In this age we read so much that we lay too great a burden on the imagination. It is unable to create images which are the spiritual equivalent of the words on the printed page, and reading becomes for too many an occupation of the eye rather than of the mind. How rarely, out of the multitude of volumes a man reads in his lifetime, can he remember where or when he read any particular book, or with any vividness recall the mood it evoked in him. When I close my eyes, and brood in memory over the books which most profoundly affected me, I find none excited my imagination more than Standish O’Grady’s epical narrative of Cuculain. Whitman said of his Leaves of Grass: “Camerado, this is no book. Who touches this touches a man,” and O’Grady might have boasted of his Bardic History of Ireland, written with his whole being, that there was more than a man in it, there was the soul of a people, its noblest and most exalted life symbolized in the story of one heroic character.
With reference to Ireland, I was at the time I read like many others who were bereaved of the history of their race. I was as a man who, through some accident, had lost memory of his past, Who could recall no more than a few months of new life, and could not say to what songs his cradle had been rocked, what mother had nursed him, who were the playmates of childhood, or by what woods and streams he had wandered. When I read O’Grady I was as such a man who suddenly feels ancient memories rushing at him, and knows he was born in a royal house, that he had mixed with the mighty of heaven and earth and had the very noblest for his companions. It was the memory of race which rose up within me as I read, and I felt exalted as one who learns he is among the children of kings. That is what O’Grady did for me and for others who were my contemporaries, and I welcome the reprints, of his tales in the hope that he will go on magically recreating for generations yet unborn the ancestral life of their race in Ireland. For many centuries the youth of Ireland as it grew up was made aware of the life of bygone ages, and there were always some who remade themselves in the heroic mould before they passed on. The sentiment engendered by the Gaelic literature was an arcane presence, though unconscious of itself, in those who for the past hundred years had learned another speech. In O’Grady’s writings the submerged river of national culture rose up again, a shining torrent, and I realized as I bathed in that stream, that the greatest spiritual evil one nation could inflict on another was to cut off from it the story of the national soul. For not all music can be played upon any instrument, and human nature for most of us is like a harp on which can be rendered the music written for the harp but nor that written for the violin. The harp strings quiver for the harp-player alone, and he who can utter his passion through the violin is silent before an unfamiliar instrument. That is why the Irish have rarely been deeply stirred by English literature, though it is one of the great literatures of the world. Our history was different and the evolutionary product was a peculiarity of character, and the strings of our being vibrate most in ecstasy when the music evokes ancestral moods or embodies emotions akin to these. I am not going to argue the comparative worth of the Gaelic and English tradition. All that I can say is that the traditions of our own country move us more than the traditions of any other. Even if there was not essential greatness in them we would love them for the same reasons which bring back so many exiles to revisit the haunts of childhood. But there was essential greatness in that neglected bardic literature which O’Grady was the first to reveal in a noble manner. He had the spirit of an ancient epic poet. He is a comrade of Homer, his birth delayed in time perhaps that he might renew for a sophisticated people the elemental simplicity and hardihood men had when the world was young and manhood was prized more than any of its parts, more than thought or beauty or feeling. He has created for us, or rediscovered, one figure which looms in the imagination as a high comrade of Hector, Achilles, Ulysses, Rama or Yudisthira, as great in spirit as any. Who could extol enough his Cuculain, that incarnation of Gaelic chivalry, the fire and gentleness, the beauty and heroic ardour or the imaginative splendor of the episodes in his retelling of the ancient story. There are writers who bewitch you by a magical use of words whose lines glitter like jewels, whose effects are gained by an elaborate art and who deal with the subtlest emotions. Others again are simple as an Egyptian image, and yet are more impressive, and you remember them less for the sentence than for a grandiose effect. They are not so much concerned with the art of words as with the creation of great images informed with magnificence of spirit. They are not lesser artists but greater, for there is a greater art in the simplification of form in the statue of Memnon than there is in the intricate detail of a bronze by Benvenuto Cellini. Standish O’Grady had in his best moments that epic wholeness and simplicity, and the figure of Cuculain amid his companions of the Red Branch which he discovered and refashioned for us is, I think, the greatest spiritual gift any Irishman for centuries has given to Ireland.