Lord Dunsany and His Work
Essay by H. P. Lovecraft. Written in 1922. Published in Marginalia (1944) and Miscellaneous Writings, ed. S. T. Joshi (1995).
The relatively slight recognition hitherto accorded Lord Dunsany, who is perhaps the most unique, original, and richly imaginative of living authors, forms an amusing commentary on the natural stupidity of mankind. Conservatives view him with patronage because he does not concern himself with the hoary fallacies and artificialities which constitute their supreme values. Radicals slight him because his work does not display that chaotic defiance of taste which to them is the sole identifying mark of authentic modern disillusion. And yet one might hardly err in claiming that he should have the homage of both rather than of neither; for surely if any man has extracted and combined the residue of true art in older and newer schools alike, it is this singular giant in whom the classic, the Hebraic, the Nordic, and the Irish aesthetic traditions are so curiously and admirably combined.
General knowledge of Dunsany seems to be limited to a vague impression that he is a member of the Celtic revival group who writes odd plays. Like most general knowledge, this is sadly fractional and incomplete; and in many ways somewhat misleading. Dunsany belongs, properly speaking, to no group whatsoever; while the mere authorship of dramatic phantasies is a small enough item in the personality of one whose poetic stories and plays reflect the sheer genius of a distinctive philosophy and aesthetic outlook. Dunsany is not a national but an universal artist; and his paramount quality is not simply weirdness, but a certain godlike and impersonal vision of cosmic scope and perspective, which comprehends the insignificance, cloudiness, futility, and tragic absurdity of all life and reality. His main work belongs to what modern critics have called the “literature of escape”; the literature of conscious unreality created out of an intelligent and sophisticated conviction that analysed reality has no heritage save of chaos, pain, and disappointment. He is in this way both a conservative and a modern; a conservative because he still believes that beauty is a thing of golden rememberings and simple patterns, and a modern because he perceives that only in arbitrarily selected fancy can we find fixed any of the patterns which fit our golden rememberings. He is the supreme poet of wonder, but of the intelligently assumed wonder to which one turns after experiencing the fullest disillusion of realism.
Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Eighteenth Baron Dunsany, was born in 1878 at Dunsany Castle, County Meath, Ireland; and is a representative of the oldest and greatest blood in the British Empire. His race-stock is predominantly Teutonic and Scandinavian—Norman and Danish—a circumstance which gives to him the frosty heritage of Northern lore rather than the wilder and more mystical Celtic tradition. His family, however, is closely woven into the life of Ireland; and it is his uncle, the statesman Sir Horace Plunkett, who first proposed the Dominion idea now applied in the creation of the Irish Free State. Lord Dunsany himself is a loyal Imperialist in sympathies; a valiant officer in the British army, and veteran of both Boer and World wars.
Dunsany’s earliest youth was spent at the ancestral estate of his mother, Dunstall Priory, Shoreham, Kent, England. He had a room whose windows faced the hills and the sunset, and to these vistas of golden earth and sky he attributes much of his poetic tendency. His unique manner of expression was promoted by his mother’s careful choice of his reading; newspapers were wholly excluded, and the King James Bible made the principal article of literary diet. The effect of this reading on his style was permanent and marvellously beneficial. The simplicity and purity of archaic English, and the artistic repetitions of the Hebrew psalmists, all became his without conscious effort; so that to this day he has escaped the vitiation common to most modern prose-writers.
At his first public school, Cheam School, Dunsany received still more of the biblical influence, and obtained his first touch of an influence still more valuable; that of the Greek classics. In Homer he found a spirit of wonder akin to his own, and throughout his work one may trace the inspiration of the Odyssey—an epic, by the way, which is probably of much vaster genius than its more martial antecedent, the Iliad. The Odyssey teems with just that glamour of strange, far lands which is Dunsany’s prime attribute.
After Cheam School came Eton, and after that Sandhurst, where the youthful Edward Plunkett was trained to that profession of arms which becomes a scion of nobility. In 1899 the Boer War broke out, and the youth fought with the Coldstream Guards through all its hardships. Also in 1899 he succeeded to his ancient title and his majority; the boy Edward Plunkett had become Lord Dunsany, man and soldier.
Dunsany first appears in literature shortly after the dawn of the new century, as a patron of the work of the Irish literary group. In 1905 he published his first book, The Gods of Pegana, in which his original genius shines through the fantastic creation of a new and artificial Aryan mythology; a perfectly developed cycle of nature—allegories with all the infinite charm and shrewd philosophy of natural legendry. After that other books appeared in swift succession, all illustrated by the weird artistry of Sidney H. Sime. In Time and the Gods (1906), the mythic idea was extended with increasing vividness. The Sword of Welleran (1908) sings of a world of men and heroes ruled by Pegana’s gods, as does A Dreamer’s Tales (1910). We here find the best Dunsanian forms fully developed; the Hellenic sense of conflict and fatality, the magnificently cosmic point of view, the superbly lyrical flow of language, the Oriental splendour of colouring and imagery, the titanic fertility and ingenuity of imagination, the mystical glamour of fabulous lands “beyond the East” or “at the edge of the world”, and the amazing facility for devising musical, alluring, and wonder-making proper names, personal and geographical, on classical and Oriental models. Some of Dunsany’s tales deal with the objective world we know, and of strange wonders therein; but the best of them are about lands conceivable only in purple dreams. These are fashioned in that purely decorative spirit which means the highest art, having no visible moral or didactic element save such quaint allegory as may inhere in the type of legendary lore to which they belong. Dunsany’s only didactic idea is an artist’s hatred of the ugly, the stupid, and the commonplace. We see it occasionally in touches of satire on social institutions, and bits of lamentation over the pollution of Nature by grimy cities and hideous advertising signs. Of all human institutions, the billboard is most violently abhorrent to Lord Dunsany.
In 1909 Dunsany wrote his first play, The Glittering Gate, at the request of W. B. Yeats, who desired something of his for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Despite the authors absolute previous inexperience, the result was highly successful; and turned Dunsany toward a steady career of dramatic composition. Though the present writer continues to prefer the stories, most critics unite in giving higher praise to the plays; and certainly the latter possess a brilliancy of dialogue and sureness of technique which place Dunsany among the greatest of dramatists. What simplicity! What fancy! What exalted speech! Like the stories, the best of the plays are of fantastic plot and setting. Most are very short, though at least two, If and Alexander, are of full length. The most esteemed is perhaps The Gods of the Mountain, which tells of the fate of seven beggars in the city of Kongros, who impersonated the seven green jade gods who sit on the mountain Marma. Green, by the way, is a favourite colour in Dunsany’s work; and green jade its most frequent embodiment. In this play the Nietzschean figure of the chief beggar Agmar is drawn with a master’s stroke, and is likely to live permanently among the vivid characters of the world’s drama. Other marvellously powerful plays are A Night at an Inn—a bit worthy of the Parisian Grand Guignol—and The Queen’s Enemies, an elaborated Egyptian incident from Herodotus. It is impossible to exaggerate the pure genius for dramatic utterance and situation which Dunsany shews in his best plays. They are thoroughly classical in every sense.
Dunsany’s attitude of wonder is, as we have noted, a consciously cultivated one; overlying a keenly philosophical and sophisticated intelligence. It is therefore not remarkable that with the years an element of visible satire and acute humour began to appear in his work. There is, indeed, an interesting parallelism between him and that other great Irishman Oscar Wilde; whose fantastic and wittily worldly sides were so delightfully blended, and who had the same divine gift of gorgeous prose and exotic imagery. In 1912 appeared The Book of Wonder, whose brief fantastic tales all hold a certain humorous doubt of their own solemnity and truth. Soon afterward came The Lost Silk Hat, a one-act comedy of manners equalling in sheer sparkle and cleverness anything even Sheridan could devise; and since then the serious side of Dunsany has been steadily on the wane, despite occasional plays and tales which shew a survival of the absolute beauty-worshipper. Fifty-one Tales, published in 1915, have something of the urbane prose-poetic spirit of a philosophical Baudelaire, whilst The Last Book of Wonder (1916) is like the first volume of kindred title. Only in the scattered fragments forming Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919) do we find strong reminders of the older, simpler Dunsany. If (1921), the new long play, is mainly satirical comedy with one brief touch of exotic eloquence. Don Rodriguez, just announced by the publishers, has not been read by the present writer; but may have more of the old Dunsany. It is his first novel, and is highly regarded by those reviewers who have seen it. Alexander, a full-length play based on Plutarch, was written in 1912 and is considered by the author as his best work. It is to be regretted that this drama has been neither published nor acted. Dunsany’s shorter plays are grouped in two volumes. Five Plays, containing The Gods of the Mountain, The Golden Doom, King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior, The Glittering Gate, and The Lost Silk Hat, was published in 1914. In 1917 appeared Plays of Gods and Men, with The Tents of the Arabs, The Laughter of the Gods, The Queen’s Enemies, and A Night at an Inn.
Dunsany has never forsaken his position as a patron of letters, and the literary sponsor of the Irish peasant poet Ledwidge—that immortaliser of the blackbird, who fell in the Great War while serving in the Fifth Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers with Dunsany as his captain. The war engrossed much of Dunsany’s imagination, since he saw active service in France and in the Dublin revolt of 1916, when he was badly wounded. This engrossment is shewn by a volume of charming and sometimes pathetic stories, Tales of War (1918), and a collection of reminiscent essays, Unhappy Far-Off Things (1919). His general view of war is the sane one; that conflict is a disaster as inevitable as the tides and the seasons.
America is highly regarded by Dunsany, since it has been readier than the mother country to give him what little appreciation he has. Most of his plays have been acted here by “Little Theatre” companies, especially that of Stuart Walker, and at times considerable enthusiasm has been developed. All such productions have been made with the careful supervision of the author, whose letters of directions are eminently interesting. Dunsany plays are favourites with many collegiate dramatic societies, and justly so. In 1919-20 Dunsany made a lecture tour of the United States, where he was generally well received.
The personality of Lord Dunsany is exceedingly attractive, as can be attested by the present writer, who sat in a front seat directly opposite him when he spoke in the Copley-Plaza ballroom in Boston in October 1919. On that occasion he outlined his literary theories with much charm, and read in full his playlet, The Queen’s Enemies. He is a very tall man—six feet four—of medium breadth, with fair complexion, blue eyes, high forehead, abundant light brown hair, and a small moustache of the same colour. His face is wholesomely and delicately handsome, and his expression is one of charming and whimsical kindliness, with a certain boyish quality which no amount of worldly experience or his single eyeglass can efface. There is boyishness also in his walk and bearing; a trace of the stoop and the engaging awkwardness which one associates with adolescence. His voice is pleasant and mellow, and his accent the apex of British cultivation. His whole bearing is easy and familiar, so much so that the Boston Transcript’s reporter complained of his lack of unctuous platform presence. As a dramatic reader he undoubtedly lacks vividness and animation; obviously, he would be as poor as an actor as he is great as an author. He dresses with marked carelessness, and has been called the worst-dressed man in Ireland. Certainly, there was nothing impressive in the loosely draped evening attire which nebulously surrounded him during his American lectures. To Boston autograph seekers he proved very accommodating, refusing none despite a severe headache which forced his hand many times to his forehead. When he entered a cab his top hat was knocked off—thus do the small remember the mishaps of the great!
Lord Dunsany is married to a daughter of Lord Jersey, and has one son, the Hon. Randal Plunkett, born in 1906. His tastes, far from being the morbid predilections of the traditional cynic and fantaisiste, are distinctly outdoor and normal; savouring rather of his feudal and baronial side. He is the best pistol shot in Ireland, an ardent cricketer and horseman, a big game hunter, and a confirmed devotee of rural scenes. He has travelled extensively, especially in Africa; and lives alternately at his own Meath castle, at his mother’s place in Kent, and at his London home at 55, Lowndes Square. That he has the truly romantic quality of modest heroism, is attested by an incident when he rescued a man from drowning, and refused to reveal his name to the admiring crowds.
Dunsany’s writing is always very rapid, and is done mainly in the late afternoon and early evening, with tea as a mild stimulant. He almost invariably employs a quill pen, whose broad, brush-like strokes are unforgettable by those who have seen his letters and manuscripts. His individuality appears in every phase of his activity, and involves not only an utterly unique simplicity of style but an utterly unique scarcity of punctuation which readers occasionally regret. About his work Dunsany spreads a quaint atmosphere of cultivated naivete and childlike ignorance, and likes to refer to historical and other data with a delightfully artless air of unfamiliarity. His consistent aim is to survey the world with the impressionable freshness of unspoiled youth – or with the closest approach to that quality which his experience will allow. This idea sometimes plays havock with his critical judgment, as was keenly realised in 1920, when he most considerately acted as Laureate Judge of Poetry for the United Amateur Press Association. Dunsany has the true aristocrat’s attitude toward his work; and whilst he would welcome fame, he would never think of debasing his art either for the philistine rabble or for the reigning clique of literary chaoticists. He writes purely for self-expression, and is therefore the ideal amateur journalist type.
The ultimate position of Dunsany in literature depends largely on the future course of literature itself. Our age is one of curious transition and divergence, with an increasing separation of art from the past and from all common life as well. Modern science has, in the end, proved an enemy to art and pleasure; for by revealing to us the whole sordid and prosaic basis of our thoughts, motives, and acts, it has stripped the world of glamour, wonder, and all those illusions of heroism, nobility, and sacrifice which used to sound so impressive when romantically treated. Indeed, it is not too much to say that psychological discovery, and chemical, physical, and physiological research have largely destroyed the element of emotion among informed and sophisticated people by resolving it into its component parts – intellectual idea and animal impulse. The so-called “soul” with all its hectic and mawkish attributes of sentimentality, veneration, earnestness, devotion, and the like, has perished on analysis. Nietzsche brought a transvaluation of values, but Remy de Gourmont has brought a wholesale destruction of all values. We know now what a futile, aimless, and disconnected welter of mirages and hypocrisies life is; and from the first shock of that knowledge has sprung the bizarre, tasteless, defiant, and chaotic literature of that terrible newer generation which so shocks our grandmothers—the aesthetic generation of T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ben Hecht, Aldous Huxley, James Branch Cabell, and all the rest. These writers, knowing that life has no real pattern, either rave, or mock, or join in the cosmic chaos by exploiting a frank and conscious unintelligibility and confusion of values. To them it savours of the vulgar to adopt a pattern—for today only servants, churchgoers, and tired business men read things which mean anything or acknowledge any values. What chance, then, has an author who is neither stupid or common enough for the clientele of the Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, Harold Bell Wright, Snappy Stories, Atlantic Monthly, and Home Brew; nor confused, obscene, or hydrophobic enough for the readers of the Dial, Freeman, Nation, or New Republic, and the would-be readers of Ulysses? At present one tribe rejects him as “too highbrow”, whilst the other ignores him as impossibly tame and childishly comprehensible.
Dunsany’s hope of recognition lies with the literati and not with the crowd, for his charms are those of a supremely delicate art and a gentle disillusion and world-weariness which only the discriminating can ever enjoy. The necessary step toward such recognition is a rebound which is quite likely to come with a maturer understanding of modern disillusion and all its implications. Art has been wrecked by a complete consciousness of the universe which shews that the world is to each man only a rubbish-heap limned by his individual perception. It will be saved, if at all, by the next and last step of disillusion; the realisation that complete consciousness and truth are themselves valueless, and that to acquire any genuine artistic titillation we must artificially invent limitations of consciousness and feign a pattern of life common to all mankind—most naturally the simple old pattern which ancient and groping tradition first gave us. When we see that the source of all joy and enthusiasm is wonder and ignorance, we shall be ready to play the old game of blmdman’s buff with the mocking atoms and electrons of a purposeless infinity.
It is then that we shall worship afresh the music and colour of divine language, and take an Epicurean delight in those combinations of ideas and fancies which we know to be artificial. Not that we can resume a serious attitude toward emotion—there is too much intellect abroad for that—but that we can revel in the Dresden-china Arcadia of an author who will play with the old ideas, atmospheres, types, situations, and lighting effects in a deft pictorial way; a way tinged with affectionate reminiscence as for fallen gods, yet never departing from a cosmic and gently satirical realisation of the true microscopic insignificance of the man-puppets and their petty relations to one another. Such an author may well avoid flippancy or vulgarity, but he must keep the intellectual point of view paramount even when hidden, and beware of speaking seriously with the voice of passions proved by modern psychology to be either hypocritically hollow or absurdly animal.
And is not this a virtual description of Dunsany, a liquid prose-poet who writes classic hexameters by accident, with his stage set for relentless deities and their still more relentless conqueror Time; for cosmic chess-games of Fate and Chance; for the funerals of dead gods; for the birth and death of universes; and for the simple annals of that speck in space called the world, which with its poor denizens is but one of countless playthings of the little gods, who are in turn only the dreams of MANA-YOOD-SUSHAI? The balance between conservatism and sophistication in Dunsany is perfect; he is whimsically traditional, but just as conscious of the chaotic nullity of values as any assertive modern. With the same voice that sings god-moving forces he mourns with a child’s broken rocking-horse, and tells how a boy’s wish for a hoop made a king sacrifice his crown to the stars; nor does he fail to chant of quiet villages, and the smoke of idyllic hearths, and the lights in cottage windows at evening. He creates a world which has never existed and never will exist, but which we have always known and longed for in dreams. This world he makes vivid not by pretending that it is real, but by exalting the quality of unreality and suffusing his whole dream-universe with a delicate pessimism drawn half from modern psychology and half from our ancestral Northern myths of Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods. He is at once modern and mythologist, viewing life correctly as a series of meaningless pictures, but investing it with all the ancient formulae and saws which like frozen metaphors in language have become an integral part of our cherished heritage of associations.
Dunsany is like nobody else. Wilde is his nearest congener, and there are points of kinship to Poe, De Quincey, Maeterlinck, and Yeats; but all comparisons are futile. His peculiar combination of matter and manner is unique in its imperious genius. He is not perfect, or not always perfect, but who indeed is continually so? Critics complain that he sometimes mixes satire with the atmosphere of tragedy; but this objection is a conventional one, and argues an unfamiliarity with the Irish tradition which has produced such perversely immortal classics as James Stephens’ Crock of Gold. They cavil, too, at his introduction of walking stone gods and hideous Hindoo idols on the stage; but this cavilling is pitifully blind in its interpretation of apocalyptic visions in terms of theatrical mechanics. Any criticism by the present writer would be of the nature of a plea; urging a less complete metamorphosis of the old myth-making Dunsany into the newer and more sparklingly satirical Dunsany. A reincarnated Sheridan is precious indeed, but the Dunsany of A Dreamer’s Tales is a wonder twice as precious because it cannot be duplicated or even approached. It is a wonder which has restored to us our childhood’s dreams, as far as such things can ever be restored; and that is the most blessed happening which the earth may know.
The future is dark and dubious, and amidst its devastating introspection and analysis there may be no place for art as we know it. But if any existing art does belong to that future, it is the art of Lord Dunsany.
Dec. 14, 1922