George William Russell’s pen name was Æ. His first volume of poems appeared during a turbulent moment of Irish history when political turmoil was bound together with religious and cultural strife. In Homeward, Æ attempted, through awakening his readers’ spiritual insights, to bring balm to his strife-torn country.
Throughout the nineteenth century, many in Ireland were trying to change the political status of their country from colony of England to independent nation. Irish representatives argued in the British parliament, and there were mass protests and armed revolts. By the 1890’s, neither political nor military struggles had borne much fruit but they had helped stimulate a strong national cultural current. Writers touched by this current contended that the authentic Celtic roots of Irish life were being buried under superficial British traditions.
At the same time, some proposed religious innovations. In Ireland, religion could not be separated from politics. The British colonists were Protestant and earlier disestablished and, for a period, banned the practice of Catholicism, the religion of the Irish masses. Religious hatreds compounded nationalist fervor to cause occasional fanatical outbreaks of unproductive violence. Writers such as William Butler Yeats and Æ were so put off by this sectarianism that they turned away from Christianity altogether and became attracted to esoteric, orientally influenced faiths.
Æ embraced the new “religion” of Theosophy and, in 1891, moved into a communal household with other converts. He was living in this house when he wrote the poems for his first collection of verse, in which he strove to put his spiritual beliefs into poetic form.
Guided by Indian philosophy, Theosophy involved a belief in the reincarnation of souls. It was thought that in sleep or meditation, each person’s soul could remember former lives or, diving deeper, link up with the grand soul of the universe. Æ is a shortened version of Aeon, the gnostic name for the first men on earth, whose pristine experience, according to Theosophical belief, could be recaptured through proper spiritual exercise and attentiveness. In writing poems about these subjects, Æ was not trying simply to explain the basic doctrines of Theosophy, but, as an Irish nationalist, to show that the primary ideas of the philosophy were contained in ancient Celtic lore. Whereas in prose works such as The Candle of Vision (1918), he worked out connections in a scholarly way, in Homeward he suggests them by showing how mystical epiphanies arise naturally from contact with the Irish countryside.
Far from presenting metaphysics in meter, however, Æ tries in each poem to re-create a moment of vision in which the speaker, through his communing with nature, rises to glimpse a higher realm. The seventy-five-page book contains sixty-seven short lyrics, few more than a page in length. Employing the ballad form, usually with four-line stanzas and rhyme schemes of aabb, abab, or abac, Æ lightly and naturally expounds on a Theosophical concept. The single-mindedness of his endeavor is, in fact, the chief complaint made against his poetry, which, for all its graceful music, is often said to lack variety and contrast. If form and thought throughout the book tend to be monotonous, there is nevertheless a traceable progress in the collection, which charts the history of a speaker who begins mired in Earth’s miseries, moves to a fuller appreciation of the mysteries of nature, and finally finds a metaphysical guide in his own soul.
The first movement places the speaker’s spiritual development within the poverty and unhappy history of Ireland. This situating of Æ’s thought provides a valuable ballast for his higher flights, making it clear that his writing is an attempt to face, not escape from, his condition. In the volume’s second poem, “Recognition,” he imagines a farmer who, “Over fields a slave at morning/ bowed him to the sod.” This...
(The entire section is 1656 words.)