The Poetry of "Æ" Essay - Critical Essays

George William Russell

Critical Evaluation

The pseudonym under which George Russell published his poetry and by which he is known as the central figure in the Irish Renaissance was the accidental result of a printer’s error: “Æ” for “Æon,” the pseudonym Russell used in an early contribution to THE IRISH THEOSOPHIST. His preference for the accidental nom-de-plume indicates the wide gulf between the practical Russell, agricultural reformer, and the visionary Russell, the leading Theosophist of late nineteenth century Dublin. It also shows that his poetry is the instrument of his philosophy.

Almost all of the previously published 188 poems in the COLLECTED POEMS of 1913 had appeared in THE IRISH THEOSOPHIST and few of them or the later poems in the SELECTED POEMS of 1935 show any sign of Russell’s daily work in organization, politics, journalism, or committees. Apart from his play DEIRDRE, published in 1902, there is little sign of Ireland in his poems; had there been he would have found a more obvious niche in the literary history of the Celtic Twilight and the Irish Renaissance, but his contribution there was to assist writers in a practical way and to inspire them theosophically; his poems reached the great world outside Dublin through Theosophist channels, and thus in the 1890’s Russell was more widely known than other Irish writers. When their unity as a movement became recognized, his influence declined.

To summarize Russell’s poems as a hymnal of Theosophy is to abandon critical discussion of them, a difficulty that shadows the few commentaries on his work. The best is still Russell’s own letters which reveal both the personality that played its part in the independence of Eire and the Irish Renaissance, and the visionary, particularly when he corresponded with Yeats. The stimulation provided by the Hermetic Society (without which at least the Celtic Twilight would not have occurred) is important to us as it affected Yeats, but it provided the whole substance of Russell’s work. Both agreed in their dissatisfaction with provincial Ireland’s “religions” of trade and banking and their belief that salvation would come through their different interpretations of such terms as “Holy Ireland.” To Yeats it was holy by reason of its long history and its being his native land; to Russell, as he explained to a friend in 1901, it was just as “holy” as any other land that is a mother land, a source of life. The worst theosophical features of Russell’s verse are that it is all sweet, rarely concrete, and never comic, qualities that were a cause of further disagreement with Yeats.

Yeats in his attempt to recover the heroic Irish past made some degree of acquaintance with it a prerequisite to understanding his poems; but when Russell writes what he calls a “Mayo legend” in verse, “the story of one Caden More,” no one would ever know there was a story in the poem or that its setting need be County Mayo. It begins with “a lonely road through bogland to the lake at Carrowmore” beside which lies someone sleeping. In the draft sent to Yeats in February, 1908, the poet gently rebukes the sleeper for dreaming of his love instead of using the opportunity of the dream to enter the real land of dreams (as it was to Russell); in the published version the speaker is one of the “faery” tribe but the central line in the two poems is identical: “’Tis the beauty of all Beauty that is calling for your love.” The constant celebration of the other world in totally abstract terms debilitates Russell’s poems, but for him it was their only function. The abstract was the place where his visions and his inner life came alive; hence this world was in many ways totally unreal to him. His most serious objection to Yeats is that the latter in his poetry persists in using objects from this so-called real world as active symbols of the other world; Russell subordinates the symbol to the...

(The entire section is 1609 words.)