From Swerve of Shore to Bend of Bay Area: the Afterlife of Opal Hush
7.782-3: What do you think really of that hermetic crowd, the opal hush poets: A. E. the mastermystic? That Blavatsky woman started it.
In the latest issue of the Dublin James Joyce Journal (No. 5, 2012) I have published a piece tracking the history of the Opal Hush poets to an article in the Leader.1 Almost as soon as it appeared I came across examples of more general application of the term, including a mixed drink attributed to Yeats. To begin with the critical label, evidence that this still had some circulation after the publication of Ulysses can be found in a review in the March 1925 issue of the Irish quarterly Studies. The book under discussion is In the Land of Youth by James Stephens, and the review is signed W.D. — clearly William Dawson, who as ‘Avis’ was one of the Leader’s best-known columnists. Dawson complains about what he describes as Stephens’s ‘wild and whirling words’, giving as an instance the phrase ‘Green soundless thunders’, about which he comments ‘we have had nothing in Anglo-Irish literature to equal this since the historic “opal hush” of a quarter of a century back.’
If we return to the palmy days when the term was first coined, we find it very quickly moving in a new direction. Edward Thomas, the future war poet, complained about ‘lovers of the Celt’, describing them as:
Frustratingly, Thomas says nothing more about the drink, but Arthur Ransome shortly provided the answer:
This passage is recalled in a biography of Ransome, which adds the name of the putative inventor of the drink:
Whether or not Yeats actually invented the drink, its popularity in London aesthetic circles, somewhat outside the ambit of the Leader, strongly suggests that the ‘opal hush’ label was quickly adopted as an in-joke among its intended targets.
Another imbiber in Ransome’s bohemian circles was Pamela Colman Smith, aka ‘Pixie’, and famous as the designer of the Waite Tarot cards.
Colman Smith died in 1951, but a blog maintained in her name gives the proportions for making the drink:
Thanks to her, according to the evidence online, the Opal Hush cult still has its followers in 21st century San Francisco.
1 The words first gained circulation as the result of a crushingly witty review in the Leader (19 December, 1903) of the Christmas 1903 issue of the Irish Homestead. Among the small collection of poems anthologised in the IH was one by Alberta Victoria Montgomery, entitled 'Grey'. The Leader cast a glaring spotlight on the line 'The opal hush lies on the cloud bars bright' and a catch-phrase was born. (This subject was originally raised within the private online discussion group “Ulysses for Experts”.)
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