lest we forget alice furlong

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  • Irish Jesuit Province

    Lest 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 12:13

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  • Lest We Forget Alice Furlong By Arthur Little, S.J.


    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

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    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,

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    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 poe