George William Russell, Irish writer, editor, critic, poet, painter and Irish nationalist, is born on April 10, 1867 in Lurgan, County Armagh, in what is now Northern Ireland. He writes with the pseudonym Æ (often written AE or A.E.). He is also a writer on mysticism, and a central figure in the group of devotees of theosophy which meets in Dublin for many years. He takes his pseudonym from a proofreader’s query about his earlier pseudonym, “AEon.”
Russell is the second son of Thomas Russell and Mary Armstrong. His father, the son of a small farmer, becomes an employee of Thomas Bell and Co., a prosperous firm of linen drapers. The family relocates to Dublin, where his father has a new offer of employment, when he is eleven years old.
Russell is educated at Rathmines School and the Metropolitan School of Art, where he begins a lifelong, if sometimes contentious, friendship with W. B. Yeats. In the 1880s, he lives at the Theosophical Society lodge at 3 Upper Ely Place, sharing rooms with Hamilton Malcolm Magee, the brother of William Kirkpatrick Magee.
Following his time at the Metropolitan School of Art, Russell becomes an accounts clerk in a drapery store but leaves in 1897 to organize agricultural cooperatives. Eventually he becomes editor of the periodicals Irish Homestead (1905–23) and The Irish Statesman (1923–30). In 1894 he publishes the first of many books of verse, Homeward: Songs by the Way, which establishes him in what is known as the Irish Literary Revival. His first volume of Collected Poems appears in 1913 and a second in 1926. He maintains a lifelong interest in theosophy, the origins of religion, and mystical experience. Candle of Vision: Autobiography of a Mystic (1918) is the best guide to his religious beliefs.
At the turn of the 20th century, Russell is considered by many to be the equal of Yeats, but he does not continue to grow and develop as Yeats does. He is prolific and versatile, but many critics find his poetry facile, vague, and monotonous, with “rather too much of the Celtic Twilight” in it.
Russell, who had become increasingly unhappy in the Irish Free State which, according to Yeats, he called “a country given over to the Devil,” moves to England soon after his wife’s death in 1932. Despite his failing health he goes on a final lecture tour in the United States, but returns home utterly exhausted. He dies of cancer in Bournemouth, England, on July 17, 1935. His body is brought back to Ireland and he is interred in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Dublin.