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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


Writings on Literature and Art: G. W. Russell – A.E. Edited and with an Introduction by Peter Kuch (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 2011)

Nicholas Allen

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1The fourth volume of George Russell’s collected works concerns his writings on literature and art. It is edited by Peter Kuch, who also provides the introduction. The entire stretches to near five hundred pages, which is appropriate to a writer whose output comprised three decades and more of journalism, besides poetry, prose, painting and propaganda, much of uneven quality. This begs the question why Russell requires a collected works at all.His brilliance was not in the quality of his thinking but in its position. Russell was one point of light in a constellation that took shape in the flickering controversies of the late British Empire. The co-ordinates of his thinking correspond with the boundaries of that world territory, America in the west and India in the East. Russell’s thinking reflected the stresses it endured as the little nations reimagined themselves as something discrete, original and deserving of their independence.

2Peter Kuch’s introduction to Russell’s work suffers from looking at Russell from the other side of the looking glass. His idea of Ireland is antique and belonging to a generation of critics who believed in Yeats as a kind of savior, with Russell his minor apostle. In this respect, Kuch’s summary of Russell’s life and career here is the epilogue to his single longstanding monograph on the writer’s early friendship with Yeats. Unfortunately for this volume, Kuch pays little attention to subsequent criticism. There is no sense of the evolving understanding of Russell’s role with reference to contested versions of the literary revival in Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd,

3P. J. Mathews or many others. If views of the cultural scene are stunted so is the immediate artistic context. Terence Brown is cited for his thirty-year old cultural history of Ireland (it remains a classic still, granted) but not for his life of Yeats; similarly R. F. Foster appears as author of Modern Ireland and not for his two-volume biography of the master poet. There is little logic to this. Adrian Frazier’s classic life of Moore is a well-used resource as is Hilary Pyle’s work on Jack Yeats (though S. B. Kennedy’s work on Irish art goes unmentioned).

4This is important because little claim can be made for Russell’s work on its singular merits. His interests were multiple and fascinating. Theosophy, co-operation, a flirtation with militant nationalism, the literary and visual arts are a seductive combination. But they are not unique (I think of Edward Carpenter and A. R. Orage as I write, many more could come to mind). Neither are they singularly representative of an Irish consciousness (Carpenter and Orage were English, but I read no celebrations of their mystic genius, although Kuch does important service by recovering Russell’s memories of the New Age’s editor). The inability to situate Russell and his contemporaries such as Stephen McKenna in contexts larger than the by now rather tired idea of the literary revival as a spiritual salvation of a fading race is a disservice to Russell and to his time. After all, the flexible development of Russell’s thought, and its final defeat in the decade after independence, is both inspirational and cautionary. Putting Russell back in the fetters of a sub-Yeatsian eccentricity undoes the one thing that makes him worth reading, which is the uncanny ability to make legible the literary and cultural forms that made shape of revolutionary Ireland.

5Russell’s determined thinking on questions of the economy, of community, of individual self-expression and yes, of spirituality, still has power. Kuch’s introduction and commentary give little sense of this. There is instead a strange antagonism to those other activists with which Russell was in competition for audience (Kuch knocks the ‘querulous assertiveness of many of the nationalist critics who wrote for Sinn Fein, the United Irishman and the All Ireland Review’ – presumably separatist politics would be better served by polite letters to the editor of The Times. Another passage suggests Russell ‘strenuously rejected the compulsive revisionism of the nationalists’; I can make no sense of this in the context provided, neither is it clear who is being addressed despite the fact our knowledge of the miniature communities of Irish radicals is well advanced in the last decade). There are other oddities. In 1892 we are told that Russell was more moved by the death of Theosophy’s founder H. P. Blavatsky than he was by the passing of Parnell.By 1895 we are told Russell greeted Yeats as ‘the harbinger of a new literary nationalism’. Its kind and provenance remains as vague as Kuch’s assertion that Yeats admired Russell’s first book because ‘he could use it to advance his type of poetry’. There is no art in this and little acuity. Yeats did not write poetry to type. Even if he did there is no description here of what that type might be. Kuch misses a similar opportunity with Joyce. Russell’s relationship with the younger writer is bookended by Joyce’s well-worn joke that AEIOU. There is no hint of Joyce’s more serious response to Russell through questions of economy, which extend later than Ulysses and into Finnegans Wake.

6More substantively, Kuch finishes his introduction by claiming that Russell’s writings on literature and art ‘form the most valuable legacy’ of Russell’s bequest to Irish thought. This is a difficult claim to make since Russell’s writing wandered so productively between subjects. One editorial might range from Athens to Athlone, or from banking to beekeeping. The question is how, or if, to separate such passages from their weekly context in the Irish Homestead or Irish Statesman, or to focus on discrete texts, most usually ephemeral. Kuch has largely chosen the latter and has performed some important retrieval work in the reconstitution of Russell’s autobiographical fragment ‘The Sunset of Fantasy’, well-known to readers of Yeats Annual (see YA10, 1993) Here again there is puzzle. Russell’s late disaffection from the idea of Ireland makes him claim baldly ‘I can offer no evidence of any Irish strain [in]my ancestry’. For most of this volume Russell flickers in identity between Anglo-Irish and a nationalism implicitly low-church Protestant in its apparent thrifty self-sufficiency. There is no editorial note to this jarring transition, rather a commentary for the following sentence that details the insertion of a comma. This rather sums up the problem facing modern readers of Russell. If he is deserving of a collected works and the undeniable toil of editorial application then his writing and thought should commend him by exceptional achievement. This is a dicey proposition in Russell’s case. His genius, again, was his place in the network, whether it was of writers, mystics or farmers. Dissected from these the commendable efforts of the annotator seem a little weightless.

7Russell is worth reading. His perception of the social problems facing Ireland in the period of its transition from empire to partition is a watermark to much of his commentary on art. The imagination was no abstract condition for him. It was an innate presence that electrified the body politic. Those parts of this edition that are most exciting touch upon the influence of others, most notably Shelley, Carlyle and Wordsworth. These figures lurked in Russell’s literary background however he tried to claim Cuchulain as inspiration. Standish O’Grady, Yeats and Russell himself stood in some sense as their proxies in the Irish scene. It might even be that the success of the revival writers with an English audience proceeded from their familiarity as echoes of the Romantics and Victorians. More than Yeats, Russell had his ear open also to the Americas. Emerson and Whitman tempered his diction, which was archaic by Russell’s late career (read for example his ‘Germinal’, a late poem quoted on the first page of Kuch’s introduction – ‘In ancient shadows and twilights’ it begins, and this in the time of Pound and Eliot, never mind the older Yeats).

8The impression of reading Russell’s writing together is to register a variable reception. When strong the message takes on a power rarely witnessed and never, I think, maintained over so long a period, except perhaps in Blake; when weak the phrasing is out of sorts and the meaning is obscure. Russell broadcast into a tumult. Home Rule gave way to world war and rebellion even as his mystic sense of the world was challenged both by evolution and by the new physics. Russell intended to be modern. His play The Honorable Enid Majoribanks, a discovery by Kuch, jokes about air flight and suffrage. That it was never performed tells us something of the difficult gap between perception of change and its representation in art, a gap that Russell often failed to bridge. Outside economics, the area in which he most succeeded was in his understanding of visual art. Russell’s essay on Jack Yeats is a little treasure, as is his open-minded support of the sculptor John Hughes. His eye was open to Mainie Jellett. A painter himself, Russell knew how to look at the future before him.

9The two proposed volumes left of Russell’s collected works are advertised to include first his poetry and second his writings on politics, society and nationhood. The poetry has not aged well, and had not in Russell’s own lifetime. His cultural work promises more. There is a solid archival foundation to work from thanks to Kuch and his crucial predecessors Alan Denson and Henry Summerfield. The lesson of this volume is one that Russell taught. The question of Ireland needs more thinking to answer. Thankfully there has been much progress here in the past two decades, as another editor will know.


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