VINTAGE GEMS Patrick CrottyNWR Issue 17
Fathers and Sons
A crucial moment in modern Irish literature's pursuit of the meaning of identity occurs in the Cyclops episode of James Joyce's Ulysses
. Bloom, the novel's half-Hungarian, Jewish, ex-Protestant, non-practising Catholic protagonist, is challenged about his nationality by John Wyse and the savagely chauvinistic (cyclopean) Citizen:
Bloom was talking and talking with John Wyse and he quite excited with his dunducketymudcoloured mug on him and his old plumeyes rolling about.
- Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
- But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse
- Yes, says Bloom.
- What is it? says John Wyse.
- A nation? says Bloom. A nation is the same people living in the same place.
- By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that's so I'm a nation for I'm living in the same place for the past five years. So of course everyone had a laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
- Or also by living in different places.
- That covers my case, says Joe.
- What is your nation if I may ask, says the citizen.
- Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland.[note:1]
It is a moment recalled by Seamus Heaney half a century later in the final section of "Traditions":
round the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us
as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
"What ish my nation?"
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland," said Bloom,
"I was born here. Ireland." [note:2]
Bloom's common-sense decency is used here to deflate British amusement at the brokenness and apparent marginality of Irish culture. The Irish writer cannot have a comfortable or spontaneous relationship with the central literary tradition of his native, English language precisely because such bemusement seems an inevitable corollary of that tradition's underlying assumptions. The destruction of Gaelic civilisation in Ireland was undertaken by the English just at the point of their own greatest achievement in the arts. Practical and imaginative expressions respectively of the same complex of politico-cultural attitudes, the colonial and literary expansions of Elizabethan England are not ultimately divisible.
Heaney's poem rehearses derogatory references to Ireland by the greatest names of the renaissance in the neighbouring island, Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare. Sidney observed in his Apology for Poetry
that in Ireland "learning goeth very bare." In his View of the Present State of Ireland
(1598), Edmund Spenser, an officer of the imperialist cause whose duties included the massacre of Spanish and Irish captives, described as follows the surrender of starving Gaels:
Out of every corner of the woodes and glennes they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legges could not carry them; they looked like anatomies of death...
In MacMorris, the mercenary soldier of Henry V
, Shakespeare created the first stage-Irishman - noisy, quick to take offence, wholly defined by his inferiority complex. By the end of Heaney's third stanza the myriad-minded Shakespeare and Joyce's cyclopean Citizen have become one in their failure to sympathise with dislocated humanity. Perhaps the poet's sly craft only highlights a connection intended by Joyce in the first instance; the Citizen's malevolent challenge
-What is your nation if I may ask?
may have been modelled upon MacMorris's blustering
What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?
"Traditions" was published in 1972, the blackest year of the current round of troubles in Heaney's native Northern Ireland, when people were being killed in their hundreds in the province's ancient dispute about identity and nationhood. Insofar as the poem's citing of Bloom's reply to the Citizen had a direct contemporary relevance it amounted to a plea for tolerance, for recognition by each of the two "people(s) living in the same place" of the other's right to be there. Poetry for Heaney is a salving ministry and his raising of his voice in favour of a live-and-let-live philosophy amid the murderous passions of the early seventies is in moral terms wholly commendable.
As a definition of nationality, however, the Bloom-Heaney argument leaves much to be desired. The Duke of Wellington despatched it pretty effectively long before it was offered when he observed of his Dublin origins that "being born in a stable doesn't make you a horse". One takes little pleasure in siding with the duke against the poet, but it must be said that Heaney evades rather than confronts the issue of identity in his poem. Identity has in fact little to do with where you happen to be and everything to do with where you believe you belong and who you believe belongs with you. It has to do, that is to say, not with accidents of circumstance but with a sense of rootedness in place and - no less importantly - in time. Wellington, though he shared a birthplace with Leopold Bloom, clearly felt he belonged in England and would happily have had the stable door bolted after his own departure to keep the Irish where they belonged.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary
doesn't list political identity but tells us that personal identity is "the continuity of the personality" - a definition which it seems reasonable to extend from the individual to the racial or national psychology. The historian Lothar Spath has observed that "continuity in the sense of a process of learning about the past for the sake of the future creates identity" [note:3]. By emphasising continuity
both these glosses imply a temporal rather than an absolute or essential status for identity. And in fact it is usually in terms of temporal relationships - in particular of the connection between an unsatisfactory now and a variously imagined then
- that the question of Irish identity is formulated by creative and academic writers alike. And not only by writers: the political disagreement reflected in the constitutional division of Ireland is in part at least a conflict between perspectives on the past.
Identity, like food or sex, assumes commanding significance in the interior life only when the unconscious demand for it has been frustrated. Membership of a strong culture would seem to render unnecessary that worry about the validity of one's inheritance upon which intellectuals from less secure backgrounds expend so much energy. The history department of my college here in Wales runs a course called "The Search for Welsh Identity". A similar course on English or French identity would be a manifest absurdity, not least because there is no need to search for the given. Though Irish poets over the last hundred years or so may have been less explicit than Welsh academics in their pursuit of who they are, their work has been motivated in large degree by a desire to affirm the special character and authenticity of Irish - or of Ulster - experience. Consistently with our definitions, their affirmations of identity involve the assertion of continuity. Indeed it might be said that positing continuities is the characteristic enterprise of Irish poetry in English. From Yeats's claiming of Davis, Mangan and Ferguson as his links with "a Druid land, a Druid tune" [note:4] to Tom Paulin's self-definition as inheritor of the values of the Presbyterian United Irishmen, Irish poets have been centrally concerned with opening and maintaining channels of communication with the past.
Edna Longley has observed that English poetry is concerned with the pastness of the past, Irish poetry with its presentness. "In Irish literature", she writes, "the past as history, as a continuum, looms larger than the past as mortality."[note:5] While agreeing with this, I should like to qualify it by saying that if Irish poets regard the past as a continuum, they see it as a broken one which it is their business to repair. In terms of strict logic, of course, an interrupted continuum is not a continuum at all, and there is implicit recognition of this in the essentially compensatory nature of the temporal connections their poems offer.
Yeats's inauguration of a national poetic tradition in English was predicated on a manifold sense of discontinuity. Everything in the Ireland of his youth bore witness to breaches of succession in the political, social and cultural life of the country. Act of Union; the Great Famine; mass emigration; the withering away of the Irish language; the dismantling of the economic base of Ascendancy power: from the beginning to the end of the nineteenth century both Catholic and Protestant Ireland had endured a series of traumas disruptive of that sense of organic relationship between present and past upon which a healthy - which is to say an unconscious - apprehension of identity thrives.
The linguistic were from a literary point of view the most poignant, if also ultimately the most promising, of these disruptions. The dying out of Irish deprived the Catholic population of its most living link with the pre-colonial past. The Protestants too, as Robert Welch has argued, found themselves in a state of linguistic dispossession. Language, after all, is not a mere medium of communication, but rather, in Welch's words, "a cultural system, full of signs and referents which call up associations and relations that are rooted in the past and are activated by the disposition and evocative power of the words we use" [note:6] English, that is to say, as the language of the British imperium which had displaced colonial Ireland through the Act of Union, worked now as surely to cut the Irish Protestant off from his experience as to put him in touch with it.
The Yeats-led Literary Revival was an attempt then to repossess not only the Celtic past but the English language as well. And yet Yeats's was in a full and rare sense of the term an Anglo-Irish achievement, one that is to be understood only under the dual aspect of British and Irish literature. It was as a late Victorian Romantic of the English school that he set about looking for a mode of life to oppose to the middle class Philistinism of industrial Britain; it was as an Irish Protestant brought up in contact with the Catholic peasantry of the west that he felt he had found one. With their oral culture, albeit in the English language, the country-folk of Sligo and south Galway were still in contact with Ireland's "ancient 'deposit"[note:7] of heroic wisdom - or so, at any rate, the poet was eager to believe. Uncontaminated by materialism, their speech provided an almost ready-made vehicle for an art extolling the "wasteful virtues" [note:8] enshrined in the Red Branch cycle and the other old tales which had begun to appear in romanticized translations towards the end of the Victorian era. Such an art might contribute to the emergence of the new Ireland as a living embodiment of the anti-Philistine imperative: the Abbey Theatre was set up so that the as yet amorphous nation might contemplate those images drawn from its own past which would give it its shape and character and its disposition towards the future.
Insofar as Yeats's politics had a non-aesthetic dimension they involved an attempt to establish national identity by asserting continuity between the Ireland of the sagas and the country which was struggling towards self-determination in his own time. When the majority Catholic community in due course let the poet down by creating an independent state rather more inimical to the life of the mind than the industrial England he so despised, he found solace in the assertion of another, more personal and sectional continuity. The eighteenth century Protestant Ireland with which he aligned himself in his poetry of the twenties and thirties is, most commentators agree, scarcely less fictive, scarcely less a construct than the ancient Celtic one of his earlier work.
For all its idiosyncrasies, Yeats's nationalism was sufficiently mainstream to make him uneasy at times with his use of English rather than Irish in his poetry. Two years before his death he reflected:
[T]here are moments when hatred [of England] poisons my life and I accuse myself of effeminacy because I have not given it adequate expression. Then I remind myself that…I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language in which I think, speak, and write, that everything I love has come to me through English; my hatred tortures me with love, my love with hate...[N]o man can think or write with music and vigour except in his mother tongue...Gaelic is my national language but it is not my mother tongue.[note:9]
"Everything I love has come to me through English": many writers of Catholic background, with their native, Gaelic-speaking ancestry, would find such an admission very difficult to make, not least because so many things they do not love - uncertainty, a sense of disconnection, servility - have come to them through English as well. If Gaelic is not their mother tongue they feel that it ought to be, and that English is at best a sort of surrogate parent to their thought. Thus the very medium of his art is often seen as an earnest of the brokenness of the Catholic writer's inheritance, even as a badge of shame. Native unease with the language of the colonist receives its classic formulation in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
during Stephen's encounter with the English Dean of Studies:
He felt with a smart of dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson. He thought:
- The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language. [note:10]
A sense of the otherness of English is by no means universal among Irish writers, though it has been a prominent feature of the verse and criticism of Thomas Kinsella, John Montague and Seamus Heaney, perhaps the country's three best-known poets of Catholic origin in the sixties and seventies. It received its most extreme recent expression in 1975 when the Limerick poet Michael Hartnett announced his Farewell to English in a volume of that name; Hartnett's provision of carefully crafted English versions of all of the Gaelic poems of his subsequent career, however, might be judged to have robbed his gesture of much of its Quixotic grandeur.
The most single-minded attempt to square the linguistic circle in poetry was made earlier in the century by Austin Clarke, whose inventive if ultimately rather dogged deployment of Gaelic metrical techniques brought a slight but genuine new music to English verse in the twenties. When a thematic urgency enlivened his experimentalism, as in the following symbolic lyric on the eclipse of idealism in the Civil War of 1922-23, the result could be memorable (indeed it would be remembered by Philip Larkin at the climax of "The Whitsun Weddings"):
The Lost Heifer
When the black herds of the rain were grazing
In the gap of the pure cold wind
And the watery hazes of the hazel
Brought her into my mind,
I thought of the last honey by the water
That no hive can find.
Brightness was drenching through the branches
When she wandered again,
Turning the silver out of dark grasses
Where the skylark had lain,
And her voice coming softly over the meadow
Was the mist becoming rain. [note:11]
Lovely though the assonantal intricacies of these verses are, the sound systems of Irish and English are so dissimilar that that continuity with the Gaelic tradition the poet hoped to forge through his technical innovations remains a matter of desperate aspiration rather than achievement.
Clarke is an exemplary figure, nonetheless, whose career in its very idiosyncrasy and incoherence rehearses a more general predicament. During the course of a breakdown in 1919, when he was twenty-three, he lost his memory and for much of a protracted stay in mental hospital quite literally did not know who he was. Though it took him until the nineteen sixties and his long poem Mnemosyne Lay in Dust
to explicitly confront this personal drama in his work, decades earlier, in Pilgrimage and other poems
(1929), he had objectified in terms of history and national identity his awareness of the need to retrieve the past in order to live meaningfully in the present. Sadly, few of his contemporaries saw beyond the volume's medieval settings and stylized versification either to its anguished inferiority or its implied commentary on the ills of post-revolutionary Ireland.
When in 1955 Clarke returned after a seventeen-year silence it was as the first dissident poet of the new Republic: his engagement with the realities of modern Ireland could no longer be doubted. Even in the most topical of his satires, though, he can be seen to represent the Revival at its last gasp, as his measure of the political and social squalor of the mid-century remains an idealised reading of the Irish past, little different in its essentials from that of the more sentimental poets who bobbed in the wash of Yeats.
In the work of poets born since the settlement of 1922 the Golden Age mentality of Yeats and Clarke gives way at last to a more sober view of the past. Much continues to be made, nonetheless, of the need to live up to inherited standards: the habit of doffing the cap to history dies very hard. Thus in poems such as "A Country Walk" (1962) and "Nightwalker" (1968) [note:12] Thomas Kinsella can conjure a national past full of violence and deceit and yet bring an elaborate show of glumness to his portrayal of the stability and prosperity of the Lemass era as a betrayal of the Irish birthright.
Tradition is colloquially defined as a handing down from father to son, and it is appropriate to the desire for continuity that the father-son relationship should be a matter of almost obsessive concern for Irish writers. The frequency of the theme in the poetry of the last two or three decides has often been noted - indeed Edna Longley titled a characteristically elegant and incisive essay on perceptions of the past in northern
Irish literature "When Did You Last See Your Father" [note:13]. A son's attitude to his father need not be emblematic of his relationship with his inherited culture, of course, but in Irish literature it usually is. Thus while it would be a foolish commentator who would read a political message into Patrick Kavanagh's Memory of My Father
, for every one such "neutral" lyric there are perhaps a dozen poems in which the author attempts to come to terms with his class or tribal background by defining his attitude to his father. Such poems occupy a central position in the work of, among others, F.R. Higgins, Richard Murphy, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, James Simmons, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson, Paul Muldoon and Thomas McCarthy.
Partly by virtue of his successful cultivation of a fastidious and fastidiously un-British literary personality, and partly because of the rootedness of his art in a lower middle- class quotidian, James Joyce is seen by many poets of nationalist background as the great enabling figure in Irish writing. As if to underscore the connection between tradition and paternity in the Irish mind, he has been hailed by Kinsella as "Father of Authors" [note:14] and by Heaney as "Old father" [note:15] These bardic apostrophes reflect Joyce's status as the Daddy not only of the native, Catholic tradition in English but of the fatherhood motif
itself. Simon Dedalus so exemplifies the inadequacies of Stephen's inheritance that his son appeals over his head to the ancient craftsman Daedalus at the close of A Portrait
: "Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead" [note:16]. Leopold Bloom stands Stephen in even better stead of his begetter in Ulysses
, where their metaphysical relationship of surrogacy supplies the deepest structural principle of the novel.
There is one earlier, very significant use of a father-son metaphor in relation to a struggle for selfhood in modern Irish writing, though it is one in which the parent represents authority rather than inheritance, undue strength rather than undue weakness. Christy's identity in J.M.Synge's The Playboy of the Western World
remains problematic until he violently resolves his relationship with his crazed father. Thereafter - and the play's nationalist critics ought have taken comfort from some at least of the implications of this richly, ambiguous promise - he is free to go "romancing through a romping lifetime" [note:17], the gap between "gallous story and dirty deed" [note:18], and between his, own and others' perceptions of his personality, cancelled.
Simon Dedalus, Old Mahon, father as tradition, father as tyranny: both aspects of the motif come together in the long, anguished title-sequence of Paul Durcan's Daddy, Daddy
, the publication of which in 1990 might have led a foreign observer to conclude that contemporary Irish culture is as haunted by the idea of the father as was Russian culture at the end of the last century by the idea of the Saviour. At once the most private and most public of Durcan's works. Daddy, Daddy
embodies the dubious pieties of independent Ireland in the person of the poet's bullying and lamented, haranguing and harangued parent:
"Fjord" - you'd announce - "is a Norwegian word."
I'd gaze up at your icicle-compacted face
As if you'd invented Norway and the Norwegian language
Especially for me.
You'd confide that we had fjords of our own in Ireland
And the noblest of all our fjords was in County Mayo,
The Killary fjord in the safe waters of whose deep, dark
German submarines had lain sheltering in the war.
Look into your Irish heart, you will find a German U-boat
A periscope in the rain and a swastika in the sky.
You were no more neutral Daddy, than Ireland was,
Proud and defiant to boast of the safe fjord. [note:19]
Constituting, as they do, a reworking of Louis MacNeice's "Neutrality", these stanzas raise the question of another, scarcely less vexing form of paternity. Poets, like the rest of us, are stuck with their biological progenitors but they have a measure of discretion in the matter of artistic ancestry. In Ireland, however, the poet's right to choose his mentors is circumscribed by his need to placate the tribal deities. Even after programmatic Gaelicism of technique reached a cul-de-sac
in the work of Austin Clarke and his now almost forgotten acolyte Robert Farren, the formal aspects of Irish verse continued to be fraught with implications of cultural and political allegiance. The Ulster poets who emerged in the nineteen sixties favoured tightly-managed stanza-forms which could be traced back through the Larkin-Amis "Movement" of the fifties to Edward Thomas, the Georgians and Thomas Hardy - which could, in other words, be said to derive from a stubbornly insular English tradition in modern verse. In 1973 John Montague concluded an essay in which he complained of his younger northern contemporaries' devotion to a "British" neatness of lyric utterance with a jibe about their failure to travel on Irish passports. [note:20] The shape of a poem was as bleakly a matter of fealty, his comment implied, as the colour of a passport.
And yet it would be unfair to Montague to pass over the depth of concern the "well-made lyric" caused to poets operating from the south. Quite apart from any chagrin about the high visibility of the new Ulster poets in Britain and further afield, there was a feeling of wounded integrity involving an unlikely combination of nationalist piety and post-modernist unease. Southern poets of the fifties and sixties tended to look for their models to the United States, where modernism had taken hold, rather than to Britain, where it famously had not. The English resistance to modernism was politically as well as intellectually suspect, since it entailed a reluctance to concede the achievement of James Joyce, the Irish Catholic writer par excellence
. Sorrow that the new Ulster poets were basing their art on the "reactionary" Hardy-Larkin axis was outweighed by anger that they were thereby giving validity to that tradition just as its exhaustion was beginning to be acknowledged in England itself.
Montague's strictures against the so-called "Ulster school" and the Movement may recall those of Joyce against Gissing and Edwardian fiction, but they can hardly be said to represent the struggle of innovation against a jaded artistic conservatism: there is nothing in Irish poetry between Kavanagh and the emergence of the Ulster lyrists, after all, to rival the work of Philip Larkin in terms either of technical stamina or imaginative conviction.
It is one thing to choose an inheritance, quite another to turn it to account. The south of Ireland has had a number of poets like Denis Devlin and Eugene Watters whose formal lineage was impeccably modernist and cosmopolitan but who failed to transmute their influences into a distinctive and necessary idiom. Ersatz
modernism is - or ought to be - a contradiction in terms. While it may be true that the northern poets chose relatively unexciting models, they cannot be accused of offering us the Movement at second hand. As Terence Brown has so well said, the tonalities of the Ulster "well-made lyric" involve a "tense astringency" deeply at variance with the genteel weariness characteristic of the parent mode.[note:21] Northern poetry in the sixties and seventies, in other words, renewed rather than merely borrowed its forms, making them as adequate to the treacherous realities of their new socio-political context as they had been to the longueurs
of suburban England.
The Ulster poets' choice of form was a political one only in the eyes of their detractors. The poets came from a variety of social backgrounds on both sides of the sectarian divide, with a concomitant diversity of attitude towards Northern Ireland's British connection. And yet, of the three most successful practitioners of the mode, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney, it was the Catholic/Nationalist Heaney who displayed the greatest disquiet with its limitations and who left it most comprehensively behind in his subsequent development. With their fidelity to local speech patterns, of course, Heaney's verses were from the beginning further from the clipped tones and edges of the Movement lyric than Mahon's or Longley's. Also it must be said that unease with his art's procedures is so crucial to Heaney's sense of poetic responsibility that it would be dangerous to read too much into the manner of his progress towards more varied and open forms. It is nonetheless a fact that he dropped the neatly tailored stanza which had been the staple of his first two books just when he admitted the "matter of Ireland" into his verse: his adoption of a short unrhymed line in Wintering Out
can be seen as a swapping of an English ancestry for an American one at the point at which his poetry goes historical.
"Vous êtes Anglais, Monsieur Beckett?" asked the French journalist, eliciting the celebrated reply "Au contraire" [note:22] In matters of poetic technique, at least, it would seem that Beckett's instinctively defensive definition holds good to the extent that to be deliberately Irish is to be deliberately un-English. The largest repository of un-English effects in the poetry of the Anglophone world is undoubtedly the United States and there would appear to be a correlation - al its most obvious in the work of Kinsella and Montague - between registering the American achievement in poetry and ignoring one's eastern neighbour. William Carlos Williams's posthumous role as patron of a militantly Irish poetic is one of literary history's more curious ironies.
Under stress of the Troubles' terrible witness to the destructive capacity of the identity issue, younger poets like Paul Durcan in the south and Paul Muldoon in the north have challenged the wisdom of cultivating any
overt form of national or tribal allegiance in verse. The quarrel between the generations - essentially, and predictably, a quarrel between perspectives on the past - erupted into open and unedifying warfare in 1986 on the publication of Kinsella's New Oxford Book of Irish Verse
and Muldoon's Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry
. Though it might be observed of both Kinsella and Muldoon that his fairmindedness as an editor is in inverse proportion to his talent as a poet, a consistency in both cases between artistic and editorial vision makes it appropriate to approach each anthology through the poetry of its compiler.
Kinsella's verse has always been concerned with the quest for self. The somewhat showy elegance of his early work began to give way to a mode of utterance at once more casual and more sombre in the late sixties as his search for identity realized itself in a pitch for continuity with ever more remote origins. If the influence of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and other American poets who have striven to fracture the unities of the English lyric was clearly to be identified in Notes from the Land of the Dead
(1973), the first book fully in his later manner, so too was that of the ancient Ulster saga the Táin
which he had spent much of the later sixties translating. Indeed it was the experience of finding an English idiom for the savage gusto of the Táin
that made possible Kinsella's special contribution to Irish poetry's covenant with the past, his extension into darkest prehistory of the characteristic search for beginnings.
Kinsella's later work alternates perspective between the first flickerings of an individual consciousness in nineteen thirties Ireland and appalled evocations of primeval violence. Its two temporal planes interpenetrate in the depiction of the modern protagonist's elderly relatives as ancient predators, the bloody horrors of evolution being recapitulated in the struggles of the personality. The universe of this writing is a morass of cruelty and disappointment from which the will towards structure, identified with the poetic impulse itself, emerges as the only good: through the imaginative act a measure of meaning is imparted to the disorder of experience and the past is given a precarious, fleeting, redemptive presence. The most nearly triumphal moment in the later work occurs at the climax of "The Messenger", an uncharacteristically accessible sequence from 1978. In the lines which follow, the poetic imagination effects a special delivery from the land of the dead of - who else? - the poet's father, conjured not as his son knew him but in his pre-marital heyday as a Post-Office courier:
He unprops the great Post Office bicycle
from the sewing machine and wheels it through the
by odours of apron and cabbage-water and white-
through the shop and into the street.
It faces uphill. The urchin mounts. I see
a flash of pedals! And a clean pair of heels! [note:23]
The clean pair of heels belong to the boy-father's new post-office boots but we are given to understand that they represent also the winged feet of Hermes, eponymous messenger
from the realms of the past, classical personification of the urge towards continuity, and go-between of the dead and the living. They are the heels, that is to say, of the identity god.
The brooding and even lugubrious sense of the past which characterises Kinsella's poetry informs his criticism as well. His best-known essay, "The Divided Mind", argues that discontinuity and cultural loss are the inevitable inheritance of the Irish writer:
An Irish poet has access to [the English tradition] through his use of the English language, but he is unlikely to feel at home in it...If he looks back over his own heritage the line must begin...with Yeats. But then, for more than a hundred years, there is almost total poetic silence.... Beyond the nineteenth century there is a great cultural blur: I must exchange one language for another…. The inheritance [of Gaelic poetry] is certainly mine but only at two enormous removes - across a century's silence and through an exchange of worlds. The greatness of the loss is measured not only by the substance of Irish literature itself, but also by the intensity with which we know it was shared; it has an air of continuity and shared history which is precisely what is missing from Irish literature, in English or Irish, in the nineteenth century and today. I recognise that I stand on one side of a great rift, and can feel the discontinuity in myself. [note:24]
The radical disjunctions so fervently identified here underlie the selections in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse
, compiled more than a decade after the publication of "The Divided Mind". The anthology, however, is less an attempt to illuminate those disjunctions than to construct a unitary, continuous tradition to compensate for them. Kinsella's peculiarly fierce brand of editorial wishful thinking is already in evidence in his Preface when he writes:
Irish poetry is important in both languages. At certain times it functioned in one language, in certain ways; at other times in both. [note:25]
There is, of course, no such thing as "Irish poetry", in the sense of a living phenomenon capable of "functioning" in one or more languages; there are just Irish poems, in Irish, in English, even in Latin and French. Kinsella shows considerable resourcefulness in fitting these to his programmatic and narrow conception of "Irish poetry", but his efforts inevitably involve him in a degree of distortion and in one or two very questionable sleights of hand. His decision to supply all the translations from the Irish himself no doubt makes the job of whoever audits the royalties at Oxford
an easier one, but it lends a false homogeneity of tone to the Gaelic poems which account for a very large fraction of the volume.
Homogeneity, singularity of perspective - these are ultimately what the New Oxford Book
is all about. Beginning with anonymous lyrical fragments from the sixth century, and ending with a bellicose chunk of Michael Hartnett's "A Farewell to English", its poems are framed between the (recorded) birth of the Gaelic tradition in Irish verse and the (imagined) death-rattle of the English one. The lengths to which Kinsella is prepared to go to preserve his fiction of a unitary, bi-lingual "Irish Poetry" becomes embarrassingly clear in his treatment of the twentieth century. Austin Clarke, the retrospective muse's most faithful servant, is awarded more space than any other modern, including Yeats. Poets who remind us of the diversity of Irish cultural and political experience are simply ignored. Thus one looks in vain for John Hewitt and W.R.Rodgers, the voices of Protestant Ulster at mid-century. It proved less easy to overlook more recent Northern Irish writers so these had to be despatched by a magisterial comment in the Introduction to the effect that their "Ulster revival" is "largely a journalistic entity" [note;26]. Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon are saved from this massacre-by-decree by what Kinsella perceives as their dual responsibility "towards the medium and towards the past." [note:27]
Few poets have shown more regard for the medium, and none less respect for the past, than Paul Muldoon. Like Kinsella, Muldoon turns a good command of Irish to creative account in his verse. The spirit in which he invokes the Gaelic world is almost entirely parodic, however. "Immram", his long poem from 1980, takes its title from the genre to which the eighth-century work upon which it is gleefully modelled, "The Voyage of Mael Duin", belongs. Mael Duin, whose name reminds us of Muldoon, set out with a band of warriors on his famous voyage in hopes of avenging his father's death. "Immram" opens in Foster's
pool-hall, a sly reference to the Gaelic custom of fosterage and to the surrogate father tradition in Irish literature to which the poem offers itself as a deeply equivocal addition. At the end of the narrative the speaker does not meet and forgive his father's killer, as Mael Duin did; rather he meets and is forgiven by the old man himself, in Howard Hughes-like retirement after a life of drug-smuggling. Here are the closing stanzas (the Victorian gentleman glimpsed in the hotel lobby published his own free, uneasy translation, "The Voyage of Maeldune", in 1880 - exactly a century before the Muldoon version; his sighting adds a final flourish to the poet's mocking homage to the idea of tradition):
He was huddled on an old orthopaedic mattress,
The makings of a skeleton,
Naked but for a pair of draw-string shorts.
His hair was waist-length, as was his beard.
He was covered in bedsores.
He raised one talon.
"I forgive you," he croaked. "And I forget.
On your way out, you tell that bastard
To bring me a dish of ice-cream.
I want Baskin-Robbins banana-nut ice-cream."
I shimmied about the cavernous lobby.
Mr and Mrs Alfred Tennyson
Were ahead of me through the revolving door.
She tipped the bell-hop five dollars.
There was a steady stream of people
That flowed in one direction,
Faster and deeper,
That I would go along with, happily,
As I made my way back, like any other pilgrim,
To Main Street, to Foster's pool-room. [note:28]
Happily going along with the steady stream of folk is, of course, the last thing Muldoon would ever want to do. His poetry is a prolonged attack upon received opinion and upon the linguistic habits which sustain it. Stock versions of the past, Protestant or Catholic, Nationalist or Unionist, are not for him, even in their lyrical formulations. Thus he excludes both Austin Clarke and John Hewitt from his Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry
. The grounds upon which he does so, it must be insisted, are ultimately political - or anti-political - rather than aesthetic.
Disagreement about the deference owed to the past is the key to the startlingly different Irish poetries put on display by Kinsella and Muldoon. The omission of the work of the latter poet is one of the few points upon which the editors are in accord - a good joke where the Faber, a distinctly bad one where the Oxford
book is concerned. The anthologist's duty to his readers and to the corpus he is entrusted to represent allows little scope for jokes, however, and the humour which electrifies Muldoon's verse has a trivialising impact upon his anthologising. Particularly tiresome is his reproduction, by way of a Preface, of an extract from a 1939 radio debate about modern poetry between F.R.Higgins and Louis MacNeice. The two friends were in such animated discord on the subject of poetic responsibility that Dylan Thomas suggested they were drunk in the studio. [note:29] (He knew both, besides being otherwise qualified to hazard a diagnosis.) In Muldoon's excerpt the northerner MacNeice manages an austere humanist reasonableness in response to the effusive, incoherent and faintly threatening nationalism of the southerner Higgins. Given that Muldoon goes on to accord ninety seven pages to southern writers as opposed to two hundred and fifty four to their northern colleagues, it is hardly surprising that readers from the Republic have seen in the Preface an imputation of a befuddled quality to their own literary culture. Indeed it would be difficult to choose between the Faber and Oxford books in point of offensiveness to majority sensibilities on the side of the Irish border about which their respective editors are unqualified to speak.
Pride of place in the Faber Book
goes to two poets who have not featured centrally in my argument here, Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh. Like their near-absence from these pages, their prominence in the Muldoon anthology is attributable to the fact that they consciously and deliberately located their work beyond the identity issue. Their eschewal of literary nationalism cannot be seen in terms of transcendence, however, as it was in both cases an expression of cultural assumptions which were, to a degree at least, tribal and unexamined. Kavanagh's distrust of what he called "the Irish thing" was consistent with his poetry's eloquent protest for the primacy of the immediate, but it derived much of its impetus from a peasant suspicion of the Ascendancy - a class whose interests, as he insisted in a succession of cantankerous and at times baldly sectarian articles and reviews, the Irish Literary Revival served. In his opposition to the Romantic gesturing to the past of the Yeatsian line that includes Clarke and Kinsella, Kavanagh is less the existential hero his admirers make him out to be than the most chauvinistically Catholic of Irish poets.
MacNeice had a more skeptical and sophisticated sensibility than Kavanagh, and his distaste for the triumphalism of his co-religionists further ensured that he would never be guilty of tricking out sectarianism in the garb of cultural commentary. And yet his poetic perspective can become distorted and his tone uncharacteristically querulous when he addresses Irish subjects, rather as if the British dimension of his Ulster Protestant childhood combined with his English education and career to disqualify him from observing accurately, let alone evaluating fairly, the public life of the southern state in the thirties and forties.[note:30]
Yeats's pioneering but unduly prescriptive map of the province of Anglo-Irish poetry left uncharted those areas of ordinary experience which Kavanagh and MacNeice cleared for lyrical expression. Their fidelity to the empirical and day-to-day was won, however, at the expense of a certain wholeness of response to the situation in which they found themselves: the "matter of Ireland", noisily ignored by Kavanagh and regarded with a mixture of impatience and incomprehension by MacNeice, is the unfinished business at the problematic centre of both careers.
A more promising challenge to the restrictions of the identity theme is currently being mounted by Seamus Heaney, a major contributor to its development in the seventies, and Paul Muldoon, who has made a career from playfully misapplying its conventions. In Madoc: A Mystery
(1990) the latter poet extends to a range of more global themes the strategies of parody and alternately dry and hallucinatory irony with which in his career from New Weather
(1973) to Meeting the British
(1987) he attempted to deconstruct Irish poetry's obsession with the past. A cunning, punning alternative history of, inter alia
, English Romanticism, Welsh emigration, Western Thought and the State of Pennsylvania, Madoc
avoids direct reference to Ireland, focusing instead on the United States where the author now lives. (It is to be noted, however, that the historical experience of the Red Indians who feature so centrally in
Madoc's narrative has long served Muldoon as a sardonic metaphor for that of the native Irish).
Heaney's weariness with the characteristic motivation of Irish poetry over the last hundred years is less explicit than Muldoon's, but it seems scarcely less profound. In The Haw Lantern
(1987) and Seeing Things
(1991) he prospects for a space he describes as "utterly empty, utterly a source," [note:31] where being can rejoice in an unconditioned purity. Though the poetry of these collections has neither the stubborn particularity nor the rooted local piety of the work of the sixties in which he constructed verbal analogues for rural crafts and customs, it shares something of its ahistorical, "timeless" character. The re-written career of the bulky New Selected Poems
(1990) confirms Heaney's tiredness with the quest for continuity: "Traditions", quoted at the beginning of this essay, is not to be found in the volume; "Station Island XII" has been retained, but in a revised version which deletes the reference to Joyce as the poet's "father".
A major task of criticism over the next decade will be to decide whether the recent work of Heaney and Muldoon amounts to any more than an attempt to escape history - will be, in other words, to define the point at which freedom becomes vacuity. It is not inconceivable that future literary historians will look on the early nineteen-nineties as the time when Irish poetry in English at last outgrew the obsession which called it into being and accounted for its successes as well as its limitations in the first century of its separate development.
1. James Joyce, Ulysses
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), pp329-30.
2. Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out
(London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p32.
3. Quoted, David Harkness, "Nation, State and National Identity in Ireland: Some Preliminary Thoughts", in The Princess Grace Irish Library (ed.), [i:Irishness in a Changing Society (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), pl24.
4. W.B.Yeats, "To Ireland in the Coming Times", Collected Poems
(London: Macmillan, 1950), p57.
5. Edna Longley, "When Did You Last See Your Father: Perspectives on the Past in Recent Northern Irish Literature", in Michael Kenneally (ed.), Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish literature
(Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1988), p88.
6. Robert Welch, "Constitution, Language and Tradition in Nineteenth-Century Irish Poetry", in Terence Brown and Nicholas Grene (eds.), Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Irish Poetry
(London: Macmillan, 1989), p28.
7. W.B.Yeats, "A General Introduction for my Work", Essays and Introductions
(London: Macmillan/ 1961), p518.
8. "Pardon, old fathers, if you still remain....", Collected Poems
9. "A General Introduction for my Work", pp519-20.
10. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), pl89.
11. Austin Clarke, Collected Poems
(Dublin: Dolmen, 1974), p126.
12. Thomas Kinsella, Selected Poems 1956-1965
(Dublin: Dolmen, 1973), pp51-5, 85-98.
13. See n5 above.
14. "Nightwalker", p92.
15. Seamus Heaney, "Station Island Xll", Station Island
(London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p93.
16. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
17. J.M.Synge, Complete Works
(New York: Random House, 1935), p80.
18. ibid., p77.
19. Paul Durcan, Daddy, Daddy
(Belfast: Blackstaff, 1990), p106.
20. John Montague, "Order in Donnybrook Fair", in Quarryman
(Cork: University College, Cork, 1973), p6.
21. Terence Brown, "A Northern Renaissance: Poets from the North of Ireland, 1965-1980", in Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays
(Mullingar: Lilliput, 1988), p215.
22. Quoted, Neil Corcoran, Seamus Heaney
(London: Faber and Faber, 1986), p11.
23. Thomas Kinsella, Blood and Family
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p14.
24. Thomas Kinsella, "The Divided Mind", in Sean Lucy (ed.), Irish Poets in English
(Cork: Mercier, 1973), p209.
25. Thomas Kinsella, The New Oxford Rook of Irish Verse
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), pvii.
26. ibid.. Introduction, pxxx.
27. ibid.. Introduction, pxxx.
28. Paul Muldoon, Why Brownlee Left
(London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p47.
29. Dylan Thomas, The Collected Letters
(London: Dent, 1985), p390.
30. I am thinking in particular of Autumn Journal
, XVI, and "Neutrality". The case against the former poem is made, a shade too vigorously, in the present writer's "Knowing Our Own: Irish Poetry, Partition and the Assimilation of Louis MacNeice", in Verse, Vol.6, No 3, Winter, 1989 (Glasgow and Williamsburg, Va.), pp51-2.
31. The phrase occurs both in "Station Island III", Station Island
(London: Faber and Faber, 1984), p68, and in "Clearances 8", The Haw Lantern
(London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p32.
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