The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats

Stories of magic and myth, folklore and fairy traditions, the occult and the outré, inspired by the rich mystical world of Ireland’s greatest poet, W. B. Yeats. We invited ten contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, drawing on his work for their own new and original tales. Each has chosen a phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric. Alongside their own powerful qualities, the pieces here testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds and the talismans of old magic.


tower 3Introduction by Mark Valentine

“All Art that is not mere story-telling, or mere portraiture, is symbolic, and has the purpose of those symbolic talismans which mediaeval magicians made with complex colours and forms . . . ”

– A Book of Images

The artist had a hawk-like face and dark garments. I could imagine him turned into an effigy, some allegorical image, an Edwardian sphinx. There was a pallor which suggested he was already halfway to marble. The long fingers were like white candles. The black eyes seemed to be regarding something that none of the rest of us would ever see. He was staring from the frontispiece of a book. It had a linen spine that was now as grey as cerements, and its lettering was worn away. I try always to look at a book whose title cannot be read. Since others may have passed it over, it might be worth finding. In any case, sometimes it seems such books might be waiting in secrecy for you.

388After I had stared at the figure in the frontispiece a little while longer, I turned the pages. There were black and white drawings in bold sweeps. A cloaked figure moved through a bare plain. A bearded god stared from a ziggurat. Castles and citadels ramped on top of each other in dream cities. A sibyl held her forefinger to her lips. Unlike the worn and stained coat of the book, the pages inside were a pure cream-white and the black ink still sombre and crystalline, as if fresh from the artist’s pen.

This was the way I made the acquaintance of the artist Will Horton, or, to give him his full measure, William Thomas Horton. And this Will Horton was a chosen friend of W. B. Yeats, who penned an introduction to his A Book of Images and spoke of him in the same breath as Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts. “Even the phantastic landscapes, the entangled chimneys against a white sky, the dark valley with its little points of light, the cloudy and fragile towns and churches, are part of the history of a soul,” wrote Yeats, understanding that whatever Horton did came from strange spiritual sources. “His art is immature,” he admitted, “but it is more interesting than the mature art of our magazines, for it is the reverie of a lonely and profound temperament.”

Yeats.jpgFor some time the poet and the artist saw each other almost every day and when they did not meet, or even when they did, they wrote letters to each other every day too. Yeats persuaded Horton to join for a while the Order of the Golden Dawn but the haggard, hawk-faced man decided it was not for him, for he had a different vision. Yeats always remembered Horton even when, especially when, he had outstripped him by far in fame, for Horton’s work never quite won acclaim and he died in obscurity.

The reason these two souls were drawn together was because they shared an understanding of the power of the image to say the things we cannot otherwise express, to suggest the presence of overlapping worlds and haunted figures and the working-out of fates and destinies. Though they did not always agree on the mechanics of occult science or on the outer details, yet they had the same respect for the magical art of the image. Indeed, looking at their own two portrait images, they might almost pass for brothers of some mystical consanguinity, each imbued with an aspect of Thoth-Hermes. And in the last part of his great work A Vision, “All Souls Night: An Epilogue”, Yeats summoned the image of his friend to him: “Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought . . . ” It seems to me that we may see the real Yeats, and discern what mattered to Yeats, from this ardent friendship.

So the Yeats of old age, the senator, the grand old man of letters, the panjandrum of preposterous causes, the grey eminence of the marching men, is not, because it was the last of him, by any means all of him. It is not at all the whole of who he was. We must look instead at the young man with the raven’s wing forelock and the dark frock-coat and the loose flowing tie and the glinting pince-nez, that fervent youth of the Nineties, the votary of the Rhymers Club, acolyte of the Hermetic Order, firm Irish Republican, friend and keen counsellor to poets, artists, actors, prophets, mystics.

At the age of twenty-six he published a book in stately royal blue with gilded lettering, The Wanderings of Oisin, which told of heroes, heroines, giants, demons, fairies. It was his tribute to the rich folk traditions and epic poetry of his own country, and it revealed an imagination dwelling in a world and a time when magic was understood as naturally interwoven with the more visible order of things.

IMG_0170.JPGIn that same year, however, his fellow Rhymer Arthur Symons published his poems of cosmopolitan ennui, Days and Nights, and Amy Levy, in A London Plane-Tree, offered subtle Symbolist lyrics of melancholy and loss. These were more modern, daring and fleet-footed than his own traditional verse, and they, or others like, must have helped him see how he must make his own work new too. In time he would come to seem one of the few figures who were able to construct a bridge between the traditional and the modern.

But one of the singular aspects of the work of the modernists is how they drew on ancient myths for inspiration: Ezra Pound on Chinese philosophy; T. S. Eliot on the legends of the Holy Grail; H.D. on the classical gods. Yeats, too, enriched his modern work with ancient sources, and immersed himself fully in them. He practised astrology and ritual magic, researched folklore and fairy traditions, and was deeply interested in theosophy, spiritualism, alchemy, hermeticism, and the Kabbalah. He was a dedicated student and scholar who took these subjects utterly seriously and used them to guide his life. The excellent exhibition on The Life and Work of William Butler Yeats at the National Library of Ireland in Dublin illustrates this powerfully with its cabinets containing the poet’s magical equipment, robes, horoscopes, astrological notebooks, and other relics.

Yeats postcard 1-1 copyYet for a long time in the twentieth century it was the critical fashion to ignore or diminish these abiding interests, as if they were somehow embarrassing and incompatible with his status as a great poet. This refusal to acknowledge the role of the mystical and mythical in the human imagination was pervasive amongst the arbiters of English Literature then. It was part of a consensus in favour of “realism” in literature, which also saw almost any aspect of the fantastic or visionary banished from considered study, an attitude which still lingers in some quarters today.

The same patrician disdain meant that the supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood; the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Peake, and Eddison; the tales of magic and witchcraft by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stella Benson, Mary Butts, and others were largely ignored. Original and challenging work, such as David Lindsay’s visionary novels, Claude Houghton’s metaphysical thrillers, Naomi Mitchison’s historical epics, had little chance of acceptance. The effect on some of these writers was not minor: for some it meant poverty, neglect, marginalisation, disillusion.

It is only in comparatively recent times that it has been acknowledged fully how crucial occult interests were to Yeats’s work. A few studies began to appear towards the end of the old century, such as George Mills Harper’s critical anthology Yeats and the Occult (1975); his explorations of the poet’s central role in the Eighteen Nineties magical order, Yeats’s Golden Dawn (1974); and indeed his account of that friendship with the visionary artist in W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: The Record of an Occult Friendship (1980).

Other important studies followed: Yeats the Initiate: Essays on Certain Themes in the Works of W. B. Yeats by Kathleen Raine (1986); Leon Surette’s 1994 study The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and the Occult; and Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W. B. Yeats by Brenda Maddox (1999).

But although this new recognition of the deep sources of Yeats’s inspiration has been an important corrective, it should not now stop us from admitting that many aspects of his beliefs still seem hard to take, even under a sympathetic scrutiny. Arthur Machen, a fellow-member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, tells an anecdote about Yeats and another hierophant debating what his star sign was: they were both wrong. He admired Yeats’s work and enjoyed his company, but he added, “and yet the great poet was one of the silliest men I knew”.

S4820339Machen, who later dismissed the Hermetic Order as a sort of hoax (as indeed, in its claimed origins, it almost certainly was), soon came to diverge from its teachings and worked his way instead to a faith in a lost Celtic Church with its own distinctive ceremonies, the loss of which he thought perhaps haunted legends of the Holy Grail. This was quite a beguiling idea, but really not much more convincing than the Rosicrucian-style foundations of the Golden Dawn.

So we can acknowledge the power of the myths that guided and enriched the lives of both Machen and Yeats without necessarily subscribing to all the elements of these. And that ambiguity is itself a fertile borderland.

We invited some contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, by drawing on his work as the starting point for their own new and original stories. Each has chosen a resonant phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric.

The nine stories we present respond both to the allurements of the mystical and occult in the poet’s writings, and also to the doubts and misgivings that these must sometimes arouse in us. Caitriona Lally’s would-be contemporary hermit thinks he might quite like the “bee-loud glade” and the peace that “comes dropping slow”. But how will he find it and would it really be for him? In Reggie Oliver’s story, a risible mystic of our time shows a surprisingly material cast of mind about some matters, while a worldly sceptic finds his own fairly settled beliefs jolted, and we may detect a suggestion of Yeats’s “impossible hope”. Timothy J. Jarvis’s prose reverie is a sardonic meditation on aspects of Yeats’s posthumous fate which also “casts a cold eye” on the darker undercurrents of his occult interests.

In Rosanne Rabinowitz’s portrait of one of Yeats’s oldest friends in old age, we see that the psychic automatic writing he and his wife Georgie pursued is not without its potential abuses and perils. Derek John imagines the dire consequences of vaunting spiritual pride among the shabby séance rooms of suburban Dublin. D. P. Watt’s story envisages just what the “terrible beauty” that Yeats once evoked might mean in all its power, while Lynda Rucker meditates on how the apocalyptic vision of Yeats and more particularly his wife Georgie might indeed drop upon the world. Ron Weighell reminds us of the Irish poet’s abiding interest in the fairy mythology of Ireland, showing how this is often linked to otherworlds and chillingly different ways of being. John Howard, in his study of a tower built on the base of an old one by an avant-garde architect, adroitly suggests Yeats’s development from traditional to modernist forms in his work.

And, to end our volume, Nina Antonia contributes an essay meditating on Yeats and the world of faery, which guides us beguilingly through a realm that was always vital for him.

Alongside their own powerful qualities, we hope that all the pieces here will testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds which he shared with a forgotten artist whose images he was one of the few to recognise were really talismans of old magic.

Mark Valentine
September 2019

Buy a copy of The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats.


Mark Valentine is the author of about twenty books, mostly of ghost stories or of essays on book collecting and obscure authors. He also edited The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray for Swan River Press. His fiction collections include The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things (Zagava) and, with John Howard, Secret Europe and Inner Europe (Tartarus). He also edits Wormwood, a journal of the literature of the fantastic and supernatural

The Far Tower: Stories for W. B. Yeats

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.

IMG_1494
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.

IMG_1499
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

George William Russell, AE (1867-1935)

2031_o_george_william_russellOn Friday I decided to go to Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, just one neighbourhood over from Rathmines, to pay respect to George William Russell (1867-1935), better known by his spiritual name “AE” (short for Aeon; simultaneously the mortal incarnation of the Logos and the representation of the immortal self). AE was a great man of a great many talents: poet, painter, novelist, economist, editor, critic, mystic, pacifist, patriot, literary facilitator, visionary—he was once (and rightfully) called “That myriad-minded man” by Archbishop Gregg (also the title of Henry Summerfield’s excellent biography). AE is largely overlooked today, perhaps because he was never recognised as a master of just one discipline. But, as AE might have joyfully observed, employing his favourite line from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “I contain multitudes.”

The occasion of my visit to the cemetery on 10 April was in celebration of AE’s birth in 1867. Though buried in Dublin, AE was an Ulsterman born in Lurgan, a small town in County Armagh. His family moved to Dublin in 1878, and in 1880 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art on Kildare Street where he met his lifelong friend (and occasional antagonist) W.B. Yeats. In their early days both AE and Yeats were explorers of the esoteric, but where Yeats gravitated towards the occult and the totalitarian, AE’s interests lay in the theosophic teachings of Madame Blavatsky, not to mention he was of a considerably more democratic mindset. AE originally dedicated his novel The Avatars (1933) “To W.B. Yeats, my oldest friend and enemy”, but shortly before publication shortened it: “To W.B. Yeats”.

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As a young man in the 1890s, AE lived in the Theosophical Society Lodge at 3 Ely Place (just a block off St. Stephen’s Green) where his mystical murals still adorn the walls. Not far from Ely Place is 84 Merrion Square, where a memorial plaque for AE can be found. It was in the upper offices of this Georgian house that AE edited the Irish Homestead (and later the Irish Statesman), the journal for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society founded by Sir Horace Plunkett (uncle of Lord Dunsany—another of AE’s many friends). For a time Yeats lived at 82 Merrion Square, and the above cartoon entitled “Chin-angles: Or, How the Poets Passed Each Other” illustrates the anecdote of how Yeats and AE both went to visit the other, only to find they’d passed each other on the street without notice. A bust of AE can be found nearby in Merrion Square Park, head tilted as in the cartoon.

10631134_10203627790752954_1851163487122397552_oAs I left my own house that morning, chin tucked against my chest, I noticed on the floor a large envelope that had been pushed through the mail slot. It contained a wonderfully synchronistic gift from that gentleman-publisher Colin Smythe: a hand-bound letterpress chapbook entitled Memories of AE by Dorothy Moulton-Mayer. I had often wondered how AE might take to certain people, and long ago concluded that he and Algernon Blackwood might have got on quite well. It was with great delight that, according to Moulton-Mayer, AE had indeed read Blackwood—she had spied a copy of The Centaur on his table during a visit. I should have known! Though had AE not read Blackwood, this is the novel I would first have lent him. Moulton-Mayer also apparently knew Arthur Machen, though I don’t suppose we’ll ever know now if she discussed the Welshman with AE. But something tells me the latter had read him nevertheless.

With this illuminating Blackwood connection in mind, I set off west towards Mount Jerome. Around the corner from my own residence once stood AE’s home on Mountpleasant Avenue, where he started writing The House of the Titans (a long poem he wouldn’t finish until late in life). While this house on Mountpleasant is no longer standing, his first home at 6 Castlewood Terrace is, and I passed by it just a few minutes later. However, AE’s house at 17 Rathgar10624061_10203778411878388_7237812060711842277_o Avenue, which is perhaps the home for which he is most remembered, still stands and boasts a worthy memorial plaque. During the early 20th century, this house became a Mecca for poets, politicians, novelists, artists, and various other thinkers, all seeking AE’s conversation, advice, and ever-genial hospitality: Padraic Colum, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Frank O’Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Susan Mitchell, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Jack Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, Lord Dunsany, Sean O’Casey, L.A.G. Strong, Katherine Tynan, George Moore, J.M. Synge, Countess Markievicz, Francis Ledwige, Hugh Lane . . . the list is as ridiculously noteworthy as it is long. And to the twenty-year-old James Joyce, who arrived unannounced one midnight in 1902 clutching a fresh manuscript, AE said, “Young man, there is not enough chaos in your mind to create a world.” Afterwards he wrote to Lady Gregory about the visit, ” . . . [Joyce] sat with me up to 4 a.m. telling me of the true inwardness of things from his point of view.” AE eventually published three of Joyce’s stories that would later be collected in Dubliners, while Joyce went on to portray AE in Ulysses (“A.E.I.O.U.”).

Continuing across Rathmines I cut through Leinster Square and passed the former home of James Stephens (AE’s friend and protégé, and a man who definitely associated with Machen). “He inclined to sit on the top of the morning all day,” wrote Stephens of his friend’s demenour. The arrival of the chapbook earlier in the morning wouldn’t be the only fortuitous moment that day. Towards the end of Leinster cidImage_FOT876ARoad I decided to take a shortcut down a particularly rundown alleyway where I came across some graffiti that I think I will allow to speak for itself.

Finally Mount Jerome, with its familiar flower vendors and the red-faced man in top hat and walking stick greeting visitors at the gate. I bought a bouquet for a fiver. It was the least I could do. Naturally along the way I also stopped to visit an old friend, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. I pulled the spring weeds from his recently restored vault and admired the memorial plaque his friends and family erected in his honour last summer.

IMG_0004At last I arrived at the modest grave of the man born George William Russell. In 1933, after the deaths of his wife Violet and his lifelong friend Horace Plunkett, and the recent formation of Éamon de Valera’ s government (“I curse that man as generations of Irishmen to come will curse him—the man who destroyed our country”), AE sold his house in Rathgar, left Ireland, and eventually settled in England after a lengthy lecturing tour of America.

“Dublin’s Glittering Guy” (as O’Casey once described AE) breathed his last on 10 July 1935 in a nursing home in Bournemouth. Though Yeats had not come (and only telegraphed after a long silence), Gogarty was at his bedside, as was P.L. Travers, AE’s nurse and secretary in his final days. His body was laid out at the offices in 84 Merrion Square, and a procession more than a mile long passed through Rathmines before arriving at Mount Jerome.

Here at the graveside, where I now stood, once were assembled, beside many others, AE’s son Diarmuid, his political foe President de Valera, ex-President W.T. Cosgrave, W.B. Yeats, and Frank O’Connor, who delivered the oration. The most extravagant offering of flowers came from a woman who was once a servant in the Russell household. On being questioned on the costliness of her gift, she declared “I would have died for him.”

I’d brought along my copy of AE’s Selected Poems, published shortly before his death in 1935. In the brief preface, the poet wrote, “If I should be remembered I would like it to be for the verses in this book. They are my choice out of the poetry I have written.” And from this selection I read:

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Should you ever come to Ireland, there are many places you can visit to celebrate AE’s life and works, a good few of which I’ve already listed. The Hugh Lane Gallery often has one of his paintings on display, and a trip to Lissadell House in County Sligo is a must: they have the largest collection of AE’s paintings in the world. In the Armagh County Museum is another exhibition on the life and works of AE, including a number of paintings.

tumblr_mopw1cD0zU1rt17mio1_1280 First editions of AE’s work can be easily procured online, and they are worth the effort. Among the prizes in my own collection are a signed copy of Enchantment and Other Poems (1930) and AE’s novel The Interpreters (1922) inscribed to Gogarty. John Eglinton’s A Memoir of AE (1937) is worth a read, as is the essay collection The Living Torch (1937) edited by Monk Gibbon. Those of a more mystical mindset might like The Candle of Vision (1919; my copy once belonged to Gibbon) or Song and Its Fountains (1932).

IMG_0011My sincere hope is that in the lead-up to the 150th anniversary of AE’s birth, more people will discover and appreciate his contributions to Irish art, literature, and culture.

George William Russell, AE (1867-1935)