Sunday, March 20, 2022

Djuna Barnes | "The Songs of Synge"

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.
     Then for me what is left? I asked myself this question only after I had started the article, just as I used to write my name hastily on the back of any picture I wanted and could not afford to prevent myself from denying myself a pleasure that was both great and sad.
      Just what Synge means to you, I cannot tell. Much more widely known that most would think, till, perhaps he has remained a name and a name alone, like a title to a piece of music that we have never heard.
      How well I remember those first lines of his that, reading, I came to love so well, the lament of Deirdre of the Sorrows, over the bodies of the brothers of the man she loved and that body itself:
“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.”
     And the ultimate crescendo of resolute despair that those contemplating death give a life that cannot die:

“It is not I will go on living after Ainnle and after Ardan. After Naisi I will not have a lifetime in the world.”

     This for me was the first song that had come into my ears to stay, just as the year nineteen hundred was the first year that I remember as being anything more specific than time that passed pleasantly and time that passed in tears. Synge first touched the Irish in me as nineteen hundred touched the attaining of a long desire; mother that day had presented me with a brother. I remember the brother but hazily, the little pair of boots over the arm that held him, I remember plainly.
     One should be remembered for something, for to be forgotten is to be remembered for all that was unimportant and evil.
     What the poets of the Elizabethan age were doing for England, Synge was doing for Ireland while we were yet children stealing pies from the pantry. Nor did he make the mistake that is so often considered the gentlemanly thing to do; he went to the “hog wallow,” and not to the drawing room. Born near Dublin in 1871 of a family who had earned the name of “Sing” or Synge because of the sweetness of the voice, and perhaps also because of the sweetness of the heart and the tenderness of perception, we find him a silent, shy man, wandering about alone, or talking a little in the evening dusks in a voice both “jerky and guttural.”
     Those who knew him say that he cared little for the common conception of Bohemianism, that he nevertheless wore a celluloid collar and a long cape with the addition of the slouch hat, that was—well, if not close—careful, cooking his own eggs and tea upon a little range, and yet when a stray guinea came into his possession, marching his friends in a body out to lunch.
     He shaped his life as he shaped his plays; if the one had marginal notes and erasures, his life from day to day had also the mark of thought and of precision. This is often the case with men of his type. He did not trust to inspiration alone, he had first to observe, to take note, to study long, arduously, painfully. He was a harp on which the sorrows and the great strifes played, but they played with the tearing fingers of those in love and the hard, relentless clutch of those in pain; he was not touched softly; his music was torn from him with the pangs of travail—and of this there are always the inevitable signs—precision, almost pedantic jealousy of detail.
     His life, as a period of interest apart from what he created, is all too little known to have great value. Moore speaks of him in Hail and Farewell in a desultory manner. Yeats has written of him; Maurice Bourgeois has given us a charming and careful book upon him, perhaps half a dozen others; yet of all that I have read not one of them knew him personally well enough to fill three pages of his ordinary life, of his getting up and his going to bed, and Synge pursed this same lack of personal knowledge of himself to such a point that I feel that he did not know much more about John Millington Synge than did the four winds that played with him on his strolls through Europe till he went wandering back again to that place that had been home after all.
     It is said of him that he learned to speak French, that he knew Hebrew and German, that he read a great deal, but that always it was an undertaking of a kind, because he absorbed slowly, understood only after a great period of strained attention and determination, that he toiled as one who digs for a buried loved one, knowing that the statutory six feet of earth must come up first. He realized that it was only after the struggle that he could hope to be himself, that he could come to a conclusion worth of the best in him, and he was content and brave to delve and to anguish.
     Therefore, I feel that when he lay down with himself he was still in the great dark: that he turned the pages of his soul a thousand times before he could say suddenly, "Ah, so it is for this I smile"; that it was so with him upon awaking; that it may have been so to the day of his dying; that there were still a few pages that even he had not cut—he had gotten past the index, but had never reached the appendix.
His method of work was much like the more modern generation who have come to their composing almost entirely on the typewriter. He also used the machine, from 10 in the morning to 12, M. Bourgeois tells us. The rest of the day would be spent in rambles, at a concert in the evening or a theater, or at some cafe over a hot punch with a few friends. He never stayed later than 10, said little and listened much.
     After leaving Trinity College, Dublin, he took up the study of life and literature in France, in Germany, and in Italy. He had written a few desultory poems, he could translate a little, and he was still groping for what he felt growing up in him. When W. B. Yeats came upon him it was then that Yeats spoke, telling him to go back to his own land.
     "You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression."
     It is for this that one could say it was Yeats who gave birth to the genius of Synge.
     Synge went home. In his earlier youth he had taken up music—he had wanted to be a musician, he could play the flute, and it is said he got more out of the penny whistle than was ever put in it. This symbolic—he played well that instrument that was the most simple and the least adapted to the hypocrisies of the conscious musician; he had tried painting, he had drawn a little—he gave them all up, saving that once in a while when he thought himself forgotten he would play the fiddle for a moment, in a mad gypsy whirl of passion.
     In Germany he had enjoyed the literature of the Germans, and the German plays—Gerhardt Hauptmann interested him as did Holz and Schalf. But it was not until he came to the stony little Aran Islands at the entrance of Galway Bay that he really breathed again.
     He had hoped to popularize Irish Literature in French, now he was content to standardize Irish in English. How well or how ill he had done it we can judge, though he died at thirty-eight and had literary birth only after much hesitation.
     If Racine, Maeterlinck and Loti had influenced him then, the keening of the women for their dead the crying of the night sea and the plover influenced him now. If at one time Petrarch's cry to Laura: "She has gone up into the heavens living and beautiful and naked and from that place she is keeping her Lordship and her rein upon me and I crying out"—meant more to him than what his own cry might mean to something he himself loved, it altered later and he was more content to stand 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."
     It was only after the Irish Literary Theatre had been established by Mr. Yeats, Lady Gregory, A. E. and George Moore in 1899, to be dropped and founded again in the Irish Literary Theatre in 1913 with the use of the Abbey Theatre, that Synge was to meet the romance of his life in the shape of the leading lady to whom he became engaged in 1908, a year before his death.
     In his last illness in a Dublin hospital she would come and act parts of his plays until he grew too weak and tired, and, turning toward the wall, said, "It's no use to fight death longer," and died. 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.
      But at last people know who you are speaking about if you mention his name. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the Irish people are a little more in the public eye, that there is also a great interest in Irish writers in general, that the plays of Dunsany are making a certain and definite impression. Certain it is that all ears re not deaf to this man, who came and who passed almost unspoken and almost unspeaking—who watched the world by night and wrote of it in the morning—who gave us the Well of the Saints, Tinker's Wedding, and In the Shadow of the Glen, his notebook of the Aran Islands, his Wicklow and Kerry sketches with their fine descriptive passages, and his poems and translations.
His poems show him as the brute first and the singer second; they are less and more him than anything else—they are Synge before Synge combed his hair and wore a collar: He says "When one loses their poetic feeling for ordinary life and cannot write poetry of ordinary things, their exalted poetry is likely to lose its strength of exhilaration, in the way men cease to build beautiful churches when they have lost happiness in building shops."
     Well, he went back to his shop building, and, lo! it pierced the intellectual sky with the spires of a church.
     But I cannot cease until I have quoted the passage that comes suddenly into the Aran Islands as death itself: "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 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 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.
     Mary in the Well of Saints did not want to see again, preferring darkness to such tragic and illuming light as that let in on her and her Martin when the Saint touched them with the holy healing waters—so sometimes I also do not want to be awakened from the certain joyous blindness that was Synge's.

Reprinted from the New York Morning Telegraph, February 18, 1917.

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