Douglas Hyde, Katharine Tynan, Ethna Carbery, Emily Lawless,
Eva Gore-Booth, Padraic Colum, Susan L. Mitchell,
Francis Ledwidge, J. M. Synge, Oscar Wilde
The two decades between 1890 and 1910 were not very eventful in Anglophone poetry. After the magnificent achievement of the Romantics, with Tennyson and Arnold in their wake, English poetry was guttering in the fin de siecle (Thomas Hardy would publish his first collection of poetry as late as 1898). As for matters Stateside, Walt Whitman had died in 1891, his reputation still not firmly established in his native land, and the extent and significance of Emily Dickinson's poetry had yet to be discovered: this left a clear stage for lesser lights such as Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson. Thus when a young, talented American poet looked around him for exemplars in 1908, he turned to French poetry, not English, so that he could explore new structures and themes. The poet was T. S. Eliot, and, along with Ezra Pound, he would become a leading exponent of what is loosely referred to as Modernist poetry. This work was formally experimental and intellectually demanding: poetic voice was fragmented and often macaronic; the poems ranged widely in European cultural history, and often farther afield; many readers felt that their chaotic structures reflected the confusions of the age, especially in the period after the Great War.
Pound remarked about this period of innovation, '[t]o break the pentameter, that was the first heave',1 and this gives some idea of the disruption that Modernist poetry entailed. The Modernists' radical experiments with language and form invited comparison with the paintings of Picasso and Braque, and it was supposed that their work expressed most directly the spirit of the age, in short, expressed the spirit of modernity. Western civilisation was perceived to be in decline - its religious and cultural values fragmented, its politics in turmoil - and only those poets who were prepared to smash open the staid forms of traditional verse would be able to catch something of this change in their poetry. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) employed a variety of voices and indeed languages with hardly any explanations to connect them, and this difficulty, so Eliot implied, was somehow the only adequate response to the age. His advocates spread the idea that those who were unable to confront such confusion were likewise unable to face the complex reality of their own age. This was connected with a further important element of Modernist literature: deracination. To express this complex reality, the poet could not be 'rooted' in his home culture, but had to be a homeless cosmopolitan, floating through different cultures and languages.
Where Modernism appeared avant-garde, poetry in Ireland seemed to be turning back to the past, while generally maintaining the forms and tones of Victorian poetry. This was part of a larger movement referred to as the Irish Literary Revival: long decades of antiquarian labour now bore fruit in a popular movement that touched many areas of life in Ireland - from farming to the fine arts. There was increased interest in the Irish language, Irish dance, Irish stories, songs and poems. Irish cultural nationalism fostered intense debate about Ireland's status within the Union, and many of the leading members of the Rising of 1916 were active in the Revival organisations. One strand of this movement, the Irish Irelanders, advocated cultural (and later economic) self-sufficiency, viewing with suspicion any foreign elements to be found in Irish literature, whether written in Gaelic or English. Well into the twentieth century, the Modernist movement would be viewed as an affair of rootless cosmopolitans (neither Eliot nor Pound lived in the country of his birth), whereas many poets of the Revival, to put it roughly, were interested in expressing the 'blood-music' of the Irish race.2
However, the opposition of Modernism and Revival is a false one. John Hutchinson discusses the ways in which modernity was an integral part of the Revival movement:
Despite its Janus aspects, cultural nationalism creates the basis of national development in two respects. First, by highlighting the dynamic aspects of the native past, it has enabled modernizing groups to harness traditional symbols to their purposes. Secondly, by stressing the indigenous sources of Western progress, it has provided a powerful critique of attempts to impose a single model of development on world societies.3
In general terms, both Modernist and Revival poets were engaged in a radical revision of tradition, in the hope that this would lead to new prospects for culture, the first in an international context, the second in Ireland. By the mid 1930s Eliot was emphasising the importance of indigenous culture, and already agreeing with the idea of 'blood-music' expressed by some Revivalists.
Of course, many policies, religions and esthetics agree on fundamental concepts: the devil is in the detail. But even here we see that, in Irish poetry, the
Revival introduced many methods which were germane to Modernism. First, the Revival was a bilingual cultural phenomenon: it stressed the limitations of the English language for expressing certain aspects of Irish national character and thus changed literary idiom in order to accommodate these. The poetry was not as brilliantly polyglot as Eliot's, but even the introduction of one other language (and indeed typeface) into Revival texts raised some of the same points as Modernist poetry: the limits of the Victorian poetic mode, its questionable theological consolations and more generally the problematic nature of tradition. Moreover, much of the work of the Revival involved translation from an oral tradition - which lacked a standard orthography and standard versions of stories or songs - into English print culture. Whereas eighteenth-century translators attempted to mould these fragments into new unities in English, now the tendency was to leave the fragments as they were found in the original. Readers were thus alerted to how difficult it was to convey the national spirit from one language to another. It is less difficult to translate Dickens into French than it is an Irish farmer-bard into English because Dickens is translated from the language of one advanced European country to another -there will be greater proximity between terms for social classes, institutions and urban spaces - whereas the farmer-bard will have to be translated literally into another world. Despite some local successes, neither J. J. Callanan, James Clarence Mangan nor Samuel Ferguson was ever able to find the right pitch for their Irish material in an English literary idiom: this would be the greatest achievement of the Irish Literary Revival.
The best illustration of these issues is Douglas Hyde's Abhrain Gradh Chaige Connacht / Love Songs of Connacht (1893). Hyde collected the lyrics of these songs from peasants in various parts of Ireland, and in one case, in America. Sometimes he collated versions, and sometimes he provided several versions of the same song; sometimes he tried to explain the obscurities of the songs, and sometimes he left them as they stood; in all cases the originals were to be found on the facing page, along with the commentary in Irish. 'The Paustyeen Finn, or the Fair-Haired Childeen [sic]' is a good example of the strange poetic texts that were produced by his labours. The first three verses describe how a man's sister, who is the fair-haired child, is to be taken away from him by a menacing figure; and he resolves to dress up in her clothes to foil the attempt. Then, in the verses that follow, the poem becomes a love poem about the paustyeen, and the speaker is now her lover:
SpAo le m'anam 1, an pAifritt Fiotttt, a cporoe 'f a h-ANarn beic pAifsce liom, da cÍc geala ma¿ blÁc na dtom 'S a píob ma¿ an eala lÁ MÁ¿ta.
nuai¿ d'eéi¿ig ¡í a¿ maidiN an pÁi¡tÍN pioNN, 'A CU1¡le NA 5-GA¿Ad C¿eAd óeuNpaf tu liom?' 'a fiúi¿' a¿ ¡a Mi¡e, 'tabai¿ d'aÚAip a¿ paill, 's má cospuigeaNN tu aic¿i¡ do ¡geul do.
CAd do b'Áil daoib Mo Cpocaó pÁ 'N b-pÁi¡tÍN pioNN, a'¡ a¿ Mo Nearn-coil tugtaó m^ ann, ní eeigiN d'Á N-aim-óeoÍN do ¿inne M(é ann, Act le IáÁn-coiI a h-Aca¿ '¡ a MáÁca¿.
The love of my soul is the Paustyeen Finn, Her heart and her soul to be squeezed to me, Two breasts, bright like the blossom of the bushes, And her neck like the swan on a March day.
When she rose in the morning, the Paustyeen Finn, 'O pulse of the friends, what wilt thou do with me?' 'O sister,' said I, 'take your father on an occasion And if you choose tell him your story.'
Why do you wish to hang me for the Paustyeen Finn? And sure against my will I was brought into it. It was not violence against their wish I did there But with the full consent of her father and mother.4
It is difficult to know what is going on in the song: as is clear from the entire text of the poem, the girl seems at one moment to be a sister and the next a lover, and not both at the same time. Hyde says that 'it is probable that there are two songs mixed up in this one', and goes on to remark that 'if these old songs had been collected a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, together with the stories that belong to them, these great gaps would not occur in them, and they would not be so broken up and so unintelligible as they are now... Alas! it is an incredible loss.'5 The inconsistencies of this one song come to stand for the present fragmented state of Gaelic language and culture. To read the text and confront its difficulties is to contemplate the fate of the Irish language and people in the preceding centuries. That is a story of loss and sadness, but the fragmented and inconsistent text also possesses a peculiar strength of its own: there is a fluidity of speaking voice and dramatic situation that is strange to English poetry. The translation exists not just as a relic, but also as an elliptical, sensuous and forceful poem, and these were qualities which English poetry no longer possessed in the nineteenth century.
Even the title of Hyde's book is striking - and this is by accident as it was envisaged as part of a larger project entitled The Songs ofConnacht -as it connects the idea of love with a province more usually associated with desolation. Many of its inhabitants settled there after they were displaced by Planters in the seventeenth century, and were thus condemned to subsistence farming of the most desperate kind; also Connacht suffered severely during the Famine because the land was poor and rocky. Yet here was a collection of love songs of great sweetness, and, to compound the point, Hyde remarks that 'there is no sort of song amongst the peasantry more plentiful than they':6
ceo meaLa LA ¡eaga, ap coiLLcro duba dApaige A'f gfAo gAN CeiLc AcA AgAMI duic A bAlN-CNlf NA NgEaL-cioc,
Do com ¡eaNg, do beuL cana, a'f do CijiLiN bi caf miN, A'f a CeAd-feApc nA cpeig me, Af gup meaduig cu ap m'AiGid.
A honey mist on a day of frost, in a dark oak wood,
And love for thee in my heart in me, thou bright, white, and good;
Thy slender form, soft and warm, thy red lips apart,
Thou hast found me, and hast bound me, and put grief in my heart.7
The strong internal rhyme in the last line is bad (arguably this is where substandard Victorianism is creeping back in), but the first three lines are beautiful, managing to breathe life once again into the old lovers' talk of lips, softness and slenderness. This is achieved by the strange syntax, mainly by the way the first line determines the trajectory of all that follows, and this is taken directly from the Irish. As Robert Welch remarks:
In order to achieve an English translating style which would correspond to Gaelic idiom, Hyde adopted the English speech of the Irish country people, itself enriched with the lingering shapes of Gaelic idiom and syntax. Such a fusion allowed him quite an extraordinary degree of linguistic latitude, in phrasing, syntax, even in imagery, so that his prose translations of Irish verse, in the Love Songs and elsewhere, have something of the strangeness, delicacy and daring later to be found in Synge.8
Hyde also had a fine gift for presentation of the poems, interlarding them with a prose text that seems like the voice of an old seanchai sitting by the fire. Gone is the antiquarian academic apparatus of notes that Ferguson employed; and yet Hyde has been judged a better scholar than Ferguson.
Of course, the sub-Victorian mode persisted in poetry of the period (one is frequently and floridly consoled by poets in the face of loss), but this was not the whole story, and the Literary Revival released many new forces in Anglophone poetry. There was a higher level of knowledge about Irish mythology and history than at the time when Moore wrote, and several poets were able to marry his degree of mellifluousness with more exact accounts of myths and stories. For instance, Katharine Tynan (1861-1931) in her second collection of poetry, Shamrocks (1887), achieved exactly this. The long opening poem, 'The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne', is delivered in a suave, honeyed idiom:
But for my Grainne - all her dusk hair flowing Framed the sweet face as night doth frame a star;
Proudly she heard the song and music going, Her gaze as one who mused on things afar.
Her face on the long throat was like a lily:
She drooped, then straightened, with a sudden scorn
In the great stormy eyes; anon grown chilly,
She shivered, for the old night waned to morn .. .9
The book is dedicated to William Michael Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, and this is an instructive connection. It indicates the degree to which the Literary Revival learned from the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers how to write about historical and mythological subject matter for a modern audience. Tynan's technique makes Gaelic material more acceptable to an English ear; it is less crabbed and wilfully difficult than Ferguson. It is also worth noting that the book has no notes, only press notices for Tynan's previous collection, and publisher's advertisements of other books. This is the moment when Gaelic material becomes commercially viable. Tynan in her later career drifted away from Irish material to write more conventional poems about Catholicism, the joys of motherhood and the changing of the seasons; her most important title in this mode is The Wind Among the Trees (1898), and her influence on Yeats is clear in the title of his collection, The Wind Among the Reeds, published the following year.
There were other modes of Revival poetry. Ethna Carbery (1866-1902), with Alice Milligan, founded the Shan Van Vocht, a nationalist literary and political journal, in Belfast in 1896, and it had a wide distribution, especially in America. (The Ulster Literary Revival was a cultural phenomenon distinct from that which was taking place in the south.) In 1902, she published her only collection of poems, The Four Winds ofEirinn. Most of her work is of negligible value and combines Christian with Celtic motifs. But at her best, she wielded her Irish materials with a fierce energy, as for instance in 'Rody M'Corley', or below:
I am Brian Boy Magee!
And my creed is a creed of hate;
Love, Peace, I have cast aside -
But Vengeance, Vengeance, I wait!
Till I payback the four-fold debt
For the horrors I witnessed there,
When my brothers moaned in their blood,
The violence of this, the marvellous harnessing of hatred by the metre, reminds us of Yeats at his most forceful. It also indicates that the Revival was not simply a hobby for the bourgeoisie, but occasionally drew upon darker currents of national feeling.
Although Emily Lawless (1845-1913) employed almost exclusively Irish subject matter for her writing she disagreed with the main political aspiration of the Revival writers: she did not believe the Irish capable of self-governance. Her reputation as a novelist has overshadowed her considerable achievement as a poet in the collection With the Wild Geese (1902). The first poem is voiced by Ireland as she considers her sons scattered around the world in the wake of the Battle of Aughrim in 1691: 'She said, "God knows they owe me nought, / I tossed them to the foaming sea, /1 tossed them to the howling waste, / Yet still their love comes home to me."'11 There follow poems about, among others, episodes in the Battle of Fontenoy, during the War of the Austrian Succession, when an Irish brigade excelled; then the book skips back to deal with episodes in the Desmond Rebellion in the sixteenth century; and there are several lyrics set in the Aran Islands in which Lawless meditates upon the people and landscape. The successes and desolation of Irish history are faced unflinchingly and her technique is spare and precise. She is too interested in history to be concerned about mythology, and this emphasis sets her apart from other poets of the period. It would not be until Richard Murphy's The Battle of Aughrim (1968) that a similar approach was taken to Irish history as poetic material.
Tynan and Carbery, along with other poets such as Lionel Johnson, Joseph Campbell, Padraic Colum, George Russell, James Stephens and F. R. Higgins, followed the poetic templates forged by W. B. Yeats. Lawless, as we saw above, did not. Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926) was fixed in a different frame by Yeats in 1927 in the poem 'In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz': 'The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful, one a gazelle.'12 Eva is the gazelle, and Yeats goes on to describe her thus: 'I know not what the younger dreams - / Some vague Utopia - and she seems, / When withered old and skeleton-gaunt, / An image of such politics.'13 Gore-Booth's political and cultural involvements were much more complex than Yeats admits, and his poem is inaccurate in its assessment of her subsequent career. She wrote a pioneering work of feminist theology, A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel (1923); she was an acclaimed poet and dramatist; and she was a leading trade-union figure and suffragette. Most of these aspects of her life have been brought to light again with the publication of volumes IV and V of the Field Anthology of Irish Writing (2002), and a selection of her poems was included in Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's anthology, Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight (1995).
Occasionally her theological and trade-union interests are reflected in her poetry; an example of the former is 'To C. A.' and a stronger example of the latter is 'The Street Orator'. She also made use of Irish mythology, but in a strikingly different way from the other poets of the period. Queen Medbh, a key figure in the Tain Bo Cuailnge, who leads the men of Connacht against Ulster, was the subject of many of Gore-Booth's finest poems. For many Revival writers, mythology provided a magical other world that was diametrically opposed to mundane reality; for Gore-Booth, the mythological figure of Medbh leads her back to that everyday world. She tells a tale of
How a great Queen could cast away her crown, The tumult of her high victorious pride, To rest among the scattered fir-cones brown And watch deep waters through the moonlight glide.14
Cowardly figures, for Gore-Booth, were people who were incapable of living in reality, as for instance the title figure of'The Anti-Suffragist':
They brought her forth at last when she was old; The sunlight on her blanched hair was shed Too late to turn its silver into gold. "Ah, shield me from this brazen glare!" she said.15
Several critics have referred the to way that she brings the theme of lesbianism into Irish myth, and certainly 'The Vision of Niamh' expresses the love between women with tenderness and delicacy:
For thee Maeve left her kingdom and her throne, And all the gilded wisdom of the wise, And dwelt among the hazel trees alone So that she might look into Niamh's eyes.
No sorrow of lost battles any more In her enchanted spirit could abide; Straight she forgot the long and desolate war, And how Fionavar for pity died.
Ah, Niamh, still the starry lamp burns bright, I can see through the darkness of the grave, How long ago thy soul of starry light Was very dear to the brave soul of Maeve.16
This does not openly express lesbian love, but like a lot of gay poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it tactfully gestures towards it; such a moment demonstrates the diverse uses to which Irish mythological material was put by Revival writers.
Where Hyde's book conveyed something of the excitement of Irish fragments, George Sigerson (1836-1925), in Bards of the Gael and Gall (1897), presented a historical survey of Gaelic poetry, from the earliest Milesian settlers (which were, in fact, a later medieval invention) to the contemporary period. The poetry is varied in form and theme, and it exceeds the usual conception of 'Celtic' poetry - rich imagery, wild stories, unrestrained emotions, etc. He showed how the work displayed both an austere restraint and almost always technical prowess. His long and erudite introduction placed the achievement of Gaelic poetry in a broad context and concluded by remarking that 'to the student of European literature it is essential to know the literature of a nation which, when Rome had fallen, held the literary sceptre of Europe for three centuries'.17 The anthology made clear the extent to which Irish poetry had been influenced by classical literature in the Middle Ages. Here then was a tradition, perhaps not as important, varied and vital as that of the English language, but a tradition nevertheless.
As T. S. Eliot remarked, writers of genius force us to rearrange the canon in their wake. Sometimes they do this violently, sometimes they do it with a slow subtlety, but for the most part this work takes place within one language. The tradition which Sigerson presented to Irish readers, however, had been translated, and this introduced a further factor into negotiations. Issues of linguistic competence arise, and after that of translation theories. These can pose obstacles, but they can also send a writer surging forward with new unexpected energy. As we will see in the case of Yeats in the next chapter, these issues can even profoundly affect a writer with no knowledge of the source language. It is important to note, though, that this process does not convey the spirit of Ireland from one language to another, i.e., from Irish into English; this is not simply a resurrection or recuperation. For all the excellent antiquarian work that preceded the Revival and continued into the next century, this is an act of imaginative creation. The greatest betrayal of that imaginative force, and what eventually rendered the Revival legacy progressively obsolete in the next century, was its institutionalisation. It was not until the political upheavals of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the last three decades of the twentieth century that poets found a way to reinvigorate these images and themes.
Another important aspect of the Revival was its dependence on funding and audiences outside Ireland. Finance flowed in from expatriates in America, and England provided homes, incomes and an audience for many Irish writers of the period. Revival literature was not purely Gaelic, but was profoundly affected by these other loci, and many critics of Irish literature still have difficulty absorbing this fact. As recently as 1995, Declan Kiberd remarked that 'the Irish writer has always been confronted with a choice. This is the dilemma of whether to write for the native audience - a risky, often thankless task -or to produce texts for consumption in Britain and North America.'18 It is important to examine the assumption behind this: the natives read texts in a vaguely organic way, while readers abroad 'consume' books that are little better than industrial products. In the last chapter, I said that William Allingham, a poet deeply rooted in the English literary scene, was one of the first to handle Irish folklore in a fashion that made it interesting to a wider audience (including a wider audience in Ireland). The same is true of Yeats, as we shall see in the next chapter. One of the primary reasons for the success of the Revival was the recognition by some of its exponents that the English language and the English people were not inimical to Anglophone Irish literature, but were in fact the necessary condition for its existence. William Morris, and more generally the Arts and Crafts Movement, created a cultural atmosphere that was amenable to the elements of Irish mythology in the new literature as it offered contact with pre-industrial reality. This is an index of the degree to which the Literary Revival - for all of Brian Boy Magee's talk of vengeance - was in harmony with important tendencies in English culture of the time. (Indeed several Revival poets lived most of their lives in England, for instance Nora Hopper Chesson (1871-1906) and Lionel Johnson (18671902). Both wrote conventional poems which romanticised Ireland's past and, in Johnson's case, made vague threatening gestures towards England. He was not as bad as Carbery at her worst, but neither could he equal her furious best.)
A further important aspect of the Revival was the figure of the Irish peasant. Edward Dunsany was not alone when he expressed the following thought in 1914:
I have looked for a poet amongst the Irish peasants because it seemed to me that almost only amongst them there was in daily use a diction worthy of poetry, as well as an imagination capable of dealing with the great and simple things that are a poet's wares. Their thoughts are in the spring-time, and all their metaphors fresh .. .19
The habit began in the last decade of the nineteenth century when two Trinity professors designated the language and literature of Ireland as degenerate; the Revivalists then had to assert the purity of Irish and all things associated with it. As P. J. Mathews states, 'It is this moment, then, which marks the beginning of the idealization of the Irish-speaking peasant as a noble and pious character enriched with a pure folk imagination.'20
A poem like Padraic Colum's 'The Plougher' exalts this figure till he takes on heroic, almost god-like, proportions: 'Earth savage, earth broken, the brutes, the dawn man there in the sunset, / And the Plough that is twin to the Sword, that is founder of cities!';21 and the tone of the poem continues rising in pitch from here. Cynics suggested that in order to assess Revival works, they should be tested for PQ ('peasant quality'). This deification of the Irish peasant was the reason for the uproar when Synge's Playboy of the Western World was performed in Dublin in 1907 - the igniting spark was provided by a reference to a shift (underclothing) - which required the theatre to call in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. A writer in the Freeman's Journal remarked that one of the play's characters 'makes use of a word that no refined woman would mention, even to herself'.22 This provoked a mordant response from Susan L. Mitchell (18661926), in her Aids to the Immortality of Certain Persons Charitably Administered (1908):
Oh no, we never mention it, its name is never heard -New Ireland sets its face against the once familiar word. They take me to the Gaelic League where men wear kilts, and yet The simple word of childhood's days I'm bidden to forget.
The poem concludes by begging Gaelic Leaguers and Sinn Feiners to listen to her as she begs for
The right to mention once again the word of other days, Without police protection once more her voice to lift -The right to tell (even to herself) that she still wears - a shift!23
Unfortunately, the good sense of Mitchell and her like did not win out in Irish society in the years subsequent to the establishment of the Free State in 1922, and the Victorian Gaels, in mohair and chasuble, lorded it over the twenty-six counties.
In the passage quoted above Dunsany is introducing the work of Francis Led-widge (1891-1917), who was born in Slane, Co. Kildare, and worked as a labourer in several different jobs. Although involved with nationalist organisations, in 1914 he went to fight Germany in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, as part of Kitchener's army. It was only after he came into contact with the work of Yeats and Katharine Tynan that he began to incorporate motifs from Irish mythology in his poetry, and to no great effect. He is best remembered as a nature poet of an etiolated Keatsian variety: his poems display technical facility and have a narrow thematic range, much like the Georgian poets in England at this time. Both his poetry and the way he found his death recall the English poet Edward Thomas (1878-1917), but he suffers from the comparison: whereas Thomas was a successor to Keats, Ledwidge is only his epigone. A poem such as 'Desire in Spring' displays his strength and weakness; here are its concluding lines:
And when the sunny rain drips from the edge Of midday wind, and meadows lean one way, And a long whisper passes thro' the sedge, Beside the broken water let me stay, While these old airs upon my memory play, And silent changes colour up the hedge.24
The rhythm and rhymes are crisp and lightly handled, the observation is sharp and detailed, and finally he refrains from a Victorian conclusion (i.e., he neither moralises nor consoles) in favour of an image, along with an unusual usage ('colour up'). However, this is essentially an ornamental poetry that is never cathected by any larger forces, whether of nature, politics or human emotion.
The poems of J. M. Synge (1871-1909) are in the same pastoral mode as Ledwidge's but they are more successful and, despite their small number, they represent one of the finest achievements in poetry during the period of the Revival. Because he revolutionised the idiom of European drama and because his plays catalysed some of the most important debates of the Revival, his poetry, which is more or less conventional, has commanded little interest. The poems are extremely short, concise and limited in theme: for the most part they talk of love and nature, the eternal stalwarts of poetry. But there is a terse, strong sensuousness in them that is absent from Ledwidge's poems. Here is 'Samhain':
Though trees have many a flake Of copper, gold, and brass, And fields are in a lake Beneath the withered grass;
Though hedges show their hips And leaves blow by the wall I taste upon your lips The whole year's festival.25
Samhain, the old Celtic festival, was celebrated on 1 November to mark the beginning of winter. Rose-hips are found in the bare hedges, and their tart, red pulp - wrapped tightly in a shining skin - morphs at the end of the poem into the lips of the lover; this is a good example of rhyme carrying much more than a mere identity of phonemes. The first part of the poem shows the way that nature shuts down slowly as winter approaches; and the last two lines blow this wide apart, as Synge makes a different motion of time collide against that of the seasons - and the whole year is recuperable by one kiss. This is a festival, in Wallace Stevens's words a blaze of summer straw in winter's nick. The poem 'In Glenasmole' also makes different ideas of time collide. The speaker remarks that this was the valley where Oisin, the mythical hero, grew suddenly old; but because Synge is now with his lover, his years fall away.
Synge's best work - both drama and poetry - was written after his several stays on the Aran Islands at the turn of the century, and critics over several generations have emphasised this strongly as it consolidates one of the most valued ideas of the Revival: that the spirit of Ireland resides in those parts of the country least touched by England. Their opinion is expressed eloquently by Declan Kiberd:
His years of writing in Paris had yielded nothing but morbid and introspective works; but the discovery of Aran, and the challenge to project its life to the world in English, signalled his discovery of himself as a writer. The English in which he had tried and failed to express himself in those Paris writings had been mannered, weary and effete; only when that language was vitalized by contact with a 'backward' oral culture did it offer him the chance of real self-expression.26
As with the previous passage from Kiberd, there is a contrast here between metropolitan and cosmopolitan experience (enervating) and Irish experience (invigorating): those writers who choose the latter, choose correctly, in his view. The nationalism of the argument blurs, rather than clarifies, the contours of Irish literature (for instance, he has signal difficulty bringing Samuel Beckett into line with his narrative). Yet it would be wrong to deny the general rightness of this as a description of Synge's development as a playwright. His poetry, however, offers other indices, for instance, 'On a Birthday':
Friend ofRonsard, Nashe, and Beaumont, Lark ofUlster, Meath and Thomond, Heard from Smyrna and Sahara To the surf of Connemara, Lark of April, June, and May, Sing loudly this my Lady-day.27
The slightness of this poem, its pure existence as exclamation, is its main virtue. But it also presents an insidious argument in its rhymes. The first two are macaronic: Thomond and Connemara are two Irish place-names that have Gaelic roots, the first meaning 'North Munster' and the second 'the Conmacne people of the sea'; Beaumont is 'fine hill' in French and Sahara is the Arab word for desert. Synge makes foreign places and their languages harmonise with the native radical. This is not a rejection of 'weary and effete' foreign places and languages, but a reminder of how integral they are to Irish experience. The lark's song, like literature, belongs to no one country or nation. Just as the line between Modernism and the Literary Revival is not so clear as it once seemed, so too does a poem like this beautifully blur the edge of Ireland.
Another fine poem is 'A Question', which emerges, as so many of the others, out of a lovers' dialogue.
I asked if I got sick and died, would you With my black funeral go walking too, If you'd stand close to hear them talk or pray While I'm let down in that steep bank of clay.
And, No, you said, for if you saw a crew
Of living idiots, pressing round that new
Oak coffin - they alive, I dead beneath
That board, - you'd rave and rend them with your teeth.28
There are small imperfections along the way (the inversion of the second line; 'That board' in the last line is superfluous, an expletive phrase inserted for the rhythm - if the last line concentrated only on the woman's attack, it would be better) which remind us that Synge's first metier was not poetry, but the poem still beautifully expresses the vanity, tenderness and violence of love.
The case of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is somewhat similar to Synge's, as his reputation as a dramatist and prose-writer has overshadowed his poetry. However, one is not so tempted to protest as in the case of Synge. Wilde was a suave and elegant stylist and many of his poems display little more than his facility. (Several, such as 'Le Panneau' and 'Les Ballons', were written as merely decorative pieces for women's magazines.) But the writhing eroticism of'The
Sphinx' catches much of the sensual carnival of the fin de siecle, and his final long poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', is a terse, pathetic complaint about the harshness of the penal system as well as a meditation on the violent aspects of love.
Wilde stands before the Revival, but he provided Yeats with hospitality in London when the younger poet was establishing himself in the metropolis. This chapter has, for the most part, tried to assess the poetry of the Irish Literary Revival with scant reference to Yeats. But Yeats was its sine qua non, and its greatest poet. The next chapter is devoted in its entirety to his work.
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