Hidden Aeons: Searching for a literary relic

manuscripts in special collections. will give you confidence, will comfort you. Though dated 6 November 1888, it appeared in the December 1888 issue of Lucifer, the society’s monthly journal edited by Blavatsky, and is generally considered the first time Russell used his new identity in print. There was a book lying open there. I trembled through my body:

Æon. – An “eternal being”; the name given to the “emanations” from the Supreme Being in the Gnostic system. The preface by Benham is dated March 1887, and so the book was probably published during late spring or early summer of that year. Whatever may or may not have occurred in the National Library in the 1880s, one thing is for certain: George William Russell had become A.E. or how best to cultivate bees? I left the library that afternoon pleased that I had found and held in my hands a unique volume, one that rested inconspicuously in the stacks of the National Library for well over a century

A.E. I conducted a search for book titles containing the words “dictionary of religion” published between the years 1780 and 1890. I took a desk in the reading room and switched on the green-shaded Emeralite lamp. R.M. Kain)

But by the close of the twentieth century, A.E. did in fact consult Benham’s Dictionary of Religion, and that later recollections were an intentional conflation of events for the purpose of self-mythologising – something of which his kindred soul W.B. Go see A.E. A book which I hoped might be removed from the general collection and re-catalogued with the A.E. Go see A.E. A second letter to Blavatsky signed “A.E.”, apparently written in December 1888, appeared in the January 1889 issue. My wholly unsubstantiated intuition tells me that A.E. etc.” I scribbled the call number (203 b1) onto the slip and waited for the book to arrive. The other option was the aptly titled Dictionary of Religion (Cassell, 1887) edited by the Rev. The building that housed the Metropolitan School of Art, now non-extant, at the time stood across the road from the library. Alas, this elation would last only until I got home to my own library, and from these otherwise faithful volumes a single uncertainty emerged… www.swanriverpress.ie What to make of this? However, that Russell initially requested an art journal is not surprising. A.E. He both signed himself with the letters separated, and published the majority of his books using the latter rendering. Given A.E.’s life-long reverence for the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Theosophy, and the eastern religions, this book seemed a sound likelihood, and so I put in a request to see it. My eye rested on it. Yet despite all this, the name A.E. – Are you seeking information on Gaelic literature, the Celtic soul, Irish history? I trembled through my body

What the porter brought out was a thick octavo, cleanly bound in black leather with gold lettering on the spine. “Ce qu’on aime le mieux dans Yeats, ce sont ses vers. William Benham, B.D., F.S.A., Canon of Canterbury; and Rev. In September 1890, the collection was relocated to the north wing of Leinster House, an extension added to the central structure in the late-nineteenth century, where it remains to this day. Go see A.E. That afternoon I had a revelation of my own. He also edits The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature. The first bolded-black word that my eye rested on was at the very top of the page. If the date on this letter is correct, then it predates the publication of Benham’s Dictionary of Religion by some five or six months. I have not yet been able to locate the original manuscript of the Rea letter – but I wouldn’t mind verifying the date and reading the rest of it just to be sure. His happening upon Benham’s Dictionary of Religion in the National Library, while still possibly by chance, might nevertheless have led to an intentional, if idle, looking-up of “Æon” while waiting for that art journal. The poet, painter, political philosopher, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935) – better known as “A.E.”

In his Memoir of A.E. – Are you interested in painting? That day an awareness embedded itself in the fervent mind of the adolescent. A.E. must have come across the word “Æon” much earlier than he would lead us to believe 30 years later in The Candle of Vision. The National Library’s copy of The Dictionary of Religion bears three purple stamps, two of which are topped by a royal crown. is still imbued with a certain magic, a presence that gathers around it the like-minded, drawing with a natural magnetism, ears straining to hear old traces of the new songs of Ireland. etc. George Russell (AE) and Easter Rising: a pacifist poet’s view of poets’ revolution

AEIOU: Ireland’s debt to George Russell

Hairy fairy revisited – An Irishman’s Diary on George Russell

The first was A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion (Trübner, 1879) by John Dowson. I thumbed through the leaves until I reached page 16. The first bears the date “26 AUG 87”, an accession stamp indicating the library acquired the volume on 26 August 1887. And just as they did during his lifetime, readers, historians, writers, mystics, activists, poets, students, organisers, politicians, artists, and the open-minded are still discovering kinship in A.E. I was afterwards surprised at finding out that the Gnostics of the Christian Era called the first created being “Æons” and that the Indian word for the commencement of all things is Aom. Yeats was also guilty. is always there. Although Russell initially preferred the diphthong-“Æ”– typesetters persistently divided the letters – “A.E.” Ultimately Russell accepted this easier transcription. I thumbed through the leaves until I reached page 16. and his works. A.E.’s own recollection in The Candle of Vision wasn’t published until 1918, but that evening I found a reference to a more contemporary account of the burgeoning artist’s chance discovery in a letter to fellow esoteric explorer Carrie Rea:

I was thinking of what would be the sound for the most primeval thought I could think and the word “aön” passed into my head. Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems is now available. I hasten to add, if I am correct, that this does not dismiss in any way the epiphany or inspired choice to focus on “Æon” as his true name. But as evidenced in the letter to Rea, A.E. Swan River Press’s deluxe hardback anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems

As for me, I still have one lingering question: Did I find the right book in the National Library? It seemed a reasonable assumption that not only would A.E.’s “dictionary of religion” still be in the library’s collection, but I should also be able to call it up from the stacks. The two became deeply imbued with esoteric thinking – cf. It is also perhaps significant that A.E. Run to A.E.’s… Curiously this letter to Rea is not included in Letters from A.E. for publishing his first stories in The Irish Homestead, stories which were later collected in Dubliners. A duty librarian confirmed that these latter two stamps indicate the book was twice rebound. This extract is from a letter dated December 1886, and appears as a footnote on page 14 in Henry Summerfield’s highly-recommended biography of A.E., That Myriad Minded Man (1975). I left the library that afternoon pleased that I had found and held in my hands a unique volume, one that rested inconspicuously in the stacks of the National Library for well over a century. 1900”. Often he oracled out of his shadow these revelations to friends and fellow writers: how he bore witness to a “dazzling processions of figures, most ancient, ancient places and peoples, and landscapes lovely as the lost Eden”; or how in his youth the “rock and clay were made transparent so that I saw lovelier and lordlier beings than I had known before and was made partner in memory of mighty things, happenings in ages long sunken behind me”. It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye cause was “Aeon” and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings. Mais le chef-d’œuvre d’A.E., qui est un grand artiste, c’est encore lui-même.” – Simone Téry

The poet, painter, political philosopher, and mystic George William Russell (1867-1935) – better known as “A.E.” – was no stranger to divine visions and secret wisdom. I have further theories, and you’re more than welcome to ask me about them some day. Among the results I found two possibilities. At the time of A.E.’s now mythic revelation, the National Library was located in Leinster House, presently occupied by the Houses of the Oireachtas. Unfortunately neither Eglinton’s account, nor A.E.’s are given dates. I trembled through my body. While the old catalogue remains available – tall, tattered books with pleasantly loose hinges lining the shelves just inside the reading room – the modern catalogue can be accessed online or via the computer terminals adjacent their analogue ancestors. does not mention a “dictionary of religion” in this extract, or even the arcane happenstance in the National Library, he does imply that he was already familiar with the definition of the word “Æon”. A.E. – Do you want to know the exports of eggs… Go see A.E. This book is described in the library’s catalogue as “An Encyclopaedia of Christian and other Religious Doctrines, Denominations, Sects, Heresies, Ecclesiastical Terms, History, Biography, etc. This is where I found myself one afternoon doing research for Swan River Press’s anniversary edition of A.E.’s Selected Poems. There is, however, no entry for “Æon” to be found in this volume. So too did his second collection of verse, The Earth Breath (1897), his social commentary The Dublin Strike (1913), his political volume The National Being (1916), and so on. I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume. After all, Æon seems to have been embedded in his psyche much earlier, and should not diminish A.E.’s National Library experience in any way. (1937), John Eglinton – pen-name of William Kirkpatrick Magee, who worked for the National Library of Ireland from 1904-1921 – recounts the origin of A.E.’s pseudonym:

He began to paint his visions, and had been attempting an ambitious series of pictures on the history of man, in one of which he “tried to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man”, when, as he lay awake considering what legend he should write under the picture, something whispered to him “call it the Birth of Aeon”. Russell’s first volume of poetry, Homeward, Songs by the Way, appeared in 1894 under the name A.E. (L’Île des bardes, trans. But what other information could I find? Next day the entire myth “incarnated in me as I walked along the roads near Armagh”. So perhaps the recounting in The Candle of Vision was a conscious attempt at streamlining or telescoping a personal mythology? – Do you find society badly run, and want to better it? The second stamp, also under a crown, reads “BOUND 22 APR 92”; while in the downward horseshoe design of the third stamp is printed “BOUND 25 JUN. Go see A.E. later formally joined. A book that seemed to me most definitely a literary relic. Summerfield, “The two young men would discuss such subjects as the nature of the cosmic sounds that stimulated the growth of mushrooms.” Such an embellishment of one’s own origin of character, as detailed by A.E., must have seemed natural and indeed even appealing. Could this be not only the book that Russell chanced upon, but even the actual copy? But Summerfield notes that it wasn’t until February 1893, following his admission to the Theosophical Society’s Esoteric Section, that Russell started using his pen-name regularly, perhaps then recognising fully the power and significance of his two chosen letters. had been reduced in popular memory to little more than a footnote in Ulysses. The first bolded-black word that my eye rested on was at the very top of the page. The National Library of Ireland currently (and appropriately) houses a substantial archive of A.E.’s manuscripts, letters, and artworks – all accessible to the public. Find life insipid? The entry for “Æon” was there, the definition similar to what he later recalled, and it was published in the late-1880s while Russell was still an art student – this all seemed to fit my theory. You doubt yourself? Blunt (the latter editor indicated only in the preface and by an emendation lightly pencilled in on the title page). Russell”) was written to Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, which A.E. continued to use this sacred identity, his “true face”, not only to sign his poetry, but also his paintings, books, political pamphlets, letters to newspaper editors and friends alike, etc. The earliest missive collected in Denson’s book signed as “AE” (instead of “Geo. (1961) edited by the meticulous scholar Alan Denson. J.H. From October 1883 until the summer of 1885, he was enrolled at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in Kildare Street; and from 1885 until 1887, he attended evening sessions affiliated to the Royal Hibernian Academy. Although A.E. continues his story of self-genesis in his chapter on “Imagination” in The Candle of Vision (1918), describing the effects of this epiphany:

The word “Aeon” thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me… Go see A.E.’s papers if you have the opportunity. In episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis”, Joyce refers to Russell as “A.E.I.O.U.”, a playful allusion to the bearded sage of Dublin as much as to Joyce’s debt to A.E. Brian J Showers runs the Swan River Press, Ireland’s only small press dedicated to literature of the fantastic. – Do you need a friend? Not long after, Russell experienced another event that would transform the young man from Lurgan into Ireland’s visionary poet of the Celtic Revival:

I returned to Dublin after a fortnight and it was a day or two after that I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal. Even Russell’s pen-name – “A.E.”, an esoteric sigil imbued with cosmic mystery as much as it is a nom de plume – came to him in a moment of transcendental significance. became acquainted with Yeats in mid-1884 while attending the Metropolitan School of Art. By 1925, the prescient French journalist Simone Téry observed:

Have you doubts regarding Providence, the origin of the universe and its end? W. But if you’re looking for an answer now…