by Djuna Barnes
I find myself in the strange position of one who must write an atmospheric article on an atmosphere. The task, did I love the cause less, would be almost insurmountable. I am not a critic; to me criticism is so often nothing more than the eye garrulously denouncing the shape of the peephole that gives access to hidden treasure.
Neither am I one of those who knew this man whom I had set about to discuss. Never for me has the shy, quiet figure of John Millington Synge bent in an acknowledgment of recognition, for he died while I was yet in the layer below the sod of consciousness.
“It was a clean death was your share, Naisi, and it’s not I will quit your head, when it’s many a dark night among the snipe and plover that you and I are whispering together.”
My arms around you, and I lean
Against you, while the lark
Sings over us, and golden light and green
Shadows are on your bark
and know there was more fatality and more glad joy in his own, knowing that:
There'll come a season when you'll stretch
Black boards to cover me.
And he realized that grim brutality and frankness and love are one, the upper lip is romance, but the under is irony, and he knew "There is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay and worms."
Or did he? This is the question. Was he not building by his pen a Synge that will live always as a man who, if he was not always superlatively original—and he admits many sources—is still a beautiful rhythm—let me say an accent—perhaps it is no more—certainly it is no less? To me there is nothing in the English language that sets my whole heart to singing as his lines, "The dawn and the evening are a little while, the Winter and the Summer pass quickly, and what way would you and I, Naisi, have joy forever?" and:
"It's a long time we've had, pressing the lips together, Naisi, walking with the smell of June in the tops of the grasses, and listening to the birds in the branches that are highest—it's a long time we've had, but the end had come surely"
The story of Deirdre is as old as Ireland, and has been sung my many, by none as Synge has sung it—yet all he said was that he had done his best to render the rhythm of Gaelic into English.
Well, he has left us six plays. Of the six, perhaps, The Playboy of the Western World is the best known, Riders of the Sea, coming second. It is an astonishing thing that such plays should be so violently resented by the Irish themselves. They called him traitor—they said he was making fun of his own people. He thought in the beginning that they would not mind being laughed at in a good-natured way for their failings; he found that they minded overmuch, even to the exclusion of the things that he found in them that were beautiful.
"After mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in a cottage next to mine, and more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the "keen" (weeping)...I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers the next of kin labored slowly at the coffin...as we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all the man, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats over their heads, came out and joined the procession.
"White the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, an began the wild keen, or crying for the dead...in this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for an instant."
And so, looking it over, I find that, after all, I have not violated my strict intentions of remaining practically uncritical—and for this I am grimly happy. I give praise to my sour grapes, they make exceeding excellent wine. it is enough that, turning back to look on Synge, I have more courage to go forward—that I can read at least eight books without having to say that I was duped into fruitless hours of attention, or into the temporary anguish of undiscovering a discovery.
Reprinted from the New York Morning Telegraph, February 18, 1917.