By George H. Doran Company
Printed in the United States of America
A TRIBUTE AND SOME MEMORIES
To think of Dora Sigerson—and it is a poignant thought—takes one back to Dublin in the 'nineties, or the later 'eighties. I think it was on a summer Sunday in 1887 that Dr. Sigerson came to see me with his two daughters and Rose Kavanagh, whom I already knew. The Yeatses were there that Sunday for the big meal at a most unfashionable hour, which was a feature of those years for the young writers and artists of Dublin. My old home was in the country, just under the Dublin mountains, and, I think, a very delightful place.
Everyone, of course, knew Dr. Sigerson by repute. The house was full of the young that day, with just a sprinkling of the young of heart like Mr. Yeats and my father and Dr. Sigerson. I remember that my brother said to me, "Miss Sigerson is very beautiful." She was. Her face then had some curious suggestion of the Greek Hermes. She wore her dark hair short, and it was in heavy masses. She had a beautiful brow and eyebrows, very fine grey eyes, a short straight nose, a warm pale colour, and vivid red lips. A little later the Irish-American, Miss Louise Imogen Guiney, dedicated her “Roadside Harp” to the Sigerson sisters:
There in the Druid brake,
If the cuckoo be awake
Again, oh, take my rhyme,
And keep it long for the sake
Of a bygone primrose-time.
You of the star-bright head
That twilight thoughts sequester:
You to your native fountains led,
Like to a young Muse garlanded:
Dora, and Hester.
Dora was indeed “like to a young Muse garlanded.” She was singularly beautiful, with some strange hint of storm in her young beauty. She was so full of artistic impulse and achievement of many kinds, and she arrived at so much of art without any apprenticeship that the word “genius” seems not inapplicable to her. Our friendship flowed straight on from that summer Sunday of 1887. Dr. Sigerson's house in Clare Street became my headquarters when I went into Dublin from my country home. Dora was always painting or writing or doing sculpture. I can remember her coming from somewhere downstairs to the drawing-room at No. 3, Clare Street, when I was announced, wearing a sort of sculptor's blouse. There is still in her old home, crowded with beautiful things, at least one head by her of a nymph or a dryad, strangely delicate and pensive.
I don't think she had read much poetry till John O'Leary, saying her poetry was too introspective, gave her Percy's “Reliques,” whence the genesis of her fine ballad poetry. If she had any training as an art student for her painting and drawing and sculpture, it must have been very slight. The gifts came to her out of the air, so to speak; real gifts and nothing acquired.
For seven good years my life was inextricably interwoven with hers and Hester's. We had the same friends, the same merry-makings, the same tastes and aims. We were of the circle which revolved around the great old Fenian, John O'Leary, and his not less noble sister; we visited the American poets, Mr. and Mrs. Piatt, at Queenstown, where Mr. Piatt was American Consul; we spent many happy days at Mr. Richard Ashe King's delightful house at Waltham Terrace, Blackrock. We wrote for the same papers. Presently Dora Sigerson and I were together in politics, both Parnellites when the “split” came. Together we attended Mr. Parnell's meetings; we went to meet him when he returned to Dublin from the country; we lived through all the passionate loyalty of those days. Together we exulted; together we mourned; together we followed our chief to the grave, not thinking upon how she should one day lie near him.
Perhaps the best holiday we had together was a scamper through Donegal on some business about the industries for Lady Aberdeen. It was just before I was married. From the time we left Amiens Street Station till we returned it was all pure enjoyment. The people with their beautiful manners, the wonderful scenery, the hotels, the car-drivers, the priests, the little towns, the wild, lonely places, the great hospitality—all were a delight to her. She was full of the joie de vivre, despite the hint of tragedy in her beauty. She did madcap things. Like Martin Ross she could mimic animals perfectly. How we laughed when she crowed like a cock over a low wall beyond which was a poultry-yard, and the real Vizier, after one careful look around, marshalled all his ladies into an inner enclosure. I have somewhere a book of that tour with her delightfully humorous drawings. She was always pencil in hand. We did the whole of Donegal within a fortnight, and came back, blowzed but happy, I to my wedding, she to the Dublin she always loved. A year or two later she met Clement Shorter at our little house in Mount Avenue, Ealing.
One thing I must not omit to mention—her passionate love of animals. In the old, good days in Dublin she used to pick up waifs and strays of forlorn doghood and take them to the Dogs' Home. The boys in the street used to shout derision at us: “Go on! wid yer grand hats and ye to be starvin' yer dog!” The sense of humour supported us.
How we laughed and lived together! Ah, well:
Let nothing disturb thee,
Let nothing affright thee.
Only God remaineth
For ever and ever.
I will not speak of her beautiful poetry, essential poetry, always with a passionate emotion to give it wings. It is for the critic. No one will say she was not happy in her English life, though her heart was always slipping away like a grey bird to Ireland. She had a very full life and she had absolute devotion and knew what a precious thing she had.
Her breakdown in health was sudden. She attributed it herself to her intense and isolated suffering—isolated beyond the perfect sympathy of her devoted husband—over the events following Easter week, 1916, in Dublin, and the troubles which menaced the country she adored. I think she need not have felt so bitterly isolated; the spirit of humanity is strong in the good English—and the good English are very good—but the fact remains that she broke her heart over it all; and so she died, as she would have chosen to die, for love of the Dark Rosaleen.
The finest side of Irish life and literature is poorer to-day by the death of Dora Sigerson. From her long residence in England she was known here mainly as a poet of a genius as distinguished as it was personal. But when, in recent years, affairs in Ireland grew more critical, her great-hearted personality emerged more clearly and shone the more brightly as the situation grew more dangerous. Love of Ireland was with her a passion. The events of Easter week moved her profoundly. She spent herself regally on behalf of her people with brain, pen and fortune and at the expense of her vitality. The best of the English weeklies said that “the rebellion killed her almost as surely as if she had stood with the rebels in O'Connell Street. Henceforth she could think of little else; of what had died with it and what might live.” That is no less than the truth. She is fairly to be reckoned with the dead of Easter. Devotion to their cause consumed her like a flame into which she flung all her gifts, neither few nor negligible. She was a true artist, eagerly seeking expression for an ardent and manifold personality which itself transcended all her work, whether in poetry, sculpture or painting. Her poetry was saluted by the greatest contemporary names in England: Meredith, Francis Thompson, Swinburne, and the present writer has seen her name as the subject of lecture on the noticeboards of the Sorbonne. What faults lay on the surface of her verse were more than compensated for by its intensity, an intensity often tragic, “stoned by continual wreckage of her dreams,” but always filled with pity. In the “Songs of the Irish Rebellion” and in her later work generally which we, in Ireland, will always consider her best, the passion that consumed her burnt away these superficial defects, themselves characteristic of her impetuous spirit. The poet of “Ireland,” of the “Wind on the Hills,” of “Ceann Dubh Dilis,” of “Sixteen Dead Men,” will always be remembered on that honourable roll of artists who, to the gain of both, fused with their art, the strong love of the people.