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

The River Dreams of Ruins by Stephen J. Clark

satyr23A book’s creation is a story in itself. Perhaps when The Satyr was first published in 2010 there was something in the air at the time, as coincidentally “Austin Osman Spare: Fallen Visionary”, an exhibition at the Cuming Museum in London, opened later that year. A prominent retrospective, it brought about a welcome re-examination of the artist’s work. At the time commentators such as the publisher Robert Ansell (of Fulgur Limited) and the author Alan Moore emphasised the importance of thinking of Spare’s work in relation to his beliefs, ideas and methods, as one might of William Blake or Arthur Machen. It was indicative of a resurgent interest in tracing the links between art and magic, and a re-evaluation too of a tradition within British cultural history, neglected in contemporary criticism, of the supernatural and the imaginary.

Since its release by Ex Occidente Press I’ve felt that The Satyr deserved further development than the original publishing schedule allowed, having agreed to write and illustrate the book within a month. So when the suggestion of this omnibus arose it offered the opportunity to refine the novella, not only in a stylistic sense but in a way that resonated to a greater depth with Austin Spare’s life and ethos. Rather than applying Spare’s ideas with any didactic intent I wanted to discover and explore them in the process of imagining the story, giving its poetry the chance to ferment.

As a result I’ve finally been able to provide a solid conclusion rather than what, in the first edition, I felt amounted to a rushed sketch. I’ve developed other aspects to the story too that I always thought were there all along, that were latent, waiting to be explored, so there are additions that resonate with Austin Spare’s mythology further, making for a richer reading experience. These changes, as a consequence, alter certain emphases and help to integrate and consolidate the themes that run throughout the sinews of The Satyr.

The Author in Tynemouth

Rather than perpetuating the idea of the artist as a supernaturally-gifted genius I preferred in this homage to remember the human being behind the legend by implying his flaws and thereby celebrating his uniqueness and humbleness. While intersecting with recorded events in Spare’s life the story also engages with the mythology of a time and place, tracing its own secret poetic life through that ruined history.

A new edition required fresh illustrations and I executed the drawings in bolder lines to lend emphasis within the tighter frame of this book, superseding the landscape format of the earlier version. In some ways, as the style of drawing differs from the approach I would instinctively take it seems fitting that it is supposed to be the work of another, the sorceress Marlene.

The Bestiary of Communion followed in 2011, having again agreed to complete it to a demanding schedule. The closing story “My Mistress, the Multitude” was published in a rough form as a consequence, so I welcome its replacement here with the definitive version entitled “The Feast of the Sphinx”. While “The Horned Tongue” and “The Lost Reaches” have had minor stylistic improvements here, ‘The Feast of the Sphinx’, has not only been renamed but largely rewritten too, substantially developing a character that originally appeared only as an impression on the margins of the drama. As a result the focus of the story has shifted considerably, delivering the conclusion I always felt the story deserved.

"The River Dreams of Ruins"
“The River Dreams of Ruins”

While working on “The River Dreams of Ruins”, the art for the book’s boards I’d intended to focus solely on the motifs of The Satyr, yet as the painting progressed I realised it had begun to echo the entire collection. The partly-concealed female form that adorns the book’s spine could just as easily be the Countess from “The Feast of the Sphinx” as well as Marlene. And the host of faces that emerge from the flames on the rear panel may be any of the migrant spirits that pass through the tales in these pages. The river depicted could be the Thames of Hughes’ apocalyptic visions, the Danube of Marlene’s dreams or the Vltava that runs through Nemec’s nightmares. There are ruins and dreams and rivers running through all of these stories.

While The Satyr and Other Tales partly serves to salvage these stories, I feel bringing them together in one volume has proved rewarding in another sense, inspired as they all are by shared themes and settings rooted in a mythology of both World Wars.

To buy a copy of The Satyr and Other Tales, please visit our website.

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The River Dreams of Ruins by Stephen J. Clark