Lest We Forget Alice Furlong

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Irish Jesuit ProvinceLest We Forget Alice FurlongAuthor(s): Arthur LittleSource: The Irish Monthly, Vol. 75, No. 886 (Apr., 1947), pp. 137-143Published by: Irish Jesuit ProvinceStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20515632 .Accessed: 10/06/2014 12:13Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. .Irish Jesuit Province is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Irish Monthly.http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=ijphttp://www.jstor.org/stable/20515632?origin=JSTOR-pdfhttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsphttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspLest We Forget Alice Furlong By Arthur Little, S.J. ALICE FURLONG'S death last year was almost unnoticed by the general public except for a memorable article by Miss Kathleen O'Brennan in the Irish Press. Yet even that delightful article was more of a tribute to her personality and her family than to her work. And it is not too much to claim that between the death of Yeatp and her own she had a mastery of pure lyric song unequalled by any other Irish poet. Seamus O'Sullivan, who resembles her so much in one of his moods, may have a wider range of sympathy, but has not equal consistency of quality ; and for effortless singing no one else springs to mind as her rival. Undoubtedly a quality in her, that is one sign of the authentic singer, had something to do with her neglect. She was always content with a small audience. She published her only volume, Roses and Rue, in 1899 before her powers had reached their full development. Thereafter her poems appeared, sometimes at long intervals, chiefly in The Irish Monthly and (later) in the Irish Press. After 1916, when she devoted herself to the study of Irish, her Eng lish poems became very few indeed. Such occasional publication does not make for wide and enduring recogni tion, and I fear that Miss O'Brennan exaggerates a little when she calls her one of the best-known writers of her time, though most certainly she deserved to be one. But though she was content to lack due recognition it is not for those who have cherished her work to acquiesce. Especially ought this magazine to express its appreciation of a con tributor who, notwithstanding that Yeats and Wilde and Belioc and Michael Field were also contributors, must be called one of its greatest. And it would be fitting if the maga zine whose editor, Fr. Matt Russell, first introduced her genius to the public should now do something to save her, or rather her country, from the loss of acquaintance with her inspiring mind. There is also a personal reason (there are two, but I need only men tion one) why this article is being written. When, at the very end of the first World War, I became a young undergraduate and began to form tentative standards of artistic beauty she was almost the first poet whom I discovered for myself. Any This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp138 THE IRISH MONTHLY number of The Irish Monthly that contained her work was worth reading from cover to cover ; those that did not seemed to ask for the punishment of my indifference. Tp that extent had hero-worship then warped my judgement of others. But now that the ardours consequent upon the dis covery of an exceptional mind by a very young person have passed, I still find in her that strain of wild and irrepressible melody that then awoke my senses to the splendour of what they perceived. And gratitude for the music with which her poems then filled my imagination for days at a time now prompts me to defend them from oblivion. At that time I was living within the local circle of her influence. Rath far nham Castle, where I lived (then the headquarters of The Irish Monthly), stood almost on the banks of the Dodder ; and the waters that passed our house had passed hers at Tallaght only a couple of hours be fore. The Furlong country was in fact the hinterland to the suburb in which I had spent my whole life until then. And perhaps the sense of kindred was helped by this nativity to a common countryside as it certainly was helped by the undeviating piety that was discernible in her poems as well as in the aspirations of my un fledged ideals. I well remember the thrill with which I read in The Monthly her prose description of Ethna Carbery reciting her poems in the family circle at Tallaght. That scene seemed a picture of the ideal of Irish culture, with her generous father and his daughters keeping open house for the young enthusiasts of the new National Literary Society. Enlighten ment there meant firm and clear-cut convictions and loyalty to them ; it meant vision. Now it means know ledge of other people's convictions and rejection of them all ; it means groping. But if ever true enlighten ment existed it was in such people as the Furlongs. Wrote Alice : Why do I look for a house on the shifting sands, By the whirlpool9s eddy? On the Commons of God is my house, beyond m caring-lands, Strong-built and steady ; When the night falls my folks will stretch out their hands ; My hands are ready. It is not suggested in this article that Alice Furlong was the greatest Irish poet of her time. It is suggested that she was supreme in one essential quality of a poet, in the spontaneous impulse to sing, to celebrate her hopes and desires, her fortunes and mis fortunes in arresting imagery and rhythm. This impulse sprang from her intense awareness of her ideals and of the things around her. Her own simple aesthetic theory (that prose is the language of intelligence, This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspLEST WE FORGET ALICE FVRLONG 139 poetry of emotion) must have served particularly well to explain her great est gift to herself. For emotion de mands expression as mere thought does not. But her spontaneity, though she may have paid for it by not allowing herself to think as deeply as she could, ensured that she wrote directly from her heart, that in all her work she was passionately sincere. Add to that that she had a perfect command of the means of expressing herself clearly in musical verse and we can almost define her quality in terms of the lyric itself. For the spon taneous expression of experience in musical verse can stand for a defini tion of lyric, and when the spon taneity is most unreflective, for a definition of pure song. Always such work communicates to the reader the poet's own vivid awareness of life. And Alice Furlong's work does arouse in her readers a magical revival of the power to see vividly the things she saw. It procures for him the re covery of his childhood's realisation of the beauty and excitement of ordin ary things. The specific effect of poetry, its magic, is well exemplified in her evocation in us of wonder at ordinary things. She can even make poetry out of a ditch, as in these lines from A March Song : Rain water in the dykes h clear as amber glass ; It feedeth the tall spikes Of the high, green grass. However, all that is true of a hun dred other poets with the gift of song, and it is the acid test of a critic to distinguish and express the personal arid incommunicable characteristics of the writer whom he is considering. This test I cannot here pass. Alice Furlong, just because she could have been held up as the ideal of an Irish woman of cultured sensibility, betrays no marked peculiarities in her poetry. Yet she can be classified. Perhaps the words that I have already applied to her best distinguish her class. I have remarked on her undeviating piety, meaning piety in the Roman sense as an observance of traditional loyalties, not only to religion, but to fatherland and family. Not many of her poems are primarily religious, yet in all her work the Catholic Faith reveals itself as the background of all her thoughts. On the other hand, she is constantly declaring with chival rous indignation the injustice of her country's state. The Caoine for Owen Roe brings these two loyalties together. Technically this poem is a great achievement for its metre and its stripped, spare style. Especially to be noted is her masterly use of the internal rhyme, not like Rossetti's (from whom, perhaps, she borrowed the device) to produce a haze of sound, but to add impetus to a surg ing metre. The last two stanzas are enough for illustration : This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp140 THE IRISH MONTHLY Weird and wild is the wail of woman, Humbled the head of the haughty Roman. Dark the omen and dark the vision, In deep derision outlaughs the foeman. Chant the death-chant, O friars grey! House the Chief in the holy clay! Moon, hide away! Be blind, 0 Sun! Christ and country are slain to-day. Some of her poems are about her personal life. There are hints in them of some tragic disappointment. It may have been some such acquaint ance with sorrow that gave her so virile an acceptance of the fact of suf fering. For she was too truthful ever to refuse to recognise what once she liad found true. The happy end ing was not for her inevitable. Arti ficial mannerisms she employed, though rarely, but she was far from sentimental, and those mannerisms do not offend when we realise that she relied on them in no measure to gain her effects. And at times she could write as grimly as the old ballad writers : I was sleepless on my pillow when I heard the dead man calling, The dead man that lies drowned at the bottom of the sea. Westward away, in glooms of grey, I saw the dim moon falling; Now I must rise and go to him, the dead who calls on me. And thus she begins her poem on the same theme as Catullus's famous frag ment : Love of you and hate of you Tears my very heart in two; As you please me or displease So I burn and so 1 freeze. All but two of these quotations have been taken from the volume that she published in 1899. In that vol ume, charming as it is throughout, her touch is more hesitant than in her later work and, where insight fails her, she has recourse to fanciful ex planations of things and wishful thinking. At that time the poems contributed to The Irish Monthly by her sister Mary (who died young, a martyr to charity) showed even greater promise than hers. But thereafter Alice's mind became clearer and more resolute, and her poetry, without losing any of its allure, took on a passionate emphasis that was moving in the literal sense of startling men into thought, perhaps into action. Miss O'Brennan tells us that she believed that her poetry had helped to keep resistance alive after 1916. I cannot find any of these gallant songs of defiance in The Irish Monthly. But there are occasional outbursts of their spirit, as in the Heine-like touch of unyield ing mockery with which she concludes Dusk in the Cornfield. This poem commemorates a conversation with a This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspLEST WE FORGET ALICE FURLONG 141 We will be merry till the moon goes down, Smother all awkward questions that might smart us ; Nothing shall part us?till we get to town. There is also a scathing poem on the European War of 1914. It was characteristic of her vigorous charity that that tragedy moved her to indig nation, not lamentation. The poem ends with the denunciation : God is not German nor English. The earth is the Lord's, He sowed not for burnings, nor planted His garden for staves, His breath on the clay was not breathed for the triumph of swords, He made not His image to lie in the young men's graves. But when her subject was natural bereavement, for which no one was to blame, she could mourn with irresis tible tenderness, as in these lines on the death of Michael Breathnach : Though wild and sweet Is the wind of spring And wild and sweet The wild birds sing, And the heart is music In all things young? But my grief is the silence Of the Golden Tongue. I cannot resist adding to this an young Englishman and shows what she might have done in epistolary style. The following stanzas are not consecutive in the original : And here the dark, the wind, and the hush?the sound Of dead leaves dropping slowly to the ground, Whispering " It once was Spring, but now, alas. We pass into the shadow, and are not found ". For we were all discoursing of that tale Of Omar Khayyam; and, in an Irish vale, Dreamed of the fragrance of the Rose of Sharon, And heard in Erin the Persian nightingale. When all the days of all the worlds are told, And we may bide together in one fold, Solving the secret of the rose's colour, And the moon9s pallor, and the sun9s blinding gold; And why were Jew and Scythian, bond and free? And why were Gael and Saxon, you and me? And why the blossom of every bough must wither, And every river seek the bitter sea? Now let us laugh, because we may not frown ; This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp142 THE IRISH MONTHLY other quotation in an apparently light, almost flippant, manner reminis cent of Browning, that disguises a pro found emotion which unmasks itself at the song's end. Note the effect of vitality produced by the scheme of interlinked rhymes. As in the flight of a goldfinch, the movement seems to dip only to be whipped into another upward swoop by the immanent vigour of the poem. The internal rhyme (of which I have quoted many examples) was not her only original metrical device. Herein is writ, In Runic characters mystic and strange, A life and the uttermost woe of it. Beyond my range To read? That's the point. If I state your case What will you give me in exchange? Let me read your face? Just to prove how rapidly I will do it, Then fit you in here in time and place. My last quotation is one of pure enchantment, solemn, serene, sonor ous. It is from the poem entitled VirgiVs Fields of Sleep. I see them in a slumbrous light o' sun, Not ample to the air, but one by one Golden and small, and all sides girt about By cypresses that keep world's-dole shut out? As Night, bespelled upon the brink of heaven, Should sentinel the courts of lasting even? Clothed in darkness those, the guards that keep Inviolate the Golden Fields of Sleep. Yea, they lift shadowy shields against Old Time In a still place where never a voice shall chime, Nor ever sound the hum o' the pilfer ing hours That thieve the honey from our buds and flowers. I think I am right in saying that the title-phrase of this poem is not from Virgil at all but from Words worth's great line : " The winds blow to me from the fields of sleep ". (And is it not significant that Alice Furlong's work so often evokes spon taneous comparison with that of the greatest poets?) But Alice Furlong has hardly any memorable single lines. What one remembers of her is a mood carried by music, almost what one remembers of music itself. But to read even any couple of stanzas by her is to find oneself throughout in the company of spiritual beauty. In one essential quality, therefore, of lyric poetry, its singing quality, Alice Furlong was for some years supreme amongst the living poets of this country. And in the technical characteristics of her singing quality, This content downloaded from on Tue, 10 Jun 2014 12:13:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditionshttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jspLEST WE FORGET ALICE FURLONG 143 her spontaneous metrical inventive ness and command of rhyme-pattern, it is hard to think of anyone who was her superior at any time. Add that she crystallised in her work a mind that was near in character to our traditional ideal of spiritual culture, strongly Catholic, strongly Irish, 46 true to the kindred points of heaven and home ", and few will deny that she has a claim on our remem brance. She was