George William Russell Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The events of Æ’s early years are somewhat obscure. He was born George William Russell into the Northern Irish Protestant family of Thomas Elias Russell and Mary Anne (Armstrong) Russell. When he was eleven, his family moved to Dublin, and Æ was educated at the Rathmines School. From 1880 to 1900, he attended the Dublin School of Art for a few months each year, where he met Yeats, a fellow student. Their long friendship was a troubled one, since Yeats felt that Æ never fulfilled his artistic potential.

Æ’s first employment may have been as a clerk in a Guinness brewery, a job he soon quit. Painting was Æ’s natural activity, but this was sacrificed because his family could not afford such luxuries, and he turned to literature. From 1890 to 1897, he worked in a warehouse twelve hours a day; in the evenings, he served as librarian of the Dublin Lodge of the Theosophical Society, where he lived. In the midst of all this, he still found time to publish his first two volumes of poetry, Homeward and The Earth Breath, and Other Poems.

The most important event in Æ’s life occurred in 1887 when he discovered Theosophy. He had been a mystic from childhood, and becoming an ardent adherent, he utilized the principles of Theosophy. It was only after the death of Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the Theosophical Society, that he severed his official connection with Theosophy.

The mystic Æ later evolved into a philosopher and a political sage respected on both sides of the Atlantic. For his entire adult life, he was active in the cooperative agricultural movement of Sir Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organization Society and in the Home Rule movement.

Having achieved a certain security through his...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The biblical name Æon was the pseudonym that George William Russell signed to an early manuscript; he adopted Æ (ay ee) after the inadvertent dropping of the last two letters in printer’s proof. Born into a Protestant family of three children, of which he was the youngest, he attended Rathmines School in Dublin, where the Russells moved when he was ten. After two years, young George William studied at the Metropolitan School of Art, where he formed a friendship with William Butler Yeats, an association of great importance to both and of long duration. (There were a few difficult years during which Æ’s somewhat incongruous friendship with George Moore caused Yeats concern.){$S[A]Russell, George William;Æ}

In 1887 the visionary young man became a Theosophist, but he left the society two years later to devote himself to the Irish Agricultural Organization Society, to home rule, and especially to the Irish Literary Renaissance as one of the founders of the famed Abbey Theatre. From 1898 to 1932 he was married to Violet North, with whom he had two sons. Her own Theosophist viewpoint made the marriage successful in spite of long separations, and her death devastated Russell.

From 1904 to 1923, Russell edited The Irish Homestead, after which he edited the Irish Statesman, from 1923 to 1930. He was politically but not militarily aligned with the Sinn Féin movement, though he grew disenchanted with home rule later and moved to England. He did not wish to be remembered as a political figure or reformer but as a poet, artist, and friend of humankind. His greatest talent was perhaps painting, an activity he pursued only as an avocation; he gave his works to friends.

Though lean in his early years, he is most often remembered as corpulent, shabbily dressed, friendly, and loquacious, with a russet beard and mouse-colored hair which he cut himself, blue-gray eyes, and a rural accent. His mystical views are apparent in his prose and poetry, and they are often compared with those of his friend Yeats. Æ is considered one of the architects of the modern Irish nation, in both a practical and a philosophical sense, for his many works on the nation as a living entity.