to so waste the body, and to so hush the unquiet mind that,
still living, they might pass the doors the dead pass daily; for who
among the wise would trouble himself with making laws or in writing
history or in weighing the earth if the things of eternity seemed ready
to hand?


I find in my diary of magical events for 1899 that I awoke at 3 A.M.
out of a nightmare, and imagined one symbol to prevent its recurrence,
and imagined another, a simple geometrical form, which calls up dreams
of luxuriant vegetable life, that I might have pleasant dreams. I
imagined it faintly, being very sleepy, and went to sleep. I had
confused dreams which seemed to have no relation with the symbol. I
awoke about eight, having for the time forgotten both nightmare and
symbol. Presently I dozed off again and began half to dream and half
to see, as one does between sleep and waking, enormous flowers and
grapes. I awoke and recognized that what I had dreamed or seen was the
kind of thing appropriate to the symbol before I remembered having
used it. I find another record, though made some time after the event,
of having imagined over the head of a person, who was a little of a
seer, a combined symbol of elemental air and elemental water. This
person, who did not know what symbol I was using, saw a pigeon flying
with a lobster in his bill. I find that on December 13, 1898, I used a
certain star-shaped symbol with a seeress, getting her to look at it
intently before she began seeing. She saw a rough stone house, and in
the middle of the house the skull of a horse. I find that I had used
the same symbol a few days before with a seer, and that he had seen
a rough stone house, and in the middle of the house something under
a cloth marked with the Hammer of Thor. He had lifted the cloth and
discovered a skeleton of gold with teeth of diamonds, and eyes of some
unknown dim precious stones. I had made a note to this last vision,
pointing out that we had been using a Solar symbol a little earlier.
Solar symbols often call up visions of gold and precious stones. I
do not give these examples to prove my arguments, but to illustrate
them. I know that my examples will awaken in all who have not met the
like, or who are not on other grounds inclined towards my arguments,
a most natural incredulity. It was long before I myself would admit
an inherent power in symbols, for it long seemed to me that one could
account for everything by the power of one imagination over another,
telepathy as it is called with that separation of knowledge and life,
of word and emotion, which is the sterility of scientific speech.
The symbol seemed powerful, I thought, merely because we thought it
powerful, and we would do just as well without it. In those days I used
symbols made with some ingenuity instead of merely imagining them. I
used to give them to the person I was experimenting with, and tell him
to hold them to his forehead without looking at them; and sometimes I
made a mistake. I learned from these mistakes that if I did not myself
imagine the symbol, in which case he would have a mixed vision, it
was the symbol I gave by mistake that produced the vision. Then I met
with a seer who could say to me, ‘I have a vision of a square pond,
but I can see your thought, and you expect me to see an oblong pond,’
or ‘The symbol you are imagining has made me see a woman holding a
crystal, but it was a moonlight sea I should have seen.’ I discovered
that the symbol hardly ever failed to call up its typical scene, its
typical event, its typical person, but that I could practically never
call up, no matter how vividly I imagined it, the particular scene, the
particular event, the particular person I had in my own mind, and that
when I could, the two visions rose side by side.

I cannot now think symbols less than the greatest of all powers
whether they are used consciously by the masters of magic, or half
unconsciously by their successors, the poet, the musician and the
artist. At first I tried to distinguish between symbols and symbols,
between what I called inherent symbols and arbitrary symbols, but the
distinction has come to mean little or nothing. Whether their power
has arisen out of themselves, or whether it has an arbitrary origin,
matters little, for they act, as I believe, because the great memory
associates them with certain events and moods and persons. Whatever
the passions of man have gathered about, becomes a symbol in the great
memory, and in the hands of him who has the secret, it is a worker of
wonders, a caller-up of angels or of devils. The symbols are of all
kinds, for everything in heaven or earth has its association, momentous
or trivial, in the great memory, and one never knows what forgotten
events may have plunged it, like the toadstool and the ragweed, into
the great passions. Knowledgeable men and women in Ireland sometimes
distinguish between the simples that work cures by some medical
property in the herb, and those that do their work by magic. Such
magical simples as the husk of the flax, water out of the fork of an
elm-tree, do their work, as I think, by awaking in the depths of the
mind where it mingles with the great mind, and is enlarged by the great
memory, some curative energy, some hypnotic command. They are not what
we call faith cures, for they have been much used and successfully,
the traditions of all lands affirm, over children and over animals,
and to me they seem the only medicine that could have been committed
safely to ancient hands. To pluck the wrong leaf would have been to go
uncured, but, if one had eaten it, one might have been poisoned.


I have now described that belief in magic which has set me all but
unwilling among those lean and fierce minds who are at war with their
time, who cannot accept the days as they pass, simply and gladly; and
I look at what I have written with some alarm, for I have told more
of the ancient secret than many among my fellow-students think it
right to tell. I have come to believe so many strange things because
of experience, that I see little reason to doubt the truth of many
things that are beyond my experience; and it may be that there are
beings who watch over that ancient secret, as all tradition affirms,
and resent, and perhaps avenge, too fluent speech. They say in the
Aran Islands that if you speak overmuch of the things of Faery your
tongue becomes like a stone, and it seems to me, though doubtless
naturalistic reason would call it Auto-suggestion or the like, that I
have often felt my tongue become just so heavy and clumsy. More than
once, too, as I wrote this very essay I have become uneasy, and have
torn up some paragraph, not for any literary reason, but because some
incident or some symbol that would perhaps have meant nothing to the
reader, seemed, I know not why, to belong to hidden things. Yet I must
write or be of no account to any cause, good or evil; I must commit
what merchandise of wisdom I have to this ship of written speech, and
after all, I have many a time watched it put out to sea with not less
alarm when all the speech was rhyme. We who write, we who bear witness,
must often hear our hearts cry out against us, complaining because
of their hidden things, and I know not but he who speaks of wisdom
may not sometimes in the change that is coming upon the world, have
to fear the anger of the people of Faery, whose country is the heart
of the world—‘The Land of the Living Heart.’ Who can keep always to
the little pathway between speech and silence, where one meets none
but discreet revelations? And surely, at whatever risk, we must cry
out that imagination is always seeking to remake the world according
to the impulses and the patterns in that great Mind, and that great
Memory? Can there be anything so important as to cry out that what we
call romance, poetry, intellectual beauty, is the only signal that the
supreme Enchanter, or some one in His councils, is speaking of what has
been, and shall be again, in the consummation of time?




ROSSETTI in one of his letters numbers his favourite colours in the
order of his favour, and throughout his work one feels that he loved
form and colour for themselves and apart from what they represent. One
feels sometimes that he desired a world of essences, of unmixed powers,
of impossible purities. It is as though the last judgment had already
begun in his mind and that the essences and powers, which the divine
hand had mixed into one another to make the loam of life, fell asunder
at his touch. If he painted a flame or a blue distance, he painted as
though he had seen the flame out of whose heart all flames had been
taken, or the blue of the abyss that was before all life; and if he
painted a woman’s face he painted it in some moment of intensity when
the ecstasy of the lover and of the saint are alike, and desire becomes
wisdom without ceasing to be desire. He listens to the cry of the flesh
till it becomes proud and passes beyond the world where some immense
desire that the intellect cannot understand mixes with the desire of a
body’s warmth and softness. His genius like Shelley’s can hardly stir
but to the rejection of nature, whose delight is profusion, but never
intensity, and like Shelley’s it follows the Star of the Magi, the
Morning and Evening Star, the mother of impossible hope, although it
follows through deep woods, where the star glimmers among dew-drenched
boughs and not through ‘a windswept valley of the Apennine.’ Men like
him cannot be happy as we understand happiness, for to be happy one
must delight like nature in mere profusion, in mere abundance, in
making and doing things, and if one sets an image of the perfect before
one it must be the image that draws her perpetually, the image of a
perfect fulness of natural life, of an Earthly Paradise. One’s emotion
must never break the bonds of life, one’s hands must never labour to
loosen the silver cord, one’s ears must never strain to catch the sound
of Michael’s trumpet. That is to say, one must not be among those that
would have prayed in old times in some chapel of the Star, but among
those who would have prayed under the shadow of the Green Tree, and on
the wet stones of the Well, among the worshippers of natural abundance.


I do not think it was accident, so subtle are the threads that lead the
soul, that made William Morris, who seems to me to be the one perfectly
happy and fortunate poet of modern times, celebrate the Green Tree and
the goddess Habundia, and wells and enchanted waters in so many books.
In _The Well at the World’s End_ green trees and enchanted waters are
shown to us, as they were understood by old writers, who thought that
the generation of all things was through water; for when the water that
gives a long and fortunate life and that can be found by none but such
a one as all women love is found at last, the Dry Tree, the image of
the ruined land, becomes green. To him indeed as to older writers Well
and Tree are all but images of the one thing, of an ‘energy’ that is
not the less ‘eternal delight’ because it is half of the body. He never
wrote, and could not have written, of a man or woman who was not of the
kin of Well or Tree. Long before he had named either he had made his
‘Wanderers’ follow a dream indeed, but a dream of natural happiness,
and all the people of all his poems and stories from the confused
beginning of his art in _The Hollow Land_ to its end in _The Sundering
Flood_, are full of the heavy sweetness of this dream. He wrote indeed
of nothing but of the quest of the Grail, but it was the Heathen Grail
that gave every man his chosen food, and not the Grail of Malory or
Wagner; and he came at last to praise, as other men have praised the
martyrs of religion or of passion, men with lucky eyes and men whom all
women love.

We know so little of man and of the world that we cannot be certain
that the same invisible hands, that gave him an imagination preoccupied
with good fortune, gave him also health and wealth, and the power to
create beautiful things without labour, that he might honour the Green
Tree. It pleases me to imagine the copper mine which brought, as Mr.
Mackail has told, so much unforeseen wealth and in so astonishing a
way, as no less miraculous than the three arrows in _The Sundering
Flood_. No mighty poet in his misery dead could have delighted enough
to make us delight in men ‘who knew no vain desire of foolish fame,’
but who thought the dance upon ‘the stubble field’ and ‘the battle
with the earth’ better than ‘the bitter war’ ‘where right and wrong
are mixed together.’ ‘Oh the trees, the trees!’ he wrote in one of his
early letters, and it was his work to make us, who had been taught to
sympathize with the unhappy till we had grown morbid, to sympathize
with men and women who turned everything into happiness because they
had in them something of the abundance of the beechen boughs or of the
bursting wheat-ear. He alone, I think, has told the story of Alcestis
with perfect sympathy for Admetus, with so perfect a sympathy that he
cannot persuade himself that one so happy died at all; and he, unlike
all other poets, has delighted to tell us that the men after his own
heart, the men of his _News from Nowhere_, sorrowed but a little while
over unhappy love. He cannot even think of nobility and happiness
apart, for all his people are like his men of Burg Dale who lived ‘in
much plenty and ease of life, though not delicately or desiring things
out of measure. They wrought with their hands and wearied themselves;
and they rested from their toil and feasted and were merry; to-morrow
was not a burden to them, nor yesterday a thing which they would fain
forget; life shamed them not nor did death make them afraid. As for the
Dale wherein they dwelt, it was indeed most fair and lovely and they
deemed it the Blessing of the earth, and they trod the flowery grass
beside its rippled stream amidst the green tree-boughs proudly and
joyfully with goodly bodies and merry hearts.’


I think of his men as with broad brows and golden beards and mild eyes
and tranquil speech, and of his good women as like ‘The Bride’ in
whose face Rossetti saw and painted for once the abundance of earth
and not the half-hidden light of his star. They are not in love with
love for its own sake, with a love that is apart from the world or at
enmity with it, as Swinburne imagines Mary Stuart and as all men have
imagined Helen. They do not seek in love that ecstasy, which Shelley’s
nightingale called death, that extremity of life in which life seems
to pass away like the Phœnix in flame of its own lighting, but rather
a gentle self-surrender that would lose more than half its sweetness
if it lost the savour of coming days. They are good house-wives; they
sit often at the embroidery frame, and they have wisdom in flocks and
herds and they are before all fruitful mothers. It seems at times as
if their love was less a passion for one man out of the world than
submission to the hazard of destiny, and the hope of motherhood and the
innocent desire of the body. They accept changes and chances of life
as gladly as they accept spring and summer and autumn and winter, and
because they have sat under the shadow of the Green Tree and drunk the
Waters of Abundance out of their hollow hands, the barren blossoms do
not seem to them the most beautiful. When Habundia takes the shape of
Birdalone she comes first as a young naked girl standing among great
trees, and then as an old carline, Birdalone in stately old age. And
when she praises Birdalone’s naked body, and speaks of the desire it
shall awaken, praise and desire are innocent because they would not
break the links that chain the days to one another. The desire seems
not other than the desire of the bird for its mate in the heart of the
wood, and we listen to that joyous praise as though a bird watching its
plumage in still water had begun to sing in its joy, or as if we heard
hawk praising hawk in the middle air, and because it is the praise of
one made for all noble life and not for pleasure only, it seems, though
it is the praise of the body, that it is the noblest praise.

Birdalone has never seen her image but in ‘a broad latten dish,’ so the
wood woman must tell her of her body and praise it.

‘Thus it is with thee; thou standest before me a tall and slim maiden,
somewhat thin as befitteth thy seventeen summers; where thy flesh
is bare of wont, as thy throat and thine arms and thy legs from the
middle down, it is tanned a beauteous colour, but otherwhere it is
even as fair a white, wholesome and clean as if the golden sunlight
which fulfilleth the promise of the earth were playing therein....
Delicate and clean-made is the little trench that goeth from thy mouth
to thy lips, and sweet it is, and there is more might in it than sweet
words spoken. Thy lips they are of the finest fashion, yet rather thin
than full; and some would not have it so; but I would, whereas I see
therein a sign of thy valiancy and friendliness. Surely he who did thy
carven chin had a mind to a master work and did no less. Great was the
deftness of thine imaginer, and he would have all folk who see thee
wonder at thy deep thinking and thy carefulness and thy kindness. Ah,
maiden! is it so that thy thoughts are ever deep and solemn? Yet at
least I know it of thee that they be hale and true and sweet.

‘My friend, when thou hast a mirror, some of all this thou shalt see,
but not all; and when thou hast a lover some deal wilt thou hear, but
not all. But now thy she-friend may tell it thee all, if she have eyes
to see it, as have I; whereas no man could say so much of thee before
the mere love should overtake him, and turn his speech into the folly
of love and the madness of desire.’

All his good women, whether it is Danaë in her tower, or that woman in
_The Wood beyond the World_ who can make the withered flowers in her
girdle grow young again by the touch of her hand, are of the kin of the
wood woman. All his bad women too and his half-bad women are of her
kin. The evils their enchantments make are a disordered abundance like
that of weedy places and they are as cruel as wild creatures are cruel
and they have unbridled desires. One finds these evils in their typical
shape in that isle of the Wondrous Isles, where the wicked witch has
her pleasure-house and her prison, and in that ‘isle of the old and the
young,’ where until her enchantment is broken second childhood watches
over children who never grow old and who seem to the bystander who
knows their story ‘like images’ or like ‘the rabbits on the grass.’ It
is as though Nature spoke through him at all times in the mood that is
upon her when she is opening the apple-blossom or reddening the apple
or thickening the shadow of the boughs, and that the men and women of
his verse and of his stories are all the ministers of her mood.


When I was a child I often heard my elders talking of an old turreted
house where an old great-uncle of mine lived, and of its gardens and
its long pond where there was an island with tame eagles; and one day
somebody read me some verses and said they made him think of that old
house where he had been very happy. The verses ran in my head for years
and became to me the best description of happiness in the world, and
I am not certain that I know a better even now. They were those first
dozen verses of _Golden Wings_ that begin—

   ‘Midways of a walled garden
      In the happy poplar land
      Did an ancient castle stand,
    With an old knight for a warden.

    Many scarlet bricks there were
      In its walls, and old grey stone;
      Over which red apples shone
    At the right time of the year.

    On the bricks the green moss grew,
      Yellow lichen on the stone,
      Over which red apples shone;
    Little war that castle knew.’

When William Morris describes a house of any kind, and makes his
description poetical, it is always, I think, some house that he would
have liked to have lived in, and I remember him saying about the time
when he was writing of that great house of the Wolfings, ‘I decorate
modern houses for people, but the house that would please me would be
some great room where one talked to one’s friends in one corner and eat
in another and slept in another and worked in another.’ Indeed all he
writes seems to me like the make-believe of a child who is remaking the
world, not always in the same way, but always after his own heart; and
so unlike all other modern writers he makes his poetry out of unending
pictures of a happiness that is often what a child might imagine, and
always a happiness that sets mind and body at ease. Now it is a picture
of some great room full of merriment, now of the wine-press, now of
the golden threshing-floor, now of an old mill among apple-trees, now
of cool water after the heat of the sun, now of some well-sheltered,
well-tilled place among woods or mountains, where men and women live
happily, knowing of nothing that is too far off or too great for the
affections. He has but one story to tell us, how some man or woman lost
and found again the happiness that is always half of the body; and
even when they are wandering from it, leaves must fall over them, and
flowers make fragrances about them, and warm winds fan them, and birds
sing to them, for being of Habundia’s kin they must not forget the
shadow of her Green Tree even for a moment, and the waters of her Well
must be always wet upon their sandals. His poetry often wearies us as
the unbroken green of July wearies us, for there is something in us,
some bitterness because of the Fall it may be, that takes a little from
the sweetness of Eve’s apple after the first mouthful; but he who did
all things gladly and easily, who never knew the curse of labour, found
it always as sweet as it was in Eve’s mouth. All kinds of associations
have gathered about the pleasant things of the world and half taken the
pleasure out of them for the greater number of men, but he saw them as
when they came from the Divine Hand. I often see him in my mind as I
saw him once at Hammersmith holding up a glass of claret towards the
light and saying, ‘Why do people say it is prosaic to get inspiration
out of wine? Is it not the sunlight and the sap in the leaves? Are not
grapes made by the sunlight and the sap?’


In one of his little socialistic pamphlets he tells us how he sat
under an elm-tree and watched the starlings and thought of an old
horse and an old labourer that had passed him by, and of the men and
women he had seen in towns; and he wondered how all these had come to
be as they were. He saw that the starlings were beautiful and merry
and that men and the old horse they had subdued to their service were
ugly and miserable, and yet the starlings, he thought, were of one
kind whether there or in the south of England, and the ugly men and
women were of one kind with those whose nobility and beauty had moved
the ancient sculptors and poets to imagine the gods and the heroes
after the images of men. Then he began, he tells us, to meditate how
this great difference might be ended and a new life, which would
permit men to have beauty in common among them as the starlings have,
be built on the wrecks of the old life. In other words, his mind was
illuminated from within and lifted into prophecy in the full right
sense of the word, and he saw the natural things he was alone gifted
to see in their perfect form; and having that faith which is alone
worth having, for it includes all others, a sure knowledge established
in the constitution of his mind that perfect things are final things,
he announced that all he had seen would come to pass. I do not think
he troubled to understand books of economics, and Mr. Mackail says,
I think, that they vexed him and wearied him. He found it enough to
hold up, as it were, life as it is to-day beside his visions, and to
show how faded its colours were and how sapless it was. And if we had
not enough artistic feeling, enough feeling for the perfect that is,
to admit the authority of the vision; or enough faith to understand
that all that is imperfect passes away, he would not, as I think, have
argued with us in a serious spirit. Though I think that he never used
the kinds of words I use in writing of him, though I think he would
even have disliked a word like faith with its theological associations,
I am certain that he understood thoroughly, as all artists understand
a little, that the important things, the things we must believe in or
perish, are beyond argument. We can no more reason about them than
can the pigeon, come but lately from the egg, about the hawk whose
shadow makes it cower among the grass. His vision is true because it
is poetical, because we are a little happier when we are looking at
it; and he knew as Shelley knew by an act of faith that the economists
should take their measurements not from life as it is, but from the
vision of the world made perfect that is buried under all minds. The
early Christians were of the kin of the Wilderness and of the Dry Tree,
and they saw an unearthly Paradise, but he was of the kin of the Well
and of the Green Tree and he saw an Earthly Paradise.

He obeyed his vision when he tried to make first his own house, for he
was in this matter also like a child playing with the world, and then
houses of other people, places where one could live happily; and he
obeyed it when he wrote essays about the nature of happy work, and when
he spoke at street corners about the coming changes.

He knew clearly what he was doing towards the end, for he lived at a
time when poets and artists have begun again to carry the burdens that
priests and theologians took from them angrily some few hundred years
ago. His art was not more essentially religious than Rossetti’s art,
but it was different, for Rossetti, drunken with natural beauty, saw
the supernatural beauty, the impossible beauty, in his frenzy, while he
being less intense and more tranquil would show us a beauty that would
wither if it did not set us at peace with natural things, and if we did
not believe that it existed always a little, and would some day exist
in its fulness. He may not have been, indeed he was not, among the
very greatest of the poets, but he was among the greatest of those who
prepare the last reconciliation when the Cross shall blossom with roses.




WHEN I was a boy in Dublin I was one of a group who rented a room in
a mean street to discuss philosophy. My fellow-students got more and
more interested in certain modern schools of mystical belief, and I
never found anybody to share my one unshakable belief. I thought that
whatever of philosophy has been made poetry is alone permanent, and
that one should begin to arrange it in some regular order, rejecting
nothing as the make-believe of the poets. I thought, so far as I can
recollect my thoughts after so many years, that if a powerful and
benevolent spirit has shaped the destiny of this world, we can better
discover that destiny from the words that have gathered up the heart’s
desire of the world, than from historical records, or from speculation,
wherein the heart withers. Since then I have observed dreams and
visions very carefully, and am now certain that the imagination has
some way of lighting on the truth that the reason has not, and that its
commandments, delivered when the body is still and the reason silent,
are the most binding we can ever know. I have re-read _Prometheus
Unbound_, which I had hoped my fellow-students would have studied as a
sacred book, and it seems to me to have an even more certain place than
I had thought, among the sacred books of the world. I remember going
to a learned scholar to ask about its deep meanings, which I felt more
than understood, and his telling me that it was Godwin’s _Political
Justice_ put into rhyme, and that Shelley was a crude revolutionist,
and believed that the overturning of kings and priests would regenerate
mankind. I quoted the lines which tell how the halcyons ceased to
prey on fish, and how poisonous leaves became good for food, to show
that he foresaw more than any political regeneration, but was too
timid to push the argument. I still believe that one cannot help
believing him, as this scholar I know believes him, a vague thinker,
who mixed occasional great poetry with a phantastic rhetoric, unless
one compares such passages, and above all such passages as describe
the liberty he praised, till one has discovered the system of belief
that lay behind them. It should seem natural to find his thought full
of subtlety, for Mrs. Shelley has told how he hesitated whether he
should be a metaphysician or a poet, and has spoken of his ‘huntings
after the obscure’ with regret, and said of that _Prometheus Unbound_,
which so many for three generations have thought _Political Justice_
put into rhyme, ‘It requires a mind as subtle and penetrating as his
own to understand the mystic meanings scattered throughout the poem.
They elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of
distinction, but they are far from vague. It was his design to write
prose metaphysical essays on the Nature of Man, which would have served
to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry; a few scattered
fragments of observation and remarks alone remain. He considered
these philosophical views of mind and nature to be instinct with
the intensest spirit of poetry.’ From these scattered fragments and
observations, and from many passages read in their light, one soon
comes to understand that his liberty was so much more than the liberty
of _Political Justice_ that it was one with Intellectual Beauty, and
that the regeneration he foresaw was so much more than the regeneration
many political dreamers have foreseen, that it could not come in its
perfection till the hours bore ‘Time to his grave in eternity.’ In _A
Defence of Poetry_, the profoundest essay on the foundation of poetry
in English, he shows that the poet and the lawgiver hold their station
by the right of the same faculty, the one uttering in words and the
other in the forms of society, his vision of the divine order, the
Intellectual Beauty. ‘Poets, according to the circumstances of the age
and nation in which they appeared, were called in the earliest epoch
of the world legislators or prophets, and a poet essentially comprises
and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely
the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which
present things are to be ordained, but he beholds the future in the
present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flowers and the fruit of
latest time.’ ‘Language, colour, form, and religious and civil habits
of action are all the instruments and materials of poetry.’ Poetry
is ‘the creation of actions according to the unchangeable process of
human nature as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself
the image of all other minds.’ ‘Poets have been challenged to resign
the civic crown to reasoners and merchants.... It is admitted that
the exercise of the imagination is the most delightful, but it is
alleged that that of reason is the more useful.... Whilst the mechanist
abridges and the political economist combines labour, let them be sure
that their speculations, for want of correspondence with those first
principles which belong to the imagination, do not tend, as they have
in modern England, to exasperate at once the extremes of luxury and
want.... The rich have become richer, the poor have become poorer, ...
such are the effects which must ever flow from an unmitigated exercise
of the calculating faculty.’ The speaker of these things might almost
be Blake, who held that the Reason not only created Ugliness, but all
other evils. The books of all wisdom are hidden in the cave of the
Witch of Atlas, who is one of his personifications of beauty, and when
she moves over the enchanted river that is an image of all life, the
priests cast aside their deceits, and the king crowns an ape to mock
his own sovereignty, and the soldiers gather about the anvils to beat
their swords to ploughshares, and lovers cast away their timidity, and
friends are united; while the power which in _Laon and Cythna_ awakens
the mind of the reformer to contend, and itself contends, against the
tyrannies of the world, is first seen as the star of love or beauty.
And at the end of _The Ode to Naples_, he cries out to ‘the spirit of
beauty’ to overturn the tyrannies of the world, or to fill them with
its ‘harmonizing ardours.’ He calls the spirit of beauty liberty,
because despotism, and perhaps, as ‘the man of virtuous soul commands
not nor obeys,’ all authority, pluck virtue from her path towards
beauty, and because it leads us by that love whose service is perfect
freedom. It leads all things by love, for he cries again and again
that love is the perception of beauty in thought and things, and it
orders all things by love, for it is love that impels the soul to its
expressions in thought and in action, by making us ‘seek to awaken
in all things that are, a community with what we experience within
ourselves.’ ‘We are born into the world, and there is something within
us which, from the instant that we live, more and more thirsts after
its likeness.’ We have ‘a soul within our soul that describes a circle
around its proper paradise which pain and sorrow and evil dare not
overleap,’ and we labour to see this soul in many mirrors, that we may
possess it the more abundantly. He would hardly seek the progress of
the world by any less gentle labour, and would hardly have us resist
evil itself. He bids the reformers in _The Philosophical Review of
Reform_ receive ‘the onset of the cavalry,’ if it be sent to disperse
their meetings, ‘with folded arms,’ and ‘not because active resistance
is not justifiable, but because temperance and courage would produce
greater advantages than the most decisive victory;’ and he gives them
like advice in _The Masque of Anarchy_, for liberty, the poem cries,
‘is love,’ and can make the rich man kiss its feet, and, like those who
followed Christ, give away his goods and follow it throughout the world.

He does not believe that the reformation of society can bring this
beauty, this divine order, among men without the regeneration of the
hearts of men. Even in _Queen Mab_, which was written before he had
found his deepest thought, or rather perhaps before he had found words
to utter it, for I do not think men change much in their deepest
thought, he is less anxious to change men’s beliefs, as I think, than
to cry out against that serpent more subtle than any beast of the
field, ‘the cause and the effect of tyranny.’ He affirms again and
again that the virtuous, those who have ‘pure desire and universal
love,’ are happy in the midst of tyranny, and he foresees a day when
‘the spirit of nature,’ the spirit of beauty of his later poems, who
has her ‘throne of power unappealable in every human heart,’ shall
have made men so virtuous that ‘kingly glare will lose its power to
dazzle and silently pass by,’ and as it seems commerce, ‘the venal
interchange of all that human art or nature yields, which wealth should
purchase not,’ come as silently to an end.

He was always, indeed in chief, a witness for that ‘power
unappealable.’ Maddalo, in _Julian and Maddalo_, says that the soul is
powerless, and can only, like a ‘dreary bell hung in a heaven-illumined
tower, toll our thoughts and our desires to meet round the rent heart
and pray;’ but Julian, who is Shelley himself, replies, as the makers
of all religions have replied—

   ‘Where is the love, beauty and truth we seek
    But in our mind? And if we were not weak,
    Should we be less in deed than in desire?’

while _Mont Blanc_ is an intricate analogy to affirm that the soul has
its sources in ‘the secret strength of things,’ ‘which governs thought
and to the infinite heavens is a law.’ He even thought that men might
be immortal were they sinless, and his Cythna bids the sailors be
without remorse, for all that live are stained as they are. It is thus,
she says, that time marks men and their thoughts for the tomb. And the
‘Red Comet,’ the image of evil in _Laon and Cythna_, when it began its
war with the star of beauty, brought not only ‘Fear, Hatred, Fraud and
Tyranny,’ but ‘Death, Decay, Earthquake, and Blight and Madness pale.’

When the Red Comet is conquered, when Jupiter is overthrown by
Demogorgon, when the prophecy of Queen Mab is fulfilled, visible
nature will put on perfection again. He declares, in one of the notes
to _Queen Mab_, that ‘there is no great extravagance in presuming ...
that there should be a perfect identity between the moral and physical
improvement of the human species,’ and thinks it ‘certain that wisdom
is not compatible with disease, and that, in the present state of the
climates of the earth, health in the true and comprehensive sense of
the word is out of the reach of civilized man.’ In _Prometheus Unbound_
he sees, as in the ecstasy of a saint, the ships moving among the seas
of the world without fear of danger

                                    ‘by the light
    Of wave-reflected flowers, and floating odours,
    And music soft,’

and poison dying out of the green things, and cruelty out of all living
things, and even the toads and efts becoming beautiful, and at last
Time being borne ‘to his tomb in eternity.’

This beauty, this divine order, whereof all things shall become a part
in a kind of resurrection of the body, is already visible to the dead
and to souls in ecstasy, for ecstasy is a kind of death. The dying
Lionel hears the song of the nightingale, and cries—

   ‘Heardst thou not sweet words among
    That heaven-resounding minstrelsy?
    Heardst thou not, that those who die
    Awake in a world of ecstasy?
    That love, when limbs are interwoven,
    And sleep, when the night of life is cloven,
    And thought, to the world’s dim boundaries clinging,
    And music, when one beloved is singing,
    Is death? Let us drain right joyously
    The cup which the sweet bird fills for me.’

And in the most famous passage in all his poetry he sings of Death as
of a mistress. ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, stains the
white radiance of eternity.’ ‘Die, if thou wouldst be with that which
thou wouldst seek;’ and he sees his own soon-coming death in a rapture
of prophecy, for ‘the fire for which all thirst’ beams upon him,
‘consuming the last clouds of cold mortality.’ When he is dead he will
still influence the living, for though Adonais has fled ‘to the burning
fountains whence he came,’ and ‘is a portion of the eternal which must
glow through time and change unquenchably the same,’ and has ‘awaked
from the dream of life,’ he has not gone from ‘the young dawn,’ or the
‘caverns in the forests,’ or ‘the faint flowers and the fountains.’ He
has been ‘made one with nature,’ and his voice is ‘heard in all her
music,’ and his presence is felt wherever ‘that power may move which
has withdrawn his being to its own,’ and he bears ‘his part’ when it is
compelling mortal things to their appointed forms, and he overshadows
men’s minds at their supreme moments, for

                    ‘when lofty thought
    Lifts a young heart above its mortal lair,
    And love and life contend in it for what
    Shall be its earthly doom, the dead live there,
    And move like winds of light on dark and stormy air.’

‘Of his speculations as to what will befall this inestimable spirit
when we appear to die,’ Mrs. Shelley has written, ‘a mystic ideality
tinged these speculations in Shelley’s mind; certain stanzas in the
poem of _The Sensitive Plant_ express, in some degree, the almost
inexpressible idea, not that we die into another state, when this
state is no longer, from some reason, unapparent as well as apparent,
accordant with our being—but that those who rise above the ordinary
nature of man, fade from before our imperfect organs; they remain in
their “love, beauty, and delight,” in a world congenial to them, and
we, clogged by “error, ignorance, and strife,” see them not till we
are fitted by purification and improvement to their higher state.’ Not
merely happy souls, but all beautiful places and movements and gestures
and events, when we think they have ceased to be, have become portions
of the eternal.

                    ‘In this life
    Of error, ignorance, and strife,
    Where nothing is, but all things seem,
    And we the shadow of the dream,

    It is a modest creed, and yet
    Pleasant, if one considers it,
    To own that death itself must be,
    Like all the rest, a mockery.

    That garden sweet, that lady fair,
    And all sweet shapes and odours there,
    In truth have never passed away;
    ’Tis we, ’tis ours are changed, not they.

    For love and beauty and delight
    There is no death, nor change; their might
    Exceeds our organs, which endure
    No light, being themselves obscure.’

He seems in his speculations to have lit on that memory of nature the
visionaries claim for the foundation of their knowledge; but I do not
know whether he thought, as they do, that all things good and evil
remain for ever, ‘thinking the thought and doing the deed,’ though
not, it may be, self-conscious; or only thought that ‘love and beauty
and delight’ remain for ever. The passage where Queen Mab awakes ‘all
knowledge of the past,’ and the good and evil ‘events of old and
wondrous times,’ was no more doubtless than a part of the machinery
of the poem, but all the machineries of poetry are parts of the
convictions of antiquity, and readily become again convictions in minds
that dwell upon them in a spirit of intense idealism.

Intellectual Beauty has not only the happy dead to do her will, but
ministering spirits who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the
Elemental Spirits of mediæval Europe, and the Sidhe of ancient Ireland,
and whose too constant presence, and perhaps Shelley’s ignorance
of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of
rootless phantasy. They change continually in his poetry, as they do
in the visions of the mystics everywhere and of the common people in
Ireland, and the forms of these changes display, in an especial sense,
the glowing forms of his mind when freed from all impulse not out of
itself or out of supersensual power. These are ‘gleams of a remoter
world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are
the delights of all the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal
silence,’ ‘visions swift and sweet and quaint,’ which lie waiting their
moment ‘each in his thin sheath like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among
‘ever-blooming eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or
can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to
the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms
of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’
‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’
who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘the birds within the
wind, or the fish within the wave,’ or man’s thought itself through all
things; and who join the throng of the happy hours when Time is passing

         ‘As the flying fish leap
          From the Indian deep,
    And mix with the seabirds half asleep.’

It is these powers which lead Asia and Panthea, as they would lead all
the affections of humanity, by words written upon leaves, by faint
songs, by eddies of echoes that draw ‘all spirits on that secret
way,’ by the ‘dying odours’ of flowers and by ‘the sunlight of the
sphered dew,’ beyond the gates of birth and death to awake Demogorgon,
eternity, that ‘the painted veil called life’ may be ‘torn aside.’

There are also ministers of ugliness and all evil, like those that came
to Prometheus—

   ‘As from the rose which the pale priestess kneels
    To gather for her festal crown of flowers,
    The aërial crimson falls, flushing her cheek,
    So from our victim’s destined agony
    The shade which is our form invests us round;
    Else we are shapeless as our mother Night.’

Or like those whose shapes the poet sees in _The Triumph of Life_,
coming from the procession that follows the car of life, as ‘hope’
changes to ‘desire,’ shadows ‘numerous as the dead leaves blown in
autumn evening from a poplar tree’; and resembling those they come
from, until, if I understand an obscure phrase aright, they are
‘wrapt’ round ‘all the busy phantoms that live there as the sun shapes
the clouds.’ Some to sit ‘chattering like apes,’ and some like ‘old
anatomies’ ‘hatching their bare broods under the shade of dæmons’
wings,’ laughing ‘to reassume the delegated powers’ they had given to
the tyrants of the earth, and some ‘like small gnats and flies’ to
throng ‘about the brow of lawyers, statesmen, priest and theorist,’
and some ‘like discoloured shapes of snow’ to fall ‘on fairest bosoms
and the sunniest hair,’ to be ‘melted by the youthful glow which
they extinguish,’ and many to ‘fling shadows of shadows yet unlike
themselves,’ shadows that are shaped into new forms by that ‘creative
ray’ in which all move like motes.

These ministers of beauty and ugliness were certainly more than
metaphors or picturesque phrases to one who believed the ‘thoughts
which are called real or external objects’ differed but in regularity
of recurrence from ‘hallucinations, dreams, and the ideas of madness,’
and lessened this difference by telling how he had dreamed ‘three
several times, between intervals of two or more years, the same precise
dream,’ and who had seen images with the mind’s eye that left his
nerves shaken for days together. Shadows that were as when there

    A flock of vampire bats before the glare
    Of the tropic sun, bringing, ere evening,
    Strange night upon some Indian isle,’

could not but have had more than a metaphorical and picturesque being
to one who had spoken in terror with an image of himself, and who had
fainted at the apparition of a woman with eyes in her breasts, and who
had tried to burn down a wood, if we can trust Mrs. Williams’ account,
because he believed a devil, who had first tried to kill him, had
sought refuge there.

It seems to me, indeed, that Shelley had reawakened in himself the age
of faith, though there were times when he would doubt, as even the
saints have doubted, and that he was a revolutionist, because he had
heard the commandment, ‘If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye
do them.’ I have re-read his _Prometheus Unbound_ for the first time
for many years, in the woods of Drim-da-rod, among the Echte hills,
and sometimes I have looked towards Slieve-nan-Orr, where the country
people say the last battle of the world shall be fought till the third
day, when a priest shall lift a chalice, and the thousand years of
peace begin. And I think this mysterious song utters a faith as simple
and as ancient as the faith of those country people, in a form suited
to a new age, that will understand with Blake that the holy spirit is
‘an intellectual fountain,’ and that the kinds and degrees of beauty
are the images of its authority.


At a comparatively early time Shelley made his imprisoned Cythna become
wise in all human wisdom through the contemplation of her own mind,
and write out this wisdom upon the sands in ‘signs’ that were ‘clear
elemental shapes whose smallest change’ made ‘a subtler language
within language,’ and were ‘the key of truths, which once were dimly
taught in old Crotona.’ His early romances and much throughout his
poetry show how strong a fascination the traditions of magic and of
the magical philosophy had cast over his mind, and one can hardly
suppose that he had not brooded over their doctrine of symbols or
signatures, though I do not find anything to show that he gave it any
deep study. One finds in his poetry, besides innumerable images that
have not the definiteness of symbols, many images that are certainly
symbols, and as the years went by he began to use these with a more
and more deliberately symbolic purpose. I imagine that, when he wrote
his earlier poems he allowed the subconscious life to lay its hands so
firmly upon the rudder of his imagination, that he was little conscious
of the abstract meaning of the images that rose in what seemed the
idleness of his mind. Any one who has any experience of any mystical
state of the soul knows how there float up in the mind profound
symbols,[A] whose meaning, if indeed they do not delude one into the
dream that they are meaningless, one does not perhaps understand for
years. Nor I think has anyone, who has known that experience with any
constancy, failed to find some day in some old book or on some old
monument, a strange or intricate image, that had floated up before
him, and grow perhaps dizzy with the sudden conviction that our little
memories are but a part of some great memory that renews the world and
men’s thoughts age after age, and that our thoughts are not, as we
suppose, the deep but a little foam upon the deep. Shelley understood
this as is proved by what he says of the eternity of beautiful things
and of the influence of the dead, but whether he understood that the
great memory is also a dwelling-house of symbols, of images that are
living souls, I cannot tell. He had certainly experience of all but
the most profound of the mystical states, of that union with created
things which assuredly must precede the soul’s union with the uncreated
spirit. He says, in his fragment of an essay ‘On Life,’ mistaking a
unique experience for the common experience of all: ‘Let us recollect
our sensations as children ... we less habitually distinguished
all that we saw and felt from ourselves. They seemed as it were to
constitute one mass. There are some persons who in this respect are
always children. Those who are subject to the state called reverie,
feel as if their nature were resolved into the surrounding universe, or
as if the surrounding universe were resolved into their being,’ and he
must have expected to receive thoughts and images from beyond his own
mind, just in so far as that mind transcended its preoccupation with
particular time and place, for he believed inspiration a kind of death;
and he could hardly have helped perceiving that an image that has
transcended particular time and place becomes a symbol, passes beyond
death, as it were, and becomes a living soul.

When Shelley went to the Continent with Godwin’s daughter in 1812 they
sailed down certain great rivers in an open boat, and when he summed up
in his preface to _Laon and Cythna_ the things that helped to make him
a poet, he spoke of these voyages: ‘I have sailed down mighty rivers
and seen the sun rise and set and the stars come forth whilst I sailed
night and day down a rapid stream among mountains.’

He may have seen some cave that was the bed of a rivulet by some river
side, or have followed some mountain stream to its source in a cave,
for from his return to England rivers and streams and wells, flowing
through caves or rising in them, came into every poem of his that
was of any length, and always with the precision of symbols. Alastor
passed in his boat along a river in a cave; and when for the last time
he felt the presence of the spirit he loved and followed, it was when
he watched his image in a silent well; and when he died it was where
a river fell into ‘an abysmal chasm’; and the Witch of Atlas in her
gladness, as he in his sadness, passed in her boat along a river in a
cave, and it was where it bubbled out of a cave that she was born; and
when Rousseau, the typical poet of _The Triumph of Life_, awoke to the
vision that was life, it was where a rivulet bubbled out of a cave; and
the poet of _Epipsychidion_ met the evil beauty ‘by a well under blue
nightshade bowers’; and Cythna bore her child imprisoned in a great
cave beside ‘a fountain round and vast, in which the wave imprisoned
leaped and boiled perpetually’; and her lover Laon was brought to
his prison in a high column through a cave where there was ‘a putrid
pool,’ and when he went to see the conquered city he dismounted beside
a polluted fountain in the market-place, foreshadowing thereby that
spirit who at the end of _Prometheus Unbound_ gazes at a regenerated
city from ‘within a fountain in the public square’; and when Laon and
Cythna are dead they awake beside a fountain and drift into Paradise
along a river; and at the end of things Prometheus and Asia are to live
amid a happy world in a cave where a fountain ‘leaps with an awakening
sound’; and it was by a fountain, the meeting-place of certain unhappy
lovers, that Rosalind and Helen told their unhappiness to one another;
and it was under a willow by a fountain that the enchantress and her
lover began their unhappy love; while his lesser poems and his prose
fragments use caves and rivers and wells and fountains continually
as metaphors. It may be that his subconscious life seized upon some
passing scene, and moulded it into an ancient symbol without help from
anything but that great memory; but so good a Platonist as Shelley
could hardly have thought of any cave as a symbol, without thinking
of Plato’s cave that was the world; and so good a scholar may well
have had Porphyry on ‘the Cave of the Nymphs’ in his mind. When I
compare Porphyry’s description of the cave where the Phæacian boat left
Odysseus, with Shelley’s description of the cave of the Witch of Atlas,
to name but one of many, I find it hard to think otherwise. I quote
Taylor’s translation, only putting Mr. Lang’s prose for Taylor’s bad
verse. ‘What does Homer obscurely signify by the cave in Ithaca which
he describes in the following verses? “Now at the harbour’s head is a
long-leaved olive tree, and hard by is a pleasant cave and shadowy,
sacred to the nymphs, that are called Naiads. And therein are mixing
bowls and jars of stone, and there moreover do bees hive. And there are
great looms of stone, whereon the nymphs weave raiment of purple stain,
a marvel to behold; and there are waters welling evermore. Two gates
there are to the cave, the one set towards the North wind, whereby men
may go down, but the portals towards the South pertain rather to the
gods, whereby men may not enter: it is the way of the immortals.”’ He
goes on to argue that the cave was a temple before Homer wrote, and
that ‘the ancients did not establish temples without fabulous symbols,’
and then begins to interpret Homer’s description in all its detail.
The ancients, he says, ‘consecrated a cave to the world’ and held ‘the
flowing waters’ and the ‘obscurity of the cavern’ ‘apt symbols of what
the world contains,’ and he calls to witness Zoroaster’s cave with
fountains; and often caves are, he says, symbols of ‘all invisible
power; because as caves are obscure and dark, so the essence of all
these powers is occult,’ and quotes a lost hymn to Apollo to prove
that nymphs living in caves fed men ‘from intellectual fountains’;
and he contends that fountains and rivers symbolize generation, and
that the word nymph ‘is commonly applied to all souls descending into
generation,’ and that the two gates of Homer’s cave are the gate of
generation and the gate of ascent through death to the gods, the gate
of cold and moisture, and the gate of heat and fire. Cold, he says,
causes life in the world, and heat causes life among the gods, and the
constellation of the Cup is set in the heavens near the sign Cancer,
because it is there that the souls descending from the Milky Way
receive their draught of the intoxicating cold drink of generation.
‘The mixing bowls and jars of stone’ are consecrated to the Naiads,
and are also, as it seems, symbolical of Bacchus, and are of stone
because of the rocky beds of the rivers. And ‘the looms of stone’ are
the symbols of the ‘souls that descend into generation.’ ‘For the
formation of the flesh is on or about the bones, which in the bodies
of animals resemble stones,’ and also because ‘the body is a garment’
not only about the soul, but about all essences that become visible,
for ‘the heavens are called by the ancients a veil, in consequence of
being as it were the vestments of the celestial gods.’ The bees hive
in the mixing bowls and jars of stone, for so Porphyry understands
the passage, because honey was the symbol adopted by the ancients for
‘pleasure arising from generation.’ The ancients, he says, called souls
not only Naiads but bees, ‘as the efficient cause of sweetness’; but
not all souls ‘proceeding into generation’ are called bees, ‘but those
who will live in it justly and who after having performed such things
as are acceptable to the gods will again return (to their kindred
stars). For this insect loves to return to the place from whence it
came and is eminently just and sober.’ I find all these details in the
cave of the Witch of Atlas, the most elaborately described of Shelley’s
caves, except the two gates, and these have a far-off echo in her
summer journeys on her cavern river and in her winter sleep in ‘an
inextinguishable well of crimson fire.’ We have for the mixing bowls,
and jars of stone full of honey, those delights of the senses, ‘sounds
of air’ ‘folded in cells of crystal silences,’ ‘liquors clear and
sweet’ ‘in crystal vials,’ and for the bees, visions ‘each in his thin
sheath like a chrysalis,’ and for ‘the looms of stone’ and ‘raiment
of purple stain’ the Witch’s spinning and embroidering; and the Witch
herself is a Naiad, and was born from one of the Atlantides, who lay
in ‘a chamber of grey rock’ until she was changed by the sun’s embrace
into a cloud.

When one turns to Shelley for an explanation of the cave and fountain
one finds how close his thought was to Porphyry’s. He looked upon
thought as a condition of life in generation and believed that the
reality beyond was something other than thought. He wrote in his
fragment ‘On Life,’ ‘That the basis of all things cannot be, as the
popular philosophy alleges, mind, is sufficiently evident. Mind, as
far as we have any experience of its properties, and beyond that
experience how vain is argument, cannot create, it can only perceive;’
and in another passage he defines mind as existence. Water is his great
symbol of existence, and he continually meditates over its mysterious
source. In his prose he tells how ‘thought can with difficulty visit
the intricate and winding chambers which it inhabits. It is like a
river, whose rapid and perpetual stream flows outward.... The caverns
of the mind are obscure and shadowy; or pervaded with a lustre,
beautiful and bright indeed, but shining not beyond their portals.’
When the Witch has passed in her boat from the caverned river, that is
doubtless her own destiny, she passes along the Nile ‘by Moeris and
the Mareotid lakes,’ and sees all human life shadowed upon its waters
in shadows that ‘never are erased but tremble ever’; and in many a
dark and subterranean street under the Nile—new caverns—and along the
bank of the Nile; and as she bends over the unhappy, she compares
unhappiness to the ‘strife that stirs the liquid surface of man’s
life’; and because she can see the reality of things she is described
as journeying ‘in the calm depths’ of ‘the wide lake’ we journey over
unpiloted. Alastor calls the river that he follows an image of his
mind, and thinks that it will be as hard to say where his thought will
be when he is dead as where its waters will be in ocean or cloud in a
little while. In _Mont Blanc_, a poem so overladen with descriptions
in parentheses that one loses sight of its logic, Shelley compares
the flowing through our mind of ‘the universe of things,’ which are,
he has explained elsewhere, but thoughts, to the flowing of the Arne
through the ravine, and compares the unknown sources of our thoughts
in some ‘remoter world’ whose ‘gleams’ ‘visit the soul in sleep,’ to
Arne’s sources among the glaciers on the mountain heights. Cythna in
the passage where she speaks of making signs ‘a subtle language within
language’ on the sand by the ‘fountain’ of sea water in the cave where
she is imprisoned, speaks of the ‘cave’ of her mind which gave its
secrets to her, and of ‘one mind the type of all’ which is a ‘moveless
wave’ reflecting ‘all moveless things that are;’ and then passing more
completely under the power of the symbol, she speaks of growing wise
through contemplation of the images that rise out of the fountain at
the call of her will. Again and again one finds some passing allusion
to the cave of man’s mind, or to the caves of his youth, or to the
cave of mysteries we enter at death, for to Shelley as to Porphyry it
is more than an image of life in the world. It may mean any enclosed
life, as when it is the dwelling-place of Asia and Prometheus, or when
it is ‘the still cave of poetry,’ and it may have all meanings at once,
or it may have as little meaning as some ancient religious symbol
enwoven from the habit of centuries with the patterns of a carpet or a

As Shelley sailed along those great rivers and saw or imagined the cave
that associated itself with rivers in his mind, he saw half-ruined
towers upon the hilltops, and once at any rate a tower is used to
symbolize a meaning that is the contrary to the meaning symbolized by
caves. Cythna’s lover is brought through the cave where there is a
polluted fountain to a high tower, for being man’s far-seeing mind,
when the world has cast him out he must to the ‘towers of thought’s
crowned powers’; nor is it possible for Shelley to have forgotten
this first imprisonment when he made men imprison Lionel in a tower
for a like offence; and because I know how hard it is to forget a
symbolical meaning, once one has found it, I believe Shelley had more
than a romantic scene in his mind when he made Prince Athanase follow
his mysterious studies in a lighted tower above the sea, and when he
made the old hermit watch over Laon in his sickness in a half-ruined
tower, wherein the sea, here doubtless as to Cythna, ‘the one mind,’
threw ‘spangled sands’ and ‘rarest sea shells.’ The tower, important
in Maeterlinck, as in Shelley, is, like the sea, and rivers, and caves
with fountains, a very ancient symbol, and would perhaps, as years went
by, have grown more important in his poetry. The contrast between
it and the cave in _Laon and Cythna_ suggests a contrast between the
mind looking outward upon men and things and the mind looking inward
upon itself, which may or may not have been in Shelley’s mind, but
certainly helps, with one knows not how many other dim meanings, to
give the poem mystery and shadow. It is only by ancient symbols, by
symbols that have numberless meanings beside the one or two the writer
lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of, that any highly
subjective art can escape from the barrenness and shallowness of a too
conscious arrangement, into the abundance and depth of nature. The poet
of essences and pure ideas must seek in the half-lights that glimmer
from symbol to symbol as if to the ends of the earth, all that the
epic and dramatic poet finds of mystery and shadow in the accidental
circumstance of life.

The most important, the most precise of all Shelley’s symbols, the one
he uses with the fullest knowledge of its meaning, is the Morning and
Evening Star. It rises and sets for ever over the towers and rivers,
and is the throne of his genius. Personified as a woman it leads
Rousseau, the typical poet of _The Triumph of Life_, under the power
of the destroying hunger of life, under the power of the sun that
we shall find presently as a symbol of life, and it is the Morning
Star that wars against the principle of evil in _Laon and Cythna_,
at first as a star with a red comet, here a symbol of all evil as
it is of disorder in _Epipsychidion_, and then as a serpent with an
eagle—symbols in Blake too and in the Alchemists; and it is the Morning
Star that appears as a winged youth to a woman, who typifies humanity
amid its sorrows, in the first canto of _Laon and Cythna_; and it is
invoked by the wailing women of _Hellas_, who call it ‘lamp of the
free’ and ‘beacon of love’ and would go where it hides flying from the
deepening night among those ‘kingless continents sinless as Eden,’ and
‘mountains and islands’ ‘prankt on the sapphire sea’ that are but the
opposing hemispheres to the senses but, as I think, the ideal world,
the world of the dead, to the imagination; and in the _Ode to Liberty_,
Liberty is bid lead wisdom out of the inmost cave of man’s mind as
the Morning Star leads the sun out of the waves. We know too that had
_Prince Athanase_ been finished it would have described the finding of
Pandemus, the stars’ lower genius, and the growing weary of her, and
the coming to its true genius Urania at the coming of death, as the
day finds the Star at evening. There is hardly indeed a poem of any
length in which one does not find it as a symbol of love, or liberty,
or wisdom, or beauty, or of some other expression of that Intellectual
Beauty, which was to Shelley’s mind the central power of the world; and
to its faint and fleeting light he offers up all desires, that are as

   ‘The desire of the moth for the star,
      Of the night for the morrow,
    The devotion to something afar
      From the sphere of our sorrow.’

When its genius comes to Rousseau, shedding dew with one hand, and
treading out the stars with her feet, for she is also the genius of the
dawn, she brings him a cup full of oblivion and love. He drinks and his
mind becomes like sand ‘on desert Labrador’ marked by the feet of deer
and a wolf. And then the new vision, life, the cold light of day moves
before him, and the first vision becomes an invisible presence. The
same image was in his mind too when he wrote

   ‘Hesperus flies from awakening night
    And pants in its beauty and speed with light,
    Fast fleeting, soft and bright.’

Though I do not think that Shelley needed to go to Porphyry’s account
of the cold intoxicating cup, given to the souls in the constellation
of the Cup near the constellation Cancer, for so obvious a symbol as
the cup, or that he could not have found the wolf and the deer and
the continual flight of his Star in his own mind, his poetry becomes
the richer, the more emotional, and loses something of its appearance
of idle phantasy when I remember that these are ancient symbols, and
still come to visionaries in their dreams. Because the wolf is but a
more violent symbol of longing and desire than the hound, his wolf and
deer remind me of the hound and deer that Usheen saw in the Gaelic poem
chasing one another on the water before he saw the young man following
the woman with the golden apple; and of a Galway tale that tells how
Niam, whose name means brightness or beauty, came to Usheen as a deer;
and of a vision that a friend of mine saw when gazing at a dark-blue
curtain. I was with a number of Hermetists, and one of them said to
another, ‘Do you see something in the curtain?’ The other gazed at the
curtain for a while and saw presently a man led through a wood by a
black hound, and then the hound lay dead at a place the seer knew was
called, without knowing why, ‘the Meeting of the Suns,’ and the man
followed a red hound, and then the red hound was pierced by a spear.
A white fawn watched the man out of the wood, but he did not look at
it, for a white hound came and he followed it trembling, but the seer
knew that he would follow the fawn at last, and that it would lead him
among the gods. The most learned of the Hermetists said, ‘I cannot tell
the meaning of the hounds or where the Meeting of the Suns is, but I
think the fawn is the Morning and Evening Star.’ I have little doubt
that when the man saw the white fawn he was coming out of the darkness
and passion of the world into some day of partial regeneration, and
that it was the Morning Star and would be the Evening Star at its
second coming. I have little doubt that it was but the story of Prince
Athanase and what may have been the story of Rousseau in _The Triumph
of Life_, thrown outward once again from that great memory, which is
still the mother of the Muses, though men no longer believe in it.

It may have been this memory, or it may have been some impulse of
his nature too subtle for his mind to follow, that made Keats, with
his love of embodied things, of precision of form and colouring, of
emotions made sleepy by the flesh, see Intellectual Beauty in the Moon;
and Blake, who lived in that energy he called eternal delight, see it
in the Sun, where his personification of poetic genius labours at a
furnace. I think there was certainly some reason why these men took so
deep a pleasure in lights that Shelley thought of with weariness and
trouble. The Moon is the most changeable of symbols, and not merely
because it is the symbol of change. As mistress of the waters she
governs the life of instinct and the generation of things, for, as
Porphyry says, even ‘the apparition of images’ in the ‘imagination’ is
through ‘an excess of moisture’; and, as a cold and changeable fire
set in the bare heavens, she governs alike chastity and the joyless
idle drifting hither and thither of generated things. She may give God
a body and have Gabriel to bear her messages, or she may come to men
in their happy moments as she came to Endymion, or she may deny life
and shoot her arrows; but because she only becomes beautiful in giving
herself, and is no flying ideal, she is not loved by the children of

Shelley could not help but see her with unfriendly eyes. He is believed
to have described Mary Shelley at a time when she had come to seem
cold in his eyes, in that passage of _Epipsychidion_ which tells how
a woman like the Moon led him to her cave and made ‘frost’ creep over
the sea of his mind, and so bewitched Life and Death with ‘her silver
voice’ that they ran from him crying, ‘Away, he is not of our crew.’
When he describes the Moon as part of some beautiful scene he can call
her beautiful, but when he personifies, when his words come under the
influence of that great memory or of some mysterious tide in the depth
of our being, he grows unfriendly or not truly friendly or at the
most pitiful. The Moon’s lips ‘are pale and waning,’ it is ‘the cold
Moon,’ or ‘the frozen and inconstant Moon,’ or it is ‘forgotten’ and
‘waning,’ or it ‘wanders’ and is ‘weary,’ or it is ‘pale and grey,’ or
it is ‘pale for weariness,’ and ‘wandering companionless’ and ‘ever
changing,’ and finding ‘no object worth’ its ‘constancy,’ or it is like
a ‘dying lady’ who ‘totters’ ‘out of her chamber led by the insane and
feeble wanderings of her fading brain,’ and even when it is no more
than a star, it casts an evil influence that makes the lips of lovers
‘lurid’ or pale. It only becomes a thing of delight when Time is being
borne to his tomb in eternity, for then the spirit of the Earth, man’s
procreant mind, fills it with his own joyousness. He describes the
spirit of the Earth and of the Moon, moving above the rivulet of their
lives in a passage which reads like a half-understood vision. Man has
become ‘one harmonious soul of many a soul’ and ‘all things flow to
all’ and ‘familiar acts are beautiful through love,’ and an ‘animation
of delight’ at this change flows from spirit to spirit till the snow
‘is loosened from the Moon’s lifeless mountains.’

Some old magical writer, I forget who, says if you wish to be
melancholy hold in your left hand an image of the Moon made out of
silver, and if you wish to be happy hold in your right hand an image of
the Sun made out of gold. The Sun is the symbol of sensitive life, and
of belief and joy and pride and energy, of indeed the whole life of the
will, and of that beauty which neither lures from far off, nor becomes
beautiful in giving itself, but makes all glad because it is beauty.
Taylor quotes Proclus as calling it ‘the Demiurgos of everything
sensible.’ It was therefore natural that Blake, who was always praising
energy, and all exalted over-flowing of oneself, and who thought art an
impassioned labour to keep men from doubt and despondency, and woman’s
love an evil, when it would trammel the man’s will, should see the
poetic genius not in a woman star but in the Sun, and should rejoice
throughout his poetry in ‘the Sun in his strength.’ Shelley, however,
except when he uses it to describe the peculiar beauty of Emilia
Viviani, who was ‘like an incarnation of the Sun when light is changed
to love,’ saw it with less friendly eyes. He seems to have seen it with
perfect happiness only when veiled in mist, or glimmering upon water,
or when faint enough to do no more than veil the brightness of his own
Star; and in _The Triumph of Life_, the one poem in which it is part
of the avowed symbolism, its power is the being and the source of all
tyrannies. When the woman personifying the Morning Star has faded from
before his eyes, Rousseau sees a ‘new vision’ in ‘a cold bright car’
with a rainbow hovering over her, and as she comes the shadow passes
from ‘leaf and stone’ and the souls she has enslaved seem in ‘that
light like atomies to dance within a sunbeam,’ or they dance among
the flowers that grow up newly ‘in the grassy verdure of the desert,’
unmindful of the misery that is to come upon them. ‘These are the
great, the unforgotten,’ all who have worn ‘mitres and helms and crowns
or wreaths of light,’ and yet have not known themselves. Even ‘great
Plato’ is there because he knew joy and sorrow, because life that
could not subdue him by gold or pain, by ‘age or sloth or slavery,’
subdued him by love. All who have ever lived are there except Christ
and Socrates and the ‘sacred few’ who put away all life could give,
being doubtless followers throughout their lives of the forms borne by
the flying ideal, or who, ‘as soon as they had touched the world with
living flame, flew back like eagles to their native noon.’

In ancient times, it seems to me that Blake, who for all his protest
was glad to be alive, and ever spoke of his gladness, would have
worshipped in some chapel of the Sun, and that Keats, who accepted
life gladly though with ‘a delicious diligent indolence,’ would have
worshipped in some chapel of the Moon, but that Shelley, who hated
life because he sought ‘more in life than any understood,’ would have
wandered, lost in a ceaseless reverie, in some chapel of the Star of
infinite desire.

I think too that as he knelt before an altar, where a thin flame burnt
in a lamp made of green agate, a single vision would have come to him
again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river between
high hills where there were caves and towers, and following the light
of one Star; and that voices would have told him how there is for every
man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the
image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images, and that
this one image, if he would but brood over it his life long, would
lead his soul, disentangled from unmeaning circumstance and the ebb
and flow of the world, into that far household, where the undying gods
await all whose souls have become simple as flame, whose bodies have
become quiet as an agate lamp.

But he was born in a day when the old wisdom had vanished and was
content merely to write verses, and often with little thought of more
than verses.



[Footnote A: ‘Marianne’s Dream’ was certainly copied from a real dream
of somebody’s, but like images come to the mystic in his waking state.]



I HAVE been hearing Shakespeare, as the traveller in _News from
Nowhere_ might have heard him, had he not been hurried back into
our noisy time. One passes through quiet streets, where gabled and
red-tiled houses remember the Middle Age, to a theatre that has been
made not to make money, but for the pleasure of making it, like the
market houses that set the traveller chuckling; nor does one find it
among hurrying cabs and ringing pavements, but in a green garden by
a river side. Inside I have to be content for a while with a chair,
for I am unexpected, and there is not an empty seat but this; and yet
there is no one who has come merely because one must go somewhere after
dinner. All day, too, one does not hear or see an incongruous or noisy
thing, but spends the hours reading the plays, and the wise and foolish
things men have said of them, in the library of the theatre, with its
oak-panelled walls and leaded windows of tinted glass; or one rows by
reedy banks and by old farm-houses, and by old churches among great
trees. It is certainly one’s fault if one opens a newspaper, for Mr.
Benson gives one a new play every night, and one need talk of nothing
but the play in the inn-parlour, under the oak beams blackened by time
and showing the mark of the adze that shaped them. I have seen this
week _King John_, _Richard II._, the second part of _Henry IV._, _Henry
V._, the second part of _Henry VI._, and _Richard III._ played in their
right order, with all the links that bind play to play unbroken; and
partly because of a spirit in the place, and partly because of the
way play supports play, the theatre has moved me as it has never done
before. That strange procession of kings and queens, of warring nobles,
of insurgent crowds, of courtiers, and of people of the gutter has been
to me almost too visible, too audible, too full of an unearthly energy.
I have felt as I have sometimes felt on grey days on the Galway shore,
when a faint mist has hung over the grey sea and the grey stones, as
if the world might suddenly vanish and leave nothing behind, not even
a little dust under one’s feet. The people my mind’s eye has seen have
too much of the extravagance of dreams, like all the inventions of art
before our crowded life had brought moderation and compromise, to seem
more than a dream, and yet all else has grown dim before them.

In London the first man one meets puts any high dream out of one’s
head, for he will talk to one of something at once vapid and exciting,
some one of those many subjects of thought that build up our social
unity. But here he gives back one’s dream like a mirror. If we do not
talk of the plays, we talk of the theatre, and how more people may be
got to come, and our isolation from common things makes the future
become grandiose and important. One man tells how the theatre and the
library were at their foundation but part of a scheme the future is
to fulfil. To them will be added a school where speech, and gesture,
and fencing, and all else that an actor needs will be taught, and the
council, which will have enlarged its Festivals to some six weeks,
will engage all the chief players of Shakespeare, and perhaps of other
great dramatists in this and other countries. These chief players will
need to bring but few of their supporters, for the school will be able
to fill all the lesser parts with players who are slowly recovering
the lost tradition of musical speech. Another man is certain that
the Festival, even without the school, which would require a new
endowment, will grow in importance year by year, and that it may become
with favouring chance the supreme dramatic event of the world; and when
I suggest that it may help to break the evil prestige of London he
becomes enthusiastic.

Surely a bitter hatred of London is becoming a mark of those that love
the arts, and all that have this hatred should help anything that looks
like a beginning of a centre of art elsewhere. The easiness of travel,
which is always growing, began by emptying the country, but it may end
by filling it; for adventures like this of Stratford-on-Avon show that
people are ready to journey from all parts of England and Scotland and
Ireland, and even from America, to live with their favourite art as
shut away from the world as though they were ‘in retreat,’ as Catholics
say. Nobody but an impressionist painter, who hides it in light and
mist, even pretends to love a street for its own sake; and could we
meet our friends and hear music and poetry in the country, none of us
that are not captive would ever leave the thrushes. In London, we hear
something that we like some twice or thrice in a winter, and among
people who are thinking the while of a music-hall singer or of a member
of parliament, but there we would hear it and see it among people
who liked it well enough to have travelled some few hours to find it;
and because those who care for the arts have few near friendships
among those that do not, we would hear and see it among near friends.
We would escape, too, from those artificial tastes and interests we
cultivate, that we may have something to talk about among people we
meet for a few minutes and not again, and the arts would grow serious
as the Ten Commandments.


I do not think there is anything I disliked in Stratford, beside
certain new houses, but the shape of the theatre; and as a larger
theatre must be built sooner or later, that would be no great matter if
one could put a wiser shape into somebody’s head. I cannot think there
is any excuse for a half-round theatre, where land is not expensive,
or no very great audience to be seated within earshot of the stage; or
that it was adopted for a better reason than because it has come down
to us, though from a time when the art of the stage was a different
art. The Elizabethan theatre was a half-round, because the players were
content to speak their lines on a platform, as if they were speakers at
a public meeting, and we go on building in the same shape, although
our art of the stage is the art of making a succession of pictures.
Were our theatres of the shape of a half-closed fan, like Wagner’s
theatre, where the audience sit on seats that rise towards the broad
end while the play is played at the narrow end, their pictures could
be composed for eyes at a small number of points of view, instead of
for eyes at many points of view, above and below and at the sides,
and what is no better than a trade might become an art. With the eyes
watching from the sides of a half-round, on the floor and in the boxes
and galleries, would go the solid-built houses and the flat trees that
shake with every breath of air; and we could make our pictures with
robes that contrasted with great masses of colour in the back cloth
and such severe or decorative forms of hills and trees and houses as
would not overwhelm, as our naturalistic scenery does, the idealistic
art of the poet, and all at a little price. Naturalistic scene-painting
is not an art, but a trade, because it is, at best, an attempt to copy
the more obvious effects of nature by the methods of the ordinary
landscape-painter, and by his methods made coarse and summary. It is
but flashy landscape-painting and lowers the taste it appeals to,
for the taste it appeals to has been formed by a more delicate art.
Decorative scene-painting would be, on the other hand, as inseparable
from the movements as from the robes of the players and from the
falling of the light; and being in itself a grave and quiet thing it
would mingle with the tones of the voices and with the sentiment of
the play, without overwhelming them under an alien interest. It would
be a new and legitimate art appealing to a taste formed by itself and
copying nothing but itself. Mr. Gordon Craig used scenery of this kind
at the Purcell Society performance the other day, and despite some
marring of his effects by the half-round shape of the theatre, it was
the first beautiful scenery our stage has seen. He created an ideal
country where everything was possible, even speaking in verse, or
speaking in music, or the expression of the whole of life in a dance,
and I would like to see Stratford-on-Avon decorate its Shakespeare with
like scenery. As we cannot, it seems, go back to the platform and the
curtain, and the argument for doing so is not without weight, we can
only get rid of the sense of unreality, which most of us feel when we
listen to the conventional speech of Shakespeare, by making scenery as
conventional. Time after time his people use at some moment of deep
emotion an elaborate or deliberate metaphor, or do some improbable
thing which breaks an emotion of reality we have imposed upon him by an
art that is not his, nor in the spirit of his. It also is an essential
part of his method to give slight or obscure motives of many actions
that our attention may dwell on what is of chief importance, and we set
these cloudy actions among solid-looking houses, and what we hope are
solid-looking trees, and illusion comes to an end, slain by our desire
to increase it. In his art, as in all the older art of the world,
there was much make-believe, and our scenery, too, should remember
the time when, as my nurse used to tell me, herons built their nests
in old men’s beards! Mr. Benson did not venture to play the scene in
_Richard III._ where the ghosts walk, as Shakespeare wrote it, but had
his scenery been as simple as Mr. Gordon Craig’s purple back cloth that
made Dido and Æneas seem wandering on the edge of eternity, he would
have found nothing absurd in pitching the tents of Richard and Richmond
side by side. Goethe has said, ‘Art is art, because it is not nature!’
It brings us near to the archetypal ideas themselves, and away from
nature, which is but their looking-glass.


In _La Peau de Chagrin_ Balzac spends many pages in describing a
coquette, who seems the image of heartlessness, and then invents an
improbable incident that her chief victim may discover how beautifully
she can sing. Nobody had ever heard her sing, and yet in her singing,
and in her chatter with her maid, Balzac tells us, was her true self.
He would have us understand that behind the momentary self, which acts
and lives in the world, and is subject to the judgment of the world,
there is that which cannot be called before any mortal Judgment seat,
even though a great poet, or novelist, or philosopher be sitting upon
it. Great literature has always been written in a like spirit, and
is, indeed, the Forgiveness of Sin, and when we find it becoming the
Accusation of Sin, as in George Eliot, who plucks her Tito in pieces
with as much assurance as if he had been clockwork, literature has
begun to change into something else. George Eliot had a fierceness one
hardly finds but in a woman turned argumentative, but the habit of mind
her fierceness gave its life to was characteristic of her century, and
is the habit of mind of the Shakespearian critics. They and she grew
up in a century of utilitarianism, when nothing about a man seemed
important except his utility to the State, and nothing so useful to
the State as the actions whose effect can be weighed by the reason.
The deeds of Coriolanus, Hamlet, Timon, Richard II. had no obvious
use, were, indeed, no more than the expression of their personalities,
and so it was thought Shakespeare was accusing them, and telling us
to be careful lest we deserve the like accusations. It did not occur
to the critics that you cannot know a man from his actions because
you cannot watch him in every kind of circumstance, and that men are
made useless to the State as often by abundance as by emptiness, and
that a man’s business may at times be revelation, and not reformation.
Fortinbras was, it is likely enough, a better King than Hamlet would
have been, Aufidius was a more reasonable man than Coriolanus, Henry
V. was a better man-at-arms than Richard II., but after all, were not
those others who changed nothing for the better and many things for
the worse greater in the Divine Hierarchies? Blake has said that ‘the
roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea,
and the destructive sword are portions of Eternity, too great for the
eye of man,’ but Blake belonged by right to the ages of Faith, and
thought the State of less moment than the Divine Hierarchies. Because
reason can only discover completely the use of those obvious actions
which everybody admires, and because every character was to be judged
by efficiency in action, Shakespearian criticism became a vulgar
worshipper of Success. I have turned over many books in the library at
Stratford-on-Avon, and I have found in nearly all an antithesis, which
grew in clearness and violence as the century grew older, between two
types, whose representatives were Richard II., ‘sentimental,’ ‘weak,’
‘selfish,’ ‘insincere,’ and Henry V., ‘Shakespeare’s only hero.’ These
books took the same delight in abasing Richard II. that school-boys do
in persecuting some boy of fine temperament, who has weak muscles and
a distaste for school games. And they had the admiration for Henry V.
that school-boys have for the sailor or soldier hero of a romance in
some boys’ paper. I cannot claim any minute knowledge of these books,
but I think that these emotions began among the German critics, who
perhaps saw something French and Latin in Richard II., and I know that
Professor Dowden, whose book I once read carefully, first made these
emotions eloquent and plausible. He lived in Ireland, where everything
has failed, and he meditated frequently upon the perfection of
character which had, he thought, made England successful, for, as we
say, ‘cows beyond the water have long horns.’ He forgot that England,
as Gordon has said, was made by her adventurers, by her people of
wildness and imagination and eccentricity; and thought that Henry V.,
who only seemed to be these things because he had some commonplace
vices, was not only the typical Anglo-Saxon, but the model Shakespeare
held up before England; and he even thought it worth while pointing
out that Shakespeare himself was making a large fortune while he was
writing about Henry’s victories. In Professor Dowden’s successors
this apotheosis went further; and it reached its height at a moment
of imperialistic enthusiasm, of ever-deepening conviction that the
commonplace shall inherit the earth, when somebody of reputation,
whose name I cannot remember, wrote that Shakespeare admired this
one character alone out of all his characters. The Accusation of
Sin produced its necessary fruit, hatred of all that was abundant,
extravagant, exuberant, of all that sets a sail for shipwreck, and
flattery of the commonplace emotions and conventional ideals of the
mob, the chief Paymaster of accusation.


I cannot believe that Shakespeare looked on his Richard II. with any
but sympathetic eyes, understanding indeed how ill-fitted he was to be
King, at a certain moment of history, but understanding that he was
lovable and full of capricious fancy, ‘a wild creature’ as Pater has
called him. The man on whom Shakespeare modelled him had been full of
French elegancies, as he knew from Holinshed, and had given life a new
luxury, a new splendour, and been ‘too friendly’ to his friends, ‘too
favorable’ to his enemies. And certainly Shakespeare had these things
in his head when he made his King fail, a little because he lacked
some qualities that were doubtless common among his scullions, but
more because he had certain qualities that are uncommon in all ages.
To suppose that Shakespeare preferred the men who deposed his King is
to suppose that Shakespeare judged men with the eyes of a Municipal
Councillor weighing the merits of a Town Clerk; and that had he been
by when Verlaine cried out from his bed, ‘Sir, you have been made by
the stroke of a pen, but I have been made by the breath of God,’ he
would have thought the Hospital Superintendent the better man. He saw
indeed, as I think, in Richard II. the defeat that awaits all, whether
they be Artist or Saint, who find themselves where men ask of them a
rough energy and have nothing to give but some contemplative virtue,
whether lyrical phantasy, or sweetness of temper, or dreamy dignity, or
love of God, or love of His creatures. He saw that such a man through
sheer bewilderment and impatience can become as unjust or as violent as
any common man, any Bolingbroke or Prince John, and yet remain ‘that
sweet lovely rose.’ The courtly and saintly ideals of the Middle Ages
were fading, and the practical ideals of the modern age had begun to
threaten the unuseful dome of the sky; Merry England was fading, and
yet it was not so faded that the Poets could not watch the procession
of the world with that untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as
apart from all they do and seem, which is the substance of tragic irony.

Shakespeare cared little for the State, the source of all our
judgments, apart from its shows and splendours, its turmoils and
battles, its flamings out of the uncivilized heart. He did indeed
think it wrong to overturn a King, and thereby to swamp peace in civil
war, and the historical plays from _Henry IV._ to _Richard III._, that
monstrous birth and last sign of the wrath of Heaven, are a fulfilment
of the prophecy of the Bishop of Carlisle, who was ‘raised up by God’
to make it; but he had no nice sense of utilities, no ready balance
to measure deeds, like that fine instrument, with all the latest
improvements, Gervinus and Professor Dowden handle so skilfully. He
meditated as Solomon, not as Bentham meditated, upon blind ambitions,
untoward accidents, and capricious passions, and the world was almost
as empty in his eyes as it must be in the eyes of God.

   ‘Tired with all these, for restful death I cry;—
      As, to behold desert a beggar born,
    And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,
      And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
    And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,
      And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
    And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,
      And strength by limping sway disabled,
    And Art made tongue-tied by authority,
      And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill,
    And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,
      And captive good attending captain ill:
    Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
    Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.’


The Greeks, a certain scholar has told me, considered that myths are
the activities of the Dæmons, and that the Dæmons shape our characters
and our lives. I have often had the fancy that there is some one Myth
for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all
he did and thought. Shakespeare’s Myth, it may be, describes a wise man
who was blind from very wisdom, and an empty man who thrust him from
his place, and saw all that could be seen from very emptiness. It is in
the story of Hamlet, who saw too great issues everywhere to play the
trivial game of life, and of Fortinbras, who came from fighting battles
about ‘a little patch of ground’ so poor that one of his captains
would not give ‘six ducats’ to ‘farm it,’ and who was yet acclaimed by
Hamlet and by all as the only befitting King. And it is in the story
of Richard II., that unripened Hamlet, and of Henry V., that ripened
Fortinbras. To poise character against character was an element in
Shakespeare’s art, and scarcely a play is lacking in characters that
are the complement of one another, and so, having made the vessel of
porcelain Richard II., he had to make the vessel of clay Henry V. He
makes him the reverse of all that Richard was. He has the gross vices,
the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he
is so little ‘too friendly’ to his friends that he bundles them out of
doors when their time is over. He is as remorseless and undistinguished
as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his
old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the
gallows; and instead of that lyricism which rose out of Richard’s mind
like the jet of a fountain to fall again where it had risen, instead
of that phantasy too enfolded in its own sincerity to make any thought
the hour had need of, Shakespeare has given him a resounding rhetoric
that moves men, as a leading article does to-day. His purposes are
so intelligible to everybody that everybody talks of him as if he
succeeded, although he fails in the end, as all men great and little
fail in Shakespeare, and yet his conquests abroad are made nothing by a
woman turned warrior, and that boy he and Katherine were to ‘compound,’
‘half French, half English,’ ‘that’ was to ‘go to Constantinople and
take the Turk by the beard,’ turns out a Saint and loses all his father
had built up at home and his own life.

Shakespeare watched Henry V. not indeed as he watched the greater
souls in the visionary procession, but cheerfully, as one watches some
handsome spirited horse, and he spoke his tale, as he spoke all tales,
with tragic irony.


The five plays, that are but one play, have, when played one after
another, something extravagant and superhuman, something almost
mythological. Those nobles with their indifference to death and their
immense energy seem at times no nearer the common stature of men
than do the Gods and the heroes of Greek plays. Had there been no
Renaissance and no Italian influence to bring in the stories of other
lands English history would, it may be, have become as important to
the English imagination as the Greek Myths to the Greek imagination;
and many plays by many poets would have woven it into a single story
whose contours, vast as those of Greek myth, would have made living men
and women seem like swallows building their nests under the architrave
of some Temple of the Giants. English literature, because it would
have grown out of itself, might have had the simplicity and unity of
Greek literature, for I can never get out of my head that no man, even
though he be Shakespeare, can write perfectly when his web is woven of
threads that have been spun in many lands. And yet, could those foreign
tales have come in if the great famine, the sinking down of popular
imagination, the dying out of traditional phantasy, the ebbing out of
the energy of race, had not made them necessary? The metaphors and
language of Euphuism, compounded of the natural history and mythology
of the classics, were doubtless a necessity also that something might
be poured into the emptiness. Yet how they injured the simplicity and
unity of the speech! Shakespeare wrote at a time when solitary great
men were gathering to themselves the fire that had once flowed hither
and thither among all men, when individualism in work and thought
and emotion was breaking up the old rhythms of life, when the common
people, no longer uplifted by the myths of Christianity and of still
older faiths, were sinking into the earth.

The people of Stratford-on-Avon have remembered little about him, and
invented no legend to his glory. They have remembered a drinking-bout
of his, and invented some bad verses for him, and that is about
all. Had he been some hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-riding,
loud-blaspheming Squire they would have enlarged his fame by a legend
of his dealings with the devil; but in his day the glory of a Poet,
like that of all other imaginative powers, had ceased, or almost
ceased, outside a narrow class. The poor Gaelic rhymer leaves a
nobler memory among his neighbours, who will talk of Angels standing
like flames about his death-bed, and of voices speaking out of
bramble-bushes that he may have the wisdom of the world. The Puritanism
that drove the theatres into Surrey was but part of an inexplicable
movement that was trampling out the minds of all but some few thousands
born to cultivated ease.

    May, 1901.


THERE have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the
future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about
them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake
was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was
because he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models
in the world about him. He announced the religion of art, of which no
man dreamed in the world about him; and he understood it more perfectly
than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in
the world about us, because, in the beginning of important things—in
the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of
any work, there is a moment when we understand more perfectly than we
understand again until all is finished. In his time educated people
believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination, but
that they ‘made their souls’ by listening to sermons and by doing or
by not doing certain things. When they had to explain why serious
people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard
put to it for lack of good reasons. In our time we are agreed that we
‘make our souls’ out of some one of the great poets of ancient times,
or out of Shelley or Wordsworth, or Goethe or Balzac, or Flaubert, or
Count Tolstoy, in the books he wrote before he became a prophet and
fell into a lesser order, or out of Mr. Whistler’s pictures, while we
amuse ourselves, or, at best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening
to sermons or by doing or by not doing certain things. We write of
great writers, even of writers whose beauty would once have seemed an
unholy beauty, with rapt sentences like those our fathers kept for the
beatitudes and mysteries of the Church; and no matter what we believe
with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as
Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have ‘lain
burningly on the Divine hand,’ and that when time has begun to wither,
the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. When no
man believed these things William Blake believed them, and began that
preaching against the Philistine, which is as the preaching of the
Middle Ages against the Saracen.

He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that
imagination was the first emanation of divinity, ‘the body of God,’
‘the Divine members,’ and he drew the deduction, which they did not
draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine
revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and
righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness
of sins commanded by Christ. The reason, and by the reason he meant
deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality
because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by
showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from
mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other
by opening the secret doors of all hearts. He cried again and again
that every thing that lives is holy, and that nothing is unholy except
things that do not live—lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and
that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old
times. Passions, because most living, are most holy—and this was a
scandalous paradox in his time—and man shall enter eternity borne upon
their wings.

And he understood this so literally that certain drawings to _Vala_,
had he carried them beyond the first faint pencillings, the first
faint washes of colour, would have been a pretty scandal to his time
and to our time. The sensations of this ‘foolish body,’ this ‘phantom
of the earth and water,’ were in themselves but half-living things,
‘vegetative’ things, but passion that ‘eternal glory’ made them a part
of the body of God.

This philosophy kept him more simply a poet than any poet of his time,
for it made him content to express every beautiful feeling that came
into his head without troubling about its utility or chaining it to
any utility. Sometimes one feels, even when one is reading poets of a
better time—Tennyson or Wordsworth, let us say—that they have troubled
the energy and simplicity of their imaginative passions by asking
whether they were for the helping or for the hindrance of the world,
instead of believing that all beautiful things have ‘lain burningly on
the Divine hand.’ But when one reads Blake, it is as though the spray
of an inexhaustible fountain of beauty was blown into our faces, and
not merely when one reads the _Songs of Innocence_, or the lyrics he
wished to call ‘The Ideas of Good and Evil,’ but when one reads those
‘Prophetic Works’ in which he spoke confusedly and obscurely because
he spoke of things for whose speaking he could find no models in the
world about him. He was a symbolist who had to invent his symbols;
and his counties of England, with their correspondence to tribes of
Israel, and his mountains and rivers, with their correspondence to
parts of a man’s body, are arbitrary as some of the symbolism in the
_Axël_ of the symbolist Villiers De L’Isle Adam is arbitrary, while
they mix incongruous things as _Axël_ does not. He was a man crying
out for a mythology, and trying to make one because he could not find
one to his hand. Had he been a Catholic of Dante’s time he would have
been well content with Mary and the angels; or had he been a scholar of
our time he would have taken his symbols where Wagner took his, from
Norse mythology; or have followed, with the help of Professor Rhys,
that pathway into Welsh mythology which he found in ‘Jerusalem’; or
have gone to Ireland—and he was probably an Irishman—and chosen for
his symbols the sacred mountains, along whose sides the peasant still
sees enchanted fires, and the divinities which have not faded from the
belief, if they have faded from the prayers of simple hearts; and have
spoken without mixing incongruous things because he spoke of things
that had been long steeped in emotion; and have been less obscure
because a traditional mythology stood on the threshold of his meaning
and on the margin of his sacred darkness. If ‘Enitharmon’ had been
named Freia, or Gwydeon, or Danu, and made live in Ancient Norway, or
Ancient Wales, or Ancient Ireland, we would have forgotten that her
maker was a mystic; and the hymn of her harping, that is in _Vala_,
would but have reminded us of many ancient hymns.

   ‘The joy of woman in the death of her most beloved,
    Who dies for love of her,
    In torments of fierce jealousy and pangs of adoration.
    The lover’s night bears on my song,
    And the nine spheres rejoice beneath my powerful control.

    They sing unwearied to the notes of my immortal hand.
    The solemn, silent moon
    Reverberates the long harmony sounding upon my limbs.
    The birds and beasts rejoice and play,
    And every one seeks for his mate to prove his inmost joy.

    Furious and terrible they sport and rend the nether deep.
    The deep lifts up his rugged head,
    And lost in infinite hovering wings vanishes with a cry.
    The fading cry is ever dying,
    The living voice is ever living in its inmost joy.’




WILLIAM BLAKE was the first writer of modern times to preach the
indissoluble marriage of all great art with symbol. There had been
allegorists and teachers of allegory in plenty, but the symbolic
imagination, or, as Blake preferred to call it, ‘vision,’ is not
allegory, being ‘a representation of what actually exists really and
unchangeably.’ A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some
invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame; while
allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing,
or familiar principle, and belongs to fancy and not to imagination:
the one is a revelation, the other an amusement. It is happily no part
of my purpose to expound in detail the relations he believed to exist
between symbol and mind, for in doing so I should come upon not a few
doctrines which, though they have not been difficult to many simple
persons, ascetics wrapped in skins, women who had cast away all common
knowledge, peasants dreaming by their sheepfolds upon the hills, are
full of obscurity to the man of modern culture; but it is necessary to
just touch upon these relations, because in them was the fountain of
much of the practice and of all the precept of his artistic life.

If a man would enter into ‘Noah’s rainbow,’ he has written, and ‘make a
friend’ of one of ‘the images of wonder’ which dwell there, and which
always entreat him ‘to leave mortal things,’ ‘then would he arise
from the grave and meet the Lord in the air’; and by this rainbow,
this sign of a covenant granted to him who is with Shem and Japhet,
‘painting, poetry and music,’ ‘the three powers in man of conversing
with Paradise which the flood “of time and space” did not sweep
away,’ Blake represented the shapes of beauty haunting our moments of
inspiration: shapes held by most for the frailest of ephemera, but by
him for a people older than the world, citizens of eternity, appearing
and reappearing in the minds of artists and of poets, creating all
we touch and see by casting distorted images of themselves upon ‘the
vegetable glass of nature’; and because beings, none the less symbols,
blossoms, as it were, growing from invisible immortal roots, hands, as
it were, pointing the way into some divine labyrinth. If ‘the world of
imagination’ was ‘the world of eternity,’ as this doctrine implied, it
was of less importance to know men and nature than to distinguish the
beings and substances of imagination from those of a more perishable
kind, created by the phantasy, in uninspired moments, out of memory
and whim; and this could best be done by purifying one’s mind, as with
a flame, in study of the works of the great masters, who were great
because they had been granted by divine favour a vision of the unfallen
world from which others are kept apart by the flaming sword that turns
every way; and by flying from the painters who studied ‘the vegetable
glass’ for its own sake, and not to discover there the shadows of
imperishable beings and substances, and who entered into their own
minds, not to make the unfallen world a test of all they heard and
saw and felt with the senses, but to cover the naked spirit with ‘the
rotten rags of memory’ of older sensations. The struggle of the first
part of his life had been to distinguish between these two schools, and
to cleave always to the Florentine, and so to escape the fascination of
those who seemed to him to offer the sleep of nature to a spirit weary
with the labours of inspiration; but it was only after his return to
London from Felpham in 1804 that he finally escaped from ‘temptations
and perturbations’ which sought to destroy ‘the imaginative power’ at
‘the hands of Venetian and Flemish Demons.’ ‘The spirit of Titian’—and
one must always remember that he had only seen poor engravings, and
what his disciple, Palmer, has called ‘picture-dealers’ Titians’—‘was
particularly active in raising doubts concerning the possibility of
executing without a model; and when once he had raised the doubt it
became easy for him to snatch away the vision time after time’; and
Blake’s imagination ‘weakened’ and ‘darkened’ until a ‘memory of
nature and of the pictures of various schools possessed his mind,
instead of appropriate execution’ flowing from the vision itself. But
now he wrote, ‘O glory, and O delight! I have entirely reduced that
spectrous fiend to his station’—he had overcome the merely reasoning
and sensual portion of the mind—‘whose annoyance has been the ruin
of my labours for the last twenty years of my life.... I speak with
perfect confidence and certainty of the fact which has passed upon me.
Nebuchadnezzar had seven times passed over him, I have had twenty;
thank God I was not altogether a beast as he was.... Suddenly, on
the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures’—this
was a gallery containing pictures by Albert Dürer and by the great
Florentines—‘I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my
youth, and which had for exactly twenty years been closed from me,
as by a door and window shutters.... Excuse my enthusiasm, or rather
madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take
a pencil or graver in my hand, as I used to be in my youth.’

This letter may have been the expression of a moment’s enthusiasm,
but was more probably rooted in one of those intuitions of coming
technical power which every creator feels, and learns to rely upon;
for all his greatest work was done, and the principles of his art
were formulated, after this date. Except a word here and there, his
writings hitherto had not dealt with the principles of art except
remotely and by implication; but now he wrote much upon them, and not
in obscure symbolic verse, but in emphatic prose, and explicit if not
very poetical rhyme. In his _Descriptive Catalogue_, in _The Address
to the Public_, in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds, in _The Book of
Moonlight_—of which some not very dignified rhymes alone remain—in
beautiful detached passages in _The MS. Book_, he explained spiritual
art, and praised the painters of Florence and their influence, and
cursed all that has come of Venice and Holland. The limitation of
his view was from the very intensity of his vision; he was a too
literal realist of imagination, as others are of nature; and because
he believed that the figures seen by the mind’s eye, when exalted by
inspiration, were ‘eternal existences,’ symbols of divine essences,
he hated every grace of style that might obscure their lineaments.
To wrap them about in reflected lights was to do this, and to dwell
over-fondly upon any softness of hair or flesh was to dwell upon that
which was least permanent and least characteristic, for ‘The great and
golden rule of art, as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp
and wiry the boundary-line, the more perfect the work of art; and the
less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation,
plagiarism and bungling.’ Inspiration was to see the permanent and
characteristic in all forms, and if you had it not, you must needs
imitate with a languid mind the things you saw or remembered, and so
sink into the sleep of nature where all is soft and melting. ‘Great
inventors in all ages knew this. Protogenes and Apelles knew each
other by their line. Raphael and Michael Angelo and Albert Dürer
are known by this and this alone. How do we distinguish the owl
from the beast, the horse from the ox, but by the bounding outline?
How do we distinguish one face or countenance from another but by
the bounding-line and its infinite inflections and movements? What
is it that builds a house and plants a garden but the definite and
determinate? What is it that distinguished honesty from knavery but
the hard and wiry line of rectitude and certainty in the actions and
intentions? Leave out this line and you leave out life itself; and all
is chaos again, and the line of the Almighty must be drawn out upon it
before man or beast can exist.’ He even insisted that ‘colouring does
not depend upon where the colours are put, but upon where the light
and dark are put, and all depends upon the form or outline’—meaning,
I suppose, that a colour gets its brilliance or its depth from being
in light or in shadow. He does not mean by outline the bounding-line
dividing a form from its background, as one of his commentators has
thought, but the line that divides it from surrounding space, and
unless you have an overmastering sense of this you cannot draw true
beauty at all, but only ‘the beauty that is appended to folly,’ a
beauty of mere voluptuous softness, ‘a lamentable accident of the
mortal and perishing life,’ for ‘the beauty proper for sublime art is
lineaments, or forms and features capable of being the receptacles of
intellect,’ and ‘the face or limbs that alter least from youth to old
age are the face and limbs of the greatest beauty and perfection.’
His praise of a severe art had been beyond price had his age rested
a moment to listen, in the midst of its enthusiasm for Correggio and
the later Renaissance, for Bartolozzi and for Stothard; and yet in
his visionary realism, and in his enthusiasm for what, after all, is
perhaps the greatest art, and a necessary part of every picture that
is art at all, he forgot how he who wraps the vision in lights and
shadows, in iridescent or glowing colour, having in the midst of his
labour many little visions of these secondary essences, until form be
half lost in pattern, may compel the canvas or paper to become itself a
symbol of some not indefinite because unsearchable essence; for is not
the Bacchus and Ariadne of Titian a talisman as powerfully charged with
intellectual virtue as though it were a jewel-studded door of the city
seen on Patmos?

To cover the imperishable lineaments of beauty with shadows and
reflected lights was to fall into the power of his ‘Vala,’ the
indolent fascination of nature, the woman divinity who is so often
described in ‘the prophetic books’ as ‘sweet pestilence,’ and whose
children weave webs to take the souls of men; but there was yet a
more lamentable chance, for nature has also a ‘masculine portion’ or
‘spectre’ which kills instead of merely hiding, and is continually at
war with inspiration. To ‘generalize’ forms and shadows, to ‘smooth
out’ spaces and lines in obedience to ‘laws of composition,’ and of
painting; founded, not upon imagination, which always thirsts for
variety and delights in freedom, but upon reasoning from sensation
which is always seeking to reduce everything to a lifeless and slavish
uniformity; as the popular art of Blake’s day had done, and as he
understood Sir Joshua Reynolds to advise, was to fall into ‘Entuthon
Benithon,’ or ‘the Lake of Udan Adan,’ or some other of those regions
where the imagination and the flesh are alike dead, that he names by
so many resonant phantastical names. ‘General knowledge is remote
knowledge,’ he wrote; ‘it is in particulars that wisdom consists, and
happiness too. Both in art and life general masses are as much art as a
pasteboard man is human. Every man has eyes, nose and mouth; this every
idiot knows. But he who enters into and discriminates most minutely
the manners and intentions, the characters in all their branches, is
the alone wise or sensible man, and on this discrimination all art is
founded.... As poetry admits not a letter that is insignificant, so
painting admits not a grain of sand or a blade of grass insignificant,
much less an insignificant blot or blur.’

Against another desire of his time, derivative also from what he has
called ‘corporeal reason,’ the desire for ‘a tepid moderation,’ for a
lifeless ‘sanity in both art and life,’ he had protested years before
with a paradoxical violence. ‘The roadway of excess leads to the palace
of wisdom,’ and we must only ‘bring out weight and measure in time of
dearth.’ This protest, carried, in the notes on Sir Joshua Reynolds,
to the point of dwelling with pleasure on the thought that ‘The _Lives
of the Painters_ say that Raphael died of dissipation,’ because
dissipation is better than emotional penury, seemed as important to his
old age as to his youth. He taught it to his disciples, and one finds
it in its purely artistic shape in a diary written by Samuel Palmer, in
1824: ‘Excess is the essential vivifying spirit, vital spark, embalming
spice of the finest art. There are many mediums in the _means_—none,
oh, not a jot, not a shadow of a jot, in the _end_ of great art. In a
picture whose merit is to be excessively brilliant, it can’t be too
brilliant, but individual tints may be too brilliant.... We must not
begin with medium, but think always on excess and only use medium to
make excess more abundantly excessive.’

These three primary commands, to seek a determinate outline, to avoid a
generalized treatment, and to desire always abundance and exuberance,
were insisted upon with vehement anger, and their opponents called
again and again ‘demons’ and ‘villains,’ ‘hired’ by the wealthy and
the idle; but in private, Palmer has told us, he could find ‘sources
of delight throughout the whole range of art,’ and was ever ready to
praise excellence in any school, finding, doubtless, among friends, no
need for the emphasis of exaggeration. There is a beautiful passage in
‘Jerusalem’ in which the merely mortal part of the mind, ‘the spectre,’
creates ‘pyramids of pride,’ and ‘pillars in the deepest hell to reach
the heavenly arches,’ and seeks to discover wisdom in ‘the spaces
between the stars,’ not ‘in the stars,’ where it is, but the immortal
part makes all his labours vain, and turns his pyramids to ‘grains of
sand,’ his ‘pillars’ to ‘dust on the fly’s wing,’ and makes of ‘his
starry heavens a moth of gold and silver mocking his anxious grasp.’
So when man’s desire to rest from spiritual labour, and his thirst
to fill his art with mere sensation and memory, seem upon the point
of triumph, some miracle transforms them to a new inspiration; and
here and there among the pictures born of sensation and memory is the
murmuring of a new ritual, the glimmering of new talismans and symbols.

It was during and after the writing of these opinions that Blake did
the various series of pictures which have brought him the bulk of his
fame. He had already completed the illustrations to Young’s _Night
Thoughts_—in which the great sprawling figures, a little wearisome even
with the luminous colours of the original water-colour, became nearly
intolerable in plain black and white—and almost all the illustrations
to ‘the prophetic books,’ which have an energy like that of the
elements, but are rather rapid sketches taken while some phantasmic
procession swept over him, than elaborate compositions, and in whose
shadowy adventures one finds not merely, as did Dr. Garth Wilkinson,
‘the hells of the ancient people, the Anakim, the Nephalim, and the
Rephaim ... gigantic petrifactions from which the fires of lust and
intense selfish passion have long dissipated what was animal and
vital’; not merely the shadows cast by the powers who had closed the
light from him as ‘with a door and window shutters,’ but the shadows
of those who gave them battle. He did now, however, the many designs
to Milton, of which I have only seen those to _Paradise Regained_; the
reproductions of those to _Comus_, published, I think, by Mr. Quaritch;
and the three or four to _Paradise Lost_, engraved by Bell Scott—a
series of designs which one good judge considers his greatest work; the
illustrations to Blair’s _Grave_, whose gravity and passion struggle
with the mechanical softness and trivial smoothness of Schiavonetti’s
engraving; the illustrations to Thornton’s _Virgil_, whose influence
is manifest in the work of the little group of landscape-painters who
gathered about him in his old age and delighted to call him master. The
member of the group, whom I have already so often quoted, has alone
praised worthily these illustrations to the first _eclogue_: ‘There is
in all such a misty and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the
inmost soul and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy
daylight of this world. They are like all this wonderful artist’s work,
the drawing aside of the fleshly curtain, and the glimpse which all the
most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of the rest which
remains to the people of God.’ Now, too, he did the great series, the
crowning work of his life, the illustrations to _The Book of Job_ and
the illustrations to _The Divine Comedy_. Hitherto he had protested
against the mechanical ‘dots and lozenges’ and ‘blots and blurs’ of
Woollett and Strange, but had himself used both ‘dot and lozenge,’
‘blot and blur,’ though always in subordination ‘to a firm and
determinate outline’; but in Marc Antonio, certain of whose engravings
he was shown by Linnell, he found a style full of delicate lines, a
style where all was living and energetic, strong and subtle. And almost
his last words, a letter written upon his death-bed, attack the ‘dots
and lozenges’ with even more than usually quaint symbolism, and praise
expressive lines. ‘I know that the majority of Englishmen are bound
by the indefinite ... a line is a line in its minutest particulars,
straight or crooked. It is itself not intermeasurable by anything else
... but since the French Revolution’—since the reign of reason began,
that is—‘Englishmen are all intermeasurable with one another, certainly
a happy state of agreement in which I do not agree.’ The Dante series
occupied the last years of his life; even when too weak to get out of
bed he worked on, propped up with the great drawing-book before him.
He sketched a hundred designs, but left all incomplete, some very
greatly so, and partly engraved seven plates, of which the ‘Francesca
and Paolo’ is the most finished. It is not, I think, inferior to
any but the finest in the Job, if indeed to them, and shows in its
perfection Blake’s mastery over elemental things, the swirl in which
the lost spirits are hurried, ‘a watery flame’ he would have called it,
the haunted waters and the huddling shapes. In the illustrations of
Purgatory there is a serene beauty, and one finds his Dante and Virgil
climbing among the rough rocks under a cloudy sun, and in their sleep
upon the smooth steps towards the summit, a placid, marmoreal, tender,
starry rapture.

All in this great series are in some measure powerful and moving, and
not, as it is customary to say of the work of Blake, because a flaming
imagination pierces through a cloudy and indecisive technique, but
because they have the only excellence possible in any art, a mastery
over artistic expression. The technique of Blake was imperfect,
incomplete, as is the technique of well-nigh all artists who have
striven to bring fires from remote summits; but where his imagination
is perfect and complete, his technique has a like perfection, a like
completeness. He strove to embody more subtle raptures, more elaborate
intuitions than any before him; his imagination and technique are
more broken and strained under a great burden than the imagination
and technique of any other master. ‘I am,’ wrote Blake, ‘like others,
just equal in invention and execution.’ And again, ‘No man can improve
an original invention; nor can an original invention exist without
execution, organized, delineated and articulated either by God or
man ... I have heard people say, “Give me the ideas; it is no matter
what words you put them into”; and others say, “Give me the designs;
it is no matter for the execution.”... Ideas cannot be given but in
their minutely appropriate words, nor can a design be made without
its minutely appropriate execution.’ Living in a time when technique
and imagination are continually perfect and complete, because they no
longer strive to bring fire from heaven, we forget how imperfect and
incomplete they were in even the greatest masters, in Botticelli, in
Orcagna, and in Giotto.

The errors in the handiwork of exalted spirits are as the more
phantastical errors in their lives; as Coleridge’s opium cloud; as
Villiers De L’Isle Adam’s candidature for the throne of Greece; as
Blake’s anger against causes and purposes he but half understood;
as the flickering madness an Eastern scripture would allow in august
dreamers; for he who half lives in eternity endures a rending of the
structures of the mind, a crucifixion of the intellectual body.


As Blake sat bent over the great drawing-book, in which he made his
designs to _The Divine Comedy_, he was very certain that he and Dante
represented spiritual states which face one another in an eternal
enmity. Dante, because a great poet, was ‘inspired by the Holy Ghost’;
but his inspiration was mingled with a certain philosophy, blown up
out of his age, which Blake held for mortal and the enemy of immortal
things, and which from the earliest times has sat in high places and
ruled the world. This philosophy was the philosophy of soldiers, of
men of the world, of priests busy with government, of all who, because
of the absorption in active life, have been persuaded to judge and to
punish, and partly also, he admitted, the philosophy of Christ, who
in descending into the world had to take on the world; who, in being
born of Mary, a symbol of the law in Blake’s symbolic language, had
to ‘take after his mother,’ and drive the money-changers out of the
Temple. Opposed to this was another philosophy, not made by men of
action, drudges of time and space, but by Christ when wrapped in the
divine essence, and by artists and poets, who are taught by the nature
of their craft to sympathize with all living things, and who, the more
pure and fragrant is their lamp, pass the further from all limitations,
to come at last to forget good and evil in an absorbing vision of the
happy and the unhappy. The one philosophy was worldly, and established
for the ordering of the body and the fallen will, and so long as it did
not call its ‘laws of prudence’ ‘the laws of God,’ was a necessity,
because ‘you cannot have liberty in this world without what you call
moral virtue’; the other was divine, and established for the peace of
the imagination and the unfallen will, and, even when obeyed with a too
little reverence, could make men sin against no higher principality
than prudence. He called the followers of the first philosophy pagans,
no matter by what name they knew themselves, because the pagans, as he
understood the word pagan, believed more in the outward life, and in
what he called ‘war, princedom, and victory,’ than in the secret life
of the spirit; and the followers of the second philosophy Christians,
because only those whose sympathies had been enlarged and instructed
by art and poetry could obey the Christian command of unlimited
forgiveness. Blake had already found this ‘pagan’ philosophy in
Swedenborg, in Milton, in Wordsworth, in Sir Joshua Reynolds, in many
persons, and it had roused him so constantly and to such angry paradox
that its overthrow became the signal passion of his life, and filled
all he did and thought with the excitement of a supreme issue. Its
kingdom was bound to grow weaker so soon as life began to lose a little
in crude passion and naïve tumult, but Blake was the first to announce
its successor, and he did this, as must needs be with revolutionists
who have ‘the law’ for ‘mother,’ with a firm conviction that the
things his opponents held white were indeed black, and that the things
they held black, white; with a strong persuasion that all busy with
government are men of darkness and ‘something other than human life’;
one is reminded of Shelley, who was the next to take up the cry, though
with a less abundant philosophic faculty, but still more of Nietzsche,
whose thought flows always, though with an even more violent current,
in the bed Blake’s thought has worn.

The kingdom that was passing was, he held, the kingdom of the Tree of
Knowledge; the kingdom that was coming was the kingdom of the Tree of
Life: men who ate from the Tree of Knowledge wasted their days in anger
against one another, and in taking one another captive in great nets;
men who sought their food among the green leaves of the Tree of Life
condemned none but the unimaginative and the idle, and those who forget
that even love and death and old age are an imaginative art.

In these opposing kingdoms is the explanation of the petulant sayings
he wrote on the margins of the great sketch-book, and of those others,
still more petulant, which Crabb Robinson has recorded in his diary.
The sayings about the forgiveness of sins have no need for further
explanation, and are in contrast with the attitude of that excellent
commentator, Herr Hettinger, who, though Dante swooned from pity at
the tale of Francesca, will only ‘sympathize’ with her ‘to a certain
extent,’ being taken in a theological net. ‘It seems as if Dante,’
Blake wrote, ‘supposes God was something superior to the Father of
Jesus; for if He gives rain to the evil and the good, and His sun to
the just and the unjust, He can never have builded Dante’s Hell, nor
the Hell of the Bible, as our parsons explain it. It must have been
framed by the dark spirit itself, and so I understand it.’ And again,
‘Whatever task is of vengeance and whatever is against forgiveness
of sin is not of the Father but of Satan, the accuser, the father of
Hell.’ And again, and this time to Crabb Robinson, ‘Dante saw devils
where I saw none. I see good only.’ ‘I have never known a very bad man
who had not something very good about him.’ This forgiveness was not
the forgiveness of the theologian who has received a commandment from
afar off, but of the poet and artist, who believes he has been taught,
in a mystical vision, ‘that the imagination is the man himself,’ and
believes he has discovered in the practice of his art that without a
perfect sympathy there is no perfect imagination, and therefore no
perfect life. At another moment he called Dante ‘an atheist, a mere
politician busied about this world, as Milton was, till, in his old
age, returned to God whom he had had in his childhood.’ ‘Everything is
atheism,’ he has already explained, ‘which assumed the reality of the
natural and unspiritual world.’ Dante, he held, assumed its reality
when he made obedience to its laws a condition of man’s happiness
hereafter, and he set Swedenborg beside Dante in misbelief for
calling Nature ‘the ultimate of Heaven,’ a lowest rung, as it were,
of Jacob’s ladder, instead of a net woven by Satan to entangle our
wandering joys and bring our hearts into captivity. There are certain
curious unfinished diagrams scattered here and there among the now
separated pages of the sketch-book, and of these there is one which,
had it had all its concentric rings filled with names, would have
been a systematic exposition of his animosities and of their various
intensity. It represents Paradise, and in the midst, where Dante
emerges from the earthly Paradise, is written ‘Homer,’ and in the next
circle ‘Swedenborg,’ and on the margin these words: ‘Everything in
Dante’s Paradise shows that he has made the earth the foundation of
all, and its goddess Nature, memory,’ memory of sensations, ‘not the
Holy Ghost.... Round Purgatory is Paradise, and round Paradise vacuum.
Homer is the centre of all, I mean the poetry of the heathen.’ The
statement that round Paradise is vacuum is a proof of the persistence
of his ideas, and of his curiously literal understanding of his own
symbols; for it is but another form of the charge made against Milton
many years before in _The Marriage of Heaven and Hell_. ‘In Milton
the Father is destiny, the Son a ratio of the five senses,’ Blake’s
definition of the reason which is the enemy of the imagination, ‘and
the Holy Ghost vacuum.’ Dante, like other mediæval mystics, symbolized
the highest order of created beings by the fixed stars, and God by the
darkness beyond them, the _Primum Mobile_. Blake, absorbed in his very
different vision, in which God took always a human shape, believed
that to think of God under a symbol drawn from the outer world was in
itself idolatry, but that to imagine Him as an unpeopled immensity
was to think of Him under the one symbol furthest from His essence—it
being a creation of the ruining reason, ‘generalizing’ away ‘the minute
particulars of life.’ Instead of seeking God in the deserts of time
and space, in exterior immensities, in what he called ‘the abstract
void,’ he believed that the further he dropped behind him memory of
time and space, reason builded upon sensation, morality founded for the
ordering of the world; and the more he was absorbed in emotion; and,
above all, in emotion escaped from the impulse of bodily longing and
the restraints of bodily reason, in artistic emotion; the nearer did
he come to Eden’s ‘breathing garden,’ to use his beautiful phrase, and
to the unveiled face of God. No worthy symbol of God existed but the
inner world, the true humanity, to whose various aspects he gave many
names, ‘Jerusalem,’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘Eden,’ ‘The Divine Vision,’ ‘The Body
of God,’ ‘The Human Form Divine,’ ‘The Divine Members,’ and whose most
intimate expression was art and poetry. He always sang of God under
this symbol:

   ‘For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
      Is God our Father dear;
    And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
      Is man, His child and care.

    For Mercy has a human heart;
      Pity a human face;
    And Love the human form divine;
      And Peace, the human dress.

    Then every man of every clime,
      That prays in his distress,
    Prays to the human form divine—
      Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.’

Whenever he gave this symbol a habitation in space he set it in the
sun, the father of light and life; and set in the darkness beyond the
stars, where light and life die away, Og and Anak and the giants that
were of old, and the iron throne of Satan.

By thus contrasting Blake and Dante by the light of Blake’s
paradoxical wisdom, and as though there was no important truth
hung from Dante’s beam of the balance, I but seek to interpret a
little-understood philosophy rather than one incorporate in the thought
and habits of Christendom. Every philosophy has half its truth from
times and generations; and to us one-half of the philosophy of Dante
is less living than his poetry, while the truth Blake preached and
sang and painted is the root of the cultivated life, of the fragile
perfect blossom of the world born in ages of leisure and peace, and
never yet to last more than a little season; the life those Phæacians,
who told Odysseus that they had set their hearts in nothing but in
‘the dance and changes of raiment, and love and sleep,’ lived before
Poseidon heaped a mountain above them; the lives of all who, having
eaten of the Tree of Life, love, more than did the barbarous ages when
none had time to live, ‘the minute particulars of life,’ the little
fragments of space and time, which are wholly flooded by beautiful
emotion because they are so little they are hardly of time and space
at all. ‘Every space smaller than a globule of man’s blood,’ he wrote,
‘opens into eternity of which this vegetable earth is but a shadow.’
And again, ‘Every time less than a pulsation of the artery is equal’
in its tenor and value ‘to six thousand years, for in this period the
poet’s work is done, and all the great events of time start forth,
and are conceived: in such a period, within a moment, a pulsation of
the artery.’ Dante, indeed, taught, in the ‘Purgatorio,’ that sin and
virtue are alike from love, and that love is from God; but this love
he would restrain by a complex eternal law, a complex external Church.
Blake upon the other hand cried scorn upon the whole spectacle of
external things, a vision to pass away in a moment, and preached the
cultivated life, the internal Church which has no laws but beauty,
rapture and labour. ‘I know of no other Christianity, and of no other
gospel, than the liberty, both of body and mind, to exercise the
divine arts of imagination, the real and eternal world of which this
vegetable universe is but a faint shadow, and in which we shall live in
our eternal or imaginative bodies when these vegetable mortal bodies
are no more. The Apostles knew of no other gospel. What are all their
spiritual gifts? What is the divine spirit? Is the Holy Ghost any other
than an intellectual fountain? What is the harvest of the gospel and
its labours? What is the talent which it is a curse to hide? What are
the treasures of heaven which we are to lay up for ourselves? Are
they any other than mental studies and performances? What are all the
gifts of the gospel, are they not all mental gifts? Is God a spirit
who must be worshipped in spirit and truth? Are not the gifts of the
spirit everything to man? O ye religious! discountenance every one
among you who shall pretend to despise art and science. I call upon you
in the name of Jesus! What is the life of man but art and science? Is
it meat and drink? Is not the body more than raiment? What is mortality
but the things relating to the body which dies? What is immortality
but the things relating to the spirit which lives immortally? What is
the joy of Heaven but improvement in the things of the spirit? What
are the pains of Hell but ignorance, idleness, bodily lust, and the
devastation of the things of the spirit? Answer this for yourselves,
and expel from amongst you those who pretend to despise the labours
of art and science, which alone are the labours of the gospel. Is not
this plain and manifest to the thought? Can you think at all, and not
pronounce heartily that to labour in knowledge is to build Jerusalem,
and to despise knowledge is to despise Jerusalem and her builders? And
remember, he who despises and mocks a mental gift in another, calling
it pride, and selfishness, and sin, mocks Jesus, the giver of every
mental gift, which always appear to the ignorance-loving hypocrites
as sins. But that which is sin in the sight of cruel man is not sin
in the sight of our kind God. Let every Christian as much as in him
lies engage himself openly and publicly before all the world in some
mental pursuit for the building of Jerusalem.’ I have given the whole
of this long passage because, though the very keystone of his thought,
it is little known, being sunk, like nearly all of his most profound
thoughts, in the mysterious prophetic books. Obscure about much else,
they are always lucid on this one point, and return to it again and
again. ‘I care not whether a man is good or bad,’ are the words they
put into the mouth of God, ‘all I care is whether he is a wise man or
a fool. Go put off holiness and put on intellect.’ This cultivated
life, which seems to us so artificial a thing, is really, according to
them, the laborious re-discovery of the golden age, of the primeval
simplicity, of the simple world in which Christ taught and lived, and
its lawlessness is the lawlessness of Him ‘who being all virtue, acted
from impulse and not from rules,’

    And his seventy disciples sent
    Against religion and government.

The historical Christ was indeed no more than the supreme symbol of
the artistic imagination, in which, with every passion wrought to
perfect beauty by art and poetry, we shall live, when the body has
passed away for the last time; but before that hour man must labour
through many lives and many deaths. ‘Men are admitted into heaven not
because they have curbed and governed their passions, but because
they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven
are not negations of passion but realities of intellect from which
the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory. The fool shall
not enter into heaven, let him be ever so holy. Holiness is not the
price of entering into heaven. Those who are cast out are all those
who, having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have
spent their lives in curbing and governing other people’s lives by
the various arts of poverty and cruelty of all kinds. The modern
Church crucifies Christ with the head downwards. Woe, woe, woe to you
hypocrites.’ After a time man has ‘to return to the dark valley whence
he came and begin his labours anew,’ but before that return he dwells
in the freedom of imagination, in the peace of the ‘divine image,’
‘the divine vision,’ in the peace that passes understanding and is
the peace of art. ‘I have been very near the gates of death,’ Blake
wrote in his last letter, ‘and have returned very weak and an old man,
feeble and tottering but not in spirit and life, not in the real man,
the imagination which liveth for ever. In that I grow stronger and
stronger as this foolish body decays.... Flaxman is gone, and we must
all soon follow, every one to his eternal home, leaving the delusions
of goddess Nature and her laws, to get into freedom from all the laws
of the numbers,’ the multiplicity of nature, ‘into the mind in which
every one is king and priest in his own house.’ The phrase about the
king and priest is a memory of the crown and mitre set upon Dante’s
head before he entered Paradise. Our imaginations are but fragments of
the universal imagination, portions of the universal body of God, and
as we enlarge our imagination by imaginative sympathy, and transform
with the beauty and peace of art, the sorrows and joys of the world, we
put off the limited mortal man more and more and put on the unlimited
‘immortal man.’ ‘As the seed waits eagerly watching for its flower
and fruit, anxious its little soul looks out into the clear expanse
to see if hungry winds are abroad with their invisible array, so man
looks out in tree, and herb, and fish, and bird, and beast, collecting
up the fragments of his immortal body into the elemental forms of
everything that grows.... In pain he sighs, in pain he labours in his
universe, sorrowing in birds over the deep, or howling in the wolf
over the slain, and moaning in the cattle, and in the winds.’ Mere
sympathy for living things is not enough, because we must learn to
separate their ‘infected’ from their eternal, their satanic from their
divine part; and this can only be done by desiring always beauty, the
one mask through which can be seen the unveiled eyes of eternity. We
must then be artists in all things, and understand that love and old
age and death are first among the arts. In this sense he insists that
‘Christ’s apostles were artists,’ that ‘Christianity is Art,’ and
that ‘the whole business of man is the arts.’ Dante, who deified law,
selected its antagonist, passion, as the most important of sins, and
made the regions where it was punished the largest. Blake, who deified
imaginative freedom, held ‘corporeal reason’ for the most accursed of
things, because it makes the imagination revolt from the sovereignty
of beauty and pass under the sovereignty of corporeal law, and this
is ‘the captivity in Egypt.’ True art is expressive and symbolic,
and makes every form, every sound, every colour, every gesture, a
signature of some unanalyzable imaginative essence. False art is not
expressive, but mimetic, not from experience but from observation, and
is the mother of all evil, persuading us to save our bodies alive at no
matter what cost of rapine and fraud. True art is the flame of the last
day, which begins for every man, when he is first moved by beauty, and
which seeks to burn all things until they become ‘infinite and holy.’


The late Mr. John Addington Symonds wrote—in a preface to certain
Dante illustrations by Stradanus, a sixteenth-century artist of no
great excellence, published in phototype by Mr. Unwin in 1892—that
the illustrations of Gustave Doré, ‘in spite of glaring artistic
defects, must, I think, be reckoned first among numerous attempts to
translate Dante’s conceptions into terms of plastic art.’ One can only
account for this praise of a noisy and demagogic art by supposing
that a temperament, strong enough to explore with unfailing alertness
the countless schools and influences of the Renaissance in Italy, is
of necessity a little lacking in delicacy of judgment and in the
finer substances of emotion. It is more difficult to account for so
admirable a scholar not only preferring these illustrations to the work
of what he called ‘the graceful and affected Botticelli,’—although
‘Doré was fitted for his task, not by dramatic vigour, by feeling for
beauty, or by anything sterling in sympathy with the supreme poet’s
soul, but by a very effective sense of luminosity and gloom’—but
preferring them because ‘he created a fanciful world, which makes the
movement of Dante’s _dramatis personæ_ conceivable, introducing the
ordinary intelligence into those vast regions thronged with destinies
of souls and creeds and empires.’ When the ordinary student finds
this intelligence in an illustrator, he thinks, because it is his
own intelligence, that it is an accurate interpretation of the text,
while work of the extraordinary intelligences is merely an expression
of their own ideas and feelings. Doré and Stradanus, he will tell
you, have given us something of the world of Dante, but Blake and
Botticelli have builded worlds of their own and called them Dante’s—as
if Dante’s world were more than a mass of symbols of colour and form
and sound which put on humanity, when they arouse some mind to an
intense and romantic life that is not theirs; as if it was not one’s
own sorrows and angers and regrets and terrors and hopes that awaken to
condemnation or repentance while Dante treads his eternal pilgrimage;
as if any poet or painter or musician could be other than an enchanter
calling with a persuasive or compelling ritual, creatures, noble or
ignoble, divine or dæmonic, covered with scales or in shining raiment,
that he never imagined, out of the bottomless deeps of imaginations he
never foresaw; as if the noblest achievement of art was not when the
artist enfolds himself in darkness, while he casts over his readers a
light as of a wild and terrible dawn.

Let us therefore put away the designs to _The Divine Comedy_, in which
there is ‘an ordinary intelligence,’ and consider only the designs
in which the magical ritual has called up extraordinary shapes, the
magical light glimmered upon a world, different from the Dantesque
world of our own intelligence in its ordinary and daily moods, upon
a difficult and distinguished world. Most of the series of designs
to Dante, and there are a good number, need not busy any one for a
moment. Genelli has done a copious series, which is very able in
the ‘formal’ ‘generalized’ way which Blake hated, and which is
spiritually ridiculous. Penelli has transformed the ‘Inferno’ into a
vulgar Walpurgis night, and a certain Schuler, whom I do not find in
the biographical dictionaries, but who was apparently a German, has
prefaced certain flaccid designs with some excellent charts, while
Stradanus has made a series for the ‘Inferno,’ which has so many of
the more material and unessential powers of art, and is so extremely
undistinguished in conception, that one supposes him to have touched
in the sixteenth century the same public Doré has touched in the

Though with many doubts, I am tempted to value Flaxman’s designs to the
‘Inferno,’ the ‘Purgatorio,’ and the ‘Paradiso,’ only a little above
the best of these, because he does not seem to have ever been really
moved by Dante, and so to have sunk into a formal manner, which is a
reflection of the vital manner of his Homer and Hesiod. His designs to
_The Divine Comedy_ will be laid, one imagines, with some ceremony in
that immortal wastepaper-basket in which Time carries with many sighs
the failures of great men. I am perhaps wrong, however, because Flaxman
even at his best has not yet touched me very deeply, and I hardly ever
hope to escape this limitation of my ruling stars. That Signorelli
does not seem greatly more interesting except here and there, as in the
drawing of ‘The Angel,’ full of innocence and energy, coming from the
boat which has carried so many souls to the foot of the mountain of
purgation, can only be because one knows him through poor reproductions
from frescoes half mouldered away with damp. A little-known series,
drawn by Adolph Stürler, an artist of German extraction, who was
settled in Florence in the first half of this century, are very
poor in drawing, very pathetic and powerful in invention, and full
of most interesting pre-Raphaelitic detail. There are admirable and
moving figures, who, having set love above reason, listen in the
last abandonment of despair to the judgment of Minos, or walk with a
poignant melancholy to the foot of his throne through a land where owls
and strange beasts move hither and thither with the sterile content of
the evil that neither loves nor hates, and a Cerberus full of patient
cruelty. All Stürler’s designs have, however, the languor of a mind
that does its work by a succession of delicate critical perceptions
rather than the decision and energy of true creation, and are more a
curious contribution to artistic methods than an imaginative force.

The only designs that compete with Blake’s are those of Botticelli and
Giulio Clovio, and these contrast rather than compete; for Blake did
not live to carry his ‘Paradiso’ beyond the first faint pencillings,
the first thin washes of colour, while Botticelli only, as I think,
became supremely imaginative in his ‘Paradiso,’ and Clovio never
attempted the ‘Inferno’ and ‘Purgatorio’ at all. The imaginations of
Botticelli and Clovio were overshadowed by the cloister, and it was
only when they passed beyond the world or into some noble peace, which
is not the world’s peace, that they won a perfect freedom. Blake had
not such mastery over figure and drapery as had Botticelli, but he
could sympathize with the persons and delight in the scenery of the
‘Inferno’ and the ‘Purgatorio’ as Botticelli could not, and could
fill them with a mysterious and spiritual significance born perhaps
of mystical pantheism. The flames of Botticelli give one no emotion,
and his car of Beatrice is no symbolic chariot of the Church led by
the gryphon, half eagle, half lion, of Christ’s dual nature, but is
a fragment of some mediæval pageant pictured with a merely technical
inspiration. Clovio, the illuminator of missals, has tried to create
with that too easy hand of his a Paradise of serene air reflected in a
little mirror, a heaven of sociability and humility and prettiness,
a heaven of women and of monks; but one cannot imagine him deeply
moved, as the modern world is moved, by the symbolism of bird and
beast, of tree and mountain, of flame and darkness. It was a profound
understanding of all creatures and things, a profound sympathy with
passionate and lost souls, made possible in their extreme intensity
by his revolt against corporeal law, and corporeal reason, which made
Blake the one perfectly fit illustrator for the ‘Inferno’ and the
‘Purgatorio’; in the serene and rapturous emptiness of Dante’s Paradise
he would find no symbols but a few abstract emblems, and he had no love
for the abstract, while with the drapery and the gestures of Beatrice
and Virgil, he would have prospered less than Botticelli or even Clovio.



IN England, which has made great Symbolic Art, most people dislike
an art if they are told it is symbolic, for they confuse symbol and
allegory. Even Johnson’s Dictionary sees no great difference, for it
calls a Symbol ‘That which comprehends in its figure a representation
of something else’; and an Allegory, ‘A figurative discourse, in which
something other is intended than is contained in the words literally
taken.’ It is only a very modern Dictionary that calls a Symbol ‘the
sign or representation of any moral thing by the images or properties
of natural things,’ which, though an imperfect definition, is not
unlike ‘The things below are as the things above’ of the Emerald Tablet
of Hermes! _The Faerie Queene_ and _The Pilgrim’s Progress_ have been
so important in England that Allegory has overtopped Symbolism, and
for a time has overwhelmed it in its own downfall. William Blake was
perhaps the first modern to insist on a difference; and the other
day, when I sat for my portrait to a German Symbolist in Paris, whose
talk was all of his love for Symbolism and his hatred for Allegory,
his definitions were the same as William Blake’s, of whom he knew
nothing. William Blake has written, ‘Vision or imagination’—meaning
symbolism by these words—‘is a representation of what actually exists,
really or unchangeably. Fable or Allegory is formed by the daughters
of Memory.’ The German insisted with many determined gestures, that
Symbolism said things which could not be said so perfectly in any other
way, and needed but a right instinct for its understanding; while
Allegory said things which could be said as well, or better, in another
way, and needed a right knowledge for its understanding. The one gave
dumb things voices, and bodiless things bodies; while the other read
a meaning—which had never lacked its voice or its body—into something
heard or seen, and loved less for the meaning than for its own sake.
The only symbols he cared for were the shapes and motions of the body;
ears hidden by the hair, to make one think of a mind busy with inner
voices; and a head so bent that back and neck made the one curve, as in
Blake’s ‘Vision of Bloodthirstiness,’ to call up an emotion of bodily
strength; and he would not put even a lily, or a rose, or a poppy into
a picture to express purity, or love, or sleep, because he thought
such emblems were allegorical, and had their meaning by a traditional
and not by a natural right. I said that the rose, and the lily, and
the poppy were so married, by their colour and their odour, and their
use, to love and purity and sleep, or to other symbols of love and
purity and sleep, and had been so long a part of the imagination of the
world, that a symbolist might use them to help out his meaning without
becoming an allegorist. I think I quoted the lily in the hand of the
angel in Rossetti’s ‘Annunciation,’ and the lily in the jar in his
‘Childhood of Mary Virgin,’ and thought they made the more important
symbols, the women’s bodies, and the angels’ bodies, and the clear
morning light, take that place, in the great procession of Christian
symbols, where they can alone have all their meaning and all their

It is hard to say where Allegory and Symbolism melt into one another,
but it is not hard to say where either comes to its perfection; and
though one may doubt whether Allegory or Symbolism is the greater
in the horns of Michael Angelo’s ‘Moses,’ one need not doubt that
its symbolism has helped to awaken the modern imagination; while
Tintoretto’s ‘Origin of the Milky Way,’ which is Allegory without any
Symbolism, is, apart from its fine painting, but a moment’s amusement
for our fancy. A hundred generations might write out what seemed the
meaning of the one, and they would write different meanings, for no
symbol tells all its meaning to any generation; but when you have said,
‘That woman there is Juno, and the milk out of her breast is making
the Milky Way,’ you have told the meaning of the other, and the fine
painting, which has added so much irrelevant beauty, has not told it

All Art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is
symbolic, and has the purpose of those symbolic talismans which
mediæval magicians made with complex colours and forms, and bade
their patients ponder over daily, and guard with holy secrecy; for it
entangles, in complex colours and forms, a part of the Divine Essence.
A person or a landscape that is a part of a story or a portrait, evokes
but so much emotion as the story or the portrait can permit without
loosening the bonds that make it a story or a portrait; but if you
liberate a person or a landscape from the bonds of motives and their
actions, causes and their effects, and from all bonds but the bonds
of your love, it will change under your eyes, and become a symbol
of an infinite emotion, a perfected emotion, a part of the Divine
Essence; for we love nothing but the perfect, and our dreams make all
things perfect, that we may love them. Religious and visionary people,
monks and nuns, and medicine-men and opium-eaters, see symbols in
their trances; for religious and visionary thought is thought about
perfection and the way to perfection; and symbols are the only things
free enough from all bonds to speak of perfection.

Wagner’s dramas, Keats’ odes, Blake’s pictures and poems, Calvert’s
pictures, Rossetti’s pictures, Villiers De L’Isle Adam’s plays, and
the black-and-white art of Mr. Beardsley and Mr. Ricketts, and the
lithographs of Mr. Shannon, and the pictures of Mr. Whistler, and
the plays of M. Maeterlinck, and the poetry of Verlaine, in our own
day, but differ from the religious art of Giotto and his disciples in
having accepted all symbolisms, the symbolism of the ancient shepherds
and stargazers, that symbolism of bodily beauty which seemed a wicked
thing to Fra Angelico, the symbolism in day and night, and winter
and summer, spring and autumn, once so great a part of an older
religion than Christianity; and in having accepted all the Divine
Intellect, its anger and its pity, its waking and its sleep, its love
and its lust, for the substance of their art. A Keats or a Calvert is
as much a symbolist as a Blake or a Wagner; but he is a fragmentary
symbolist, for while he evokes in his persons and his landscapes an
infinite emotion, a perfected emotion, a part of the Divine Essence,
he does not set his symbols in the great procession as Blake would
have him, ‘in a certain order, suited’ to his ‘imaginative energy.’
If you paint a beautiful woman and fill her face, as Rossetti filled
so many faces, with an infinite love, a perfected love, ‘one’s eyes
meet no mortal thing when they meet the light of her peaceful eyes,’
as Michael Angelo said of Vittoria Colonna; but one’s thoughts stray
to mortal things, and ask, maybe, ‘Has her lover gone from her, or is
he coming?’ or ‘What predestinated unhappiness has made the shadow
in her eyes?’ If you paint the same face, and set a winged rose or a
rose of gold somewhere about her, one’s thoughts are of her immortal
sisters, Pity and Jealousy, and of her mother, Ancestral Beauty, and of
her high kinsmen, the Holy Orders, whose swords make a continual music
before her face. The systematic mystic is not the greatest of artists,
because his imagination is too great to be bounded by a picture or
a song, and because only imperfection in a mirror of perfection, or
perfection in a mirror of imperfection, delight our frailty. There
is indeed a systematic mystic in every poet or painter who, like
Rossetti, delights in a traditional Symbolism, or, like Wagner,
delights in a personal Symbolism; and such men often fall into trances,
or have waking dreams. Their thought wanders from the woman who is
Love herself, to her sisters and her forebears, and to all the great
procession; and so august a beauty moves before the mind, that they
forget the things which move before the eyes. William Blake, who was
the chanticleer of the new dawn, has written: ‘If the spectator could
enter into one of these images of his imagination, approaching them on
the fiery chariot of his contemplative thought, if ... he could make
a friend and companion of one of these images of wonder, which always
entreat him to leave mortal things (as he must know), then would he
arise from the grave, then would he meet the Lord in the air, and then
he would be happy.’ And again, ‘The world of imagination is the world
of Eternity. It is the Divine bosom into which we shall all go after
the death of the vegetated body. The world of imagination is infinite
and eternal, whereas the world of generation or vegetation is finite
and temporal. There exist in that eternal world the eternal realities
of everything which we see reflected in the vegetable glass of nature.’

Every visionary knows that the mind’s eye soon comes to see a
capricious and variable world, which the will cannot shape or change,
though it can call it up and banish it again. I closed my eyes a
moment ago, and a company of people in blue robes swept by me in a
blinding light, and had gone before I had done more than see little
roses embroidered on the hems of their robes, and confused, blossoming
apple-boughs somewhere beyond them, and recognised one of the company
by his square black, curling beard. I have often seen him; and one
night a year ago, I asked him questions which he answered by showing me
flowers and precious stones, of whose meaning I had no knowledge, and
he seemed too perfected a soul for any knowledge that cannot be spoken
in symbol or metaphor.

Are he and his blue-robed companions, and their like, ‘the Eternal
realities’ of which we are the reflection ‘in the vegetable glass of
nature,’ or a momentary dream? To answer is to take sides in the only
controversy in which it is greatly worth taking sides, and in the only
controversy which may never be decided.




‘SYMBOLISM, as seen in the writers of our day, would have no value
if it were not seen also, under one disguise or another, in every
great imaginative writer,’ writes Mr. Arthur Symons in _The Symbolist
Movement in Literature_, a subtle book which I cannot praise as I
would, because it has been dedicated to me; and he goes on to show
how many profound writers have in the last few years sought for a
philosophy of poetry in the doctrine of symbolism, and how even in
countries where it is almost scandalous to seek for any philosophy
of poetry, new writers are following them in their search. We do not
know what the writers of ancient times talked of among themselves,
and one bull is all that remains of Shakespeare’s talk, who was on
the edge of modern times; and the journalist is convinced, it seems,
that they talked of wine and women and politics, but never about their
art, or never quite seriously about their art. He is certain that
no one, who had a philosophy of his art or a theory of how he should
write, has ever made a work of art, that people have no imagination
who do not write without forethought and afterthought as he writes
his own articles. He says this with enthusiasm, because he has heard
it at so many comfortable dinner-tables, where some one had mentioned
through carelessness, or foolish zeal, a book whose difficulty had
offended indolence, or a man who had not forgotten that beauty is an
accusation. Those formulas and generalizations, in which a hidden
sergeant has drilled the ideas of journalists and through them the
ideas of all but all the modern world, have created in their turn a
forgetfulness like that of soldiers in battle, so that journalists and
their readers have forgotten, among many like events, that Wagner spent
seven years arranging and explaining his ideas before he began his
most characteristic music; that opera, and with it modern music, arose
from certain talks at the house of one Giovanni Bardi of Florence;
and that the Pleiade laid the foundations of modern French literature
with a pamphlet. Goethe has said, ‘a poet needs all philosophy, but he
must keep it out of his work,’ though that is not always necessary;
and certainly he cannot know too much, whether about his own work, or
about the procreant waters of the soul where the breath first moved, or
about the waters under the earth that are the life of passing things;
and almost certainly no great art, outside England, where journalists
are more powerful and ideas less plentiful than elsewhere, has arisen
without a great criticism, for its herald or its interpreter and
protector, and it may be for this reason that great art, now that
vulgarity has armed itself and multiplied itself, is perhaps dead in

All writers, all artists of any kind, in so far as they have had
any philosophical or critical power, perhaps just in so far as they
have been deliberate artists at all, have had some philosophy, some
criticism of their art; and it has often been this philosophy, or this
criticism, that has evoked their most startling inspiration, calling
into outer life some portion of the divine life, of the buried reality,
which could alone extinguish in the emotions what their philosophy or
their criticism would extinguish in the intellect. They have sought
for no new thing, it may be, but only to understand and to copy the
pure inspiration of early times, but because the divine life wars upon
our outer life, and must needs change its weapons and its movements
as we change ours, inspiration has come to them in beautiful startling
shapes. The scientific movement brought with it a literature, which
was always tending to lose itself in externalities of all kinds, in
opinion, in declamation, in picturesque writing, in word-painting, or
in what Mr. Symons has called an attempt ‘to build in brick and mortar
inside the covers of a book’; and now writers have begun to dwell
upon the element of evocation, of suggestion, upon what we call the
symbolism in great writers.


In ‘Symbolism in Painting,’ I tried to describe the element of
symbolism that is in pictures and sculpture, and described a little
the symbolism in poetry, but did not describe at all the continuous
indefinable symbolism which is the substance of all style.

There are no lines with more melancholy beauty than these by Burns—

   ‘The white moon is setting behind the white wave,
    And Time is setting with me, O!’

and these lines are perfectly symbolical. Take from them the whiteness
of the moon and of the wave, whose relation to the setting of Time
is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty.
But, when all are together, moon and wave and whiteness and setting
Time and the last melancholy cry, they evoke an emotion which cannot be
evoked by any other arrangement of colours and sounds and forms. We may
call this metaphorical writing, but it is better to call it symbolical
writing, because metaphors are not profound enough to be moving, when
they are not symbols, and when they are symbols they are the most
perfect, because the most subtle, outside of pure sound, and through
them one can the best find out what symbols are. If one begins the
reverie with any beautiful lines that one can remember, one finds they
are like those by Burns. Begin with this line by Blake—

    ‘The gay fishes on the wave when the moon sucks up the dew’;

or these lines by Nash—

   ‘Brightness falls from the air,
    Queens have died young and fair,
    Dust hath closed Helen’s eye’;

or these lines by Shakespeare—

   ‘Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
    Upon the beached verge of the salt flood;
    Who once a day with his embossed froth
    The turbulent surge shall cover’;

or take some line that is quite simple, that gets its beauty from its
place in a story, and see how it flickers with the light of the many
symbols that have given the story its beauty, as a sword-blade may
flicker with the light of burning towers.

All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their
pre-ordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable
and yet precise emotions, or, as I prefer to think, call down among
us certain disembodied powers, whose footsteps over our hearts we
call emotions; and when sound, and colour, and form are in a musical
relation, a beautiful relation to one another, they become as it were
one sound, one colour, one form, and evoke an emotion that is made out
of their distinct evocations and yet is one emotion. The same relation
exists between all portions of every work of art, whether it be an
epic or a song, and the more perfect it is, and the more various and
numerous the elements that have flowed into its perfection, the more
powerful will be the emotion, the power, the god it calls among us.
Because an emotion does not exist, or does not become perceptible and
active among us, till it has found its expression, in colour or in
sound or in form, or in all of these, and because no two modulations or
arrangements of these evoke the same emotion, poets and painters and
musicians, and in a less degree because their effects are momentary,
day and night and cloud and shadow, are continually making and
unmaking mankind. It is indeed only those things which seem useless
or very feeble that have any power, and all those things that seem
useful or strong, armies, moving wheels, modes of architecture, modes
of government, speculations of the reason, would have been a little
different if some mind long ago had not given itself to some emotion,
as a woman gives herself to her lover, and shaped sounds or colours or
forms, or all of these, into a musical relation, that their emotion
might live in other minds. A little lyric evokes an emotion, and this
emotion gathers others about it and melts into their being in the
making of some great epic; and at last, needing an always less delicate
body, or symbol, as it grows more powerful, it flows out, with all it
has gathered, among the blind instincts of daily life, where it moves
a power within powers, as one sees ring within ring in the stem of an
old tree. This is maybe what Arthur O’Shaughnessy meant when he made
his poets say they had built Nineveh with their sighing; and I am
certainly never certain, when I hear of some war, or of some religious
excitement, or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that
fills the ear of the world, that it has not all happened because of
something that a boy piped in Thessaly. I remember once asking a seer
to ask one among the gods who, as she believed, were standing about her
in their symbolic bodies, what would come of a charming but seeming
trivial labour of a friend, and the form answering, ‘the devastation of
peoples and the overwhelming of cities.’ I doubt indeed if the crude
circumstance of the world, which seems to create all our emotions, does
more than reflect, as in multiplying mirrors, the emotions that have
come to solitary men in moments of poetical contemplation; or that
love itself would be more than an animal hunger but for the poet and
his shadow the priest, for unless we believe that outer things are the
reality, we must believe that the gross is the shadow of the subtle,
that things are wise before they become foolish, and secret before they
cry out in the market-place. Solitary men in moments of contemplation
receive, as I think, the creative impulse from the lowest of the Nine
Hierarchies, and so make and unmake mankind, and even the world itself,
for does not ‘the eye altering alter all’?

   ‘Our towns are copied fragments from our breast;
    And all man’s Babylons strive but to impart
    The grandeurs of his Babylonian heart.’


The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the
moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake,
which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring
monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state
of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure
of the will is unfolded in symbols. If certain sensitive persons listen
persistently to the ticking of a watch, or gaze persistently on the
monotonous flashing of a light, they fall into the hypnotic trance;
and rhythm is but the ticking of a watch made softer, that one must
needs listen, and various, that one may not be swept beyond memory or
grow weary of listening; while the patterns of the artist are but the
monotonous flash woven to take the eyes in a subtler enchantment. I
have heard in meditation voices that were forgotten the moment they had
spoken; and I have been swept, when in more profound meditation, beyond
all memory but of those things that came from beyond the threshold of
waking life. I was writing once at a very symbolical and abstract poem,
when my pen fell on the ground; and as I stooped to pick it up, I
remembered some phantastic adventure that yet did not seem phantastic,
and then another like adventure, and when I asked myself when these
things had happened, I found that I was remembering my dreams for many
nights. I tried to remember what I had done the day before, and then
what I had done that morning; but all my waking life had perished from
me, and it was only after a struggle that I came to remember it again,
and as I did so that more powerful and startling life perished in its
turn. Had my pen not fallen on the ground and so made me turn from the
images that I was weaving into verse, I would never have known that
meditation had become trance, for I would have been like one who does
not know that he is passing through a wood because his eyes are on the
pathway. So I think that in the making and in the understanding of a
work of art, and the more easily if it is full of patterns and symbols
and music, we are lured to the threshold of sleep, and it may be far
beyond it, without knowing that we have ever set our feet upon the
steps of horn or of ivory.


Besides emotional symbols, symbols that evoke emotions alone,—and in
this sense all alluring or hateful things are symbols, although their
relations with one another are too subtle to delight us fully, away
from rhythm and pattern,—there are intellectual symbols, symbols that
evoke ideas alone, or ideas mingled with emotions; and outside the
very definite traditions of mysticism and the less definite criticism
of certain modern poets, these alone are called symbols. Most things
belong to one or another kind, according to the way we speak of them
and the companions we give them, for symbols, associated with ideas
that are more than fragments of the shadows thrown upon the intellect
by the emotions they evoke, are the playthings of the allegorist or
the pedant, and soon pass away. If I say ‘white’ or ‘purple’ in an
ordinary line of poetry, they evoke emotions so exclusively that I
cannot say why they move me; but if I say them in the same mood, in
the same breath with such obvious intellectual symbols as a cross or a
crown of thorns, I think of purity and sovereignty; while innumerable
other meanings, which are held to one another by the bondage of subtle
suggestion, and alike in the emotions and in the intellect, move
visibly through my mind, and move invisibly beyond the threshold of
sleep, casting lights and shadows of an indefinable wisdom on what
had seemed before, it may be, but sterility and noisy violence. It
is the intellect that decides where the reader shall ponder over the
procession of the symbols, and if the symbols are merely emotional,
he gazes from amid the accidents and destinies of the world; but if
the symbols are intellectual too, he becomes himself a part of pure
intellect, and he is himself mingled with the procession. If I watch
a rushy pool in the moonlight, my emotion at its beauty is mixed with
memories of the man that I have seen ploughing by its margin, or of the
lovers I saw there a night ago; but if I look at the moon herself and
remember any of her ancient names and meanings, I move among divine
people, and things that have shaken off our mortality, the tower of
ivory, the queen of waters, the shining stag among enchanted woods, the
white hare sitting upon the hilltop, the fool of faery with his shining
cup full of dreams, and it may be ‘make a friend of one of these images
of wonder,’ and ‘meet the Lord in the air.’ So, too, if one is moved by
Shakespeare, who is content with emotional symbols that he may come
the nearer to our sympathy, one is mixed with the whole spectacle of
the world; while if one is moved by Dante, or by the myth of Demeter,
one is mixed into the shadow of God or of a goddess. So too one is
furthest from symbols when one is busy doing this or that, but the soul
moves among symbols and unfolds in symbols when trance, or madness, or
deep meditation has withdrawn it from every impulse but its own. ‘I
then saw,’ wrote Gérard de Nerval of his madness, ‘vaguely drifting
into form, plastic images of antiquity, which outlined themselves,
became definite, and seemed to represent symbols of which I only seized
the idea with difficulty.’ In an earlier time he would have been of
that multitude, whose souls austerity withdrew, even more perfectly
than madness could withdraw his soul, from hope and memory, from desire
and regret, that they might reveal those processions of symbols that
men bow to before altars, and woo with incense and offerings. But being
of our time, he has been like Maeterlinck, like Villiers de L’Isle Adam
in _Axël_, like all who are preoccupied with intellectual symbols in
our time, a foreshadower of the new sacred book, of which all the arts,
as somebody has said, are begging to dream, and because, as I think,
they cannot overcome the slow dying of men’s hearts that we call the
progress of the world, and lay their hands upon men’s heart-strings
again, without becoming the garment of religion as in old times.


If people were to accept the theory that poetry moves us because of its
symbolism, what change should one look for in the manner of our poetry?
A return to the way of our fathers, a casting out of descriptions of
nature for the sake of nature, of the moral law for the sake of the
moral law, a casting out of all anecdotes and of that brooding over
scientific opinion that so often extinguished the central flame in
Tennyson, and of that vehemence that would make us do or not do certain
things; or, in other words, we should come to understand that the beryl
stone was enchanted by our fathers that it might unfold the pictures
in its heart, and not to mirror our own excited faces, or the boughs
waving outside the window. With this change of substance, this return
to imagination, this understanding that the laws of art, which are
the hidden laws of the world, can alone bind the imagination, would
come a change of style, and we would cast out of serious poetry those
energetic rhythms, as of a man running, which are the invention of
the will with its eyes always on something to be done or undone; and
we would seek out those wavering, meditative, organic rhythms, which
are the embodiment of the imagination, that neither desires nor hates,
because it has done with time, and only wishes to gaze upon some
reality, some beauty; nor would it be any longer possible for anybody
to deny the importance of form, in all its kinds, for although you can
expound an opinion, or describe a thing when your words are not quite
well chosen, you cannot give a body to something that moves beyond
the senses, unless your words are as subtle, as complex, as full of
mysterious life, as the body of a flower or of a woman. The form of
sincere poetry, unlike the form of the popular poetry, may indeed be
sometimes obscure, or ungrammatical as in some of the best of the Songs
of Innocence and Experience, but it must have the perfections that
escape analysis, the subtleties that have a new meaning every day, and
it must have all this whether it be but a little song made out of a
moment of dreamy indolence, or some great epic made out of the dreams
of one poet and of a hundred generations whose hands were never weary
of the sword.




I REMEMBER, some years ago, advising a distinguished, though too little
recognised, writer of poetical plays to write a play as unlike ordinary
plays as possible, that it might be judged with a fresh mind, and to
put it on the stage in some small suburban theatre, where a small
audience would pay its expenses. I said that he should follow it the
year after, at the same time of the year, with another play, and so
on from year to year; and that the people who read books, and do not
go to the theatre, would gradually find out about him. I suggested
that he should begin with a pastoral play, because nobody would expect
from a pastoral play the succession of nervous tremours which the
plays of commerce, like the novels of commerce, have substituted for
the purification that comes with pity and terror to the imagination
and intellect. He followed my advice in part, and had a small but
perfect success, filling his small theatre for twice the number of
performances he had announced; but instead of being content with the
praise of his equals, and waiting to win their praise another year,
he hired immediately a big London theatre, and put his pastoral play
and a new play before a meagre and unintelligent audience. I still
remember his pastoral play with delight, because, if not always of a
high excellence, it was always poetical; but I remember it at the small
theatre, where my pleasure was magnified by the pleasure of those about
me, and not at the big theatre, where it made me uncomfortable, as an
unwelcome guest always makes one uncomfortable.

Why should we thrust our works, which we have written with imaginative
sincerity and filled with spiritual desire, before those quite
excellent people who think that Rossetti’s women are ‘guys,’ that
Rodin’s women are ‘ugly,’ and that Ibsen is ‘immoral,’ and who only
want to be left at peace to enjoy the works so many clever men have
made especially to suit them? We must make a theatre for ourselves and
our friends, and for a few simple people who understand from sheer
simplicity what we understand from scholarship and thought. We have
planned the Irish Literary Theatre with this hospitable emotion, and,
that the right people may find out about us, we hope to act a play or
two in the spring of every year; and that the right people may escape
the stupefying memory of the theatre of commerce which clings even to
them, our plays will be for the most part remote, spiritual, and ideal.

A common opinion is that the poetic drama has come to an end, because
modern poets have no dramatic power; and Mr. Binyon seems to accept
this opinion when he says: ‘It has been too often assumed that it is
the manager who bars the way to poetic plays. But it is much more
probable that the poets have failed the managers. If poets mean to
serve the stage, their dramas must he dramatic.’ I find it easier
to believe that audiences, who have learned, as I think, from the
life of crowded cities to live upon the surface of life, and actors
and managers, who study to please them, have changed, than that
imagination, which is the voice of what is eternal in man, has changed.
The arts are but one Art; and why should all intense painting and
all intense poetry have become not merely unintelligible but hateful
to the greater number of men and women, and intense drama move them
to pleasure? The audiences of Sophocles and of Shakespeare and of
Calderon were not unlike the audiences I have heard listening in Irish
cabins to songs in Gaelic about ‘an old poet telling his sins,’ and
about ‘the five young men who were drowned last year,’ and about ‘the
lovers that were drowned going to America,’ or to some tale of Oisin
and his three hundred years in _Tir nan Oge_. Mr. Bridges’ _Return of
Ulysses_, one of the most beautiful and, as I think, dramatic of modern
plays, might have some success in the Aran Islands, if the Gaelic
League would translate it into Gaelic, but I am quite certain that it
would have no success in the Strand.

Blake has said that all Art is a labour to bring again the Golden Age,
and all culture is certainly a labour to bring again the simplicity
of the first ages, with knowledge of good and evil added to it. The
drama has need of cities that it may find men in sufficient numbers,
and cities destroy the emotions to which it appeals, and therefore
the days of the drama are brief and come but seldom. It has one day
when the emotions of cities still remember the emotions of sailors and
husbandmen and shepherds and users of the spear and the bow; as the
houses and furniture and earthern vessels of cities, before the coming
of machinery, remember the rocks and the woods and the hillside;
and it has another day, now beginning, when thought and scholarship
discover their desire. In the first day, it is the Art of the people;
and in the second day, like the dramas acted of old times in the hidden
places of temples, it is the preparation of a Priesthood. It may be,
though the world is not old enough to show us any example, that this
Priesthood will spread their Religion everywhere, and make their Art
the Art of the people.

When the first day of the drama had passed by, actors found that an
always larger number of people were more easily moved through the eyes
than through the ears. The emotion that comes with the music of words
is exhausting, like all intellectual emotions, and few people like
exhausting emotions; and therefore actors began to speak as if they
were reading something out of the newspapers. They forgot the noble art
of oratory, and gave all their thought to the poor art of acting, that
is content with the sympathy of our nerves; until at last those who
love poetry found it better to read alone in their rooms what they had
once delighted to hear sitting friend by friend, lover by beloved. I
once asked Mr. William Morris if he had thought of writing a play, and
he answered that he had, but would not write one, because actors did
not know how to speak poetry with the half-chant men spoke it with in
old times. Mr. Swinburne’s _Locrine_ was acted a month ago, and it was
not badly acted, but nobody could tell whether it was fit for the stage
or not, for not one rhythm, not one cry of passion, was spoken with a
musical emphasis, and verse spoken without a musical emphasis seems but
an artificial and cumbersome way of saying what might be said naturally
and simply in prose.

As audiences and actors changed, managers learned to substitute
meretricious landscapes, painted upon wood and canvas, for the
descriptions of poetry, until the painted scenery, which had in Greece
been a charming explanation of what was least important in the story,
became as important as the story. It needed some imagination, some gift
for day-dreams, to see the horses and the fields and flowers of Colonus
as one listened to the elders gathered about Œdipus, or to see ‘the
pendent bed and procreant cradle’ of the ‘martlet’ as one listened to
Duncan before the castle of Macbeth; but it needs no imagination to
admire a painting of one of the more obvious effects of nature painted
by somebody who understands how to show everything to the most hurried
glance. At the same time the managers made the costumes of the actors
more and more magnificent, that the mind might sleep in peace, while
the eye took pleasure in the magnificence of velvet and silk and in the
physical beauty of women. These changes gradually perfected the theatre
of commerce, the masterpiece of that movement towards externality in
life and thought and Art, against which the criticism of our day is
learning to protest.

Even if poetry were spoken as poetry, it would still seem out of place
in many of its highest moments upon a stage, where the superficial
appearances of nature are so closely copied; for poetry is founded
upon convention, and becomes incredible the moment painting or gesture
remind us that people do not speak verse when they meet upon the
highway. The theatre of Art, when it comes to exist, must therefore
discover grave and decorative gestures, such as delighted Rossetti and
Madox Brown, and grave and decorative scenery, that will be forgotten
the moment an actor has said ‘It is dawn,’ or ‘It is raining,’ or
‘The wind is shaking the trees’; and dresses of so little irrelevant
magnificence that the mortal actors and actresses may change without
much labour into the immortal people of romance. The theatre began in
ritual, and it cannot come to its greatness again without recalling
words to their ancient sovereignty.

It will take a generation, and perhaps generations, to restore the
theatre of Art; for one must get one’s actors, and perhaps one’s
scenery, from the theatre of commerce, until new actors and new
painters have come to help one; and until many failures and imperfect
successes have made a new tradition, and perfected in detail the ideal
that is beginning to float before our eyes. If one could call one’s
painters and one’s actors from where one would, how easy it would be!
I know some painters, who have never painted scenery, who could paint
the scenery I want, but they have their own work to do; and in Ireland
I have heard a red-haired orator repeat some bad political verses with
a voice that went through one like flame, and made them seem the most
beautiful verses in the world; but he has no practical knowledge of the
stage, and probably despises it.

    May, 1899.


Dionysius, the Areopagite, wrote that ‘He has set the borders of
the nations according to His angels.’ It is these angels, each one
the genius of some race about to be unfolded, that are the founders
of intellectual traditions; and as lovers understand in their first
glance all that is to befall them, and as poets and musicians see the
whole work in its first impulse, so races prophesy at their awakening
whatever the generations that are to prolong their traditions shall
accomplish in detail. It is only at the awakening—as in ancient Greece,
or in Elizabethan England, or in contemporary Scandinavia—that great
numbers of men understand that a right understanding of life and of
destiny is more important than amusement. In London, where all the
intellectual traditions gather to die, men hate a play if they are told
it is literature, for they will not endure a spiritual superiority; but
in Athens, where so many intellectual traditions were born, Euripides
once changed hostility to enthusiasm by asking his playgoers whether
it was his business to teach them, or their business to teach him.
New races understand instinctively, because the future cries in their
ears, that the old revelations are insufficient, and that all life
is revelation beginning in miracle and enthusiasm, and dying out as
it unfolds itself in what we have mistaken for progress. It is one of
our illusions, as I think, that education, the softening of manners,
the perfecting of law—countless images of a fading light—can create
nobleness and beauty, and that life moves slowly and evenly towards
some perfection. Progress is miracle, and it is sudden, because
miracles are the work of an all-powerful energy, and nature in herself
has no power except to die and to forget. If one studies one’s own
mind, one comes to think with Blake, that ‘every time less than a
pulsation of the artery is equal to six thousand years, for in this
period the poet’s work is done; and all the great events of time start
forth and are conceived in such a period, within a pulsation of the

    February, 1900.



ERNEST RENAN described what he held to be Celtic characteristics
in _The Poetry of the Celtic Races_. I must repeat the well-known
sentences: ‘No race communed so intimately as the Celtic race with the
lower creation, or believed it to have so big a share of moral life.’
The Celtic race had ‘a realistic naturalism,’ ‘a love of nature for
herself, a vivid feeling for her magic, commingled with the melancholy
a man knows when he is face to face with her, and thinks he hears her
communing with him about his origin and his destiny.’ ‘It has worn
itself out in mistaking dreams for realities,’ and ‘compared with the
classical imagination the Celtic imagination is indeed the infinite
contrasted with the finite.’ ‘Its history is one long lament, it
still recalls its exiles, its flights across the seas.’ ‘If at times
it seems to be cheerful, its tear is not slow to glisten behind the
smile. Its songs of joy end as elegies; there is nothing to equal the
delightful sadness of its national melodies.’ Matthew Arnold, in _The
Study of Celtic Literature_, has accepted this passion for nature, this
imaginativeness, this melancholy, as Celtic characteristics, but has
described them more elaborately. The Celtic passion for nature comes
almost more from a sense of her ‘mystery’ than of her ‘beauty,’ and it
adds ‘charm and magic’ to nature, and the Celtic imaginativeness and
melancholy are alike ‘a passionate, turbulent, indomitable reaction
against the despotism of fact.’ The Celt is not melancholy, as Faust or
Werther are melancholy, from ‘a perfectly definite motive,’ but because
of something about him ‘unaccountable, defiant and titanic.’ How well
one knows these sentences, better even than Renan’s, and how well one
knows the passages of prose and verse which he uses to prove that
wherever English literature has the qualities these sentences describe,
it has them from a Celtic source. Though I do not think any of us who
write about Ireland have built any argument upon them, it is well to
consider them a little, and see where they are helpful and where they
are hurtful. If we do not, we may go mad some day, and the enemy root
up our rose-garden and plant a cabbage-garden instead. Perhaps we must
restate a little, Renan’s and Arnold’s argument.


Once every people in the world believed that trees were divine, and
could take a human or grotesque shape and dance among the shadows; and
that deer, and ravens and foxes, and wolves and bears, and clouds and
pools, almost all things under the sun and moon, and the sun and moon,
were not less divine and changeable. They saw in the rainbow the still
bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence; they heard in the
thunder the sound of his beaten water-jar, or the tumult of his chariot
wheels; and when a sudden flight of wild duck, or of crows, passed
over their heads, they thought they were gazing at the dead hastening
to their rest; while they dreamed of so great a mystery in little
things that they believed the waving of a hand, or of a sacred bough,
enough to trouble far-off hearts, or hood the moon with darkness. All
old literatures are full of these or of like imaginations, and all
the poets of races, who have not lost this way of looking at things,
could have said of themselves, as the poet of the _Kalevala_ said of
himself, ‘I have learned my songs from the music of many birds, and
from the music of many waters.’ When a mother in the _Kalevala_ weeps
for a daughter, who was drowned flying from an old suitor, she weeps so
greatly that her tears become three rivers, and cast up three rocks,
on which grow three birch-trees, where three cuckoos sit and sing,
the one ‘love, love,’ the one ‘suitor, suitor,’ the one ‘consolation,
consolation.’ And the makers of the Sagas made the squirrel run up and
down the sacred ash-tree carrying words of hatred from the eagle to the
worm, and from the worm to the eagle; although they had less of the old
way than the makers of the _Kalevala_, for they lived in a more crowded
and complicated world, and were learning the abstract meditation which
lures men from visible beauty, and were unlearning, it may be, the
impassioned meditation which brings men beyond the edge of trance and
makes trees, and beasts, and dead things talk with human voices.

The old Irish and the old Welsh, though they had less of the old way
than the makers of the _Kalevala_, had more of it than the makers of
the Sagas, and it is this that distinguishes the examples Matthew
Arnold quotes of their ‘natural magic,’ of their sense of ‘the
mystery’ more than of ‘the beauty’ of nature. When Matthew Arnold wrote
it was not easy to know as much as we know now of folk song and folk
belief, and I do not think he understood that our ‘natural magic’ is
but the ancient religion of the world, the ancient worship of nature
and that troubled ecstasy before her, that certainty of all beautiful
places being haunted, which it brought into men’s minds. The ancient
religion is in that passage of the _Mabinogion_ about the making of
‘Flower Aspect.’ Gwydion and Math made her ‘by charms and illusions’
‘out of flowers.’ ‘They took the blossoms of the oak, and the blossoms
of the broom, and the blossoms of the meadowsweet, and produced from
them a maiden the fairest and most graceful that man ever saw; and
they baptized her, and called her Flower Aspect’; and one finds it in
the not less beautiful passage about the burning Tree, that has half
its beauty from calling up a fancy of leaves so living and beautiful,
they can be of no less living and beautiful a thing than flame: ‘They
saw a tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in
flames from the root to the top, and the other half was green and in
full leaf.’ And one finds it very certainly in the quotations he makes
from English poets to prove a Celtic influence in English poetry; in
Keats’s ‘magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery
lands forlorn’; in his ‘moving waters at their priest-like task of
pure ablution round earth’s human shore’; in Shakespeare’s ‘floor of
heaven,’ ‘inlaid with patens of bright gold’; and in his Dido standing
‘on the wild sea banks,’ ‘a willow in her hand,’ and waving it in the
ritual of the old worship of nature and the spirits of nature, to wave
‘her love to come again to Carthage.’ And his other examples have the
delight and wonder of devout worshippers among the haunts of their
divinities. Is there not such delight and wonder in the description of
Olwen in the _Mabinogion_: ‘More yellow was her hair than the flower
of the broom, and her skin was whiter than the foam of the wave,
and fairer were her hands and her fingers than the blossoms of the
wood-anemone amidst the spray of the meadow fountains.’ And is there
not such delight and wonder in—

   ‘Meet we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
    By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
    Or on the beached margent of the sea’?

If men had never dreamed that fair women could be made out of flowers,
or rise up out of meadow fountains and paved fountains, neither passage
could have been written. Certainly the descriptions of nature made in
what Matthew Arnold calls ‘the faithful way,’ or in what he calls ‘the
Greek way,’ would have lost nothing if all the meadow fountains or
paved fountains were meadow fountains and paved fountains and nothing
more. When Keats wrote, in the Greek way, which adds lightness and
brightness to nature—

   ‘What little town by river or sea-shore
    Or mountain built with quiet citadel,
    Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn’;

when Shakespeare wrote in the Greek way—

   ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
    Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows’;

when Virgil wrote in the Greek way—

   ‘Muscosi fontes et somno mollior herba,’


   ‘Pallentes violas et summa papavera carpens
    Narcissum et florem jungit bene olentis anethi’;

they looked at nature without ecstasy, but with the affection a man
feels for the garden where he has walked daily and thought pleasant
thoughts. They looked at nature in the modern way, the way of people
who are poetical, but are more interested in one another than in a
nature which has faded to be but friendly and pleasant, the way of
people who have forgotten the ancient religion.


Men who lived in a world where anything might flow and change, and
become any other thing; and among great gods whose passions were in
the flaming sunset, and in the thunder and the thunder-shower, had
not our thoughts of weight and measure. They worshipped nature and
the abundance of nature, and had always, as it seems, for a supreme
ritual that tumultuous dance among the hills or in the depths of the
woods, where unearthly ecstasy fell upon the dancers, until they seemed
the gods or the godlike beasts, and felt their souls overtopping the
moon; and, as some think, imagined for the first time in the world the
blessed country of the gods and of the happy dead. They had imaginative
passions because they did not live within our own strait limits, and
were nearer to ancient chaos, every man’s desire, and had immortal
models about them. The hare that ran by among the dew might have sat
upon his haunches when the first man was made, and the poor bunch of
rushes under their feet might have been a goddess laughing among the
stars; and with but a little magic, a little waving of the hands, a
little murmuring of the lips, they too could become a hare or a bunch
of rushes, and know immortal love and immortal hatred.

All folk literature, and all literature that keeps the folk tradition,
delights in unbounded and immortal things. The _Kalevala_ delights in
the seven hundred years that Luonaton wanders in the depths of the
sea with Wäinämöinen in her womb, and the Mahomedan king in the Song
of Roland, pondering upon the greatness of Charlemagne, repeats over
and over, ‘He is three hundred years old, when will he weary of war?’
Cuchulain in the Irish folk tale had the passion of victory, and he
overcame all men, and died warring upon the waves, because they alone
had the strength to overcome him. The lover in the Irish folk song bids
his beloved come with him into the woods, and see the salmon leap in
the rivers, and hear the cuckoo sing, because death will never find
them in the heart of the woods. Oisin, new come from his three hundred
years of faeryland, and of the love that is in faeryland, bids Saint
Patrick cease his prayers a while and listen to the blackbird, because
it is the blackbird of Darrycarn that Finn brought from Norway, three
hundred years before, and set its nest upon the oak-tree with his own
hands. Surely if one goes far enough into the woods, one will find
there all that one is seeking? Who knows how many centuries the birds
of the woods have been singing?

All folk literature has indeed a passion whose like is not in modern
literature and music and art, except where it has come by some straight
or crooked way out of ancient times. Love was held to be a fatal
sickness in ancient Ireland, and there is a love-poem in _The Songs of
Connacht_ that is like a death cry: ‘My love, O she is my love, the
woman who is most for destroying me, dearer is she for making me ill
than the woman who would be for making me well. She is my treasure, O
she is my treasure, the woman of the grey eyes ... a woman who would
not lay a hand under my head.... She is my love, O she is my love, the
woman who left no strength in me; a woman who would not breathe a sigh
after me, a woman who would not raise a stone at my tomb.... She is my
secret love, O she is my secret love. A woman who tells me nothing, ...
a woman who does not remember me to be out.... She is my choice, O she
is my choice, the woman who would not look back at me, the woman who
would not make peace with me.... She is my desire, O she is my desire:
a woman dearest to me under the sun, a woman who would not pay me heed,
if I were to sit by her side. It is she ruined my heart and left a sigh
for ever in me.’ There is another song that ends, ‘The Erne shall be
in strong flood, the hills shall be torn down, and the sea shall have
red waves, and blood shall be spilled, and every mountain valley and
every moor shall be on high, before you shall perish, my little black
rose.’ Nor do the old Irish weigh and measure their hatred. The nurse
of O’Sullivan Bere in the folk song prays that the bed of his betrayer
may be the red hearth-stone of hell for ever. And an Elizabethan Irish
poet cries: ‘Three things are waiting for my death. The devil, who is
waiting for my soul and cares nothing for my body or my wealth; the
worms, who are waiting for my body but care nothing for my soul or my
wealth; my children, who are waiting for my wealth and care nothing for
my body or my soul. O Christ, hang all three in the one noose.’ Such
love and hatred seek no mortal thing but their own infinity, and such
love and hatred soon become love and hatred of the idea. The lover who
loves so passionately can soon sing to his beloved like the lover in
the poem by ‘A.E.,’ ‘A vast desire awakes and grows into forgetfulness
of thee.’

When an early Irish poet calls the Irishman famous for much loving,
and a proverb, a friend has heard in the Highlands of Scotland, talks
of the lovelessness of the Irishman, they may say but the same thing,
for if your passion is but great enough it leads you to a country where
there are many cloisters. The hater who hates with too good a heart
soon comes also to hate the idea only; and from this idealism in love
and hatred comes, as I think, a certain power of saying and forgetting
things, especially a power of saying and forgetting things in politics,
which others do not say and forget. The ancient farmers and herdsmen
were full of love and hatred, and made their friends gods, and their
enemies the enemies of gods, and those who keep their tradition are
not less mythological. From this ‘mistaking dreams,’ which are perhaps
essences, for ‘realities’ which are perhaps accidents, from this
‘passionate, turbulent reaction against the despotism of fact,’ comes,
it may be, that melancholy which made all ancient peoples delight in
tales that end in death and parting, as modern peoples delight in
tales that end in marriage bells; and made all ancient peoples, who
like the old Irish had a nature more lyrical than dramatic, delight
in wild and beautiful lamentations. Life was so weighed down by the
emptiness of the great forests and by the mystery of all things, and by
the greatness of its own desires, and, as I think, by the loneliness
of much beauty; and seemed so little and so fragile and so brief,
that nothing could be more sweet in the memory than a tale that ended
in death and parting, and than a wild and beautiful lamentation. Men
did not mourn merely because their beloved was married to another, or
because learning was bitter in the mouth, for such mourning believes
that life might be happy were it different, and is therefore the less
mourning; but because they had been born and must die with their great
thirst unslaked. And so it is that all the august sorrowful persons
of literature, Cassandra and Helen and Deirdre, and Lear and Tristan,
have come out of legends and are indeed but the images of the primitive
imagination mirrored in the little looking-glass of the modern and
classic imagination. This is that ‘melancholy a man knows when he is
face to face’ with nature, and thinks ‘he hears her communing with him
about’ the mournfulness of being born and of dying; and how can it do
otherwise than call into his mind ‘its exiles, its flights across the
seas,’ that it may stir the ever-smouldering ashes? No Gaelic poetry is
so popular in Gaelic-speaking places as the lamentations of Oisin, old
and miserable, remembering the companions and the loves of his youth,
and his three hundred years in faeryland, and his faery love: all
dreams withering in the winds of time lament in his lamentations: ‘The
clouds are long above me this night; last night was a long night to me;
although I find this day long, yesterday was still longer. Every day
that comes to me is long.... No one in this great world is like me—a
poor old man dragging stones. The clouds are long above me this night.
I am the last man of the Fianna, the great Oisin, the son of Finn,
listening to the sound of bells. The clouds are long above me this
night.’ Matthew Arnold quotes the lamentation of Leyrach Hen as a type
of the Celtic melancholy, but I prefer to quote it as a type of the
primitive melancholy; ‘O my crutch, is it not autumn when the fern is
red and the water flag yellow? Have I not hated that which I love?...
Behold, old age, which makes sport of me, from the hair of my head and
my teeth, to my eyes which women loved. The four things I have all my
life most hated fall upon me together—coughing and old age, sickness
and sorrow. I am old, I am alone, shapeliness and warmth are gone from
me, the couch of honour shall be no more mine; I am miserable, I am
bent on my crutch. How evil was the lot allotted to Leyrach, the night
he was brought forth! Sorrows without end and no deliverance from his
burden.’ An Elizabethan writer describes extravagant sorrow by calling
it ‘to weep Irish’; and Oisin and Leyrach Hen are, I think, a little
nearer even to us modern Irish than they are to most people. That is
why our poetry and much of our thought is melancholy. ‘The same man,’
writes Dr. Hyde in the beautiful prose which he first writes in Gaelic,
‘who will to-day be dancing, sporting, drinking, and shouting, will be
soliloquizing by himself to-morrow, heavy and sick and sad in his own
lonely little hut, making a croon over departed hopes, lost life, the
vanity of this world, and the coming of death.’


Matthew Arnold asks how much of the Celt must one imagine in the ideal
man of genius. I prefer to say, how much of the ancient hunters and
fishers and of the ecstatic dancers among hills and woods must one
imagine in the ideal man of genius. Certainly a thirst for unbounded
emotion and a wild melancholy are troublesome things in the world,
and do not make its life more easy or orderly, but it may be the arts
are founded on the life beyond the world, and that they must cry in
the ears of our penury until the world has been consumed and become a
vision. Certainly, as Samuel Palmer wrote, ‘Excess is the vivifying
spirit of the finest art, and we must always seek to make excess more
abundantly excessive.’ Matthew Arnold has said that if he were asked
‘where English got its turn for melancholy and its turn for natural
magic,’ he ‘would answer with little doubt that it got much of its
melancholy from a Celtic source, with no doubt at all that from a
Celtic source is got nearly all its natural magic.’

I will put this differently and say that literature dwindles to a mere
chronicle of circumstance, or passionless phantasies, and passionless
meditations, unless it is constantly flooded with the passions and
beliefs of ancient times, and that of all the fountains of the passions
and beliefs of ancient times in Europe, the Sclavonic, the Finnish, the
Scandinavian, and the Celtic, the Celtic alone has been for centuries
close to the main river of European literature. It has again and again
brought ‘the vivifying spirit’ ‘of excess’ into the arts of Europe.
Ernest Renan has told how the visions of purgatory seen by pilgrims to
Lough Derg—once visions of the pagan under-world, as the boat made out
of a hollow tree that bore the pilgrim to the holy island were alone
enough to prove—gave European thought new symbols of a more abundant
penitence; and had so great an influence that he has written, ‘It
cannot be doubted for a moment that to the number of poetical themes
Europe owes to the genius of the Celt is to be added the framework of
the divine comedy.’

A little later the legends of Arthur and his table, and of the Holy
Grail, once it seems the cauldron of an Irish god, changed the
literature of Europe, and it maybe changed, as it were, the very roots
of man’s emotions by their influence on the spirit of chivalry and
on the spirit of romance; and later still Shakespeare found his Mab,
and probably his Puck, and one knows not how much else of his faery
kingdom, in Celtic legend; while at the beginning of our own day Sir
Walter Scott gave Highland legends and Highland excitability so great a
mastery over all romance that they seem romance itself.

In our own time Scandinavian tradition, because of the imagination
of Richard Wagner and of William Morris and of the earlier and, as I
think, greater Heinrich Ibsen, has created a new romance, and through
the imagination of Richard Wagner, become all but the most passionate
element in the arts of the modern world. There is indeed but one other
element as passionate, the still unfaded legends of Arthur and of the
Holy Grail; and now a new fountain of legends, and, as I think, a
more abundant fountain than any in Europe, is being opened, the great
fountain of Gaelic legends; the tale of Deirdre, who alone among the
women who have set men mad was at once the white flame and the red
flame, wisdom and loveliness; the tale of the Sons of Tuireann, with
its unintelligible mysteries, an old Grail Quest as I think; the tale
of the four children changed into four swans, and lamenting over many
waters; the tale of the love of Cuchulain for an immortal goddess, and
his coming home to a mortal woman in the end; the tale of his many
battles at the ford with that dear friend he kissed before the battles,
and over whose dead body he wept when he had killed him; the tale of
his death and of the lamentations of Emer; the tale of the flight of
Grainne with Diarmuid, strangest of all tales of the fickleness of
woman, and the tale of the coming of Oisin out of faeryland, and of
his memories and lamentations. ‘The Celtic movement,’ as I understand
it, is principally the opening of this fountain, and none can measure
of how great importance it may be to coming times, for every new
fountain of legends is a new intoxication for the imagination of the
world. It comes at a time when the imagination of the world is as
ready, as it was at the coming of the tales of Arthur and of the Grail,
for a new intoxication. The reaction against the rationalism of the
eighteenth century has mingled with a reaction against the materialism
of the nineteenth century, and the symbolical movement, which has come
to perfection in Germany in Wagner, in England in the Pre-Raphaelites,
and in France in Villiers de L’Isle Adam, and Mallarmé, and
Maeterlinck, and has stirred the imagination of Ibsen and D’Annunzio,
is certainly the only movement that is saying new things. The arts
by brooding upon their own intensity have become religious, and are
seeking, as I think Verhaeren has said, to create a sacred book. They
must, as religious thought has always done, utter themselves through
legends; and the Sclavonic and Finnish legends tell of strange woods
and seas, and the Scandinavian legends are held by a great master, and
tell also of strange woods and seas, and the Welsh legends are held
by almost as many great masters as the Greek legends, while the Irish
legends move among known woods and seas, and have so much of a new
beauty, that they may well give the opening century its most memorable


I could have written this essay with much more precision and have much
better illustrated my meaning if I had waited until Lady Gregory had
finished her book of legends, _Cuchulain of Muirthemne_, a book to set
beside the _Morte d’Arthur_ and the _Mabinogion_.



OUR thoughts and emotions are often but spray flung up from hidden
tides that follow a moon no eye can see. I remember that when I first
began to write I desired to describe outward things as vividly as
possible, and took pleasure, in which there was, perhaps, a little
discontent, in picturesque and declamatory books. And then quite
suddenly I lost the desire of describing outward things, and found
that I took little pleasure in a book unless it was spiritual and
unemphatic. I did not then understand that the change was from beyond
my own mind, but I understand now that writers are struggling all over
Europe, though not often with a philosophic understanding of their
struggle, against that picturesque and declamatory way of writing,
against that ‘externality’ which a time of scientific and political
thought has brought into literature. This struggle has been going on
for some years, but it has only just become strong enough to draw
within itself the little inner world which alone seeks more than
amusement in the arts. In France, where movements are more marked,
because the people are pre-eminently logical, _The Temptation of S.
Anthony_, the last great dramatic invention of the old romanticism,
contrasts very plainly with _Axël_, the first great dramatic invention
of the new; and Maeterlinck has followed Count Villiers de L’Isle
Adam. Flaubert wrote unforgettable descriptions of grotesque, bizarre,
and beautiful scenes and persons, as they show to the ear and to the
eye, and crowded them with historic and ethnographical details; but
Count Villiers de L’Isle Adam swept together, by what seemed a sudden
energy, words behind which glimmered a spiritual and passionate mood,
as the flame glimmers behind the dusky blue and red glass in an Eastern
lamp; and created persons from whom has fallen all even of personal
characteristic except a thirst for that hour when all things shall pass
away like a cloud, and a pride like that of the Magi following their
star over many mountains; while Maeterlinck has plucked away even this
thirst and this pride and set before us faint souls, naked and pathetic
shadows already half vapour and sighing to one another upon the border
of the last abyss. There has been, as I think, a like change in French
painting, for one sees everywhere, instead of the dramatic stories and
picturesque moments of an older school, frail and tremulous bodies
unfitted for the labour of life, and landscape where subtle rhythms of
colour and of form have overcome the clear outline of things as we see
them in the labour of life.

There has been a like change in England, but it has come more gradually
and is more mixed with lesser changes than in France. The poetry which
found its expression in the poems of writers like Browning and of
Tennyson, and even of writers, who are seldom classed with them, like
Swinburne, and like Shelley in his earlier years, pushed its limits
as far as possible, and tried to absorb into itself the science and
politics, the philosophy and morality of its time; but a new poetry,
which is always contracting its limits, has grown up under the shadow
of the old. Rossetti began it, but was too much of a painter in his
poetry to follow it with a perfect devotion; and it became a movement
when Mr. Lang and Mr. Gosse and Mr. Dobson devoted themselves to
the most condensed of lyric poems, and when Mr. Bridges, a more
considerable poet, elaborated a rhythm too delicate for any but an
almost bodiless emotion, and repeated over and over the most ancient
notes of poetry, and none but these. The poets who followed have
either, like Mr. Kipling, turned from serious poetry altogether, and
so passed out of the processional order, or speak out of some personal
or spiritual passion in words and types and metaphors that draw one’s
imagination as far as possible from the complexities of modern life and
thought. The change has been more marked in English painting, which,
when intense enough to belong to the procession order, began to cast
out things, as they are seen by minds plunged in the labour of life, so
much before French painting that ideal art is sometimes called English
art upon the Continent.

I see, indeed, in the arts of every country those faint lights and
faint colours and faint outlines and faint energies which many call
‘the decadence,’ and which I, because I believe that the arts lie
dreaming of things to come, prefer to call the autumn of the body.
An Irish poet whose rhythms are like the cry of a sea-bird in autumn
twilight has told its meaning in the line, ‘The very sunlight’s weary,
and it’s time to quit the plough.’ Its importance is the greater
because it comes to us at the moment when we are beginning to be
interested in many things which positive science, the interpreter
of exterior law, has always denied: communion of mind with mind in
thought and without words, foreknowledge in dreams and in visions, and
the coming among us of the dead, and of much else. We are, it may be,
at a crowning crisis of the world, at the moment when man is about
to ascend, with the wealth, he has been so long gathering, upon his
shoulders, the stairway he has been descending from the first days.
The first poets, if one may find their images in the _Kalevala_, had
not Homer’s preoccupation with things, and he was not so full of their
excitement as Virgil. Dante added to poetry a dialectic which, although
he made it serve his laborious ecstasy, was the invention of minds
trained by the labour of life, by a traffic among many things, and
not a spontaneous expression of an interior life; while Shakespeare
shattered the symmetry of verse and of drama that he might fill them
with things and their accidental relations to one another.

Each of these writers had come further down the stairway than those
who had lived before him, but it was only with the modern poets, with
Goethe and Wordsworth and Browning, that poetry gave up the right to
consider all things in the world as a dictionary of types and symbols
and began to call itself a critic of life and an interpreter of things
as they are. Painting, music, science, politics, and even religion,
because they have felt a growing belief that we know nothing but the
fading and flowering of the world, have changed in numberless elaborate
ways. Man has wooed and won the world, and has fallen weary, and not,
I think, for a time, but with a weariness that will not end until the
last autumn, when the stars shall be blown away like withered leaves.
He grew weary when he said, ‘These things that I touch and see and hear
are alone real,’ for he saw them without illusion at last, and found
them but air and dust and moisture. And now he must be philosophical
above everything, even about the arts, for he can only return the way
he came, and so escape from weariness, by philosophy. The arts are,
I believe, about to take upon their shoulders the burdens that have
fallen from the shoulders of priests, and to lead us back upon our
journey by filling our thoughts with the essences of things, and not
with things. We are about to substitute once more the distillation of
alchemy for the analyses of chemistry and for some other sciences; and
certain of us are looking everywhere for the perfect alembic that no
silver or golden drop may escape. Mr. Symons has written lately on M.
Mallarmé’s method, and has quoted him as saying that we should ‘abolish
the pretension, æsthetically an error, despite its dominion over
almost all the masterpieces, to enclose within the subtle pages other
than—for example—the horror of the forest or the silent thunder in the
leaves, not the intense dense wood of the trees,’ and as desiring to
substitute for ‘the old lyric afflatus or the enthusiastic personal
direction of the phrase’ words ‘that take light from mutual reflection,
like an actual trail of fire over precious stones,’ and ‘to make an
entire word hitherto unknown to the language’ ‘out of many vocables.’
Mr. Symons understands these and other sentences to mean that poetry
will henceforth be a poetry of essences, separated one from another in
little and intense poems. I think there will be much poetry of this
kind, because of an ever more arduous search for an almost disembodied
ecstasy, but I think we will not cease to write long poems, but rather
that we will write them more and more as our new belief makes the world
plastic under our hands again. I think that we will learn again how to
describe at great length an old man wandering among enchanted islands,
his return home at last, his slow-gathering vengeance, a flitting shape
of a goddess, and a flight of arrows, and yet to make all of these
so different things ‘take light by mutual reflection, like an actual
trail of fire over precious stones,’ and become ‘an entire word,’ the
signature or symbol of a mood of the divine imagination as imponderable
as ‘the horror of the forest or the silent thunder in the leaves.’



LITERATURE differs from explanatory and scientific writing in being
wrought about a mood, or a community of moods, as the body is wrought
about an invisible soul; and if it uses argument, theory, erudition,
observation, and seems to grow hot in assertion or denial, it does so
merely to make us partakers at the banquet of the moods. It seems to me
that these moods are the labourers and messengers of the Ruler of All,
the gods of ancient days still dwelling on their secret Olympus, the
angels of more modern days ascending and descending upon their shining
ladder; and that argument, theory, erudition, observation, are merely
what Blake called ‘little devils who fight for themselves,’ illusions
of our visible passing life, who must be made serve the moods, or
we have no part in eternity. Everything that can be seen, touched,
measured, explained, understood, argued over, is to the imaginative
artist nothing more than a means, for he belongs to the invisible
life, and delivers its ever new and ever ancient revelation. We hear
much of his need for the restraints of reason, but the only restraint
he can obey is the mysterious instinct that has made him an artist,
and that teaches him to discover immortal moods in mortal desires,
an undecaying hope in our trivial ambitions, a divine love in sexual



THE followers of the Father Christian Rosencrux, says the old
tradition, wrapped his imperishable body in noble raiment and laid it
under the house of their order, in a tomb containing the symbols of all
things in heaven and earth, and in the waters under the earth, and set
about him inextinguishable magical lamps, which burnt on generation
after generation, until other students of the order came upon the
tomb by chance. It seems to me that the imagination has had no very
different history during the last two hundred years, but has been laid
in a great tomb of criticism, and had set over it inextinguishable
magical lamps of wisdom and romance, and has been altogether so nobly
housed and apparelled that we have forgotten that its wizard lips
are closed, or but opened for the complaining of some melancholy and
ghostly voice. The ancients and the Elizabethans abandoned themselves
to imagination as a woman abandons herself to love, and created great
beings who made the people of this world seem but shadows, and great
passions which made our loves and hatreds appear but ephemeral and
trivial phantasies; but now it is not the great persons, or the great
passions we imagine, which absorb us, for the persons and passions in
our poems are mainly reflections our mirror has caught from older poems
or from the life about us, but the wise comments we make upon them, the
criticism of life we wring from their fortunes. Arthur and his Court
are nothing, but the many-coloured lights that play about them are as
beautiful as the lights from cathedral windows; Pompilia and Guido are
but little, while the ever-recurring meditations and expositions which
climax in the mouth of the Pope are among the wisest of the Christian
age. I cannot get it out of my mind that this age of criticism is
about to pass, and an age of imagination, of emotion, of moods, of
revelation, about to come in its place; for certainly belief in a
supersensual world is at hand again; and when the notion that we are
‘phantoms of the earth and water’ has gone down the wind, we will trust
our own being and all it desires to invent; and when the external
world is no more the standard of reality, we will learn again that the
great Passions are angels of God, and that to embody them ‘uncurbed
in their eternal glory,’ even in their labour for the ending of man’s
peace and prosperity, is more than to comment, however wisely, upon the
tendencies of our time, or to express the socialistic, or humanitarian,
or other forces of our time, or even ‘to sum up’ our time, as the
phrase is; for Art is a revelation, and not a criticism, and the life
of the artist is in the old saying, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth,
and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh
and whither it goeth; so is every one that is born of the spirit.’




M. MAETERLINCK, in his beautiful _Treasure of the Humble_, compares
the dramas of our stage to the paintings of an obsolete taste; and the
dramas of the stage for which he hopes, to the paintings of a taste
that cannot become obsolete. ‘The true artist,’ he says, ‘no longer
chooses Marius triumphing over the Cimbrians, or the assassination
of the Duke of Guise, as fit subjects for his art; for he is well
aware that the psychology of victory or murder is but elementary and
exceptional, and that the solemn voice of men and things, the voice
that issues forth so timidly and hesitatingly, cannot be heard amidst
the idle uproar of acts of violence. And therefore will he place on his
canvas a house lost in the heart of the country, a door open at the end
of a passage, a face or hands at rest.’ I do not understand him to mean
that our dramas should have no victories or murders, for he quotes
for our example plays that have both, but only that their victories
and murders shall not be to excite our nerves, but to illustrate the
reveries of a wisdom which shall be as much a part of the daily life of
the wise as a face or hands at rest. And certainly the greater plays
of the past ages have been built after such a fashion. If this fashion
is about to become our fashion also, and there are signs that it is,
plays like some of Mr. Robert Bridges will come out of that obscurity
into which all poetry, that is not lyrical poetry, has fallen, and even
popular criticism will begin to know something about them. Some day
the few among us, who care for poetry more than any temporal thing,
and who believe that its delights cannot be perfect when we read it
alone in our rooms and long for one to share its delights, but that
they might be perfect in the theatre, when we share them friend with
friend, lover with beloved, will persuade a few idealists to seek
out the lost art of speaking, and seek out ourselves the lost art,
that is perhaps nearest of all arts to eternity, the subtle art of
listening. When that day comes we will talk much of Mr. Bridges; for
did he not write scrupulous, passionate poetry to be sung and to be
spoken, when there were few to sing and as yet none to speak? There
is one play especially, _The Return of Ulysses_, which we will praise
for perfect after its kind, the kind of our new drama of wisdom, for
it moulds into dramatic shape, and with as much as possible of literal
translation, those closing books of the Odyssey which are perhaps the
most perfect poetry of the world, and compels that great tide of song
to flow through delicate dramatic verse, with little abatement of its
own leaping and clamorous speed. As I read, the gathering passion
overwhelms me, as it did when Homer himself was the singer, and when
I read at last the lines in which the maid describes to Penelope the
battle with the suitors, at which she looks through the open door, I
tremble with excitement.

    ‘_Penelope_: Alas! what cries! Say, is the prince still safe?

    _The Maid_: He shieldeth himself well, and striketh surely;
    His foes fall down before him. Ah! now what can I see?
    Who cometh? Lo! a dazzling helm, a spear
    Of silver or electron; share and swift
    The piercings. How they fall! Ha! shields are raised
    In vain. I am blinded, or the beggar-man
    Hath waxed in strength. He is changed, he is young. O strange!
    He is all in golden armour. These are gods
    That slay the suitors. (_Runs to Penelope._) O lady, forgive me.
    ’Tis Ares’ self. I saw his crispèd beard;
    I saw beneath his helm his curlèd locks.’

The coming of Athene helmed ‘in silver or electron’ and her
transformation of Ulysses are not, as the way is with the only modern
dramas that popular criticism holds to be dramatic, the climax of an
excitement of the nerves, but of that unearthly excitement which has
wisdom for fruit, and is of like kind with the ecstasy of the seers,
an altar flame, unshaken by the winds of the world, and burning every
moment with whiter and purer brilliance.

Mr. Bridges has written it in what is practically the classical manner,
as he has done in _Achilles in Scyros_—a placid and charming setting
for many placid and charming lyrics—

   ‘And ever we keep a feast of delight
    The betrothal of hearts, when spirits unite,
    Creating an offspring of joy, a treasure
        Unknown to the bad, for whom
        The gods foredoom
        The glitter of pleasure
        And a dark tomb.’

The poet who writes best in the Shakespearian manner is a poet with
a circumstantial and instinctive mind, who delights to speak with
strange voices and to see his mind in the mirror of Nature; while Mr.
Bridges, like most of us to-day, has a lyrical and meditative mind, and
delights to speak with his own voice and to see Nature in the mirror of
his mind. In reading his plays in a Shakespearian manner, I find that
he is constantly arranging his story in such and such a way because he
has read that the persons he is writing of did such and such things,
and not because his soul has passed into the soul of their world and
understood its unchangeable destinies. His _Return of Ulysses_ is
admirable in beauty, because its classical gravity of speech, which
does not, like Shakespeare’s verse, desire the vivacity of common
life, purifies and subdues all passion into lyrical and meditative
ecstasies, and because the unity of place and time in the late acts
compels a logical rather than instinctive procession of incidents; and
if the Shakespearian _Nero: Second Part_ approaches it in beauty and in
dramatic power, it is because it eddies about Nero and Seneca, who had
both, to a great extent, lyrical and meditative minds. Had Mr. Bridges
been a true Shakespearian, the pomp and glory of the world would have
drowned that subtle voice that speaks amid our heterogeneous lives of
a life lived in obedience to a lonely and distinguished ideal.


The more a poet rids his verses of heterogeneous knowledge and
irrelevant analysis, and purifies his mind with elaborate art, the
more does the little ritual of his verse resemble the great ritual of
Nature, and become mysterious and inscrutable. He becomes, as all the
great mystics have believed, a vessel of the creative power of God; and
whether he be a great poet or a small poet, we can praise the poems,
which but seem to be his, with the extremity of praise that we give
this great ritual which is but copied from the same eternal model.
There is poetry that is like the white light of noon, and poetry that
has the heaviness of woods, and poetry that has the golden light of
dawn or of sunset; and I find in the poetry of Mr. Bridges in the
plays, but still more in the lyrics, the pale colours, the delicate
silence, the low murmurs of cloudy country days, when the plough is in
the earth, and the clouds darkening towards sunset; and had I the great
gift of praising, I would praise it as I would praise these things.



THE arts have failed; fewer people are interested in them every
generation. The mere business of living, of making money, of amusing
oneself, occupies people more and more, and makes them less and less
capable of the difficult art of appreciation. When they buy a picture
it generally shows a long-current idea, or some conventional form that
can be admired in that lax mood one admires a fine carriage in or fine
horses in; and when they buy a book it is so much in the manner of the
picture that it is forgotten, when its moment is over, as a glass of
wine is forgotten. We who care deeply about the arts find ourselves
the priesthood of an almost forgotten faith, and we must, I think, if
we would win the people again, take upon ourselves the method and the
fervour of a priesthood. We must be half humble and half proud. We see
the perfect more than others, it may be, but we must find the passions
among the people. We must baptize as well as preach.

The makers of religions have established their ceremonies, their form
of art, upon fear of death, on the hope of the father in his child,
upon the love of man and woman. They have even gathered into their
ceremonies the ceremonies of more ancient faiths, for fear a grain of
the dust turned into crystal in some past fire, a passion that had
mingled with the religious idea, might perish if the ancient ceremony
perished. They have renamed wells and images and given new meanings to
ceremonies of spring and midsummer and harvest. In very early days the
arts were so possessed by this method that they were almost inseparable
from religion, going side by side with it into all life. But, to-day,
they have grown, as I think, too proud, too anxious to live alone
with the perfect, and so one sees them, as I think, like charioteers
standing by deserted chariots and holding broken reins in their hands,
or seeking to go upon their way drawn by the one passion which alone
remains to them out of the passions of the world. We should not blame
them, but rather a mysterious tendency in things which will have its
end some day. In England, men like William Morris, seeing about them
passions so long separated from the perfect that it seemed as if they
could not be changed until society had been changed, tried to unite the
arts once more to life by uniting them to use. They advised painters to
paint fewer pictures upon canvas, and to burn more of them on plates;
and they tried to persuade sculptors that a candlestick might be as
beautiful as a statue. But here in Ireland, when the arts have grown
humble, they will find two passions ready to their hands, love of
the Unseen Life and love of country. I would have a devout writer or
painter often content himself with subjects taken from his religious
beliefs; and if his religious beliefs are those of the majority, he
may at last move hearts in every cottage. While even if his religious
beliefs are those of some minority, he will have a better welcome
than if he wrote of the rape of Persephone, or painted the burning
of Shelley’s body. He will have founded his work on a passion which
will bring him to many besides those who have been trained to care
for beautiful things by a special education. If he is a painter or a
sculptor he will find churches awaiting his hand everywhere, and if he
follows the masters of his craft our other passion will come into his
work also, for he will show his Holy Family winding among hills like
those of Ireland, and his Bearer of the Cross among faces copied from
the faces of his own town. Our art teachers should urge their pupils
into this work, for I can remember, when I was myself a Dublin art
student, how I used to despond, when eagerness burned low, as it always
must now and then, at seeing no market at all.

But I would rather speak to those who, while moved in other things
than the arts by love of country, are beginning to write, as I was
some sixteen years ago, without any decided impulse to one thing more
than another, and especially to those who are convinced, as I was
convinced, that art is tribeless, nationless, a blossom gathered in No
Man’s Land. The Greeks, the only perfect artists of the world, looked
within their own borders, and we, like them, have a history fuller than
any modern history of imaginative events; and legends which surpass,
as I think, all legends but theirs in wild beauty, and in our land,
as in theirs, there is no river or mountain that is not associated in
the memory with some event or legend; while political reasons have
made love of country, as I think, even greater among us than among
them. I would have our writers and craftsmen of many kinds master this
history and these legends, and fix upon their memory the appearance
of mountains and rivers and make it all visible again in their arts,
so that Irishmen, even though they had gone thousands of miles away,
would still be in their own country. Whether they chose for the subject
the carrying off of the Brown Bull, or the coming of Patrick, or the
political struggle of later times, the other world comes so much into
it all that their love of it would move in their hands also, and as
much, it may be, as in the hands of the Greek craftsmen. In other
words, I would have Ireland recreate the ancient arts, the arts as they
were understood in Judæa, in India, in Scandinavia, in Greece and Rome,
in every ancient land; as they were understood when they moved a whole
people and not a few people who have grown up in a leisured class and
made this understanding their business.

I think that my reader[B] will have agreed with most that I have said
up till now, for we all hope for arts like these. I think indeed I
first learned to hope for them myself in Young Ireland Societies,
or in reading the essays of Davis. An Englishman, with his belief
in progress, with his instinctive preference for the cosmopolitan
literature of the last century, may think arts like these parochial,
but they are the arts we have begun the making of.

I will not, however, have all my readers with me when I say that no
writer, no artist, even though he choose Brian Boroihme or Saint
Patrick for his subject, should try to make his work popular. Once he
has chosen a subject he must think of nothing but giving it such an
expression as will please himself. As Walt Whitman has written—

   ‘The oration is to the orator, the acting is to the
          actor and actress, not to the audience:
    And no man understands any greatness or goodness,
          but his own or the indication of his own.’

He must make his work a part of his own journey towards beauty and
truth. He must picture saint or hero, or hillside, as he sees them, not
as he is expected to see them, and he must comfort himself, when others
cry out against what he has seen, by remembering that no two men are
alike, and that there is no ‘excellent beauty without strangeness.’
In this matter he must be without humility. He may, indeed, doubt the
reality of his vision if men do not quarrel with him as they did with
the Apostles, for there is only one perfection and only one search for
perfection, and it sometimes has the form of the religious life and
sometimes of the artistic life; and I do not think these lives differ
in their wages, for ‘The end of art is peace,’ and out of the one as
out of the other comes the cry: _Sero te amavi, Pulchritudo tam antiqua
et tam nova! Sero te amavi!_

The Catholic Church is not the less the Church of the people because
the Mass is spoken in Latin, and art is not less the art of the people
because it does not always speak in the language they are used to.
I once heard my friend Mr. Ellis say, speaking at a celebration in
honour of a writer whose fame had not come till long after his death,
‘It is not the business of a poet to make himself understood, but it
is the business of the people to understand him. That they are at last
compelled to do so is the proof of his authority.’ And certainly if
you take from art its martyrdom, you will take from it its glory. It
might still reflect the passing modes of mankind, but it would cease to
reflect the face of God.

If our craftsmen were to choose their subjects under what we may call,
if we understand faith to mean that belief in a spiritual life which is
not confined to one Church, the persuasion of their faith and their
country, they would soon discover that although their choice seemed
arbitrary at first, it had obeyed what was deepest in them. I could
not now write of any other country but Ireland, for my style has been
shaped by the subjects I have worked on, but there was a time when
my imagination seemed unwilling, when I found myself writing of some
Irish event in words that would have better fitted some Italian or
Eastern event, for my style had been shaped in that general stream of
European literature which has come from so many watersheds, and it was
slowly, very slowly, that I made a new style. It was years before I
could rid myself of Shelley’s Italian light, but now I think my style
is myself. I might have found more of Ireland if I had written in
Irish, but I have found a little, and I have found all myself. I am
persuaded that if the Irishmen who are painting conventional pictures
or writing conventional books on alien subjects, which have been worn
away like pebbles on the shore, would do the same, they, too, might
find themselves. Even the landscape-painter, who paints a place that he
loves, and that no other man has painted, soon discovers that no style
learned in the studios is wholly fitted to his purpose. And I cannot
but believe that if our painters of Highland cattle and moss-covered
barns were to care enough for their country to care for what makes it
different from other countries, they would discover, when struggling,
it may be, to paint the exact grey of the bare Burren Hills, and of a
sudden it may be, a new style, their very selves. And I admit, though
in this I am moved by some touch of fanaticism, that even when I see an
old subject written of or painted in a new way, I am yet jealous for
Cuchulain, and for Baile, and Aillinn, and for those grey mountains
that still are lacking their celebration. I sometimes reproach myself
because I cannot admire Mr. Hughes’ beautiful, piteous _Orpheus and
Eurydice_ with an unquestioning mind. I say with my lips, ‘The Spirit
made it, for it is beautiful, and the Spirit bloweth where it listeth,’
but I say in my heart, ‘Aengus and Etain would have served his turn’;
but one cannot, perhaps, love or believe at all if one does not love or
believe a little too much.

And I do not think with unbroken pleasure of our scholars who write
about German writers or about periods of Greek history. I always
remember that they could give us a number of little books which would
tell, each book for some one country, or some one parish, the verses,
or the stories, or the events that would make every lake or mountain
a man can see from his own door an excitement in his imagination. I
would have some of them leave that work of theirs which will never
lack hands, and begin to dig in Ireland, the garden of the future,
understanding that here in Ireland the spirit of man may be about to
wed the soil of the world.

Art and scholarship like these I have described would give Ireland
more than they received from her, for they would make love of the
unseen more unshakable, more ready to plunge deep into the abyss, and
they would make love of country more fruitful in the mind, more a part
of daily life. One would know an Irishman into whose life they had
come—and in a few generations they would come into the life of all,
rich and poor—by something that set him apart among men. He himself
would understand that more was expected of him than of others because
he had greater possessions. The Irish race would have become a chosen
race, one of the pillars that uphold the world.



[Footnote B: This essay was first published in the _United Irishman_.]


LADY GREGORY has just given me her beautiful _Poets and Dreamers_, and
it has brought to mind a day two or three years ago when I stood on the
side of Slieve Echtge, looking out over Galway. The Burren Hills were
to my left, and though I forget whether I could see the cairn over Bald
Conan of the Fianna, I could certainly see many places there that are
in poems and stories. In front of me, over many miles of level Galway
plains, I saw a low blue hill flooded with evening light. I asked a
countryman who was with me what hill that was, and he told me it was
Cruachmaa of the Sidhe. I had often heard of Cruachmaa of the Sidhe
even as far north as Sligo, for the country people have told me a great
many stories of the great host of the Sidhe who live there, still
fighting and holding festivals.

I asked the old countryman about it, and he told me of strange women
who had come from it, and who would come into a house having the
appearance of countrywomen, but would know all that happened in that
house; and how they would always pay back with increase, though not by
their own hands, whatever was given to them. And he had heard, too, of
people who had been carried away into the hill, and how one man went to
look for his wife there, and dug into the hill and all but got his wife
again, but at the very moment she was coming out to him, the pick he
was digging with struck her upon the head and killed her. I asked him
if he had himself seen any of its enchantments, and he said, ‘Sometimes
when I look over to the hill, I see a mist lying on the top of it, that
goes away after a while.’

A great part of the poems and stories in Lady Gregory’s book were made
or gathered between Burren and Cruachmaa. It was here that Raftery,
the wandering country poet of ninety years ago, praised and blamed,
chanting fine verses, and playing badly on his fiddle. It is here
the ballads of meeting and parting have been sung, and some whose
lamentations for defeat are still remembered may have passed through
this plain flying from the battle of Aughrim.

‘I will go up on the mountain alone; and I will come hither from it
again. It is there I saw the camp of the Gael, the poor troop thinned,
not keeping with one another; Och Ochone!’ And here, if one can believe
many devout people whose stories are in the book, Christ has walked
upon the roads, bringing the needy to some warm fire-side, and sending
one of His Saints to anoint the dying.

I do not think these country imaginations have changed much for
centuries, for they are still busy with those two themes of the ancient
Irish poets, the sternness of battle and the sadness of parting and
death. The emotion that in other countries has made many love songs has
here been given, in a long wooing, to danger, that ghostly bride. It is
not a difference in the substance of things that the lamentations that
were sung after battles are now sung for men who have died upon the

The emotion has become not less, but more noble, by the change, for the
man who goes to death with the thought—

   ‘It is with the people I was,
    It is not with the law I was,’

has behind him generations of poetry and poetical life.

The poets of to-day speak with the voice of the unknown priest who
wrote, some two hundred years ago, that _Sorrowful Lament for Ireland_,
Lady Gregory has put into passionate and rhythmical prose—

   ‘I do not know of anything under the sky
    That is friendly or favourable to the Gael,
    But only the sea that our need brings us to,
    Or the wind that blows to the harbour
    The ship that is bearing us away from Ireland;
    And there is reason that these are reconciled with us,
    For we increase the sea with our tears,
    And the wandering wind with our sighs.’

There is still in truth upon these great level plains a people, a
community bound together by imaginative possessions, by stories and
poems which have grown out of its own life, and by a past of great
passions which can still waken the heart to imaginative action. One
could still, if one had the genius, and had been born to Irish, write
for these people plays and poems like those of Greece. Does not the
greatest poetry always require a people to listen to it? England or
any other country which takes its tune from the great cities and gets
its taste from schools and not from old custom, may have a mob, but it
cannot have a people. In England there are a few groups of men and
women who have good taste, whether in cookery or in books; and the
great multitudes but copy them or their copiers. The poet must always
prefer the community where the perfected minds express the people, to a
community that is vainly seeking to copy the perfected minds. To have
even perfectly the thoughts than can be weighed, the knowledge that
can be got from books, the precision that can be learned at school, to
belong to any aristocracy, is to be a little pool that will soon dry
up. A people alone are a great river; and that is why I am persuaded
that where a people has died, a nation is about to die.



I HAVE been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been
wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems
necessary if one is to succeed on the Modern Stage. It came into my
head the other day that this construction, which all the world has
learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the
emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of multitude
from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, long-leaguered Troy,
much-enduring Odysseus, and all the gods and heroes to witness, as it
were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from
all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable,
but by leaving out the chorus it has created an art where poetry and
imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things,
must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is
why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little
rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the
imagination. The Shakespearian Drama gets the emotion of multitude out
of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the
wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less
as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a
whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloster, who also has ungrateful
children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond
shadow till it has pictured the world. In _Hamlet_, one hardly notices,
so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the
sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia
and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the
plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the sub-plot is the main
plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly
calling up before us the image of multitude. Ibsen and Maeterlinck
have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from
the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the
Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea,
emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great Masters have understood,
that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the
fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich,
far-wandering, many-imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There
are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as
in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague,
many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the
Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for
father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of
genius takes the most after his mother?


    _Printed by_ A. H. BULLEN, _at The Shakespeare Head Press,

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber’s Notes:

Obvious punctuation errors repaired.

Page 33, “spirit” changed to “spirits” (spirits did not and)

Page 39, “battle-fielde” changed to “battle-fields” (studies and

Page 139, “difcult” changed to “difficult” (have not been difficult)

Page 246, “Shakepearian” changed to “Shakespearian” (best in the

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operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.