Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night
And far from cities, and the sites of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon’s delight.
I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
John Millington Synge was an Irishman, a musician, a playwright, a poet, a somewhat conflicted Catholic/atheist, and one fine-looking man.
That’s supposedly a wig he’s wearing, by the way—when he was twenty-six and hanging out with his friend W.B. Yeats in Paris, a lump was discovered on his neck. The operation to remove the affected gland was a success, but soon afterward, or so the rumor goes, he started to lose all of his beautiful dark hair.
But no matter—what are a few faulty follicles, compared to talent like his?
His first attempts at writing a play were to impress a young lady, who wasn’t much impressed by him, and we should really thank her for her poor taste, as instead of settling down and finding a Real Job, he instead set out to find his literary fortune.
He spent several years writing critical essays in France, where he met Yeats. Yeats finally told him that he and his writing were stagnating—I’m paraphrasing—and suggested that he go back to Ireland and pay attention to the stuff that actually interested him. So John wandered around the Aran Islands and fell in love with the dialects, rhythms, and dark humor of the rural Irish.
He began to write stories and books and plays, describing the people of the Islands in ways that no one had ever done. He didn’t glorify or ignore their harsh lives or fondly patronize their circumstances, but realistically portrayed their virtues, sins, and personalities dignified and boisterous and brash.
In other words, he’d learned to tell it as it was, and not as certain nationalists would have it.
Seven dog-days we let pass
Naming Queens in Glenmacnass,
All the rare and royal names
Wormy sheepskin yet retains,
Etain, Helen, Maeve, and Fand,
Golden Deirdre’s tender hand,
Bert, the big-foot, sung by Villon,
Cassandra, Ronsard found in Lyon.
Queens of Sheba, Meath and Connaught,
Coifed with crown, or gaudy bonnet,
Queens whose finger once did stir men,
Queens were eaten of fleas and vermin,
Queens men drew like Mona Lisa,
Or slew with drugs in Rome and Pisa,
We named Lucrezia Crivelli,
And Titian’s lady with amber belly,
Queens acquainted in learned sin,
Jane of Jewry’s slender shin:
Queens who cut the bogs of Glanna,
Judith of Scripture, and Gloriana,
Queens who wasted the East by proxy,
Or drove the ass-cart, a tinker’s doxy,
Yet these are rotten — I ask their pardon —
And we’ve the sun on rock and garden,
These are rotten, so you’re the Queen
Of all the living, or have been.
This honesty didn’t sit well with those who though Irish plays should show only the very best of Ireland and its people*—to them, his stuff bordered on slander. But despite these opinions—or maybe because of them—he was appointed a director of the Irish National Theatre Society, along with his friend Yeats, in 1905.
May seven tears in every week,
Touch the hollow of you cheek,
That I – signed with such a dew –
For the Lion’s share may sue
Of roses ever curled
Round the may-pole of the world.Heavy riddles lie in this,
Sorrow’s sauce for every kiss.
In 1906, Mr. Synge fell in love with an actress named Molly Allgood, whom he met when she was chosen to star in his new play, The Playboy of the Western World. It wasn’t the most socially-savvy match, perhaps—she was much younger than him with little formal education and a job that wasn’t entirely respectable—but he loved her and wrote her terrific letters about his work, and from what I gather from various sources, they made each other happy.
The play itself, in case you were wondering, was considered a masterpiece by everyone . . . except the audiences who first saw it.
Unmoved by critics who called it “riotous with the quick rush of life, a tempest of the passions with the glare of laughter at its heart,”** a vocal majority of theatergoers were offended at his portrayal of Irish men—specifically the way the hero was applauded for supposedly killing his abusive father and the way this patricidal main character insulted all of Irish womanhood by not marrying any of the several ladies who wanted him***— and also the apparent rudeness of some of the language choices.
There were riots in the streets and standing room only at every performance because everyone demanded the chance to see exactly what it was they were, as upright citizens, protesting.
It’s possible that Mr. Synge had mixed feelings about this.
To a sister of an enemy of the author’s who disapproved of ‘The Playboy’
Lord, confound this surly sister,
Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,
In her guts a galling give her.
Let her live to earn her dinners
In Mountjoy with seedy sinners:
Lord, this judgment quickly bring,
And I’m your servant, J. M. Synge.***
We can forgive him for being a little cranky—the lumps in his neck had returned.
He didn’t let his illness stop him, though, and spent his last year working on a new play, “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” between surgeries. He begged his friends Yeats and the Lady Gregory, to finish it, if he couldn’t.
On an Anniversary
With Fifteen-ninety or Sixteen-sixteen
We end Cervantes, Marot, Nashe or Green:
The Sixteen-thirteen till two score and nine,
Is Crashaw’s niche, that honey-lipped divine.
And so when all my little work is done
They’ll say I came in Eighteen-seventy-one,
And died in Dublin …. What year will they write
For my poor passage to the stall of Night?
J. M. Synge died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on March 24, 1909.
In his honor, his friends decided to hold a performance of his unfinished play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, exactly as he’d left it. It was directed by his fiance, Molly Allgood, who also starred.
Yeats said that he thought if his friend had lived to complete Dierdre to his satisfaction, it would have been his greatest work.
Me? I try not to think of the poems he might have written.
*Not poetry so much, but sweeping a thousand years or so of literary tradition under the rug would’ve been quite the job.
**Charles A. Bennett, who knew from talent.
***Personally, I think the ladies in question had a narrow escape, but I’m about a century of social change and at least two generations removed from the viewpoint of the original audience.
***I found this poem in an anthology while I was shifting the poetry section last week—no, not the one that fell on my head, just one of the many that fell on my foot. I wrote his name on my wrist and hunted him down at lunch. And then I got hooked on some of his other stuff . . .