The art of Hone and the elder Yeats, while in spirit filled with a sentiment which was the persistence of ancient moods into modern times, still has not the external characteristics of Gaeldom; but looking at the pictures of the younger Yeats it seemed to me that for the first time we had something which could be called altogether Gaelic. The incompleteness of the sketches suggests the term “folk” as expressing exactly the inspiration of this very genuine art. We have had abundance of Irish folk-lore, but we knew nothing of folk-art until the figures of Jack Yeats first romped into our imagination a few years ago. It was the folk-feeling lit up by genius and interpreted by love. It was not, and is now less than ever, the patronage bestowed by the intellectual artist on the evidently picturesque forms of a life below his own.
I suspect Jack Yeats thinks the life of the Sligo fisherman is as good a method of life as any, and that he could share it for a long time without being in the least desirous of a return to the comfortable life of convention. The name of Muglas Hyde suggests itself to me as a literary parallel. These sketches have all the prodigality of invention, the exuberance of gesture, and animation of “The Twisting of the Rope,” and the poetry is of as high or higher an order. In the drawing called “Midsummer Eve” there is a mystery which is not merely the mystery of night and shadow. It is the mystery of the mingling of spirit with spirit which is suggested by the solitary figure with face upturned to the stars. We have all memories of such summer nights when into the charmed heart falls the enchantment we call ancient, though the days have no fellows, nor will ever have any, when the earth glows with the dusky hues of rich pottery, and the stars, far withdrawn into faery altitudes, dance with a gaiety which is more tremendous and solemn than any repose. The night of this picture is steeped in such a dream, and I know not whether it is communicated, or a feeling arising in myself; but there seems everywhere in it the breathing of life, subtle, exultant, penetrating. It is conceived in the mood of awe and prayer, which makes Millet’s pictures as religious as any whichever hung over the altar, for surely the “Angelus” is one of the most spiritual of pictures, though the peasants bow their heads and worship in a temple not built with hands. I do not, of course, compare otherwise than in the mood the “Midsummer Eve” to such a masterpiece; but there is a kinship between the beauty revealed in great and in little things, and our thought turns from the stars to the flowers with no feeling of descent into an alien world. But this mood is rare in life as in art, and it is only occasionally that the younger Yeats becomes the interpreter of the spirituality of the peasant. He is more often the recorder of the extravagant energies of the race-course and the market-place, where he finds herded together all the grotesque humors of West Irish life.
We recognize his figures as distinctly Irish. Here the old rollicking Lever and Lover type of Irishmen reappear, hunting like the very devil, with faces set in the last ecstasy of rapid motion. There is an excess of energy in these furious riders which almost gives them a symbolic character. They seem to ride on some passionate business of the soul rather than for any transitory excitement of the body. And besides these wild horse-men there are quiet and lovely figures like “A Mother of the Rosses,” holding her child to her breast in an opalescent twilight, through which the boat that carries her moves. There are always large and noble outlines, which suggest that if Jack Yeats had more grandiose ambitions he might have been the Millet of Irish rural life, but he is too much the symbolist, hating all but essentials, to elaborate his art.