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:

a class of "decadents", not unrelated to Mallarmé, and of aesthetes, not unrelated to Postlethwaite. They are sophisticated, neurotic — the fine flower of sounding cities — often producing exquisite verse and prose; preferring creme de menthe and opal hush to metheglin or stout.

Beautiful Wales (London: A & C Black, 1905), p. 11

Frustratingly, Thomas says nothing more about the drink, but Arthur Ransome shortly provided the answer:

As soon as the shaking of hands was all over someone asked Gypsy for a song. "Got very little voice to-night," she coughed, "and everybody wants something to drink first. But I’ll sing you a song afterwards." She went through to the table with the glasses in the inner room. "Who is for opal hush?" she cried, and all, except the American girl and the picture dealer, who preferred whisky, declared their throats were dry for nothing else. Wondering what the strange-named drink might be, I too asked for opal hush, and she read the puzzlement in my face. "You make it like this," she said, and squirted lemonade from a syphon into a glass of red claret, so that a beautiful amethystine foam rose shimmering to the brim. "The Irish poets over in Dublin called it so; and once, so they say, they went all round the town and asked at every public-house for two tall cymbals and an opal hush. They did not get what they wanted very easily, and I do not know what a tall cymbal may be. But this is the opal hush." It was very good, and as I drank I thought of those Irish poets, whose verses had meant much to me, and sipped the stuff with reverence as if it had been nectar from Olympus.

Bohemia in London (1907), ch. 4 'A Chelsea Evening', p. 60

This passage is recalled in a biography of Ransome, which adds the name of the putative inventor of the drink:

In a studio near The Boltons he drank in awe a concoction christened 'opal hush' by W. B. Yeats (claret diluted with lemonade out of a siphon).

Hugh Brogan The Life of Arthur Ransome (London: Jonathan Cape, 1984), p. 31

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.

The assembled guests chanted songs and poetry, listened raptly to the Jamaican tales of Brer Annancy, criticized each other’s art and writings, and refreshed themselves with an Irish drink called "Opal Hush", concocted from lemonade and claret.

To all believers: the art of Pamela Colman Smith: [exhibition catalogue, Melinda Boyd Parsons and Pamela Coleman Smith] Delaware Art Museum, 11 September – 19 October, 1975, The Art Museum, Princeton University, 4 November – 7 December, 1975, p. 1

Colman Smith died in 1951, but a blog maintained in her name gives the proportions for making the drink:

Fill a wine glass ¼ of the way with red claret wine

Then fill the rest of the way with lemonade from a syphon

(last accessed 7 March, 2013; link no longer live)

Thanks to her, according to the evidence online, the Opal Hush cult still has its followers in 21st century San Francisco.

Have a Batstabulous weekend folks! Raise your glasses full of Opal Hush and sing Pixie's praises!

San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium - **TAROT**

16 September 2009 by Mermaid

Re: San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium.

Fri, October 2, 2009 - 11:49 AM

Vincent Deane


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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