July 7, 1917
IMMEDIATELY a man dies for what he believes, everything he has said or written assumes a new value. One feels that, however his beliefs may have quarrelled with one’s own, he has at any rate put an honest signature to his work. His words are no longer the mere casual utterances of a passing contemporary. One reads them in the light of his death, and they seem mysteriously laden with meaning, confessions out of the depths, a part of the poetry of fate. It is as though the soul of the dead men, having left his body, had gone to dwell in his books. We can no longer read them single-mindedly as literature. They are a ghostly bequest in regard to which we do not feel quite free to play the critic. That, at least, is the world’s attitude. It is fascinated and unquestioning as in the presence of a spirit.
It was in this way that Rupert Brooke became a figure rather than an author on the morrow of his death. One cannot expect The Collected Works of P. H. Pearse to assist to another canonisation of the same sort among English readers; but in Ireland the process has already begun, and Father Browne, in the course of an eloquent introduction, expresses his conviction that generations of Irishmen yet to be born “will come to the reading of this book as to a kind of Itinerarium Mentis ad Deum, a journey to the realisation of Ireland.” Pearse “will appeal to the imagination of times to come,” he declares, “more than any of the rebels of the last hundred and thirty years. . . . His name and deeds will be taught by mothers to their children long before the time when they will be learned in school histories.” Here then is a book which a considerable number of human beings already regard as a holy book because a man died for what is written in it. One cannot help, therefore, approaching it with curiosity. One is no longer troubled as to whether one agrees with the author. It is enough for most of us that the author agreed, as it were, with himself—that he harmonised his life with his principles to the last logic of dying for them. Pearse, it will be remembered, was the first signatory to the manifesto proclaiming the birth of an Irish Republic on Easter Monday last year. As President of the Provisional Government, he was also the first of the insurgent leaders to be shot. On the day of his death he was scarcely a name to the majority of his fellow-countrymen. Thanks to the statesmanship of Sir John Maxwell, he has now become a historic and almost worshipped figure.
I met Pearse, I think, only on two occasions. The second was when, eight years ago, he and Thomas MacDonagh showed me over the boys’ school he had opened in Rathmines. A dark man with a queer fixity of eye and a habit of close and earnest scrutiny, he struck one as being first of all a propagandist, in contrast to MacDonagh who was obviously first of all a scholar and artist. One felt that conversation with Pearse would be mainly a discussion of causes, while conversation with MacDonagh might be a discussion of anything under the sun. It may have been merely a superficial impression; but one did not think of Pearse at that time either as a poet or a prose-writer with a place in Irish literature. It is curious to remember that one did not even think of him as a politician. One thought of him first and last as a man who was anxious to extend the use of the Irish language and to build on it a distinctively Irish culture. Once or twice, while he was editing the Gaelic League paper, called (in English) The Sword of Light, he had shown leanings towards Sinn Fein; but politics seemed with him to be a secondary interest. He was, in the opinion of most people, simply an educationist. Even the stories he used to write in Irish struck one as being the work not of an artist who had to write or perish, but of a propagandist who was desirous to help the movement to produce a contemporary literature in the Irish language. At the same time, one never dreamed of regarding his enthusiasm as that of a grammarian. He was bent upon the making of an Irish civilisation, which would be as unlike English civilisation as is the civilisation of France or Bohemia. One of the class-rooms in his school, again, was decorated with the names of the great Irishmen of the past, all (or nearly all) of them figures of rebellion. The inside of his school was painted, one fancied, so as to be a sort of temple of Irish heroism. I can recall only one sentence of the conversation I had at that time with MacDonagh and Pearse. It is MacDonagh’s invitation to go along to a room where a class in Irish phonetics taught by a well-known priest was being held. “Do come and see Father —— making faces,” he said, laughing.
The Pearse we find in the Collected Works is something more than an earnest schoolmaster. His earnestness has now been intensified into passion. His faith has become exalted into mysticism. His plays and poems are prophetic of suffering. He begins to believe in the necessity of bloodshed no less than in the necessity of the Irish language. He accepts the traditional ideal of an Irish Republic, conceived by Wolfe Tone in sympathy with the French Revolution and endorsed by the Fenians within living memory, and life presents itself to his vision as an altar of sacrifice to this ideal. He becomes a sort of evangelist crying in the wilderness that, for Ireland, without shedding of blood there is no remission of sins. He makes himself the preacher of a holy war on behalf of freedom. He summons the young men of his time to live, as a hostile critic said after his death, in the spirit of Christian Bushido. He becomes a visionary and foretells battlefields. He can scarcely see the present world for the flashing of swords on the day of destiny. He scarcely ever descends in his plays and poems to the level of normal life. The two most interesting of his plays,The Singer and The King, are visions of self-sacrifice in battle. In the former, the curtain falls on the hero as he goes out against the Gall (the foreigners) with the cry:
One man can free a people as one Man redeemed the world. I will take no pike. I will go into the battle with bare hands. I will stand up before the Gall as Christ hung naked before men on the tree!
His poems are utterances of the same passion of renunciation for an ideal. One of them, entitledRenunciation, begins:
Naked I saw thee,
O beauty of beauty,
And I blinded mine eyes
For fear I should fail.
He writes like one who has deliberately thrown over the happy life of artists and lovers for the destiny of the martyr:
I blinded my eyes,
And I closed my ears,
I hardened my heart
To this road before me, To the deed that I see And the death I shall die.
One or two of the poems certainly reveal the fact that Pearse had in him the genius of the artist to a degree that one used not to imagine possible. There is, for instance, the Lullaby of a Woman of the Mountain, which begins:
Little gold head, my house’s candle,
You will guide all wayfarers that walk this mountain.
Little soft mouth that my breast has known,
Mary will kiss you as she passes.
Little round cheek, O smoother than satin,
Jesus will lay His hand on you.
The last verses of this poem are especially charming, expressing in a beautiful way the little noisy world of night that must be sung to silence:
Mary’s kiss on my baby’s mouth,
Christ’s little hand on my darling’s cheek!
House, be still, and ye little grey mice,
Lie close to-night in your hidden lairs.
Moths on the window fold your wings,
Little black chafers, silence your humming.
Plover and curlew, fly not over my house,
Do not speak, wild barnacle, passing over this mountain.
Things of the mountain that wake in the night-time,
Do not stir to-night till the daylight whitens!
One finds the same charm, the same cataloguish charm, in The Wayfarer. It is not a great poem, but it is a very moving poem, and, in revealing the list of the things that Pearse loved, it reveals that he had the imagination of a poet—the imagination that aches as it beholds the visible beauty of the world. It is only fair to remember that we have not these poems here in their original form. What we have are translations (made by Pearse himself) of poems he had written in Irish. InThe Wayfarer he meditates on the beautiful world he was so passionately to renounce:
The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun. . . .
It is not of his own renunciation he is thinking, however, but of the impermanence of all lovely things—the theme of so much of the world’s poetry. He thinks last of all—he was always specially moved by the ways of children—of:
Children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing in the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
It is as illustrations of the moods of an Irish Republican, rather than as poems of independent beauty, that these poems will be read by most people for many years to come. That he met his death as he did makes his rann, or song, in praise of death as significant to us as an actual experience:
A rann I made within my heart
To the rider, to the high king;
A rann I made to my love,
To the king of kings, ancient death.
Brighter to me than light of day
The dark of thy house, tho’ black clay;
Sweeter to me than the music of trumpets
The quiet of thy house and its eternal silence.
One finds a certain mawkishness in one of his poems, Little Lad of the Tricks, as in some of his earlier stories; and one dislikes finding a child addressed in a verse such as:
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.
But for the most part the poems about freedom cannot be accused of being sentimental. They are excitant, high-voiced, passionate, like the improvisations of a bard. One can almost see the hand sweeping the strings as one reads the opening lines of The Rebel:
I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow,
That have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory
Of an Ancient glory. . . .
One can see the hushed audience, tense with emotion, as the evangel proceeds to its rapturous confession of faith:
I say to my people that they are holy, that they are august, despite
That they are greater Hum those that hold them, and stronger and
That they have but need of courage, and to call on the name of their
God the unforgetting, the dear God that loves the peoples
For whom He died naked, suffering shame.
The religious element in Pearse’s patriotic poetry will puzzle those readers who judge him not according to his ideal but according to their own. They must remember that to his mind Ireland was as distinct a nation from England as Poland is from Russia or Germany, and Home Rule seemed to him merely a subtle form of Unionism. He believed that the full measure of Irish freedom could only be won if he and his contemporaries were ready to die for it. He admitted it could only be done by a miracle, but he called for the miracle:
And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved, shall we not answer together ? . . .
The bard of old was half-rhapsodist and half-poet, and that, I should say, is the nearest one can get to an exact description of Pearse as an author. His stories scarcely count; they are too much lacking in the detail of life. Other writers of fiction in Irish, like Mr. Padraic O’Conaire, far surpass him as creative artists. But the poems and plays have the voice of a man tortured with circumstance—a man across whose face breaks the light of a starry faith. I confess I see more falsehood than truth in the faith in redemption by bloodshed. But these plays and poems are beautiful with a far finer faith than that—faith in the destiny of the poor and the oppressed, and in the power of self-sacrifice to redeem the travailing world.