Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
In his excellent introduction to The Living Torch , Monk Gibbon remarks that Æ’s poetry began as that of a mystic and remained so to the end. Æ saw the poet not as an artisan of beauty but rather as a seer and prophet who derived a special authority from...
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- Critical Essays
In his excellent introduction to The Living Torch, Monk Gibbon remarks that Æ’s poetry began as that of a mystic and remained so to the end. Æ saw the poet not as an artisan of beauty but rather as a seer and prophet who derived a special authority from communion with the esoteric wisdom of the past. As Gibbon points out, Æ’s poetry contains a beauty of thought and a sincerity of utterance, but in some poems, the form seems inadequate and the imagery vague.
Like other poets in the Irish Renaissance, Æ attempted to define Irishness in terms of the mysticism, reverie, and wavering rhythms of the Celtic Twilight, but his poetic voice remained a faint one. Some of Æ’s best poetry is contained in his first two books: Homeward and The Earth Breath, and Other Poems. Some of his late work is also very good, but it is marred by a tendency to philosophize.
Æ will continue to have a place in literary history, but his prose and poetry are comparable only to the best imaginative work of the secondary figures of his day. Æ survives not as a painter or poet but as an exemplar of his age.
Æ’s philosophy includes a pantheistic adoration of nature, and he argues that the important thing about Ireland is the primitiveness of the country and its people. The very title of Homeward indicates the author’s attitude toward life. Ernest Boyd in his Appreciations and Depreciations: Irish Literary Studies (1918) has stated that “home” for Æ signifies the return of the soul to the oversoul, the spirit’s absorption into the universal spirit—a doctrine that reflects his interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
Homeward is a narrative of Æ’s spiritual adventures, a record of the soul’s search for the Infinite. Æ’s poems are songs with sensuous, unearthly notes, records of the inner music of his life. They do not speak of humankind’s mundane experiences but rather of those moments of divine vision and intuition when humankind’s being dissolves into communion with the eternal. In that moment when the seer has come to his spiritual vision, he is truly at home.
Alone with nature, Æ beholds in his poetry the beauties of the phenomenal world, and through this experience, the poet is lifted toward participation in the eternal. The conditions that usually produce an exalted mood are those associated with morning or evening twilight, the quietude of the hills, and the silent, lonely countryside; such scenes are typical of both his poetry and his paintings. On innumerable occasions, the poet seeks the soft dusk of the mountains for meditation. Often his verses suggest the coming of daylight and the initial glories of sunlight as the seer pays homage to the light after a night of rapture on the mountainside.
However, solitude is not the sine qua non for Æ’s visions. In “The City,” his mood is unaltered by the change of setting. The poet’s immortal eyes transfigure the mortal things of the city. The reader is reminded of another Metaphysical poet, T. S. Eliot, as Æ paints the gloom of the metropolis while managing to retain bright glimmers of hope.
Wayne Hall in his Shadowy Heroes (1980) has pointed out that, in recording his most intense experiences (his ecstatic visions), Æ produced his most notable work. The most successful poems in Homeward are “By the Margin of the Great Deep,” “The Great Breath,” and the sequence “Dusk,” “Night,” “Dawn,” and “Day.” “Dusk” begins at sunset, that special moment for poetic visions. At this early point in the volume, the vision of the speaker draws him away from domestic life and human contact toward “primeval being.” Sunset also introduces “The Great Breath.” The fading sky of this poem seems to suggest both a cosmic flower and an awareness that the death of beauty occasions its most complete fulfillment. This unstable insight, Hall points out, as with the paradox of spiritual union through physical separation in “By the Margin of the Great Deep,” becomes more nearly resolved in the four-poem sequence. In “By the Margin of the Great Deep,” rather than a sunset, chimney fires of the village mingle in the sky, signifying the merging of humanity within the vastness of God.
For Æ, night usually brings despair and the loss of vision, as in “The Dawn of Darkness.” In “Waiting” the speaker can only hope that dawn will reawaken humanity to its former joy. In the poem “Night,” however, Æ changes directions as night brings on a rebirth of spirit and beauty, a complete union of souls, while “Dawn” initiates a fragmentation of unity. In the light of common day, vision is lost but not entirely forgotten.
The sequence of poems from “Dusk” to “Day” succeeds far better than Æ’s other attempts to link mortal pain with immortal vision. For Æ, to have a human spirit, a person must know sorrow. The path to wisdom is a road paved with the burdens of the world. Too often, however, he fails to integrate one world into the other, beyond the level of unconvincing abstraction.