IT WAS in another century when I first met AE, but that is the least important thing about him; for poets arc all contemporary, being concerned with eternal things and owing no allegiance to fashion and never outdated, as some suppose, because whether simple or profound — and the greatest arc the simplest — they sing of the things that time cannot sweep away. It would have been impossible to have looked into AE’s eyes or heard his voice without knowing he was poet or prophet. There was nothing Victorian about him, then, nothing of the twentieth century; nor was he one of those whose work was taken from the history or customs of any other century. Picture, therefore, rather a prophet, coming, as most prophets have, from the East: picture Jonah going to prophesy against Nineveh, that great city, and I think that from that description you would have been able to pick him out from a tramload of people.
Jonah in a Dublin tram may sound incongruous, yet it should be remembered that poets are never like other people. A butcher follows exactly the same business as another butcher, and a baker as another baker, but a poet is not like another poet, for each one has his own message and his own way of delivering it to men. And that, by the way, is where clarity comes in; for if he is not clear, his message is not delivered and his purpose in life, if he has one, fails.
Another reason why my comparison of AE with a Biblical prophet is not so incongruous as it might appear is that the Irish people came, as legend has taught and as even history sees dimly, from somewhere out of the East, looking for the isle of Destiny. After many generations they came to Ireland and found it. On that long journey must have come AE’s ancestors, and the pull of them in his blood was always turning his spirit backward to wherever it was from whence we Irish started. AE once told me that he was walking one day under a row of lime trees and as he passed by the fourth lime tree his spirit left his body and went down the road of that long wandering all the way to India and became incarnated in an Indian boy and grew with him in India to manhood. When a riot occurred in some Indian village, in which the young man was killed, the spirit returned to AE walking under those lime trees. And he noticed that as it came back to him he was passing the fifth lime tree. Of the journeys of AE’s spirit, or any man’s spirit, I can tell nothing; but I am sure that he believed all that he said, for AE was always sincere. It is my belief in his belief that I here record.
He was quite simple, and even the strangest of his Oriental philosophies or the wildest of his prophecies was always expressed in very simple words and, though aware of his own genius, he was utterly without conceit. Indeed, the only hint I can think of, now, that he knew of his genius was a picture he once painted of two people of posterity, graceful but minute figures, walking about on a great skull which he indicated was the skull of one of our day, though he never said it was his.
He had a prophetic feeling that cities were somehow wrong and that they intruded upon the hills and valleys he loved, so that his feelings toward any city must have been not unlike what Jonah felt toward Nineveh. Yet he lived all his life in a city, but in a beautiful city, the city of Dublin, employed at some useful work, where the walls of his dingy room at the top of a house shone with aureole-crowned spirits and brilliant fairies with which he had painted them all round. And through that high window came a glimpse of the Dublin mountains, whose eternal faces changing their expressions from hour to hour must have consoled his exile from the valleys he yearned for in Donegal, to which he went for a month in every year to paint the Ireland he loved and the old gods of her legends. For all the glamour and glory and mystery of which he made his poems he put also onto his canvas, even if his pictures had not quite the exquisite art of his poems.
WITH the generosity that always overflowed from his heart, AE helped all the young Irish poets of his time. There was a melody in his verse like the echo of bells, and to hear him reading them in his organ voice was an experience the world has lost. He was one of the kindest men I have ever known. The kindest was Kipling. And it is sad that a bit of politics should ever have drifted a cloud between these two, dark upon AE’s side though bright on Kipling’s; for, though he had not known AE, he had read a poem of mine in the Times when AE died, and I remember his sympathetic words to me about it when walking in the garden of his beautiful house at Burwash. That house now belongs to the nation, like some lovely shell from the Indian Ocean from which the pearl has been taken.
The zest that Kipling had for everything in the world shone back on the world from him, and none of the scenes that he knew seem quite the same now that that light has gone from them. One came to Batemans at the bottom of a little valley through a door in a wall, then over a lovely lawn down a paved path to the hall door of the house, of which I will attempt no inventory, but will mention the Spanish leather with which the walls of the dining room were hung, and all the pictures done by Kipling’s father in clay for Kim, which hung all along the dark old panels of the staircase.
Another thing that I remember in that house was the magic-alphabet necklace that was kept in the temple of Tegumai in Just So Stories: all the charms in the necklace had been collected and put together and given to Kipling by a friend of both of us, Sir Percy Bates of the Cunard line. In that house too were all Kipling’s manuscripts and the illustrations he did for them. I don’t think he showed us any of these, but after he had died, when we went for the last time to Batemans, Mrs. Kipling showed them all to my wife and me. And it was then that she told us that he never minded any criticism of his writing, but that he took great pride in his pictures.
On one side of the house were smooth lawns with a pond in them, and one huge willow, and a row of lime trees with bare trunks higher than one’s head, and above that neatly clipped foliage, so that it all gave the appearance of a hedge floating in air.
The garden paths were made of old millstones from the ruined mills of Sussex. But I am writing about the shell, and not the pearl that was Kipling’s genius, which used to sparkle from his blue eyes with a zest like that of a boy planning a huge joke. Perhaps any tales about Kipling, even trivial ones, arc of interest, and something in him must have lifted one of them above triviality for me to remember it from another century. When I first met Kipling in Africa during the Boer War, he told of how the farmers made their hedges somewhere near the Cape. They made them out of the ribs of whales. He said that he had written his name on one of the ribs. I am afraid that autograph will not have survived the time and the weather of more than half a century. But Kipling’s name is indelibly written on something more lasting than whalebones. For he was one of that long line of English ballad singers, mostly anonymous, who have sung all through our history, and he sang with fresh rhythms such as ring through “The Last Chantey,”
one of the lines in “The Explorer.”
And the key to all his songs is a quotation from Leigh Hunt on the first page of one of his books,
Like Homer and Browning he delighted in the actual details of how men did their work and described these details exactly, irradiating them all with that love that placed Abou Ben Adhem at the head of the angel’s list.
And besides being a singer and, as a singer should be, a prophet (for none saw more clearly than he the threat of the Kaiser’s war) he was, with Boccaccio, de Maupassant, Poe, Bret Harte, and O. Henry, one of the world’s greatest writers of short stories. Perhaps he was the greatest, for he had for his material a whole subcontinent, little known West of Aden, and he introduced India to the English-speaking peoples, who gazed with a wild surmise at what he had showed them, like Cortez and his men on the peak of Darien.
YEATS, whom I had known as well as I knew these two poets, was a poet worthy to be classed with them, though as a man he was much unlike either. Many writers have poses. Shaw’s pose, for instance, as it seemed to me, was that of a gruff man writing unfriendly post cards; but as I saw him he was the opposite of that, and I always saw him friendly and kind. But Yeats’s whole life was a pose, a bubble often mischievously pricked by the rather naughty pin of Oliver Gogarty, as when, with probably more wit than accuracy, he went round Dublin saying, “Yeats has been evicting imaginary tenants in County Kildare.”
Yeats’s loveliest verses were not only his earliest for he sang on all through middle age. It was not till he began to grow old that the tune cracked and he wrote some poems that seemed to have lost their innocence. Every worker has his own way of doing his work, which is solely his own affair: one may be sure that Kipling wrote as the bird sings, quickly and easily; Yeats’s way was to work hard at every line and polish and polish, and often he did not cease to polish even after the poem was printed but made revisions in later editions, as, for instance, in his lovely poem beginning:
And nodding by the fire, take down this book.
As I looked at a first edition, I found that it ended thus:
He paced upon the mountains far above,
And hid his face among a crowd of stars.
But how much better is the later version, which I think the world may be said to know:
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Yeats drew his inspiration from the Bible, and that early lovely poem of his, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” takes its first five words straight from the lips of the prodigal son, “I will arise and go unto my father and say . . But the Ireland he knew and the Ireland he imagined were the principal sources of Yeats’s lyrics. These were chiefly, I think, the materials of his art, and very good materials too.
JAMES STEPHENS was one of those who, if poets could be made, were made by AE, but as they are merely born one can only say that AE gave him all the help and encouragement that he needed. When a publisher refused Stephens’ first book, AE wrote to tell him that he should not do that. The publisher took his advice and the book became famous. I remember meeting him on one of those Wednesday evenings at which AE always entertained young writers at his house. That first book was to be published in two or three weeks, and Stephens was looking forward to it with childish glee and telling us how he would stand and gaze into the window of a bookshop when his own book was on view. And suddenly another mood came over him and he felt that fate never allows such joys, and said he was sure he would die before his book would be published. But he lived to see the fame of his first book and to win a world-wide reputation, and survived the Battle of Britain that raged over his head in his house in London where he stayed throughout the war.
It was strange that he should ever have come to a city at all, for he was a creature of elfin fancy and seemed far more suited to an Irish bog, keeping company with leprechauns or any wild fanciful things, and indeed many of his poems are merry with derision of the orderly ways of paved places. The last time I saw him was in that house in London which he stuck to all through the war, and his merry conversation was as bright as his poems.