Saturday, 27 September 2008
AE is a difficult man to sum up. I realised when I began putting these words together that it's Renaissance men and women that I find inspiring - rounded characters, whose spirituality is at once mystical and practical. This is true of no one more than George Russell.
He is one of the most neglected figures of the Irish Literary Revival, partly because he was often not, in individual areas of talent, the most accomplished of his contemporaries. Besides that of Yeats his poetry seems unoriginal and slight: but given Yeats' stature that is hardly fair criticism. People usually are familiar with single areas of AE's oeuvre; he gained much respect as a painter, studying at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met and worked with Yeats in 1884. (One of his paintings is shown above.) Their friendship was to last the rest of their lives, punctuated with long outbreaks of difficulty and disagreement. ('The antagonism that unites dear friends', as Russell termed it.)
AE (which stands for Aeon, a name he intended to adopt) was a true visionary, in that he perceived spiritual beings all around him, especially in the wild and beautiful places of Ireland. Frequently these he identified with the immortal beings of Irish myth, the Tuatha Dé Danann. (He maintained a lifelong belief in Theosophy, and eastern ideas often crop up in his work - modern Druidry owes considerably more to AE that is generally acknowledged, in fact!) Though he is sometimes grouped with Symbolist painters such as Redon and Moreau, his painting are not, like theirs, of dream-images or mythological subjects, but of beings which, as far as he was concerned, he truly saw. In the years after 1884 came the miracle that turned him into a seer of visions, as one summer day he lay on Kilmasheogue, one of the hills just south of Dublin, when with great intensity he felt the presence of supernatural beings. Then ‘the heart of the hills was opened to me, and I knew there was no hill for those who were there, and they were unconscious of the ponderous mountains piled above the palaces of light, and the winds were sparkling and diamond clear, yet full of colour as an opal, as they glittered through the valley, and I knew the Golden Age was all about me, and it was we who had been blind to it but that it had never passed away from the world.’ These beings, whose presence seems to infiltrate the paintings that are ostensibly of human subjects, are usually very tall,with plumed lights emanating from the head that recall Native American feather-headdresses. Glowing with their own radiance, they have a sublime dignity, underlined by the human figures who often crouch in awe of them. Rather touchingly, AE was often loathe to finish canvasses, moving onto the next when vision struck. This means that several of his works are not as good as he could have made them; but those which he did finish are often of exceptional quality. Further, he often painted on unsuitable materials - the wallpaper in his house in Dublin, upon which he had painted very beautiful images of great mystical depth, had to be carefully removed to be placed in the National Museum.
Although AE is most well known for his artistic works, his contributions to the political world of Ireland were also very important. His life is a superb example of practical mysticism. Though he was a visionary, he habitually wore an old coat that his wife said 'looked like it had been put on with a shovel', and was a primary force behind the Agricultural Cooperative Movement. Russell was appointed editor of the movement's magazine, The Irish Homestead, travelling around rural Ireland as a missionary for co-operative farming, improving efficiency and thus people's quality of life. Mystical thoughts on the return of the Tuatha Dé Danann followed hard on the heels of practical ideas for improving the presevation of butter. His gentle nature and kindly ways made an impression on all who heard him speak, not to mention his extraordinary industry. (Though he could never manage to learn Irish.) He continued his political statements by promoting Irish Home Rule but recommended 'political moderation and reconciliation with Great Britain.'
To me, AE is something of a spiritual father. I once painted an ikon of him against a background of birch trees, wearing his awful coat, with the bradán feasa, the Salmon of Wisdom, leaping between his hands. His generosity of spirit, vision and practicality are an inspiration. Almost everyone who knew him has a story to tell of his eccentric charm and kindliness. (P. L. Travers recalls trailing through a bog with him, on the way to a lunch appointment, as he cheerfully recited the Upanishads to the sky and the waterbirds, until she sank up to the knees and lost her boots. He equally cheerfully wrapped her feet in newspaper, and announced that he would 'enjoy taking a dryad to lunch'.) As Yeats said of him, he was 'the most spiritual and subtle poet of his generation, and a visionary who may find some room beside Swedenborg and Blake.' At his death, the streets of Dublin were packed with mourners. He deserves our rediscovery, for we owe him much.