"I had the unique privilege of seeing a performance of The Immortal Hour, which, timed to fit in with the exigencies of the local buses and trains, began at sunset. The first scene started with broad daylight shining in through the uncurtained windows of the Assembly Rooms. But as it progressed the dusk grew on, till only the phantom figures could be seen moving on the stage and the hooting laughter of the shadowy horrors in the magic wood rang out in complete darkness, lit only by the stars that shone strangely brilliant through the skylights of the hall. It was a thing never to be forgotten."
- Dion Fortune
Regrettably very little remains of Netta Fornario’s writing. Perhaps with the exception of an article in Volume 48 of the 1928 Occult Review on The Use of Imagination in Art, Science and Business, and her Four Sea Idylls published in a book called Memories of the Deep by Gertrude Bracey in 1917, this analysis of The Immortal Hour appears to be the only remaining work.
The following text, written by her, was originally published over 80 years ago under the name Mac Tyler. It provides an insightful commentary and analysis of Rutland Boughton’s opera The Immortal Hour.
A prolific writer of choral music and operas, he left a great legacy of operatic work which covered a host of mythical and magical themes. In addition to the Celtic themed The Immortal Hour, other operas included The Birth of Arthur, The Round Table, The Lily Maid, Avalon and Galahad - all four of which celebrated aspects of the great Arthurian cycle - as well as The Moon Maiden and The Queen of Cornwall. Of particular interest is his Songs of Womanhood Op.33: Prayer to
Dion Fortune, Charles Loveday, and other early Inner Light associates were thought to have first been introduced to Boughton’s work after he attempted to create an "English Bayreuth" festival in
The first performance of The Immortal Hour in
The Immortal Hour is essentially founded on the ancient Irish legend of Etain and Midir as interpreted by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). A photo of Harold Knight's wonderful painting of Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies who took the part of Etain in the Glastonbury productions is shown at the top of this blog. The original can be found in the Cardiff Museum.
Fiona Macleod wrote that the story,
“had originally a deep significance, and that the Wooing to the Otherworld, to the Gaelic Tir na 'n Og, the Land of Youth, of the Ever Living, of Love, the Land of Heart's Desire . . . of the beautiful woman Etain, wife of King Eochaidh, symbolised another wooing and another mystery than that alone of the man for the woman. It symbolised, I think, the winning of life back to the world after an enforced thraldom: the renewal of Spring.”
Netta Fornario’s own commentary and analysis of this great play provides a rich vein for modern day seekers to mine for leads and insights into the Celtic mysteries. I hope you enjoy reading it.
* * *
The Immortal Hour
During the course of some three and twenty performances of "The Immortal Hour," the writer of this booklet has gained much amusement from the comments of the audience, yet, if various remarks overheard on such occasions have enlivened the interval between the two acts with flashes of humour, (mostly unconscious on the part of the speakers), they also provided matter for considerable reflection.
Visitors to the Regent Theatre may be roughly classified as follows; students of mysticism and folk-lore who are able to understand the great truths concealed behind this gossamer curtain of faery; (a small clan, but they come frequently and every time discover some new aspect of illuminating significance), a large number of people who think the play beautiful but sad; and many for whom the whole drama is so elusive and incomprehensible that they irritably demand of each other "what on earth the fellow can be getting at," and are frankly bored: and there is a fourth class who, while keenly appreciating the artistic beauty of the performance, also sense the existence of a deeper meaning, but are hopelessly baffled by their inability to interpret the intricate symbolism employed.
It was for such seekers that this interpretation was written, and in the hope that these tentative suggestions, based on a study of comparative religion, folklore, mysticism and symbolism will provide them with the necessary clues.
While this Celtic allegory may be interpreted to represent the return of Spring to the world from the enforced thraldom of Winter, it will be apparent to all students of esoteric cults that we have here a drama similar to those employed in the ancient mysteries, and that the reactions and interaction of Dalua, Etain, Eochaid, Midir and the two peasants, symbolise the psychological and spiritual effects of initiation.
Practically all the religious systems of the ancient world, and most of the modern ones also, include two strongly differentiated types of teaching, the one exoteric, the other esoteric.
The exoteric or public side of any faith dealt with the moral precepts and ordinary religious ceremonies generally in use; the great truths underlying all religion were therein allegorised for the benefit of those who were not sufficiently evolved to grasp the fundamental philosophical concepts in their abstract form, and therefore had to be taught in terms of concrete things which are known to all.
The esoteric side dealt with the abstract philosophical concepts veiled by the exoteric symbolism. These ideas were never publicly proclaimed, but they were taught in secret all down the ages to such advanced individuals as were capable of understanding them, and who having reached a certain standard of moral, intellectual and spiritual development, were permitted to take part in the mysteries where they were instructed in the spiritual science of raising the lower self or personality to the level of the higher self or Individuality.
The allegories employed in the various exoteric systems seem to contradict each other but the esoteric interpretations are the same in every case, notwithstanding the apparent diversity of the different symbolism.
The Celtic mysteries are denoted by two mythological traditions; one is the Feast of Age, instituted by Manannan Mac Lir; the other is the Shadowy Fount of Beauty wherein the Salmon of Knowledge swims among berries fallen from the rowan, quicken tree or mountain ash, the Tree of Life in Celtic mythology, corresponding to Yggdrasil, the World Ash of the Scandinavians.
The opening speeches of the first scene of "The Immortal Hour" appertain to the world of thought; the stage is almost in darkness, vague shadows appear and disappear, denoting half-formulated concrete ideas strange and alien to Dalua, (who represents the abstract mentation of man), as that abstract mentation is itself alien to the emotions of normal humanity. The abstract mentation holds converse with half-caught intuitions which inform it that though it has travelled from one darkness to another, yet it has come
"no further than a rood,
A little rood of ground in a circle woven, "
All this first scene is tremendously significant, a clue to much that follows afterwards, and that would be otherwise be incomprehensible. The working of the principal of polarity is clearly shown in Dalua's assertion that he is
". . . not first or last of the Immortal clan
For whom the long ways of the world are brief
And the short ways heavy with unimagined time, "
implying that the conditions of the physical world are reversed in the metaphysical.
Dalua, (who represents the abstract mentation of man), is recognised by the light of the wandering star above him, and the intuitions hail him, half mockingly, half fearfully,
"....Sad Shadows of pale hopes,
Forgotten dreams, madness of men's minds;
Outcast among the Gods, and called the Fool,
Yet dreaded even by those immortal eyes. "
The Gods symbolise the highest type of emotional forces, but even these shrink from the cold impersonal detachment of the abstract mind, whose touch also wrecks the concrete mind if the latter has not been rendered sufficiently plastic by training to endure the shock of such an impact.
The chorus of intuitions now gives place to a chorus of demons symbolising the dark atavism of the subconscious forces which endeavour to acclaim the abstract mentation as part of their own evil, because the reaction of the lower principles to the mistranslated stimulus of the super-conscious frequently produces disastrous results on the material and lower emotional planes. This is why Dalua is said to bring madness and death, which generally result from misapplication of metaphysical forces.
In a marvellously orchestrated chorus of mocking laughter the demons gibe at the dreaded power who has unwittingly strayed among them. Dalua silences them with an angry gesture, bidding them laugh not,
"For Lu and Oengus laugh not, nor the gods
Safe set above the perishable stars."
The music here explains much that is left otherwise unexpressed. In the well-night perfect beauty of the Dalua motive we have all the sadness of mortal struggle and spiritual triumph marvellously interwoven, as in one flash of supreme vision the mind visualises its own high origin and lofty destiny, and unflinchingly carries out the plans of the forces whose tool it knows itself to be. It accepts the hatred and fear of the lower principles, which are unconscious of the law with which it co-operates, and, in realisation of the sublime ultimate purpose, it has already attained in essence, even though suffering in its own application of the law to itself and others.
Dalua is a composite figure, including many of the characteristics of Lucifer, Saturn and Pan. As Lucifer he tempts Etain, even as the serpent tempted Eve, and with a similar object; as Saturn he initiates Eochaid, weighing him in the balance and warning him that those led by dreams shall be misled, for those who seek initiation guided only by emotion and not by reason, cannot pass the necessary tests. Like Pan, who brought madness and death on those who confronted him unexpectedly, at the close of the play the Fairy Fool bestows the boon of death on the heart-broken king who demands from him the restoration of his dreams. The shadow of Dalua's hand, as applied to Etain and Eochaid to bring forgetfulness, corresponds to the draught of Lethe offered to souls about to descend into incarnation. It polarises their respective attitudes; Etain is made to forget her fairy kindred and high estate; Eochaid, who symbolises the desire principle, is made to imagine himself greater than he really is, a king of dreams and shadows, instead of their plaything, and a fit mate for the immortal Star of the Shee. The Shee are the Celtic gods, the spiritual emotions of man, which appear cold and cruelly callous to the warm passions of humanity.
Etain's appearance on the stage is marked by a slight increase of light, and as she represents the soul, we may surmise that this section of the play deals with the forces of the lower emotional or desire plane; the actual change from the mental plane to the desire takes place previous to this point and is denoted by the departure of the intuitions and the entrance of the demon chorus.
Etain is half fascinated, half terrified by Dalua, who suddenly during their conversation realises why their meeting in that strange place has been ordained, and tells her of the King of Men, who has wooed the Immortal Hour, and
". . . sought and found and called upon the Shee
To lead his love to one more beautiful
Than any mortal main . . .
but concludes sternly that there is only
"One way to that gate: it is not Love
Aflame with all desire: but Love at peace. "
He then makes a significant gesture which is repeated at Eochaid's death. This gives us a very important clue to the cause of the tragedy. Eochaid's desire for initiation is prompted by a selfish longing to grasp and hold for himself something beyond the ordinary quality of joy, not by a desire for service, and because the motive of his quest is purely selfish, the hidden god speaking from the fountain warns him to return, but the warning is unheeded as Dalua's mocking laughter lures the king onward to his doom.
The second scene shows Etain sheltering from a storm in the hut of two peasants who represent animal instincts, and who are terrified both of her and of Eochaid, who seeks shelter from them also. The lower instincts are as much afraid of the desire principle, when that is seeking its higher self, as they are of the Soul, knowing full well that such an attempt towards unification, if successful, will inevitably be followed by an attempt at their own extinction. In this case it is not successful, as when they intreat Eochaid to do them no ill, he gives perfunctory assurances of his harmlessness towards them, while the rising tide of the great love duet surging in the orchestra denotes that he is hardly conscious of what he is saying, or of anything in all the world but the beauty of Etain.
She is equally swayed by emotion and moves towards him like one entranced, though when he kisses her hand, she breaks away, half conscious that she is transgressing. But the spell is too much for her; she yields to his passion and the love music reaches an ecstatic climax as they both sing
"The years, the bitter years of all the world
Are now no more, "
when the mockery of Dalua is heard from the orchestra, and Eochaid demands, half in anger, half in fear,
"Who laughed? What means that laughter?"
Etain wearily seats herself at the other side of the stage, the king kneels by her side, and the two peasants slumber by the glowing fire, when suddenly a sound of far-away music is heard, and Etain rouses herself to listen to the song of the Shee. Eochaid hears nothing, and is both puzzled and troubled as she turns from him, and rises from her seat, with outstretched arms, straining towards the distant voices. She has remembered something of her true nature and passionately regrets her self-determined exile.
The scene of the second act is laid in Eochaid's dun, and shows us the rejoicing at the first anniversary of his wedding. After a chorus of bards and soldiers, Etain enters with her women, pale and sorrowful. During the first act, she wears the green gown of the fairy folk but now she is robed in gold and red; Eochaid who enters shortly afterwards is also robed in the red that symbolises passion, though in the first act he wears blue, the colour of aspiration.
Etain complains of weariness and announces her intention to retire, but Eochaid entreats her not to leave him, confessing that in spite of all the rejoicing he is "sore wrought by dreams and premonitions," expressed by a sinister little chromatic passage in the orchestra. He has heard again the laughter of Dalua and senses the approach of trouble, but notwithstanding his request, Etain passes out with her women, and he dismisses the rest of the court with the exception of an old bard and a page. The last two Druids on the point of departure are startled by the sudden appearance of a stranger in green, who stands in the doorway and hails the king, apologising for his late appearance and requesting a boon. Eochaid is somewhat disconcerted, but replies with dignity that
". . . no stranger claims a boon in vain
. . . if that boon be
Such as I may grant without loss of fame
Honour or common weal,"
and enquires the name of the mysterious visitor. This the stranger refuses to give but proclaims his royal lineage in a passage of exquisite beauty:
"I am a King's first son.
My kingdom lies beyond your lordly realms
O King, and yet upon our mist white shores
The Three Great Waves of
But I am under sacred bonds
To tell no man, not even the king,
My name and lineage.
King, I wish you well,
Lordship and lands and all your heart's desire."
Eochaid turns to him impulsively, then recollecting the presence of the two Druids, he dismisses them, before confessing his longing
"To know there is no twilight hour
Upon my day of joy; "
The stranger reminds him that great poets have sung how
"Great love survives the night and climbs the stars,
And lives the Immortal Hour along the brow,
Of that Infinitude called Youth whom men
Name Onegus Sunrise."
But Eochaid is also a poet and desires a more definite reassurance. The stranger, who is Midir, a prince of the Fairy people, husband of Etain, and symbolises the Spirit, now leaves the entrance and comes forward, flinging wide his cloak, as if announcing himself the messenger of the gods. He sings of the Immortal Hour from a Cosmic standpoint, as exemplified by Aed and Dana, suggesting the immortality of love and its Cosmic significance, but Eochaid's reaction to this clarion challenge is in terms of personality, a passionate prayer that he and he alone may keep Etain forever, and so he misses his great opportunity.
Midir turns significantly away. Eochaid murmurs bitterly, "Dreams, dreams," and then enquires what boon is desired by his visitor. He is still more troubled when Midir asks to touch the white hand of the queen, and to sing her a song, but the king has given his word, so he sends the page to summon her, and while they await her appearance, the old bard gives definite form in the following words to the vague uneasiness pervading the whole of this scene.
"I have seen all things pass and all things go
Under the shadow of the drifting leaf;
Green leaf, red leaf, brown leaf;
Grey leaf blown to and fro,
Blown to and fro.
I have seen happy dreams rise up and pass
Silent and swift as shadows on the grass
Grey shadows of old dreams,
Grey beauty of old dreams,
Grey shadows on the grass."
The old bard slowly hobbles away, and Etain enters, clad in the green robes of the first act. She starts when Eochaid speaks to her, and complains that she could not sleep, for her dreams came close and whispered in her ears. Eochaid informs her why he has summoned her, and Midir moves from behind a pillar into her line of vision. She looks at him in bewilderment, and when he kisses her hand she starts again, as though half remembering, then recovering herself, she prays him to sing his song, and he obeys in the words and melody used by the fairy people at the close of the first act. As the notes die away she stammers confusedly,
"I have heard, I have dreamed that song"
In the next lyric Midir declares his identity; she rushes impulsively towards him, and then draws back, confused, as she remembers her desertion of him and her own unworthiness, but still he woos her with outstretched arms, and at length she comes to him, saying,
"I am a small green leaf in a great wood,
And you are the wind o' the south"
It is significant that after kissing Etain's hand, Midir carefully refrains from touching her again, even after her surrender, implying that though the spirit may descend to woo the soul and reclaim her, it is on alien ground in the lower planes, and their true relation cannot be resumed until the soul returns to the higher level.
Eochaid here endeavours to come between them but is repulsed by a gesture from Midir, who slowly moves backwards to the entrance, drawing Etain after him. She moves as though in a trance, and to Eochaid's passionate appeals she only replies gently,
"I cannot hear your words so far away,
I go from dark to light"
and so passes out of his life, to the sound of the fairy chorus in the distance.
This is the part most generally misunderstood, as the majority of people sympathise with Eochaid and feel that Etain has treated him badly.
The real clue to the situation lies in the fact that Eochaid and Midir are polarity aspects of the same principle; and therefore a unity. When Eochaid was offered his heart's desire, he could have gained the right to follow Etain to her immortal home, had he been content to sacrifice himself for her welfare, but because his love is selfish, he loses her objectively, and, though erroneously, feels that he has lost her irrevocably. If the lower nature is content to follow where the higher principles lead, it can be regenerated without suffering much of the pain entailed by its endeavour to drag down the soul; but a refusal to be regenerated necessitates its sacrifice that the soul may be liberated. Yet the lower nature and the higher are one in essence, though manifesting in opposite directions; and the death of Eochaid symbolises the metaphysical attainment of his heart's desire, since in the supreme surrender Love is at peace, as Dalua's gesture signifies, and this is the essential condition announced in the first act for all who would stand beside
"The rainbow gate of her whom none may find,
The Beauty of all Beauty."
The essence of Eochaid, all of him that is pure and great, (being almost the highest possible expression of the personality, truly a King of men,) is incorporated with the polarity aspect, Midir, and thus in the metaphysical world Midir-Eochaid hold Etain forever, and the cycle is complete. In the original play, Eochaid's entreaty to Dalua,
"My dreams, my dreams, give me my dreams,"
is answered by the significant words,
"There is no dream save this, the dream of death"
implying that death itself is only a dream and that the ultimate reality for Eochaid, as for Midir and Etain, lies in the other world, where all life is one Life.
This is not obvious to the majority of people, and it is unfortunate that this pregnant sentence was omitted; but the wonderful music of the closing bars, based on a re-statement of the Dalua theme, explains it with extraordinary clarity for those who can understand, and one watches the descent of the curtain convinced that in spite of the apparent tragedy, and notwithstanding struggle, illusion and mistakes, the end is peace and fulfilment for all.
The Immortal Hour was given only a few performances, the politics of its composer became an issue and it has disappeared from the theatre. But the music has lived on in recordings, the most famous being the lovely aria, 'The Lordly Ones'.
"How beautiful they are the Lordly Ones
who dwell in the hills, in the Hollow Hills.
They have faces like flowers and their breath
is a wind that blows o'er sunny meadows
filled with dewy clover...”