DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

In 1896 W. B. Yeats, who was a member of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood, and his even more revolutionary muse Maud Gonne were in Paris, founding L’Association Irlandaise (‘the Irish League’) as a focus for Irish nationalists in France. Synge met Yeats in December of that year and joined the League, but soon resigned: ‘I wish to work in my own way for the cause of Ireland and I shall never be able to do so if I get mixed up with a revolutionary and semi-military movement.’ But other sides of the multifaceted Yeats probably influenced him, through such works as The Celtic Twilight, which enlists the fairies and ghosts of the Irish countryside into the shadowy battalions of European mysticism. Like so many others at that period he ‘dabbled’, as they say, in psychical research, in company with a new friend, Stephen MacKenna. MacKenna, then an impecunious journalist, had already translated The Imitation of Christ and was soon to begin his life’s great work, the translation of the Neo-Platonist philosopher Plotinus. But whatever degree of objective existence Synge might have allowed to the manifestations of the séances, he was always too much the realist to have shared Yeats’s prodigal credences as expressed in The Celtic Twilight: ‘Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.’

It was probably at a meeting of the League that Yeats (according to his own account written in 1905) issued his momentous command: ‘Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.’ Yeats had recently visited Aran with Symons, and, as the strategist of the Irish cultural revival, he realized the islands’ symbolic importance, but knew that the new recruit would be better equipped than himself for their retaking.
But before Synge could go to Aran, he had an appointment with the disease that was to kill him twelve years later. The lump on his neck for which he went under the knife in December of 1897 was recognized by his doctor and the hospital nurses as a symptom of Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphocytes; it seemed they did not reveal this to him, and it was eight years before the growth recurred, but in the light of some very specific imaginings of death in his notebooks of the Aran years, it is difficult to believe he did not suspect the truth.

Synge returned to Paris for the first three months of 1898 and, perhaps with the Aran Islands in mind, interested himself in France’s own Celtic appendix. He read Le Braz’s Vieilles Histoires du Pays Breton, and Pierre Loti’s Pecheur d’Islande, about Breton fishermen who spend the summer seasons fishing off Iceland. It appears from a draft of his introduction to The Aran Islands that Synge intended to form his work on the model of Loti’s. How that could have been done is an intriguing question, since Loti’s novel is the story of a doomed romance, in which the sea as bride asserts its primacy over the seafarer’s village love. But Synge the romantic atheist must have responded deeply to the meaningless but awesome universe Loti draws, in which prayers are not answered, clouds take up certain shapes only because they must take up some shape, wives keep vigil by granite crosses on rocky promontories for husbands who will never return, and even the attitude of the Crucified himself is finally equated to the gesture of a drowning man.

Synge left Paris at the end of April, had a painful interview with Cherrie Matheson in Dublin, and went straight on to Aran; he must have carried with him a heavy freight of moods, ideas and expectations. His diary for the 10th of May reads simply: ‘Dans le batteau a Arranmore a l’Hotel.’ The grandly named Atlantic Hotel was a small two-storey building on the quayfront in Cill Rónáin. From there he explored east and west along the road, and then on the third day of his visit he crossed the ridge of the island to the tall cliffs that confront the vastness of the Atlantic. Reliving this experience later on, his notebook gropes among impossible scenarios for a simile:

I look now backwards to the morning a few weeks ago when I looked first unexpectedly over the higher cliffs of Aranmór, and stopped trembling with delight. A so sudden gust beauty is a danger. It is well arranged that for the most part we do not realize the beauty of a new wonderful experience till it has grown familiar and so safer to us. If a man could be supposed to come with a fully educated perception of music, yet quite ignorant of it and hear for the first time let us say Lamoureux’s Orchestra in a late symphony of Beethoven I doubt his brain would ever recover from the shock. If a man could come with a full power of appreciation and stand for the first time before a woman – a woman perhaps who was very beautiful – what would he suffer? If a man grew up knowing nothing of death or decay and found suddenly a corpse in his path what would he suffer? Some such emotion was in me the day I looked first on these magnificent waves towering in dazzling white and green before the cliff.

Strangely, this revelation, equivalent to an instantaneous initiation into art, love and mortality, is not reported in The Aran Islands itself. But that slow-acting shock echoes in diminuendo through the four sections of the book, and is re-echoed more distantly in his subsequent works.