The Awakening of the Fires
George William Russell - A.E.

When twilight flutters the mountains over
The faery lights from the earth unfold,
And over the hills enchanted hover
The giant heroes and gods of old:
The bird of aether its flaming pinions
Waves over earth the whole night long:
The stars drop down in their blue dominions
To hymn together their choral song:
The child of earth in his heart grows burning
Mad for the night and the deep unknown;
His alien flame in a dream returning
Seats itself on the ancient throne.
When twilight over the mountains fluttered
And night with its starry millions came,
I too had dreams; the thoughts I have uttered.
Come from my heart that was touched by the flame

I thought over the attempts made time after time to gain our freedom; how failure had followed failure until at last it seemed that we must write over hero and chieftain of our cause the memorial spoken of the warriors of old, "They went forth to the battle but they always fell;" and it seemed to me that these efforts resulted in failure because the ideals put forward were not in the plan of nature for us; that it was not in our destiny that we should attempt a civilization like that of other lands. Though the cry of nationality rings for ever in our ears, the word here has embodied to most no other hope than this, that we should when free be able to enter with more energy upon pursuits already adopted by the people of other countries. Our leaders have erected no nobler standard than theirs, and we who, as a race, are the forlorn hope of idealism in Europe, sink day by day into apathy and forget what a past was ours and what a destiny awaits us if we will but rise responsive to it. Though so old in tradition this Ireland of today is a child among the nations of the world; and what a child, and with what a strain of genius in it! There is all the superstition, the timidity and lack of judgment, the unthought recklessness of childhood, but combined with what generosity and devotion, and what an unfathomable love for its heroes. Who can forget that memorable day when its last great chief was laid to rest? He was not the prophet of our spiritual future; he was not the hero of our highest ideals; but he was the only hero we knew. The very air was penetrated with the sobbing and passion of unutterable regret. Ah, Eri, in other lands there is strength and mind and the massive culmination of ordered power, but in thee alone is there such love as the big heart of childhood can feel. It is this which maketh all thy exiles turn with longing thoughts to thee.

Before trying her to indicate a direction for the future, guessed from brooding on the far past and by touching on the secret springs in the heart of the present, it may make that future seem easier of access if I point out what we have escaped and also show that we have already a freedom which, though but half recognized, is yet our most precious heritage. We are not yet involved in a social knot which only red revolution can sever: our humanity, the ancient gift of nature to us, is still fresh in our veins: our force is not merely the reverberation of a past, an inevitable momentum started in the long ago, but is free for newer life to do what we will with in the coming time.

I know there are some who regret this, who associate national greatness with the whirr and buzz of many wheels, the smoke of factories and with large dividends; and others, again, who wish that our simple minds were illuminated by the culture and wisdom of our neighbours. But I raise the standard of idealism, to try everything by it, every custom, every thought before we make it our own, and every sentiment before it finds a place in our hearts. Are these conditions, social and mental, which some would have us strive for really so admirable as we are assured they are? Are they worth having at all? What of the heroic best of man; how does that show? His spirituality, beauty and tenderness, are these fostered in the civilizations of today? I say if questions like these bearing upon that inner life wherein is the real greatness of nations cannot be answered satisfactorily, that it is our duty to maintain our struggle, to remain aloof, lest by accepting a delusive prosperity we shut ourselves from our primitive sources of power. For this spirit of the modern, with which we are so little in touch, is one which tends to lead man further and further from nature. She is no more to him the Great Mother so reverently named long ago, but merely an adjunct to his life, the distant supplier of his needs. What to the average dweller in cities are stars and skies and mountains? They pay no dividends to him, no wages. Why should he care about them indeed. And no longer concerning himself about nature what wonder is it that nature ebbs out of him. She has her revenge, for from whatever standpoint of idealism considered the average man shows but of pigmy stature. For him there is no before or after. In his material life he has forgotten or never heard of the heroic traditions of his race, their aspirations to godlike state. One wonders what will happen to him when death ushers him out from the great visible life to the loneliness amid the stars. To what hearth or home shall he flee who never raised the veil of nature while living, nor saw it waver tremulous with the hidden glory before his eyes? The Holy Breath from the past communes no more with him, and if he is oblivious of these things, though a thousand workman call him master, within he is bankrupt, his effects sequestered, a poor shadow, an outcast from the Kingdom of Light.

We see too, that as age after age passes and teems only with the commonplace, that those who are the poets and teachers falter and lose faith: they utter no more of man the divine things the poets said of old. Perhaps the sheer respectability of the people they address deters them from making statements which in some respects might be considered libelous. But from whatever cause, from lack of heart or lack of faith, they have no real inspiration. The literature of Europe has had but little influence on the Celt in this isle. Its philosophies and revolutionary ideas have stayed their waves at his coast: they had no message of interpretation for him, no potent electric thought to light up the mystery of his nature. For the mystery of the Celt is the mystery of Amergin the Druid. All nature speaks through him. He is her darling, the confidant of her secrets. Her mountains have been more to him than a feeling. She has revealed them to him as the home of her brighter children, her heroes become immortal. For him her streams ripple with magical life and the light of day was once filled with more aerial rainbow wonder. Though thousands of years have passed since this mysterious Druid land was at its noonday, and long centuries have rolled by since the weeping seers saw the lights vanish from mountain and valley, still this alliance of the soul of man and the soul of nature more or less manifestly characterizes the people of this isle. The thought produced in and for complex civilizations is not pregnant enough with the vast for them, is not enough thrilled through by that impalpable breathing from another nature. We have had but little native literature here worth the name until of late years, and that not yet popularized, but during all these centuries the Celt has kept in his heart some affinity with the mighty beings ruling in the unseen, once so evident to the heroic races who preceded him. His legends and faery tales have connected his soul with the inner lives of air and water and earth, and they in turn have kept his heart sweet with hidden influence. It would make one feel sad to think that all that beautiful folklore is fading slowly from the memory that held it so long, were it not for the belief that the watchful powers who fostered its continuance relax their care because the night with beautiful dreams and deeds done only in fancy is passing: the day is coming with the beautiful real, with heroes and heroic deeds.

It may not be well to prophecy, but it is always permissible to speak of our hopes. If day but copies day may we not hope for Ireland, after its long cycle of night, such another glory as lightened it of old, which tradition paints in such mystic colours? What was the mysterious glamour of the Druid age? What meant the fires on the mountains, the rainbow glow of air, the magic life in water and earth, but that the Radiance of Deity was shining through our shadowy world, that it mingled with and was perceived along with the forms we know. There it threw up its fountains of life-giving fire, the faery fountains of story, and the children of earth breathing that rich life felt the flush of an immortal vigour within them; and so nourished sprang into being the Danaan races, men who made themselves gods by will and that magical breath. Rulers of earth and air and fire, their memory looms titanic in the cloud stories of our dawn, and as we think of that splendid strength of the past something leaps up in the heart to confirm it true for all the wonder of it.

This idea of man's expansion into divinity, which is in the highest teaching of every race, is one which shone like a star at the dawn of our Celtic history also. Hero after hero is called away by a voice ringing out of the land of eternal youth, which is but a name for the soul of earth, the enchantress and mother of all. There as guardians of the race they shed their influence on the isle; from them sprang all that was best and noblest in our past, and let no one think but that it was noble. Leaving aside that mystic sense of union with another world and looking only at the tales of battle, when we read of heroes whose knightly vows forbade the use of stratagem in war, and all but the equal strife with equals in opportunity; when we hear of the reverence for truth among the Fianna, "We the Fianna of Erin never lied, falsehood was never attributed to us" - a reverence for truth carried so far that they could not believe their foemen even could speak falsely - I say that in these days when our public life is filled with slander and unworthy imputation, we might do worse than turn back to that ideal Paganism of the past, and learn some lessons of noble trust, and this truth that greatness of soul alone insures final victory to us who live and move and have our being in the life of God.

In hoping for such another day I do not of course mean the renewal of the ancient order, but rather look for the return of the same light which was manifest in the past. For so the eternal Beauty brings itself to the memory of man from time to time brooding over nations, as in the early Aryan heart, suffusing life and thought with the sun-sense of pervading Deity, or as in Greece where its myriad rays, each an intuition of loveliness, descended and dwelt not only in poet, sage and sculptor, but in the general being of the people. What has been called the Celtic renaissance in literature is one of the least of the signs. Of far more significance is the number of strange, dreamy children one meets, whose hearts are in the elsewhere, and young people who love to brood on the past, I speak of which is all the world to them. The present has no voice to interpret their dreams and visions, the enraptured solitude by mountain or shore, or what they feel when they lie close pressed to the bosom of the earth, mad with the longing for old joys, the fiery communion of spirit with spirit, which was once the privilege of man.  These some voice, not proclaiming an arid political propaganda, may recall into the actual: some ideal of heroic life may bring them to the service of their kind, and none can serve the world better than those who from mighty dreams turn exultant to their realisation: who bring to labour the love, the courage, the unfailing hope, which they only possess who have gone into the hidden nature and found it sweet at heart.

So this Isle, once called the Sacred Isle and also the Isle of Destiny, may find a destiny worthy of fulfilment: not to be a petty peasant republic, nor a miniature duplicate in life and aims of great material empires, but that its children out of their faith, which has never failed may realise this imemorial truth of man's inmost divinity, and in expressing it may ray the light over every land. Now, although a great literature and great thought may be part of our future, it ought not to be the essential part of our ideal. As in our past the bards gave way before the heroes, so in any national ideal worthy the name, all must give way in its hopes, wealth, literature, art, everything before manhood itself. If our humanity fails us or become degraded, of what value are the rest? What use would it be to you or to me if our ships sailed on every sea and our wealth rivaled the antique Ind, if we ourselves were unchanged, had no more kingly consciousness of life, nor that overtopping grandeur of soul indifferent whether it dwells in a palace or a cottage?

If this be not clear to the intuition, there is the experience of the world and the example of many nations. Let us take the highest, and consider what have a thousand years of empire brought to England. Wealth without parallel, but at what expense! The lover of his kind must feel as if a knife were entering his heart when he looks at those black centres of boasted prosperity, at factory, smoke and mine, the arid life and spiritual death. Do you call those miserable myriads a humanity? We look at those people in despair and pity. Where is the ancient image of divinity in man's face: where in man's heart the prompting of the divine? There is nothing but a ceaseless energy without; a night terrible as hell within. Is this the only way for us as a people? Is nature to be lost; beauty to be swallowed up? The crown and sceptre were taken from us in the past, our path has been strewn with sorrows, but the spirit shall not be taken until it becomes as clay, and man forgets that he was born in the divine, and hears no more the call of the great deep in his heart as he bows himself to the dust in his bitter labours. It maddens to think it should be for ever thus, with us and with them, and that man the immortal, man the divine, should sink deeper and deeper into night and ignorance, and know no more of himself than glimmers upon him in the wearied intervals of long routine.

Here we have this hope that nature appeals with her old glamour to many, and there is still the ancient love for the hero. In a land where so many well nigh hopeless causes have found faithful adherents, where there has been so much devotion and sacrifice, where poverty has made itself poorer still for the sake of leader and cause, may we not hope that when an appeal is made to the people to follow still higher ideals, that they will set aside the lower for the higher, that they will not relegate idealism to the poets only, but that it will dwell in the public as the private heart and make impossible any nations' undertaking inconsistent with the dignity and beauty of life? To me it seems that here the task of teacher and writer is above all to present images and ideals of divine manhood to the people whose real gods have always been their heroes. These titan figures, Cuculain, Finn, Oscar, Oisin, Caolte, all a mixed gentleness and fire, have commanded for generations that spontaneous love which is the only true worship paid by men. It is because of this profound and long- enduring love for the heroes, which must be considered as forecasting the future, that I declare the true ideal and destiny of the Celt in this island to be the begetting of humanity whose desires and visions shall rise above earth illimitable into godlike nature, who shall renew for the world the hope, the beauty, the magic, the wonder which will draw the buried stars which are the souls of men to their native firmament of spiritual light and elemental power.

For the hero with us there is ample scope and need. There are the spectres of ignoble hopes, the lethal influences of a huge material civilisation wafted to us from over seas, which must be laid. Oh, that a protest might be made ere it becomes more difficult, ere this wild, beautiful land of ours be viewed only as a lure to draw money from the cockney tourist, and the immemorial traditions around our sacred hills be of value only to advertise the last hotel. Yet to avert the perils arising from external causes is but a slight task compared with the overcoming of obstacles already existent within. There is one which must be removed at whatever cost, though the hero may well become the martyr in the attempt. It is a difficulty which has its strength from one of the very virtues of the people, their reverence for religion. This in itself is altogether well. But it is not well when the nature of that religion enables its priests to sway men from their natural choice of hero and cause by the threat of spiritual terrors. I say that where this takes place to any great extent, as it has with us, it is not a land a freeman can think of with pride. It is not a place where the lover of freedom can rest, but he must spend sleepless nights, must brood, must scheme, must wait to strike a blow. To the thought of freedom it must be said to our shame none of the nobler meaning attaches here. Freedom to speak what hopes and ideals we may have; to act openly for what cause we will; to allow that freedom to others - that liberty is denied. There are but too many places where to differ openly from the priest in politics is to provoke a brawl, where to speak as here with the fearlessness of print would be to endanger life. With what scorn one hears the aspiration from public freedom from lips that are closed with the dread by their own hearthside! Let freedom arise where first it is possible in the hearts of men, in their thoughts, in speech between one and another, and then the gods may not deem us unworthy of the further sway of our national life. I would that some of the defiant spirit of the old warrior brood were here, not indeed to provoke strife between man and man, or race and race, but rather that we might be fearless in the spirit of one who said "I do not war against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers" - and against influences which fetter progress, against an iron materialism where the beauty of life perishes, let us revolt, let us war for ever.

But with all this I, like others who have narrowly watched the signs of awakening life, do not doubt but that these things will pass as greater potencies throng in and impel to action. Already the rush of the earth-breath begins to fill with elation our island race and uplift them with the sense of power; and through the power sometimes flashes the glory, the spiritual radiance which will be ours hereafter, if old prophecy can be trusted and our hearts prompt us true. Here and there some rapt dreamer more inward than the rest sees that Tir-na-noge was no fable, but is still around him with all its mystic beauty for ever. The green hills grow alive with the star-children fleeting, flashing on their twilight errands from gods to men. When the heart opens to receive them and the ties which bind us to unseen nature are felt our day will begin and the fires awaken, our isle will be the Sacred Island once again and our great ones the light-givers to humanity, not voicing new things, but only of the old, old truths one more affirmation; for what is all wisdom, wherever uttered, whether in time past or today, but the One Life, the One Breath, chanting its innumerable tones of thought and joy and love in the heart of man, one voice throughout myriad years whose message eterne is this--you are by your nature immortal, and you may be, if you will it, divine.

Irish Theosophist, January, February 15, 1897

Present article was scanned and proofread and made available for publication by Mr. Jake Jaqua.

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