Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)

3 O'Brien“It was shaped like a man—distorted, uncouth, and horrible, but still a man.” – “What Was It?” (1859)

Fitz-James O’Brien was born in Cork on 25 October 1828. Little is known of his early life, though he attended Trinity College and, after a short period in London, emigrated to America around 1851. In New York he joined the artistic Bohemian set, and began writing for various magazines, including Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and Atlantic Monthly. At the outset of the American Civil War in 1861, O’Brien joined the New York National Guard. He was wounded in February 1862, and later died of tetanus on 6 April. His most notable stories and poems were collected in 1881 by his friend and literary executor William Winter. O’Brien’s proto-science fiction stories, such as “The Diamond Lens” and “What Was It?”, are now considered landmarks of the genre.

TheDiamondLens565 Collections

The Poems and Stories of Fitz-James O’Brien (1881)

Short Stories

“The Diamond Lens” (1858)

“The Wondersmith” (1859)

“What Was It?” (1859)

“The Demon of the Gibbet” (1881)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


grande_gb5If you’re interested in reading more about Fitz-James O’Brien, have a look at Issue 5 of our journal The Green Book, which features the essay “Fitz-James O’Brien: The Seen and the Unseen” by Kevin Corstorphine.

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Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862)

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)

2 Le Fanu

“Perhaps other souls than human are sometimes born into the world, and clothed in human flesh.” — Uncle Silas (1864)

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was born in Dublin on Dominick Street Lower. He spent his youth in Chapelizod and the rural village of Abington, Co. Limerick. He entered Trinity College in 1833 and was called to the Irish Bar in 1839. Instead of pursuing a career in law, Le Fanu purchased and edited several newspapers including The Evening Mail and The Warder. In 1861 he bought the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited until 1869. He retreated from public life on the death of his wife in 1858, and from the seclusion of his Merrion Square home he turned his attention to writing novels. He is best known today for such pioneering weird stories as “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in and Old House in Aungier Street”, “Green Tea”, and “Carmilla”. His notable novels include The House by the Church-yard (1863), Wylder’s Hand (1864), Uncle Silas (1864) and The Wyvern Mystery (1869). His seminal short story collection, In a Glass Darkly, was published in 1872, less than a year before his death.

In a Glass DarklyNovels and Collections

The House by the Churchyard (1863)

Uncle Silas (1864)

The Wyvern Mystery (1869)

In a Glass Darkly (1872)

Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923)

Short Stories

“Schalken the Painter” (1839)

“The Watcher” (1847)

“An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in an Old House on Aungier Street” (1851)

“Ghost Stories of Chapelizod” (1851)

“Green Tea” (1869)

“Carmilla” (1872)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.


Reminiscences of a BachelorSwan River Press has a number of J.S. Le Fanu publications available, including the limited edition Reminiscences of a Bachelor, which collects two of his finest Dublin-based tales of the Gothic and supernatural; not to mention an assortment of hand-sewn booklets: A Concise Bibliography, The Ballads and Poems of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, and The Complete Ghost Stories of Chapelizod.

Those who wish to explore Le Fanu’s writing even further might be interested in our two 2014 issues of The Green Book, which focused on Le Fanu and his writing in his bicentennial year: Issue 3 and Issue 4.

And for the Le Fanu aficionado who has everything, we suggest the Stoker-award nominated essay anthology Reflections in a Glass Darkly, edited by Gary W. Crawford, Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873)

Charles Maturin (1782-1824)

1 Maturin“I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain that world, would lose his own soul!” –Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

Charles Maturin, novelist and playwright, was born in Fitzwilliam Street on 25 September 1782. In his youth he had a fascination for the gothic novels of Walpole, Radcliffe, and “Monk” Lewis. His early novel, The Milesian Chief (1812), won the praise of Sir Walter Scott; while his play, Bertram (1816), though successful, drew harsh criticism from Coleridge. A lifelong member of the clergy, serving as curate of St. Peter’s Church on Aungier Street, Maturin is now best remembered for his sprawling gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Maturin’s great-nephew, Oscar Wilde, paid tribute to the gothic novelist by adopting the name “Sebastian Melmoth” during his final years of exile in France. Maturin died in his home on York Street on 30 October 1824.

Melmoth_the_Wanderer_1820Notable Works

Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

“Leixlip Castle” (1825)

Find out more about Irish Writers of the Fantastic.

 

Charles Maturin (1782-1824)

Irish Writers of the Fantastic

2017-08-05-Irish-Writers-PoA good while back I posted the image of a poster designed by myself and long-time Swan River conspirator Jason Zerrillo. It features a line-up of Ireland’s most recognisable and possibly most influential writers of fantastic literature. I explained the impetus for the poster’s creation in an earlier post.

While I’m pleased with the results, it was not easy choosing who to include and who to leave off. Much as I wanted to indulge in the most obscure and overlooked (Oliver Sherry, anyone?), there is also merit in showcasing the luminaries: a reminder of this island’s contributions to worlds of unbridled imagination.

Ultimately, this poster is meant as a gateway for exploration. So you can imagine my delight when Alison Lyons of Dublin City Libraries and Dublin UNESCO City of Literature agreed to produce copies of the poster to distribute for free around Dublin this autumn. The goal had always been to make this poster available to libraries, schools, bookshops, to anywhere that loves to promote good literature, and to anyone who loves to read it.

To augment this poster, I also wrote a series of capsule biographies and recommended reading for each authors. You can find it over on the Dublin City of Literature website.

And so how do you get a copy of the poster? Easy! Go into any Dublin City Library branch and ask! Better yet, have a browse around for these authors’ books. Librarians will be happy to help!

Irish Writers of the Fantastic

Remembering Richard Dalby

brighton4The first thing one learned about Richard Dalby as a person was that Richard didn’t use email. Or at least that was the first thing I learned. Communications came by typed letter, occasionally handwritten (especially the later ones when he was having eye trouble), and even, though less frequently for me at least, by telephone. But let’s face it, there’s something quaint and reassuring about getting correspondence in the post.

Last week I got out all the letters I could find that Richard had sent to me over the years. While I’m sure we started corresponding earlier, I couldn’t find anything dating prior to May 2010. There were no catalogues either—with that little gold return address sticker at the top—which I must have binned after placing my orders. I circled items in Richard’s catalogues the same way I circled toys in the Sears Christmas catalogue when I was a kid. The books always arrived wrapped in brown paper, then newspaper, then another layer of brown paper (this layer bound also with string, sometimes with an added layer of bubble wrap), then under that a plastic bag (carefully taped shut), and then the book. Books Richard sent were wrapped so well they had to be extracted from the packaging by meticulous operation. Nothing ever arrived damaged though. Not once.

Richard’s death last month startled more than a few. I remember exactly what I was doing just before the message came through on my phone. I was at my parents’ house in Wisconsin, flipping through an old issue of All Hallows, looking at the extensive interview I had done with E.F. Bleiler in 2006, thinking Richard would be an excellent subject for a similar career-length interview. The scope of his knowledge and decades of experience, as a scholar, as a book collector and bibliophile, as an editor, and later as a colleague and friend would have made for a fascinating exchange. That’s when my phone buzzed on the nightstand delivering the news.

I first met Richard in Brighton at the World Horror Convention on 27 March 2010. Thinking back now, we certainly must have corresponded before 2010 as conversation was immediately familiar and friendly. I don’t think I’d ever seen a photograph of Richard prior to meeting him in Brighton, so was struck by his boyish appearance. It conflicted with the fact that his publication history goes right the way back. Jesus, how old was this guy? Not that old at all as it turned out.

IMG_1844But Richard wasn’t just boyish in appearance; he had something of that youthful manner about him too. Maybe curiosity is a better word for it. He was inquisitive. After brief salutations and nice-to-finally-meet-yous, Richard immediately launched into questions. I’d been working on Stoker a lot in those days, and he wanted to know what I knew about “X” edition, or if I had ever been able to track down the exact publication date of “Y”. Of course I hadn’t. Sure, I know more than the average person does about Stoker, but Richard’s knowledge far exceeded mine and by no small amount. And yet he asked me questions anyway because that’s how Richard seemed to work. He probed, asked questions, compiled, collected, and collated. I think that’s one of the key qualities Richard possessed that made him such a good researcher, bibliographer, and anthologist.

That’s pretty much how our correspondence went too: Richard would ask me questions and I mostly answered with the written equivalent of a blank stare and a shrug. I asked Richard questions and he responded in more detail and depth of knowledge than I ever would have imagined. He was generous that way, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who benefited from his knowledge.

So there we were stood in the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton. He’d just asked me numerous questions on Stoker-related bibliographic mysteries, and what could I say? How could I respond? I opened my bag and took out my well-thumbed Bram Stoker: A Bibliography that Richard had co-written with Bill Hughes. I asked him to sign it. He did. As he wrote in my book, I kept thinking: “Why are you asking me these questions, Richard? You literally wrote the book on the subject.” But he treated me as a colleague right from the start. This Stoker bibliography—which I still consult—is one book of two that I now have in my collection kindly inscribed to me by Richard.

bss5Richard was also kind enough to edit one of Swan River Press’s Bram Stoker Series booklets, To My Dear Friend Hommey-Beg: The Great Friendship of Bram Stoker and Hall Caine, which I published in 2011. Much of our early correspondence centred on Bram Stoker, but also Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and as the years went by an increasing number of more obscure Irish writers. By autumn of 2010, Swan River Press had shifted from publishing chapbooks and booklets to limited edition hardbacks. Not only was Richard enthusiastic about this, but frequently offered his advice and expertise.

I remember Richard was especially keen to see Mervyn Wall back in print, and in advance of Swan River’s reissues of The Unfortunate Fursey and The Return of Fursey in 2015, Richard allowed me to reprint his article “Mervyn Wall: Irish Author and Satirist” in the second issue of The Green Book. He also sent me a photocopy of Dorothy Macardle’s rare ghost story collection Earth-Bound, which I eventually reprinted in 2016. So too did Richard help fill in my A.E. collection by sending me stray volumes that he accumulated over the years. He was eager to see the sesquicentennial edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems, which I published in early April 2017. I sent him copies of the book—I’d gotten into the habit of sending him a few copies of everything I published—but I did not hear back from him, nor would I. I knew he was still having eye trouble, but I hoped that he had time to open the package and that he liked the book.

Richard’s generosity continued over the years, and even as I look around my office here in Dublin, I see a great number of books he had sent me. He knew I was on the lookout for obscure volumes, mainly Irish, and occasionally Richard would send letters with lists of books he had acquired, offering them with the note “free to you”. I sometimes think he picked up spare copies just so he could send them to people who were looking for them. There are early editions of Stoker and M.R. James from Richard on my shelves, books by Cheiro, some Le Fanu, a cherished first edition of Blackwood’s The Bright Messenger, and an odd little volume, Thirty Stories by Elizabeth Myers (simply because he thought I might like it), among many others.

Not long before his eyesight became even more troublesome, I got another such letter telling me he would soon be “downsizing” his Dunsany and Blackwood collections. Although he never got around to sending me a list of those titles, he wrote that he would soon be getting rid of the first editions which he “no longer needed to keep”—“Free to you,” he added. Generous as always, no doubt, but even then there was an odd hint of closing-time about that handwritten letter. It was always “Free to you”. Richard was either a very good bookseller, or a very bad one—depending on your perspective, I suppose!

Earlier this year I asked Richard if he would contribute to an ambitious project I have embarked on. Inspired by Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers, Neil Wilson’s Shadows in the Attic, and other similar reference books, I’d decided to put together an encyclopaedia of Irish supernatural and fantastical fiction writers. With his scope of knowledge, Richard was one of the first people I approached. I sent him a letter with my list of authors and waited. What came back was a half-page list of ten authors about whom he wanted to write—many on which he’d already written; authors who he had revived and got back into print; authors who were on my list because Richard had introduced me to their work in the first place. Apart from the date in the corner (January 2017), there was no further comment, just the handwritten list. A week or so later I received what would be a short, final letter: a Christmas and New Year’s greeting, a few brief but enthusiastic comments about the encyclopaedia project, and the hope that with regard to his eyesight “all will improve this year”.

IMG_1843The last time I saw Richard was at the Friends of Arthur Machen annual dinner in York on 5 March 2016. I didn’t know he would be there, but was glad to see him again. We chatted a bit about the then forthcoming Dublin Ghost Story Festival, he regretted that he couldn’t make it, but was hoping to attend if we decided to host another. Richard that day wore an oversized jumper and I remember watching him inspect books that were to be auctioned off before the dinner. He picked them up one by one, bringing each one close up to his eyes to read the titles before depositing them back on the table. Richard bought two or three odd volumes costing not more than a few pounds. I don’t remember what the titles were, but I do recall wondering what his interest in them was. As for me, I bought a copy of The Haunted Chair and Other Stories by Richard Marsh, which Richard had edited for Ash Tree Press back in 1997. Richard was sat beside me in his oversized cream-coloured jumper, his hair was whiter than I’d remembered. I asked him if he would sign the book. He did. It’s the second book in my collection inscribed to me by Richard.

He made a quick exit shortly after that. Said he had to catch a bus back to Scarborough. I wish he would have stayed for the dinner though.

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Richard Dalby has left his scholarly imprint on many hundreds of books and journals, not just those he edited or compiled himself, but those volumes that he shepherded into publication with the generosity of his knowledge and genuine love for supernatural literature. Back in 2014 Richard wrote to me: “I still have around thirty ideas for excellent collections and anthologies.” I suspect he was being modest. And it might be a selfish thing to write, but I hope hints of those books might still be discovered among his papers.

The loss of a friend and colleague is and always will be a horrible thing, and with someone like Richard that loss goes for double—along with him went a vast amount of knowledge. Commiserations regarding Richard’s death have been circulating the literary and small press communities these past weeks, and no doubt the void he left will not be filled any time soon.

I got an email from Peter Bell a few days ago. Like Richard, Peter also signed up to contribute to my Irish encyclopaedia, offering to write the entry on Katharine Tynan. Like many of us, Peter had looked to Richard for advice and assistance. Before he died, Richard gave Peter a copy of Tynan’s 1895 collection An Isle in the Water. “Some time ago,” Peter wrote to me in the email, “I’d asked Richard for more information about Tynan. With strange serendipity I opened the copy of Isle in the Water, and inserted I found notes on her Richard had sent with it . . . As if his spirit were still abroad!” Something tells me we are still in good ghostly company.

This reminiscence originally appeared in A Ghostly Company Newsletter 58, Summer 2017. Mark Valentine’s obituary for Richard can be read on the Wormwoodiana Blog.

Remembering Richard Dalby

Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

IMG_1828I’ve long been a fan of checklists, indicies, bibliographies, literary guides, and genre studies. From Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature to E.F. Bleiler’s Guide to Supernatural Fiction, and many more besides. One can spend hours immersed in these books, discovering new avenues for exploration and making mental notes on obscure titles to look out for. My shelves groan with these sorts of volumes, and despite severe bowing in some places, I don’t regret it one bit.

Those of you who regularly peek at this blog might also recall the poster I designed with Jason Zerrillo a couple of years back featuring “Irish Writers of the Fantastic”. It was a reaction to the all-male “Irish Writers” poster and the subsequent all-female response. The goal of the exercise was to promote genre writers from Ireland. Naturally with posters there are some restrictions, and for one reason or another we couldn’t include everyone we would have liked without turning a simple poster into a city block-length mural.

finalWell, I decided to do something about that. For the past few months I’ve been in the early stages of assembling an “Encyclopaedia of Irish Writers of Fantastic Literature”. Loosely inspired by E.F. Bleiler’s Supernatural Fiction Writers and Jack Sullivan’s Penguin Encyclopedia to Horror and Supernatural, my first step was to compile a list of authors who I felt in some way contributed to Irish fantastic fiction. This list includes obvious writers such as Bram Stoker and Elizabeth Bowen, but also writers who are less well known, or whose contributions might not have had such a detectable effect on their peers.

Naturally any such list will be highly idiosyncratic. I have chosen to focus primarily on fiction. Generally I’ve erred on the side of inclusion (if only because someone once told me that the Dublin-born painter Francis Bacon “wasn’t really Irish, now was he?”). On the whole I have shied away from oral tradition, mythology, and folklore. No doubt these modes have had a profound impact on Irish literature, but to include them would make scope of the project unwieldy.  I am also keeping away from Irish science-fiction, not only due to my lack of knowledge on the subject, but because Ireland’s contribution to that genre could easily fill a book on its own. That said, do expect occasional overlaps.

While I have contributors for most of the entries on my list, there are a handful of yet unclaimed authors who need to be written about. This is where you come in. If you’re interested in and have the ability to write such an article, I would love to hear from you. I’ve currently got a list of 75 writers, with a growing roster of contributors that currently numbers around 25.

Enquiries are welcome. gothicdublin[at]gmail[dot]com

I do appreciate enthusiasm, but when writing please tell me a bit about your background qualifications and interest. I’ll be glad to tell you more about the project and which entries are available. Generally speaking, the deadline for articles is 1 December 2017 and the article length should be around 2,000 words depending on the author. There is payment involved.

If you have any suggestions for authors to include, I would be happy to hear them, along with rationale as to why they should be included. And if you’re interested in writing about your suggestion, all the better! I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Finally, anyone with an interest in Irish genre fiction might like to know that Swan River Press publishes a twice-yearly journal called The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. You might find something of interest!

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Irish Writers of Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature

Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic

Dictionary of Religion

“Ce qu’on aime le mieux dans Yeats, ce sont ses vers. Mais le chef-d’œuvre d’A.E., qui est un grand artiste, c’est encore lui-même.” – Simone Téry

The poet, painter, political philosopher, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935)—better known as “A.E.”—was no stranger to divine visions and secret wisdom. Often he oracled out of his shadow these revelations to friends and fellow writers: how he bore witness to a “dazzling processions of figures, most ancient, ancient places and peoples, and landscapes lovely as the lost Eden”; or how in his youth the “rock and clay were made transparent so that I saw lovelier and lordlier beings than I had known before and was made partner in memory of mighty things, happenings in ages long sunken behind me”. Even Russell’s pen-name—“A.E.”, an esoteric sigil imbued with cosmic mystery as much as it is a nom de plume—came to him in a moment of transcendental significance.

In his Memoir of A.E. (1937), John Eglinton—pen-name of William Kirkpatrick Magee, who worked for the National Library of Ireland from 1904-1921—recounts the origin of A.E.’s pseudonym:

He began to paint his visions, and had been attempting an ambitious series of pictures on the history of man, in one of which he “tried to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man”, when, as he lay awake considering what legend he should write under the picture, something whispered to him “call it the Birth of Aeon”. Next day the entire myth “incarnated in me as I walked along the roads near Armagh”.

George_William_Russell_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19028A.E. continues his story of self-genesis in his chapter on “Imagination” in The Candle of Vision (1918), describing the effects of this epiphany:

The word “Aeon” thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me.

That day an awareness embedded itself in the fervent mind of the adolescent. Not long after, Russell experienced another event that would transform the young man from Lurgan into Ireland’s visionary poet of the Celtic Revival:

I returned to Dublin after a fortnight and it was a day or two after that I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal. I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume. There was a book lying open there. My eye rested on it. It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye cause was “Aeon” and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings. I trembled through my body.

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Unfortunately neither Eglinton’s account, nor A.E.’s are given dates. However, that Russell initially requested an art journal is not surprising. From October 1883 until the summer of 1885, he was enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in Kildare Street; and from 1885 until 1887, he attended evening sessions affiliated to the Royal Hibernian Academy. The building that housed the Metropolitan School of Art, now non-extant, at the time stood across the road from the library. The National Library of Ireland currently (and appropriately) houses a substantial archive of A.E.’s manuscripts, letters, and artworks—all accessible to the public. Go see A.E.’s papers if you have the opportunity.

At the time of A.E.’s now mythic revelation, the National Library was located in Leinster House, presently occupied by the Houses of the Oireachtas. In September 1890, the collection was relocated to the north wing of Leinster House, an extension added to the central structure in the late-nineteenth century, where it remains to this day. This is where I found myself one afternoon doing research for Swan River Press’s anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems.

While the old catalogue remains available—tall, tattered books with pleasantly loose hinges lining the shelves just inside the reading room—the modern catalogue can be accessed online or via the computer terminals adjacent their analogue ancestors. That afternoon I had a revelation of my own. It seemed a reasonable assumption that not only would A.E.’s “dictionary of religion” still be in the library’s collection, but I should also be able to call it up from the stacks.

I conducted a search for book titles containing the words “dictionary of religion” published between the years 1780 and 1890. Among the results I found two possibilities.

The first was A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion (Trübner, 1879) by John Dowson. Given A.E.’s life-long reverence for the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Theosophy, and the eastern religions, this book seemed a sound likelihood, and so I put in a request to see it. There is, however, no entry for “Æon” to be found in this volume.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The other option was the aptly titled Dictionary of Religion (Cassell, 1887) edited by the Rev. William Benham, B.D., F.S.A., Canon of Canterbury; and Rev. J.H. Blunt (the latter editor indicated only in the preface and by an emendation lightly pencilled in on the title page). This book is described in the library’s catalogue as “An Encyclopaedia of Christian and other Religious Doctrines, Denominations, Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Terms, History, Biography, etc. etc.” I scribbled the call number (203 b1) onto the slip and waited for the book to arrive. I took a desk in the reading room and switched on the green-shaded Emeralite lamp.

What the porter brought out was a thick octavo, cleanly bound in black leather with gold lettering on the spine. I thumbed through the leaves until I reached page sixteen. The first bolded-black word that my eye rested on was at the very top of the page. I trembled through my body:

Æon.—An “eternal being”; the name given to the “emanations” from the Supreme Being in the Gnostic system.

Could this be not only the book that Russell chanced upon, but even the actual copy? The entry for “Æon” was there, the definition similar to what he later recalled, and it was published in the late-1880s while Russell was still an art student—this all seemed to fit my theory. But what other information could I find?

The National Library’s copy of The Dictionary of Religion bears three purple stamps, two of which are topped by a royal crown. The first bears the date “26 AUG 87”, an accession stamp indicating the library acquired the volume on 26 August 1887. The preface by Benham is dated March 1887, and so the book was probably published during late spring or early summer of that year.

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Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The second stamp, also under a crown, reads “BOUND 22 APR 92”; while in the downward horseshoe design of the third stamp is printed “BOUND 25 JUN. 1900”. A duty librarian confirmed that these latter two stamps indicate the book was twice rebound.

I left the library that afternoon pleased that I had found and held in my hands a unique volume, one that rested inconspicuously in the stacks of the National Library for well over a century. A book which I hoped might be removed from the general collection and re-catalogued with the A.E. manuscripts in special collections. A book that seemed to me most definitely a literary relic. Alas, this elation would last only until I got home to my own library, and from these otherwise faithful volumes a single uncertainty emerged . . .

A.E.’s own recollection in The Candle of Vision wasn’t published until 1918, but that evening I found a reference to a more contemporary account of the burgeoning artist’s chance discovery in a letter to fellow esoteric explorer Carrie Rea:

I was thinking of what would be the sound for the most primeval thought I could think and the word “aön” passed into my head. I was afterwards surprised at finding out that the Gnostics of the Christian Era called the first created being “Æons” and that the Indian word for the commencement of all things is Aom.

This extract is from a letter dated December 1886, and appears as a footnote on page fourteen in Henry Summerfield’s highly-recommended biography of A.E., That Myriad Minded Man (1975). If the date on this letter is correct, then it predates the publication of Benham’s Dictionary of Religion by some five or six months. Although A.E. does not mention a “dictionary of religion” in this extract, or even the arcane happenstance in the National Library, he does imply that he was already familiar with the definition of the word “Æon”.

wby017What to make of this?

My wholly unsubstantiated intuition tells me that A.E. did in fact consult Benham’s Dictionary of Religion, and that later recollections were an intentional conflation of events for the purpose of self-mythologising—something of which his kindred soul W.B. Yeats was also guilty. It is also perhaps significant that A.E. became acquainted with Yeats in mid-1884 while attending the Metropolitan School of Art. The two became deeply imbued with esoteric thinking—cf. Summerfield, “The two young men would discuss such subjects as the nature of the cosmic sounds that stimulated the growth of mushrooms.” Such an embellishment of one’s own origin of character, as detailed by A.E., must have seemed natural and indeed even appealing.

But as evidenced in the letter to Rea, A.E. must have come across the word “Æon” much earlier than he would lead us to believe thirty years later in The Candle of Vision. His happening upon Benham’s Dictionary of Religion in the National Library, while still possibly by chance, might nevertheless have led to an intentional, if idle, looking-up of “Æon” while waiting for that art journal.

I hasten to add, if I am correct, that this does not dismiss in any way the epiphany or inspired choice to focus on “Æon” as his true name. After all, Æon seems to have been embedded in his psyche much earlier, and should not diminish A.E.’s National Library experience in any way.

So perhaps the recounting in The Candle of Vision was a conscious attempt at streamlining or telescoping a personal mythology? I have not yet been able to locate the original manuscript of the Rea letter—but I wouldn’t mind verifying the date and reading the rest of it just to be sure.

Curiously this letter to Rea is not included in Letters from A.E. (1961) edited by the meticulous scholar Alan Denson. The earliest missive collected in Denson’s book signed as “AE” (instead of “Geo. W. Russell”) was written to Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which A.E. later formally joined. Though dated 6 November 1888, it appeared in the December 1888 issue of Lucifer, the society’s monthly journal edited by Blavatsky, and is generally considered the first time Russell used his new identity in print.

A second letter to Blavatsky signed “A.E.”, apparently written in December 1888, appeared in the January 1889 issue. But Summerfield notes that it wasn’t until February 1893, following his admission to the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section, that Russell started using his pen-name regularly, perhaps then recognising fully the power and significance of his two chosen letters.

Although Russell initially preferred the diphthong—“Æ”—typesetters persistently divided the letters—“A.E.” Ultimately Russell accepted this easier transcription. He both signed himself with the letters separated, and published the majority of his books using the latter rendering.

Russell’s first volume of poetry, Homeward, Songs by the Way, appeared in 1894 under the name A.E. So too did his second collection of verse, The Earth Breath (1897), his social commentary The Dublin Strike (1913), his political volume The National Being (1916), and so on. A.E. continued to use this sacred identity, his “true face”, not only to sign his poetry, but also his paintings, books, political pamphlets, letters to newspaper editors and friends alike, etc. etc. Whatever may or may not have occurred in the National Library in the 1880s, one thing is for certain: George William Russell had become A.E.

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By 1925, the prescient French journalist Simone Téry observed:

Have you doubts regarding Providence, the origin of the universe and its end? Go see A.E.—Are you seeking information on Gaelic literature, the Celtic soul, Irish history? Go see A.E.—Are you interested in painting? Go see A.E.—Do you want to know the exports of eggs . . . or how best to cultivate bees? Go see A.E.—Do you find society badly run, and want to better it? Run to A.E.’s . . . You doubt yourself? Find life insipid? A.E. will give you confidence, will comfort you.—Do you need a friend? A.E. is always there. (L’Île des bardes, trans. R.M. Kain)

But by the close of the twentieth century, A.E. had been reduced in popular memory to little more than a footnote in Ulysses. In episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis”, Joyce refers to Russell as “A.E.I.O.U.”, a playful allusion to the bearded sage of Dublin as much as to Joyce’s debt to A.E. for publishing his first stories in The Irish Homestead, stories which were later collected in Dubliners.

Yet despite all this, the name A.E. is still imbued with a certain magic, a presence that gathers around it the like-minded, drawing with a natural magnetism, ears straining to hear old traces of the new songs of Ireland. And just as they did during his lifetime, readers, historians, writers, mystics, activists, poets, students, journalists, organisers, politicians, artists, and the open-minded are still discovering kinship in A.E. and his works.

As for me, I still have one lingering question: Did I find the right book in the National Library? I have further theories, and you’re more than welcome to ask me about them some day. But if you’re looking for an answer now . . . Go see A.E.

This article originally appeared on the Irish Times website on 10 April 2017.


Selected PoemsSwan 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.


Hidden Aeons: Searching for a Literary Relic