The Theosophical Forum – December 1949

THE "VISION" OF GEORGE RUSSELL — H. F. Norman

The light is the real person in the picture." Monet's phrase was constantly on George Russell's lips and is repeated in many of his letters. In the sense in which this essay will imply it, Æ would not have claimed it for himself, albeit he knew and said his work was lit by "the candle of vision": "a flickering lantern." But it is on Æ himself that I would ask readers who would relate this poet to his poetry to direct Monet's illuminating words. For if Æ is not understood as a visionary his poetry will seem incomprehensible. The normally imaginative man early discovers within consciousness a self, a soul, however he may later define that being and whatever may be his previsioning of its post mortem existences. It was Æ's distinction to look deeper: "I know that I am a spirit." He had written thus in his foreword to the then unpublished Homeward when I first talked with him in 1894. "Your coming," he said, in our last talk in London before his death, "is included in the laws of spiritual gravitation." It was in searching out the constitution of hidden spiritual realms and living subject to their laws — the idea involved in Karma — that he spent virtually all of his life.

"I am a spirit." Was that the romantic but callow utterance of a budding poet or, as he believed it to be, an authentic discovery, the aftermath of anterior living in previous incarnations? He certainly held to that conception of himself throughout the forty years separating those two statements I have quoted above. To meditate upon that conception is to contemplate the fundamental mystery of Æ. I cannot attempt within the compass of a very brief essay to penetrate that mystery. Instead, I will ask the reader, when he has considered such clues as may be indicated here — slight clues, but I claim reliable — to turn to the sources from which (as well as from my own memory) I draw them, by spending eight half crowns, three upon Mr. John Eglinton's balanced and just Memoir of Æ with its ennobling and fascinating reconstruction of the pellucid and yet elusive man I knew so well, and five on Mr. Monk Gibbon's very skillfully chosen anthology from Æ's own prose work, The Living Torch, with its generous, understanding and finely written introductory essay. It will be well spent money. If the reader is sensitive to spiritual beauty, alert and sanely imaginative, he will find himself engaged upon a problem more subtle and profound than Hamlet's, a problem of the essential nature of man.

Mr. Monk Gibbon's book is inspired by the temper in which forty years ago young men, Russell's own contemporaries, found themselves led to realize him as a seer, as a man, that is, whose reliance is on inner realities personally tested, and whose insight, therefore, needs no stimulation of sensational foretelling (vaticination) to confirm his natural title as Prophet. The selections in The Living Torch exhibit a wide comprehension of the author's mind, tastes, powers, flexibility and, in spite of temperamental boundaries, amazing diversity. From different angles and exhibiting varying outlines of their subject, each book singularly confirms the other in presenting a man, not a posed and imaginary portrait. If Mr. Eglinton, the elder writer, seems at first more tentative in his approach to Æ as poet and mystic — as painter he is discussed in a weighty note contributed by Dr. Bodkin and some of Æ's own reactions to art are incidentally discussed in Mr. C. P. Curran's entertaining account of a visit they paid together to Paris — and if Russell's work is subjected to a careful scrutiny, it is not only because Mr. Eglinton as one of our best living writers of English prose is "zealous" of good work, but also because, before committing his pen to a final eulogy, he can draw on a comprehensive and comprehending knowledge of great literature. When, therefore, the statuesque figure of Russell on which he has worked with affectionate caution emerges as a poet whom a future age may accept as one of the really important religious writers, we feel a sense of security for an intuition of our own which we might else have challenged as a too daring guess.

Before further examining that intuition something, however slight, must be said of Æ the publicist. As co-operative official, pioneer, journalist, I have written of him elsewhere; of how he worked towards the new economic of a "Co-operative Commonwealth," of his hurried but distinguished output of luminous idealism weekly in the Irish Homestead and the fervid but dignified oratory with which he influenced farmers at home and enquirers and publicists from abroad. I can here but mention the striking gifts of speech which drew him, reluctantly, to the doomed Irish Convention and which were so often fruitfully spent in private interviews with people of public importance, who were led by his eloquence, force and reasonableness to aid causes he supported, or his distinguished work as Editor of The Irish Statesman, the most remarkable weekly ever issued in Ireland, which gave him a cosmopolitan reputation he had not sought; whilst his painting, the product of a scant leisure, brought him the more welcome prestige dear to the child-like heart of the artist. These aspects of M form an engaging study and are interestingly discussed in both books. But for all their evidences of an astonishing energy they do not exhaust him; indeed, these relatively outward aspects may but confuse our approach to the essential man, the poet. It is a truism that no biographer can re-create the soul of any, even the most ordinary fully vitalised, human being, and certainly no pen is fully adequate to measure the stature of this large minded, big hearted, well willed, companionable spirit. I can here but attempt a few glimpses of the aspect of him I most valued, aided by these two books — but fully aware of the inadequacy of the effort.

Our enquiry is as to what was "the master light of all his seeing." The insight discovered by many acute minds with which his own came into contact, when as publicist his reputation had reached its zenith, was a natural growth from the young truth-seeking visionary I had first met a generation earlier. Yet of himself he said: "I was only wise when I was about twenty-one." But perhaps because he could affirm (and with how great an integrity): "I have never ceased from the inward search," a perennial wisdom, changing its hues rather than its pattern, emanated from his many colored mind. What was this wisdom, this light? So much of it as came from books was either a fundamental concern with universal ideas or was the literary expression of certain devotional emotions, native to his virginal mind. Both these springs of thinking and feeling he would have named theosophical. Taking the last first, as potent sources of his inspiration I can name two books which set the key-note for after years of activity. The Voice of the Silence and Light on the Path were books of counsel. A few sentences will show the quality of the counsel: "Before the eye can see it must be incapable of tears. Before the ear can hear it must have lost its sensitiveness." (Comprehending readers will interpret the tears, the sensitivity, as relating to the limiting, personal self). And, again: "Kill out desire, kill out ambition" or "Avoid the deadly heresy of separateness" (i.e. from other human beings). Save to an exceptional will these injunctions may appear as exacting the impossible, though Philip Sidney (was it not?) could write, "Desiring only how to slay desire." But our concern here is with a poet's mind and the sentences just cited will be found, otherwise expressed of course, in much of Æ's writing, whilst what interested his friends were his own response, his inward "vows of poverty."

Some years later W. B. Yeats wrote of him: "If he convinced himself that any peculiar activity was desirable to the public interest or in that of his friends, he had at once the ardour that came to another from personal ambition." Perhaps this is doing better than killing ambition, transmuting it. It was the work of his specific genius for spirituality that no passing whiff of vain delight in his own powers to stir an audience, move a public or amuse a group (his humor was at once subtle and boyish) no natural wish to seem accomplished could ever remove George Russell more than momentarily from his persistent concentration on the inward ethic in which his homage had been rooted by such counsels as I have quoted.

Besides these there were the source books of his complex cosmogonies, and in chief Madame Blavatsky's great tomes, The Secret Doctrine, Isis Unveiled, and the Key to Theosophy (he avowed to an audience in Dublin a debt to these so late as 1933) and the slender, more scattered writings of his fellow-countryman, W. Q. Judge — "more impressive than any other man I ever met," he said late in life — whose redaction of the Bhagavad Gita gave him a wisdom he prized more deeply than any. These books, with the Vedas, Plato, Plotinus, the Gospels, the Epistles attributed to St. Paul, were germinal to his thinking and transposed into the highest keys a temperament which without their classic restraint might have spent itself vainly in a merely ebullient brilliancy, pictorial, auriferous, but void of moral substance.

What, then, was this theosophy? Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society had three objectives set for it: To form a nucleus for universal brotherhood; to study religions, sciences and philosophies; to investigate psychic powers latent in man. There were other and varied studies relevant to esoteric enquiry or belief pursued by many, but only the first object was obligatory and as pendant to that fact she had written . . . "whoever feels his interests are one with those of every being poorer or less fortunate than himself . . . is a Theosophist by birth and right." He left the Society in 1898, but the idealism it represented in his early twenties was to continue and mature throughout his life. His withdrawal arose in part through changes in the form of the organization and in part because, as I remember it, his theosophical chiefs seemed to fear that his "thronging" spirits might lure him from whole-hearted devotion to purely human causes, but he never abjured his early homage. Indeed, four years later he re-applied for membership in the Society, but his application seems to have been mislaid or pigeon-holed. This leads us to a pivotal point in his psychology, since Mr. Eglinton's carefully wrought study reveals Æ as poet of the cosmic consciousness and some duality may be here suspected between the poet and the man. Let us examine it.

One may ask, of the cosmic consciousness as of poetry, "what is it? is it a true thing?" Mr. Eglinton holds Æ's view of it to be implicit in a line of his own he often repeated: "all my thoughts were throngs of living souls." Are we here, then, on the brink of some sacrosanct spookism? Are these "living souls" the "spirits" of the Spiritist, the discarnate denizens of the seance room? A review of these two books in a Dublin daily makes an unworthy, but I hope, accidental suggestion of "seances," when Æ and John Eglinton held discourse together as young men in Kill o" the Grange churchyard. No such ghoul-like element belonged to Æ's mind. He abhorred and denounced necromancy. Utterances of the noble dead as of the noble living — Milton's "two great families" — were, indeed, the constant companions of his thoughts. But these "throngings" are of a subtler origin. Except in the Dark Lady (of Shakespeare's Sonnets), whose narrative, as he wrote to me, he had imbibed in meditation, Æ's spiritual visitants were not what the plain person calls "actual" people. They were spirits of earth and sea and air such as he painted, and of whom he averred most positively that he saw them, though he would add: "I do not know whether I see them directly as I see you directly, if I see you directly, or . . . as in a mirror." But, if one allows them substance, what then were these beings? Here are two of his answers: "I think with many others that the universe we see is made by the congregation of spirits which inhabit it, as they live again and have their being in an incomprehensible Absolute." Again, "the earth is a person, a goddess and we are part of her, in her." And also he speaks, in a letter I think, of "that spirit whose body is earth." Was this phantasy? I am not here concerned to define phantasy, but let us ask ourselves what we mean by it. A child, a youth, lays, like the young dreaming Æ, his hand or head upon a rock and "feels the Mother Nature warm," magnetic, alive; its inner substance permeable by his own. Is that fantastic? And is it realistic, in contrast, to see in the sun moving in the sky, a burnished, or, in mists, a crimson disc, though astronomers assure us that what in fact we are seeing is a flaming world almost inconceivably distant and that it is we and our stable earth that move? Is vision, illumination, the less real if it come through an indefinable "imagination"?

I am not here propounding a "case" for the veridicity of Æ's visions — his veracity is in no doubt for those who knew him — or for a "planetary consciousness." The poet's "case" is to convince not through text-book evidences but by the music of his verse. Yet there does remain a question or two. Even if there is no conflict between the "actuality" of external seeing and these esoteric visions, is there no danger that the visionary may lose his terrestrial bearings? Did Æ's theosophical friends fear this for him? Did he a little fear it himself? Is there even a hint of some needed reconciliation in that noble aspiration in which he reveals the spiritual desire behind the inner call of reincarnation to which he would subject himself, reverberant in the poem he called "Love":

Ere I lose myself in the vastness and drowse myself with the peace
While I gaze on the light and the beauty afar from the dim homes of men
May I still feel the heart pang and pity, love ties that I would not release;
May the voices of sorrow appealing call me back to their succour again.

He need not have feared. His wish to serve humanity was granted even in his life. Æ, temperamentally an Irish patriot and a romantic, was something even more. O'Leary's "romantic Ireland," whose death Yeats deplored, survived in O'Grady, and no less romantically survived O'Grady, again, and with a more indomitable fortitude, in Pearse; it survives Pearse's fate in Russell's poetry, conjoining in one vision the cosmic consciousness and devotion to mankind. Whilst he could say that:

. . . . from fleeting voices
And visionary lights a meaning came
That made my myth contemporary,

no such lights or voices from within overbore the voices of pity. If, like Wordsworth, he did hear two voices and could follow both, these were not contending divinities. One, rather illumination than voice, "the light in the picture," was "the real person" in the poet. The other, his reliance on the promptings of "the spiritual will," was the real person in the man. He had sought ever "behind the conscience, the love." That is why Mr. Eglinton, who cares greatly for truth, can say of him: "he was all that a man should be." And better than any inadequate praise of mine are the words of a working woman who, sending her subscription to the Æ Memorial, wrote to me, a stranger: "Dear Æ. He walked with God, surely."


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