John Masefield.

John M. Synge: a Few Personal Recollections, with Biographical Notes online

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I first met John M. Synge at the room of a common friend, up two
pairs of stairs, in an old house in Bloomsbury, on a Monday night
of January, 1903. When I entered the room, he was sitting in a
rush-bottomed chair, talking to a young man just down from Oxford.
My host introduced me, with the remark that he wanted us to know
each other.

Synge stood up to shake hands with me. He was of the middle
height, about five feet eight or nine. My first impression of him
was of a dark, grave face, with a great deal in it, changing from
the liveliness of conversation to a gravity of scrutiny. After we
had shaken hands, I passed to the other end of the room to greet
other friends. We did not speak to each other again that night.

When I sat at the other end of the room my chair was opposite
Synge's chair. Whenever I raised my eyes I saw him, and wondered
who he could be. Disordered people look disordered, unusual people
look unusual. A youth with long hair, a velvet coat, extravagant
manners, and the other effeminacies of emptiness looks the
charlatan he is. Synge gave one from the first the impression of a
strange personality. He was of a dark type of Irishman, though not
black-haired. Something in his air gave one the fancy that his
face was dark from gravity. Gravity filled the face and haunted
it, as though the man behind were forever listening to life's case
before passing judgment. It was "a dark, grave face, with a great
deal in it." The hair was worn neither short nor long. The
moustache was rather thick and heavy. The lower jaw, otherwise
clean-shaven, was made remarkable by a tuft of hair, too small to
be called a goatee, upon the lower lip. The head was of a good
size. There was nothing niggardly, nothing abundant about it. The
face was pale, the cheeks were rather drawn. In my memory they
were rather seamed and old-looking. The eyes were at once smoky
and kindling. The mouth, not well seen below the moustache, had a
great play of humour on it. But for this humorous mouth, the
kindling in the eyes, and something not robust in his build, he
would have been more like a Scotchman than an Irishman.

I remember wondering if he were Irish. His voice, very guttural
and quick, with a kind of lively bitterness in it, was of a kind
of Irish voice new to me at that time. I had known a good many
Irish people; but they had all been vivacious and picturesque,
rapid in intellectual argument, and vague about life. There was
nothing vivacious, picturesque, rapid or vague about Synge. The
rush-bottomed chair next to him was filled by talker after talker,
but Synge was not talking, he was answering. When someone spoke to
him he answered with the grave Irish courtesy. He offered nothing
of his own. When the talk became general he was silent. Sometimes
he went to a reddish earthenware pot upon the table, took out a
cigarette and lit it at a candle. Then he sat smoking, pushed back
a little from the circle, gravely watching. Sometimes I heard his
deep, grave voice assenting 'Ye-es, ye-es,' with meditative
boredom. Sometimes his little finger flicked off the ash on to the
floor. His manner was that of a man too much interested in the
life about him to wish to be more than a spectator. His interest
was in life, not in ideas. He was new to that particular kind of
life. Afterwards, when I had come to know him, I heard him sum up
every person there with extraordinary point and sparkle. Often
since then, eager to hear more of my friend, I have asked men who
met him casually for a report of him. So often they have said, "He
was a looker-on at life. He came in and sat down and looked on. He
gave nothing in return. He never talked, he only listened. I never
got much out of him. I never got to the real Synge. I was never
conscious of what he felt. Sometimes I felt that there was nothing
in him. I never knew him respond. I never knew him do or say
anything to suggest what he was in himself." When I hear these
phrases, I know that those who utter them really met Synge. His
place was outside the circle, gravely watching, gravely summing
up, with a brilliant malice, the fools and wise ones inside.

A week, or perhaps a fortnight, later, I met him again at the same
place, among the same people. He was talking brightly and
charmingly to a woman. Men usually talk their best to women. When
I turn over my memories of him, it seems that his grave courtesy
was only gay when he was talking to women. His talk to women had a
lightness and charm. It was sympathetic; never self-assertive, as
the hard, brilliant Irish intellect so often is. He liked people
to talk to him. He liked to know the colours of people's minds. He
liked to be amused. His merriest talk was like playing catch with
an apple of banter, which one afterwards ate and forgot.

He never tried to be brilliant. I never heard him say a brilliant
thing. He said shrewd things. I do not know what he could have
done if stirred to talk. Few people born out of old, sunny
countries talk well. I never heard him engaged with a brilliant
talker, either man or woman. He told me that once, in Paris, he
had gone to hear a brilliant talker - a French poet, now dead. It
was like him that he did not speak to the talker. "We sat round on
chairs and the great man talked."

During the evening, I spoke a few words to Synge about some Irish
matter. We pushed back our chairs out of the circle and discussed
it. I did not know at that time that he was a writer. I knew by
name most of the writers in the Irish movement. Synge was not one
of the names. I thought that he must be at work on the political
side. I wronged him in this. He never played any part in politics:
politics did not interest him. He was the only Irishman I have
ever met who cared nothing for either the political or the
religious issue. He had a prejudice against one Orange district,
because the people in it were dour. He had a prejudice against one
Roman Catholic district, because the people in it were rude.
Otherwise his mind was untroubled. Life was what interested him.
He would have watched a political or religious riot with gravity,
with pleasure in the spectacle, and malice for the folly. He would
have taken no side, and felt no emotion, except a sort of pity
when the losers could go on no longer. The question was nothing to
him. All that he asked for was to hear what it made people say and
to see what it made people do.

Towards one in the morning, our host asked Synge and me to sup
with him. We foraged in the pantry, and found some eggs, but
nothing in which to cook them. Our host said that he would try a
new trick, of boiling eggs in a paper box. We were scornful about
it, thinking it impossible. He brought out paper, made a box (with
some difficulty,) filled it with water, and boiled an egg in it.
Synge watched the task with the most keen interest. "You've done
it," he said. "I never thought you would." Afterwards he examined
the paper box. I suppose he planned to make one in Aran in the
summer. While we supped, our host chaffed us both for choosing to
eat cold meats when we might have had nice hot eggs. It was at
this supper that I first came to know the man.

When we got into the street, we found that we lodged within a few
minutes' walk of each other. We walked together to our lodgings.
He said that he had been for a time in Aran, that he had taken
some photographs there, and that he would be pleased to show them
to me, if I would call upon him later in the morning. He said that
he had just come to London from Paris, and that he found
Bloomsbury strange after the Quartier Latin. He was puzzled by the
talk of the clever young men from Oxford. "That's a queer way to
talk. They all talk like that. I wonder what makes them talk like
that? I suppose they're always stewing over dead things."

Synge lodged in a front room on the second floor of No. 4, Handel
Street, Bloomsbury. It was a quiet house in a quiet, out-of-the-way
street. His room there was always very clean and tidy. The
people made him very comfortable. Afterwards, in 1907, during his
last visit to London, he lodged there again, in the same room. I
called upon him there in the afternoon of the day on which I last
saw him.

When I first called upon him, I found him at his type-writer, hard
at work. He was making a fair copy of one of his two early one-act
plays, then just finished. His type-writer was a small portable
machine, of the Blick variety. He was the only writer I have ever
known who composed direct upon a type-writing machine. I have
often seen him at work upon it. Sometimes, when I called to ask
him to come for a walk, he had matter to finish off before we
could start. He worked rather slowly and very carefully, sitting
very upright. He composed slowly. He wrote and re-wrote his plays
many times. I remember that on this first occasion the table had a
pile of type-written drafts upon it, as well as a few books, one
or two of them by M. Pierre Loti. He thought M. Loti the best
living writer of prose. There are marks of M. Loti's influence in
the Aran book. Much of the Aran manuscript was on the table at
that time. Synge asked me to wait for a few minutes while he
finished the draft at which he was working. He handed me a black
tobacco-pouch and a packet of cigarette-papers. While I rolled a
cigarette he searched for his photographs and at last handed them
to me. They were quarter-plate prints in a thick bundle. There
must have been fifty of them. They were all of the daily life of
Aran; women carrying kelp, men in hookers, old people at their
doors, a crowd at the landing-place, men loading horses, people of
vivid character, pigs and children playing together, etc. As I
looked at them he explained them or commented on them in a way
which made all sharp and bright. His talk was best when it was
about life or the ways of life. His mind was too busy with the
life to be busy with the affairs or the criticism of life. His
talk was all about men and women and what they did and what they
said when life excited them. His mind was perhaps a little like
Shakespeare's. We do not know what Shakespeare thought: I do not
know what Synge thought. I don't believe anybody knew, or thinks
he knows.

"There was something very nice about Synge."

The friend who said this to me, added that "though the plays are
cynical, he was not cynical in himself." I do not feel that the
plays are cynical. They seem heartless at first sight. The
abundant malicious zest in them gives them an air of cruelty. But
in the plays, Synge did with his personality as he did in daily
life. He buried his meaning deep. He covered his tragedy with

More than a year ago a friend asked me what sort of man Synge was.
I answered, "a perfect companion." The other day I saw that
another friend, who knew him better than I, had described him as
"the best companion." After that first day, when I called upon him
at his room, we met frequently. We walked long miles together,
generally from Bloomsbury to the river, along the river to
Vauxhall, and back by Westminster to Soho. We sometimes dined
together at a little French restaurant, called the Restaurant des
Gourmets. The house still stands; but it has now grown to five
times the size. The place where Synge and I used to sit has now
been improved away. We spent happy hours there, talking, rolling
cigarettes, and watching the life. "Those were great days," he
used to say. He was the best companion for that kind of day.

Our talk was always about life. When we talked about writers
(modern French and ancient English writers) it was not about their
writings that we talked, but about the something kindling in them,
which never got expressed. His theory of writing was this: - "No
good writer can ever be translated." He used to quote triumphantly
from Shakespeare's 130th. Sonnet.

"As any she belied with false compare."

"How would you put that into French?" he asked.

He never talked about himself. He often talked of his affairs, his
money, his little room in Paris, his meetings with odd characters,
etc., but never of himself. He had wandered over a lot of Europe.
He was silent about all that.

Very rarely, and then by chance, when telling of the life in Aran,
or of some strange man in the train or in the steamer, he revealed
little things about himself: -

"They asked me to fiddle to them, so that they might dance."

"Do you play, then?"

"I fiddle a little. I try to learn something different for them
every time. The last time I learned to do conjuring tricks. They'd
get tired of me if I didn't bring something new. I'm thinking of
learning the penny whistle before I go again."

I never heard him mention his early life nor what he endured in
his struggles to find a form. I believe he never spoke about his
writings, except to say that he wrote them slowly, many times
over. His talk was always about vivid, picturesque, wild life. He
took greater joy in what some frantic soul from Joyce's country
said when the policeman hit him than in anything of his own. He
found no vivid life in England. He disliked England. I think he
only knew London. Afterwards he stayed for a couple of weeks in
Devonshire. London is a place where money can be made and spent.
Devonshire is a place where elderly ladies invite retired naval
officers to tea. England lies further to the north. He was never
in any part of England where the country life is vigorous and
picturesque. He believed England to be all suburb, like the "six
counties overhung with smoke." Soon after our first meeting I was
present at his first success. His two early plays, _Riders to the
Sea_ and _The Shadow of the Glen_, were read aloud to about a
dozen friends at the rooms of one who was always most generously
helpful to writers not yet sure of their road. A lady read the
plays very beautifully. Afterwards we all applauded. Synge learned
his _metier_ that night. Until then, all his work had been
tentative and in the air. After that, he went forward, knowing
what he could do.

For two or three months I met Synge almost daily. Presently he
went back to Ireland (I believe to Aran) and I to "loathed
Devonshire." I met him again, later in the year. During the next
few years, though he was not often in town, I met him fairly often
whenever the Irish players came to London. Once I met him for a
few days together in Dublin. He was to have stayed with me both in
London and in Ireland; but on both occasions his health gave way,
and the visit was never paid. I remember sitting up talking with
him through the whole of one winter night (in 1904.) Later, when
the Roke - by Velasquez was being talked of, I went with him to see
the picture. We agreed that it was the kind of picture people
paint when mind is beginning to get languid. After we had seen the
picture I walked with him to his hotel (the Kenilworth Hotel,)
talking about Irish art, which he thought was the kind of art
people make when mind has been languid for a long time. I never
saw him angry. I never saw him vexed. I never heard him utter a
hasty or an unkind word. I saw him visibly moved once to sadness,
when some one told him how tourists had spoiled the country people
in a part of Ireland. The Irish country people are simple and
charming. Tourists make them servile, insolent, and base. "The
Irish are easily corrupted," he said, "because they are so simple.
When they're corrupted, they're hard, they're rude, they're
everything that's bad. But they're only that where the low-class
tourists go, from America, and Glasgow, and Liverpool and these
places." He seldom praised people, either for their work or for
their personality. When he spoke of acquaintances he generally
quoted a third person. When he uttered a personal judgment it was
always short, like "He's a great fellow," or "He's a grand
fellow," or "Nobody in Ireland understands how big he is."

On one occasion (I think in 1906) we lunched together (at the
Vienna Cafe.) He told me with huge delight about his adventures in
the wilds. He had lodged in a cabin far from the common roads.
There was no basin in his bed-room. He asked for one, so that he
might wash. The people brought him a wooden box, worn smooth with
much use. In the morning he was roused by his host with the cry,
"Have you washed yourself yet? Herself is wanting the box to make
up the bread in."

I remember asking him what sensations an author had when his play
was being performed for the first time. "I sit still in my box,"
he said "and curse the actors." He was in a very gay mood that
afternoon, though his health was fast failing. He spoke with his
usual merry malice about his throat. With the trouble in his
throat he could not tell when he would be in England again. He was
only in England once more. That was in late May or early June,
1907, when the Irish players gave a few performances at the
Kingsway Theatre. I met him in the foyer of the theatre just
before the first London performance of _The Playboy of the Western

I had some talk with him then. During the performance I saw him in
his box, "sitting still," as he said, watching with the singular
grave intensity with which he watched life. It struck me then that
he was the only person there sufficiently simple to be really
interested in living people; and that it was this simplicity which
gave him his charm. He found the life in a man very well worth
wonder, even though the man were a fool, or a knave, or just down
from Oxford. At the end of the play I saw him standing in his box,
gravely watching the actors as the curtain rose and again rose
during the applause. Presently he turned away to speak to the lady
who had read his plays on the night of his first success. The play
was loudly applauded. Some people behind me - a youth and a
girl - began to hiss. I remember thinking that they resembled the
bird they imitated. I only saw Synge on two other occasions. I
met him at a dinner party, but had no talk with him, and I called
upon him at his old lodgings in Handel Street. He said: -

"Doesn't it seem queer to you to be coming back here?"

"It seems only the other day that we were here."

"Those were great days."

"I wish we could have them again."

"Ah," he said, laughing his hard laugh, half a cough,

"Nature brings not back the mastodon,
Nor we those times."

Presently he told me that he had been writing poetry. He handed me
a type-written copy of a ballad, and asked me what I thought of
it. I told him that I felt the want of an explanatory stanza near
the beginning. "Yes," he said; "But I can't take your advice,
because then it would not be quite my own." He told me the wild
picturesque story (of a murder in Connaught) which had inspired
the ballad. His relish of the savagery made me feel that he was a
dying man clutching at life, and clutching most wildly at violent
life, as the sick man does. We went out shortly afterwards, and
got into a cab, and drove to the Gourmets, and ate our last meal
together. He was going to the theatre after dinner; I had to go
out of town. After dinner we got into another cab. He said he
would give me a lift towards my station. We drove together along
the Strand, talking of the great times we would have and of the
jolly times we had had. None of our many talks together was
happier than the last. I felt in my heart as we drove that I
should never see him again. Our last talk together was to be a
happy one.

He was later than he thought. He could not come all the way to my
station. He had to turn off to his theatre.

At the top of Fleet Street hill we shook hands and said "So long"
to each other. The cab drew up just outside the office of a
sporting newspaper. I got out, and raised my hand to him. He
raised his in his grave way. The cab swung round and set off
westwards, and that was the end.

When I heard of his death I felt that his interest in life would
soon get itself into another body, and come here again to look on
and listen. When a life ends, it is a sign that Nature's purpose
in that life is over. When a personality has passed from us it is
a sign that life has no further need of it. What that personality
did may matter. What that personality was does not matter. Man's
task is to leave the dead alone. Life would be finer if we did not
drag that caddisworm's house of the past behind us.

I have not set down all my memories of him. Much of what he told
and said to me was told and said in the confidence of friendship.
I have set down only a few odd fragments to show those who care to
know what sort of a man he was. Lies and lives will be written of
him; plenty of both. Enough should be said to defeat the malice
and stupidity of detractors. Those who want to know what he was in
himself should read the poems. The poems are the man speaking.
They are so like him that to read them is to hear him. The
couplet -

"But they are rotten (I ask their pardon,)
And we've the sun on rock and garden."

gives me, whenever I read it, the feeling that he is in the room,
looking up with his hard, quick guttural laugh and kindling eyes,
from the rolling of a cigarette. The issue of _Samhain_ for
December, 1904, contains a portrait of him by Mr. J. B. Yeats. It
is difficult to believe that there can be any portrait more like

* * * * *

I wrote down these memories in January and February, 1911, two
years after Synge's death, and three and a half years after I had
parted from him. They were printed in the Contemporary Review for
April, 1911, and are reprinted here through the kindness of the
Editor and Proprietors, whom I wish to thank. Four years have
passed since I wrote this account, and in reading it over today
one or two little things, as the use of particular words in what I
quote from him, etc., have made me pause, as possibly inexact. I
have not altered these things, because, when I wrote this account,
my memory of the events and words was sharper than it is today.
Memory is a bad witness, and inexact in very little things, such
as the precise words used in talk some years before. The reader
must however believe that the words quoted, if not the very words
used by Synge, are as near to the very words as my memory can make

* * * * *

I have been asked to add to these memories a few notes, and the
chief dates in Synge's life, as far as we know them. His life,
like that of any other artist, was dated not by events but by
sensations. I know no more of his significant days than the rest
of the world, but the known biographical facts are these.

He was born on 16th. April, 1871, at Newtown Little, near Dublin.
He was the youngest son and eighth child of John Hatch Synge,
barrister, and of Kathleen, his wife, (born Traill.) His father
died in 1872. His mother in 1908. He went to private schools in
Dublin and in Bray, but being seldom well, left school when about
fourteen and then studied with a tutor; was fond of wandering
alone in the country, noticing birds and wild life, and later took
up music, piano, flute and violin. All through his youth, he
passed his summer holidays in Annamoe, Co. Wicklow, a strange
place, which influenced him.

He entered Trinity College, Dublin, on June 18, 1888, won prizes
in Hebrew and Irish in Trinity Term, 1892, and took his B. A.
degree (second class) in December, 1892. While at Trinity he
studied music at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, where he won a
scholarship in Harmony and Counterpoint.

He left College undecided about a career, but was inclined to make
music his profession. He went to Germany (Coblentz and Wurtzburg)
to study music; but in 1894, owing to a disappointed love, he gave
up this, and went to Paris, with some thought of becoming a
writer. He was much in France for the next few years writing
constantly to little purpose; he went to Italy in 1896, and in May
1898 made his first visit to the Aran Islands. During this visit
he began the first drafts of the studies which afterwards grew to
be his book, 'The Aran Islands.'

His writings, up to this time, had been tentative and imitative,
being mainly reflections from (and upon) what had most struck him
in his reading. He had read considerably in some six languages,
(Hebrew, Irish, German, Italian, French and English) and widely in


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