Celtic Revivals of Paganism
By John Kelman.
Omar KayyAm and Fiona Macleod
It is extremely difficult to judge justly and without prejudice the literature of one’s own time. So many different elements are pouring into it that it assumes a composite character, far beyond the power of definition or even of epigram to describe as a whole. But, while this is true, it is nevertheless possible to select from this vast amalgam certain particular elements, and to examine them and judge them fairly.
The field in which we are now wandering may be properly included under the head of ancient literature, although in another sense it is the most modern of all. The two authors whom we shall consider in this lecture, although they have come into our literature but recently, yet represent very ancient thought. There is nothing whatsoever that is modern about them. They describe bed-rock human passions and longings, sorrowings and consolations. Each may be claimed as a revival of ancient paganism, but only one of them is capable of translation into a useful idealism.
In the twelfth century, at Khorassán in Persia Omar Kayyám the poet was born. He lived and died at Naishápúr, following the trade of a tent-maker, acquiring knowledge of every available kind, but with astronomy for his special study. His famous poem, the Rubáiyát, was first seen by Fitzgerald in 1856 and published in 1868. So great was the sensation produced in England by the innovating sage, that in 1895 the Omar Kayyám Club was founded by Professor Clodd, and that club has since come to be considered “the blue ribbon of literary associations.”
In Omar’s time Persian poetry was in the hands of the Sufis, or religious teachers of Persia. He found them writing verses which professed to be mystical and spiritual, but which might sometimes be suspected of earthlier meanings lurking beneath the pantheistic veil. It was against the poetry of such Sufis that Omar Kayyám rose in revolt. Loving frankness and truth, he threw all disguises aside, and became the exponent of materialistic Epicureanism naked and unashamed.
A fair specimen of the finest Sufi poetry is The Rose Garden of Sa’di, which it may be convenient to quote because of its easy accessibility in English translation. Sa’di also was a twelfth-century poet, although of a later time than Omar. He was a student of the College in Baghdad, and he lived as a hermit for sixty years in Shiraz, singing of love and war. His mind is full of mysticism, wisdom and beauty going hand in hand through a dim twilight land. Dominating all his thought is the primary conviction that the soul is essentially part of God, and will return to God again, and meanwhile is always revealing, in mysterious hints and half-conscious visions, its divine source and destiny. Here and there you will find the deep fatalism of the East, as in the lines—
“Fate will not alter for a thousand sighs,Nor prayers importunate, nor hopeless cries.The guardian of the store-house of the windCares nothing if the widow’s lantern dies.”
These, however, are relieved by that which makes a friend of fate—
“To God’s beloved even the dark hourShines as the morning glory after rain.Except by Allah’s grace thou hast no powerNor strength of arm such rapture to attain.”
It was against this sort of poetry that Omar Kayyám revolted. He had not any proof of such spiritual assurances, and he did not want that of which he had no proof. He understood the material world around him, both in its joy and sorrow, and emphatically he did not understand any other world. He became a sort of Marlowe’s Faust before his time, and protested against the vague spirituality of the Sufis by an assertion of what may be called a brilliant animalism. He loved beauty as much as they did, and there is an oriental splendor about all his work, albeit an earthly splendor. He became, accordingly, an audacious epicurean who “failed to find any world but this,” and set himself to make the best of what he found. His was not an exorbitant ambition nor a fiery passion of any kind. The bitterness and cynicism of it all remind us of the inscription upon Sardanapalus’ tomb—”Eat, drink, play, the rest is not worth the snap of a finger.” Drinking-cups have been discovered with such inscriptions on them—”The future is utterly useless, make the most of to-day,”—and Omar’s poetry is full both of the cups and the inscription.
The French interpreter, Nicolas, has indeed spiritualized his work. In his view, when Omar raves about wine, he really means God; when he speaks of love, he means the soul, and so on. As a matter of fact, no man has ever written a plainer record of what he means, or has left his meaning less ambiguous. When he says wine and love he means wine and love—earthly things, which may or may not have their spiritual counterparts, but which at least have given no sign of them to him. The same persistent note is heard in all his verses. It is the grape, and wine, and fair women, and books, that make up the sum total of life for Omar as he knows it.
“Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of SpringYour Winter-garment of Repentance fling:The Bird of Time has but a little wayTo flutter—and the Bird is on the Wing.
A Book of verses underneath the Bough,A jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and ThouBeside me singing in the Wilderness—Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
We are no other than a moving rowOf Magic Shadow-shapes that come and goRound with the sun-illumined Lantern heldIn Midnight by the Master of the Show.”
It would show a sad lack of humor if we were to take this too seriously, and shake our heads over our eastern visitor. The cult of Omar has been blamed for paganising English society. Really it came in as a foreign curiosity, and, for the most part, that it has remained. When we had a visit some years ago from that great oriental potentate Li Hung Chang, we all put on our best clothes and went out to welcome him. That was all right so long as we did not naturalize him, a course which neither he nor we thought of our adopting. Had we naturalized him, it would have been a different matter, and even Mayfair might have found the fashions of China somewhat risqué. One remembers that introductory note to Browning’s Ferishtah’s Fancies—”You, Sir, I entertain you for one of my Hundred; only, I do not like the fashion of your garments: you will say they are Persian; but let them be changed.” The only safe way of dealing with Omar Kayyám is to insist that his garments be not changed. If you naturalize him he will become deadly in the West. The East thrives upon fatalism, and there is a glamour about its most materialistic writings, through which far spiritual things seem to quiver as in a sun-haze. The atmosphere of the West is different, and fatalism, adopted by its more practical mind, is sheer suicide.
Not that there is much likelihood of a nation with the history and the literature of England behind it, ever becoming to any great extent materialistic in the crude sense of Omar’s poetry. The danger is subtler. The motto, “Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die,” is capable of spiritualization, and if you spiritualize that motto it becomes poisonous indeed. For there are various ways of eating and drinking, and many who would not be tempted with the grosser appetites may become pagans by devoting themselves to a rarer banquet, the feast of reason and the flow of soul. It is possible in that way also to take the present moment for Eternity, to live and think without horizons. Mr. Peyton has said, “You see in some little house a picture of a cottage on a moor, and you wonder why these people, living, perhaps, in the heart of a great city, and in the most commonplace of houses, put such a picture there. The reason for it is, that that cottage is for them the signal of the immortal life of men, and the moor has infinite horizons.” That is the root of the matter after all—the soul and horizons. He who says, “To-day shall suffice for me,” whether it be in the high intellectual plane or in the low earthly one, has fallen into the grip of the world that passeth away; and that is a danger which Omar’s advent has certainly not lessened.
The second reason for care in this neighborhood is that Epicureanism is only safe for those whose tastes lie in the direction of the simple life. Montaigne has wisely said that it is pernicious to those who have a natural tendency to vice. But vice is not a thing which any man loves for its own sake, until his nature has suffered a long process of degradation. It is simply the last result of a habit of luxurious self-indulgence; and the temptation to the self-indulgent, the present world in one form or another, comes upon everybody at times. There are moods when all of us want to break away from the simple life, and feel the splendor of the dazzling lights and the intoxication of the strange scents of the world. To surrender to these has always been, and always will be, deadly. It is the old temptation to cease to strive, which we have already found to be the keynote of Goethe’s Faust. Kingsley, in one of the most remarkable passages of Westward Ho! describes two of Amyas Leigh’s companions, settled down in a luscious paradise of earthly delights, while their comrades endured the never-ending hardships of the march. By the sight of that soft luxury Amyas was tempted of the devil. But as he gazed, a black jaguar sprang from the cliff above, and fastened on the fair form of the bride of one of the recreants. “O Lord Jesus,” said Amyas to himself, “Thou hast answered the devil for me!”
It does not, however, need the advent of the jaguar to introduce the element of sheer tragedy into luxurious life. In his Conspiracy of Pontiac, Parkman tells with rare eloquence the character of the Ojibwa Indians: “In the calm days of summer, the Ojibwa fisherman pushes out his birch canoe upon the great inland ocean of the North; … or he lifts his canoe from the sandy beach, and, while his camp-fire crackles on the grass-plot, reclines beneath the trees, and smokes and laughs away the sultry hours, in a lazy luxury of enjoyment…. But when winter descends upon the North, sealing up the fountains … now the hunter can fight no more against the nipping cold and blinding sleet. Stiff and stark, with haggard cheek and shriveled lip, he lies among the snow-drifts; till, with tooth and claw, the famished wild-cat strives in vain to pierce the frigid marble of his limbs.”
Meredith tells of a bird, playing with a magic ring, and all the time trying to sing its song; but the ring falls and has to be picked up again, and the song is broken. It is a good parable of life, that impossible compromise between the magic ring and the simple song. Those who choose the earth-magic of Omar’s Epicureanism will find that the song of the spirit is broken, until they cease from the vain attempt at singing and fall into an earth-bound silence.
Thus Omar Kayyám has brought us a rich treasure from the East, of splendid diction and much delightful and fascinating sweetness of poetry. All such gifts are an enrichment to the language and a decoration to the thought of a people. When, however, they are taken more seriously, they may certainly bring plague with them, as other Eastern things have sometimes done.
To turn suddenly from this curious Persian life and thought to the still more curious life and thought of ancient Scotland is indeed a violent change. Nothing could be more dissimilar than the two types of paganism out of which they spring; and if Fiona Macleod’s work may have its dangers for the precarious faith of modern days, they are certainly dangers which attack the soul in a different fashion from those of Omar.
The revelation of Fiona Macleod’s identity with William Sharp came upon the English-reading world as a complete surprise. Few deaths have been more lamented in the literary world than his, and that for many reasons. His biography is one of the most fascinating that could be imagined. His personality was a singularly attractive one,—so vital, so indefatigable,—with interests so many-sided, and a heart so sound in all of them. It is characteristic of him that in his young days he ran away for a time with gypsies, for he tells us, “I suppose I was a gipsy once, and before that a wild man of the woods.” The two great influences of his life were Shelley and D.G. Rossetti. The story of his literary struggles is brimful of courage and romance, and the impression of the book is mainly that of ubiquity. His insatiable curiosity seems to have led him to know everybody, and every place, and everything.
At length Fiona Macleod was born. She arose out of nowhere, so far as the reading public could discover. Really there was a hidden shy self in Sharp, which must find expression impossible except in some secret way. We knew him as the brilliant critic, the man of affairs, and the wide and experienced traveler. We did not know him, until we discovered that he was Fiona, in that second life of his in the borderland where flesh and spirit meet.
First there came Pharais in 1893, and that was the beginning of much. Then came The Children of To-morrow, the forerunner of Fiona Macleod. It was his first prose expression of the subjective side of his nature, together with the element of revolt against conventionalities, which was always strongly characteristic of him. It introduced England to the hidden places of the Green Life.
The secret of his double personality was confided only to a few friends, and was remarkably well kept. When pressed by adventurous questioners, some of these allies gave answers which might have served for models in the art of diplomacy. So Sharp wrote on, openly as William Sharp, and secretly as Fiona Macleod. Letters had to reach Fiona somehow, and so it was given out that she was his cousin, and that letters sent to him would be safely passed on to her. If, however, it was difficult to keep the secret from the public, it was still more difficult for one man to maintain two distinct personalities. William Sharp of course had to live, while Fiona might die any day. Her life entailed upon him another burden, not of personification only, but of subject and research, and he was driven to sore passes to keep both himself and her alive. For each was truly alive and individual—two distinct people, one of whom thought of the other as if she were “asleep in another room.” Even the double correspondence was a severe burden and strain, for Fiona Macleod had her own large post-bag which had to be answered, just as William Sharp had his. But far beyond any such outward expressions of themselves as these, the difficulty of the double personality lay in deep springs of character and of taste. Sharp’s mind was keenly intellectual, observant, and reasoning; while Fiona Macleod was the intuitional and spiritual dreamer. She was indeed the expression of the womanly element in Sharp. This element certainly dominated him, or rather perhaps he was one of those who have successfully invaded the realm of alien sex. In his earlier work, such as The Lady of the Sea,—”the woman who is in the heart of woman,”—we have proof of this; for in that especially he so “identified himself with woman’s life, seeing it through her own eyes that he seems to forget sometimes that he is not she.” So much was this the case that Fiona Macleod actually received at least one proposal of marriage. It was answered quite kindly, Fiona replying that she had other things to do, and could not think of it; but the little incident shows how true the saying about Sharp was, that “he was always in love with something or another.” This loving and love-inspiring element in him has been strongly challenged, and some of the women who have judged him, have strenuously disowned him as an exponent of their sex. Yet the fact is unquestionable that he was able to identify himself in a quite extraordinary degree with what he took to be the feminine soul.
It seems to have something to do with the Celtic genius. One can always understand a Scottish Celt better by comparing him with an Irish one or a Welsh; and it will certainly prove illuminative in the present case to remember Mr. W.B. Yeats while one is thinking of Fiona Macleod. To the present writer it seems that the woman-soul is apparent in both, and that she is singing the same tune; the only difference being, as it were, in the quality of the voice, Fiona Macleod singing in high soprano, and Mr. Yeats in deep and most heart-searching contralto.
The Fiona Macleod side of Sharp never throve well in London. Hers was the fate of those who in this busy world have retained the faculty and the need for dreaming. So Sharp had to get away from London—driven of the spirit into the wilderness—that his other self might live and breathe. One feels the power of this second self especially in certain words that recur over and over again, until the reader is almost hypnotized by their lilting, and finds himself in a kind of sleep. That dreaming personality, with eyes half closed and poppy-decorated hair, could never live in the bondage of the city cage. The spirit must get free, and the longing for such freedom has been well called “a barbaric passion, a nostalgia for the life of the moor and windy sea.”
There are two ways of loving and understanding nature. Meredith speaks of those who only see nature by looking at it along the barrel of a gun. The phrase describes that large company of people who feel the call of the wild indeed, and long for the country at certain seasons, but must always be doing something with nature—either hunting, or camping out, or peradventure going upon a journey like Baal in the Old Testament. But there is another way, to which Carlyle calls attention as characteristic of Robert Burns, and which he pronounces the test of a true poet. The test is, whether he can wander the whole day beside a burn “and no’ think lang.” Such was Fiona’s way with nature. She needed nothing to interest her but the green earth itself, and its winds and its waters. It was surely the Fiona side of Sharp that made him kiss the grassy turf and then scatter it to the east and west and north and south; or lie down at night upon the ground that he might see the intricate patterns of the moonlight, filtering through the branches of the trees.
In all this, it is needless to say, Mr. Yeats offers a close parallel. He understands so perfectly the wild life, that one knows at once that it is in him, like a fire in his blood. Take this for instance—
“They found a man running there;He had ragged long grass-colored hair;He had knees that stuck out of his hose;He had puddle water in his shoes;He had half a cloak to keep him dry,Although he had a squirrel’s eye.”
Such perfect observation is possible only to the detached spirit, which is indeed doing nothing to nature, but only letting nature do her work. In the sharp outline of this imagery, and in the mind that saw and the heart that felt it, there is something of the keenness of the squirrel’s eye for nature.
Fiona’s favorite part of nature is the sea. That great and many-sided wonder, whether with its glare of phosphorescence or the stillness of its dead calm, fascinates the poems of Sharp and lends them its spell. But of the prose of Fiona it may be truly said that everything
“… doth suffer a sea-change,Into something rich and strange.”
These marvelous lines were never more perfectly illustrated than here. As we read we behold the sea, now crouching like a gigantic tiger, now moaning with some Celtic consciousness of the grim and loathsome treasures in its depths, ever haunted and ever haunting. It is probable that Sharp never wrote anything that had not for his ear an undertone of the ocean. Sitting in London in his room, he heard, on one occasion, the sound of waves so loud that he could not hear his wife knocking at the door. Similarly in Fiona Macleod’s writing seas are always rocking and swinging. Gulfs are opening to disclose the green dim mysteries of the deeper depths. The wind is running riot with the surface overhead, and the sea is lord in all its mad glory and wonder and fear.
Mr. Yeats has the same characteristic, but again it is possible to draw a fantastic distinction like that between the soprano and the alto. It is lake water rather than the ocean that sounds the undertone of Mr. Yeats’ poetry—
“I will arise and go now, for always night and dayI hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavement grey,I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”
The oldest sounds in the world, Mr. Yeats tells us are wind and water and the curlew: and of the curlew he says—
“O curlew, cry no more in the air,Or only to the waters of the West;Because your crying brings to my mindPassion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hairThat was shaken out over my breast:There is enough evil in the crying of wind.”
In all this you hear the crying of the wind and the swiftly borne scream of the curlew on it, and you know that lake water will not be far away. This magic power of bringing busy city people out of all their surroundings into the green heart of the forest and the moorland, and letting them hear the sound of water there, is common to them both.
Fiona Macleod is a lover and worshipper of beauty. Long before her, the Greeks had taught the world their secret, and the sweet spell had penetrated many hearts beyond the pale of Greece. It was Augustine who said, “Late I have loved thee, oh beauty, so old and yet so new, late I have loved thee.” And Marius the Epicurean, in Pater’s fine phrase, “was one who was made perfect by love of visible beauty.” It is a direct instinct, this bracing and yet intoxicating love of beauty for its own sake. Each nation produces a spiritual type of it, which becomes one of the deepest national characteristics, and the Celtic type is easily distinguished. No Celt ever cared for landscape. “It is loveliness I ask, not lovely things,” says Fiona; and it is but a step from this to that abstract mystical and spiritual love of beauty, which is the very soul of the Celtic genius. It expresses itself most directly in colors, and the meaning of them is far more than bright-hued surfaces. The pale green of running water, the purple and pearl-grey of doves, still more the remote and liquid colors of the sky, and the sad-toned or the gay garments of the earth—these are more by far to those who know their value than pigments, however delicate. They are either a sensuous intoxication or else a mystic garment of the spirit. Seumas, the old islander, looking seaward at sunrise, says, “Every morning like this I take my hat off to the beauty of the world.” And as we read we think of Mr. Neil Munro’s lord of Doom Castle walking uncovered in the night before retiring to his rest, and with tears welling in his eyes exclaiming that the mountains are his evening prayer. Such mystics as these are in touch with far-off things. Sharp, indeed, was led definitely to follow such leading into regions of spiritualism where not many of his readers will be able or willing to follow him, but Fiona Macleod left the mystery vague. It might easily have defined itself in some sort of pantheistic theory of the universe, but it never did so. “The green fire” is more than the sap which flows through the roots of the trees. It is as Alfred de Musset has called it, the blood that courses through the veins of God. As we realize the full force of that imaginative phrase, the dark roots of trees instinct with life, and the royal liquor rising to its foam of leaves, we have something very like Fiona’s mystic sense of nature. Any extreme moment of human experience will give an interpretation of such symbolism—love or death or the mere springtide of the year.
It is not without significance that Sharp and Mr. Yeats and Mr. Symons all dreamed on the same night the curious dream of a beautiful woman shooting arrows among the stars. All the three had indeed the beautiful woman in the heart of them, and in far-darting thoughts and imaginations she was ever sending arrows among the stars. But Mr. Yeats is calmer and less passionate than Fiona, as though he were crooning a low song all the time, while the silent arrows flash from his bow. Sometimes, indeed, he will blaze forth flaming with passion in showers of light of the green fire. Yet from first to last, there is less of the green fire and more of the poppies in Mr. Yeats and it is Fiona who shoots most constantly and farthest among the stars.
Haunted, that is the word for this world into which we have entered. The house without its guests would be uninhabitable for such poets as these. The atmosphere is everywhere that of a haunted earth where strange terrors and beauties flit to and fro—phantoms of spectral lives which seem to be looking on while we play out our bustling parts upon the stage. They are separate from the body, these shadows, and belong to some former life. They are an ancestral procession walking ever behind us, and often they are changing the course of our visible adventures by the power of sins and follies that were committed in the dim and remotest past. Certainly the author is, as he says, “Aware of things and living presences hidden from the rest.” “The shadows are here.” The spirits of the dead and the never born are out and at large. These or others like them were the folk that Abt Vogler encountered as he played upon his instrument—”presences plain in the place.”
One of the most striking chapters in that very remarkable book of Mr. Fielding Hall’s, The Soul of a People, is that in which he describes the nats, the little dainty spirits that haunt the trees of Burma. But it is not only the Eastern trees that are haunted, and Sharp is always seeing tree-spirits, and nature-spirits of every kind, and talking with them. Now and again he will give you a natural explanation of them, but that always jars and sounds prosaic. In fact, we do not want it; we prefer the “delicate throbbing things” themselves, to any facts you can give us instead of them, for to those who have heard and seen beyond the veil, they are far more real than any of your mere facts. Here we think of Mr. Yeats again with his cry, “Come into the world again wild bees, wild bees.” But he hardly needed to cry upon them, for the wild bees were buzzing in every page he wrote.
A world haunted in this fashion has its sinister side, allied with the decaying corpses deep in the earth. When passion has gone into the world beyond that which eye hath seen and ear heard, it takes, in presence of the thought of death, a double form. It is in love with death and yet it hates death. So we come back to that singular sentence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s, “The beauty and the terror of the world,” which so adequately describes the double fascination of nature for man. Her spell is both sweet and terrible, and we would not have it otherwise The menace in summer’s beauty, the frightful contrast between the laughing earth and the waiting death, are all felt in the prolonged and deep sense of gloom that broods over much of Fiona’s work, and in the second-sight which very weirdly breaks through from time to time, forcing our entrance into the land from which we shrink.
Mr. Yeats is not without the same sinister and moving undergloom, although, on the whole, he is aware of kindlier powers and of a timid affection between men and spirits. He actually addresses a remonstrance to Scotsmen for having soured the disposition of their ghosts and fairies, and his reconstructions of the ancient fairyland are certainly full of lightsome and pleasing passages. Along either lane you may arrive at peace, which is the monopoly neither of the Eastern nor of the Western Celt, but it is a peace never free from a great wistfulness.
“How many loved your moments of glad grace,And loved your beauty with love false or true;But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
That there is much paganism in all this must be obvious to any one who has given any attention to the subject. The tale of The Annir-Choille confesses it frankly enough, where the young Christian prince is brought back by the forest maiden from his new faith to the ancient pagan world. Old gods are strewn everywhere upon the waysides down which Fiona leads us, and there are many times when we cannot disentangle the spiritual from the material, nor indeed the good from the evil influences. Dr. John Brown used to tell the story of a shepherd boy near Biggar, who one day was caught out on the hill in a thunder-storm. The boy could not remember whether thunder-storms were sent by God or Satan, and so to be quite safe, he kept alternately repeating the ejaculations, “Eh, guid God,” and “Eh, bonny deil.” One often thinks of Fiona in connection with that story. You are seldom quite sure whether it is a Christian or a pagan deity whom you are invoking, but there is no question as to the paganism of the atmosphere which you often breathe.
As a matter of fact, William Sharp began in frank and avowed paganism, and passed from that through various phases into a high spirituality. His early utterances in regard to Art, in which he deprecated any connection between Art and a message, and insisted upon its being mere expression, were of course sheer paganism. In 1892, before Fiona was born, he published one of those delightful magazines which run through a short and daring career and then vanish as suddenly as they arose. In fact his magazine, The Pagan Review, from first to last had only one number. It was edited by Mr. Brooks and William Sharp, and its articles were contributed by seven other people. But these seven, and Mr. Brooks as well, turned out eventually all to be William Sharp himself. It was “frankly pagan; pagan in sentiment, pagan in convictions, pagan in outlook…. The religion of our forefathers has not only ceased for us personally, but is no longer in any vital and general sense a sovereign power in the realm.” He finished up with the interesting phrase, “Sic transit gloria Grundi,” and he quotes Gautier: “‘Frankly I am in earnest this time. Order me a dove-colored vest, apple-green trousers, a pouch, a crook; in short, the entire outfit of a Lignon shepherd. I shall have a lamb washed to complete the pastoral….’ This is the lamb.”
The magazine was an extraordinarily clever production, and the fact that he was its author is significant. For to the end of her days Fiona was a pagan still, albeit sometimes a more or less converted pagan. In The Annir-Choille, The Sin-Eater, The Washer of the Ford, and the others, you never get away from the ancient rites, and there is one story which may be taken as typical of all the rest, The Walker in the Night:—
“Often he had heard of her. When any man met this woman his fate depended on whether he saw her before she caught sight of him. If she saw him first, she had but to sing her wild strange song, and he would go to her; and when he was before her, two flames would come out of her eyes, and one flame would burn up his life as though it were dry tinder, and the other would wrap round his soul like a scarlet shawl, and she would take it and live with it in a cavern underground for a year and a day. And on that last day she would let it go, as a hare is let go a furlong beyond a greyhound. Then it would fly like a windy shadow from glade to glade, or from dune to dune, in the vain hope to reach a wayside Calvary: but ever in vain. Sometimes the Holy Tree would almost be reached; then, with a gliding swiftness, like a flood racing down a valley, the Walker in the Night would be alongside the fugitive. Now and again unhappy nightfarers—unhappy they, for sure, for never does weal remain with any one who hears what no human ear should hearken—would be startled by a sudden laughing in the darkness. This was when some such terrible chase had happened, and when the creature of the night had taken the captive soul, in the last moments of the last hour of the last day of its possible redemption, and rent it this way and that, as a hawk scatters the feathered fragments of its mutilated quarry.”
We have said that nature may be either an intoxication or a sacrament, and paganism might be defined as the view of nature in the former of these two lights. But where you have a growing spirituality like that of William Sharp, you are constantly made aware of the hieratic or sacramental quality in nature also. It is this which gives its peculiar charm and spell to Celtic folklore in general. The Saxon song of Beowulf is a rare song, and its story is the swinging tale of a “pagan gentleman very much in the rough,” but for the most part it is quite destitute of spiritual significance. It may be doubted if this could be said truly of any Celtic tale that was ever told. Fiona Macleod describes The Three Marvels as “studies in old religious Celtic sentiment, so far as that can be recreated in a modern heart that feels the same beauty and simplicity in the early Christian faith”; and there is a constant sense that however wild and even wicked the tale may be, yet it has its Christian counterpart, and is in some true sense a strayed idealism.
At this point we become aware of one clear distinction between William Sharp and Fiona Macleod. To him, literature was a craft, labored at most honestly and enriched with an immense wealth both of knowledge and of cleverness; but to her, literature was a revelation, with divine inspirations behind it—inspirations authentically divine, no matter by what name the God might be called. So it came to pass that The Pagan Review had only one number. That marked the transition moment, when Fiona Macleod began to predominate over William Sharp, until finally she controlled and radically changed him into her own likeness. He passes on to the volume entitled The Divine Adventure, which interprets the spirit of Columba. Nature and the spiritual meet in the psychic phase into which Sharp passed, not only in the poetic and native sense, but in a more literal sense than that. For the Green Life continually leads those who are akin to it into opportunities of psychical research among obscure and mysterious forces which are yet very potent. With a nature like his it was inevitable that he should be eventually lured irresistibly into the enchanted forest, where spirit is more and more the one certainty of existence.
For most of us there is another guide into the spirit land. In the region of the spectral and occult many of us are puzzled and ill at ease, but we all, in some degree, understand the meaning of ordinary human love. Even the most commonplace nature has its magical hours now and then, or at least has had them and has not forgotten; and it is love that “leads us with a gentle hand into the silent land.” This may form a bond of union between Fiona Macleod and many who are mystified rather than enlightened by psychic phenomena in the technical meaning of the phrase. Here, perhaps, we find the key to the double personality which has been so interesting in this whole study. It was William Sharp who chose for his tombstone the inscription, “Love is more great than we conceive, and death is the keeper of unknown redemptions.” Fiona’s work, too, is full of the latent potency of love. Like Marius, she has perceived an unseen companion walking with men through the gloom and brilliance of the West and North, and sometimes her heart is so full that it cannot find utterance at all. In the “dream state,” that which is mere nature for the scientist reveals itself, obscurely indeed and yet insistently, as very God. God is dwelling in Fiona. He is smiling in all sunsets. He is filling the universe with His breath and holding us all in His “Mighty Moulding Hand.”
The relation in which all this stands to Christianity is a very curious question. The splendor, beauty, and spirituality of it all are evident enough, but the references to anything like dogmatic or definite Christian doctrine are confusing and obscure. Perhaps it was impossible that one so literally a child of nature, and who had led such an open-air life from his childhood, could possibly have done otherwise than to rebel. It was the gipsy in him that revolted against Christianity and every other form and convention of civilized life, and claimed a freedom far beyond any which he ever used. We read that in his sixth year, when already he found the God of the pulpit remote and forbidding, he was nevertheless conscious of a benign and beautiful presence. On the shore of Loch Long he built a little altar of rough stones beneath a swaying pine, and laid an offering of white flowers upon it. In the college days he turned still more definitely against orthodox Presbyterianism; but he retained all along, not only belief in the central truths that underlie all religions, but great reverence and affection for them.
It is probable that towards the close he was approaching nearer to formal Christianity than he knew. We are told that he “does not reverence the Bible or Christian Theology in themselves, but for the beautiful spirituality which faintly breathes through them like a vague wind blowing through intricate forests.” His quarrel with Christianity was that it had never done justice to beauty, that it had a gloom upon it, and an unlovely austerity. This indeed is a strange accusation from so perfect an interpreter of the Celtic gloom as he was, and the retort tu quoque is obvious enough. There have indeed been phases of Christianity which seemed to love and honor the ugly for its own sake, yet there is a rarer beauty in the Man of Sorrows than in all the smiling faces of the world. This is that hidden beauty of which the saints and mystics tell us. They have seen it in the face more marred than any man’s, and their record is that he who would find a lasting beauty that will satisfy his soul, must find it through pain conquered and ugliness transformed and sorrow assuaged. The Christ Beautiful can never be seen when you have stripped him of the Crown of Thorns, nor is there any loveliness that has not been made perfect by tears. Thus though there is truth in Sharp’s complaint that Christianity has often done sore injustice to beauty as such, yet it must be repeated that this exponent of the Celtic heart somehow missed the element in Christianity which was not only like, but actually identical with, his own deepest truth.
Sharp often reminds one of Heine, with his intensely human love of life, both in its brightness and in its darkness. Where that love is so intense as it was in these hearts, it is almost inevitable that it should sometimes eclipse the sense of the divine. Thus Sharp tells us that “Celtic paganism lies profound still beneath the fugitive drift of Christianity and civilization, as the deep sea beneath the coming and going of the tides.” He was indeed so aware of this underlying paganism, that we find it blending with Christian ideas in practically the whole of his work. Nothing could be quoted as a more distinctive note of his genius than that blend. It is seen perhaps most clearly in such stories as The Last Supper and The Fisher of Men. In these tales of unsurpassable power and beauty, Fiona Macleod has created the Gaelic Christ. The Christ is the same as He of Galilee and of the Upper Room in Jerusalem, and His work the same. But he talks the sweet Celtic language, and not only talks it but thinks in it also. He walks among the rowan trees of the Shadowy Glen, while the quiet light flames upon the grass, and the fierce people that lurk in shadow have eyes for the helplessness of the little lad who sees too far. Such tales are full of a strange light that seems to be, at one and the same time, the Celtic glamour and the Light of the World.
All the lovers of Mr. Yeats must have remembered many instances of the same kind in his work. “And are there not moods which need heaven, hell, purgatory, and fairyland for their expression, no less than this dilapidated earth? Nay, are there not moods which shall find no expression unless there be men who dare to mix heaven, hell, purgatory, and fairyland together, or even to set the heads of beasts to the bodies of men, or to thrust the souls of men into the heart of rocks? Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart longs for, and have no fear.”
Mr. Yeats is continually identifying these apparently unrelated things; and youth and peace, faith and beauty, are ever meeting in converging lines in his work. No song of his has a livelier lilt than the Fiddler of Dooney.
“I passed my brother and cousin:They read in their books of prayer;I read in my book of songsI bought at Sligo fair.
When we come at the end of time,To Peter sitting in state,He will smile on the three old spirits,But call me first through the gate.
And when the folk there spy me,They will all come up to me,With, ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’And dance like a wave of the sea.”
In a few final words we may try to estimate what all this amounts to in the long battle between paganism and idealism. There is no question that Fiona Macleod may be reasonably claimed by either side. Certainly it is true of her work, that it is pure to the pure and dangerous to those who take it wrongly. Meredith’s great line was never truer than it is here, “Enter these enchanted woods, ye who dare.” The effect upon the mind, and the tendency in the life, will depend upon what one brings to the reading of it.
All this bringing back of the discarded gods has its glamour and its risk. Such gods are excellent as curiosities, and may provide the quaintest of studies in human nature. They give us priceless fragments of partial and broken truth, and they exhibit cross-sections of the evolution of thought in some of its most charming moments. Besides all this, they are exceedingly valuable as providing us with that general sense of religion, vague and illusive, which is deeper than all dogma.
But, for the unwary, there is the double danger in all this region that they shall, on the one hand, be tempted to worship the old gods; or that, on the other hand, even in loving them without definite worship, the old black magic may spring out upon them. As to the former alternative, light minds will always prefer the wonderfully colored but more or less formless figure in a dream, to anything more definite and commanding. They will cry, “Here is the great god”; and, intoxicated by the mystery, will fall down to worship. But that which does not command can never save, and for a guiding faith we need something more sure than this.
Moreover, there is the second alternative of the old black magic. A discarded god is always an uncanny thing to take liberties with. While the earth-spirit in all its grandeur may appeal to the jaded and perplexed minds of to-day as a satisfying object of faith, the result will probably be but a modern form of the ancient Baal-worship. It will in some respects be a superior cult to its ancient prototype. Its devotees will not cut themselves with knives. They will cut themselves with sweet and bitter poignancies of laughter and tears, when the sun shines upon wet forests in the green earth. This, too, is Baal-worship, hardly distinguishable in essence from that cruder devotion to the fructifying and terrifying powers of nature against which the prophets of Israel made their war. In much that Fiona Macleod has written we feel the spirit struggling like Samson against its bonds of green withes, though by no means always able to break them as he did; or lying down in an earth-bound stupor, content with the world that nature produces and sustains. Here, among the elemental roots of things, when the heart is satisfying itself with the passionate life of nature, the red flower grows in the green life, and the imperative of passion becomes the final law.
On the other hand, a child of nature may remember that he is also a child of the spirit; and, even in the Vale Perilous, the spirit may be an instinctive and faithful guide. Because we love the woods we need not worship the sacred mistletoe. Because we listen to the sea we need not reject greater and more intelligible voices of the Word of Life. And the mention of the sea, and the memory of all that it has meant in Fiona Macleod’s writing, reminds us strangely of that old text, “Born of water and of the Spirit.” While man lives upon the sea-girt earth, the voices of the ocean, that seem to come from the depths of its green heart, will always call to him, reminding him of the mysterious powers and the terrible beauties among which his life is cradled. Yet there are deeper secrets which the spirit of man may learn—secrets that will still be told when the day of earth is over, when the sea has ceased from her swinging, and the earth-spirit has fled for ever. It is well that a man should remember this, and remain a spiritual man in spite of every form of seductive paganism.
Sharp has said in his Green Fire:—
“There are three races of man. There is the myriad race which loses all, through (not bestiality, for the brute world is clean and sane) perverted animalism; and there is the myriad race which denounces humanity, and pins all its faith and joy to a life the very conditions of whose existence are incompatible with the law to which we are subject; the sole law, the law of nature. Then there is that small untoward class which knows the divine call of the spirit through the brain, and the secret whisper of the soul in the heart, and for ever perceives the veils of mystery and the rainbows of hope upon our human horizons: which hears and sees, and yet turns wisely, meanwhile, to the life of the green earth, of which we are part, to the common kindred of living things, with which we are at one—is content, in a word, to live, because of the dream that makes living so mysteriously sweet and poignant; and to dream, because of the commanding immediacy of life.”
There are indeed the three races. There is the pagan, which knows only the fleshly aspect of life, and seeks nothing beyond it. There is the spiritual, which ignores and seeks to flee from that to which its body chains it. There is also that wise race who know that all things are theirs, flesh and spirit both, and who have learned how to reap the harvests both of time and of eternity.
This is taken from Among Famous Books.