« PreviousContinue »
and it is scarcely less remarkable that Douglas Hyde, writing for an audience of a few thousand peasants, should have written poems that will, I think, compare with any poems written in the English language within the last ten years. In bringing these poems to the test, I am put at a great disadvantage-I am forced to have recourse to translation, to the bareness of word-for-word translation. A verse translation would be repudiated; it would be said the merit was in the translation and not in the originals.
Lady Gregory, who has put these poems into English, has performed the delicate task of straining the English language without breaking it; rhyme and metre and the common order of English words are alike sacrificed to the idiom of the original. A veil there must be always, but in prose translation the veil need not be so dense that those who are gifted with literary insight may not divine the original face behind it, and I think that those few will agree with me that no such distinctive lyrics have been written in English during the last ten years. Here the touch seems to me as distinct as Villon's:
There are three fine devils eating my heart;
And an empty pocket, my ruin and my woe.
Barefooted, barelegged, without any covering;
Like a half-burned sod that is never put out.
Worse than the cough, worse than the fever itself,
Worse than any curse at all under the sun,
Worse than the great poverty
Is the devil that is called 'love' by the people.
I would not take, or give, or ask for a kiss.
The next, in the form of a little folk-song, expresses the cry of the idealist of all time, the grief of his spirit bound by the wants of the flesh, the bitterness of isolation among his own people, that makes him cry, as one of the oldest of the poets cried long ago, 'Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her.'
It is my grief that I am not a little white duck,
And I'd swim across the sea to France or to Spain;
Without a full jug, without eating, without drinking,
It is my grief that I am not an old crow;
It is my grief that I am not a red fox,
It is my grief that I am not a fair salmon,
Catching the mayflies by my craft,
Swimming my strongest or swimming with the stream.
It is my grief that I am of the race of the poets;
It would be better for me to be a high rock,
Or a stone, or a tree, or an herb, or a flower,
Or anything at all but the thing that I am.
The next is extraordinarily simple and pathetic, and expresses in more homely words the feeling of 'lonesomeness' that is looked upon as almost the worst of ills by the Irish peasant, as we know from his proverb, It is better to be quarrelling than to be lonesome.' 'I would be lonesome in it' is often the reason given for a refusal to go from a bog or mountain cabin to some crowded place there is no heed for one or love.'
The sea, and the winds blowing from the sea, can never be very far from the dweller in Ireland, and often in these poems they echo the loneliness of the lonely listener:
Cold, sharp lamentation
In the cold bitter winds,
Ever blowing across the sky-
The loud sounding of the waves
The light sea birds in the air,
The voice of the winds and the tide,
And the long battle of the mighty war;
The sea, the earth, the sky, the blowing of the winds
O! there was loneliness in all of them together.
Here is one in which the storm outside and the storm within answer to one another:
The heavy clouds are threatening,
And it's little but they'll touch the roof of the house.
The heavy thunder is answering
To every flash of the yellow fire.
I, by myself, within my room,
That is narrow, small, warm, am sitting;
I look at the surly skies,
And I listen to the wind.
I was airy, lively,
On the young morning of yesterday,
But when the evening came
I was like a dead man.
I have not one jot of hope
But for a bed in the clay
Death is all the same as life to me
From this out, from a word I heard yesterday.
Let the thunder roar, let the lightning leap,
I would not move a limb or a vein
If it should fall on me and bruise me.
There are love-songs in the volume from which I am quoting, and this one seems to recall the moment at eventide when under the
shadows of the tall hedges a hand distractedly gathers a fragile blossom :
Look on my complaint,
Will you be as hard,
Listen to me, Noireen,
Put healing on me
I am in the little road
That is dark and narrow-
'There is another charming song,' Lady Gregory says, ‘but I will not venture to translate it, for its musical refrain, Shule na mona, shule na mona, shulenu mona slieva, does not keep its music in the English words, "Going to the bog, going to the bog, going to the mountain bog.""
Douglas Hyde has written in English, and whoever likes may compare these translations with his English poems. His knowledge of the English language is equal to his knowledge of the Irish; yet even in translation his Irish writings are superior to his English. An analogy exists between Douglas Hyde's position towards the English language and Dante and Milton's position towards the Latin language. I can think of no more plausible explanation of a curious fact; and inseparably linked to the fact that all great literatures have been written in the small languages is the fact that the destruction of small nations means the destruction of art and literature. The teaching of history is that the danger of empire is uniformity, and those in charge of the English Empire must guard against it if the English Empire is to escape the artistic and literary sterility of the Chinese, the Babylonian, and Persian and Roman Empires. We can only escape from a new dark age, in which literature and art will crumble into the monotony of empire, by the preservation of languages and all local characteristics. To those who believe, as I do, that nothing in the world is useless-that an ode is equal to a battle, a prayer to a railway station, that the wastes are as necessary as the 'open door,' and the pure sky as the fume of the chimney—there is something inexpressibly shocking in the destruction of a language. The destruction of an individual soul is a mournful spectacle, but the
VOL. XLIX-No. 288
destruction of a nation's soul is an act of iconoclasm more terrible than the bombardment of the Parthenon, or the burning of Persepolis. Leave the soul and the soul will create more literature, destroy the soul and there is a measure of aspiration and divinity less in the world. This article is a plea for the soul of the Irish people. Destroy the language and you destroy it. I plead for the preservation of that mysterious background of legends and traditions out of which Ireland has come, and which a hundred years of determined Anglicisation has not altogether blotted out. The peasant of to-day is acquainted with the heroical tales of the Fenian cycle, and to him Dairmuid and Usheen and Caoelte are a part of his inheritance. In stealing from him the traditions of his race, his songs and legends, you do not give him what is best in England-Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats-but the gutter press of London. The seemingly undying hatred of the Celt for the Saxon springs from the desire of the Celt to keep the soul which God gave him, and which he feels instinctively has been taken from him. It is not too late to stop this rape. I have sufficient faith in England to believe that there are many who will agree that this revolt is a noble revolt. I believe that in the country of Shakespeare, Shelley, and Keats, Hogarth and Josiah Wedgwood, there will be very many who will understand quite well that an Ireland superlatively Celtic, divested from all desire to imitate England, would be a beautiful and interesting thing in the congeries of States which form the Empire, whereas an Anglicised Ireland would be as disgraceful and as useless as a repainted picture. Think of those Dutch pictures which an ignorant and brutal collector has had repainted to make them match the Italian pictures which form the large part of his collection, and you will see what Ireland will be when she has been deprived of her language, of her soul. But I repeat that I believe that there are many in England who well understand that no Land Acts, nor Catholic universities, nor county boards can kill the desire for Home Rule, who will understand that Home Rule truly interpreted merely means Ireland's desire to save her own soul-the soul which has come down to her through centuries-which came to her whence all things come.
It makes, indeed, a subject to ponder on, that men, otherwise intelligent, should be unable to see that what makes Ireland disloyal is that Ireland is not allowed to think for herself on any point. If, for instance, the New Zealanders wished to speak Maori in their schools, is there any English Minister who would tell them they should not do so? So intolerant a policy, if extended to the colonies, would break up the Empire in a twelvemonth. It is curious that a policy which is followed nowhere else in the Empire should be followed in Ireland, and should still be followed after a hundred years of failure. And it is curious, too, that, while writing