The following article by Fred Henderson was first published in the Eastern Daily Press (Norwich) on 19 July 1935, just two days after A.E.’s death. We reprint it here on the cusp of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary.
Most of the papers to-day, in announcing the death of the famous Irish poet, George Russell—better known to the lovers of beauty in literature all the world over as “A.E.”—make some appraisement of his work, and most of them might easily convey to the reader an impression which is quite inaccurate. It is probably not intended, but when we are told that “fairyland was Russell’s spiritual home, and in his edition of collected poems there is reflected a spirit of calm, perfect in its serenity,” the ordinary reader might very easily take “fairyland” to indicate the ineffectual dreamer in literature. And nothing could be further from the truth about Russell than that. Of the calm serenity of his outlook on the future of humanity there is no question. I have never met any man more serenely confident about the assured triumph of beauty in human life and human associations, or less perturbed by all the evidence to the contrary which our present squalors and the ugliness of a world spending its resources on providing itself with teeth and claws for its barbarian quarrels presents to us. But his serenity was not the vague hope of a poetic dreamer. It was based on a profound philosophy and knowledge of the deeper things stirring in the world’s life “under the measureless grossness and the slag.” Russell was a practical man, if ever there was one; practical as only the man with a great vision and purpose can be. His work with Horace Plunkett in the building up of the co-operative movement in Irish agriculture should be sufficient evidence of that.
I had the great privilege recently of spending a fortnight in seclusion with him on his return home from America. I missed him by only a few days at Washington where he had been visiting the Agricultural Department of the Federal Government and studying the projects which were being worked out there under the Roosevelt administration; and I had no idea when I went on board the Aurania homeward bound that he was returning by the same boat. But we came across one another before we got out of New York Harbour, and my remembrance of the rest of the voyage is mainly a remembrance of George Russell. It was a voyage of incessant storm, thirteen days out from New York before we landed in London. There were few passengers on board; and for the three most violent days of storm we had the deck pretty much to ourselves, watching the magnificence of the great seas, and talking together over the whole range of human interests and world affairs. The charm of the man; his soft musical Irish voice; his genius for discerning the tidal movements in human affairs under the foam and uproar of the surface—I treasure the remembrance of those days, and more than ever now that one knows that it was the last period of spiritual expansion in the setting of the elemental natural movement of the wild sea and sky which he loved that life was to give him. I wonder whether if now he knows the word which we spend an hour trying to discover one afternoon when a great sunburst, with a hundred shafts of light moving with the movement of the scattering clouds, turned the welter of the mountainous seas into a wild glory, and we flung line after attempted line at one another in the effort to picture it and express its movement, and found it inexpressible.
I am happy in having not only the memory of that fortnight of a great companionship, but a tangible evidence of Russell’s infinite variety in pursuit of the beauty which he loved. On the morning of our landing at London he brought me a copy of one of his books. “Let me,” he said, “inscribe it in my own way as a remembrance of the time we’ve had together”; and thereupon sat down in a deck chair, took a box of coloured crayons from his pocket, and in about ten minutes sketched in on the title page a drawing of a piece of mountainous sea coast, “The coast at my home in Donegal.” His last piece of work, I imagine, as an artist in colours as well as in words.
It was easy to understand, on such an intimacy with him, the deep and almost devotional affection in which people of all parties in Ireland regarded George Russell. It was not only what he wrote or what he painted, nor even what he did in the active movements of Irish life; the man himself was an inspiration.
Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback edition of Selected Poems, in celebration of A.E.’s 150th birth anniversary, is now available on our website www.swanriverpress.ie.
If you’d like to read more about A.E., please see our previous post here.
You might also be interested in A.E.’s short essay, “The Making of Poetry”, which you can read here.
And don’t forget to check out our journal The Green Book (Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature), past issues of which have featured A.E. and his work.