John Masefield.

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

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at least four of them, besides his scholarship in the universal
language of music. Among his early plans for books were schemes
for a translation from some of the prose of St. Francis of Assisi,
(which he abandoned, because an English translation was published
at the time) and for a critical study of Racine, whose pure and
noble art always meant much to him. Some critical and other
writings of this period exist in manuscript. They are said to be
carefully written, but wanting in inner impulse.

Throughout this period if not throughout his life he lived with
the utmost ascetic frugality, bordering always, or touching, on
poverty. He used to say that his income was "forty pounds a year
and a new suit of clothes, when my old ones get too shabby." He
had no expensive habits, he was never self-indulgent, he had no
wish to entertain nor to give away, no desire to make nor to own
money, no taste for collection nor zest for spending. He eschewed
all things that threatened his complete frugal independence and
thereby the integrity of his mind.

The superficial man, not seeing this last point, sometimes felt
that he "did not know how to abound."

* * * * *

When in Paris in 1899, he met Mr. W. B. Yeats who, having seen his
work suggested that he would do well to give up writing criticism,
and go again to the Aran Islands to study the life there, and fill
his mind with real and new images, so that, if he wrote later, his
writing might be lively and fresh and his subject a new discovery.
He did as Mr. Yeats suggested and went back to the Aran Islands
and passed some weeks in Inishmaan. In all, he made five or six
visits to the Aran Islands, these two of 1898 and 1899, and
certainly three more in the autumns of 1900, 1901, 1902.
The Islanders liked him but were a little puzzled by him. He
was an unassertive, unassuming man, with a genius for being
inconspicuous. He has told us that his usual method in a poor
man's cabin was to make them forget that he was there, but in Aran
on these visits he always tried to add to the fun, and to his
personal prestige with conjuring tricks, fiddling, piping, taking
photographs, etc. Some of the Islanders were much attached to him.
I suppose that their main impression was that he was a linguist
who had committed a crime somewhere and had come to hide.

His next three or four years, 1899-1902 were passed between Paris
and Ireland; Paris in the winter and spring and Ireland in the
other seasons. He was at work on _The Aran Islands_, and on his
three early one act plays, _The Tinker's Wedding_, _Riders to the
Sea_, and _The Shadow of the Glen_. He came to London in the
winter of 1902-3, where I saw him as I have described. London did
not suit him and he did not stay long. He gave up his room in
Paris at this time, with some searching of the heart; for at
thirty one clings to youth. After this, he was mostly in Ireland,
in the wilder West and elsewhere; writing and perfecting. At the
end of 1904 he was in Dublin, for the opening of the Abbey Theatre
of which he was one of the advisers. In June, 1905, he went
through the Congested Districts of Connemara, with Mr. Jack B.
Yeats. After this expedition, which lasted a month, he was
generally in or near Dublin, in Kingstown and elsewhere, though he
made summer excursions to Dingle, the Blasket Islands, Kerry, etc.
About once a year, when the Abbey Theatre Company was touring in
England, he came with it if his health allowed, to watch the
performances in London, Manchester or Edinburgh, wherever they
might be. His life was always mainly within himself; the record of
these years is very meagre, all that can be said of them is that
he passed them mostly in Ireland, writing and re-writing, in
failing health and with increasing purpose. His general health was
never robust, and for at least the last six years of his life his
throat troubled him. He used to speak of the trouble as "his
glands;" I cannot learn its exact nature; but I have been told
that it was "cancer" or "some form of cancer," which caused him
"not very great pain," but which "would have been excessively
painful had he lived a little longer." Doctors may be able to
conclude from these vague statements what it was. He was operated
upon in May, 1908, but the growth could not be removed, and from
that time on he was under sentence of death. He passed his last
few months of life trying to finish his play of _Deirdre_ and
writing some of his few poems. He died in a private nursing home
in Dublin on the 24th. March, 1909. and was buried two days later
in a family vault in the Protestant graveyard of Mount Jerome,
Harold's Cross, Dublin. He had been betrothed, but not married.

* * * * *

One thing more needs to be said. People have stated that Synge's
masters in art were the writers of the French Decadent school of
the eighteen nineties, Verlaine, Mallarme, J. K. Huysmans, etc.
Synge had read these writers (who has not?) I often talked of them
with him. So far as I know, they were the only writers for whom he
expressed dislike. As a craftsman he respected their skill, as an
artist he disliked their vision. The dislike he plainly stated in
a review of Huysmans' _La Cathedrale_ (_ The Speaker_, April,
1903) and in an allusion to the same author's, _A Rebours_, in one
of his Prefaces. I do not know who his masters in art may have
been, that is one of the personal things he would not willingly
have told; but from what I can remember, I should say that his
favourite author, during the greater part of his life, was Racine.


Several portraits of Synge exist. Besides a few drawings of him
which are still in private hands, there are these, which have been
made public.

An oil painting by Mr. J. B. Yeats. R.H.A. (Municipal Gallery,

A Drawing by Mr. J. B. Yeats. R.H.A. (_Samhain_. December, 1904.)

A Drawing by Mr. J. B. Yeats. R.H.A. (Frontispiece to _Playboy_.)

Frontispieces to Vols. I. III. and IV. of the _Works_. (One of
these is a drawing by Mr. James Paterson, the others are

Two small but characteristic amateur photographs reproduced in M.
Bourgeois's book.

Very few people can read a dead man's character from a portrait.
Life is our concern; it was very specially synge's concern.
Doubtless he would prefer us not to bother about how he looked,
but to think of him as one who

"Held Time's fickle glass his fickle hour"

and then was put back into the earth with the kings and tinkers
who made such a pageant in his brain. For the rest, he would say,
with Shakespeare,

"My spirit is thine, the better part of me."


The Shadow of the Glen. Written 1902.3. Performed 8th. October

Riders to the Sea. Written 1902.3. Performed 25th. February 1904.

The Well of the Saints. Written 1903.4. Performed 4th. February

The Playboy of the Western World. Written 1905.6. Performed 26th.
January 1907.

The Tinker's Wedding. Written 1902-1907. Performed 11th. November

Deirdre of the Sorrows, (unfinished) 1907.8. Performed 13th.
January 1910.


The Aran Islands. Written between 1899 and 1907. Published April,

Poems and Translations. Written between 1891 and 1908; the
translations between 1905 and 1908. Published June 5, 1909.

The works of John M. Synge, in 4 volumes, published in 1910,
contains all the published plays and books and selections from his
papers. Though he disliked writing for newspapers he wrote some
contributions to _The Gael_, _The Shanachie_, _The Speaker_, _The
Manchester Guardian_ and _L'Europeen_ (in Paris) between the years
1902 and 1908. One or two of the best of these are reprinted in
_The Works_. The others may be read in their place by those who
care. It is possible that the zeal of biographers will discover a
few papers by him in other periodicals.


Information about John M. Synge may be found in Mr. W. B. Yeats's
Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 173. In J. M. Synge and the Ireland of
His Time, by W. B. Yeats and Jack B. Yeats. In an article by Mr.
Jack B. Yeats in the New York Sun, July, 1909, mainly reprinted in
the above.

In the Manchester Guardian, March 25th. 1909, and, much more fully
than elsewhere in John M. Synge, by M. Maurice Bourgeois, the
French authority on Synge, whose book is the best extant record of
the man's career. A good many critical and controversial books and
articles of varying power and bitterness have appeared about him.
A short Life of him by myself, was published in a supplementary
volume of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1912. The people
who knew him in Ireland, and some who have followed in his tracks
there have set down or collected facts about him. The student will
no doubt meet with more of these as time goes by. For those which
have already appeared, the student should refer to M. Bourgeois's
very carefully compiled appendices, and to the published indices
of English and American Periodical Publications.




Online LibraryJohn MasefieldJohn M. Synge: a Few Personal Recollections, with Biographical Notes → online text (page 2 of 2)