The Theosophical Forum – February 1936

THE THEOSOPHY OF GEORGE RUSSELL ("Æ") — H. F. Norman

How can Theosophy be other than one and single; can it mean one thing for Boehme and another for Paracelsus? If such questions should spring to the reader's mind on reading the title to this inquiry into the meanings which life disclosed to George Russell, and with which, in turn, his poet's insight illuminated the minds of others, his contemporaries, let me hasten to explain that neither is this the occasion nor have I the equipment for so minute an inquisition into philosophical technique. It may be contended that human capacity being limited relatively to ideas, there must be as many Theosophies as Theosophists, but it may be retorted, divine wisdom must be fundamentally one. I shall contest neither thesis. I would neither entangle my pen in those intellectual thickets through which the heterodox may seek an escape from heresy-hunters nor ply it to tighten the knots of some straitlaced orthodoxy. I aim merely at some partial revelation based on an intimate knowledge extending beyond four decades of the life and ideas of a friend, one to whom the debt of his generation is greater than it knows and who constantly declared himself to be the debtor of early inspirations which he knew and named as Theosophy.

Two streams of influence flowed from him which watered the mental and spiritual soil of his time and environment. He was in love with brotherhood; he was perhaps equally enamored of liberty. Generally commingling, though the currents of each could be severally traced, they were his river of life. Nourished, himself, upon the scriptures of the world and their great interpreters of ancient times — Plato, Plotinus, Patanjali, Lao-Tse, the Evangelists, Paul, and of later date Blake, or amongst his own contemporaries Blavatsky, Judge, and "Jasper Niemand," — he passed on to his associates the inspirations he had imbibed. Beyond this, the substance of his incommensurable conversation, the rhythm, form, or content of his writing, and in the ennobling texture of his own life, he wrought a rich tapestry of being which transferred itself pictorially from his own visioning to the mind-stuff of his contemporaries by virtue of a gay and unpretending spirit, dear to his intimates and sensed by all who knew him. It is fitting, therefore, to inquire into these achieved consummations of ideal and reality, the inspirations which enriched him, the response they evoked within him, and their influence on others.

The psychical elements which make of an individual man the poet or the seer are his own secret, if indeed they are known even to himself. There may be some scarcely decipherable prescription for it: the mixture, so much sensibility and so much courage, so much integrity and so much love, add life quant. suff. But the quantities are never clearly written and in George Russell when — to change the metaphor — we find the commingling of two loves in a common flame, the love of brotherhood, the love of freedom, we cannot say that either of them was the aboriginal fire, kindled first, or whether one was the actual flame and the other the warmth it shed. But the greater love, though we must think of both as one, the love of universal brotherhood, he would without hesitation have traced to an archaic source. His earliest thinking concerned the Archaeus or World Soul, on which he brooded continually — "one thing in all things" though multiple in manifestation, made concrete in meditation as stones, animals, men, gods, all but images of the real as he fastened his mind and fashioned his will towards the evolution of spirituality within him and without him. It did not relate itself to humanity alone, this spirit of the universe, but descending into the soil spoke in the green beings that flower upon it no less than in the beast springing out of it, the bird in the tree-top, the light in the sky. Here was spiritual Nature, "the Mighty Mother" inspiring love for the lovely things she made. The ethos of this brotherhood was thus no less an aisthetikon, visionary, beautiful. If in this constantly returning mood Æ felt moved towards and for blossoming things in their lowly setting of earth as others feel for squirrel or deer, and showed more concern for the voices of the plants than with the songs of birds, and if to his sensitive inner ear primrose or anemone raised its meek plaint when he plucked it, and the texture of soil or stone became fuel for his imagination as he handled it, he infected his companions with those experiences until we asked ourselves: is there indeed a true clairaudience in these heard protestations of the blossoming weeds, or is all this but wilful phantasy? And to companions training their will like him upon the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali such flower-voices became the attainment of that delicate intuition they sought themselves as the crown of a similar discipline of concentration: "He hears the music of the opening buds and knoweth what is passing in the mind of the ant."

And for him, as devotee of Nature: As below, so above! Kinship with the One Life, which he drank at Oriental fountains, extended beyond the confederacies of Earth and the waking world, through the mid-world of dream in which he was so much at home, into the realm of deep sleep to the demi-gods and other denizens of vision, beings of romance to others, of a deeper reality to him. "But isn't he a bit of a humbug," said one intelligent and not unfriendly critic, "he and his fairies?" No; there was no make-believe on his plane of vision, no puckishness in his world of faery. And if in these phases of the life of the psyche there was withdrawal from the light of common day, the munificent universality of comradeship re-earthed him swiftly in the presence of those who studied with him the Theosophical literature reminding him that "the universe exists for purposes of soul."

Yet not only those whose characters were storm-proof experienced the pleasures of his companionship. I know not how many were led — though I could name several — to seeking truth or to right living because his moral generosity rescued them from a life of mere excitement and sensation, men whose sensitive but infirm wills he drew to Theosophical study and exercise. For, as he drew his cosmogony from The Secret Doctrine and his psychology from kindred sources, he drew his individual ethics mainly from Judge, from the Letters That Have Helped Me, still more from the redaction of the Bhagavad-Gita, and most of all from a vivid, pervasive, albeit externally slender, personal contact. The loss by death of that spiritual chieftainship did not lessen Æ's reliance on the faiths in which it was rooted, and I believe he would wish to have that asserted. Of those faiths the most comprehensive was also the most poignant: "cast no one out of your heart." And this the reader should understand was no mere sentimental emotion. Brotherhood was accepted in a spirit of realism as "a fact in Nature" and it followed that many who stumbled by the wayside found in George Russell a potent helper. At his funeral one mourner, some untoward act of whose in days long past had brought suffering in its train, a lapse which would have caused scorn or aversion from others but compassionate aid from him, being questioned by a bystander at a most lavish gift of flowers being carried to his coffin, answered with unemotional cogency, "I would have died for him."

Nor were his beneficences isolated to occasional cases of distress. They were habitual and they were imparted in that spirit in which Madame Blavatsky had written: "Whoever feels his interests are one with those poorer or less fortunate than himself . . . who is ready to hold out a helping hand to the suffering is a Theosophist by birth and right." Thus public causes which were external lime-lit activities for others who espoused them were for George Russell lit up by an illumination from within, shining as through the stained glass windows of a richly colored soul. Claims for labor which he held to be fundamentally just ceased for him to belong to polemical politics and became a challenge from karman causing him to trample on a natural shyness, mount the rostrum, and rain down upon a mass meeting the fire of a burning eloquence.

A like impartation of moral beauty overflowed from the private heart into the commonwealth when he placed his great gifts at the service of the co-operative movement. Horace Plunkett had felt that that movement of which he was the mind and will needed a soul. The poet W. B. Yeats, a friend of both, brought them together and Russell became the inspirer of Irish co-operation, whose reverberations flowed out into Europe, Asia, the United States, and Africa.

Just as brotherhood in its widest scope was the sun in Russell's horizon, so freedom lit the campfires on his advancing path as he battled for justice, illuminating the dark places in human life. This light was perhaps less fixed than the other and there are those who felt that its fervent energy imparted less light than warmth. But that light, as he saw it, was one in kind with noble inspirations: the "righteousness" of Hebrew seers, the 'equality' of Greek thinkers, Emerson's ideal of compensatory justice. In his concept of freedom he gave to others without reservation the rights he felt he must claim for himself and for his view of life. I was to learn this early in our contacts. Upon some diversity of outlook on a minor point of belief he had written to me, quoting Blake, "Your heaven doors are my hell gates." I was aghast, remembering the caustic amenities with which John Wesley had retorted upon Whitfield, "Your God is my devil." But I had misapprehended. Æ, painter as well as mystic, knew well that black and white are not the sole pigments upon the palette of the universe. He was in fact asserting the freedom of all souls to their own truth. He had imbibed a modern statement of an old teaching, one to which he made frequent reference in the words of Jasper Niemand, in 'The Vow of Poverty': "Come, go, do, abstain; an equal right is mine." I learned later that another aphorism of Blake's was always in his mind. "One law for the lion and the ox is oppression." Therefore a 'tolerance' of the beliefs of others was not a gift to be patronizingly bestowed; it was their right. Obligations of belief may only be imposed upon the self by the Self. If any misapply this liberty of thought and act, mistaking for weakness of will a refusal to constrain others towards one's own ethos or to requite evil with evil, well, karman would see to that. So, one must never question the motive of another but only one's own. This, as I apprehend him, was basic in George Russell. Those familiar with Judge's writings will hear in it an echo of his voice. Those who knew Russell will know it as woof in the texture of his being.

But I would not here overstate claims made on his behalf and which he would never have put forward for himself. It may well be that the beacon-fires of freedom are more fitful in their windblown flame than the more tranquil light cast by the sun of brotherhood. What it is just to maintain is that in lighting fires of freedom he was prompted by the same sense of human dignity that inspired his early work for the Theosophical Society in whose interests they were first lit. That he did not continue in the Society, leaving it at about the time he became absorbed in public work, is no doubt the reason for a rumor I have heard, and now challenge, that he left Theosophy. It would be impertinence in me to apologize for facts which were exclusively his own concern, but disingenuous in discussing his relation to the Theosophical Movement to ignore them if, as I believe, a few brief sentences may help to dissipate mistaken inferences. Devoted to the T. S. of Madame Blavatsky's founding and Judge's fosterage and having, too, associations of respect and affection for their Successor, his attachment to the Society was strongly identified with a type of organization into which all could enter who deeply cared for brotherhood, whether they might call themselves 'freethinkers' or 'mystics' and for a title 'Theosophical' which yet proclaimed a mystical influence. With universal brotherhood as its single 'dogma,' an open membership, a spiritual objective, a free platform, he held the T. S. to be unique. I think that when Mrs. Tingley felt impelled to change its name and alter some articles in the Constitution he was of opinion (as was I) that membership must in practice become restricted to those who accepted the principle of hierarchies. It seems to some that in placing a more fully organized, more carefully selective and restrictive governing body at the center, responsibility became transferred from the rank and file to a more deeply indoctrinated group, so lessening the moral burdens borne by those furthest from the center. To others it seemed that acquiescence in these principles carried greater and not less responsibility for activities or ideals emanating from the center, and whose inner causes were not known. I think George Russell came to feel thus. The Constitution has since been modified and the questions and interpretations mooted here are not now matter for discussion. But I mention them because I realize that he himself had a feeling for the hierarchical principle, which gave me ground for surprise at his withdrawal from the new Constitution (shortly after my own) and because I see in his bifurcation of outlook at this point the basis of the fallacious supposition that he had shifted his spiritual center of gravity. It is to that misconception that I demur. For, in fact, in re-constituting the old Hermetic Society, out of which the first Dublin Lodge of the T. S. had evolved, he was re-affirming his mystical outlook whilst offering a broad platform to all truth-seekers. The correspondence with Mrs. Tingley on points of difference was, I am sure, marked by good-will on his side. I know it was marked with affection on hers, and though it marked a phase in George Russell's activities it did not mark a break with archaic beliefs.

What those beliefs meant to him we have seen: faith in the oneness of life, in its spiritual laws, brotherhood, reincarnation, karman, these and the corresponding ideals inseparable from them, compassion, justice, the evolution of the human soul. Their vitality and continuousness were tested again and again. In Dublin on 'White Lotus Day,' 1933, he expressed, to a gathering met to commemorate the life and work of Madame Blavatsky, the extent of the debt to these incurred by the Irish Literary Movement of the nineties. In a letter I had from him in 1933 or 1934, he wrote that he would like his Hermetic Group to join the Dublin Theosophical Club. About the same time he expounded to me his idea in testing out karman by living in London for a while without informing people of his plans, and how there flowed to him naturally those who belonged to him, mystics, poets, artists; justifying his experiment. To a friend in London, who had launched with him on one of those broad swift rivers of interchanging talk which he loved, whose hurrying flow not even the traffic of Regent St. could retard, he turned sharply to emphasize a point and, "Surely, surely," he said, "you don't imagine that you and I have met for the first time in this life?"

So much for doctrines, but we have seen that these were not for Æ so vital as the spirit in which they are applied. That "old secret" to which he made perennial reference, that "what a man thinks, that he is," lived within him less as conceptual thought than as thinking actualized through the imagination and realized in deed and in spiritual achievement. Objectivized as reality, ideals which remain precepts to others became 'things'; children of the soul, for him. Those ideologies of propaganda which shed a vague nimbus of half-thinking around the twilight moods of the sectarian and the partisan, remaining in the region of opinion even when they have crystallized into formal dogma, did not attract him; nor was he of those to whom complicated apprehensions of truth are seized by a strenuous exercise of the intellectual muscles, as athletes train lungs and limbs. Such training he reserved for the soul, exalting 'wisdom' above 'reason.' Because of this distinction, those of a different school did not always realize that his mental attitude was one of scrupulous integrity — but always to life, not always to those facts which the imagination has failed to inspire and illuminate. Thus though he gave mental hospitality to many aspects of the intellectual life, his own philosophy was of the inspiration and required an aesthetic setting, such as he found in the classic scriptures of the world or created in his own verse or prose. Great teaching always made for itself great — though it might be greatly simple — utterance. 'Lordly' was the adjective oftenest on his lips when he spoke of the Upanishads or quoted from the Shepherd of Hermas or the Fourth Gospel, over a partial translation of which he and his dear friend James Pryse worked together long ago. I believe that the aesthetic test may have influenced him in his relation to modern Theosophical literature and was perhaps an additional reason why his contacts with mystical writings of a later date than Judge's were not very close. But to compensate for this there was within him a growing comprehension of the needs and, yes, of the importance of the "souls of common men." Here no hyperaesthesia insulated him from the call of humanity. The mystic, he felt, is above all things practical and so must deploy his spiritual energies upon the field of human effort.

"There is no great and no small
To the Soul that knoweth all.
And where He cometh all things are
And He cometh everywhere."

But whilst, in his later years, Russell as editor and pamphleteer was so fully preoccupied with public events that except for the weekly gatherings of his Hermetic Group the meditations of earlier decades filled a smaller part in the landscape of his life, it was still with those who cared to ascend with him the peaks of spiritual aspiration or revive the memories of spiritual experience that he found his most satisfying companionships; and as these companionships lessened — the last of the old Dublin Lodge Group to die was Dan Dunlop and this severance he felt acutely — he renewed again the companionships of the soul which he had made for himself through his intimacy with the spiritual classics, some of the simple subtil utterances of Blake, of Lao-Tse's Tao Teh King, or the grave beauty of the Gospels or the visions of the Apocalypse or, what moved him most of all, I think, the dialogs of Krishna with Arjuna. All these he found had wave-lengths synchronous with winged soaring words born in his own mind. Yet it was as hopes and faiths for all men, as a source for high deeds and for tempering the soul to the fires of daily living, not as remote symbols of a future golden age — he left that for the period of devachanic dream — that he applied his meditations and reveries to contemporary life, or translated them into picture and poetry. More than any of his generation whom I have intimately known he matched vision to life. Fundamentally poet and painter no less than seer, his was, as perhaps it must happen with every man, a Theosophy not of textbook, maxim or precept, not even primarily a body of cosmical doctrine — though all these were influences from behind — but a vision through the spiritualized imagination of what life intends, reaches out to, and means us to become.


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