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Table of contents :
Title Page......Page 4
Poetic History, Ireland,and the Thirties......Page 17
Irish Poets Writing in the 1930s......Page 221
Other Texts......Page 224
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
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IRISH POETRY OF THE 1930S ALAN GILLIS
3 Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6dp Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide in Oxford New York Auckland Cape Town Dar es Salaam Hong Kong Karachi Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Nairobi New Delhi Shanghai Taipei Toronto With offices in Argentina Austria Brazil Chile Czech Republic France Greece Guatemala Hungary Italy Japan Poland Portugal Singapore South Korea Switzerland Thailand Turkey Ukraine Vietnam Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries Published in the United States by Oxford University Press Inc., New York ß Alan Gillis 2005 The moral rights of the author have been asserted Database right Oxford University Press (maker) First published 2005 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose the same condition on any acquirer British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Data available Typeset by SPI Publisher Services, Pondicherry, India Printed in Great Britain on acid-free paper by Biddles Ltd. King’s Lynn, Norfolk ISBN 0-19-927709-5 9780199277094 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
For my parents
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Acknowledgements This book has grown out of a doctoral thesis written at The Queen’s University of Belfast between 1998 and 2001. I was lucky to be supervised by Professor Edna Longley, and I am deeply grateful for the generosity with which she brought her knowledge and expertise to bear on my work. I hope that the example set by her enthusiasm for poetry, and by her broad-mindedness and critical rigour, is in some way reflected in the following pages. I was also fortunate to be aided by the advice and support of Michael Allen, Fran Brearton, Brian Caraher, Patrick Crotty, Nic Dunlop, Colin Graham, Eamonn Hughes, Aaron Kelly, Michael McAteer, and Peter McDonald—to all of whom I owe many thanks. The book was completed in 2003 during a Research Fellowship held at The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University. I would like to thank warmly the Centre’s Director, Ciaran Carson, for his help and encouragement, and also Daragh Carville, Gerry Hellawell, Medbh McGuckian, Sinead Morrissey, and Glenn Patterson. I owe a further debt to the students I taught at QUB during my time there, and to the University’s librarians. The book is dedicated to my parents, for their unstinting support and encouragement over the years. Deepest love and thanks to my wife, Wendy, for her faith, humour, and forbearance, and to Vincent, for making everything worthwhile. For permission to quote from W. B. Yeats, I am grateful to A. P. Watt Ltd. on behalf of Michael B. Yeats. For the right to quote from the Faber & Faber edition of Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems, thanks to David Higham Associates. Permission to cite material by Samuel Beckett has been generously granted by Calder Publications Ltd. The lines from The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh are reprinted by kind permission of the Trustees of the Estate of the late Katherine B. Kavanagh, through the Jonathan Williams Literary Agency. Many thanks to John F. Deane and the Dedalus Press for permission to quote from Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin. The cover photograph by G. A. Duncan has been reproduced with the kind permission of Irene
Duncan-Heneghan. I am grateful to the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at QUB and the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at UU for enabling me to meet the cost of these permissions. Although every effort has been made to secure permission prior to publication, this has not been possible in some instances. If notified, the publisher will rectify any errors or omissions at the earliest opportunity.
Contents 1. Introduction
2. Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
3. Louis MacNeice: The Living Curve
4. Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke: In a Metaphysical Land
5. Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett: Across the Tempest of Emblems
6. W. B. Yeats: Among the Deepening Shades
He is cured by faith who is sick of fate. ( James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 482.30–1)
Introduction In Irish literary history, the 1930s are overshadowed, and almost eclipsed, by the previous three decades. After the creative booms and imaginative highs that helped drive Ireland towards Independence, the 1930s seem an almighty comedown. Indeed, the decade appears to inaugurate a form of cultural meltdown, as Irish society is increasingly infected by isolation, conservatism, censorship, stagnation, and sanctimoniousness. Yet this is a retrospective image of the time, and it muzzles the range and achievement of Irish writers wielding manuscripts. The best known of these included Samuel Beckett, Elizabeth Bowen, Austin Clarke, Brian CoVey, Denis Devlin, John Lyle Donaghy, Padraic Fallon, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Molly Keane, Louis MacNeice, Flann O’Brien, Kate O’Brien, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faola´in, Liam O’Flaherty, Blanaid Salkeld, George Bernard Shaw, and W. B. Yeats. And, while many of these writers have received attention (the bibliographies on Beckett, Joyce, and Yeats are implacable behemoths), they are mostly kept separate, or else are discussed in terms that occlude an informed sense of the Irish 1930s. But, taken collectively, their work presents a kaleidoscope of style and substance that creates an alternative view of the time, indicating that Irish culture was, in fact, a vivid and mutating arena. The stereotype of the Irish 1930s, as insular and dour, is a strange inversion of the contemporary British scene. British poetry of the 1930s is highly regarded for its cornucopia of aesthetic achievement. More particularly, it is renowned and studied for its explicit response to global crises; for its examination of the role that art plays in history; for its interrogation of the ethics of art; and for its fraught mediations of class conXict, communism, mass culture, capitalist reiWcation, and bourgeois disaVection. This, of course, is what gives the term the ‘Thirties’ its prominent meaning. Confronted with both brutal and subtle forms of social fracture and political autocracy, and with a reality permeated by
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
propaganda and spin, 1930s poets fused traditionalism, populism, and modernist experimentation into a farrago of forms, in which diVering aesthetic possibilities were probed for their acumen. It would be absurd to underplay the way in which Irish historical experience, throughout the decade, was distinct from Britain’s. But, at the same time, Irish culture does not exist in isolation, and the historical forces that rampaged across the globe could not but be felt in Ireland, albeit in modiWed forms. Thus, without denigrating the speciWcity of Irish history, it seems clear that Irish culture can and should be perceived as part of the broader historical environment: a starkly conXictual arena in which pressures borne from drives towards socialism, capitalism, ethnic essentialism, democracy, and despotism mangled and collided. Therefore, this book assumes its poets experienced some form of the acutely destabilizing tensions generally associated with the 1930s; and also that they, at least in some way, faced up to the same kind of aesthetic dilemmas that confronted Auden and his peers. It was within this context that they perpetually reimagined and contested the reality and potential of the new Irish State. In this light, the book discusses the poetry of Samuel Beckett, Austin Clarke, Brian CoVey, Denis Devlin, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, and W. B. Yeats. It does not attempt to map out a taxonomy of Irish ‘Thirties’ poetry: the eclectic variety of these poets ensures the redundancy of such a venture. However, by grouping this diverse bunch together, the book does set out to counteract a fallacy within Irish literary criticism. With notable exceptions, when the Irish 1930s have been considered as a distinct milieu, the me´lange of the poetry has tended to be simplistically polarized into two camps: conservative writers working within hackneyed Irish modes, on the one hand, and overtly experimental and European-inXuenced modernists, on the other. Meanwhile, MacNeice and Yeats are kept segregated in unwarranted seclusion. But such criticism tends to make sweeping generalizations about Irish literary culture as a whole, during the decade, on the basis of preconceived deWnitions and a narrow focus on literary sub-genres. Such criticism thus belies the nature of poetic art; and, in so doing, it impedes an apprehension of the riotous contradictions that constituted the singular, collective reality of Irish culture during the Thirties. Good poetry does not passively reXect an a priori reality. Rather, it works by drawing the real into its own texture, in order to submit it to
the transformations of form.1 Therefore, this book explores how poetry opens out the determined shape of history and culture to alternative, latent possibilities; the ways in which poems impose a purposeful shape upon historical pressures in what might be called an immanent manner. These poets write poems that unleash a multitude of formal trajectories, each sieving ideas about nature, culture, and history through particular frames, structures, and modulations of representation and understanding. Thus, in what follows, I try to delineate these trajectories, with a view to uncovering the diverse horizons of possibility imagined by Irish poets throughout the decade. As far as the arbitrary demarcations of a decade as a literary-historical category go, these 1930s chronologically begin with Clarke’s Pilgrimage and Other Poems of 1929 (a book that nevertheless needs to be contextualized with The Cattledrive in Connaught, from 1925), and end with Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger, published in 1942, but written in 1941. The extent to which The Great Hunger complicates and transforms earlier aspects of Kavanagh’s work, as he turns against Irish Ireland stereotypes with an aesthetic developed within their framework, seems to mark a deWnitive end to the poetic Irish 1930s, as much as a beginning to the 1940s. Regarding the book’s structure, Kavanagh and Clarke are discussed together because their work is dominated by a pull towards integration, while Devlin, CoVey, and Beckett are likewise grouped because their work is bound by fragmentation and negation. Such groupings are merely starting points, however, and are unravelled as the book proceeds. Meanwhile, these poets are sandwiched by MacNeice and Yeats, whose work is more vigorously founded upon a ceaseless and conXictual dialectic between harmony and entropy. MacNeice is discussed Wrst because he most obviously Wts the description of ‘Thirties poet’, and because his work explicitly pulls Irish historical contexts out of their apparent insularity, giving voice to acutely registered themes and circumstances that also aVect his ‘more Irish’ peers. At the same time, Yeats haunts, in a miscellaneity of ways, the other six poets; but, simultaneously, his work reciprocally engages with their aesthetics and concerns, so that his poetic self-consciously seems to constitute a crazy 1 Fredric Jameson argues that literature ‘must draw the Real into its own texture . . . in order to submit it to the transformations of form’ (The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1996), 81).
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
kind of master-narrative, a book of books, which irrepressibly challenges set notions concerning art and culture generally, but which also fervidly disrupts received ideas about both Thirties literature and Irish culture of the 1930s. Preceding this, the book’s next chapter discusses its methods and contexts in more detail, asking why the ‘Thirties’ do not include Ireland, and why Irish literary history does not include the ‘Thirties’. It provides a brief historiographical overview of the decade, but explains why the book is predominantly concerned with how the poetry mediates history, rather than with arguments concerning the truth and content of that history. Biographical information concerning each poet is readily available elsewhere. As regards the poets not discussed here, perhaps the most regrettable omission is John Hewitt, because his strange mixture of socialist endeavour and pastoral convention makes for an interesting brew; but also because he might have introduced a comparative sense of the contexts of the Northern State. The work of Louis MacNeice, the one Northern writer discussed here, eVectively dismisses the cultures of North and South in the same breath, and for similar reasons, indicating the underlying if inverted similarities, rather than diVerences, between the two States. Meanwhile, Padraic Fallon, Thomas MacGreevy, and Blanaid Salkeld are also unfortunate absentees, while the work of Padraic Column and F. R. Higgins might have given a keener sense of the ‘Irish mode’. Equally interesting would have been an exploration of the neglected anthology Good-Bye, Twilight: Songs of the Struggle in Ireland, edited by Leslie H. Daiken, which volubly represents socialist opposition to the State, and in which many poems make up for aesthetic turgidity with aVecting bombast and pathos. And overshadowing all these is James Joyce’s Work in Progress—one of the most exhaustive and contested experiments in the history of poetry as much as the novel. Apart from Joyce, and perhaps Salkeld, however, the seven writers this book does discuss are undoubtedly the most important and inXuential, stylistically and conceptually impressive, poets of the decade. The cross-contextualization of these poets reveals spiralling, incestuous patterns of interanimation. Yet the book focuses on the individuality of each poet, since their work is chieXy of interest because of its aesthetic particularity in the Wrst place. At the same time, however, poems are best appreciated in relation to other poems. And, ultimately, it is through an awareness of this duality that we can best appreciate how world views and ideologies are dialectically challenged within
poems, through being made susceptible to poetic tradition, to the transcultural shock of aesthetic possibility, and to poetry’s concomitant resistance against cliche´, which enables a poem, and thus cultureat-large, to create something new. In this way, poems, as they accumulate, might be read as constellations in which aesthetic forms and historical contradictions awaken to one another.
C HA P TE R 2
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties Introducing his book British Writers of the Thirties, Valentine Cunningham writes: ‘A decade, a movement, a group of writers: the ’30s is now one of literary history’s most stable and Xourishing concepts.’1 As an Irish critic quipped back, however, his book might as well have been called English Writers of the Thirties.2 Indeed, the 1930s remain virtually synonymous with what Samuel Hynes, in his classic study, termed the ‘Auden generation’.3 Yet this reXex association unduly circumscribes a decade of writing distinguished by its protean abundance. And, while Cunningham’s book distends the ‘Audenesque’ beyond the bounds of a small coterie, so that the term sprawls to become a hulking and multitudinous milieu, the range and skill with which he unravels complex literary variegations make his lack of interest in Irish, Scottish, or Welsh contexts all the more striking. The problem is not that other contemporaneous contexts might deXate the signiWcance or veracity of claims made about the Thirties. Rather, the decade is cast as such a compelling juncture in literary history that it seems remiss to suggest that the high stakes and aesthetic dilemmas faced by the Auden generation were not concurrently experienced by writers of diVering generations, cliques, cultures, and nations. After all, alongside the usual Audenesque suspects, writers such as Hilda Doolittle, T. S. Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and Virginia Woolf were hard at work; not to mention 1 Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 14. 2 Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1994), 111. 3 Samuel Hynes, The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (London: Bodley Head Press, 1976).
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
Anna Ahkmatova, Bertolt Brecht, Paul Eluard, Fredrico Garcia Lorca, Osip Mandelstam, or Eugenio Montale (the list of names could run on at great length). But nevertheless, returning to Britain, Robin Skelton has persuasively defended the idea of a ‘Thirties generation’, declaring in his anthology Poetry of the Thirties that ‘poets born between 1900 and 1904 do, on the whole, appear to be writing from a slightly diVerent vantage point’ from those born before or after.4 And so it is argued that a discrete generation was provoked by a particular matrix of historical pressures into a distinct complex of aesthetic responses in the 1930s. These historical pressures have been recounted absorbingly by Piers Brendon in The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. The contours of Brendon’s ‘Dark Valley’ were shaped by the hideous apocalypse of the Great War, and also by the Bolshevik revolution, as the tsunami of communism thundered westwards, provoking right-wing reaction and eroding the liberal centre ground; and eastwards also, triggering a Japanese law against ‘thought crime’ to be implemented by a ‘thought police’.5 Moreover, this latter phenomenon indicates how the totalitarianism engendered by the red revolution became another core feature of the ‘Dark Valley’. Meanwhile, the ground of this Wssured landscape truly gave way with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, as the Depression created a ‘burden of hopelessness’ that was crucial in making the 1930s ‘a decade of fear’.6 And through the resulting abyss, of course, marched Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and the juggernaut of the Imperial Japanese Army, drilling towards a war that would kill approximately Wfty million people. The literary-historical idea of the Thirties, then, is focused on a group of writers based in England who found their voices in the depths of this rift. In England, according to Brendon, the fall-out from the General Strike of 1926 was lasting and pervasive. He writes: ‘The prevailing aestheticism of the 1920s began its transformation into the political culture of the 1930s. The Communist Party of Great Britain doubled in size and the bogey of Bolshevism loomed ever larger in the imagination of the middle and upper classes’.7 And thus it is generally agreed that the 4 Robin Skelton, ‘Introduction’, in Skelton (ed.), Poetry of the Thirties (London: Penguin, 1964), 14. 5 Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), 3–12. 6 Ibid. 65. 7 Ibid. 52.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
work of the Thirties writers hinges on a turn away from aesthetic disinterestedness towards a sense that the contemporary climate demanded politicized engagement. Key to the group was its awareness of the growing ‘mass culture’. Valentine Cunningham explains that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had a pronounced eVect through ‘its scrabbling together of consumerist propaganda, mass-entertainment in feelie-palaces and dance-halls, revivalist religious ‘‘orgy-porgy’’ and constant drug-taking as symptoms of how the modern world was going wrong and indications of how true totalitarian control might work’.8 In response to this, Cunningham argues, writers believed they must try to ‘outmanoeuvre and subvert the currently unsatisfactory media of mass-communication’, in order to ‘capture the mass-audience for good writing and art’, with an ultimate goal of seeking ‘to transform bourgeois art and aesthetics in the process, creating new, non-bourgeois kinds of art for the awakened masses’.9 As this anxiety over the ‘mass audience’ indicates, the Audenesque is often assumed to mark a cut-oV point from the heyday of High Modernism. Yet such an assumption tends to generate ideas of a clear polarity between literary experimentation and realism, a division too crude to bear much scrutiny. As Keith Williams and Steven Matthews have argued, the 1930s cannot be termed ‘a homogeneous anti-modernist decade’.10 Rather, modernist aesthetics were interrogated and contested afresh in the midst of the maelstrom of the time. All in all, therefore, while the Audenesque Thirties ‘cannot simply be subsumed by any single aesthetic or political category because they stemmed from such a plethora of hybridised elements’,11 they remain vital and compelling, and can still be indispensably categorized through the writers’ reactions to contemporary havoc. But similar historical pressures and aesthetic dilemmas were surely felt by every writer at work during the decade, at least to some degree. And so the very characteristics that deWne our prevailing sense of the Thirties, particularly given their insistent relevance, also indicate why we need a more informed sense of the ways in which writers of diVering generations, of
Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties, 284. Ibid. 296. 10 Keith Williams and Steven Matthews (eds.), Rewriting the Thirties: Modernism and After (London: Longman, 1997), 1. 11 Ibid. 2. 9
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
diVering forms and styles, and of diVering nations, throughout the decade, converged and diverged in their work. When one turns to Ireland, however, the apparent Anglocentrism of Thirties literature is reXected back in Irish criticism’s lack of interest in the decade. Arguably, this indiVerence is symptomatic of a widespread notion that Irish culture is something of a monad, bursting at the seams with its own volatile complexities and epic historical conXicts, but essentially cut adrift from the wider political world. And, while this delusion is waning within Irish studies, it undoubtedly holds Wrm concerning the period in question. Indeed, the implicit message of the bulk of Irish literary studies seems to be that Irish history ended in 1922, and did not begin again until either the opening-out of the economy in the late 1950s, or else the resumption of the Troubles. Such a notion is implied, for example, by the hugely inXuential and often brilliant Field Day project. Seamus Deane, who might be called Field Day’s Auden, reads Irish history as ‘a long colonial concussion’.12 Arguing that history must be driven by the needs of the present moment, Deane historicizes Ireland almost exclusively from the vantage point of the Troubles. In this context, the disenfranchisement and oppression of Catholics in the North logically Wnd their historical model of signiWcance in the nationalist drive towards Independence. Thus, literary history slumbers into a deep sleep in 1922 and wakes up again in 1968. Meanwhile, literature from the mid-century is read within the context of this overarching narrative of oppression and emancipation. And, while this context should not be downplayed, and while Deane’s readings of Irish literature are often deWnitive, there is surely a problem with Field Day’s lack of an adequate contextualization for the mid-twentieth century, particularly given the project’s pervasive inXuence.13 This lack of interest in the 1930s reveals a breach between literary criticism and Irish historiography in general. A recent increase in historical accounts of the Irish 1930s has revealed the multiplicitous, 12
Seamus Deane, Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea (Derry: Field Day, 1984), 18. Arguably, Deane’s lack of an adequate contextualization for the mid-twentieth century reveals fault-lines in his own sense of Irish writing. For example, he has claimed that Patrick Kavanagh’s work marked an end of Irish poetry’s involvement with politics, owing to ‘the collapse of nationalism and the poverty of the period between 1930 and 1955’. But since when was poverty not political? He went on to argue: ‘Only Denis Devlin in these decades attempts to make some reconciliation between poetry and politics.’ Such an argument is curious, to say the least. See Seamus Deane, ‘Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism: A Survey’, in Douglas Dunn (ed.), Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey (Cheadle: Carcanet Press, 1975), 11. 13
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
convoluted, and severely conXictual nature of Irish culture during this time. Furthermore, many of these accounts have moved towards a broader contextualization of Irish culture with events and historical pressures experienced elsewhere, and these broadly prove that the global crises and political struggles normally associated with the 1930s were indeed felt with formidable force within the new Irish State, providing the currents through which Irish history steered its singular course. Many of the decade’s key controversies might be traced back to the establishment of the Free State in 1922, and, thus, to partition and the civil war. Tom Garvin has argued that, at root, the civil war contested whether the State should be a democracy.14 More commonly, the struggle is understood to manifest a split between political pragmatists and idealists, a vague dichotomy borne from the confusing swathe of ideological conXict described by Dermot Keogh: ‘The Irish political world in 1922 remained a kaleidoscope of shifting emotions and ambivalences’; ‘It took the violence of civil war to force many Wnally to take sides.’15 Accordingly, the distinctions between the opposing sides were never truly clear-cut. Rather, it was the ferocity of the war’s violence, the appurtenance of a bloody suture within the nation just as it came into sovereignty, that had the greatest impact on the new State, creating an atmosphere of schismatic instability compounded by rife militarism that would last well into the 1930s. After the war, the Provisional government’s reaction to its enemies was merciless. Arbitrary reprisals led to seventy-seven executions, many without trial, while thousands of imprisonments inXamed the deeprooted atmosphere of rancour.16 And yet, Roy Foster argues, Cosgrave’s regime was broadly supported, and it eVectively asserted ‘the principle of civil over military supremacy in the government as well as army circles’.17 Dermot Keogh agrees, claiming: ‘it remains substantially accurate to conclude that Cosgrave and his colleagues had secured the popular legitimacy of the liberal democratic state during their turbulent ten years in oYce.’18 Tom Garvin, 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1996). Dermot Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1994), 3. 16 See Roy Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600–1972 (London: Penguin, 1989), 512–13. 17 Ibid. 525. 18 Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State, 63. 14 15
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
Nevertheless, this liberal democracy was rarely stable. To begin with, Cosgrave was lucky that the trade unions were splintered, nullifying their ability to challenge the new government. More generally, the distinction between left-wing and Republican opposition to the State is very diYcult to discern, a confusion brought home to roost when the anti-Treatyite leader, Eamon de Valera, re-entered constitutional politics with Fianna Fa´il. De Valera’s opponents instantly suspected that a revolutionary junta was taking centre-stage. In eVect, however, Fianna Fa´il’s emergence would steadily marginalize the radical voices within Irish politics. Thus, in the run-up to the 1932 election, Cosgrave’s party, Cumann na nGaedheal, argued that Fianna Fa´il was ‘a communistic, pro-IRA, state socialist party intent upon Bolshevising the structures of the Irish state’.19 But the IRA had already decided, in February 1931, to found Saor E´ire, a ‘frankly communistic’ organization of workers and farmers, which, Peadar O’Donnell argued, would help set up ‘a peasants’ republic’.20 Other radical organizations of the time included Cumann na mBan, Fianna E´ireann, the Irish Friends of the Soviet Union, the Irish Working Farmers’ Committee, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party of Ireland, the Irish National Unemployed Movement, the Workers’ Defence Corps, and the Irish Labour Defence League.21 Radical leftism, therefore, was an inherent feature of the Free State, but it was often subsumed by nationalist fervour. A commitment to a communist or socialist state and a commitment to Ireland sometimes coalesced, but the latter seemingly took precedence at almost every crucial juncture. Foster writes: ‘ ‘‘Republicanism’’ could stand for anything from merely anti-British to agrarian-syndicalist-revolutionary, not to mention exclusivist-Gaelic-Catholic; it was a moral stance as much as a political aYliation.’22 Ultimately, however, from amid such confusion, de Valera’s emergence into constitutional politics pivotally entailed his waylaying of radical leftist Republicanism. Republicanism was consequently redeWned as ‘populist nationalism, with a strong Catholic colouration and a commitment to Gaelic revivalist pieties’.23 And, with such a populist front, de Valera came into power in the 1932 elections (in a coalition with the Labour Party), from whence he ‘quickly assumed 19 20 21 22 23
Ibid. 59–60. Ibid. 53. Ibid. 54. Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600–1972, 542. Ibid.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
the role of conservative statesman, using a Wrm and restraining hand on his more radical colleagues’.24 Indeed, de Valera’s move to the centre eVectively diminished the ideological diVerences between the country’s main political parties. And this may explain why, for the majority of literary critics at least, Irish history seems to have slumbered into hibernation in the mid-century. Yet it cannot be forgotten that Fianna Fa´il assumed power in a state riven with residual instability, in a decade when intense political convulsions wreaked havoc around the world.25 Ireland’s cultural instability partially stemmed from the fact that the new State’s political independence was counterbalanced by continuing economic subordination. In response to this, de Valera’s policies were directed towards breaking Ireland’s bonds with Britain and generating self-suYciency. However, his consequent ‘economic war’ was waged on the back of a failure to provide an adequate economic infrastructure, and the combined impact of the ‘war’ with the international recession was severe.26 Indeed, poverty would be an incessant theme of Irish literature throughout the decade, provoking dissent against a hegemonic nationalism that, by providing the rationale for the State’s economic policies, exacerbated rather than confronted the widespread destitution that was deepening in both rural and newly burgeoning metropolitan areas. Amidst this privation, the fault-lines of the civil war continued to manifest themselves in changing forms throughout the decade. Most notoriously, the Army Comrades Association (formed in February 1932, and made up mainly of ex-servicemen) quickly mimicked the fascist organizations Xourishing in other European countries, renaming itself the National Guard and adopting the blue shirt as a uniform.27 On 13 August 1933, it was feared the Blueshirts’ leader, Eoin O’DuVy, ‘was planning a Mussolini-style march on Leinster House’.28 But the march was abandoned, and, although the ‘Blueshirt threat continued and there were many disturbances throughout the country’,29 the National Guard 24
Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State, 78. Foster writes: ‘In many ways, Irish economic conditions before the Second World War presented a variant of the general European dilemma: how to approach the problems of recession in a manner that provided an alternative both to failed free-market capitalism and untried but alarming totalitarianism’ (Modern Ireland: 1600–1972, 541). 26 Ronnie Munck, The Irish Economy: Results and Prospects (London: Pluto Press, 1993), 24–9. 27 Mike Cronin, The Blueshirts and Irish Politics (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997). 28 Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State, 82. 29 Ibid. 84. 25
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
eventually Wltered into the newly formed constitutional party, Fine Gael.30 Nevertheless, right-wing politics remained endemic, manifested in widespread support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. As for the left, a ‘Republican Congress’ gathered in 1934, but ‘what was to have been [the movement’s] triumphant unleashing’ resulted in ‘a devastatingly balanced split’, which retarded its impact.31 Yet, despite being Wssured by a tension between democratic and authoritarian principles, and between the ideal of Republicanism as an international force against oppression, and Republicanism as an anti-British force bent upon the creation of a united Ireland, this movement did create an outlet for dissent and an alternative politics. Protest, however, was not conWned to the extreme right or left, but was generally directed towards the increasingly coercive conformity demanded by the new State. De Valera’s nationalism was, of course, continuous with what D. P. Moran had termed The Philosophy of Irish Ireland in 1905, a cultural programme later adapted by Daniel Corkery. Famously, in 1931’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, Corkery argued that, unless writers were absorbed by either religion, nationalism, or the land, they were not to be considered Irish writers. Terence Brown argues: ‘It was a short step from such thinking to the belief that cultural protectionism might enable Ireland to sustain her unique identity and to a draconian censorship as means of providing that protection.’32 Irish Irelandism thus sought a cultural isolation that would mirror de Valera’s desired economic self-suYciency. And, in this context, the State and the Catholic Church double-teamed in the 1930s to create an overwhelmingly conservative cultural mainstream. Film, dance, literature, and ‘foreign’ inXuence were censored, to a notorious degree, in a programmatic eVort to homogenize the image of the nation according to a Romanticized, essentialist bias that was aggressive towards modernity, Britain, and Anglo-Ireland. And so Irish culture falls into the ‘Dark Valley’ of a self-absorbed and reactionary entrenchment during the 1930s. Yet, while the nationalist hegemony was indeed powerful, if 30 Roy Foster argues that a coalition ‘between the National Centre Party, the National Guard and Cumann na nGaedheal produced the United Ireland Party’; ‘after several disastrous initiatives by the hysterical O’DuVy, they were reconstructed into Fine Gael’ (Modern Ireland: 1600–1972, 549). 31 Richard English, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 216. 32 Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985, 2nd edn. (London: Fontana, 1985), 68.
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one peeks below the surface it is clear that Ireland continued to be a conXictual arena of competing ideologies, in which many parties and individuals, particularly artists, in the eye of a global political storm, contested the form that the State should take, raising foundational questions about the nature of society, politics, history, and art. And such a fact is too often buried within the stereotype of the decade. For example, David Lloyd’s Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the PostColonial Moment, one of the most inXuential studies of the nationalist hegemony and its aVect on Irish literature, exempliWes many historical and aesthetic presuppositions that a more nuanced sense of postIndependence Irish art and culture might refute. Lloyd focuses on the ideal of ‘Irish identity’, arguing that it is inherently ‘aesthetic’, and that it became an extremely conservative force once self-sovereignty was gained. He refers to the aesthetic as a kind of prelapsarian realm of purity, which feeds our delusions of a similarly pure origin of selfhood. In turn, Irish artworks create a powerful fantasy of an essentialized and unadulterated Irishness. Yet after Independence, of course, Ireland continued to be a realm of antagonisms and social diVerence, like any other modern capitalist state. Thus, in practice, the ideal of identity became a controlling mechanism that regulated culture in the interests of a newly dominant bourgeoisie, deXecting a contradictory reality into an imaginary, aesthetic unity.33 Consequently, Irish artworks serve to dupe us into a communal hallucination of stability and progress, occluding the oppressive disparities upon which the State is formed, while Irish culture replicates and perpetuates the global march of a proWt-driven empire.34 Undoubtedly, Lloyd’s thesis is powerful and probing, unveiling the aesthetic basis of political power, and rightly placing Irish culture within a pervasive context of global capitalism. Yet it is also deeply Xawed. His argument implies that both capitalist ideology and art represent an ironic and brutal reality in an organicist mode. And, in opposition to 33 David Lloyd writes that the concept of identity and nationalist art serve ‘to foreclose historical process and to veil the constitution of subjects and issues in continuing conXict, while deXecting both politics and ethics into a hypothetical domain of free play’ (Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), 17). 34 According to Lloyd, just as art and the concept of identity sublate diVerence into a selfconscious unity, they Wnd their practical realization ‘in the gradual assimilation of subjected peoples into the more advanced civilization of the Empire, whose temporal position within the universal narrative guarantees its greater proximity to that normative humanity which is our collective goal’ ( ibid. 46).
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
this, conscientious artists or critics must never stray from ironic, disjunctive modes of conceptualization and representation, or else they will Wnd themselves likewise in collusion, playing their part in camouXaging the competitiveness, exploitation, and material possessiveness of the society they inhabit. Thus, art can be positive only negatively, through fragmentation; and such virtues must be translated by the critic, into cultural terms, in a deconstructive fashion that avoids the kind of narrative cohesion that would replicate the coercive tendencies of enlightenment history. In short, Lloyd’s apprehension of art and the culture of the time drastically steamrollers a complex history into dubious monotony. In a similar vein, he takes a singular and simplistic idea of ‘the aesthetic’ and statically sets it up, in a reductive polarity, against the ‘anti-aesthetic’ elements of certain artworks, which are to be uncovered by certain types of literary theory. Meanwhile, the radical quality of his drive towards fragmentation seems questionable.35 It is by no means certain that aporetic dispersion forms the best means of resistance to the conservative hegemonies of late capitalism; and it is certainly not the case that ironic disjuncture constitutes the only means of art’s political resistance. Implicitly, Lloyd’s idea of the rise of an inexorable bourgeois hegemony in Ireland, and the subsequent and wholesale political disenfranchisement of art, is understood to have been cemented in the 1930s. Yet, startlingly, the era is eVectively silenced in his book. But, nevertheless, his simplistic polarization of the aesthetic in terms of how it relates to politics (organicism is bad, negation is good) is extremely prevalent in other critics’ views of the decade. Indeed, it is something of a structuring principle for most of the existing criticism of 1930s Irish poetry. In turn, this criticism duplicates the terms of Samuel Beckett’s parodic invective, in his 1934 essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, which insists upon an impossibly absolutist dichotomy between modernist and ‘conventional’ poetics.36
35 In terms of much relevance to Lloyd’s arguments, for example, Aijaz Ahmad writes: ‘it takes a very modern, very aZuent, very uprooted kind of intellectual to debunk . . . the idea of ‘‘progress’’ . . . not to speak of ‘‘modernity’’ itself, as mere ‘‘rationalizations’’ of ‘‘authoritarian tendencies within cultures’’.’ Ahmad continues: ‘Those who live . . . in places where a majority of the population has been denied access to such beneWts of ‘‘modernity’’ . . . can hardly aVord the terms of such thought’ (In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992), 68–9). 36 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), 70–6.
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Whether understood as a positive phenomenon, or as an imaginative nadir, it is generally understood that many poets actively promulgated Daniel Corkery’s form of Irish Irelandism.37 By the 1930s, it is argued, Yeats’s early poetic had become conXated with Thomas MacDonagh’s ‘Irish mode’ to create a less symboliste style of neo-Revivalist verse, whose practitioners included Austin Clarke, Padraic Column, John Lyle Donaghy, Padraic Fallon, Monk Gibbon, and F. R. Higgins.38 Ironically, MacDonagh’s ‘Irish mode’ was meant as a kind of modernizing force. Yet it struggled, in practice, to break free from Twilightesque platitudes. In particular, ‘Irish mode’ poetry seemed to become synonymous with pastoral idealization, or what might be called ruralism, creating compensatory fantasias of an essentialized and pure Irish nation. And so, in the manner that Lloyd delineates, these poets became prime agents in cementing the spirit-crushingly cliche´d monotony of their culture. What this argument disallows, however, is the manner in which the ‘Irish mode’ could be turned against the State, in the Thirties, using the commonplaces of nationalist idealism to criticize its mundane realities. Indeed, as the work of Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke demonstrates, such dynamics are open to widely varying inXections, creating diverging works of an aesthetic and ideological complexity that is utterly silenced through the overdetermination of the idea of ‘conventional’ or ‘establishment’ Irish poetry. The critical prominence of such simpliWcations has been exacerbated by the growing numbers of critics who have viewed Irish poetry, during the 1930s, through the lens of a small group of modernists: Samuel Beckett, Brian CoVey, Denis Devlin, and Thomas MacGreevy. The 37 The great majority of critics view this phenomenon as an imaginative nadir. However, Brian Fallon argues diVerently. He claims that the era’s ‘demonisation’ within the ‘present intellectual climate’ has been inXuenced, in part, by ‘unthinking anticlericalism’ and a ‘frenzied internationalism’. In contrast, Fallon seeks to uncover the sanctity of ‘Ireland Gaelic, Catholic and nationalist’. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that, while he argues that the Church was benign, the Irish language policies not so misguided, and that the cultural isolation was virtually non-existent, he eVectively silences Beckett, Kavanagh, O’Connor, O’Faola´in, and MacNeice: all vociferous critics of mainstream nationalism, but surely pivotal writers of the era (An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930–1960 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1998), 3, 19). 38 Edna Longley claims that the Irish poetic environment was ‘still controlled by rules’ derived from Yeats, which ‘Yeats himself had bent or broken’. See ‘ ‘‘It is Time that I Wrote my Will’’: Anxieties of InXuence and Succession’, in Warwick Gould and Edna Longley (eds.), Yeats Annual No. 12. That Accusing Eye: Yeats and his Irish Readers (London: MacMillan Press, 1996), 139.
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critics of these poets repeatedly imply that their experimental art contains the most exacting criticism of the State found in Irish literature of the decade. Moreover, it is suggested that the perpetual marginalization of these poets, within the Irish canon, is a result of the continuing aesthetic conservatism of Irish literary critics, who thus mimic the indigenous intelligentsia of the 1930s themselves. Certainly, this was the case made by Michael Smith, in a series of polemics against the ‘mainstream’ in The Lace Curtain (magazine of the experimental New Writers’ Press) throughout the early 1970s. His criticism culminated in the 1983 anthology Irish Poetry: The Thirties Generation, in which Smith sought to prove that, ‘since Yeats, Irish poetry written in English was not all rural in content and simplistically popular in technique, but also possessed a body of truly modern work, reXecting urban consciousness, experimenting with new techniques and concerned with non-nationalist experience’.39 In the wake of this anthology, Smith’s modernists were sporadically discussed by his contemporaries, most notably J. C. C. Mays, before receiving more widespread attention with the publication, in 1995, of Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, edited by Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis.40 Coughlan and Davis set out to avoid Smith’s homogenization of non-experimental poetry in the 1930s. Unfortunately, however, despite presenting some provocative discussions, their book almost inevitably reinforces the creaking dichotomy of Smith, to the extent that any poetry not explicitly structured on principles of ‘textual indeWniteness or incompleteness, epistemological doubt, [and] metalingual scepticism’, in the most Xagrant sense, is implicitly demoted to an untenably all-encompassing enclave of ‘realist’ art.41 Meanwhile, the general assumption that experimentation is an automatic virtue leads many of the book’s contributors to adopt an overly reverential approach to the poetry in question, frequently pasting critical presumptions on to the poems, cut from the Wles of modernist criticism, without stopping to see if they stick. Thus, a priori critical concepts override the poems themselves, so that the art never fails to deliver what the critics desire. 39 Michael Smith, ‘Preface’, in Michael Swift (ed.), Irish Poetry: The Thirties Generation (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1983), 2. 40 Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995). In turn, this book was followed by Alex Davis, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000), and Do´nal Moriarty, The Art of Brian CoVey (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000). 41 Coughlan and Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland, 11.
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At the same time, the diVering but central inXuences of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound on these poets is downplayed, despite the clear evidence of their poems, in order to maximize their distinctively Irish Europeanness. In turn, this manœuvre mimics the desire of CoVey, Devlin, and MacGreevy to associate the State with Catholic Europe, while downgrading Irish cultural ties with Britain (a desire shared with de Valera and Austin Clarke). These critics have tended to presume the political radicalism of modernism, turning a blind eye to the contemporary British scene in which the ideological consequence of experimentation was being sharply questioned by Leftist artists and thinkers. And this gaping lack of a British context—even, one feels, a comparison with Hugh MacDiarmid or Dylan Thomas would be anathema—is then compounded by the absolutist segregation of Beckett et al. from their Irish peers, since just about everyone, from Louis MacNeice to Medbh McGuckian, is reduced to a bourgeois realist. The reasons Coughlan and Davis provide for excluding certain poets from intercontextualization with the modernists are telling. For example, MacNeice’s exclusion is explained: Louis MacNeice falls outside the range of this book, because, despite his poetry’s complex negotiations with his Irish background, his adult life was spent, and his entire literary career conducted, largely in England and within English cultural problematics. His quizzical attitude towards both modernist ‘abstraction’ and formal self-consciousness also diVerentiates him from his contemporaries discussed herein, with their intense interest in continental experimentalism.42
It is strange indeed to ignore a poet because he did not work in Ireland, within the covers of a book that celebrates Beckett’s, CoVey’s, and Devlin’s exile. One can be Irish anywhere except for England, it seems, which is bad news for Clarke, Kavanagh, and Yeats, among a great list of others. Moreover, this lazy reliance on a neat distinction between Irish and English ‘cultural problematics’ implies a retreat into a cliche´d historicism that insists that such things as class conXict, the city, international political crises, and world war are unIrish (a strange proposition from avowedly modernist critics). MacNeice was not ‘quizzical’ about ‘modernist ‘‘abstraction’’ and formal self-consciousness’; 42
Coughlan and Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland, 11.
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rather, he negotiated his own Xuid, but hard-won, individual take on them, in ways that reXect back upon CoVey’s and Devlin’s limitations. Meanwhile, the polarized idea of Irish 1930s poetry, with subYeatsian Revivalists on the right and modernists on the left, would be most obviously disrupted by a consideration of Yeats himself. Many poets during the 1930s sidestepped the complex challenge of Yeats’s contemporary work, replicating instead simpliWed versions of his early aesthetic, while marginalizing him as Anglo-Irish and thus tangential to the pressing issues to be borne by the exclusive new State. In 1939, for example, Austin Clarke marked Yeats’s death by claiming he could not be an inXuence on Irish poetry because ‘with self-government new responsibilities have come and Irish poetry is concerning itself analytically with the mental and religious problems which have made us what we are’.43 Yet this does not mean that critics should follow suit. If ‘Thirties’ literature is deWned through its commitment to confronting history in art; through its interrogation of art’s status, function, and form under the weight of historical pressure; or through its crossexamination of modernism in the light of intense cultural disruption; then Yeats is de facto a ‘Thirties’ poet of extreme precocity. Clearly, Yeats reaches out to, and forms a key part of, various Irish, British, and American literary contexts, greatly aVecting the development of poetry in English over the forty-year-plus passage of his career. But, crucially, his inXuence came channelled through and driven on by his obsession with Ireland, art, and history: all of which came to a head in the 1930s. His late work is often thought to explode into a rebarbative fetishization of the will-to-power, which seems to corroborate the demagogic ideologies wielding across Europe. Indeed, it has been argued that the ethical bankruptcy of Yeats’s fascistic bent is exacerbated by his sublime aesthetic mastery.44 Yet Yeats’s work confronts humanistic values with their opposite in often spectacular fusions, and with a poetic dynamism 43 Austin Clarke, Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke, ed. Gregory A. Schirmer (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1994), 16. 44 For example, Terence Brown writes that ‘Under Ben Bulben’, ‘with its obnoxious denunciation of ‘‘Base-born products of base beds’’ could perhaps be tolerated easily enough . . . were it not so mesmeric a performance. For ‘‘Under Ben Bulben’’, half magical incantation, half grim testament, has a charge of savage energy and a cold, dogmatic power . . . that makes it especially appalling as a very dubious aesthetic experience. Skill is here complicit with a repulsive politics and a deWcient ethical sense’ (The Life of W.B. Yeats: A Critical Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999), 369).
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that is, in many ways, still unaccounted for. Yeats’s poetry refutes static historical and aesthetic categorizations, insisting instead that art dialectically interrogates and shapes history and culture. Therefore, in terms of its achievement and depth of range, but also in its complex challenge to Wxed ideas, Yeats’s work remains key to a fuller and more dynamic sense of Irish poetry in the 1930s. Likewise, Louis MacNeice is pivotal. Throughout the decade, he pursued an intense and embracing interest in the contemporary relevance and perspicacity of diVering styles, forms, and strategies, without ever segregating poetry into disparate compartments. With an engaging blend of scepticism and susceptibility, he worked towards a variegated poetic that made his instinctive solipsism face up to the demands of historical necessity, and that fused ‘journalistic’ immediacy with lyrical craft and formal audacity. Edna Longley claims that his ‘relation to Ireland and England, to Yeats and Eliot, and to his 1930s contemporaries makes his poetry a remarkably broad conduit for the materials and techniques of twentieth-century poetry’.45 Moreover, such a kaleidoscope of contexts simultaneously pervaded the environment in which MacNeice’s peers wrote. During the 1930s, the diVering frames of reference associated with MacNeice and Yeats, with Clarke and Kavanagh, and with Beckett, CoVey, and Devlin, converged to form a broader, contradictory, contemporary atmosphere. Undoubtedly, it would be wrongheaded to overlook the broad traits with which these poets are commonly associated. But each poet is also a distinctive artist, and each consistently breaks through whatever ‘school’ or label he or she is associated with, to create lines of aYnity and dialogue between one another, and with a multitude of other writers from other times and other places. Kavanagh and Clarke can be linked together through the organicist structure of their aesthetic; but, at the same time, they diVer in their sense of organicism, so that this mode is cast in diVering forms, and with diVering implications, for each of them. As such, holding their work together unveils their aesthetic and political divergence, as much as their convergence. In a similar fashion, the ironic dislocations of Devlin, CoVey, and Beckett underwrite considerable diVerences in their work. Ultimately, the poetry of Devlin and CoVey, from the 1930s, looks forward to, and attempts immanently to project, a religiously 45
Longley, The Living Stream, 252.
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
informed organicism, while Beckett’s ferocity comparatively casts him as an existential Rottweiler, deeply antipathetic to Devlin’s and CoVey’s theological domestication. In this light, Devlin’s verse, in particular, has strong aYnities with Clarke’s, while Beckett’s nihilism Wnds its closest counterpart in aspects of Yeats, MacNeice, and Kavanagh. More generally, such cross-contextualization unfolds a contradictory simultaneity of contrasting but interlinked aesthetics and world views, which imply, to various degrees, reactions to Irish historical pressures. These might be taken to include tensions between state and nation, between protectionism and internationalism, between ruralism and urbanization, between socialism and capitalism, or between patriarchy and sexual equality; or disturbances induced by the eVect of contemporary aVairs such as the Spanish Civil War and the rise of totalitarianism; or stemming from diVering interpretations of past events such as the Great War, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. In this sense, the poetry contests Irish literary history’s idea of the absolutism of the State’s hegemony. As part of this process, moreover, the cross-cultural element precluded within the poems by default, because of their aesthetic nature, opens out to a broader political and historical cross-culturalism, to the extent that versions of world views competing in Ireland were and are simultaneously contested across the globe. But this is not to say that the poetry evidences a thriving culture of material and creative freedom, or superabundant diversity. Rather, it might be said to give voice, in a manner much less circumscribed than David Lloyd’s criticism admits, to the contradictions of Irish culture, opening it out to alternative imaginings of private and public existence—recalibrations of individuality, communality, and their interrelationships—in ways that link Ireland to indeWnite global convulsions. Evidently, the contradictions behind the global crises of the 1930s have never been resolved. And, just as clearly, the manner in which these prevalent contradictions aVect Irish culture has never been convincingly extrapolated. Generally speaking, the way that art has mediated such forces in the past may yet aVect our understanding of them in the present. But, at the same time, art does not provide a direct report on history. And, arguably, much criticism goes awry in attempting to compensate for this crucial indeterminateness. For some reason, this attempt leads most critics towards homogenizing the aesthetic, closing poems oV from one another and compartmentalizing culture, in a
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manner that fails to grasp the circuitous but compelling nature of poetry’s most formative interactions with historical reality. In tracing these dynamics, therefore, this book will attempt to avoid discussing literature and history as if they were passive balls to be kicked around by opponents who have chosen sides before taking the Weld. As Fredric Jameson puts it, literature works by drawing ‘the Real into its own texture . . . in order to submit it to the transformations of form’.46 And, in this manner, poems might be said to impose a purposeful shape upon historical pressures in a dialectical and immanent manner. All distinctive poems are unique but paronymous: they are stylistically and formally speciWc, but they are also inherently communal, incessantly relating to one another to form a mutating and amorphous poetic tradition. And this duplexity of individuality and communality is crucial. In the 1930s, Christopher Caudwell wrote of ‘that paradox of art—man withdrawing from his fellows into the world of art, only to enter more closely into communion with history’.47 But history itself is never static nor preordained, as the ubiquitous contradictions that detonated in the 1930s amply testify. And, by dancing upon, reWning, and disrupting the deep structures of language and subjectivity, poetry plays its particular and potent part in this broader, uncircumscribed reality. Even the most precious piece of rhetoric in a poem, the most audacious riV, relates in some way to the foundational but Xuctuating system of a culture in which aesthetic possibilities, ideological prejudices, and material reality collude and collide. Thus, the idea of an evolving poetic tradition, as opposed to a conception of myriad ‘poetries’ that remain in incommensurate isolation, constitutes a powerful social force. Because content and form are inseparable in poetry, poetry might be said to swallow up its referents and regurgitate them in poetic form.48 These referents then have one foot in the contingent world and another in the world of poetic tradition. However, the idea that a poem’s meaning is untranslatable outside its unique structure is often viewed 46 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1996), 81. 47 Christopher Caudwell, Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1946), 155. 48 Jonathan Culler writes that the ‘primacy of formal patterning enables poetry to assimilate the meanings which words have in other instances of discourse and subject them to new organization’. Thus, a poem is a ‘structure of signiWers which absorbs and reconstitutes the signiWed’ (Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge & Paul, 1975), 163–4).
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with hostility, seen as a root cause of ahistoricism and political conservatism within art criticism. Yet the historical materialist Jan Mukarˇovsky´, for one, argued the opposite. He wrote that art is of political import precisely because it creates a total system of values, and ‘releases every one of them from direct contact with a corresponding lifevalue’.49 For him, social value change implies the transformation of the totality of society; therefore, it is slow, diYcult, and potentially violent. On the other hand, Mukarˇovsky´ argues: [Social values in artworks] can experimentally crystallize into a new conWguration and dissolve an old one, can adapt to the development of the social situation and to new creative facts of reality, or at least seek the possibility of such adaptation. Viewed in this light, the autonomy of the art work and the dominance of the aesthetic function and value within it appear not as destroyers of all contact between the work and reality—natural and social—but as constant stimuli of such contact.50
Such an idea is echoed by Theodor Adorno, who declares that art has a ‘double character’: it ‘severs itself from empirical reality and thereby from society’s functional context and yet is at the same time part of empirical reality and society’s functional context’.51 Therefore, art ‘is a form of praxis and need not apologise that it does not act directly’.52 Mukarˇovsky´’s conception of the radical potential of the poem hinges on the idea that it constitutes a totality. Yet, clearly, much poetry is extremely fragmentary. Roland Barthes described poetry as ‘a discourse full of gaps’,53 while Northrop Frye argued that the lyric form could be deWned as an ‘associative rhetorical process’—‘a chaos of paronomasia, sound-links, ambiguous sense-links, and memory links very like that of the dream’.54 Faced with this prospect, Wolfgang Iser claims that the activity of reading can be characterized as a sort of ‘kaleidoscope of perspectives, preintentions, recollections’. However, ‘the reader will strive, even if unconsciously, to Wt everything together in a consistent 49 Jan Mukar ˇovsky´, ‘From Aesthetic Function’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.), Art in Theory 1900–1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 511–12, at 512. 50 Ibid. 51 Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), 252. 52 Ibid. 232. 53 Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smyth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 38. 54 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (London: Penguin, 1990), 271–2.
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pattern’. Iser insists that such a projection of ‘consistent, conWgurative meaning’ is essential for the reader’s apprehension of sense. He calls this projection ‘illusion-making’, and argues that it always derives from the subjective reader’s interaction with the text, and is subject to change at each reading.55 In this way poems invite diVering interpretations, and this has an impact upon their historical meaning. Poetry itself develops as poets read each other through time, and proceed to create their own art under the pressure of other poems that have inspired, bored, or irritated them. Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘All experiment is made on a basis of tradition; all tradition is the crystallisation of experiment.’56 Thus, poetic tradition is a heterogeneously livewire phenomenon. To the extent that any new context might revitalize a seemingly dead or outmoded form, poetic codes should be considered as a living historical tissue. Moreover, poetry pulls reality into this rich semantic arena, where the idea of history generated by any particular poem will be forged. To claim that poetry dialectically imposes purposeful shapes upon historical pressures, by submitting reality to the transformations of form, is not to claim that there is a mechanistic relationship between history and art. Such claims ignore the fact that art can never engage with history directly, because history is only ever accessible in already mediated forms. And arguably, beyond a poem’s relationship with other poems, the sapience of the sounds that poetry sculpts from the noise of history, the cogency of the designs it will forge, are integrally related to its engagement with other forms of cultural mediation. According to writers such as Giambattista Vico, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Michel Foucault, we mediate and understand history and culture primarily through linguistic Wguration. A pragmatic approach to this idea is supplied by Hayden White. White proposes a ‘poetics of history’, based on a theory of tropes, which, he claims, can penetrate the ‘common origin in any attempt to make sense out of history-ingeneral’.57 Tropes, for White, are the basic linguistic modes that preWgure, organize, and structure perception, thought, and discourse; they 55 Wolfgang Iser, ‘The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’, in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London: Longman, 1988), 215–21. 56 Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), 35. 57 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 427.
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are the shape-givers to the aesthetic paradigms through which we mediate ourselves, the world, and their interrelationships. As such, he claims, any form or style of writing ‘can be characterized in terms of the dominant trope that establishes the originary relation between ‘‘words and things’’ and determines what can be said about them’.58 These dominant tropes are isolated by White as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. He deWnes them as follows: ‘Metaphor is essentially representational, Metonymy is reductionist, Synecdoche is integrative, and Irony is negational.’59 White uses these tropes to open out an interpretative matrix through which any idea of history, whether made by historian, poet, politician, or drunk, can be comparatively understood. His theory enables one to interconnect the aesthetic form and historical projection of diVering modes of writing, to situate this within the multiplicitous, semiotic context of their culture, and to perceive the ideological implications embedded within each. Returning to the Irish 1930s, with White’s theory in mind, therefore, one might gainfully understand the manner in which contemporary historical pressures were mediated by attending to the tropic structure, and aYned ideological orientation, of responses and attitudes expressed at the time.60 And, within this context, poems could be understood as complex and unique conWgurations, which were nevertheless forged from the same melting pot in which Irish historical consciousness, in general, was diversely moulded. However, an overindulgent concentration on tropes and Wguration might easily collapse into ahistorical generalization, with the vagueness of terms such as ‘integration’ and ‘negation’ vapidly suggesting universal bonds and fundamental patternings. In terms of the Irish 1930s, for instance, the oppositional visions of Peadar O’Donnell (far left), Eoin O’DuVy (far right), and de Valera (conservative centre) all con-
58 Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 116. 59 White, Metahistory, 34. 60 Discussing his tropes, White writes: ‘Considered as the basic structures of Wguration, these four tropes provide us with categories for identifying the modes of thinking an order of words to an order of thoughts (e.g., apple with temptation) on the paradigmatic axis of an utterance and of one phase of a discourse with preceding and succeeding phases (e.g., transitional paragraphs or chapters) on the syntagmatic axis. The dominance of one mode of associating words and thoughts with one another across an entire discourse allows us to characterize the structure of the discourse as a whole in tropological terms’ (Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis EVect (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 11).
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
ceive of Ireland as, in some way, an organicist concept, revealing the extremely chameleonic nature of synecdoche. Consequently, the acknowledgement of such similarities would be vacuous without close attention to detail and context. And yet, at the same time, an attention to Wguration remains useful precisely because it reveals underlying proximities between radically divergent ideologies. Following this, a focus on the Wgurative structure of poetry might highlight the concentrated and idiosyncratic ways in which poems allegorize reality, with an awareness that this is what all thought and writing implicitly does. Moreover, a focus on Wgurative structure might provide a pragmatic means of comparatively discussing diVering styles and forms of poetry. Whether a poem is an elegy, an epic, an epitaph, or an epode; whether it is modern or postmodern, symbolist or surrealist; whether it was written in Dublin, Delaware, Dresden, or Dundee: all poems will have a Wgurative structure. Additionally, most other facets of poetic form might be seen to feed into the poem’s conWgurative shape. However, while tropes oVer a useful means of grasping the dialectics created by a poem’s complex form, such an awareness will be most relevant when adapted to a broader concern for the style, texture, and aesthetic contexts of the poems under discussion. For example, if one returns to the idea that a poem, to be understood, must be grasped in some way as a totality, then the trope of synecdoche again becomes ubiquitous. Moreover, such a focus on the omniscient pull of synecdoche might simplistically be transposed: poetry ¼ organicism ¼ conservatism. Yet even the most riotously fragmented poetry, such as Beckett’s, dialectically plays oV against an (absent) sense of totality, without which it would lack bite. Further, as Mukarˇovsky´’s argument indicates, the idea of a poem as a totality, as a Wnished aesthetic work, can be of political consequence on radical as well as on conservative or liberal terms. To begin with, an implicit pull towards integration brings contradiction more starkly to light, revealing disparities that might otherwise not be registered; and, secondly, such a pull can create the means of imagining transformations that might bring about their resolution. In this vein, Theodor Adorno writes: ‘The idea of a conservative artwork is inherently absurd. By emphatically separating themselves from the empirical world, their other, they bear witness that that world itself should be other than it is; they are the unconscious
Poetic History, Ireland, and the Thirties
schemata of that world’s transformation.’61 Adorno conceives of the artwork as a constellation of dialectical antagonisms. According to him: ‘What crackles in artworks is the sound of the friction of the antagonistic elements that the artworks seek to unify.’62 He further explains that art would not be art if its antagonisms were ultimately reconciled; but, paradoxically, ‘it is only as Wnished, moulded objects that they become force Welds of their antagonisms’.63 Ultimately, the eVectiveness of a poem depends upon its success as an autonomous artwork. Poetry is art, and if it is to be appreciated it should be read by aesthetes; but every aesthete is always also a citizen. Concomitantly, distinctive aesthetic expression is often a matter of fierce individualism, yet poetry remains a wellspring of communal possibility. Irish poetry in the 1930s is distinctive and diverse, yet it inextricably merges with poetry-in-general. Meanwhile, poetry is also a dynamic simultaneity of being and becoming: a poem is at once a Wnished object and the performance of that object. Each poem is an individual that is a society of sorts, in which a discrete will interacts with contemporaries and historical forebears to create a consciousness of dream and nightmare, awakening to desires and frustrations, on the cusp of resolutions and negations, in a purgatory of alternity.
61 62 63
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 177. Ibid. Ibid. 176.
C HA P TE R 3
Louis MacNeice: The Living Curve I In an essay entitled ‘The Frontiers of Writing’, Seamus Heaney claimed Louis MacNeice’s poetry as a kind of connective tissue interweaving the diverse strands of Irish culture: [MacNeice] can be regarded as an Irish Protestant writer with Anglocentric attitudes who managed to be faithful to his Ulster inheritance, his Irish aVections and his English predilections. As such, he oVers a way in and a way out not only for the northern Unionist imagination in relation to some sort of integral Ireland but also for the southern Irish imagination in relation to the partitioned north.1
In one sense, Heaney is surely right: while MacNeice calls Belfast his ‘mother-city’,2 poems such as ‘Valediction’ and Autumn Journal fuse North and South, treating them as distinct states yet nevertheless trellising them into ‘Ireland, my Ireland’.3 But, in another sense, Heaney is misleading, because what distinguishes MacNeice’s relationship with Ireland, particularly during the 1930s, is the ferocity of his attacks on it. Unionism and Nationalism are bound together, for MacNeice, by their shared sense of history: a master-narrative of fear and loathing based upon identity and murder, ‘badge and gun’.4 In MacNeice’s Ireland, we ‘hate our neighbour j And each one in his will j Binds his heirs to continuance of hatred’.5 And through this primogeniture:
1 Seamus Heaney, ‘Frontiers of Writing’, in The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), 200. 2 Louis MacNeice, ‘Valediction’, Collected Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), 52. 3 Autumn Journal, quoted from Collected Poems, 133. 4 ‘Valediction’, ibid. 53. 5 Autumn Journal, ibid. 132.
‘history never dies, j At any rate in Ireland, arson and murder are legacies’.6 These broadsides are aimed both sides of the border; thus, MacNeice could be ‘faithful’ to both his ‘Ulster inheritance’ and his ‘Irish aVections’ because he held them in equal contempt. Throughout the 1930s, he wrote to Ireland as if to a parent he was disowning in shame: And not to have my baby-clothes my shroud I will acquire an attitude not yours And become as one of your holiday visitors, And however often I may come Farewell, my country, and in perpetuum.7
However, each time he dismisses the place in a poem, something in his poetic DNA recoils to counterpoint the act with a reassertion of disturbed aYliation. In a deeper sense, MacNeice’s desire to treat Ireland with ironic distance bespeaks an eVort to conceive of himself and his lethal country on diVerent terms. And, while this involved critiquing Ireland from the vantage point of England, such a stance could never be straightforward, because MacNeice’s genetic and psychological make-up had been forged within the ‘callous lava’ of his homeland:8 I can say Ireland is hooey, Ireland is A gallery of fake tapestries, But I cannot deny my past to which my self is wed, The woven Wgure cannot undo its thread.9
These contradictions provoke, in ‘Dublin’, a closer examination of the schisms that Ireland’s internecine history is founded upon and compounds: the mist on the Wicklow hills Is close, as close As the peasantry were to the landlord, As the Irish to the Anglo-Irish, As the killer is close one moment To the man he kills, Or as the moment itself Is close to the next moment.10 6 9
7 Ibid. 53. 8 Ibid. 52. ‘Valediction’, ibid. 52. 10 From ‘The Closing Album’, ibid. 164. Ibid. 52–3.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
These lines are paradigmatic, for MacNeice, in that Irish diVerences zoom out to metaphysical diVerences in a manner that still suggests consanguinity. Classes, religions, natural elements, moments in time: all are close to one another yet apart; all Wgure as states of identity-indiVerence, and are calibrated into the broader synergy of the verse on those terms. For MacNeice, the potency of poetry is bound up with its ability to concentrate multiple perspectives and contexts into singular units of dynamic meaning, and his own work displays this honed multiplicity on many levels. In the Wrst place, MacNeice embroils Ireland with wider contexts, just as he entangles North and South. Thus, when MacNeice approaches Ireland, he keeps a critical eye open to the more general experiences of class conXict, urban disorientation, international crises, and so on; but, concomitantly, he responds to these with perspectives whetted by his own experience. However, MacNeice’s poems do more than variously respond to historical pressures. They also interrogate the cultural conditions and contexts that precipitate historical events, and through which they are understood. In this way, MacNeice’s poetry challenges in complex ways that challenge, rather than accommodate, the ‘northern Unionist’ and ‘southern Irish’ imagination. MacNeice’s voice is humanely ecumenical to be sure, but it is forcefully critical as well: a gauntlet rather than a trophy.
II MacNeice’s attacks on Irish culture signal his broader sensitivity to the propagandistic atmosphere of the 1930s. Piers Brendon claims: Propaganda became part of the air people breathed during the 1930s. All the major occurrences of the day were the subject of organised deception which ranged from the big, ampliWed lie to a delicate economy with the truth. . . . the Depression years witnessed the dissemination of falsehood on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Never had science and art so combined to promote earthly powers. Goebbels and others developed novel techniques of thought control. New media such as radio and talking pictures were mobilised to sway the masses. Leaders used aircraft to grab the limelight and they emblazoned their messages on the sky. Dictators imposed their version of the truth by means of dogma and terror. They created new cults and persecuted unbelievers. Russia and Germany, and to a lesser extent Italy and Japan, had their own
reality. Facts were moulded like plasticine into the approved shape, whether Communist, Aryan, Fascist or imperial.11
In a sense, propaganda mimics art. Through both, to use Yeats’s terms, the world is ‘reborn as an idea, something intended, complete’.12 And MacNeice is alert to possible aYnities between entrenched ideology and aesthetic dogma, perpetually wary of stylistic orthodoxies and the subordination of content to static forms. He argued that ‘the poet’s Wrst business is mentioning things’, and that these things should be used to query the concepts by which they are processed.13 This was, to an extent, a reaction against High Modernist aesthetics, but Edna Longley contextualizes it within the atmosphere of smoke and mirrors evoked by Brendon: ‘[MacNeice] puts Xesh on the social world of 1930s poetry, a world whose concreteness was threatened by romantic abstraction of a diVerent type to Eliot’s.’14 Longley adds, to this, GeoVrey Grigson’s imperative, from 1938: ‘The world of objects is our constant discipline. Desert it, and you become the mouth under the short moustache on the last night of Nuremberg.’15 MacNeice, however, was not a naive empiricist. He wrote: ‘All matter is to some extent informed to start with’, and that ‘the daylight of ‘‘realism’’ is itself largely a Wction’; yet he still insisted upon a Wdelity to objects.16 He explains: We still tend to think that, because a thing is in time, its value can only be explained by an abstraction from the thing of some supposedly timeless qualities; this is to explain the thing away. That a rose withers is no disproof of the rose, which remains an absolute, its value inseparable from its existence.17
Such Wdelity to the actual, with the acknowledgement that it is always mediated, gives rise to a dialectic between the things in his poems and the codes through which they are mediated. And, in this sense, his art 11
Piers Brendon, The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000), p.
W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 509. Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), 5. 14 Edna Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), 47. 15 Ibid. 63. 16 Louis MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), 19, 122. 17 Ibid. 15. 13
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
chimes, in certain ways, with the aesthetics of Theodor Adorno. For Adorno, the ‘idiosyncrasy of poetic thought . . . is a form of reaction against the reiWcation of the world’.18 While language ‘remains the medium of concepts and ideas, and establishes our indispensable relation to generalities and hence to social reality’, Adorno insists that consciousness must not be imprisoned by a priori generalities.19 Rather, our minds should be dynamic enough to alter their conceptual criteria. Such dynamism comes from ‘open’ experience: a process of judgement and revision stemming from the non-identity between our minds and our experience. A consciousness open to experience would allow for ‘the irritating and dangerous elements of things that live within concepts’, while reiWed consciousness would judge unreXectively through frozen categories, never recognizing the non-identity between concept and object that would motivate a mental reshuZe.20 By presuming a smooth channel between subject and object, static consciousness facilitates our illusions of mastery over our environment. Thus art, for Adorno, is vital because it retrieves the particular and forces our sensorium continually to adjust to, and question, the world. MacNeice argued that a poem must correspond ‘in some indeWnable way to life’, but must also be ‘at the same time an individual, brand new thing’.21 Fundamental to his poetics is a kind of split at the core of poetry, as it simultaneously records and creates, or refers and reconstitutes. Edna Longley has brought attention to this dialectic, naming its two poles ‘Colour and Meaning’.22 MacNeice’s ‘love of the prismatic’, she writes, ‘makes colour . . . a recurrent metaphor for the suggestive power of words, for the poet’s box of technical tricks’.23 And this box of tricks is inextricably bound up with the music of language. MacNeice begins ‘In quiet in riot in diet in dreams’ with a soundscape in love with its own musicality.24 The energy of MacNeice’s early poetry is generated through hedonistic rhythms that bind discrete matter together in a tidal rush:
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
Theodor Adorno, The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 215. Ibid. 218. Ibid. 101. MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 15. Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study, 95–133. Ibid. 103. ‘The Creditor’, Collected Poems, 3.
The corpses blink in the rush of the river, and out of the water their chins they tip And quaV and gush and lip the draught and crook their heads and crow.25
Key to poetry, for the young MacNeice, is the fact that ‘sound adds to the meaning and by adding makes a new meaning (¼ makes poetry ¼ creates)’.26 And, arguably, this dialectic is anterior but central to the tension between things-as-experienced and the conceptual categories through which they are understood. Reconstituted through poetic form, meaning is never static (ideally), and this dynamism reacts against reiWcation. Adorno writes: ‘If in the past the great philosophers professed the truth that subject and object are no rigid, isolated poles, but can only be identiWed within the process in which they interact, then lyric poetry is the experiential test of this philosophical proposition.’27 For MacNeice, meanwhile, a poem is both a kinetic object and a performance. He writes that E. E. Cummings’s ‘insistence on poetry not as something made but as making is a mere corollary of or implicate in Gentile’s main thesis that knowledge is not things thought but thinking’.28 ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’ begins: ‘I meet you in an evil time’.29 This was to be the unequivocal opening of MacNeice’s collections of 1935 and 1937, launching both books in opposition to their epoch: The jaded calendar revolves, Its nuts need oil, carbon chokes the valves, The excess sugar of a diabetic culture Rotting the nerve of life and literature.30
The poem speaks with two voices: one from the city and one from the country, ‘A’ and ‘B’, both saturated with ennui. ‘A’ is swift to protest against modernist art with its divorce from the concrete: I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century, Posed by Picasso beside an endless opaque sea, Have seen myself sifted and splintered in broken facets, Tentative pencillings, endless liabilities, no assets, 25
‘River in Spate’, Collected Poems, 6. Louis MacNeice, Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2. 27 Adorno, The Adorno Reader, 219. 28 MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 71. 29 Collected Poems, 33. 30 Ibid. 26
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Abstractions scalpelled with a palette-knife Without reference to this particular life. And so it has gone on; I have not been allowed to be Myself in Xesh or face, but abstracting and dissecting me They have made of me pure form, a symbol or pastiche, Stylised proWle, anything but soul and Xesh: And that is why I turn this jaded music on To forswear thought and become an automaton.31
Here, art and advertising go hand in hand. If MacNeice is wary of the determinism that enables governments to treat humans as digits, he sees this facilitated in the bind between aesthetics and commodiWcation. Both speakers seek a way beyond modernity’s malaise through prophesying apocalyptic change: ‘We shall go down like palaeolithic man j Before some new Ice Age or Genghiz Khan’;32 ‘And not till the Goths again come swarming down the hill j Will cease the clangour of the pneumatic drill’.33 Yet something strange happens as the poem proceeds; by its end, such chiliasm seems as abstract as Picasso’s paintings. ‘B’ tells us of the ‘country gentry’: None of them can endure, for how could they . . . Without the bandy chairs and the sugar in the silver tongs And the inter-ripple and resonance of years of dinner-gongs?34
While ‘A’ asks: What will happen to us, planked and panelled with jazz? Who go to the theatre where a black man dances like an eel, Where pink thighs Xash like the spokes of a wheel, where we feel That we know in advance all the jogtrot and the cake-walk jokes, All the bumfun and the gags of the comedians in boaters and toques.35
In lines such as these, didacticism is subverted by a self-delighted extravagance that mirrors the vacuous glamour of modernity. Even as the poem denounces auto-exoticism—‘Jazz-weary of years of drums and Hawaiian guitar’—it revels in its own sybaritic thrills.36 Thus, if ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’ condemns, it is nevertheless in thrall to the ‘excess sugar’ it prescribes as rotting.
Collected Poems, 33. 35 Ibid. Ibid.
Ibid. 34. Ibid. 33.
Terence Brown has noted the early MacNeice’s ‘predilection for imagery of a garish poster-colour brilliance and artiWciality’.37 MacNeice’s jingles pull towards modernity’s attractive hedonism in the very act of preaching against it. ‘A’ and ‘B’ are like addicts losing the Wght against their addiction’s sensual rapture. But, simultaneously, ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’ is where MacNeice begins to set creative excitation up against ethical commitment. Edna Longley writes that MacNeice, contra Eliot, ‘remains humanistically absorbed by everyday life’, and that the ‘dialectic of ‘‘An Eclogue for Christmas’’ veers between 1920s fatalism . . . and the dawn of 1930s resolve’.38 But this humanistic involvement registers itself stylistically by putting on the Xaunting colours of modernity, its own poetic ‘lights irritating and gyrating and rotating in gauze’.39 Thus, the poem’s moral drive relies upon its stylistic showboating; its pyrotechnics dramatize implication and deep attachment, providing a means of avoiding the limp pedantry that MacNeice was wary of in Eliot:40 But yet there is beauty narcotic and deciduous In this vast organism grown out of us: On all the traYc-islands stand white globes like moons, The city’s haze is clouded amber that purrs and croons, And tilting by the noble curve bus after tall bus comes With an osculation of yellow light, with a glory like chrysanthemums.41
In this way, the poem’s dialectic is manifested in its style. The rhymingcouplet structure and long elastic rhythms force a shape onto the subject matter, which provocatively conXates censure, playfulness, and hallucination. The ‘narcotic and deciduous’ beauty blurs the poem’s ethical surety, so that we Xit from ridicule to menace (‘sniggering machine-guns’) in a Xash.42 And this haphazard mix of registers heightens the sense of crisis, intimating the disintegration of a deWnite moral perspective. In this manner, MacNeice can hit out at certain things while refraining from the illusion of appearing certain how the 37
Terence Brown, Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision (Dublin: Macmillan, 1975), 128. Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study, 45. 39 Collected Poems, 33. 40 MacNeice called Eliot a ‘pedantic individualist who would like his daily life and his personal relationships to conform to some pattern which he has extracted from other people’s poetry or philosophy’ (Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 59). 41 Collected Poems, 35. 42 Ibid. 38
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
world should be; he can criticize without gloating over ‘pitiless abstractions’.43 Once ‘pink thighs’ begin to ‘Xash like the spokes of a wheel’, they become surreal; and the speed with which that image follows a man dancing ‘like an eel’, then immediately leads to ‘jogtrot and . . . cakewalk jokes’, attests to a vivid image-making power bent on exploding the images it creates. As soon as one distinctive Wgure emerges, it is left in the slipstream, replaced by another, and the sum reality they represent is accordingly askew, a vivid amalgam of impressionistic collisions. The poem’s rhyming and rhythm enhance this eVect, but also aVect the strangeness, sometimes ludicrousness, of the individual details. MacNeice lets rhyme license nonsense, at times, subverting the hierarchy of sense over sound. And, if we take into account the perpetual alliteration and assonance that dominate MacNeice’s ‘hurdy-gurdy’ rhythms,44 then the poem’s roller-coaster style can be seen to orchestrate its individually hallucinogenic perceptions, transferring the distorted reality they represent onto the broader conWguration of the poem as a whole. The two speakers’ prophecies of sudden historical change thus become waylaid in a tide of indetermination. ‘What will happen . . . ?’ is asked Wve times: both ‘A’ and ‘B’ ask the question as the poem concludes, interrupting each other in turn, while the rhyming-couplet structure entwines their speech and undermines their autonomy.45 Indeed, the poem generates an uncanny momentum built from the diminishment of each speaker’s certitude. But it is unclear where this momentum is leading to, because the question ‘What will happen . . . ?’ still demands to be answered, insisting upon a need to come to terms with the historical moment. Thus, the poem’s aesthetic ploy of eroding singular perspectives paradoxically expedites its desire for one. And, in fact, the poem leaps too forcefully and unconvincingly to its conclusion: ‘Let all these so ephemeral things j Be somehow permanent like the swallow’s wings.’46 But, even so, the challenge this lays down is central to MacNeice’s work in the 1930s: the need to come to terms with both Xux and order. Peter McDonald argues that MacNeice’s obsession with Xux and the ephemeral, throughout the 1930s, is ‘a means of questioning the Wxed historical perspective which prophecy in 1930s poetry generally 43
Collected Poems, 36. Tom Paulin speaks of ‘MacNeice’s technique of setting cliche´s dancing to a hurdy-gurdy rhythm’ (Ireland and the English Crisis (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1984), 76). 45 Collected Poems, 35–6. 46 Ibid. 36. 44
implies’.47 MacNeice generally associates Wxed ideas of order with stasis and imaginative death, while he mostly links Xux with vibrant life. Yet the dichotomy is not so simple. McDonald adds, for example, that a darkness pervades MacNeice’s treatments of Xux, feeding into nightmares of dissolution, disempowerment, and nihilistic chaos. In 1929’s Blind Fireworks, MacNeice represented time as a river, in a poem whose closure is deXected as its Wnal minute becomes ‘the minute after and the minute after the minute after’.48 Elsewhere, time is an abstract but steady rhythm—‘The clock’s untiring Wngers wind the wool of darkness’49—controlling what should be haphazard nature: ‘The dogs’ tails tick like metronomes.’50 Temporality, in these poems, is sheer process or passage which nevertheless gives an order to the world, but which is ineluctably linked to death, ‘the wool of darkness’, because it provides the measure of mortality. The early poem ‘MayXy’ links linear temporality with death, against which we are urged to embrace Xux. In the poem, we are to ‘make our time elastic’ and ignore The pathetic fallacy of the passing hours When it is we who pass them—hours of stone, Long rows of granite sphinxes looking on.51
This claim that the ‘passing hours’, the time-keepers of death, are a ‘pathetic fallacy’ is distinctly vatic, synonymous with Yeats’s pronouncement that ‘Man has created death’.52 MacNeice will alternately return to and deXate such impulses throughout the 1930s. In ‘MayXy’, we can discern a dialectic between temporality and imaginative agency as absolutes. But the drift of MacNeice’s poems, taken as a whole, suggests that both poles of this dialectic are untenable: the dream of total detachment from time is as wrong-footed as the nightmare of being swallowed whole by it. 47 Peter McDonald, Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 24. McDonald also claims that Xux, for MacNeice, is a means of ‘rejecting the Wxed, panoptic gaze of Marxist analysis along with the entrenched positions of bourgeois liberalism’ (ibid. 17). 48 ‘River in Spate’, Collected Poems, 6. 49 ‘Cradle Song for Miriam’, ibid. 12. 50 ‘The Lugubrious, Salubrious Seaside’, ibid. 8. 51 Collected Poems, 14. 52 W. B. Yeats, ‘Death’, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 476.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
‘The Glacier’ opens with the power of a detached imagination that can eVortlessly outstrip human action. But, when this power begins to ‘tamper with time’, it starts to unravel: Just as those who gaze get higher than those who climb A paradox unfolds on any who can tamper with time. Where bus encumbers upon bus and Wlls its slot Speed up the traYc in a quick motion Wlm of thought Till bus succeeds bus so identically sliding through That you cannot catch the fraction of a chink between the two, But they all go so fast, bus after bus, day after day, Year after year, that you cannot mark any headway, But the whole stream of traYc seems to crawl Carrying its dead boulders down a glacier wall And we who have always been haunted by the fear of becoming stone Cannot bear to watch that catafalque creep down And therefore turn away to seemingly slower things And rejoice there to have found the speed of Wns and wings In the minnow-twisting of the latinist who alone Nibbles and darts through the shallows of the lexicon Or among the plate-glass cases in sombre rooms where Eyes appraise the glazen life of majolica ware Or where a gardener with trowel and rheumatic pains Pumps up the roaring sap of vegetables through their veins.53
The ability to speed time up depends upon a disconnection from things in time. The poem’s opening shows no imaginative investment in the buses; rather, the speaker encourages us to transform reality then sit back and proudly pare our Wngernails. But this non-investment empties the vision of signiWcant content and it becomes a nightmare of alienation, as abstracted time becomes a kind of entity in itself that devours the world. ‘The Glacier’ is a condemnation of the city; but at a deeper level it attacks reiWcation rather than the metropolis. On another day, MacNeice might have accelerated the seasonal cycle and decelerated the buses, so that each particular cargo of individual passengers would burst roaring into imaginative immanence. Homogeneity, rather than modernity, is the poem’s hell; it is the tendency to gloss over detail, the ‘fraction of a chink’ between entities, which permits time to turn people 53
Collected Poems, 24.
to stone. By contrast, the ‘seemingly slower things’ evidence scrupulous human involvement: the intricacies of the ‘latinist’; the rich decoration of the ‘majolica ware’; the gardener’s labour. Multitudinous being is, therefore, predicated upon investment and commitment, while detachment anaesthetizes, enabling the dehumanizing operations of abstraction. Pivotally, however, the pumping sap at the poem’s end reintroduces the idea of circular temporality. The vegetables Wgure forth a becoming rather than static being, but are themselves part of a larger natural cycle. Thus, time is still circular and literally deadens, but existence is redeemed through an embrace of the intricate majesty of the particular. From poem to poem, in MacNeice’s œuvre, temporality is a relative entity, dependent upon perspective and agency. But the poem ‘August’ suggests an absolute against which such relativity might be measured. ‘August’ agrees with ‘The Glacier’ that ‘to abstract this day’ is to petrify it: For the mind, by nature stagey, welds its frame Tomb-like around each little world of a day; We jump from picture to picture and cannot follow The living curve that is breathlessly the same.54
‘August’ intuits a ‘living curve’, a natural continuum, but renders this unapproachable. So, while active interaction with the world saved one from petrifaction in ‘The Glacier’, even this now becomes reifying, a Gorgonization of prismatic temporality: ‘Our mind, being dead, wishes to have time die.’55 We kill temporality’s ‘living’ continuum by framing it, freezing its content with perceptual pattern. And we do this because otherwise we would be left with nothing, in the slipstream of Xux: ‘we cannot catch hold of things.’56 Thus, ‘August’ raises the spectre of a complete fracture between the subjective and objective realms. Petrifaction might be seen as an essential component of MacNeice’s aesthetic. Terence Brown calls the aspect of non-being in MacNeice’s poetry: a ‘nothingness without which there would be no ‘‘isness’’ ’, a ‘non-being which allows for being’. Often symbolized through images of stone, ice, and falling darkness, the end results of petrifaction Wgure forth the ‘transcendent non-reality’ that guarantees reality.57 What 54 57
55 Ibid. 24. 56 Ibid. Ibid. 23. Brown, Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision, 115.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
‘August’ indicates, however, is that both facets of this dichotomy— non-being and the ‘living curve’ of reality—amount to much the same thing. If it is true that any attempt to frame the ‘living curve’ murders it, then it is beyond cognition. The ‘living curve’ is a kind of cosmic totality beyond the remit of human apprehension. Both stone and this ‘living curve’ thus constitute the outer limits of MacNeice’s universe. Individual existence is founded on their interaction, part of the ‘living curve’ carried on the wings of Xux towards stone. But this ‘living curve’ itself, as the ongoing history of all existence, is illimitable. It might be conceptualized through the terms of Benedetto Croce: ‘The historical process is like a sentence still in process of being articulated. We live, as it were, within a cosmic sentence not yet completed, the ultimate meaning of which we cannot possibly know, since we do not know what ‘‘words’’ will be spoken in the future.’58 And this is key to MacNeice’s sense that the world ‘is crazier and more of it than we think, j Incorrigibly plural’.59 Temporality, therefore, is both the ‘living curve’, an open totality of ideal multifariousness, and the ineluctable passageway towards stone or death. Thus, temporality is both that which obstructs access to the whole of reality (because individual time is limited), and also the realm within which that totality exists. And subjectivity is warped by this diVerence, left to struggle between a super-realm of being and a zero of nullity. MacNeice’s poetic riddle is, then, how to approach the ‘living curve’ without delimiting it, and thus turning it and oneself to stone. Each poetic act must negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of either congealing diversity, or dissipating the self in the face of the world’s incommensurability. Negotiating thus, MacNeice’s poems are predominantly cast in the mode of metaphor, a trope through which things become ‘both known and unknown’.60 This leads to irony, because each image and conWguration can become haunted by its own failure to encapsulate the intuited 58 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 392. 59 ‘Snow’, Collected Poems, 30. 60 Hayden White argues that metaphor originates in the power of naming; when something is named, it becomes ‘both known and unknown’: ‘known inasmuch as it has a name, unknown inasmuch as the name given it does not account for certain of its aspects’ (Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 206).
totality. And this perpetual failure infects the living with its own negation, what Brown calls the non-reality that upholds any apprehension of reality. Yet MacNeice is ultimately more metaphorical than ironic: the pith of his poetry consists in an attempt to get beyond irony without falling into stale self-delusion. MacNeice claimed, his ‘basic conception of life being dialectical’, that it is ‘the bitter dialectic of opposites which makes humanity’, and that the ‘self-contradictory is what is alive’.61 Since metaphor is understood as the trope through which things become simultaneously ‘known and unknown’, because it ‘asserts that a similarity exists between two objects in the face of manifest diVerences between them’, then metaphor itself is inherently dialectical.62 Thus, MacNeice’s poetic has its roots in the tension between aYnity and diVerence that comes about through metaphor. And arguably, this dialectic appears both at the level of individual imagery, and in the broader conWguration of his poems as a whole. But further tension, in the poems, then derives from an awareness of the potential negations and integrations that metaphor opens the door to, but doesn’t fully realize. In this way, MacNeice’s poetic steers a course between ironic and organicist apprehensions. His poems swerve from one pole to the other (negation to integration), ultimately focusing on metaphorical moments when the two are held in tension. Thus, he can retain Adorno’s ‘non-identity between the concept and the object’ while avoiding abject nihilism. Nevertheless, metaphor disrupts surety, and the full force of its cognitive turbulence is registered in MacNeice’s verse. For example, ‘Nature Morte’ bespeaks a desire for stability, but then disallows its possibility: So we whose senses give us things misfelt and misheard Turn . . . for our adjustment, to the pretentious word Which stabilises the light on the sun-fondled trees And, by photographing our ghosts, claims to put us at our ease; Yet even so, no matter how solid and staid we contrive Our reconstructions, even a still life is alive And in your Chardin the appalling unrest of the soul Exudes from the dried Wsh and the brown jug and the bowl.63
Selected Literary Criticism, 156, 51, 13. Collected Poems, 21.
White, Metahistory, 34.
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The still centre of an image, whether written, photographed or painted, is an explosion; and what is past is not dead but is ‘still life’. Rather than the petrifying frames of ‘August’, we have the construction of a frame that cannot contain its content. To put it another way, MacNeice’s metaphors create concept–object interrelationships in which both concepts and objects are cast into perpetual states of becoming vis-a`-vis one another. And this is ‘appalling’ because it means, in the words of ‘August’, that ‘we . . . cannot catch hold of things’.64 ‘Train to Dublin’ begins with a gloomy continuum suggested by the rhythm of a train that ‘never relents’, that threatens with the opaqueness of ‘The Glacier’, as it darkens to become ‘the mere j Reiteration of integers, the bell j That tolls and tolls, the monotony of fear’.65 In this way, the train’s journey mimics our unstoppable voyage in time towards death. However, the speaker frees himself from this imprisonment by making a leap: ‘during a tiny portion of our lives we are not in trains’; ‘But walking freely through the slanting rain’.66 This is followed by another jump: ‘All over the world people are toasting the King’; which, in turn, leads to a resolution: But I will not give you any idol or idea, creed or king, I give you the incidental things which pass Outward through space exactly as each was.67
This manœuvre, a kind of turn to empiricism, is key to MacNeice’s strategy for breaking through the deadlock of ‘August’. ‘Train to Dublin’ maintains a conceit that what the speaker proceeds to ‘give’ us, as his empirical apprehensions, are things contiguously linked by what he sees from the moving train: I give you the disproportion between labour spent And joy at random; the laughter of the Galway sea Juggling with spars and bones irresponsibly, I give you the toy LiVey and the vast gulls, I give you fuschia hedges and whitewashed walls. I give you the smell of Norman stone, the squelch Of bog beneath your boots, the red bog-grass, The vivid chequer of the Antrim hills, the trough of dark Golden water for the cart-horses, the brass Belt of serene sun upon the lough.68 64 67
Collected Poems, 24. 68 Ibid. Ibid. 28.
The poem gives us a chain of things linked through irrepressible syntax, generating creative energy as the ‘disproportion’ between images plays oV against the rhythmic waves that pull them together within a singular but multiplicitous force Weld. The eVect of contiguity is maintained, but the connective tissue has become metaphoric, in that the interjacent links are there yet are somewhat unaccountable. A propulsive list of sensations replaces realistic description, reconWguring reality in a new manner that allows for the capricious; and this free-ranging vigour detonates the automatism of the train journey, and life, at the poem’s beginning. Nevertheless, the Wnal stanza returns us to the train: ‘I would like to give you more but I cannot hold j This stuV within my hands and the train goes on.’69 In ‘August’, we could not ‘catch hold of things’ because of Xux. Likewise here, the speaker’s thoughts cannot encapsulate their content. And yet he has given us the ‘vivid chequer’ of metaphorical apprehension, a thaumaturgic constellation of the uncontainable. The poem ends: I know that there are further syntheses to which, As you have perhaps, people at last attain And Wnd that they are rich and breathing gold.70
The kernel of the poem resides in a revision of the kind of ‘syntheses’ that might be aspired to. If the ‘basic facts’ are to be perpetually ‘repatterned without pause’, then these ‘facts’ may be recurrently changing, along with their mode of patterning. And this realization frees the ever-changing ‘faces’ from the ‘permanent masks’ of determinism.71 In this manner, the poem sidesteps the negation brought about by colonizing the world with a priori conceptual schemes. A metaphoric poesis searches out collocations of things to surprise the perceiving consciousness with the shock of the new, ensuring that the subject– object interrelationship remains open. But, despite this, the ending of the poem does raise the possibility of a Wnal fusion, a synthesis that might ‘at last’ be attained. Thus, ever-new acts of poesis are still predicated on the possibility of some kind of proleptically intuited totality. And, in this manner, the poem reconstitutes our relationship with the ‘living curve’. Rather than trying to encapsulate an illimitable and processual reality, poetry is to try to mimic its transmutating 69
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multiformity. By doing so, poems can become microcosms of an intuited macrocosm, to the extent that they embrace a spirit of omnifariousness within themselves and resist closure, deXecting any attempt to grasp reality within the Wst. And arguably, this intuition of a living whole gives alchemical qualities to metaphoric syntheses, without which MacNeice’s poetic would lose its electrically aYrmative qualities. But nevertheless, one step over the threshold and perception would torporize. If MacNeice’s poetic is metaphoric, the very basis of his poetry is a perpetually shifting balance. And the entire infrastructure of his poems, not just their imagery, is conWgured in such a way. MacNeice himself supplies the following seminal description of the lyric-as-dramatic: [A]ll lyric poems, though in varying degrees, are dramatic—and that in two ways. (1) The voice and mood, though they may pretend to be spontaneous, are yet in even the most ‘personal’ of poets . . . a chosen voice and mood, set deWantly in opposition to what they must still co-exist with; there may be only one actor on the stage but the Opposition are on their toes in the wings—and crowding the auditorium; your lyric is in fact a monodrama. (2) Even in what is said (apart from the important things unsaid) all poems, though again in varying degrees, contain an internal conXict, cross-talk, backwash, come-back or pay-oV.72
The internal conXicts of MacNeice’s poems arise on many levels and appear in many forms. But often a tension is created from the juxtaposition and interaction of two diVering imaginative orders. For instance, ‘Aubade’ seems to be quintessentially of its time: its turn to grey-brick realism and sociohistorical responsibility, with its cognate rejection of vatic grandeur, might be taken as stereotypical Thirties characteristics: Having bitten on life like a sharp apple Or, playing it like a Wsh, been happy, Having felt with Wngers that the sky is blue, What have we after that to look forward to? Not the twilight of the gods but a precise dawn Of sallow and grey bricks, and newsboys crying war.73
The poem speaks of exhaustion and inevitability, but at its heart is the all-powerful gesture of feeling ‘with Wngers that the sky is blue’. And, 72 73
Selected Literary Criticism, 154–5. Collected Poems, 30.
arguably, this rich-rhyming middle couplet aVects the ending, feeding an inner ambiguity, so that the poem implicitly critiques its own conclusion. The authority of the poem’s ending depends upon our agreement that life is played out, that we have indeed ‘felt with our Wngers that the sky is blue’. But the synaesthesia here ensures that our acquiescence to realism hinges upon a questionable ennui: the charge towards the cold dawn implies that the possibilities of touching the sky’s colour are exhausted. And the self-conceit of this allows a pivotal whiV of visionary ambition, a deXected sense of imaginative supremacy, to re-enter the poem by the back door. Of course, the dawn of war questions such pretence, revealing its escapism. The ending drops us mercilessly into a deterministic world of dead metaphor (where bricks are bricks) and metonymy (the inevitability of war precludes an unbreakable chain of cause and eVect). Ultimately, then, ‘Aubade’ interrogates the worth of imaginative selfaggrandizement in the face of historical reality; but, also, it questions the worth of a world bereft of such imaginative ambition. Grey and blue put each other into relief, ‘collateral and incompatible’, set together in a pregnant conjunction.74 After the outbreak of the Second World War, MacNeice wrote: ‘If war is the test of reality, then all poetry is unreal; but in that case unreality is a virtue.’75 ‘Birmingham’ represents and condemns industrial dehumanization, but in a manner that is complicated by its inimitable style: On shining lines the trams like vast sarcophagi move Into the sky, plum after sunset, merging to duck’s egg, barred with mauve Zeppelin clouds, and Pentecost-like the car’s headlights bud Out from sideroads and the traYc signals, cre`me-de-menthe or bull’s blood, Tell one to stop, the engine gently breathing, or to go on To where like black pipes of organs in the frayed and fading zone Of the west the factory chimneys on sullen sentry will all night wait To call, in the harsh morning, sleep-stupid faces through the daily gate.76
As Edna Longley puts it, ‘Birmingham’ evinces a ‘process of alarming exchange’ through which ‘the inorganic eats into the organic or assumes an oppressive life of its own’.77 In this stanza, the sky’s movement from 74 75 76 77
‘Snow’, Collected Poems, 30. MacNeice, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 18. Collected Poems, 18. Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study, 48.
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‘plum’ to ‘duck’s egg’ to being ‘barred’ by Zeppelins makes it seem that the organic has given birth to machine, while it blots the English sky with German menace. But added to the inorganic takeover of the animate, as the ‘headlight’s bud’, is the ‘cre`me-de-menthe or bull’s blood’ traYc signals, which infect the scene with the sodden-liver perspective of its inhabitants. Elsewhere, ‘Homage to Cliche´s’ (like ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’) converges a sense of modernity-as-crisis with hedonism, doubling a recurrent proposition to have another drink with a sense that there is nothing else to do but ‘The same again’.78 The liqueur imagery in ‘Birmingham’, meanwhile, increases the poem’s hallucinogenic impressionism; but, in a way, the image is too much: the welter of heterogeneity creates a sensory overload. As the images race and twist into one another, cognition is left bewildered in their wake. And this is pivotal to MacNeice’s cityscape. MacNeice wrote that ‘the diVerentia of all poetry is often said to be the collocation of dissimilars in a new or previously unperceived identity’. He added, however, that to make such a deWnition useful, ‘we have to descend from metaphysics into history and inquire what at a particular time are the . . . similarities which demand to be pointed out’.79 ‘Birmingham’ collocates sarcophagi with duck’s eggs with Zeppelins with the Pentecost with liqueurs within four lines. The poem conjoins such dissimilars because the city demands it, throwing up such a hailstorm of data that empirical Wdelity threatens conceptual order. On the one hand, we have the thrill of disparate detail strung together in a pliable rhythm: the poem’s compression accentuates the city’s kaleidoscopic eVect. But, on the other hand, this thrill glosses over a deeper sense of saturation. The poem’s glitz is all surface, its deeper content is monotony. The stop-start syntax mimics a drive through the city, perpetually held up by traYc lights and other vehicles. Enjambment creates an element of surprise, as ‘mauve’ turns to ‘Zeppelin’, but this edgy rhythm ultimately becomes monotonous, as the stop–pause– continue ritual, which driver and reader go through in line 5 of this stanza, mutates into the passage of night into day. The poem’s ending thus exudes a kind of relief in the continuance of existence after a heady nightmare. But, since that dark dream was the city itself to which one awakens, this relief is a mere Xeeting pulsion. Moreover, the gothic 78 79
Collected Poems, 59–60. MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 33.
glamour of the night starkly contrasts with the monotony lying beyond ‘the daily gate’, and this more profoundly questions the sense of relief in continuity. Hyper-sensitive bourgeois alienation is assuaged by the factory-worker’s ‘sleep-stupid’ emptiness, at the same time as the city’s multiplicity is given an underlying order by the slow but sure passage of day into night. If temporality is both an ideal totality and the negation of that totality, society likewise is a whole that can be apprehended only through diVerence, always fractured by class, social divergence and inequality. In this way, ‘Birmingham’ connects to society the aporias that MacNeice discerns in subjectivity, cognition, and time. The poem, the city, and society are all contradictory, predicated upon the simultaneity of dissimilars. However, ‘Birmingham’ does not attempt to surpass its contradictions, nor escape into the innocence of an easy resolution.80 Rather, the poem dramatizes a realization of disparity, indicating how the disturbance of metaphor is carried in MacNeice’s poetry from the metaphysics of temporality into the politics of history. ‘Birmingham’ casts society itself as a symbolic realm of stasis and petrifaction, haunting the poem’s bourgeois subjectivity, whose abundant powers of perceptual play are left disjunct from the ‘living curve’ that the city’s faceless commerce and labour, stone and metal, have replaced. Yet MacNeice is distinguished by the extent to which he generally attempts to attribute positive values to society. Negativity feeds into his approach to history in crucial ways, forming one pole in what Edna Longley has called his ‘dialectic between conjunction and disjunction’.81 But this dialectic is primarily energized by conjunction, by the attempt to overcome history’s wretchedness. MacNeice is a natural sceptic whose lyrics often open out to subjective nihilism. But, ultimately, the breakdown of the subject, for MacNeice, implies its possible reconstitution. And, crucially, the positive aspect of MacNeice’s dialectic is incremented by historical crisis, as the decade’s snowballing disasters push him away from solipsism. Thus, as the 1930s progressed, the apprehension of inequality that ends ‘Birmingham’, and the deepening sense of crisis in Europe, increasingly
80 MacNeice wrote: ‘Freedom . . . is not freedom from conditions but the freedom to see one’s conditions clearly’ (ibid. 16). 81 Edna Longley, The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1994), 262.
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diminishes the aptness of ego-doubt Wxation, leading MacNeice to question: ‘Who am I—or I—to demand oblivion?’82 Autumn Journal was written between August 1938 and February 1939, when MacNeice despaired over the imminence of war, but was also exasperated by Chamberlain and the Munich Agreement.83 The poem, of course, represents MacNeice’s most sustained and intense attempt to confront history’s crises in verse in the 1930s. But this engagement with history is continuous with his earlier verse of the decade, as history is conceived to be synonymous with the ‘living curve’ of temporality. The poem explicitly sets out to frame personal history within broader historical contexts, and to understand these broader contexts through personal experience. And, with this fusion of the internal and communal, Autumn Journal refuses to acknowledge any gap between individuality and history. Crucially, this fusion enables MacNeice to maintain a sense of potential agency in the face of historical crises; it stops the compelling and catastrophic sweep of historical forces from appearing as utterly Other and disempowering; and this denial of surrender acts as a counterpoint to MacNeice’s refusal of solipsistic nihilism, now rendered as a bourgeois, navel-gazing luxury. Autumn Journal, therefore, is explicitly autobiographical. But for MacNeice, writing autobiography means unleashing a multitude of selves, scanning an abundant panoply of masks, roles, and characteristics. The lover and the artist, the scholar and the consumer, the dilettante and the activist, the Irishman and the citizen of English cities: MacNeice’s unfolding scrutiny of this assortment of personas enables the poem to convey the varied dimensions through which history is experienced. Thus, history itself becomes a multifaceted phenomenon. But, at the same time, the many facets of the self interact and aVect one another, and this reXects how the diverse aspects of experience converge into a volcanic but singular history. The poem is sectioned into twenty-four cantos, all underpinned by what MacNeice called ‘an elastic kind of quatrain’.84 These quatrains are mostly rhymed either abac or abcb. MacNeice wrote of them: ‘This form (a) gives the whole poem a formal unity but (b) saves it from monotony by allowing it a great range of appropriate variations.’85 And, sure 82 83 84 85
Collected Poems, 104. Jon Stallworthy, Louis MacNeice (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), 226–40. Cited in ibid. 233. Ibid.
enough, both the poem’s vivacity and its resonance are sparked by the deftness with which MacNeice uses this rhyming structure to choreograph the undulations of his verse. Every other line of the poem is indented, and these indented lines are mostly of shorter length, so that alternative long and short lines play against one another, generating a sprightly pace permutated by rhythmic modulations. But the poem’s formal distinction derives from the facility with which MacNeice orchestrates these pliable, jaunty rhythms through his dextrous rhyming. Often, end-rhymes act as focal points, giving the poem’s rhythmic Xows their measure. But, just as often, MacNeice makes enjambment a rhythmic tool, manipulating the stress and current of the verse with livewire variations. And, in this nimbly diverse manner, the linear momentum of each canto is spooled through the echo chamber of each quatrain, so that the poem surges relentlessly forth while, simultaneously, it perpetually doubles back on itself, as rhymed sounds repeat and interchange through unfolding webs of consonance. By these means, the poem’s ideal of varied being becomes an aVair not just of content but of form. Appropriately enough, given the sobriety of context, and the drive to manifest aesthetically a spirit of political commitment, MacNeice’s stylistic pyrotechnics are toned down; but they are by no means abandoned. MacNeice’s wit and invention are the bedrocks upon which his authenticity and passion are founded: And I am in the train too now and summer is going South as I go north Bound for the dead leaves falling, the burning bonWre, The dying that brings forth The harder life, revealing the tree’s girders, The frost that kills the germs of laissez-faire; West Meon, Tisted, Farnham, Woking, Weybridge, Then London’s packed and stale and pregnant air. My dog, a symbol of the abandoned order, Lies on the carriage Xoor, Her eyes inept and glamorous as a Wlm star’s, Who wants to live, i.e. wants more Presents, jewellery, furs, gadgets, solicitations As if to live were not Following the curve of a planet or controlled water But a leap in the dark, a tangent, a stray shot.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s It is this we learn after so many failures, The building of castles in sand, of queens in snow, That we cannot make any corner in life or in life’s beauty, That no river is a river which does not Xow.86
Much of the self-delighting energy of ‘Eclogue for Christmas’ is retained here, with the important diVerence that these packed images lose the overtly ‘narcotic’ disturbance of that poem, and are instead invested with the ‘empiricism’ of ‘Train to Dublin’. Like both these earlier poems, this passage is lit up by its gleeful recalibration of things, sensations, names, and ideas into a richly textured, animate tissue of imagery, compressed with agility in a way that seems both novel and innate. Yet the range and perspicacity of imagery and proposition are now enhanced, as place names and concrete images are intertwined with abstract concepts, Xights of fancy, and satirical broadsides; as impressionistic collages are riVed together with passages of analysis. And all this is expedited by MacNeice’s snaking, supple, and electrically synergizing syntax, which conveys both concision and largesse, so that the verse’s abundance is somehow ampliWed by its economy. The connective chains remain metaphorical, bringing disparate details into new relationships, so that their interdependence is ignited by their diVerence; but the jouissance of this Wguration is played out on a broader canvas, and with greater unpredictability, than before. ‘[S]ummer is going j South as I go north’: the verse seems capable of going in multiple directions at the same time. Indeed, as Autumn Journal broadly rushes forwards, it simultaneously embarks on perpetual feints, loops, sidesteps, and backtracks; and this is facilitated by the webs of consonance through which its impetus is spooled. Within this panoramic sweep, the poem’s roving energy is ultimately channelled through two key motifs. While the above passage from Canto I proclaims: ‘no river is a river which does not Xow’; Canto II begins: ‘Spider, spider, twisting tight’, ‘I am afraid in the web of night’.87 And a dialectic between these two contradictory motifs arguably forms the dynamic at the heart of Autumn Journal. Indeed, that the poem itself both Xows forth and spins webs reveals how it formally embodies its abstract ideas. On the one hand, then, the poem evinces a sense that history is pure process: that all things, events, and experiences are swept 86 87
Collected Poems, 102. Ibid. 103.
away by the remorseless velocity of time’s passage. But, on the other hand, the poem demands that time and history interweave, as one thing connects to another, creating a mesh of entanglement in which all history is bound together, and from which nothing can escape. Undoubtedly, Autumn Journal is very much written to the moment, striving to represent a consciousness articulating itself in the present tense, and proclaiming the sanctity and particularity of ‘now’: And no one Tuesday is another and you destroy it If you subtract the diVerence and relate It merely to the Form of Tuesday. This is Tuesday The 25th of October, 1938.88
But the poem’s autobiographical nature precludes a sense in which present-tense consciousness is merely a conglomerate of memory and previous experience, so that the mind facing the present and future is at once formed by, haunted by, and hounded by, the past. Thus, the poem constantly dips into the past tense. For example, Canto I’s intense sense of immediacy suddenly veers oV into witty reminiscence, as leaps of association lead him towards an ex-lover: I loved her between the lines and against the clock, Not until death But till life did us part I loved her with paper money And with whiskey on the breath.89
While ‘no river is a river which does not Xow’, our frequently spiteful webs of memory ensure that past emotions and sensations are ineluctably pervasive within the present. But then again, of course, the poignancy and bite of such memories is derived from the fact that they speak of things irretrievably past and gone. Thus, the motif of the spider’s web provides a Wgure for how the present is formatively moulded by the past, while the river motif symbolizes how this dynamic is nevertheless cast on the throes of Xux, passage, and transformation. More than this, as Autumn Journal cross-examines the personal with the communal, the web and river motifs become central to the poem’s sense of historical crisis and possibility. In one sense, the idea of the web is positive: the poem perpetually speaks of ineluctable links 88 Ibid. 124. In his ‘Note’ that heads the poem, MacNeice reminds us: ‘In a journal or a personal letter a man writes what he feels at the moment’ (ibid. 101). 89 Ibid. 103.
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between people, so that humanity is cast as a great chain of being. But, in another sense, the spider is ‘twisting tight’ as historical forces and events converge in a fuliginous, predatory web, leaving society captive and helpless. Likewise, the idea of the river is negatively cast, as it seems that events and crises cannot be stopped, that the processes of history cannot be subverted. Yet, then again, the river of time and history will always Xow, today’s catastrophes will abate, and life will carry on, perpetually open to change. In a positive sense, web and river, structure and movement, Wnd their potential synthesis in a third motif of the poem—that of the dance: None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives, Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all Deceits is to murmur ‘Lord, I am not worthy’ And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall. But may I cure that habit, look up and outwards And may my feet follow my wider glance First no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the others And in the end—with time and luck—to dance.90
The projected end of action is to dance with others. Thus, Autumn Journal reconceives the projected organic totality intuited in ‘Train to Dublin’ as humanity itself.91 Peter McDonald writes that, for MacNeice, ‘the political good resides in individuals rather than in the individual’. He continues: This is a crucial distinction, for it rules out the ‘pure’ individual, who is deWned simply in relation to what the self can control . . . rather than being deWned by the Xuctuating world, the other. MacNeice’s individual, then, exists by virtue of diVerence as well as by his own integrity to the self. The self relies upon otherness, and the blueprint for a just society is an enlargement of this openness, a socialized dialogue of self and soul in which one individual is incomplete without others.92
‘Eclogue from Iceland’, however, showed the diYculties inherent in this embrace of others, because they violate the autonomy of the self:
Collected Poems, 106. Discussing Yeats, MacNeice wrote of ‘the super-mind of humanity of which all individual human minds are partial manifestations’ (The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 114). 92 McDonald, Louis MacNeice: The Poet in his Contexts, 83. 91
The eyes That glide like snakes behind a thousand masks— All human faces Wt them, here or here: Dictator, bullying schoolboy or common lout, Acquisitive women, Wnanciers, invalids, Are capable all of that compelling stare Stare which betrays the cosmic purposelessness The nightmare noise of the scythe upon the hone, Time sharpening his blade among high rocks alone.93
Here, the menace of otherness is overpowering, as the indiVerent magnitude of society dissipates the self and takes on the deathly cloak of time. Against this, the purposeful thrust of Autumn Journal is based upon a ventured overcoming of such ‘cosmic purposelessness’, an attempted reconciliation with the unknowable and with self-limitation, which is a preliminary to feeling freely integrated with the social whole: Aristotle was right to think of man-in-action As the essential and really existent man And man means men in action; try and conWne your Self to yourself if you can.94
Nevertheless, this totality remains beyond actual realization because of the warp of diVerence. Thus, the human community can be perceived only as internally diVerential, ruptured by inequality: Most are accepters, born and bred to harness, And take things as they come, But some refusing harness and more who are refused it Would pray that another and a better Kingdom come, Which now is sketched in the air or travestied in slogans Written in chalk or tar on stucco or plaster-board But in time may Wnd its body in men’s bodies, It’s law and order in their heart’s accord . . . 95
These lines indicate that the actualization of the ‘living curve’ in history would entail, for MacNeice, the coming into being of the kind of utopia that Hegel posited as the ideal end of history, and that Marx claimed would constitute its beginning: a political state in which ‘the private interests of its citizens are in perfect harmony with the common
Collected Poems, 46.
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interest, ‘‘when the one Wnds its gratiWcation and realization in the other’’ ’.96 As Edna Longley concedes, MacNeice’s ‘ideal relation between the mass and the individual may seem impossibly poetic’.97 But, then again, this idealism is central to Longley’s more general claim that ‘Poetry itself is . . . always instead of Utopia’; that poetry ‘will abandon the struggle not just after radical revolution, but when the impossible demands of the imagination have been met by society’.98 Indeed, the impossibility of MacNeice’s vision may be contextualized only against the historical realities of his time. The dance or ‘living curve’ of humanity is not just warped by historical diVerence and contradiction; rather, history itself seems to be irretrievably surging towards a cataclysmic end point, as the unfolding chains of historical events threaten utterly to brutalize and negate the webs that conjoin humanity. At one point in the poem, for example, the speaker is haunted by the spectre of hanging victims on gallows: Where have we seen them before? Was it the murderer on the nursery ceiling Or Judas Iscariot in the Field of Blood Or someone at Gallipoli or in Flanders Caught in the end-all mud?99
The hanging men are symbols of the universal violence and abasement that generate from historical diVerence and contradiction. And, crucially, these realities, spun from chains of cause and eVect, are closing in on the present moment, as the speaker fails to shake oV the image of these ghostly victims, negating the ideals of Xux and process that he might have otherwise clung to: You can’t step into the same river twice so there can’t be Ghosts; thank God that rivers always Xow. SuYcient to the moment is the moment; Past and future merely don’t make sense And yet I thought I had seen them . . . But how, if there is only a present tense?100 96 97 98 99 100
White, Metahistory, 108. Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars ( Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1986), 88. Ibid. 11. Collected Poems, 130. Ibid. 131.
This idea that the river might fail to Xow, that historical forces might utterly rupture social cohesion and continuity, puts ever greater pressure on those webs of interrelation that link society together, especially since these webs simultaneously constitute the very grounds of contradiction and diVerence. To be sure, MacNeice often idealizes the relationship between past and present as a potential marriage: Time is a country, the present moment A spotlight roving round the scene; We need not chase the spotlight, The future is the bride of what has been.101
But the total impact of the poem is to convey the intense stress of impending crises, to manifest a threatened sense that time is running out because of Hodza, Henlein, Hitler, The Maginot Line, The heavy panic that cramps the lungs and presses The collar down the spine.102
And it is this sense, that history is closing in, that gives the poem’s many twists and turns their alacrity. The menace and pressure of the present moment propel the poem forth on its syntactical dances, urging a celebration of all that is endangered, but also demanding that something within that intimidated existence be found to counteract the threat. And so, as each canto unfurls its plenitude and variety, it keeps hitting back upon the threat of the moment, and is thus goaded onwards to Xit further across and compound its many registers, to recalibrate and interrogate some more. MacNeice stressed that, in the poem, he was not interested in closure, in ‘a Wnal verdict or a balanced judgement’.103 Yet the poem’s panoramic excavations and combustible conWgurations perpetually imply the same intuition: that the webs of history constitute both the potential totality of humanity and the reality of that totality’s disjuncture. This is the awakening revelation of the poem’s constellation.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s III
But what of Ireland? As we have noted, MacNeice’s vehemence is explosive when turned on Ireland, which, in the words of Derek Mahon, ‘is all right coming from Austin Clarke but bad manners from an Ulster Protestant’.104 Edna Longley has discussed the severity of MacNeice’s ire, commenting on the ‘Irish’ Canto XVI of Autumn Journal: ‘It is as if section XVI surfaces from the subconscious of Autumn Journal to interpret its whole political and moral stance.’ She continues: ‘Ireland functions as an anti-Utopia, a kind of social and political original sin.’105 And, certainly, the aggression of MacNeice’s attacks on Ireland suggests that, here, the irony between intuited utopia and historical actuality reaches a most personal pitch. ‘Curse`d be he that curses his mother. I cannot be j Anyone else than what this land engendered me.’106 It is probably gratuitous to stress MacNeice’s relationship with his motherland in conjunction with his tormented memories of his mother. Yet MacNeice himself associated, in places, an existential sense of universal spitefulness with his mother’s death: ‘The day I was born j I suppose that that same hour was full of her screams’; ‘I thought ‘‘Can I Wnd a love beyond the family j And feed her to the bed my mother died in . . . ?’’ ’.107 Such lows constitute the extreme antithesis to MacNeice’s ‘mystical faith’ in ‘the value of living’.108 Without stretching the point, Ireland pushes his patience with historical imperfection to the limits, just as his guilt towards his mother’s death tests his implicit faith in life’s value.109 Both parent and country are associated not just with exile from place, but with a deeper sense of self-exile: 104 Derek Mahon, Journalism: Selected Prose 1970–1995, ed. Terence Brown (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1996), 24. 105 Longley, Poetry in the Wars, 90. 106 ‘Valediction’, Collected Poems, 52. 107 ‘Eclogue between the Motherless’, Collected Poems, 49, 50. 108 MacNeice proclaimed: ‘The faith in the value of living is a mystical faith. The pleasure in bathing or dancing, in colour or shape, is a mystical experience. If non-utilitarian activity is abnormal, then all men are abnormal’ (The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 16). 109 Jon Stallworthy describes the reaction of MacNeice’s mother to news that she needed a hysterectomy: ‘She returned in tears, that news having triggered oV a depression from which she was never completely to emerge. It seemed that she believed, despite medical evidence to the contrary, that Louis’ diYcult birth had caused her uterine Wbroid; a belief transmitted to her son, who grew up convinced at some psychological level that he was responsible for his mother’s illness and death’ (Louis MacNeice, 37).
Be brave, my ego, look into your glass And realise that that never-to-be-touched Vision is your mistress.110
In any case, the treatment of Ireland in Autumn Journal is one of the few instances where MacNeice fails to counter historical degeneracy with a positive counter-energy. He asks: ‘Why j Must a country, like a ship or a car, be always female, j Mother or sweetheart?’111 But he ends: She is a bore and a bitch; Better close the horizon, Send her no more fantasy, no more longings which Are under a fatal tariV. For common sense is the vogue And she gives her children neither sense nor money Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue And a faggot of useless memories.112
While Edna Longley points out that Canto XVI is speciWc and principled in its attack, by and large, throughout the 1930s, MacNeice demonizes Ireland as a kind of alluvial repository of violence and cosmic purposelessness.113 But nevertheless, as MacNeice would write of Beckett’s aesthetic, ‘the absence of God implies the need of God’.114 And it would be ultimately wrong to diVerentiate his attacks on Ireland from more general assaults: International betrayals, public murder, The devil quoting scripture, the traitor, the coward, the thug Eating dinner in the name of peace and progress, The doped public sucking a dry dug; OYcial recognition of rape, revival of the ghetto And free speech gagged and free Energy scrapped and dropped like surplus herring Back into the barren sea; Brains and beauty festering in exile,
110 111 112 113 114
‘Circe’, Collected Poems, 20. Collected Poems, 132. Ibid. 134. Longley, Louis MacNeice: A Study, 21, 24. Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965),
Irish Poetry of the 1930s The shadows of bars Falling across each page, each Weld, each raddled sunset, The alien lawn and the poor running the gauntlet In hostile city streets of white and violet lamps Whose Xight is without a terminus but better Than the repose of concentration camps.115
Ireland is part of the wider historical kaleidoscope; as such, its dystopia is measured against humanity’s utopian potential. And, if Autumn Journal cordons Irish culture oV into ignoble isolation, thereby eliminating any redemptive qualities that might lurk with underlying immanence, this is a dramatic conceit. The alternatives are ‘on their toes in the wings’ of other parts of the poem: ‘If you have honour to spare, employ it on the living.’116 The palpable spectre of another world war underlined, for MacNeice, the bankruptcy of exclusivist identity-formations. And, in the face of this, he deciphered the ethical demand of history in terms that would soon be coined in the most direct manner by Auden: ‘We must love one another or die.’117 George Orwell, castigating Auden for a line in another poem about the ‘conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder’,118 also belittled MacNeice, arguing that the diVerence between E. M. Forster and MacNeice was ‘the diVerence between a man who knows what the 1914–18 war was like and a man who barely remembers it’. Orwell continued: ‘The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and a sensitive person could do, except remain human, if possible.’119 But it is precisely such a return to humility, the simplicity of Wrst principles, that MacNeice suggests. And yet, as is made clear in an Irish context, the modest passivity of his stance is formidably radical, because remaining human implies, for MacNeice, a total overhaul of historical consciousness: ‘If everything that happens happens according j To the nature and wish of God, then God must go.’120 At the same time, however, MacNeice was sensitive to historical conditioning, to the genetically moulding role played by tradition and place, and to the 115
Collected Poems, 138. Ibid. 153. 117 W. H. Auden, ‘September 1, 1939’, in The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1977), 246. 118 Auden, ‘Spain 1937’, ibid. 212; George Orwell, ‘Inside the Whale’, in Inside the Whale and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 1962), 36–7. 119 Orwell, Inside the Whale, 47. 120 Autumn Journal, Collected Poems, 138. 116
psychic necessity of a sense of identity. Like his attitude to modernity in ‘Eclogue for Christmas’, his poems about Ireland are not detached but implicated (even if torturously) in what they condemn. Just as poetic innovation, for MacNeice, stems from being neck deep in poetic tradition, historical transformation implicitly depends upon historical rootedness.121 In Autumn Journal, Ireland is, in fact, represented in MacNeice’s hallmark style as an impressionistic montage, a prism of allochromatic vivacity: Drums on the haycock, drums on the harvest, black Drums in the night shaking the windows: King William is riding his white horse back To the Boyne on a banner. Thousands of banners, thousands of white Horses, thousands of Williams Waving thousands of swords and ready to Wght Till the blue sea turns to orange.122
A poem from 1940, ‘Plant and Phantom’, stylistically echoes this syzgetic panorama: Man: a riot of banners, Bulge in the wind, a prism, Organ-pipes in the sunset, Orgy of brains and glands, Thunder-crackle and the bounce of hail, Wink of wings and fog’s delusion, A rampant martyr, a midnight Echo, a forest Wre.123
It is one thing to say that man is ‘a midnight j Echo’, or that he is a ‘forest Wre’, but to say that he is both these things in the same breath is to say another thing again. This conWgurational metaphoricity opens the poem out to contiguity: its kinetic energy suggests the brilliance of chance. And if man contains all these things, then man is uncontainable. 121 MacNeice claimed that ‘All experiment is made on a basis of tradition; all tradition is the crystallization of experiment’. He claimed that being traditional ‘implies constant change and probably frequent revolution’; that we ‘can’t know our present tense until we know our past’; and that a ‘historical sense is essential, which means that we must know how to be new, as contrasted with repetition’ (Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 35, 65, 71, 73). 122 Collected Poems, 132. 123 Ibid. 160.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Reality, history, Ireland: all are part of an organic totality perpetually in process; none is therefore static, but all are alive and changing according to the pressures of the present. Meanwhile, historical change, for MacNeice, must be based upon the simple forms of communality that link us together. Yet, paradoxically, conXict often arises because of an inability to concede the disjunct heterogeneity of individuals, cultural traditions, and history. Thus, the drive towards universal isopolity, which is the only ethical response to historical barbarism, must be predicated upon an openness to contradiction, because always situated and implicated in the diVerential present.124 MacNeice’s poetry is therefore founded upon the synchronic apprehension of similarity and diVerence; it implies that historical praxis must base itself on the absolutist understanding that we are all the same, while embracing our incontrovertible dissimilitude.125 MacNeice argues that Auden and company (implying himself) ‘were deliberately simplifying [Eliot’s fragmented world] . . . into a world where one gambles upon practical ideals, a world in which one can take sides’.126 And, ultimately, this aspect of his poetic must be taken on board, alongside the Xuidity and perpetually shifting nature of reality, history, and identity that his work also insists upon. For MacNeice, Xuidity must be diVerentiated from laissez-faire: ‘history is recognized as something having a shape and still alive, something more than a mere accumulation of random and dead facts.’127 MacNeice’s poetry in the 1930s refutes the conceit that political conXict can be solved by sanctifying rigid identity-constructs and reinforcing intransigently insular cultural traditions. Rather, it cuts to the root of these phenomena. Regarding Ireland, his poetry insists that local problematics are bound up with larger historical forces, that class inequality is part of Ireland’s problem, and that Irish history must therefore be reconWgured not in isolated terms but in ways open to less restrictive conceptions of the heterogeneous relations between private and public, or individuality and communality. 124 MacNeice wrote of ‘the bitter dialectic of opposites which makes humanity’ (Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, 51). 125 Noting that Yeats was attracted to Aristotle’s notion that the community and the individual can be a work of art, MacNeice argues: ‘ The material for such forms of art . . . is men in relation to each other; the diVerences, therefore, between one man and another must be maintained and recognized’ (The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 100). 126 MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay, 15. 127 Ibid. 16–17.
MacNeice’s poetic range indicates that the poet (and by extension every individual) is a complex array of conXictive elements. And, just as the world is uncontainable (as is, by implication, Ireland), the modes of apprehending it are potentially illimitable. Thus, his poetry sets unquantiWable reality and promiscuous creativity in oscillation. The critical engagement and humanistic meliorism of MacNeice’s verse proVer the freedom of stylistic innovation alive to the fact that we have a stake in reality. MacNeice claims: ‘History for the artist is something which is evolving and he himself is aiding and abetting it.’128 And this process takes wing in his poetry, as content and form, concepts and objects, combust in the perpetually transmogriWed synapse of each poem. Michael Longley writes of MacNeice’s art: ‘Seldom can the lyric have carried so much freight and remained airborne.’129 128
The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 26. Michael Longley, ‘Introduction’, in Louis MacNeice: Selected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), pp. xvii–xviii. 129
C HA P TE R 4
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke In a Metaphysical Land
I As is well known, The Great Hunger vandalizes stereotypical notions of the peasant as an Irish symbol or cultural icon, dismantling the nation’s self-image by assaulting the ‘ruralism’ that was central to it. Ruralism provided the collective Irish imagination with a circuitry of images and ideas through which it could conceive itself in idealistically pastoral terms. Ireland’s rural self-image was both an anti-English weapon and a defence mechanism against the increasing modernization of societies in the West, including Ireland’s own.1 Roy Foster writes: ‘de Valera’s vision of Ireland . . . was of small agricultural units, each self-suYciently supporting a frugal family; industrious, Gaelicist and anti-materialist. His ideal, like the popular literary versions, was built on the basis of a fundamentally digniWed and ancient peasant way of life.’ However, Foster continues: ‘this had little to do with the objective forces shaping rural existence.’2 By the late 1930s, signs were emerging of deep structural change in the country—what Sean O’Faola´in would call a ‘wholesale Xight from the Welds’.3 A Commission on Emigration later acknowledged ‘a psychological and economic malaise’ born from the 1 Terence Brown writes, concerning post-Independence Ireland: ‘there was in much of the country a deep urge towards self-suYciency, a conviction that the life of an Irish small farm represented a purity and decency of life that could set Ireland apart from the more commercial societies that surrounded her’ (Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985, 2nd edn. (London: Fontana, 1985), 145). 2 Roy Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600–1972 (London: Penguin, 1989), 538. 3 Sean O’Faola ´ in, ‘Silent Ireland’, The Bell, 6/5 (1943), 460–5, at 464.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
‘relative loneliness, dullness and generally unattractive nature of life in many parts of rural Ireland’.4 And, in this emerging context, ruralism was seen to be shrouding Ireland’s modernization and poverty. Thus, writers like O’Faola´in and Kavanagh viewed it with increasing exacerbation. Kavanagh parodies ruralism’s amorphous structure of ideals in Section XIII of The Great Hunger, as he paraphrases what the ‘traveller’, or ‘civilization’ (or Irish Ireland) sees when looking into the rural base: The peasant has no worries; In his little lyrical Welds He ploughs and sows; He eats fresh food, He loves fresh women, He is his own master As it was in the Beginning The simpleness of peasant life. The birds that sing for him are eternal choirs, Everywhere he walks there are Xowers. His heart is pure, His mind is clear, He can talk to God as Moses and Isaiah talked— The peasant who is only one remove from the beasts he drives.5
If we disregard Kavanagh’s irony for a moment, it is clear that ruralism constitutes a realm of simplicity, clarity, and purity, in contrast with modernity’s complexity, confusion, and contamination. And, by exploding these lyrical Welds, Kavanagh fragments the ideal of an organic society integrated with nature, upon which Irish Irelandism had come to be predicated. At the core of this ideal is ruralism’s great chain of being, in which each entity obtains freedom within a hierarchic but naturalized amalgamation. Kavanagh’s scene is structured by the trope of synecdoche: the ‘lyrical Welds’ stand for the world; the birds, beasts, and Xowers stand for the entirety of nature; and the peasant stands for humanity, secure in a relationship with the totality. At the same time, the birds, beasts, Xowers, and Welds stand for aspects of each other and of man and God (and vice versa). Hayden White describes synecdoche as a trope that posits ‘an intrinsic relationship of shared qualities’. Thus, 4 5
Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 184–5. Patrick Kavanagh, Selected Poems, ed. Antoinette Quinn (London: Penguin, 1996), 40.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
a synecdoche combines elements ‘in the manner of an integration within a whole that is qualitatively diVerent from the sum of the parts’; synecdoche ‘suggests a relationship among the parts . . . which is qualitative in nature and in which all of the parts participate’.6 Because of this qualitative reciprocity, there is no clear discrepancy between depth and surface. The peasant can talk to God because his language is transparent, it holds no secrets. But, in this, Kavanagh plants a subtle irony. The peasant communicates with God as Isaiah did, yet what God actually said to Isaiah was: ‘Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.’7 Of course, Kavanagh’s poem constitutes a full-frontal attack upon the civilities of lyrical pastoralism, rather than a subtle undermining of them. But the irony of naming Isaiah indicates the artful guile that Kavanagh implants within the coruscating power of his free-verse assault. And these subtleties pre-eminently derive from the fact that, while the poem abruptly represents the peasant as an alienated and overworked wreck, its aesthetic power is nevertheless generated from its implicit urge towards pastoral utopianism. In a vital sense, The Great Hunger is highly conscious of its own fragmentation, and remains in thrall to the promise of organicist integration. The poem’s Wrst line, ‘Clay is the word and clay is the Xesh’,8 by the very nature of its mimicry, denotes a secular world hollowed out by, and hypersensitive to, Christ’s absence.9 Clay is, in fact, a pivotally ambiguous symbol, but, in its immediate impact, it signiWes a vacuum of meaning in face of religion’s disappearance. Clay is word and Xesh; therefore, language (or consciousness) and Xesh (or nature) combine in clay just as they once did in Christ. The line therefore heralds an apocalypse of non-signiWcance, an integrated totality in which land, body, and language are bound by aridity. Such nullity dominates the poem. Kavanagh insists that the peasant, the man-of-the-earth who is bereft of technology and the complexities of modernity, is at root no closer to nature than an oYce clerk. 6 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 35–6. 7 Isa. 1: 4. 8 Selected Poems, 18. 9 ‘And the Word was made Xesh’ ( John 1: 87).
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
Agriculture mediates between nature and culture, but the poem ceaselessly attests to a Wssure between nature and the farmers’ attempts to order it: ‘April, and no one able to calculate j How far it is to harvest.’10 To be sure, the community’s social calendar, and Patrick Maguire’s desire, is coordinated around the seasons: ‘Yesterday was summer. Who was it promised marriage to himself j Before apples were hung from the ceilings for Hallowe’en?’11 But this ironically emphasizes the diVerence between society and nature, because Maguire’s desire to be married before winter will be frustrated, and the poem Xouts the Wgurative import of this, pushing its protagonist into a vortex of tortured sterility and disempowerment, since he will have only one winter (symbolically), while nature will revolve in a continual cycle. Many of the poem’s twists and grimaces generate from linear fate being spun around the cycles of nature. The annular motion of Maguire’s labour expands into existential annulment: He would have changed the circle if he could, The circle that was the grass track where he ran. Twenty times a day he ran round the Weld And still there was no winning post where the runner is cheered home.12
Such futility augments the power of the Church, which intervenes with the promise of apocalypse: The cattle are out on the grass, The corn is coming out evenly. The farm folk are hurrying to catch Mass: Christ will meet them at the end of the world, the slow and the speedier. But the Welds say: only Time can bless.13
Here, nature appears to be uniform (the corn growing ‘evenly’, the Welds speaking as one), in contrast to motley humanity (‘the slow and the speedier’). The function of Christ is to anchor this social medley, oVering a future when the serenity of nature will replace the deviations of culture. But the passage also insists on the distinction between this projected end point and nature’s continuing rhythm. Authoritatively capitalized, ‘Time’ supersedes apocalypse, and, while ‘Time’, here, seems to signify the benign order of nature, nature is elsewhere seen to be pugnaciously irregular and harnessed by agricultural labour. 10
Selected Poems, 24.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Therefore, ‘Time’ does not denote a stable concept: if ‘only Time can bless’, it can also curse. And if the community is dependent on time’s blessing, it is thus dependent on a force that always threatens with rupture. The poem plays on the fact that Maguire’s job is to impose a physical order onto nature: O the grip, O the grip of irregular Welds! No man escapes. It could not be that back of the hills love was free And ditches straight.14
The following image indicates more explicitly the gap between nature and the farmers’ attempts to order it: We will wait and watch . . . Till the last soul passively like a bag of wet clay Rolls down the side of the hill, diverted by the angles Where the plough missed or a spade stands, straitening the way.15
Despite Maguire’s eVorts at ‘straitening the way’, the inevitable ‘angles’ represent an undertow of natural disorder, while they also Wgure Maguire’s skewed emotional history. Thus, a rampant chaos lurks with malice between the linear and the cyclical. Later in the poem, we are told: He gave himself another year, Something was bound to happen before then— The circle would break down And he would curve the new one to his own will.16
The means by which Maguire might accomplish this constitute a crux of the poem, because Kavanagh is concerned not just with shattering a self-image, but with exploring the possibilities of a new one. ‘Something was bound to happen’: something happening, here, implies change, without which experience is looped to mimic the disempowering vacuum of nature’s circularity. His agency erased, cultural or historical time has evaporated for Maguire: ‘There is no tomorrow; j No future but only time stretched out for the mowing of hay.’17 The Great Hunger implies that signiWcance will transpire when human time is structured around human agency (‘he would curve the new one to his own will’). In 14
Selected Poems, 21.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
this way, Kavanagh’s poem goes in search of a meaning for Maguire’s life, embarking on a desperate attempt to understand that existence as something other than tragic. And this search is dominated by the attempt to reintegrate consciousness with nature. As argued above, the line ‘Clay is the word and clay is the Xesh’ envelops the poem with a pervasive threat of meaninglessness, parodying the poem’s desire for an ideal fusion of culture and nature. The line itself ironically initiates this desire: its caesural ‘and’ is both a link and a blockade between word and Xesh. The homology of each hemistich, ‘Clay is the word’—‘clay is the Xesh’, draws them together, while the ‘and’ acts almost as a pivot upon which they could be folded into one another; and yet it simultaneously divides them in parallel isolation. This gesture of intimated but withheld union is paradigmatic, not just of Christian transcendentalism, but of Coleridgean Romanticism and the Symbolism of early Yeats. Thus, the opening line bespeaks the poem’s desire for integration at the same time as it subverts the conventional grounds of organicism. The poem’s desire for synthesis, of course, is inextricably bound up with Maguire’s interminable sexual yearning. When Maguire farms, his ‘mud-gloved Wngers probe’ in the earth’s ‘insensitive hair’.18 We are told of the farmers: ‘They put down j The seeds blindly with sensuous groping Wngers, j And sensual sleep dreams subtly underground.’19 This latter image links the earth, femininity, and, for want of a better term, noumenal reality; the farmers are like poets searching for an atemporal realm, an escape from contingency. In a moment of idealistic relief, we are told: These men know God the father in a tree: The Holy Spirit is the rising sap, And Christ will be the green leaves that will come At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.20
Here, the feminine earth (corporeal matter or clay) is a locus of death, a tomb transWgured into a womb through propagation with the phallic tree. Both feminine matter and masculine energy here coalesce. And this image works as an idealistic magnet in the poem, compulsively attracting Maguire’s desire.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Of course, it is a poetic convention that the task of impregnating fallen nature with divinity is passed over to man. Man must realize the divinity within himself through his perception transWgured by imagination.21 And, in this sense, Maguire’s plight is that of the failed visionary artist: his tragedy is his inability to transfer divinity onto himself. Meanwhile, every atom of his world seems to contain a germ of apotheosis that taunts to the point of despair, enXaming the poem’s frustration. However, while the poem sends Maguire on a quest for organicist integration, elsewhere it castigates him for his faith in, or hope for, such emulsive quixotism. And this strain of the poem alerts us to positive meanings for ‘clay’. In one of Kavanagh’s earlier poems, ‘Pygmalion’, a ‘frozen’ and ‘set’ Wgure made of stone, through an act of poetic will, metamorphoses to become ‘Clay-sensuous’.22 In The Great Hunger, meanwhile, a human soul is ‘like a bag of wet clay’;23 and, we are informed: ‘Unless the clay is in the mouth the singer’s singing is useless.’24 Moreover, the poem will end with ‘the apocalypse of clay’.25 The word ‘clay’ is therefore polysemic and integral to Kavanagh’s poetic. When wet, clay is malleable and easily shaped, but when hardened it connotes stasis and death. It is a mid-point between form and formlessness, whose meaning changes in proximity to either. Moreover, it is symbolically bound up with the imagery of creation. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols: ‘Moulding clay . . . symbolises the act of creation and displays a male desire to make something’; ‘the way in which the Wngers penetrate the clay also gives it a very strong sexual signiWcance’.26 As we have seen, The Great Hunger is precisely about a male’s sexual desire to make something. Thus, the substitution of clay for Christ is only superWcially negative. What it eradicates, however, is immaterialism. Rather than hinging the fusion of word
21 Frank Kermode, for example, discusses William Blake’s notion of ‘the gift of divine imagination’: ‘The artist makes the eternal world; it is the product of his Imagination. The great tree itself, the organicist image, is not, in Blakean terms, a vegetable tree; if it were it would be dead. Only the imagination can make it live as a symbol, and that is the true life’ (Romantic Image (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957), 100). 22 Selected Poems, 4. 23 Ibid. 19. 24 Ibid. 41. 25 Ibid. 44. 26 Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown (London: Penguin, 1996), 205.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
and Xesh upon the agency of an otherworld, the opening line can implicitly be read to root this desire in the here and now, between people and earth. In a positive light, therefore, the poem’s rejection of Christ signiWes that the confrontation between consciousness and world is to be mediated directly. The Church is said, in a clumsy phrase, to lift ‘Prophecy j Out of the clayey hours’,27 and this is why the Church is to be condemned: it lifts human aspiration and language away from clay, or corporeality. The Church makes Maguire rush ‘beyond the thing j To the unreal’, and this is part of his tragedy.28 Against this, the poem suggests that language must be wrought from direct experience. If language is claylike, it will retain body, substance, and its relevance to the brute materiality of nature; and, if clay becomes language-like, it will be anthropomorphized and malleable to human subjects. Thus claylanguage is a mid-point between consciousness and nature, and a culture bound by such language would be the antithesis of ‘that metaphysical land j Where Xesh was a thought more spiritual than music j Among the stars—out of the reach of the peasant’s hand’.29 In one part of the poem, we are told: Maguire learns As the horses turn slowly round the which is which Of love and fear and things half born to mind. He stands between the plough-handles and he sees At the end of a long furrow his name signed Among the poets, prostitute’s. With all miseries He is one. Here with the unfortunate Who for half moments of paradise Pay out good days and wait and wait For sunlight-woven cloaks.30
Maguire’s signature, his identity, is bound up with that of the poet and prostitute, word and Xesh. The ‘sunlight-woven cloaks’, echoing Yeats’s embroidered cloths of heaven, link the passage to his early symbolist poetic.31 But the prolonged wait for these cloaks proves that this 27
Selected Poems, 25. Ibid. 29 Ibid. 29. 30 Ibid. 24. 31 W. B. Yeats, ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: MacMillan, 1957), 176. 28
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
symbolist world is entirely proleptic. The satiation of desire is always expected in this world but, like Godot, never quite arrives. Maguire senses that his name (word) will be inscribed in the soil (Xesh), yet this is posited as something that will happen at ‘the end of a long furrow’ (when he is dead). In the meantime, something half-sensed or barely intuited is to recompense. Kavanagh thus implicitly critiques the apocalyptic bent of such symbolism as an opiate for the masses, a blockade against knowledge and agency, a poetic attuned to masturbation rather than consummation. Against this abstraction, the poem claims that ‘God is in the bits and pieces of Everyday’.32 In a more protracted passage: he sat on the railway slope and watched the children of the place Picking up a primrose here and a daisy there— They were picking up life’s truth singly. But he dreamt of the Absolute envased bouquet— All or nothing. And it was nothing. For God is not all In one place, complete and labelled like a case in a railway store Till hope comes in and takes it on his shoulder.33
The ‘Absolute envased bouquet’ is rejected in favour of Xowers plucked and represented in their natural environment. To focus on clay or corporeal matter is to focus on the here and now, and much of The Great Hunger is, accordingly, metonymic. The poem often purports to focus realistically on things contiguous to Maguire in time and space, from which is derived its growling verisimilitude. But, more than this, Kavanagh intertwines metonymic with metaphoric apprehensions of the world, to give Maguire’s mother, for example, ‘a wizened face like moth-eaten leatherette’.34 And this metaphorical splicing ignites the poem’s realism, making it reverberate with imaginative prescience. As far as Maguire’s drama goes, then, he does seem to be released from pining for total meaning, at times, and is allowed to get on with simply being in the world. And, ironically, these moments reveal a moral character and easy-going personality most likely to bring him redemption: 32
Selected Poems, 28. Ibid. 27. 34 Ibid. 23. This is, of course, a simile; but Paul Ricœur, following Aristotle and Quintilian, claims that ‘all metaphor is implicit comparison or simile’ (The Rule of Metaphor: MultiDisciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language, trans. Robert Czerny (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977), 25). 33
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
He helped a poor woman whose cow Had died on her; He dragged home a drunken man on a winter’s night; And one rare moment he heard the young people playing on the railway stile And he wished them happiness and whatever they most desired from life.35
Such moments, however, are rare. Maguire remains in thrall to the mirage of ‘the Absolute envased bouquet’, rather than actual nature in its particularity, and the hypnotic pull of this organicist absolutism takes his sense of value and meaning to the edge: ‘All or nothing’. Either an image or a thing can stand for the world in its totality, or it crumbles into nullity. Within this drama, the poem’s metonymic strain perpetually denies the ‘Absolute . . . All’, and this destabilizes, expunging the signiWcance of things: From the ragged road surface a boy picks up A piece of gravel and stares at it—and then He Xings it across the elm tree on to the railway. It means nothing, Not a damn thing.36
In this manner, the poem spins recurrent loops of non-resolution, making clear that a higher-level irony is at work. Indeed, it is diYcult to Wnd a positive assertion in the poem that is not contradicted, qualiWed, or disrupted elsewhere. We have seen that apocalyptic tropes are dismissed in places, but also that an urge towards integration remains constant. Likewise, the contingent is sometimes embraced, only to be dismissed elsewhere. Every articulation and gesture is made within the wider context of alternative perspectives. The poem is therefore panoptic and ironic. In one sense, it is put together by a process of juxtaposition, building upon perpetual shifts in focus and tone.37 At the same time, however, the poem utilizes an intrusive narrator who supposedly guides the images. Vivid imagery is often accompanied with a rhetorical heavy-handedness, and this develops a
Selected Poems, 36. Ibid. 26. 37 Antoinette Quinn writes that the poem, ‘organized as a montage, is extraordinarily Xexible, continually altering angle and direction. . . . Maguire’s life is framed with rapid changes of focus and from a deliberately diverting play of angles’ (Patrick Kavanagh: Born Again Romantic (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1991), 130). 36
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
friction between narrative message (monotony, waste, tragedy) and aesthetic experience (variety, energy, polysemy). Section II occasions the poem’s most dramatic shift of mode: O he loved his ploughs And he loved his cows And his happiest dream Was to clean his arse With perennial grass On the bank of some summer stream.38
This scatological parody of pastoral conventions, which is of course another Irish convention, most clearly moves attention away from the content of Maguire’s drama towards the form in which it is being represented. By attacking rural stereotypes, the poem asks how the rural could be better depicted. And thus, as the frame within which Maguire is represented perpetually shifts, a pronounced self-reXexivity seeps through the poem. To a marked extent, The Great Hunger is riddled with a barrage of questions: ‘Is there some light . . . ?’; ‘why do we stand here . . . ?’; ‘Which of these men . . . ?’; ‘Who was it . . . ?’; ‘who cares?’; ‘Horses or women?’; ‘What can the passers-by think . . . ?’; ‘Why should men be asked to believe . . . ?’; ‘in the end who shall rest in truth’s high peace?’; ‘Is that a ghost or a tree?’; ‘what was I doing . . . ?’; ‘Where was I looking?’; ‘Is there no escape?’ Clearly, this perpetual questioning reXects the uncertainty of Maguire, of whom we are told: ‘His dream changes again like the cloud-swung wind.’39 But, pivotally, the poem’s formal Xux also swamps the reader in the tide of irresolution. The poem directly challenges the reader to Wnd some form of credible interpretation: ‘If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove j Of life . . . ?’40 The poem viliWes tourists because they blank out reality, seeing only the reiWed images of pastoral convention. By contrast, the reader of The Great Hunger sees a kaleidoscope of perspectives upon an enigma. The poem tells us: There is the source from which all cultures rise, And all religions, There is the pool in which the poet dips And the musician. Without the peasant base civilization must die.41 38
Selected Poems, 22.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
This refers to the utopia imaged in the organicist chain of being, which transposed the rural from an economic ‘base’ of civilization to an ideational one. The peasant symbolizes an internal essence of humanity because the peasant is fully integrated with nature. Kavanagh’s peasant, meanwhile, is the cracked mirror reXecting civilization’s fractures back upon itself, as The Great Hunger reconstitutes the rural in the form of its free-verse disjunction. And, with such a radically unstable ‘base’, culture can Wnd no coherent form, so that Maguire’s problems are passed over to the reader, or ‘civilization’. In other words, it is not just Maguire who is a puppet in the hands of the poem’s contradictions, but also the reader. For example, after a passage that condemns the Church for stemming instinct, we are told: ‘For the strangled impulse there is no redemption.’42 But this sentiment is surely questioned when consideration turns to ‘Schoolgirls of thirteen’, who ‘Would see no political intrigue in an old man’s friendship’—an idea that is discarded only because ‘there was danger of talk j And jails are narrower than the Wvesod ridge j And colder than the black hills facing Armagh in February’.43 Like Maguire, then, the reader is entrapped by irony: avenues of possibility almost inevitably turn out to be culs-de-sac, forcing a return to the one-way passage towards futility. The ironic gamesmanship and play with modes of representation, the crackling verisimilitude, the polysemic experience of much of the imagery: all of these work dialectically against, but cannot stem the tide of, the poem’s superimposition of a tragic narrative. Thus, positive meanings of ‘clay’ are ultimately abandoned, as the poem casts itself within an Alpha and Omega of empty apocalypse, raging against its own lack. And yet, ironically, as the poem progresses, it articulates with greater clarity an argument against such apocalypticism. Just before the Wnal section, we are explicitly told there were ‘No mad hooves galloping in the sky’.44 And even at the poem’s powerful climax, the Wnal apocalypse is reached in the context of yet more unanswered questions: Maybe he will be born again, a bird of an angel’s conceit To sing the gospel of life . . . Will that be? will that be? Or is the earth right that laughs: haw haw And does not believe In an unearthly law.45 42
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Interestingly, this last question lacks a question mark, most likely to deXect attention away from the underlying indecision, in order to garner momentum for the poem’s bleak Wnale: ‘The hungry Wend j Screams the apocalypse of clay j In every corner of this land.’46 But this apocalypse can be read only in the context of the two unanswerable questions: Is there a God? Is there such a thing as a natural order? The ending has powerful connotations. One could read into it the revelation of a God who is angry at the absence of faith, or the revelation of an abused and vengeful nature. But such connotations are predicated upon a teleological dynamic contrary to the poem’s assertion that Maguire’s life entails ‘No crash, j No drama’.47 The apocalyptic ending therefore works against the dominant sense of irresolution, providing an emotive punch with which to counteract it. And, in this manner, the ending perpetuates the contradiction that has run through the entire poem. For, while The Great Hunger reacts against the insistence of empty and unfounded idealism, it does so within an idealist narrative structure: its postulation of an alternative world view, based on a limited but liberating secularism, is subsumed by a rage against the absence of utopia. Ultimately, then, The Great Hunger interacts more complexly with ruralist nationalism than might have initially been apparent. As we have seen, the propensity to relate the ‘lyrical Welds’ with the whole of Ireland engenders a sense of the nation eVused with organicist idealism, perpetuating the illusion that Ireland is a self-enclosed entity cut oV from international forces. But, underneath its surface attack, Kavanagh’s poem is dialectically structured by this trope, immersed in the thought structures it condemns. And, in this sense, The Great Hunger’s paradoxical complex of poetic modes, the tensions within its Wgurative structure, provide a complex point of intersection with the perspectives through which it might be contextualized. The important inXuence of Sean O’Faola´in, along with Frank O’Connor and Liam O’Flaherty, on Kavanagh’s writing in the period leading up to and throughout the composition of The Great Hunger has been noted by Antoinette Quinn.48 Undoubtedly, these writers provided Kavanagh with a positive aesthetic alternative to his early Romanticism, in the form of a pragmatic realism. In a connected sense, 46 48
47 Ibid. 41. Selected Poems. Quinn, Patrick Kavanagh: Born Again Romantic, 112–22.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
meanwhile, O’Faola´in is posited in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing as one of Ireland’s Wrst ‘revisionists’, whose rejection of Romantic– historical thought came in tandem with a view of Ireland as modern and European. But, while the distinction between O’Faola´in’s pragmatic realism and Irish Ireland’s Romanticism provide a backdrop to the contradictions of Kavanagh’s poem, The Great Hunger also indicates how the two shadow each other. For example, Terence Brown argues that prototypical ‘revisionists’ such as O’Faola´in predicated their vision, like de Valera, on a conception of Ireland’s autonomy: There was a sense . . . in which the writers and the politicians were not in fundamental disagreement. They may have diVered on the historical basis of contemporary Irish society and disagreed profoundly in their conscious assessment of the quality of Irish life, but they shared a faith that the Irish future would depend on . . . a commitment to the essential worth of Irish experience.49
Kavanagh’s poem likewise reXects a commitment to the country in the midst of its assault; clearly, its rural scene is as enclosed as the ‘lyrical Welds’ it would explode. Yet in the 1930s, as before and after, the Irish countryside was incontrovertibly politicized. Right-wing activists and left-wing initiatives both found root support among farmers. But Kavanagh’s poem self-consciously eVaces such controversies from its Welds: the one reference to the Second World War emphasizes the community’s isolation from it. One of the dominant motifs in the poem involves thresholds and their transgression. Images of hedges and walls proliferate, symbolizing boundaries between the self and alterity. It is implied that Maguire must break through them if he is to transform his alienated mode of existence, and his failure to do so reXects the poem’s own imprisonment within an apocalyptic narrative structure, its debilitating retention of the desire for organicist enclosure. In this sense, Kavanagh’s use of a predetermined tragic narrative or circumscribed form, which his poem reacts against, is a means of critique using the emotive force of negation. He inverts idealistic Romanticism to such an extent that its retention becomes quite obscene. Yet Kavanagh would later base his poetic on a perpetual, fraught, and irresolvable dialectic between self and alterity.50
Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 159. This dialectic is best represented in Kavanagh’s key poem, ‘Innocence’ from 1951 (Selected Poems, 101). 50
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In many ways, Kavanagh’s dialectic allegorizes, at an intensely personal level, a wider conundrum that fundamentally aVects the way we talk about the nation. For instance, Terry Eagleton writes of the Famine as a kind of abyss in historical thought: ‘This deathly origin . . . shatters space as well as time, unmaking the nation and scattering Irish history across the globe.’51 But the Famine, of course, simultaneously becomes a symbol of unity—the experience of disaster strengthening a communal sense of identity. In a similar manner, O’Faola´in’s historiography opens the door to Europe and international forces, yet this ultimately serves to strengthen the idea of nation by altering its foundations so that it can survive its shift towards modernity. It is beyond doubt that Ireland, during the 1930s, was in the throes of economic and infrastructural transformation, and, while the ‘base’ is in transition, Marxists insist, any form through which civilization chooses to understand itself will be unstable and founded on contradiction. And, certainly, Kavanagh’s poem tries on several aesthetic modes, all of which are wound into a serrating tourniquet. Yet its aesthetic eVectiveness means that the poem, in its ethical charge, incessantly clamours for its contradictions to be resolved. And, in this respect, many of its readers have failed. In Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790, Seamus Deane claims that the only possible alternatives for Irish historical thought lie with either apocalypse or boredom.52 Meanwhile, Kavanagh, describing Maguire, points out ‘The hysteria and the boredom of the enclosed nun of his thought’, and rages against the impotence of these emotions.53 Arguably, Deane’s formulation is as closed oV as Kavanagh’s lyrical Welds, occluding the possibility of a historical perspective predicated on global transformation, or on contradictions and inequalities within Ireland’s infrastructure. But, then again, just as revisionism would attack Romanticism yet retain the boundaries of nationhood, such perspectives would, in turn, lead to more organicist formulations, to the extent that they would explain diachronic change within synchronic contexts. And this perpetual movement away from organicism, that somehow leads back to it again, reXects the dynamics that structure The Great Hunger. Although 51 Terry Eagleton, HeathcliV and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London: Verso, 1995), 14. 52 Seamus Deane, Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1997). 53 Selected Poems, 31.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
Kavanagh attacks the hypocrisy of Romantic idealism in relation to contemporary destitution, this very idealism triggers the poem’s raw cry for change.
II Like Kavanagh, Austin Clarke was bent on attacking the contemporary Irish State, but he did so through diVerent poetic means and for diVering reasons. In ‘Celebrations’, a poem from 1935, he wrote of the Eucharistic Congress, which had been held in Dublin in June 1932. This was the thirty-Wrst in a series of international congresses organized by the Catholic Church. Thomas O’Connor writes: ‘The high point of the event was the celebration of mass in Phoenix Park before a crowd of over 1 million persons. The event marked a great fusion of Catholic and national pride and probably made a contribution to healing Civil War wounds.’54 Colin Graham, however, has described the ‘ominous harmony’ of this event, noting that ‘de Valera and Cosgrave were together bearers of the papal legate’s canopy, thus healing Civil War divisions under the auspices of the Church, creating a de facto consensus around the legislative role of religious morality, and in eVect deradicalising the potential of the still emergent state’.55 In ‘Celebrations’, Clarke was similarly unimpressed: Who dare complain or be ashamed Of liberties our arms have taken? For every spike upon that gateway, We have uncrowned the past: And open hearts are celebrating Prosperity of church and state In the shade of Dublin Castle.
The poem’s last stanza reads: Let ageing politicians pray Again, hoardings recount our faith, The blindfold woman in a rage 54 Thomas O’Connor, ‘Eucharistic Congress’, in The Oxford Companion to Irish History, ed. S. J. Connolly (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 180. 55 Colin Graham, Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), 8.
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Condemn her own for treason: No steeple topped the scale that Monday, Rebel souls had lost their savings And looters braved the street.56
Typical of a Clarke poem, multiple ironies here proliferate under a pofaced surface. In the Wrst two lines, ‘our arms’ have taken ‘liberties’ to oust the British (in the War of Independence), in doing which they have ‘taken’, or claimed, new liberty for Ireland. But the Irish government has also taken Irish liberties away, to the extent that no one will ‘dare complain’ in the coercive aftermath of the civil war. Clarke was keen to voice his anti-Treatyite credentials. ‘Civil War’ from 1936, for example, proclaims its solidarity with the ghosts of Liam Mellowes and Rory O’Connor,57 both of whom were IRA chiefs who saw the Treaty as ‘a great coercion act and a betrayal of the republic’, and took leading roles in establishing the Republican garrison at the Four Courts. They were both executed by the government in December 1922.58 In ‘Celebrations’, meanwhile, the embrace of ‘Prosperity’ during the Congress denotes a materialism antithetical to Clarke’s idealistic Republicanism. Cosgrave and de Valera’s politics perpetuate the apostasy of the ‘looters’ who made free on the streets of Dublin during 1916’s meˆle´e (‘that Monday’), mimicked by the million celebrants on the streets in 1932. In ‘Celebrations’, therefore, Clarke gives voice to the disenchanted Republicans whom de Valera left in the cold in the 1930s, using the martyrdom of 1916 to hollow out 1932’s jubilation over the long-last attainment of sovereignty. Moreover, in ‘Civil War’, he further seeks to undermine de Valera’s drive towards constitutional stability by pointing to the fault-lines in the State’s foundation, signiWed by Mellowes and O’Connor. Thus, if the Eucharistic Congress was a public salve to civil war sores, Clarke would clearly have those sores suppurate. Admittedly, however, these poems are anomalies in Clarke’s output of the time. Broadly speaking, they register a transitory stage in Clarke’s gestation from would-be bard to satirist. In his memoirs, Clarke wrote that, by the 1920s, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man had ‘long since become confused with my own memories or had completed them’.59 56 57 58 59
Austin Clarke, Collected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974), 195. Ibid. 178. Foster, Modern Ireland: 1600–1972, 510–11. Austin Clarke, Twice around the Black Church (London: Routledge, 1962), 26.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
And, unfortunately, Clarke initially seems to have read Stephen Dedalus’s concluding ambition, in that novel, without irony.60 He was taught, at University College Dublin, by Thomas MacDonagh, Douglas Hyde, and George Sigerson;61 while this heady mix was Wred by the addition of W. B. Yeats, Clarke’s oedipal father-Wgure and poetic lodestar. And, in the glow of such inXuence, Clarke clearly primed himself to be a ‘national poet’ in the most guileless sense, his art organically one with the spirit of the nation. Indeed, up to the 1940s, Clarke argued for a wholly separate Irish literary tradition or canon, believing that the English language could be stylized into an authentically ‘Irish mode’ through a fusion with traits of Gaelic. Yet his early work exempliWes that the poetics of Samuel Ferguson or Standish O’Grady were risibly out of date.62 And so, on the surface, Clarke’s problem was how to create a new poetic style that would maintain the politico-cultural dynamics of the Revival. But a deeper and perhaps unconscious problem for Clarke was the extent to which 1916–22 had changed those dynamics, or inaugurated some kind of foundational shift that rendered his naively organicist mode of historical imagination, like Patrick Maguire’s, inadequate. Clarke’s desire to be part of an aesthetic community set apart from modernity may have been exacerbated by the experience of earning his living writing literary reviews in London between 1921 and 1937. 60 Stephen, of course, writes in his diary: ‘I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race’ ( James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (London: Penguin, 1992), 275–6). 61 George Sigerson’s work as a metrist and translator had made him a doyen of the Literary Revival, although he was Professor of Zoology. Clarke credited his own learning of ‘the subtle art’ of Irish formal poetry to him in Twice around the Black Church (p. 169). Meanwhile, Clarke wrote of Douglas Hyde: ‘he spoke of the aims and ideals of the language revival . . . Those plain words changed me in a few seconds. The hands of our lost centuries were laid on me’ (ibid.). Even more inXuential, however, was Thomas MacDonagh, who wrote two critical studies before his terminal participation in the Easter Rising. W. J. McCormack claims that MacDonagh ‘laid the foundations for an art such as Austin Clarke’s. . . . he was profoundly concerned with the rhythmic quality of verse, its relation (in the Elizabethan period) with music, and its potential in contemporary conditions for development into a distinctive ‘‘Irish Mode’’ ’. ‘ ‘‘Beyond the Pale’’: Introducing Austin Clarke (1896–1974)’, Austin Clarke, Selected Poems, ed. McCormack (London: Penguin, 1992), 6–7. 62 John Goodby writes that both Clarke and Padraic Fallon ‘had made their reputations in celebrating an eroticised, pagan version of the idealised West beloved by Irish Ireland, a congery of green islands, grey skies and Wery sunsets set to a tin-whistle soundtrack, its landscapes peopled by obliging peasant girls, merry cattle-drovers and sage turf-cutters’ (Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 21).
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Shunning what he called the ‘complexities of the modernist school’,63 Clarke reviewed newly published collections by Padraic Colum and Monk Gibbon in 1932. He wrote: [O]ne is brought back to those enchanting early days of the Irish literary movement, when the love-songs of Connaught were discovered and it seemed that all the world and poetry were still young. There was excitement in the air at that time, for at any moment a matchless country song, a tantalizing fragment, might be found in a remote glen by scholar or poet.64
Claiming that, in the 1930s, ‘the poetic environment in Ireland was still controlled by rules that Yeats himself had bent or broken’, Edna Longley singles out Clarke and his friend F. R. Higgins as being particularly ‘inhibited’ by ‘over-literal readings’ of early Yeats.65 And, by thus being, as W. J. McCormack describes him, ‘the imitator of a Yeats who had ceased to exist’,66 Clarke was antagonistic not just towards Irish modernists, but also towards the growing body of Irish literary realism.67 Therefore, as he set about diagnosing Irish literature, he came to epitomize the imaginative insularity and aesthetic stagnation that had so many of his peers streaming out of Dublin for asylum. Ironically, however, Clarke’s notion of an Irish mode was meant as a modernizing force, plugged into ‘the political and social problems of present-day Ireland’.68 It aimed to replace the ‘wavering rhythms’ of the ‘Celtic Twilight School’ with a new ‘objective manner’, while consolidating the nationalist intent of the Revival, particularly as it had been promulgated by Thomas MacDonagh.69 The idea of an objective Celtic aesthetic had earlier been promoted by Sigerson, who had identiWed intricacy and reWnement as the deWning components of Gaelic art. 63 Austin Clarke, Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke, ed. Gregory A. Schirmer (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994), 14. 64 Ibid. 54. 65 Edna Longley, ‘ ‘‘It is Time that I Wrote my Will’’: Anxieties of InXuence and Succession’, in Warwick Gould and Edna Longley (eds.), Yeats Annual No. 12. That Accusing Eye: Yeats and his Irish Readers (London: Macmillan Press, 1996), 139, 157. 66 W. J. McCormack, ‘Austin Clarke: The Poet as Scapegoat of Modernism’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 78. 67 In 1946, Clarke wrote of ‘our realistic novelists and dramatists’, arguing: ‘It cannot but be said that they are an embarrassment rather than a help to liberal tradition of thought and to mental progress in this country’ (Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke, 104). 68 Ibid. 67. 69 Two of MacDonagh’s theses, which would become gospel to Clarke, were: (1) ‘That an Anglo-Irish literature, worthy of a special designation, could come about only when English
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
Sigerson claimed that those who have seen the ‘illuminated initials’ of the Book of Kells ‘know the wonderful grace of form shown in the interwoven lines’ and argued that a ‘similar ingenuity, grace, artistic power, delicacy, and taste, were employed in the service of poetry’. He continued: No translator can hope to reproduce, in English, the Wner traits of this art, because these demand a language of open vowels, and other aids. This fact must be remembered, for it gave the advantage of subtle and elusive rime, without tiring the ear. But though such reWned graces must be sought for in the originals, something may be done to represent the form, style, and methods of the bards, whilst keeping faithful to the spirit and substance of their lays.70
MacDonagh, meanwhile, wrote: ‘the English language in Ireland has an individuality of its own, and the rhythm of Irish speech a distinctive character.’71 When translated into literature, he argued, this would be expressed by musicality. MacDonagh’s ‘Irish mode’ is characterized by ‘that grace of the wandering, lingering, musical voice’.72 But this ‘wandering’ musicality is to be further distinguished by its release from strictly regular rhythm: ‘Music is deWnitely rhythmic, with stress recurrent at regular intervals; but . . . in certain Irish tunes, set to Irish words, the music goes out of its way as it were, to follow the varying expression of the words, which in an Irish song are all important.’73 Thus, the Irish mode primarily frees poetry from the impositions of regular metric patterning, so that rhythm can be improvised around a poem’s lexis while not dictating it. In this sense, MacDonagh echoes the Imagist dictum: ‘to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome’.74 And, certainly, MacDonagh’s aim was to preserve distinctive forms of Irish linguistic musicality while culling the mellifluous dross that often passed for Celtic poetry. In certain respects, he was thus repeating the arguments of Sigerson, who had added, to his had become the language of the Irish people, mainly of Gaelic stock, and when the literature was from, by, of, to and for the Irish people’; and (2) ‘That the ways of life and the ways of thought of the Irish people—the manners, customs, traditions and outlook, social and moral—have important diVerences from the ways of life and of thought which have found expression in other English literature’ (Thomas MacDonagh, Literature in Ireland: Studies in Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature (London: Fisher & Unwin, 1918), p. viii). 70 George Sigerson, Bards of the Gael and Gall: Examples of the Poetic Literature of Erinn, 3rd edn. (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1925), 23. 71 MacDonagh, Literature in Ireland, pp. viii–ix. 72 Ibid. 55. 73 Ibid. 74 Ezra Pound, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 1954), 3.
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association of Gaelic art with advanced craftsmanship, a further characteristic of objectivity: ‘Those who are wont to associate Irish poetry with eVusiveness of thought and luxuriance of language will be surprised to Wnd that bardic poetry was characterised by classic reserve in thought, form, and expression. This, perhaps, is not the least message of the ancient bards to their successors.’75 But, despite all this, Clarke’s work was still retrogressive and archaic. John McAuliVe has damned the majority of Clarke’s critics because, he claims, their work is ‘hampered by a schoolboy-like enthusiasm for identifying incidences of Irish-language poetic devices such as assonance while avoiding any illuminating contextual analysis’.76 Yet Clarke himself brought attention to these devices as his major selling point; and, moreover, Clarke’s themes and content exacerbated the naively organicist presumptions that lay behind his stylistic manifesto. His most merciless critic, Samuel Beckett, levied scorn not just at the pretentious oYcialism of Clarke’s prosodic programme, but also at the ‘fully licensed stock-in-trade’ of his imagery and subject matter, which, Beckett argued, precipitated Clarke’s ‘need for formal justiWcations’ in order to ‘screen the deeper need that must not be avowed’, his poetry’s ‘Xight from self-awareness’.77 Beckett went on famously to parody Clarke’s recidivist Celticism in the shape of Austin Ticklepenny.78 Notoriously, Beckett was aware of Clarke’s nervous breakdown, hospitalization, and failed marriage when he caricatured him as a drunken, impotent homosexual, ‘whose breakdown had been due less to the pints than to the pentameters’.79 But Beckett’s spite should not distract from the perspicacity of his literary nous, because Clarke’s Irish mode was ultimately a dated attempt to fabricate an exclusive literary identity that mirrored the State’s gradual descent, during the 1930s, into cultural isolationism. Clarke’s collection from 1938, Night and Morning, is best appreciated in the light of 1929’s Pilgrimage and Other Poems. In turn, however, both 75
Sigerson, Bards of the Gael and Gall, 23. John McAuliVe, ‘Against Irish Studies: Reading Austin Clarke and his Critics’, in P. J. Matthews (ed.), New Voices in Irish Criticism (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), 256. 77 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: Jonathan Calder, 1983), 71–3. 78 A character, based on Austin Clarke, from Beckett’s 1938 novel Murphy. The novel describes ‘the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose’, as being ‘free as a canary in the Wfth foot . . . and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine Xatus and otherwise bulging with as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of Beamish’s porter’ ((London: Picador, 1973), 53). 79 Ibid. 76
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
these collections build upon certain themes and traits from The Cattledrive in Connaught, published in 1925. This collection is Wlled with what Clarke calls ‘Itinerary poems’, which seek to grasp the nation as a totality of places, times, events, and discourses. ‘The Itinerary of Ua Clerigh’, for example, Xuidly passes from the presence of Planters to Vikings to Fairy-Queens, from Medieval Monasticism to the Spanish Armada to Yeats, from Tirnanogue to the age of the United Irishmen, from Napoleon back to Fairy-Queens, and so on.80 W. J. McCormack argues that such poems fuse a loco-descriptive mode with ‘an inward-directed poetry of great psychic disturbance as its essential complement’.81 But ‘The Itinerary of Ua Clerigh’, and others like it, fail to convince. It is as if a supermarket of national imagery has been visited, with motifs of popular Irish history and literary convention attractively on display. Each stanza takes us down diVering aisles of the past with a knowingness that manifests little psychic disturbance. The reader is left, rather, with a blandly incoherent stew of stereotypes. Yet other such poems do, as McCormack suggests, become unhinged. The momentum of their protagonists’ traversal through the mythic theme parks of Irish history somehow cuts them oV from what they name and observe. ‘The Pedlar’, for example, reaches its zenith when it comes to Tara, the originating Palace of Irish myth. But the poem cannot dwell there, and Tara is blown away, like ‘a story’, at the poem’s end, as the poetic voice hurries oV into darkness.82 Thus, the travel through Irish history does not seem to lead anywhere. And, given the context of later poems explicitly pitched against the State, such as ‘Celebrations’ and ‘Civil War’, it seems fair to suggest that such restlessness manifests an ambiguity towards the inauguration of the Free State, an inability to accede to the ‘arrival’ of the nation, even as the poems bespeak the nation’s culture in all its plenitude. More bleakly, this impetus of perpetual movement Wnally explodes into the warped kaleidoscope of ‘The Frenzy of Suibhne’, where the momentum of a Xight without destination becomes a virtual prison cell of irrationality: Who runs with the grey moon When ravens are asleep? 80 81 82
Collected Poems, 120–2. McCormack, ‘ ‘‘Beyond the Pale’’ ’, 10. Selected Poems, 123.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s It is Sweeny, Little Sweeny Looking for his mind.83
This poem implodes into a virulent disassociation from its referents; and, if it is feasible to link this to Clarke’s anti-Treatyite politics, one might say that his aesthetic has been cut adrift by the inception of the Free State, abandoned to a hypersentive isolation and disenfranchisement, as the symbolic landscape of Irish myth speeds by, out of kilter. Being the Wnal lyric of The Cattledrive in Connaught, the poem’s compressed hallucinations Wgure as the Wnal destination of its predecessors’ circumnavigations. As was the case with Patrick Maguire, then, Clarke’s apocalypticism confronts him with ‘All or nothing’, and in holding out for the former he winds up tortured by shadows. ‘The Frenzy of Suibhne’ ends with a lament: Nine years I hurried from mankind And yet, O Christ, if I could sail To the Island of the Culdees, I would sleep, sleep awhile By the blessing of the holy Kiernan.84
Four years later, as if in answer to Suibhne’s prayer, the eponymous opening poem of Pilgrimage takes us to ‘a barren isle, j Where Paradise is praised’ and where ‘white Culdees pray’.85 ‘Pilgrimage’ is another itinerary poem, but one that takes us to a ‘blessed place’ of rest and peace.86 This is located in what Clarke called the ‘Celtic-Romanesque’ era of Monastic Ireland, an invention that critics claim diVerentiates Pilgrimage from the earlier work, replacing its tired mythology with a more original imaginative foundation based upon a veriWable past.87 In this ideal epoch of Clarke’s, Ireland was inXuential throughout a Xuid European culture in which art and religious practice were undiVerentiated; and this fusion saved the culture from the censorious tunnel vision that mars the contemporary Irish State.
Selected Poems, 133. Ibid. 134. 85 Ibid. 154. 86 Ibid. 153. 87 Maurice Harmon argues that, in Pilgrimage and Other Poems, ‘Clarke has a clearer sense of what he wants to achieve in subject matter and style and of the diVerences he wants to create between his poetry and that of his predecessors in the Irish Literary Revival’ (Austin Clarke 1896–1974: A Critical Introduction (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989), 60). 84
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
Clarke’s ‘Celtic-Romanesque’ is a variation on a common dynamic, postulating a golden era in the past that serves to critique the fallen present and form an ideal for the future. And, while this is clearly organicist, each time Clarke projects intimations of his utopia, the result is something of an ironic fracture, as his golden era becomes a counterpoint to contemporary national and psychological disturbances. Indeed, the relative balance of ‘Pilgrimage’ is immediately ripped to shreds by the collection’s next poem, ‘Celibacy’, which articulates a sexual struggle and tortured psyche through comparatively startling imagery: ‘She sank until I saw j The bright roots of her scalp’.88 And in this manner, the ‘Celtic-Romanesque’ becomes a Janus-faced mirror.89 Even the relatively easeful title poem ends ambivalently: ‘on a barren isle’, ‘We heard white Culdees pray j Until our hollow ship was kneeling j Over the longer waves’.90 In this fade-out, the adjectives ‘barren’ and ‘hollow’ question the merit of the monastic culture, hinting that the asylum sought by Suibhne bears its own deformations. And, certainly, the ideal of a liberal, scholarly Ireland integrated within a European culture of faith and artistic endeavour yields its own contradictions in Clarke’s imagination, Wssures that are explored fully in Night and Morning. This collection’s eponymous opening poem articulates more explicitly the utopian ideal of the ‘Celtic-Romanesque’: O when all Europe was astir With echo of learned controversy, The voice of logic led the choir. Such quality was in all being, The forks of heaven and this earth Had met, town-walled, in mortal view And in the pride that we ignore,
Collected Poems, 155. W. J. McCormack argues of the ‘Celtic-Romanesque’: ‘In certain poems it furnished an example of civilized, cultivated belief, to be contrasted with the dogmatic Jansenism of the modern Irish Church. In others, it supplied a landscape in which sexual anxiety was dramatized through invocation of the hermits’ sacriWce. Characteristically, the two functions of the mirror are often active in the same poem, allowing the rich complexity of Clarke’s doubt to Xourish. The non-schismatic nature of the pre-reformation Church allowed him to invoke a culture which possessed, at least in theory, that unity of being so beloved and desired by W. B. Yeats. At the same time, the pervasively decentralized structure of early medieval Irish society threw up endless instances of petty wars and territorial disputes’ (‘ ‘‘Beyond the Pale’’ ’, 13). 90 Collected Poems, 154. 89
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
The holy rage of argument, God was made man once more.91
Rationality and freedom of thought here combine in an antithesis to the contemporary State. In the same poem, Clarke asks: ‘How many councils and decrees j Have perished in the simple prayer j That gave obedience to the knee’?92 In this manner, ‘Night and Morning’ suggests that the Church’s monopoly over Irish consciousness has supplanted political reason with superstition, freedom with fear. Ireland’s cultural congruence, symbolized in the Eucharistic Congress, is false; it is superimposed through religious oppression, while true unity inheres in the ‘learned controversy’ and ‘rage of argument’ that the State suppresses. Throughout Night and Morning, the opposition between Monastic Ireland and the contemporary State intertwists into a snarling warren of ever-narrowing furrows. The collection concentrates upon a schism between religious faith and reason. This schism is not the State’s fault; rather, the State is to be condemned for taking advantage of it, blockading any route back to where the ‘forks of heaven and this earth’ might meet. But such a place would be astir with controversy, ‘Night and Morning’ tells us: precisely an arena of schismatic diVerence and argument. Meanwhile, many poems in the collection give voice to a consciousness traumatized by irony, falling into the abyss between reality and God, or diVerence and identity. In a sense, then, a deeper theme of the collection sees the poems trying to live up to the conviction of its opening vision. The book’s internal trauma counteracts its surface attacks against the State, disWguring its faith in free thought and logic: these are ideals that it perpetually Wnds wanting, and whose deWciency, in turn, sends the speaker scampering back towards a blind faith to which it cannot submit. ‘Night and Morning’ opens: I know the injured pride of sleep, The strippers at the mocking-post, The insult in the house of Caesar And every moment that can hold In brief the miserable act Of centuries. Thought can but share Belief—and the tormented soul, 91
Collected Poems, 182.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
Changing confession to despair, Must wear a borrowed robe.93
The Passion of Christ is an image that contains the aZiction of history. The Passion images humanity turned against itself with a self-destructive bent that the poem identiWes at the core of historical existence. Because history is the theatre of humanity’s self-immolation, associated through the Passion with an absence of religious faith, it becomes a sphere in which reason and faith are disjoined. Yet, in Clarke’s ideal, one depends upon the other; it would be a sham to profess faith ‘[i]f all in reason should be lost’. And, ultimately, these poems are locked and bound by this diVerence, coiling around the schism between reason and faith until they choke. The second stanza of ‘Night and Morning’ moves onto the Church, which clearly oVers no redemption. It begins: ‘Morning has moved the dreadful candle’;94 thus, morning brings nothing but the closer proximity of death. The poem continues: Appointed shadows cross the nave; Unlocked by the secular hand, The very elements remain Appearances upon the altar.95
This breakdown of the Eucharist broadens out Clarke’s attack on the Eucharistic Congress in ‘Celebrations’. The ‘Appointed shadows’ are not just priests but politicians, whose ‘secular hand’ ensures that the State’s religious rhetoric remains just that, disembodied from the political transubstantiation that has not yet happened.96 Nevertheless, ‘Night and Morning’ does launch itself on a trajectory towards a morning of resurrection. In contrast to the ‘Adoring priest’ who ‘has turned his back j Of gold upon the congregation’, Clarke remembers Monastic Ireland:
Ibid. Ibid. 95 Ibid. 96 W.J. McCormack teases out the subtlety of Clarke’s ironies in this stanza, informing us: ‘ ‘‘elements’’ and ‘‘appearances’’ refer to the bread and wine before and after transubstantiation, respectively. . . . Thus Clarke uses ‘‘Appearances’’ in a technical sense which is compatible with faith, but also admits a more idiomatic suggestion of mere appearances, etc’ (Selected Poems, 232). 94
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Trampling of rostrum, feathering Of pens at cock-rise, sum of reason To elevate a common soul: Forgotten as the minds that bled For us, the miracle that raised A language from the dead.97
The poem then ends with the utopian vision quoted above (‘when all Europe was astir’), so that the ‘Celtic-Romanesque’ here constitutes a redeemed state within history, which may yet be brought back from the dead through the ‘miracle’ of ‘learned controversy’. Yet the poem tells us that ‘God was made man once more’ through ‘the pride that we ignore’; while, at its beginning, Christ’s Passion is inXicted during ‘the injured pride of sleep’. Pride thus denotes both the rationality fused with faith that is Clarke’s zenith, and the rationality without faith that generates the barbarism of historical reality. The diVerence, therefore, between utopia and history-as-nightmare is slight. The paradox of ‘pride’ underlines that damnation and redemption are states of being open to the self-same body, whether individual or communal. Moreover, the ingredients necessary for utopia—reason and faith—are present in the contemporary; it is merely their mode of integration that is missing. At times, Clarke permits moments of optimism; yet, predominantly, his inability to conjoin faith and reason implodes into stark negation. Like The Great Hunger, the poems of Night and Morning shift in perspective, incessantly seeking a new angle, a way through their central impasse; but their mutating frameworks ultimately accentuate the sense of a consciousness writhing and contorting itself into deadlock. However, the exact nature of these tensions remains somewhat oblique, partially owing to the poetry’s abstract imagery, its bleak surface, which shrouds its interiority. For example, the crux of many poems is borne by the polysemantic yet utterly dull word ‘thought’: ‘Thought can but share j Belief’;98 ‘thought of all our thought has crossed j The mind in pain’; ‘thought is older than the years’;99 ‘Close as the thought that suVers him’;100 ‘If ordinary thought prevail’.101 The word is as elastic as it is inexpressive. Its repetition through successive poems, as they circle 97 99 101
Collected Poems, 181. ‘Mortal Pride’, ibid. 182. ‘The Jewels’, ibid. 192.
‘Night and Morning’, ibid. 181. 100 ‘Tenebrae’, ibid. 183.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
their recurring themes, unleashes an indeterminacy that is pivotal to the collection’s overall tenor. Clarke’s drab composure thus marks an expressiveness inhibited by convulsive undercurrents of emotional and intellectual strain. Yet Clarke’s concern to generate contradictions from the Xattest possible linguistic surface has the eVect of dampening his artistry with an insipid monotony. John Goodby has described Clarke’s poetic as ‘anti-authenticist’, claiming that its ‘gnarled vocabulary, its parataxis, its refusal to shape material to discursive prose or speech rhythms’ make ‘the artiWciality of writing clear’.102 Goodby is referring to Clarke’s post-1955 output, attempting to transform Clarke from a stereotypical Revivalist poet into a prototypical postmodernist one; yet he also claims this ‘complex style’ was Wrst voiced in Night and Morning.103 However, such linguistic awareness seems to have been akin to Clarke’s experience of marginalization: if he later honed it to his advantage, the ‘artiWciality of writing’ seems to have been deeply problematic for him in the 1930s, associated with the pretence of the Eucharist, and thus with the problematics of reason and faith. The opacity of imagery in Night and Morning is bound up with mental isolation, provoking submission (‘knuckle and knee are all we know j when the mind is half despairing’),104 and ultimately schizophrenia. Therefore, while the poems do semantic gymnastics with the apparently empty husks of words such as ‘thought’ and ‘mind’, they nonetheless pine desperately for an authentic resolution. And, time and time again, such authenticity is projected onto the unattainable integration of reason and faith, an organicist fusion of ‘thought’ with something else, something outside of itself; and the two poles of this dichotomy, unstable in themselves, entangle around the contradiction of their immiscibility. But, while the ambiguous minimalism of the poetry’s focus on ‘thought’ and ‘mind’ generates a polysemic introversion, other images indicate that there is a third arena that the poems’ abstraction in part serves to repress. Sexuality and the body are somewhat censored in the utopian image of an open-minded Ireland integrated with a scholastic Europe. However, ‘The Lucky Coin’ imagines a society where ‘Lovers forgot on the mountain-side j The stern law of the clergy j That kiss,
Goodby, Irish Poetry since 1950, 27. ‘Repentance’, Collected Poems, 186.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
pinch, squeeze, hug, smack denied’.105 And Pilgrimage and Other Poems contained two long poems, ‘The Confession of Queen Gormlai’ and ‘The Young Woman of Beare’, featuring female Wgures similar to Yeats’s Crazy Jane: transgressing State morality with an open sexuality. In 1936, Clarke wrote: ‘The immodesty of present-day female dress is denounced in virile Pastorals, and our Parliament passes laws against temptations, the pleasures of dancing and courting. Novels which are liable to incite passion are banned and the present writer is among the Irish novelists placed on the condemned list.’106 Thus, for Clarke, the State’s repression of sexuality and freedom of thought interlock in its hegemonic chain.107 And, given such an atmosphere, the automatically transgressive sexuality of ‘The Young Woman of Beare’ and ‘Queen Gormlai’ is driven underground, associated with the unconscious, with dreams in the night: I am the bright temptation In talk, in wine, in sleep. Although the clergy pray, I triumph in a dream.108
Yet ‘Queen Gormlai’ entails a capitulation; she ends her poem repenting, Wnally assenting to the State’s splicing of body and soul: ‘I grieve our vessels shake j The soul.’109 From this perspective, free thought becomes sinful; the ‘Queen’ Wnishes her poem ‘Murmuring of the sins j Whose hunger is the mind’.110 Thus, Clarke’s Wgures are less deWant than Yeats’s Crazy Jane; his poems are burdened by guilt for their transgression, so that sexuality becomes deeply troublesome.
Collected Poems, 187–8. Austin Clarke, Collected Poems (London: Allen & Unwin, 1936), 319. 107 Elizabeth Cullingford Xeshes out the context of sexual repression and intellectual conformism that the feminine transgressors of both Yeats and Clarke subvert: ‘Film censorship was instituted in 1923; the censorship of literature and the press, preceded by the establishment of a Committee on Evil Literature in 1926, became law in 1929. In 1925 the Bishops forced Cosgrave to revoke the legal right to divorce inherited by the Free State from the English Parliament. Although the importation and sale of contraceptives was not formally outlawed until 1935, advertisements for or explanations of birth control devices were banned by the Censors. At the same time, illegitimacy carried an overwhelming social and legal stigma. Both the main political parties and the majority of the population accepted the sexual purity legislation, since it accorded with their own prejudices’ (Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 142). 108 ‘The Young Woman of Beare’, Collected Poems (1974), 164. 109 Ibid. 161. 110 Ibid. 162. 106
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
On one level, Clarke uses sexuality to challenge the Church and the State. Yet sexuality also precipitates the collapse of reason, or free thought, and is a root cause of his poetry’s disturbances. This is indicated in ‘The Straying Student’, whose vision-woman opens the door to a broader culture, teaching the student-speaker of Rome, Greece, and the East. But although she banishes his shame and expands his horizons, she undermines him ‘with her great laugh’. He claims that, under her inXuence, ‘My mind was growing bold’, and yet ‘her eyes were bright with mockery’. He ends the poem: ‘I have no peace now, j . . . my breath has gone, j And yet I tremble lest she deceive me.’111 Thus, femininity, in Clarke’s poetry, promises fulWlment, oVering to assuage desire so that the psyche can both transcend and be at one with itself. But, simultaneously, the feminine is a locus of ironic disruption, polysemy, adulteration, and deceit. Clarke is therefore confounded by sexual phobias shared with the ruling order he would otherwise subvert. The State proVers a false organicism, Wgured through the Eucharist, which he would disrupt by unleashing, through the agencies of free thought and sexuality, the ironic diVerence contained within. But, at the same time, Clarke is radically discomforted by the capriciousness of these forces, and he seeks for a closure that, he Wnds, resides precisely in the symbolic modalities of the counterfeit State. And so, just as the travelling protagonists of the itinerary poems could never Wnally arrive and come to rest at a stable destination, so the vagrant consciousness of Night and Morning can never make peace with the ceaseless fragmentation of ‘thought’ and, Wnally, it implodes into neurotic self-aZiction. In ‘No Recompense’, reason and dream deconstruct as the ‘holy rage of argument’ becomes a hell: Quality, number and the sweet divisions Of reason may forget their schoolmen now. And door-chill, body’s heat, anger of vein, Bring madness in our sleep. I have endured The enmity of my own mind that feared No argument . . . 112
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
‘Summer Lightning’ then takes us into St Patrick’s asylum: The heavens opened. With a scream The Blackman at his night-prayers Had disappeared in blasphemy, And iron beds were bared; Day was unshuttered again, The elements had lied, Ashing the faces of mad men Until God’s likeness died.113
Thought and identity ultimately have no anchorage, no guarantee of authenticity or truthfulness outside of themselves; instead, they are caught up in an interminable network of self-referentiality. Thus, the poetry’s inability to replace the false Eucharist opens onto an ironic collapse. The absence of an organicist stability ultimately signiWes a Godlessness, a perpetual schism between the body and spirit, self and alterity, temporality and inWnitude. Night and Morning ultimately concludes, then, with a conservative and defeatist rescission.114 The very ‘pride’ and ‘rage of argument’ that graced the human with the divine now eradicate that divinity, locking the self within the imprisoning night-time of its dehiscent isolation.115 In this manner, Clarke’s posturing assault on State morality, using sexual and intellectual liberalism as weaponry, soon abates. Moreover, the ideal of an Irish culture integrated with Europe, forwarded as a cosmopolitan alternative to the stagnant insularity of the State, also collapses, because of a subterranean but implacable need for stabilization. The Europe of ‘Night and Morning’ constitutes a projected organicist totality, but one that eclipses any concrete apprehension. As such, it sucks the Irish subject, who would be part of it, into a Xuid realm of slipping boundaries and contingent ironies, which quickly mutates into a predatory jungle of the self’s malignant dispossession
‘The Young Woman of Beare’, Collected Poems. The collection’s Wnal poem, ‘The Jewels’, implicitly acquiesces to the ideology of the State, claiming: ‘taken in the darkest need j Of mind, no faith makes me ashamed’ (ibid. 191). The desperate need for closure ultimately overrides the perpetual restlessness of ‘thought’, the ‘carbons of consciousness j That waste the night in falsehood’, leaving nowhere to turn to but a comforting nostalgia for an originating moment out of time: ‘O to think, when I was younger j And could not tell the diVerence, j God lay upon this tongue’, (ibid. 192). 115 ‘Summer Lightning’ ends: ‘I pity, in their pride j And agony of wrong, the men j In whom God’s likeness died’ (ibid. 191). 114
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
of identity. Thus, Clarke is in a paradoxical position in the 1930s: stridently antagonistic towards the State while being thoroughly interpellated by, and aYned to, its ideological mainframe. These paradoxes are refracted through the stylistic tensions of Clarke’s poetry: its Xoundering attempts to surface, with a distinctive mode of expression, from the quagmire of what Beckett called its ‘fully licensed stock-in-trade’. Yet in some of Clarke’s best earlier lyrics, such as ‘The Lost Heifer’ and ‘Secrecy’, the rich tonal inXections and chimes of the verse created an aural freshness and ambience of plenitude, which nevertheless closed in upon an absence, a receding object of desire; and this created a wistful ambivalence, a declension in the heart, all the more aVecting for its subtlety. The melodic timbre and rhythmic poise of these lyrics embodied the easeful abundance and variance that organicist desire aspires towards, so that their ultimate implosion conveyed a palpable sense of immanent frustration. The incipient plenteousness of these poems, falling into hollowness, captures moments of poignant resonance. By contrast, the more intellectual and tonally Xatter poems of Night and Morning fail to manifest a sense of what has been lost with any such sensuousness, which accentuates the cold, alienated pitch of their begrudgement, and diminishes their emotive power, as the poems fail to draw their readers through any bond of empathy. In turn, this isolation, this loss of emotive communality, may well be bound up with the diminished perspicacity of Clarke’s allegorical frameworks, with their demand for symbolic purity, in the changing contexts of the late 1930s State. Indeed, the elements of retrogression in Clarke’s work indicate the increasing incompatibility of organicist nationalism and disjunctive modernity, while Clarke’s aesthetic awkwardness indicates the problematic redundancy inXicted by Independence upon a nationalist aesthetic perpetually geared towards the future. Clarke’s subversion of State ideology hinges on his desire for an integrated State that Independence failed to inaugurate—vitiated, as it was, by internal divisions and continued ties with England. His poetic is thus proleptically conWgured towards a moment of becoming, of collective enfranchisement, from within a culture that is already reiterating and consolidating that event’s Xawed materialization. And, while his poetry articulates resistance against the State through voicing demands for cultural diVerence, freedom of thought, and sexual liberty, it is structured at its core by aesthetic and ideological proclivities that are
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
recalcitrant to such indeterminateness. At this deeper level, therefore, Clarke’s poetry critiques the State not because of its coercive repression, but because it constitutes a corruption of the national purity it is meant to embody.
III Clarke’s contradictions are, in many ways, similar to Kavanagh’s: he attacks the State’s censorious ideology, based upon an aesthetic of organicism, but he remains drawn, as an artist, to organicist modalities, scared oV by the indeterminate vulnerability of the alternatives. Yet Clarke’s poetry is markedly diVerent from Kavanagh’s. While The Great Hunger ultimately surrenders to apocalypticism, its signiWcance resides in the power with which it manifests alternatives, generating a shocking exasperation at the waste it represents. Key to this is its success in exemplifying what might be called an aesthetic of clay: a language rooted in what it represents, creating a textured verisimilitude in which naturalistic detail is animated by subjective anxieties, and in which accumulated images are voltaged by a doubt as to what they might ultimately signify. Conversely, Clarke’s poetry is built upon a curiously introverted attempt to renegotiate the codes of a narrowly conceived literary tradition, treating those codes as a kind of supraexperiential reality. The apocalypse that ends The Great Hunger is eVectively an externalization of that poem’s aporias. Its contradictions are projected outwards into a scream, an eruption in which subjective alienation, isolation, and social fragmentation vibrate through a festering landscape. Through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s aesthetics, we might say that this scream gives volume to the conXictual antagonisms of Irish culture, in a Xash of revelation struck from the violence of social and psychic contradictions given the scent of a freedom that is denied. Benjamin wrote: ‘When thinking reaches a standstill in a constellation saturated with tensions, the dialectical image appears. This image is the caesura in the movement of thought.’116 As Michael Jennings points out, moreover, the appearance of a dialectical image ‘Wnds its necessary complement in 116 Cited by Michael Jennings, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Literary Criticism (London: Cornell University Press, 1987), 205.
Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke
destructive, even nihilistic fervour directed against myth, error and delusion’.117 As such, the outburst of Kavanagh’s apocalyptic scream bears the force of a dialectical image. Yet a lingering idealism is vital to this conception: the force of the image generates precisely from the absence of organicism from historical reality. Jennings argues: On the basis of his reading of German Idealism, Benjamin deWnes the Gedichtete [a word meaning something like ‘that which is the product or result of poetry’ or ‘the poeticized’] as that sphere which serves as the transcendental source of meaning and cohesion for the world. The goal of criticism—as well as that of poetry—is the mimesis or representation of this sphere, its reconstruction out of fragments of literary texts.118
Kavanagh’s scream is a desperate reaction against this sphere’s absence, as well as a last-chance demand that it be historically manifested. And, in this sense, The Great Hunger vaporizes nationalist boundaries, opening out to pathologies universal to the modern world. Clarke’s poetry, by contrast, is diVerently oriented. If The Great Hunger’s contradictions initially spring from the disjunction between Fianna Fa´il ideology and historical reality, it surpasses that ideology through its mediation of contradictory experience into the material of the verse, and because its organicist desire remains insatiably absolute and universal, impelling the historical problematics of the Irish 1930s forwards through its emphatic demands for resolution. By contrast, the pulls of Clarke’s poetry regress backwards, desiring an imaginary return to 1922, hankering to reWght the Civil War and reclaim the symbolic State for the Invincibles. Clarke’s organicist desire is therefore as unquenchable as Kavanagh’s, but its trajectory feeds into another world entirely. As Clarke lambasted the State for its materialistic pollution of the Republican ideal, its celebration of prosperity, Kavanagh would no doubt have welcomed a little bit of this in Monaghan. 117 118
Ibid. 165. Ibid. 190.
C HA P TE R 5
Denis Devlin, Brian CoVey, and Samuel Beckett: Across the Tempest of Emblems One problem with the debates and arguments surrounding poetic modernism is that they tend to create a closed circle, turning almost exclusively upon the debates and arguments surrounding poetic modernism. The discussion of Denis Devlin, Brian CoVey, and Samuel Beckett, as Irish poets of the 1930s, has tended to replicate this general crux. These poets tend to be either championed or else dismissed out of hand because of their experimentalism; or, rather, it has been insinuated that those critics who have dismissed their poetry have done so because they do not like experimentalism. Yet poetic experiment is not a stable or uniform phenomenon and such generalized debates occlude a nuanced grasp of the aesthetics of diVering poets, such as these three. Therefore, an attempt to grasp the particular nature of these poets’ distinctive styles, without recourse to arguments about modernism in itself, seems in order; thus, it is propitious to turn to their work directly. Their backgrounds, whereabouts, and publishing history have been admirably detailed elsewhere.1 Although all three produced other work in the decade, attention here will mostly Wx upon Devlin’s Intercessions (1937), CoVey’s Third Person (1938), and Beckett’s Echo’s Bones (1935). I On opening Denis Devlin’s Intercessions, the most immediately striking aspect of the verse is the intensity with which it draws you into strange 1 See Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995).
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
landscapes of language. Devlin’s poems are contingent realms in which subjects and objects materialize and vanish, sometimes in a Xash, and apparently at random. In his ambiguous use of free verse, Devlin will often improvise around the discernible ghost of a metric structure; but, at other times, his lines will wander oV on their own accord; and, generally, he strives to create ambitious patterns that stretch the parameters of perceptible structure. The result is often contorted, but Devlin also achieves, in places, a malleability that Robert Welch has commended, claiming that the poetry gives the reader’s mind the ‘freedom’ and ‘Xexibility’ to accommodate ‘itself to the interior movements (and eruptions) of the psyche’.2 Devlin’s poems are marked by an overXow of parataxis. His poems pile on image after image, clause after clause, to great length with a paucity of linking terms. And, within this momentum, disparate images and blocks of sense either infuse into each other, or, more often, bump oV one another. Thus, what the reader holds onto, initially, are these disparate images and clauses in isolation. Brian CoVey compares Devlin to Don Luis de Gongora, whose poetic involved ‘an act of attention which dwells on every detail of the world with the care of the jeweller examining under the microscope the lines of cleavage of a diamond’.3 Yet this is misleading, because Devlin’s imagery is most often void of candour. Rather, the abstract lexis, the disembodied imagery and the recondite referentiality of his poems envelop them in a Wlm of semantic ethereality. Laura Reynolds claims that ‘objects from nature in his poems are not there for their own sake but because of their symbolical value, and often because that symbolical value has been established by previous literary or legendary use’.4 And, consequently, his poems are often laboriously emblematic: a line such as ‘Sweet lady! on this grey sea you are not preceded by singing Dolphins, as was Aphrodite’ is not unusual.5 Amid the paratactic spiral of his verse, Devlin is constantly apostrophizing: ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace!’;6 ‘Tower O my subduer 2 Robert Welch, ‘Devlin’s Rhythm’, in Denis Devlin Special Issue: Advent VI (Southampton: Advent Books, 1976), 14–16, at 14. 3 Brian CoVey, ‘About the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, Poetry Ireland (Spring 1963), 76–86, at 85. 4 Laura Reynolds, ‘Denis Devlin: An Approach to the Palimpsest of his Writing’, in Denis Devlin Special Issue: Advent VI, 3–5, at 4. 5 ‘Victory of Samothrace’, Collected Poems of Denis Devlin, ed. J. C. C. Mays (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1989), 51. 6 Ibid. 52.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Tower my tyrant’;7 ‘Creation, my ferment, j Wounds throb in your Nubian Xesh, Night!’;8 ‘O equable! j O crags and crushed-foam beauty!’9 The self-conscious archaism of these lines is a dominant feature of the poetry, and seems to be entirely bereft of irony, as Devlin relies heavily on the archaic and the bewitchingly arcane being somehow synonymous. Of course, he is striving to Xout convention, amplifying the apostrophic hyperbole found, for example, in Baudelaire, in order to rid his poems of any lingering vestige of verisimilitude.10 But, often, the rhetorical and semantic structure of Devlin’s art pivots on such invocations, weaving a superannuated ostentation into the fabric of his verse, which masquerades as passion. In this sense, Devlin’s technique is similar to Austin Clarke’s, built entirely on its investment in, and manipulation of, literary stocks. And, although Devlin is not conWned to Irish stocks, the same synthetic conceitedness that mars Clarke’s work seeps into his. In fairness, however, Devlin is also capable of generating preternatural eVects, fusing intellectual complexity with emotive allure and threat; but this is too often followed by, or gratingly intermingled with, the pompously Parnassian. Nevertheless, Devlin’s style has been praised for its Xow. Dillon Johnston writes: ‘DiYculties in Devlin’s verse are usually Xuidities; where we cannot grasp meaning, we must trace it in a motion that has a deWnable course.’11 Yet this ‘deWnable course’ can be highly elusive because of the dislocated interrelationships between images and clauses. Indeed, Devlin’s surrealism might be said to reside in the conundrum of how his disparate images or rhetorical blocks connect with one another. CoVey argues that the surrealist ‘invitation to widen the distance between the objects related in an image was eagerly accepted by Devlin’; although he adds that Devlin merely used ‘the so-called surrealist techniques for the purpose of enhancing the texture of his poems’.12 Despite this rejoinder, it is clear that Devlin attempted to generate a 7
‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’, Collected Poems, 74. ‘Entry of Multitudes into an Eternal Mansion’, ibid. 81. 9 ‘Argument with Justice’, ibid. 88–9. 10 Devlin mimics Baudelaire’s invocations to Wgures from the Classics, such as the opening line of ‘Le Cygne’: ‘Andromaque, je pense a` vous!’; and also his invocations to anthropoˆ Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! morphized Wgures, as in the conclusion to ‘Le Voyage’: ‘O levons l’ancre!’ (Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 172, 292). 11 Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry after Joyce (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1985), 169. 12 CoVey, ‘About the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, 82–3. 8
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
surrealistically deranged luminosity, primarily based upon exacerbating the disjuncture between successive images. And it is here that Devlin is most diYcult. He incessantly unspools syntactic convolutions, often digressing to such an extent that it seems as if a sentence has arbitrarily changed construction midway, leaving its beginning incomplete: With feathers and cooing curves as if I had made you Keep oV poisoner of seed pretty Xint-Xanks Pivot of a fan of showgirls with a slow lilt to their hips Will I come?13
Devlin will meander, twisting and turning, only suddenly to double back to his starting point. Enjambment is used with a distinctive regularity, swerving the meanings of disparate lines into one another and creating an indeterminate polyvalency, as Devlin plays relentlessly with line ends as both closures and conjunctions. J. C. C. Mays succinctly captures Devlin’s technique, writing that a ‘word has a terminating meaning at the end of a line, then becomes a trap-door into a diVerent meaning as you read onwards’.14 More generally, Mays relates the eVect of Devlin’s syntactic dislocations, writing that ‘poems turn over in their length, take oV suddenly in unanticipated directions, double back’.15 In the midst of this misdirection, however, Devlin does use conventional devices of order and pattern. His poems are rife with repetition and rhyme, for instance, and this gives them a subterranean sense of structure, an undercurrent that pushes and pulls the reader in various ways amid the general Xow. At its best, then, Devlin’s verse can fuse arbitrary disjuncture with a kind of formal liquidity, its irregular stanzas working like somnambulant waves that swell and rise, then subside into a sea of disturbed consciousness. At its worse, however, it digresses and turns at such length that any momentum is utterly dissipated. Meanwhile, the argument that Devlin is a ‘radical’ poet in contradistinction to, say, MacNeice or Yeats rests entirely upon the disorientating aspects of his style. But such arguments occlude Devlin’s outlandish grandiloquence, and negate the aspects of order and convention that provide a subtle structure to his work. More crucially, such claims tend to disregard the fact that Devlin’s poetry confronts modernity through the lens of religion with a conservative and, at times, overtly right-wing distaste. 13 14 15
‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’, Collected Poems, 70. J. C. C. Mays, ‘Biographical Note and Editor’s Introduction’, in ibid., 34. Ibid.
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Despite wearing its non-referentiality on its sleeve, Devlin’s poetry registers the historical upheavals of the 1930s, most notably in the two long poems from Intercessions: ‘Bacchanal’ and ‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’. The former was originally entitled ‘News of the Revolution’, and was dismissed by Samuel Beckett, who claimed that it belonged ‘to a diVerent and . . . very much less interesting order of experience’ than the other poems in Intercessions that Beckett found ‘Extraaudenary’.16 The poem embroils class conXict and military violence in dithyrambic long lines, improvised around an eighteen-syllable base, which are predominantly cast into rhyming couplets. Randall Jarrell caustically noted its indebtedness to MacNeice: Mr Devlin . . . is always jarring in and out of Wt—he has such an inveterate, insensate passion for bad rhetorical eVects and other people’s rhetorical eVects that, after the hundredth mesmeric echo of MacNeice, it is hard not to forsake him for that better and far more sympathetic poet. One reads Come up! . . . The thunder at one with your voices in order chants, things Are with you, rolling her rump, Earth in bacchantic rumbas grave swings and reXects, ‘with awed contempt’, that Tennyson had to write ‘Locksley Hall’, Auden his parody of it, and MacNeice his ‘Eclogue at Christmas’ in order that this couplet and its wretched siblings might exist.17
In a more positive vein, Alex Davis writes: ‘ ‘‘Bacchanal’’ registers the political climate of the 1930s as much as any poem by Auden, MacNeice or Spender’; however, he adds: ‘Where Devlin’s representation of this turbulent period diVers most obviously from that of his contemporaries in Britain is in his text’s powerful co-option of Futurist and Surrealist devices.’18 Yet ‘Bacchanal’, in fact, exempliWes Devlin at his most longwinded. While it tries to encode the sublimity of revolution through its rushed incoherence, the poem’s disorientating enjambment, syntactic contortion, and juxtapositional bedlam evaporate its power. It begins sprightly enough: ‘Forerunners with knees Xashing like scissors’; ‘Forerunners run naked as sharks through water’.19 The forerunners, however, are soon associated with a revolutionary proletariat: 16 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), 93–4. 17 Randall Jarrell, Poetry and the Age, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1996), 197–8. 18 Alex Davis, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000), 36–7. 19 Collected Poems, 64.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
They have never eaten nor drunk nor slept their Wll, and have no quick-wit means, Only envy learnt in feeding the shutWst pistoned right machines. Canaille, canaille, what red horizons of anger for humbled lives lie Tumbled up in the old times, the long-fermenting now, canaille!20
These lines encapsulate Devlin’s Xaws: the Wrst couplet’s angered lift-oV crashing into the scholarly detachment of ‘Canaille, canaille!’ Even Davis admits that lines, such as these latter two, announce ‘the speaker’s distance from the events that he narrates’.21 The proletariat, in the poem, are in fact hampered by ‘cackling brainstopped youth’ as much as by ‘want’;22 and it turns out that the poem’s revolution will not transpire because both the working-class and bourgeoisie are saturated with the decadence of consumerist modernity: Bright women thrown in laughter, oh gay, oh nothing need anything refuse, Goldstocking legs in their white foam swinging, a country singing joy of the news?23
As this indicates, the diVerence between MacNeice and Devlin resides most tellingly in the latter’s shrill disassociation from the milieu he represents, rather than in his ‘surrealist’ devices. The disconsolate defeatism of ‘Bacchanal’ is followed, in Intercessions, by the meditation on political responsibility found in ‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’. This poem is set in a night-time ‘upset with nightmare’, threatened by the inevitably imminent day.24 As such, the poem’s nocturnal dreamscape provides a conventional scenario for exploring the underside of identity and history. The immediate political concern of the poem is introduced obscurely as a word game. Three names written in upper-case letters—‘gobethau’, ‘gobineau’, and ‘babeuf’—provide a means of introducing historical referents into the poem’s free-Xoating estrangement of meaning. Mays explains: The French ethnologist, Count Gobineau, mutates into German Gobethau in the same way that his Essai sur l’inequalite´ des races humaines (1853–1855) was distorted by Nazi programmes for the purity of the Aryan race. F. N. Babeuf (1760–97), radical democrat in Revolutionary France whose particular interest in land distribution earned him the nickname Gracchus, was frequently appealed to by later left-wing activists.25 20 22 25
21 Davis, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism, 39. Ibid. 23 Ibid. 67. 24 Ibid. 69. ‘Bacchanal’, Collected Poems, 64. J. C. C. Mays, ‘Notes to the Poems’, in Collected Poems, 335.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Meanwhile, the spectre of ethnic essentialism is developed through a feminine Wgure who is the anima that gives the speaker language, but who simultaneously threatens his dissolution: ‘I would roll in the plasmic multiplication of her hands’ j Convulsive foam on waves which are . . . sucked back j Into the slack marine mass.’26 In the third stanza, she articulates a Manichean philosophy of history that justiWes a proto-fascist ideology: ‘this misery of the many is necessary j Avert your countenance while my tribal groups of combat j In a terse putsch strike elsewhere for your sake.’27 The speaker rejects this notion of history, and warns of this feminine Wgure’s seduction: ‘Let her not take thee with her eyelids j Let her not bemuse thee with her tongue.’28 And all this builds up to the denunciation of stanza eight: Preside so at this conference of the ancestors It should be a courtmartial, they have betrayed It should be a courtmartial with death, howso the urbane Death at bay make smile our eyes with its grace Because from the wretched their blood avariciously drips And unheard stealthy as on wool Famished hordes advance like silent skies. The lidded anger of the oppressed Stutters through chinks; and may it detonate!29
The speaker counters ancestral blood-rites and the abuse of power with an active humanism: ‘I am a bullWghter in this crossroads making passes for life.’ This stance is sustained by Christian faith: ‘I am supplied j For needed nourishment with bread and wine’;30 but the Christianity turns out to be disturbingly similar to other, secular and aggressive creeds, which prompts a sobered revision of stanza eight’s forthrightness: ‘Our sin of the same nature and connivance.’31 The poem then struggles to break through this impasse, as the embrace of heterogeneity results in what is tantamount to a repudiation of action, while the oppressed continue to insist on deliverance: Nevertheless the security of day is precipitous The world’s blatant glare merely hoods us From dissolute mortal violence And self-suYciency is evil while The dead, our true enemies, are silent.32 26 29
27 Ibid. 70. 28 Ibid. 71. Collected Poems, 69. 30 Ibid. 73. 31 Ibid. 74. 32 Ibid. 76. Ibid. 72.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
The speaker prevaricates, searching for a tenable position. He associates himself with radicalism: ‘babeuf and I mixed like the play of mirrors’; then disassociates himself: ‘Let babeuf fade.’33 Racked between its antinomies, the poem subsides back into a brooding sense of the unbearable present: ‘still the unnoticed jungle rain of duration patters j With maniac successive steps.’34 Thus, the passive world view dictated by the speaker’s ethics is antithetical to his implicit desire for justice, which is derived from those same ethics. Little sense can be made from history; or, rather, there is little optimism in the possibility of transforming dominant ideologies with paciWsm. Nevertheless, a resolution of sorts is attempted: the night is embraced, but only through a subliminal manœuvre enabling femininity to become a Wgure uniting death (‘the wife of my tomb, the sea’), with birth (‘Dumb breeders of being’).35 The ending’s tentative, procreative harmony is predicated upon the phallic intercession of the EiVel Tower: Mounting resolution of awry steel Be my exemplar of the hero Who grasps his strength with bolts, obeys and only seems to sway When the bad weathers drive.36
Devlin thus seeks consolation through a sexualized fusion of feminine and masculine images: a transcendent horizon beyond experience. And this uncovers a contradiction central to Devlin’s art. In one respect, the psychosomatic disturbance of the poem engulfs the speaker and reader in an unquantiWed realm of menace and contingency, its hallucinosis rendering reality a combat zone where historical forces or political wills collide. But, in another sense, one feels that the poem’s cryptic haze almost serves as a stylistic recompense for the formulaic organicism of its resolution; as if Devlin is trying to veil his patent orthodoxy to retain some radical chic. Ultimately, the poem merely serves to Wgure the nightscape, death, formlessness, and even fascist ideology, as a feminine negative to be regulated by the phallic prescriptions of Devlin/divinity. Discussing gender in Devlin’s art, Anne Fogarty writes: [T]he Wgure of the woman plays a predictable role in this drama of alienated consciousness. She may be viewed as an allegory of repressed desire and of plenitude on the one hand and of lack and destitution on the other. It is her
Ibid. 75, 77.
Ibid. 77, 78.
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function to act as an insentient canvas for his projected meanings and to become the impossible referent for his poem as a whole. She is the vehicle for a truth that remains always out of reach.37
In the poem ‘Victory of Samothrace’, Nike is addressed as a Wgure of elemental discord, a simultaneity of ecstasy and violence. Nike is the primary element of storm that can disrupt the order of nature: ‘your wings j Disturbing the exact harmony of the stars.’38 She is also the only avenue of release from the stagnant setting of modernity. To her, the speaker makes his poetic oVering: I oVer you as gages of faith The beginnings all over again The never to be forgotten, and The supposed brightness of lamps in the daytime.39
Nike is an avenging angel, but she is also a passageway to the marvellous, to regenerated nature and form; she ‘bribes’ the speaker with ‘the unWnished handiwork of sunset’; she is a means of combating ‘stasis’; a reinvigorating ‘spirit of movement’.40 Her basis in pure momentum indicates that the poetic, to which she would be Muse, works only in Xashes of inspiration; it cannot monumentalize itself: ‘I will build you an altar, to be destroyed immediately.’41 Thus, Nike is represented as a splintering phenomenon embedded within temporality; she embodies a kind of elemental power of disruption, and the poem articulates a challenge to create an aesthetic that gives form to this diVerential force. In this respect, then, Devlin’s poetic is reminiscent of MacNeice’s: an aesthetic in service to Nike would be based upon a perpetually explosive metaphoricity, predicated upon what Anne Fogarty calls ‘the nonidentity at the core of identity’.42 MacNeice, however, avoids Devlin’s gendering of this dialectic, and his proclivity towards reconciling it through larger organicist structures. The creative destruction of Nike is not an end in itself but takes its place, in Intercessions, as a necessary step towards the reformulation and regeneration of modernity. Moreover, the contemptuous streak in 37 Anne Fogarty, ‘Gender, Irish Modernism and the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, in Coughlan and Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland, 224. 38 Collected Poems, 51. 39 Ibid. 51–2. 40 Ibid. 52. 41 Ibid. 42 Fogarty, ‘Gender, Irish Modernism and the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, 223.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
Devlin’s poetry is primarily directed towards modernity’s disavowal of religion. On the one hand, ‘The Statue and the Perturbed Burghers’ berates the bourgeoisie for attempting to shield oV the turbulence of Nike, the reality of negation and death, through the secluded complacency of an autonomous aesthetic: ‘People of worth and wealth j Glancing with care at their modes of life j Walls cradles windows amber orchards.’43 Yet the attempt to fend oV negativity through casual gratiWcation provokes Devlin more. In ‘LiVey Bridge’, the speaker complains: ‘If dreaming of death j Unheavened could but rend them j With anger or envy!’ (emphasis added).44 Complacency and apathy in the face of heaven’s absence are the poem’s primary target, the spur to Devlin’s ire. But this, in turn, points to a contradiction, because the feminine Wgures of Death and Nike herald nothing of an afterlife. Thus, Devlin attacks those who hide behind the fac¸ades of aesthetic order in an attempt to defend themselves from the rupture he associates with femininity, while he simultaneously critiques this unsettling force for being void of a higher order. For Devlin, modernity is odious to the extent that death has become common; ironically, it no longer provokes terror precisely at a time when governments have transmogriWed into the death machines of global warfare. The inability of the masses to counteract the institutionalization of aggressively ethnic identity politics and militarism is linked to their spiritual shallowness.45 Christianity is Wgured as the common denominator of humanity. Christianity also ensures order by linking death with judgement. And this basis of order and justice is eradicated, for Devlin, because Christianity has waned. Thus, the harmony and interconnectedness of the universe has shattered into fragments; and individuals, who are ideally vessels of the Divine, are reduced to automatons or living puppets. History has become a battleground between a Christian world view and the ideologies of Imperialism cast in various forms. As things stand, in the 1930s, it is impossible actively to counteract these aggressive identity politics without replicating their violence; therefore, Devlin’s poetic seeks ways to break down the construction of self upon which they rely. 43
44 Ibid. 57. Collected Poems, 54. ‘Bacchanal’ reads: ‘ Those that are Game to Grin and Bear it . . . jj Those that My Country, that Let Us Pray, that Drop by the Way, those that are Late . . . j Oh when damned by the sentence of guns advancing like ants in tragic line j And stowed away in Death, their own hungry mirror, it will be Wne!’, (Ibid. 66). 45
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Those such as the Burghers desire a self-suYciency bereft of God: they are the children of the Enlightenment who construct a moral order based on laws of logic and reason, and this is an aVront to Devlin’s evangelism. Bourgeois self-interest is the seed of megalomaniac violence because it omits a sense of humility and brotherhood: the idea that we are all interdependently part of the same fabric, connected by the divinity within us. Thus, Devlin’s poetic works to break down the surety of self that has led to contemporary butchery, and his means of achieving this is to shatter the ego, to make consciousness confront the void. The Xuidity of his poetry incorporates the rupture of temporality; and, as a result, signiWcation becomes transient: the world is transWgured by an organic formlessness, which infects clarity and logic with the unfamiliar, with hallucinations and the bizarre. Structure is revealed to be something other than a rational schema: it is not shaped or perceived by the conscious mind. But, still, an order is needed. Temporality disrupts stasis, which Devlin Wgures as spiritual and cultural death, but this will itself become a vacuous eradication of human and moral substance, if it is not contained within some form of systematic order. Therefore, Devlin desires a form for Xux, a design that will incorporate the breakdown of egoistic rationality. He also desires this form to be mystical, mysterious, and sacred, in order that its revelation will eVect transformation. ‘Est Prodest’ is the key, in Intercessions, to Devlin’s design, and can be taken as a central articulation of Devlin’s œuvre. Mays argues that it is a pivotal poem in both Intercessions and 1946’s Lough Derg, because it ‘traces the breaking down of bonds of solitude, the waking to embrace others, the freeing of impulses’.46 ‘Victory of Samothrace’ unleashed a destructive, demonically exhilarating force that functioned to explode modernity’s underlying stasis. Here, while there is still a threat of terror—‘The loosened universe Xowing j Loathsome limpid, there j Shines the eternal horror’—the intersecting fragments of the universe are generally blended into a calm harmony and rhythm.47 The underside of Xuidity and movement had been violence and potential obliteration; but, here, movement is given direction and form, becoming equated with a plenitude of being: ‘He being is freed moving j Seeing and seen in mirrors j We move into being.’48 Given direction, the endless deferral 46 48
Mays, ‘Biographical Note and Editor’s Introduction’, 33. Ibid.
Collected Poems, 84.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
of representations and resemblance actually becomes the locus for a reformulated self-presence: Mirrors Xashing each other That’s the only proof Let there be no absence The only solution Is the Xash between mirrors Not one but many but many.49
The poem ends with a vision of passive, feminine nature being moulded by an active male will into the form of God’s ‘cognation’.50 It thus echoes, much more positively, the symbolic scenario reached in ‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’. Indeed, the full meaning of the EiVel Tower as a phallic symbol becomes clear, retrospectively, in the Wrst stanza, which explicitly connects a tower to the presence of God: ‘he is round me Xowing j Denying, promising . . . dominant j as a tower drags up the eyes.’51 However, the frictional impasse of ‘Communication from the EiVel Tower’ is ironed over by the immanence of the harmony of the spheres, the music of God: Let existence lie female To our crystal showers, his mirrors Till heaven over earth we shape it Into his cognation And he will move breathing Through us wing-linked Proleptic of what Eden Quiet blown in air Lightened as if we were Music shall Wnd breathing Its breath our movement, his Music Wnd its breath.52
At heart, then, Intercessions follows an Eliotic rite of passage in which the centrality of man is disabled and the void confronted, so that a Christian order can be re-established. Yet, despite the radiance of ‘Est Prodest’, Devlin’s poetry still seems deeply supercilious. Tim Armstrong discusses Devlin’s pull towards ‘a Catholicism whose meanings are already
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externalized’.53 This notion is acute, reminding us of the abrupt aVectation of Devlin’s invocations to extrasensory forces, which seem to be courted from a realm above the main body of the poems. The prosaic nature of his apostrophes denoted a retreat to a pre-established, autonomous, and atemporal order, which can now be identiWed with theological as well as literary convention. But Devlin’s poetry attempts to intimate this pre-established and external order through a splintered style that is antagonistic towards it. However, the problem with Devlin’s verse does not reside in this contradiction per se; rather, Devlin’s failings stem from the drably abstract passivity with which it is registered, in the main, and in the shrewish elitism through which his frustrations are given vent at other junctures. Devlin is in thrall to organicism in a manner analogous to Clarke, in that his ideal takes the form of a pre-conceived template. Like Clarke’s, Devlin’s imagination works from the top down, as it were, and his frustrations arise when reality fails to conform to his ready-made vision. Also like Clarke’s, Devlin’s art becomes imprisoned within an aesthetic enclave severed from bourgeois modernity and the vulgarity of mass culture, and its idealistic drive is left with nowhere to turn but back upon itself in recurrent loops of solipsistic malcontent. But, nevertheless, the diVerence between Devlin and either CoVey or Beckett, in the 1930s, is the degree to which Devlin’s work desires to be historically eVective. As is well known, Devlin was a foreign diplomat in de Valera’s government. Davis points out that he formed part of the Irish delegation to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1935—the year when the League abjectly failed to curtail Mussolini. Davis writes: In a letter to Thomas MacGreevy, written on his return to Dublin from Geneva, Devlin expressed his own feelings about the League. ‘I am very proItalian’, he writes, ‘I do not much care for being the ally of savages. And at present my work is the implementation of the sanctions agreed on at Geneva against Italy. Isn’t it foul?’54
This elitist authoritarianism surfaced again when Devlin later associated himself with ‘Jansenism’. Davis writes: ‘The origins of Jansenism lie in the seventeenth century, as a spiritual outlook developed by the French
53 Tim Armstrong, ‘Muting the Klaxon: Poetry, History and Irish Modernism’, in Coughlan and Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland, 63. 54 Davis, A Broken Line, 116.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
aristocracy in compensation for its loss of temporal, that is, political, authority.’55 Such a thwarted sense of superiority spills over, in Intercessions, into evangelistic demands for retribution and ‘justice’. The poem ‘Gradual’ summons an ‘inevitable executioner’, and reports: ‘you tore the cry of the woman that loves most j Thrown in straw.’ The speaker then asks: ‘Why, when elect, not Wre the retaining bordels?’56 Such puritanical bloodlust shows up badly enough in the censorious context of the Irish State in 1937, but it becomes even more sinister when contextualized within the wider European milieu. In a similar vein, ‘Argument with Justice’, which immediately follows ‘Est Prodest’, calls for the intervention of God against those who prevent Devlin’s evangelistic revolution: ‘Come down, let there be j Justice though the heavens fall.’57 Devlin’s verse thus evidences an aesthetic collusion between cultural elitism and rightwing reaction, in the 1930s, in ways that shadow the more complex, contemporaneous work of W. B. Yeats. Indeed, the aYnities between these two, in this respect, give the lie to overdetermined associations of Yeats’s elitism with the disenfranchisement of the Protestant Ascendancy. Devlin’s pro-Italianism indicates a reactionary ideology more homologous with ‘Blueshirt’ ideology than anything in Yeats’s poetic.58 Even J. C. C Mays, an extremely sympathetic critic, argues that Devlin’s ‘subtle and delicate’ poetry is ‘continuous’ with ‘the shorthand crudity of racial thinking and the arrogance of social snobbery’.59
II Brian CoVey spent most of the 1930s researching his thesis on ‘The Notion of Order According to St Thomas Aquinas’ at the Institut Catholique de Paris, mainly under the renowned scholastic philosopher
Ibid. 67. Collected Poems, 60. 57 Ibid. 89. In a similar vein, ‘Entry of Multitudes into an Eternal Mansion’ speaks of ‘The gross canaille still stalling j In thoughtless lust the doors to the Common One’ (ibid. 81). 58 Dermot Keogh argues that Eoin DuVy’s (the Blueshirt leader) defence of both Mussolini and Franco conXated Catholicism with anti-socialism. See Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1994), 87–8, 93–6. 59 J. C. C. Mays, ‘A Poem by Denis Devlin with Some Questions and Conclusions’, Denis Devlin Special Issue: Advent VI, 6–14, at 10. 56
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Jacques Maritain.60 Clearly, CoVey’s French connections were aesthetic as well as theological. J. C. C. Mays argues: ‘[his] poetry seems remote from the idioms of English and Irish poetry because its language functions in the diVerent way and its movement proceeds in the diVerent direction assumed by the French tradition from Baudelaire to Surrealism.’61 Like Devlin, CoVey strove to manifest a religious apprehension through dissonant means that initially suggest the absence of such order. Mays writes of CoVey’s later work, Missouri Sequence: ‘The metaphysical and theological assumptions which sustained the fabric of Third Person are brought into the body of the poem at long last.’62 This remark points to an absence at the centre of the poems of Third Person: their ‘fabric’ is ‘sustained’ by a philosophy that is missing from their ‘body’. Thus, if one follows Mays’s imagery, Third Person constitutes a bodiless linguistic fabric, a kind of poetic scarecrow set to frighten oV the reader. The sequence consists of fourteen individually titled pieces that, through repetition and stylistic continuity, intersect to create a complex whole, like a large-scale sonnet. The Wrst poem is entitled ‘Dedication’: For whom on whom then and before whose eyes desired turned For whom on whom now each now whose eyes desired turn For whom on whom then again and after whose eyes desired must turn For whom pain is not loss For whom loss of is not pain For whom want of is pain of loss63
Nine of the twelve lines begin with either ‘For whom’ or ‘whose eyes’, and the vagueness of these terms indicates a confusion or loss of identity, while their repetition creates a sense of desire’s perpetual 60 Alex Davis discusses CoVey’s work in the context of his Neo-Thomism, and the thought of Jacques Maritain, in ‘ ‘‘Poetry is Ontology’’: Brian CoVey’s Poetics’, in Coughlan and Davis (eds)., Modernism and Ireland, 103–28. 61 J. C. C Mays, ‘Biographical Note and Introductory Essay’, Irish University Review: Brian CoVey Special Issue, 5/1 (1975), 9–29, at 23. 62 Ibid. 19. 63 Brian CoVey, Poems and Versions 1929–1990 (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1991), 23.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
turn. ‘For whom’ seems to suggest a single person, but each successive ‘For whom’ could well refer to somebody diVerent. The repetition thus generates confusion as well as resonance, as the lack of substantiation dislocates in tandem with the incompletion of the lines. The poem’s formal plaiting ampliWes its indeterminateness, creating a strange ambience in which nominalist gestures point to a semantic ghostliness. Fragments intertwine, but with a vacuum at their point of intersection. Another instance of semantic ghostliness occurs in the Wnal verse of the second poem, ‘White’: Think no Xower no surface no smile no extreme star think you can see no soul64
These lines bring images to bear through the act of negating them, giving objects an imaginative presence that turns out to be the marker of their absence. However, in being asked not to think of a Xower, we immediately think of a Xower before wondering how to unthink it again, or wondering why we should not think about it, or why it was brought up in the Wrst place. Meanwhile, the verse’s eVectiveness resides in its suppression of associative links, while the compact phrasing envelops the reader in a momentum that catapults him or her from one image to another. In this manner, CoVey creates a paradoxical eVect combining surety of expression with semantic dislocation. Yet CoVey complicates this eVect to a quite bewildering degree, partly by widening the gaps between images so that possible associative links become well nigh impossible to retrieve. This disjuncture renders invisible the possible contexts of his images. In a way, the technique is similar to Devlin’s. But CoVey’s lexis is less ornate, his lines less diVuse, and his minimalism surpasses Devlin’s ethereality, maximizing the gaps between images while rendering them less abrupt. This is clear if we look at ‘White’ as a whole: They do not move as we do given they gave taking above they see they are not seen No number we may number climbing each term other empire to empire not the same 64
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Love opens light to light love takes light from light love closed light lives in light No shadow in the white shadow Xame and gift and sails rise on wind Think no Xower no surface no smile no extreme star think you can see no soul65
The associative links between the Wnal verse and the rest are quite obscure, as are the links between each of the verses, to varying degrees, while each one in itself is abstract and complexly formed. Like ‘Dedication’, however, ‘White’ is partially held together by its style. The play with repetitions in ‘Dedication’ is here expanded, while the profusion of chiastic phrases—‘given they gave taking’, ‘they see they are not seen’, ‘No number we may number’, ‘No shadow in the white shadow’, and so on—conWrms this as one of CoVey’s dominant devices. The primary eVect is to give CoVey’s lines an autotelic quality in which the words reverberate into each other, increasing the non-mimetic quality of the verse. His intricate little mantras are perhaps based on religious models. But they also create an overriding sense of diVerence within sameness. The phrase ‘climbing each term other’ indicates a movement from one term to the next, but the following line, ‘empire to empire not the same’, indicates a concern with the Otherness within each term. While dwelling on the non-identity between identical terms, however, CoVey’s abstracted repetitions sonically smother heterogeneity under a drab blanket of the ever-same. The third verse of ‘White’ is paradigmatic: ‘Love opens light to light j love takes light from light j love closed light lives in light’. At this point, no doubt, one should throw the poem away and head for a bibliography on neo-Thomist theology. But, even without such learning, it seems clear that the lines speak of diVerent gradations of ‘light’ and ‘love’, and the rest of Third Person gives enough context to suggest some kind of diVerence between human love and divine love. The above riddle thus speaks of an interanimation between the two, while the Wnal line, detailing one 65
Brian CoVey, Poems and Versions 1929–1990 (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1991), 24.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
love/light closed oV within another, pre-empts an attempt to reach one form of love/light through another. However, the poem remains opaque. The links between the Wrst three tercets and the ‘Xame’, ‘gift’, ‘sails’, and ‘wind’ of the fourth remain intangible, as do the connections between these and the images of the Wnal verse. Ultimately, then, rather than being caught on the wings of the syntax, one drops through the elliptic holes, left to drift in a semantic incoherence. And yet, much of ‘White’ is reWltered through the succeeding poems. The rest of the sequence will persistently return to questions of sight, to contrasts between white and black, light and darkness, and to images of Xames or Wre, sails and wind, Xowers, smiles, and stars (the ‘turn’ from ‘Dedication’ likewise reappears). The sequence therefore demands that each poem should be read in the light of the others. However, the context in which identical images or actions occur perpetually changes, so that contradictory meanings must be assigned to them. Thus, an image such as the ‘sails’ in ‘White’, as it repeats in diVerent poems, becomes a matrix of multiple signiWcance, but each chain of association is incomplete, and this intensiWes the sense of semantic hallucination. Therefore, each image is never itself, but rather contrives to be both opaquely empty and an invitation to a labyrinth. Third Person might thus be a model of Roland Barthes’s ideal writerly text, in which ‘the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest’. Barthes continues: ‘this text is a galaxy of signiWers, not a structure of signiWeds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one.’66 Then again, CoVey’s use of repeated images and phrases indicates an entirely conventional tension between fragmentation and unity. Third Person is merely unusual in the extent to which this tension is maintained over the fourteen-poem sequence, as well as within the individual poems. While the poems Xaunt their randomness, they also intimate that some centripetal forces are at work, ensuring that the readerly sense of purchase is directed towards perceiving the whole. Thus, the poems are like jigsaw pieces put together wrongly, asking to be reconWgured to reveal a grand design.
Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975), 5.
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Disappointingly, however, the distorted Wgurations of CoVey’s poems are, in themselves, mostly anaemic. If this is avant-gardism, surely we might expect the derangement of sense to lead to some form of aesthetic exhilaration, to the possibility of hitherto unknown planes of consciousness? CoVey’s poems, rather, tend to reveal the hermetically self-indulgent contortions of a dull imagination. If he is a religious poet, we get little of the glory of God; if he is a love poet, he emits little heat, sensuality, or wonder; and if he is a ‘linguistic’ poet, his play with signiWcation is arid. Rather than Xing us into an otherworld of new possibility, CoVey mostly bores us with inane preciosity. In this, CoVey falls the way of many English-language poets who mimic too closely Stephane Mallarme´. Certainly, of all poetic inXuences on CoVey, Mallarme´’s seems most pervasive (he later translated Un coup de de´s—published in 1965 with the catchy title Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance).67 In Third Person, meanwhile, Mallarme´’s inXuence is mostly apparent in the way that CoVey’s attempt to free his words from Wxed meaning becomes associated with an idea of blanket whiteness, with an imaginary space into which his words’ meanings dissolve. Mallarme´ famously made an association between whiteness, absence, and the absolute; and Third Person is dominated by CoVey’s fondness for the ‘negated object’, a Mallarme´an conceit through which objects are dissolved into absence so as to evoke their essence. The French poet writes: ‘when I make the sound—a Xower—out of the oblivion to which my voice relegates all contours, something other than the visible petals arises musically, the fragrant idea itself, the absent Xower of all bouquets.’68 This evocation of the absent essence is linked to the idea that, since the ‘supreme language’ that might ‘bear the direct imprint of Truth incarnate’ is unavailable, poems must somehow attempt to ‘translate’ the ‘silent poem’ that is its ‘total rhythmic movement’, through ‘the arrangement of parts, their alternation and interruption by blank spaces’.69 Clive Scott interprets this by arguing that Mallarme´ designed to ‘use an imperfect language in such a way as to communicate the blank space upon which language has trespassed’.70 In a sense, then, 67
Brian CoVey, Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965). Stephane Mallarme´, ‘Crisis in Verse’, in Symbolism: An Anthology, ed. and trans. T. G. West (London: Methuen, 1980), 10. 69 Ibid. 7–9. 70 Clive Scott, ‘Symbolism, Decadence and Impressionism’, in Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane (eds.), Modernism 1890–1930 (London: Penguin, 1991), 206–27, at 209. 68
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
CoVey’s art centres on the dialectic evolving as his words etch their black markings against the page: ‘each black wreck more clear j in light seen once’.71 The poet’s choice is between writing and silence, poetic life and death; but each poem paradoxically violates the absolute, exacerbating the poet’s distance from the ‘Truth incarnate’. Meanwhile, the collection elliptically gestures towards a kind of discarnate love poetry. This is introduced by the third poem’s title, ‘Amaranth’, announcing a leap from whiteness into deep colour, which also signals a move towards material relationships.72 ‘Amaranth’ is addressed to a ‘you’ with whom the speaker is involved in a troubled relationship. He speaks of an ‘afternoon j broken’; things are ‘torn and barren’; while an image of ‘sand and sails’ suggests departure.73 What we seem to have, then, is an absent lover. Yet an amaranth is also an imaginary Xower that never fades. Therefore, we have a physically absent lover who is everpresent in the speaker’s mind (one species of the amaranth Xower is the ‘Love-lies-bleeding’). And, in this tension between presence and absence, blankness is set against the red-purple of amaranthine desire. As a whole, Third Person seems bound up with this painful duality. The eleventh poem ‘Patience No Memory’ opens: Do what you will and pure loss now is dawn charged with wet roses red as anger white as pain74
The same poem repeats this imagery: ‘Toil with her dark hand j made thorn red j made white fear’.75 This, in turn, is an echo of the seventh poem ‘A Drop of Fire’: The hand you used to break from me forces you closer to the thorn while I burn along the blood while I rage and rend the bone76 71
CoVey, ‘Women Kind: All we Have’, Poems and Versions, 27. The OED gives the following deWnitions of ‘amaranth’: (1) ‘An imaginary Xower reputed never to fade; a fadeless Xower (as a poetic conception)’; (2) ‘A genus of ornamental plants . . . with coloured foliage, of which the Prince’s Feather and Love-lies-bleeding are species’; (3) ‘A purple colour’. 73 Poems and Versions, 25. 74 Ibid. 33. 75 Ibid. 76 Ibid. 29. 72
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Here, the last line conjoins sexual frustration with the suggested barbarity of Samson.77 But the passage hints of a further conceit in which red and white suggest blood and body, and thus Christ, so that Old Testament ire is inWltrated by the subliminal promise of New Testament redemption. The image is constructive in that it faintly promises a transcendence of duality through the transubstantiation of a third person: the barely perceptible intimation of Christ. By linking the above three images, the hidden Christ-motif in the thorns and the roses becomes apparent. Thus, while each articulation of red and white is wrapped in anxiety and pain, their symbolism also points to their inextricability, and gestures towards a hope for some form of fusion or relief. And, by such means, the addressee becomes a potentially saving Other who is central to the sequence’s symbolic dynamics. In other words, disguised by the internal disjuncture of each poem, the sequence enunciates a desire for organicist integration. Third Person is thus identical, in this respect, to Devlin’s Intercessions—the main diVerence between the two works being CoVey’s passivity, his lack of proselytizing. Key to the sequence is the eponymous thirteenth poem: She is one part of all as I am as I hold all as no stone does mine in her way hers in mine By glens of exile if she turns love was needed She is no stone no lilac no bird more beautiful than stars takes what she takes by right of grace to make hearts equal unequal were strange her Wngers play in silk hair she wishes wounds She Wnds pain he she we you they 77 ‘And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slew a thousand men’ (Judges 15: 15–16).
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
this one that one how why when where before once often after now never end78
The love poem implodes, here, into a chasm of non-identity, frustrating the underlying apprehension of potential unity. And, as the poem loses its grip on the ‘she’ it seems to address, slipping into the confusion of ‘he she we you they’, language itself intervenes against the poem’s desire for integration and transcendence. ‘Third Person’ thus seems to pre-empt the post-structuralist idea that our assumption of identity through pronouns is always a provisional and ambivalent process, because ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’, ‘he’ are merely empty subject positions laid down by language. In a sense, CoVey’s indiVerence to the technicalities of a ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’, ‘you’, or ‘they’ enables him to sidestep the world’s heterogeneity. Once it is given that anybody is nobody, then everybody is the same. However, while CoVey radically maximizes the degree of identiWcation between words to the point where their distinctiveness is eradicated, their diVerence nevertheless remains. And this might account for CoVey’s riddling incantations of sense-play using identical terms. Although he can brush oV history (‘how why when where j before once often after now’), his drama of desire cannot end by transcending time: ‘never end’. And, yet, CoVey gravitates towards linguistic slippage as the very site of potential transcendence. The disturbing space in between a Self and Other is also the interstice that conjoins them, their point of intersection; while the chimera of some free-Xoating, endless galaxy of signiWers, through which processual subjects stumble, is also the imaginary poetic space in which all identities dissolve, so that CoVey’s disembodied, non-referential language comes to chime with Mallarme´’s absolute blank. The poem ‘Third Person’ ends by clearly beckoning towards a future resolution: Who shall bend sails white wings the sun with the sea soothe them with south hand until ice melt heart Xame 78
Poems and Versions, 36.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s rains of fulWlment bless the cedar tree79
Just as Christ was faintly alluded to earlier, ‘the cedar tree’ rings with religious allusion.80 Thus, although ambiguous because posed as a question (‘Who shall bend’?), this passage indicates that the soothing ‘hand’ of the poem amounts to a religious intercession. And, surely, this orthodox Christianity undermines the surface radicalism of CoVey’s verse. Ultimately, one might say that Third Person works to dizzy and destabilize in an attempt to make the reader introject the Wssures between language and meaning, between oneself and others, and between oneself and one’s noumenal depths. But, while this might open up a haunted sense of nullity and the void, the poems’ obscurity comes to be salved by a proleptic organicism, as a spiritually binding and redemptive anima is gradually intimated, and almost manifested, through the symbolism’s interanimation, and through the riddling mantras’ semantically vacant but aurally resonant echoing. The intimation of this redemptive force is slight, however, and the intercession of ‘Third Person’ seems merely to provide an ethical impetus to give and take between oneself and others with grace. Overall, the strangeness of CoVey’s poetry stems from the slippage with which it Wguratively suggests that the realm of potential transcendence is ironically identical with the cause of its negation. But, despite some talk of ‘rage’ and ‘anguish’, CoVey’s monotone style fails to generate any voltage from this contradiction. Lacking Devlin’s bitter streak, CoVey’s breakdown of identity leads merely to a wistful stoicism, fortiWed by the intuition of immanent realms of plenitude. Meanwhile, his ethereal abstractions seem to summon up the paradox of a communal language shorn of any sense of collectivity. Thus, in CoVey’s drama of identity and alterity, he ultimately fails to convey that there is anything of consequence at stake: empires and lovers can come and go; it seems to matter little from the perspective of Divine light from which CoVey fails to look down upon the world. His poetry might stand as a model for Osip Mandelstam’s dismissal of symbolism: ‘Perception is demoralized. Nothing is real, genuine. Nothing is left but a terrifying 79
Poems and Versions, 37. ‘The righteous shall Xourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon’ (Ps. 92: 12). 80
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
quadrille of ‘‘correspondences’’, all nodding to one another. Eternal winking. Never a clear word, nothing but hints and whispers.’81 Arguably, CoVey’s limitations become most apparent when his work is compared with Samuel Beckett’s. While CoVey’s absolute Xirts as a realm of negation, Beckett’s sense of negation devours absolutely. Moreover, CoVey’s cultured aporias are registered as matters of sickening devastation, in Beckett’s pornography of pain, so that the latter’s poetry intimates that there is more at stake, in the breakdown of identity and communication, than a merely scholastic disturbance.
III Malignant nihilism, gratuitous morbidity, and militant aggression distinguish Beckett’s verse, in the 1930s, from Devlin’s and CoVey’s. Most of his poems are mechanically warped anti-poems of furious inarticulation: the great bottom foams into stillness quick quick the cavaletto supplejacks for mumbo-jumbo vivas puellas mortui incurrrrrsant boves oh subito subito ere she recover the cang bamboo for bastinado a bitter moon fessade a` la mode oh Becky spare me I have done thee no wrong spare me damn thee82
This comes from a poem in the 1935 collection Echo’s Bones. Beckett’s earlier verse is generally less accommodating, made up of wilfully opaque allusions strewn together in disjunctive delirium. Patricia Coughlan explains that their point is to undermine ‘the lyric speaker even at the very moment he is being constituted’, to ‘wreck the whole enterprise of sequential or comprehensible utterance’, deliberately to estrange the reader, and to scatter ‘the lineaments of the phenomenal world into disorder’.83 Much of Beckett’s early verse is dominated by its rage against death, but, as Coughlan’s arguments suggest, this is fused with an envenomed 81 Osip Mandelstam, The Collected Critical Prose and Letters, ed. Jane Gary Harris, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link (London: Collins Harvill, 1991), 128. 82 Samuel Beckett, ‘Sanies II’, Collected Poems 1930–1989 (London: Calder Publications, 2002), 22. 83 Patricia Coughlan, ‘ ‘‘The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves’’: Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry’, in Coughlan and Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland, 187, 189.
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sense of the impotence of language. Thus, much of Beckett’s spleen is vented against the act of poesis itself, as he writes poems that formalize his hatred of poetry’s futility, its ‘ink of pestilence’,84 in a self-lacerating posture that reXects a scorn for being while in its midst. One poem begins: ‘this clonic earth’.85 ‘Clonic’ denotes ‘spasms in which violent muscular contractions and relaxations take place in rapid succession’, and a better description of Beckett’s verse would be diYcult to Wnd.86 Indeed, even the poems’ titles often manifest palpable rupture. Echo’s Bones, for example, contains three ‘Sanies’ poems, a word that denotes a ‘thin fetid pus mixed with serum or blood, secreted by a wound or ulcer’.87 As this indicates, Beckett assaults the reader with a malevolent inversion of organicist aesthetics, as various poems Xaunt their despair through images of bodily putrefaction. ‘Enueg I’ begins: ‘Exeo in a spasm j tired of my darling’s red sputum’.88 Lawrence Harvey argues that ‘Exeo’ has been ‘left in Latin for the sake of the ambiguity’,89 to which Christopher Ricks adds ‘foreign chill’, and ‘alienation’.90 But one can hear in the Wrst line not just ‘exit in a spasm’, but ‘exile in a spasm’, and ‘exist in a spasm’, so that it sums up the entire poem in a succinct prologue. More crucial to the poem, however (and the cause of this ‘spasm’), is the shock tactic of its horrible second line. Beckett plays on a habitual form of address: one expects the phrase ‘tired of my darling’s’, with its lazy drone of presumption, to be followed by something domestic and commonplace; but ‘sputum’ denotes ‘saliva or spittle mixed with mucus or purulent matter, and expectorated in certain diseased states’.91 This image traumatizes the rest of the poem (in which the speaker leaves his sick lover and goes on an aimless walk), to the extent that its entire universe—the speaker’s consciousness, his environment, and the language through which these are registered—comes to be monomaniacally and obliteratingly sieved through its violent but redundant ‘Enueg I’, Collected Poems 1930–1989, 14. ‘Serena II’, ibid. 25. 86 OED. 87 Ibid. 88 Collected Poems 1930–1989, 12. 89 Lawrence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 98. 90 Christopher Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 98. 91 OED. 84 85
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
disturbance. Indeed, in a manner vital to the understanding of Beckett’s poetry in general, Lawrence Harvey argues that the ‘sputum’, and the related sense of the omniscience of death, completely eradicates any sense of objectivity in Beckett’s aesthetic: [H]is trip through space is a metaphor that Wgures a segment of the declining trajectory of a human existence propelled through a brief stretch of time toward the tomb. Since each episode in space tells of the same disaster and since the journey in space gets nowhere but merely returns the traveller to his original starting point, real space tends to lose its ontological autonomy, to become time’s vessel. The mountains resemble the plains and both repeat the sky and the river. Nature is of one voice. Space is perceived by a partisan viewer who sees only its temporal dimension and that in a partial way.92
Beckett’s intentions become clear in his poem’s conclusion, a gloriously chilling translation of Rimbaud: Ah the banner the banner of meat bleeding on the silk of the seas and the arctic Xowers that do not exist.93
The world is a dying carcass, yet initially there also seem to be domains of luxury and comfort within it. However, these turn out to be an illusion. There is only dying. As ‘Enueg I’ indicates, then, Beckett was hell-bent, in the 1930s, to become the ugliest of Irish poets, terrorizing conventions and violating, with extreme prejudice, the ideal of the aesthetic. The shock waves of death, in his verse, create a bilious aVront to meaning and purpose, but speciWcally to language, as his festering images of bodily decomposition enact a Xagration of sense. The cacophonic dissonance of his alienating lexis serves to turn language inside out, erupting the materiality of signs, so that the poems themselves are hung on the page like pulverized linguistic corpses that can signify only pain, angst, futility, and ultimately nothing. Everything—history, nature, society—is overridden by the overwhelming intensity with which Beckett registers his apprehension of negation. 92
Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, 136–7. Collected Poems 1930–1989, 14. The lines are a version of a refrain from Rimbaud’s ‘Barbare’: ‘Le pavillon en viande saignante sur la soie des mers et des Xeurs arctiques; (elles n’existent pas)’ (Arthur Rimbaud, Collected Poems, trans. Martin Sorrell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 292–5). 93
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In wielding this monomaniacal pessimism, Beckett was nothing if not consistent. Indeed, the setting of his Wrst published poem—the monologue of a dying man in his bed—is seemingly prophetic of his entire literary output. ‘Whoroscope’ was written ‘in a matter of hours on 15 June 1930’, with the purpose of entering ‘a contest for a poem of not more than 100 lines on the subject of Time’. Beckett had been studying Descartes for some months and had a large collection of notes directly from which he constructed the poem.94 The biographical monologue of a dying Descartes, ‘Whoroscope’ attempts literally to Wgure the obliteration of Cartesian clarity. Lawrence Harvey helpfully informs us: ‘As a man with a tormenting itch might call it a b-itch, so Beckett attacks the idea of horoscopes by the addition of a W.’95 The deathbed scenario conWrms that the only predictable event in life is its end, and thus the title suggests that time is a whore. Yet Descartes nevertheless looks backwards in his Wnal hour, his subjectivity rendered incondite under the pressure of its imminent termination. Therefore, while ‘Whoroscope’ asks whether a life can be condensed into the scope of an hour, it also questions the sapience of narrative, asking whether anything can be made out of a life, or of history. And, predictably enough, the poem’s garbled Xurry suggests that Beckett’s answer is no. However, the poem is held together by the recurrent motif of an egg, paralleling Descartes’s narrative with a gestating embryo. And, while the egg is inherently a Wgure of new life, it is incubated here for human consumption, predestined to the same fate as Descartes. Thus, as the poem concludes with Descartes eating the egg and asking to be granted his ‘second j starless inscrutable hour’,96 it unites death with birth, complicating the linear passage towards death with the circularity of the egg (echoed through recurrent images of blood circulation).97 And this is the prototypical trajectory of a Beckett poem, as his work incessantly confronts linear fate with a broader cyclicism. 94
James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996),
Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, 34. Collected Poems 1930–1989, 6. Circular motions in the poem have also been detected in a ‘looming’ structure. Beckett’s appendix of notes elaborates on the egg motif: ‘ The shuttle of a ripening egg combs the warp of his days’ (ibid. 5). E´douard Morot-Sir, for one, suggests that the poem is constructed on this principle. See ‘Samuel Beckett and Cartesian Emblems’, in Morot-Sir et al. (eds.), Samuel Beckett: The Art of Rhetoric (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1974), 49–50. 96 97
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
Unsurprisingly, many Cartesian concepts have been located in ‘Whoroscope’;98 but perhaps most germane (since the poem’s ostensible subject is the theme of ‘time’), is the inXuence of Descartes’s theory of relative movement on Beckett’s treatment of temporality. This inXuence has been charted by Lawrence Harvey, who brings attention to an observation, in the poem, that static entities on a boat are actually moving (‘That’s not moving, that’s moving’).99 Harvey claims that a similar observation was transposed, by Descartes, to prove that ‘we cannot Wnd in all the universe a single point that is truly motionless’, since all the planets are in constant motion.100 Harvey then links other images from the poem to a developing Cartesian idea that entities are forever in Xux from both an external and an internal perspective. And this notion results in an existential dilemma, with pertinent consequences upon notions of identity, narrative, and history. Descartes writes: The entire duration of my life can be divided into an inWnity of parts, none of which depends in any way on the others; and thus, from the fact that a little earlier I was, it does not follow that I must now be, unless it so happens that at this moment some cause produces and creates me, as it were, a second time, that is to say preserves me. . . . Natural reason shows us clearly that preservation and creation diVer only by reference to our mode of thinking, and not at all in fact. All that is necessary here then is that I question myself, in order to determine whether I possess some power and ability that will enable me to act in such a way that I, who am now, shall still be in the future.101
Concomitantly, in ‘Whoroscope’, the speaking voice is driven by a doomed desire for preservation rather than creation. The ‘power and ability’ to create a continuous and autonomous self have been erased because the future is no longer indeWnite. And the pressure this puts on the poem’s performative present splices its representation of the past into fragments: its discontinuous parts are moving, beyond the cognitive control of a consciousness that is itself moving remorselessly towards its end. The poem’s obscurity is thus a function of its representation of cognition’s defeat by time. The only form possible is that provided by the slide of time marked by the physical rhythms that precede inevitable death.
99 Collected Poems 1930–1989, 3. See ibid. 67–76. 101 Cited by Harvey, ibid. 51. Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, 15.
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Beckett wrote Proust just after ‘Whoroscope’, Wnishing it by the end of September 1930.102 In this work, Beckett immediately echoes Descartes: ‘We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday.’103 He further elaborates on the breakdown of perception due to the idea of ceaseless motion: The observer infects the observed with his own mobility. Moreover, when it is a case of human intercourse, we are faced by the problem of an object whose mobility is not merely a function of the subject’s, but independent and personal: two separate and immanent dynamisms related by no system of synchronisation.104
The ‘power and ability’ that Descartes declared was necessary to create and preserve a continuous self is identiWed as ‘habit’: Life is habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals; the world being a projection of the individual’s consciousness . . . the pact must be continually renewed. . . . The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.105
Thus, temporality is the crux that creates chaos within subjects, objects, and their interrelationships. There is no stream of time: each moment is a potential struggle between the mind’s attempt to Wctionalize a selfcoherence and the reality of fragmentation. The argument of Proust proceeds to claim that to cast oV ‘habit’, and open oneself to the terror of chaos, is a Wrst step towards the apprehension of a deeper reality outside time. In doing so, Proust reveals Beckett’s major debt to Schopenhauer, whose presence informs much of his poetry during the 1930s. Following Kant, Schopenhauer postulated a basic duality between the phenomenal world of knowledge and the noumenal world that lay, unknowable, underneath it. The catapulting misapprehensions between a subject and phenomena are secondary to this unbridgeable gap between being and a noumenal reality that can be conceived only as nothingness. And, in this context, Beckett’s art gestures towards an abyss but cannot represent it, since it is damned to language, time, and being. The abyss, meanwhile, is inextricably bound 102 103 104 105
Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 116–18. Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1931), 3. Ibid. 7. Ibid. 8.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
up with death, and the constant threat of death-in-life places the void implacably in the midst of being. Yet death can be gestured towards only Wguratively. And thus, as we have seen, Beckett’s poetry is rampantly infected by this failure of language: referentiality is uncannily split, in the verse, mocked by the chimera of its own futility, as language can proceed only in potentially inWnite circles, beckoning to, but separate from, the chasm of reality. Beckett himself implies that the aggressive disturbance of his poetry is an attempt to cast oV the shackles of ‘habit’, to relieve language and art of their pretensions, in a bid to open out to the terror of chaos. And, while this project might seem familiar enough, what stands out are the splenetically dysphoric lengths Beckett will go to in order to fulWl it. Generally, Beckett attempts to create a sense of clonic rupture in his verse through a kind of aesthetic atomism, reXecting both internal discontinuity and external disjuncture. His poems almost entirely void themselves of punctuation, which focuses the reader’s attention on the line. If poetry is cast in sentences that are cast into lines, one automatically looks, when there is no punctuation, to the lines as disparate units of sense. Thus, when reading much of Beckett’s verse, the content of the lines, and then the consideration of how they interact and whether they can be said to link and form higher-level structures, becomes the primary focus. In turn, Beckett’s stanzas are constructed and act on the same principle as his lines, providing a further level of formal disorganization. ‘Serena I’ evidences an arbitrariness both between and within the lines: scarlet beauty in our world dead Wsh adrift all things full of gods pressed down and bleeding a weaver-bird is tangerine the harpy is past caring106
Both ‘scarlet beauty’ and ‘dead Wsh adrift’ relate to ‘in our world’, but the three phrases strung together chafe against one another, creating a singular message of grammatical convolution. In this manner, possible disconnections within and between the lines are oVered as much as connections, to a greater or lesser extent in each instance, while this is
Collected Poems 1930–1989, 23.
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mirrored on a larger scale by the disparate stanzas. Thus, Beckett’s patterning creates structures that somehow doubt themselves. Certainly, this is how Beckett would wish us to view the poetry. For him, the gaps between semantic units, and the combustive irregularity within these units, mimic the internecine struggle between being and nothingness. The gaps are the only possible means by which language can beckon to the abyss beneath it. A possible manifesto for the style can be extricated from Dream of Fair to Middling Women, and from the famous letter to Axel Kaun written Wve years later in 1937. The continuity of thought over these years indicates Beckett’s consistency. In the former, Belacqua refers to an ‘incoherent continuum’, the idea of which is derived from ‘Rimbaud and Beethoven . . . whose statements . . . are no more than punctuation in a statement of silences’. Further, the ‘incoherent reality and its authentic extrinsecation’ are said to lie in the mystery of how ‘they get from point to point’.107 Elsewhere, Belacqua declares: I shall write a book . . . where the phrase is self-consciously smart and slick, but of a smartness and slickness other than that of its neighbours on the page. The blown roses of a phrase shall catapult the reader into the tulips of the phrase that follows. The experience of my reader shall be between the phrases, in the silence, communicated by the intervals, not the terms of the statement, between the Xowers that cannot coexist, the antithetical . . . seasons of words, his experience shall be the menace, the miracle, the memory, of an unspeakable trajectory.108
The 1937 letter repeats the same idea, asking: Is there any reason why the terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved, like for example the sound surface, torn by enormous pauses, of Beethoven’s seventh Symphony, so that through whole pages we can perceive nothing but a path of sounds suspended in giddy heights, linking unfathomable abysses of silence?109
Cited from Disjecta, 48. Belacqua continues: ‘I have discerned a disfaction . . . a Xottement, a tremblement, a tremor, a tremolo, a disaggregating, a disintegrating, an eZorescence, a breaking down and multiplication of tissue, the corrosive ground-swell of Art. . . . I think of Beethoven . . . of his earlier compositions where into the body of the musical statement he incorporates a punctuation of dehiscence, Xottements, the coherence gone to pieces, the continuity bitched to hell because the units of continuity have abdicated their unity, they have gone multiple, they fall apart, the notes Xy about, a blizzard of electrons . . . ’, (ibid. 49). 109 Ibid. 172. 108
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
Beckett goes on to state that the task facing literature is to Wnd ‘a method by which we can represent this mocking attitude towards the word, through words’. He continues: ‘In this dissonance between the means and their use it will perhaps become possible to feel a whisper of that Wnal music or that silence that underlines All.’110 Interestingly, then, while many of Beckett’s poems are striking in their performance of psychic and bodily disintegration, he ultimately seems more drawn to the nothingness into which such degeneration subsides. The shredding apart of ‘habit’ remorselessly opens out to the terror of chaos, but Beckett’s immersion in Schopenhauer also pointed to a deeper reality that might be revealed beyond the Wction of homogeneous time, roused into immanence through habit’s collapse. Ironically, moreover, this ‘Wnal music’ is intimated through the precise opposite of the atomistic anarchy that the early Beckett mostly practised. Beckett’s avant-garde proclamations distract attention from his entirely conventional attraction towards aesthetic consonance. Reviewing Thomas MacGreevy’s Poems, he wrote: ‘All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer’; and his own art is often drawn to a centripetal lyricism that contradicts his predilection for explosive atomism.111 In Proust, Beckett draws upon Schopenhauer for a philosophical defence of such lyricism. For Schopenhauer, art focuses on Neoplatonic Ideas, which exist as a kind of intermediary between the abyss and temporality: they are the fundamental kinds or essences of the phenomenal world, existing in an atemporal realm. Mostly, Schopenhauer sees daily experience as a catastrophe of pain and suVering, marked by endless desire and the entrapment of subjectivity.112 But aesthetic contemplation, he argues, through focusing on Ideas, can transform one into a state of disinterestedness in which desire and subjectivity are somehow cast oV. And this state of indiVerence to the phenomenal world is the closest one can get to the painless dream of the abyss.113 110
Ibid. Ibid. 68. 112 Terence Eagleton writes: ‘Nothing could be more obvious to Schopenhauer than the fact that it would be inWnitely preferable if the world did not exist at all, that the whole project is a ghastly mistake which should long ago have been called oV, and that only some crazed idealism could possibly believe the pleasures of existence to outweigh its pains’ (The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Blackwell, 1990), 155–6). 113 For Schopenhauer, aesthetic contemplation ‘allows us to gaze unmoved for a moment into the very heart of darkness as the objects around us grow more luminously replete, more satisfyingly pointless, and we ourselves dwindle gradually away to nothing’ (ibid. 171). 111
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In a Schopenhauerian vein, then, Beckett writes in Proust: When the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and only then may it be a source of enchantment. Unfortunately Habit has laid its veto on this form of perception, its action being precisely to hide the essence—the Idea—of the object in the haze of conception—preconception.114
Music, for Schopenhauer, is the highest form of art, freeing the subject from habit or will. Beckett interprets him as claiming that ‘music is the Idea itself, unaware of the world of phenomena, existing ideally outside the universe’.115 Accordingly, Beckett is drawn to the condition of music. Christopher Ricks describes the ‘rotation of simple sounds’ as the hallmark of Beckett’s writing, and this is a tendency Wrst found in some of the early lyrics.116 ‘Enueg II’, for example, bears the hallmarks of atomistic discontinuity. But the poem counterpoints this through sound patterns: world world world world and the face grave cloud against the evening de morituris nihil nisi and the face crumbling shyly too late to darken the sky blushing away into the evening shuddering away like a gaVe veronica mundi veronica munda give us a wipe for the love of Jesus117
The repetition of ‘face’, ‘evening’, ‘veronica’, and the phonetic echoing of ‘nihil nisi’ and ‘mundi’/‘munda’, serve to create an intuitive cohesion of sorts. Although there is a considerable jump between each stanza, the disruptive leaps are occasioned within and through the centripetal intensity brought about by aural consonance. Predictably enough, however, such formal consonance is not necessarily a positive in Beckett’s verse. ‘Gnome’, for example, is a perfect 114 117
115 Ibid. 71. Proust, 11. Collected Poems 1930–1989, 15.
Ricks, Beckett’s Dying Words, 43.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
example of his ‘rotation of simple sounds’; but this creates a sense of stultifying recession: Spend the years of learning squandering Courage for the years of wandering Through a world politely turning From the loutishness of learning118
The turn from learning, towards a world that is turning from learning, creates a double negative that fails to suggest a positive. Rather, the poem’s movement creates a spiral momentum of abject futility, enfolding an impasse within a sense of receding but eternal recurrence. As an evaluative term, ‘wandering’ scarcely improves on ‘squandering’, as years of waste are replaced by years of indirection. And this ambivalence is intensiWed as the poem’s ending seems to recall us to its beginning. The phonetic identity of ‘turning’ and ‘learning’ almost reduces them to a vacuous similarity. But, at the same time, the Wnal ‘learning’ is not the same ‘learning’ of the Wrst line. Indeed, this split in identity, the slip between identical terms, is an important device for Beckett, as his condensed representations of life’s choices condemn the human condition to repetition, each act seemingly individual and distinctive, yet the same. One seems to have choice, yet the options are ultimately identical in their futility, creating an eternal present structured by predestination, from which there is no outlet for escape but only pre-given terms. Another negative use of aesthetic consonance appears in ‘Alba’, which charts an enclosure within a microcosm created by music, a withdrawal that is also a death. An alba poem is an Aubade, reversing the natural symbolism of dawn as a new beginning: before morning you shall be here and Dante and the Logos and all strata and mysteries and the branded moon beyond the white plane of music that you shall establish before morning grave suave singing silk stoop to the black Wrmament of areca rain on the bamboos Xower of smoke alley of willows who though you stoop with Wngers of compassion to endorse the dust 118
Irish Poetry of the 1930s shall not add to your bounty whose beauty shall be a sheet before me a statement of itself drawn across the tempest of emblems so that there is no sun and no unveiling and no host only I and then the sheet and bulk dead119
The moment of transition between night and day, here, is lifted out of the procession of temporality by the ‘white plane of music’, created by the lover, which the world ‘beyond’ cannot penetrate. Like CoVey, Beckett is drawn towards a sub-linguistic ideal whereby his words become ciphers, signifying a desire for their own eradication, a desire for the blank sheet underneath. But in ‘Alba’ the speaker proceeds to reject his lover, and his antisocial immersion in the deep ends with a death, a willed incapacity to communicate. This latter tendency further distinguishes Beckett from his Irish modernist peers, and truly cements the emphatic nihilism of his verse. Because, while the lyrical sphere initially seems to oVer respite from the pain and ugliness recorded in most of his verse (particularly through the exotica of the poem’s middle section), this sphere ultimately proVers nothing but withdrawal and dissipation. Unlike CoVey’s and Devlin’s, then, Beckett’s immanent realm equates to a resolutely godless negation. ‘Alba’s’ integration of self and other, the speaker’s fusion with his lover, yields no ‘bounty’. Instead, it precipitates a guardedly individuated dissolution. Beckett’s lyric therefore Wgures as an entirely inverted apocalypse: ‘there is no sun and no unveiling j and no host’. The ‘white plane’ of the absolute becomes a shroud that isolates as it obliterates, a realm of ablation rather than repletion. Yet Schopenhauer’s aesthetic focuses on how perceiving subjects, through a total immersion in the isolated objects of their contemplation, can somehow throw oV the shackles of their will and desire. Schopenhauer writes: If . . . the object has to such an extent passed out of all relation to something outside it, and the subject has passed out of all relation to the will, what is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea, the eternal form, the immediate objectivity of the will at this grade. Thus at the same time, the person who is involved in this perception is no longer an individual, for in such 119
Collected Poems 1930–1989, 17.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge.120
Clearly Beckett’s verse, while strongly drawn to such an ideal, asks searching questions of it. In the Wrst place, the objects of perception may not admit themselves to such x-ray contemplation, and their inner essence may not be accessible. In the second place, Schopenhauer’s ideal pivots on the subject freeing him or herself from the prison of their will and desire. But a problem then surely arises: how could the death of desire come about without a desire for it? ‘The Vulture’, which opens Echo’s Bones, expresses these shortcomings, revealing how Beckett’s verse sets out to manifest the breakdown of the ideals it is founded upon: dragging his hunger through the sky of my skull shell of sky and earth stooping to the prone who must soon take up their life and walk mocked by a tissue that may not serve till hunger earth and sky be oVal121
This alludes to the opening of Goethe’s ‘Harzreise in Winter’: As a vulture would, That on heavy clouds of morning With gentle wings reposing Seeks for his prey, Hover, my song.122
As a poesis surveying its domain, waiting to devour and digest its content, Goethe’s vulture is poised and responsive, yet redolent with power and motion. Beckett, characteristically, disWgures this grace, as the desire to sing becomes a burden, a separate entity from the song, Xagging its vessel’s once imperious form. A key phrase in the poem is ‘stooping to the prone’. ‘Prone’, here, simultaneously encompasses both its dominant meanings: ‘to be inclined towards something’, and ‘prostrate, face down’. Thus the earth is 120 Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘From The World as Will and Representation’, in Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger (eds.), Art in Theory 1815–1900: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 16. 121 Collected Poems 1930–1989, 11. 122 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Poems of Goethe, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 33.
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populated by people who are prone to be prone. This fulWls a downward trajectory (‘sky . . . earth . . . stooping . . . prone’) that will Wnally end in ‘oVal’. Meanwhile, the vulture’s ‘stooping’ suggests supplication and compassion, suggesting, according to Lawrence Harvey, that this poetic might Wnd its form through abjectly oVering itself to suVering others.123 However, this Christ-like posture is problematic, because the injunction that the prone must ‘take up their life and walk’ is ambivalent, indicating that the prone might rather remain as they are.124 Beckett’s vulture, or desire to create poetic art, ‘may not’ be served by the content through which it would manifest itself. The breakdown between the poetic and its object—the object will not be rendered passive, malleable, or wholly knowable—ensures that Beckett’s poetic is ‘mocked’. But, more than this, the poem’s very desire to function, to make and take form, detains it from manifesting itself with integrity (without mockery). Its desire, or ‘hunger’, must be reduced to ‘oVal’ before it can succeed, yet this already impossible stricture will also involve obliterating its habitat: ‘earth and sky’. In other words, this poetic will not be ‘served’, or made manifest, until its ‘hunger’ dies and disintegrates along with the world in which it exists. Thus, if this art would chew us up and spit or shit us out anew, this also implies our death, leaving us starkly facing the decomposition of our desires, our world, and ourselves. ‘The Vulture’ epitomizes Beckett’s success in creating artworks that manifest aesthetic failure, subverting Schopenhauer’s fantasy of escaping subjectivity through art. Meanwhile, Theodor Adorno’s famous reading of Beckett’s Endgame conversely refutes the possibility of attaining a pure objectivity through art. Adorno writes that any ‘reconciliation’ with ‘the binding universality of objective reality’ is ‘denied art’ because art is ‘unable to release the spell of fragmented subjectivity’. This is because historical reality itself is ‘unreconciled’ or fragmented, so that art ‘tolerates no reconciliation with the object’ if it is to retain any trace of ‘dignity’.125 Beckett is to be applauded because, in his art, all 123 Lawrence Harvey convincingly argues that ‘stooping to the prone’ alludes to Christ, ‘take up their life and walk’ correspondingly being an echo of Christ’s injunction: ‘ Take up thy bed and walk’, aimed at Lazarus (Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic, 114–18). 124 As Harvey points out, the parable of Christ’s ‘healing’ of Lazarus is addressed in Beckett’s Wction: ‘they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark’ (Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Picador, 1973), 102). 125 Theodor Adorno, ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’, in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 328.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
‘content of subjectivity . . . is trace and shadow of the world, from which it withdraws in order not to serve that semblance and conformity the world demands’.126 He claims that things in Beckett’s art are signs of ‘interiority’, but with the added twist that this ‘inward element supposedly signiWed no longer exists, and the signs mean just that’.127 As it happens, however, Beckett subscribed, in his interpretation of Joyce’s Work in Progress, to a more positive role for language, arguing that Joyce’s style points to an invigorating aesthetic renewal. Here, Beckett enthusiastically cites Vico’s claim that all language is essentially Wgurative: ‘Poetry was the Wrst operation of the human mind, and without it thought could not exist’; ‘Vico . . . denies the dualism of poetry and language’; ‘poetry is the foundation of writing’. There is no distinction between Wgural and literal language; the latter has merely evolved, to Beckett’s distaste, through the growth of civilization, but inherently rests upon poetic foundations. Language’s poetic origins stem from an attempt to conWgure an unknown world: ‘Barbarians, incapable of analysis and abstraction, must use their fantasy to explain what their reasons cannot comprehend.’ And the language that derives from this confrontation is metaphorical: ‘The child extends the names of the Wrst familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.’128 Language has since become abstractly distanced from its referent, disconnected by the independent operation of reason.129 This abstraction, resulting in the separation of form and content in language, is termed ‘decadent’ by Beckett, and Joyce is to be praised because he has returned to primitive ‘direct expression’. The distinction between abstraction and directness is that the former presupposes a world with absolute surety. From this false position, further reWnements and progressions can be made, each of which takes one further away from the foundations of the initial presupposition. Direct expression, meanwhile, presupposes that the world is unknown, a place strange and new, which provokes original conWgurations, gestures of similitude, that spontaneously animate the immediate and particular as if they were being confronted for the Wrst time. In abstraction, the objects and entities constituted in discourse are 126
127 Ibid. 329. Ibid. 328–9. ‘Dante . . . Bruno . Vico . . . Joyce’, in Disjecta, 24–6. 129 Beckett names allegory as the symptomatic trope of such language use: ‘Allegory implies a threefold intellectual operation: the construction of a message of general signiWcance, the preparation of a fabulous form, and an exercise of considerable technical diYculty in uniting the two’ (ibid. 26). 128
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assumed to be part of a totality; in directness, objects and entities are parts of a perpetually fragmented alterity. Beckett, therefore, initially endows poetry with an Adamic power, directly related to metaphor’s simultaneous duality of identiWcation and diVerence. Yet crucially, and elliptically, by the essay’s end it is clear that Joyce’s work is, for Beckett, an enclosed system, a structural form distinct from the content contained within it. Metaphorical apprehension is encased within a higher-level ironic tropism: On this earth that is Purgatory, Vice and Virtue—which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness. Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail.130
The same phenomenon was to be discovered in the style of Proust. Proust’s ‘explosive’ ability to penetrate to the Idea of a thing, his admirable ‘non-logical statement of phenomena . . . before they have been distorted into intelligibility’, results in a writing dominated by ‘the chain Wgure of the metaphor’ spiralling ever onwards, like music, in an autonomous domain ‘untouched by the teleological hypothesis’.131 Although Joyce and Proust disrupt ‘habit’ and synthesize form and content, revolutionizing perception in a manner that puts them both at the vanguard of literature, both their styles ultimately point to a reality conceived as pure and inWnite succession. This paradox takes us to the core of Beckett’s poetic, which is predicated upon an explosive form of metaphor. The confused, atomistic experience of his poetry is a deliberate aVront to what he calls abstraction. And Beckett’s radical use of metaphor and catachresis as a formal principle underpins his avant-gardist attempt to create new forms. However, he encases this Wrmly within an awareness of the project’s futility. Most of the poems are concerned with death, and Beckett’s phonic circularity hinges on this absence in the midst of being and language, as a tomb becomes a womb, a breath becomes a death, and vice versa. And this deeper, ironic awareness, which homogenizes 130 Beckett names allegory as the symptomatic trope of such language use: ‘Allegory implies a threefold intellectual operation: the construction of a message of general signiWcance, the preparation of a fabulous form, and an exercise of considerable technical diYculty in uniting the two’ (ibid. 26), 33. 131 Proust, 20, 66, 68, 71.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
everything to the same ineVectual level of sound drifting oV beyond sense, exists in a dialectical relationship with Beckett’s avant-gardist urgency. The shock of death provides the fundamental urge towards the destruction of old and the creation of new forms in the Wrst place, even if this is understood to be predestined to failure. And the wearily comic tone that Beckett would later uniquely adopt stems from the circuitry of this dialectic, which he would consistently refuse to resolve. Thus, Beckett’s early verse remains ethically disturbing in its absolute refusal of communality, which, in turn, is closely linked to its absolute denial that history is anything other than an eternal present of pain and inevitable death. While Devlin and CoVey may be far from what is conventionally understood as Thirties poets, their work nevertheless draws upon a sense of immanent transcendence, implying a teleological trajectory, of sorts, that might easily be taken as Wgurative of historical shape, direction, and purpose. Beckett’s remorseless refusal of this, meanwhile, creates a frightening standard of aesthetic refutation, a kind of black hole that threatens utterly to nullify the pretensions of any form of cohesion, whether ‘humanist’, ‘radical’, ‘nationalist’, ‘postcolonial’ or otherwise, that might be imposed upon it. Nevertheless, many attempts have been made to explain Beckett’s art in terms of his Irish background. Of course, his dislike of the Irish nationalist hegemony is well known, while he was also clearly alienated from his own intermingled culture of bourgeois Protestantism.132 James Knowlson argues, however, that the poverty of Dublin had a more profound impact on him: [H]e began to wander around the streets, observing how wretched the lives of so many of his fellow men could be: beggars, tramps, ex-soldiers wounded or gassed in the First World War, the blind paralytic, wheeled daily into his place ‘near the corner of Fleet Street and in bad weather under the shelter of the arcade’.133
According to Knowlson, Beckett’s hypersensitivity towards these daily scenes of degradation inXated his latent morbidity. Moreover, it seems 132 Patricia Coughlan outlines Beckett’s cultural position: ‘By background a Protestant in a state increasingly and aggressively Catholic in ideology, by conviction an atheist in a family devoutly low-church and Evangelical, member of the suburban middle class in a cultural milieu oYcially devoted to enthusiastic imaginative celebration of the rural peasantry, bohemian and cosmopolitan by taste and inclination and, in a household governed by respectability and propriety, valuing the life of the intellect and the arts above bourgeois professional status or security’ (‘ ‘‘The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves’’: Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry’, 180). 133 Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 67. Knowlson notes that the details of the ‘blind paralytic’ were recalled by Beckett in conversation over sixty years later in 1989 (ibid. 718).
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reasonable to surmise that the gap between this social reality and the rhetoric of nationalism might have fuelled his disrespect of that discourse. Knowlson also records the inXuence that Thomas RudmoseBrown, his Trinity tutor, had on Beckett, writing that Brown was continuously ‘vociferous against the increasing stranglehold that he saw the Catholic Church exerting on the newly created Irish state’.134 Undoubtedly, Beckett’s sense of individualism lies at the heart of his writings—the breakdown between subject and object leading to the view that society is little more than a communal hallucination, and that the only thing one is entitled to doubt, and then some, is oneself. But nevertheless, W. J. McCormack marks the extent of his contributions, in 1934, to Nancy Cunard’s The Negro Anthology: ‘a project which not only sought to highlight European racism but which also was published . . . to raise funds for the French Communist Party’.135 Beckett’s published response, in 1937, to the Spanish Civil War (‘uptherepublic’) came oV the back of a visit to Nazi Germany.136 But, while this speaks out against Franco, it can also be feasibly taken as an ironical contrast between idealist Republicanism and its historical actualization in Ireland. Perhaps his most explicit written comment on the Irish State, ‘Censorship in the Saorstat’, shows his contempt for the legislators to be equalled by his contempt for the people, whom he sees as acquiescing to, and willing, the cultural prohibitions of the State: ‘We now feed our pigs on sugarbeet pulp. It is all the same to them.’137 However, if Beckett’s reaction against nationalism conXates with a growing reaction to his own bourgeois background, as he constructs a notion of the writer as the ultra-individual opposed to all forms of organized society, it should be noted that he conceptualizes this break in deeply personalized terms of guilt, betrayal, and negativity. In this, Beckett’s art stands apart from both Devlin’s and CoVey’s entirely. Moreover, although he suVered as a result of his stance, he never compromised it. The Gogarty–Sinclair Trial of 1937 might be taken as the apotheosis of Beckett’s interaction with his native milieu. Whether or not the trial evidences how ‘Dublin opinion was willing to believe he was a renegade, a traitor to his family, class and people’, as Deirdre Bair 134 Ibid. 50. When Beckett went to Paris in 1928, Brown recommended him to Valery Larbaud as ‘a great enemy of imperialism, patriotism and all the Churches’ (ibid. 51). 135 W. J. McCormack, From Burke to Beckett: Ascendancy, Tradition and Betrayal in Literary History, 2nd edn. (Cork: Cork University Press, 1994), 386. 136 Cited by McCormack ibid. 387. 137 Disjecta, 88.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
has argued, it is clear he was treated roughly on account of studying a homosexual (Proust), and writing a banned book (More Pricks Than Kicks), and that this ignominious treatment was reported in the Irish Times, Irish Press, and Irish Independent.138 J. C. C. Mays reports that, later in life, when asked about the great proliferation of quality Irish writers, Beckett replied: ‘When you are in the last ditch, there is nothing left but to sing. . . . It’s the English Government and the Catholic Church—they have buggered us into existence.’139 The most obvious literary inXuence on Beckett was Joyce, whose work in exile oVered ‘a jade of hope to those juggernauted in the haemorrhoidal isle’.140 In Joyce’s Work in Progress, Beckett found a work whose founding principle was the notion of Irish history as hybrid: a hybridity that did not allow for demarcations. Rather than replace one Irish narrative with another revised Irish narrative, Joyce oVered a nonnarrative that would universally subsume all narratives, a non-enclosable form that enclosed the world. To be Irish is to be anyone and everyone; but within this conception, existence is dissipated in a chaos of simultaneous becoming and dissolution, in which concrete instances of identity, nation, and history become impossible. Beckett’s aesthetic likewise constitutes an attempt to deny static notions of identity, but the jocose equanimity with which Joyce dissolves history and being into processual circles is antipathetic to Beckett’s existentialist intensity, ensuring rather that the world remains a virtual coliseum of pain. Nevertheless, the ethical drive of Beckett’s poetic remains geared towards absolutely refusing and negating concepts such as Ireland and history. Politely refuting Thomas MacGreevy’s Irish contextualization of Jack Yeats in 1945, Beckett wrote: ‘Mr Yeats’s importance is to be sought elsewhere than in a sympathetic treatment . . . of the local accident, or the local substance. He is with the great of our time . . . because he brings light, as only the great dare to bring light, to the issueless predicament of existence.’141 138 139
Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), 265–9. J. C. C. Mays, ‘Young Beckett’s Irish Roots’, Irish University Review, 14/1 (1984), 18–33, at
20–1. ‘Home Olga’, Collected Poems 1930–1989, 10. Disjecta, 97. Elsewhere, Beckett wrote to MacGreevy of his ‘chronic inability to understand . . . a phrase like ‘‘The Irish People’’ or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the union or after, or that it was ever capable of any thought or act other than rudimentary thoughts and acts delved into by the priests and demagogues in service of the priests’ (cited by Mays, ‘Young Beckett’s Irish Roots’, 20). 140 141
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
Beckett’s enthusiastic interpretation of Joycean direct expression made clear his distaste for agreed concepts and his predilection for novel, metaphoric apprehensions of the world. In this, he directly echoes Nietzsche. Hayden White argues that, ‘[a]ccording to Nietzsche, the most destructive form of illusionism is that which transforms an image into a concept and then freezes the imagination within the terms provided by the concept’.142 For Nietzsche, as for Beckett, these concepts are ‘life-destroying’, duping one into surrendering authenticity. White continues: ‘By means of Metonymy men create agents and agencies behind phenomena; by means of Synecdoche they endow these agents and agencies with speciWc qualities, and most especially the quality of being something other than what they are.’143 In direct refutation of these tropes, Beckett wrote in 1937: I am not interested in a ‘uniWcation’ of the historical chaos any more than I am in the ‘clariWcation’ of the individual chaos, and still less in the anthropomorphisation of the human necessities that provoke the chaos. What I want is the straws, Xotsam, etc., names, dates, births and deaths, because that is all I can know. Meier says that the background is more important than the foreground, the causes than the eVects, the causes than their representatives and opponents. I say the background and the causes are an inhuman and incomprehensible machinery and venture to wonder what kind of appetite it is that can be appeased by the modern animism that consists in rationalising them.144
Beckett thus repudiates not just any explanation of history, but even the very conceptualization of it. Beckett’s identiWcation of literature with music, as a means of ensuring its non-abstract and anti-rational basis, might be taken further to link his aesthetic with the iconoclasm of Nietzsche. Hayden White, discussing Nietzsche, argues: ‘The verbal and literary counterpart of the spirit of music is Metaphor. By Metaphorical identiWcations, phenomena are transformed into images that have no ‘‘meanings’’ outside themselves. As images, they simply resemble and diVer from whatever surrounds them.’145 White goes on to provide a summary of Nietzsche’s conception of history based on metaphor: 142 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 341. 143 Ibid. 335. 144 Unpublished German Diary, cited by Knowlson, Damned to Fame, 244. 145 White, Metahistory, 345.
Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, and Samuel Beckett
Just as poetry is itself the means by which the conventional rules of language are transcended, so, too, Metaphorical historiography is the means by which the conventional rules of historical explanation and emplotment are abolished. Only the lexical elements of the Weld remain, to be done with as the historian, now governed by the ‘spirit of music’, desires. The dissolution of the notion of a historical semantics is, at the same time, the dissolution of the dream of a method by which history-in-general can be endowed with any sense at all. The historian is liberated from having to say anything about the past; the past is only an occasion for his invention of ingenious ‘melodies’.146
Nietzsche’s philosophy of history, then, clearly shares certain fundamentals with Beckett’s poetic. But, as we have seen, Beckett further reduces the potential of individual expression to an homogeneous realization of pain, alienation, and inevitable death: a kind of will to powerlessness. On the consequences of Nietzsche’s philosophy, White argues: Any attempt to interpret Nietzsche’s thought as a purer and more consistent form of the conventional ideological positions—Conservative, Liberal, Reactionary, Radical, or even Anarchist—must face the fact that, in his conception of history, the prospects of any community whatsoever are sternly rejected. In Nietzsche, no historical grounds exist for the construction of any speciWc political posture except that of antipolitics itself. Thought is liberated from responsibility to anything outside the ego and will of the individual, whether past, future, or present. In this respect Nietzsche merely represents a heroic aYrmation of the Ironic condition of the culture of his own age.147
In Beckett’s aesthetic, meanwhile, if thought is ‘liberated from responsibility to anything outside the ego’, this is still a nightmarish scenario, because it leaves thought imprisoned within the ego. Thus, by vehemently insisting upon individual isolation, yet denuding it of agency, Beckett represents an antiheroic condemnation of the bankrupt condition of his culture. Arguably, Murphy aside, Beckett does not truly rise to greatness until he begins to play with ‘habit’, rather than try to Wght against it through clever-clever pyrotechnics. Meanwhile, his aggressive and bitter early work indicates the extent to which his eventual successes were hard earned. And while his extremism certainly sets him apart from his contemporaries, elements of his aesthetic are clearly shared with other Irish contemporaries. In particular, Beckett’s perpetually renewed battle 146
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
between being and nothingness, which can never be resolved in history, was being contested with equally rabid intensity by another Irish poet drawing to the end of a long and extraordinarily fecund career. Indeed, the young Beckett’s aesthetic predilections during the 1930s—writing poetry to an idea of music, the primacy of Neoplatonic Ideas, the desire for a dissolution of self—were fundamental facets of the youthful aesthetic of that other poet in his youth: W. B. Yeats in the 1880s and 1890s. That Yeats was still obsessing, in the 1930s, over the dialectic between being and non-being, and doing so with such a ‘cold eye’, indicates that the aYnities between his and Beckett’s work might well run as deeply as Beckett’s aYnities with Joyce.
W. B. Yeats: Among the Deepening Shades I If he had died in 1929, as he nearly did,1 Yeats would probably still be ‘a Big Bang in whose explosion Irish literature still lives’.2 Yet in the next decade, despite recurrent illness, his output was monumental. His work from the 1930s cannot be severed from his earlier, labyrinthine, and transWxing career: Yeats is readily associated with Romanticism, Symbolism, the Wn de sie`cle, the Irish Revival, and the heyday of High Modernism. But the fact that he is hardly associated with the Thirties at all is a serious blip in literary history. To be sure, the intensely systematic nature of his work seems to enclose his verse in an autonomous and idiosyncratic realm that is signiWcantly distinct from the work of his contemporaries in the 1930s. But Yeats participated in the same milieu as other poets of the decade, and his art emphatically overlaps with theirs. Meanwhile, the remarkable work of Roy Foster will surely, as it is digested, Wll in many of the gaps in our understanding of the poet’s intense, complex, and hugely ambitious endeavours during this time.3 Yet the dynamic and multidimensional nature of his art ensures there will never be a Wnal word on Yeats. 1 In December 1929, the 64-year-old Yeats was stricken with Malta fever in Rapallo, and made an emergency will witnessed by Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting. Terence Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999), 330. 2 The phrase is Edna Longley’s, from ‘Introductory ReXections’, in Warwick Gould and Edna Longley (eds.), Yeats Annual No. 12. That Accusing Eye: Yeats and his Irish Readers (London: Macmillan Press, 1996), 26. 3 Roy Foster, W. B. Yeats, A Life, ii. The Arch-Poet, 1915–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Other works that have contextualized Yeats within the intellectual climate of the Thirties are Elizabeth Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London: Macmillan, 1981), and Paul StanWeld, Yeats and Politics in the 1930s (London: Macmillan, 1988). While these books are crucial, however, they need to be complemented by a sustained attention to Yeats’s aesthetic.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
MacNeice called Yeats ‘a federation—more self-conscious than is usual—of opposing ‘‘interests’’ ’.4 But, while his systematic nature strives to regulate these opposing interests, his verse dramatizes a kaleidoscope of perspectives upon their convergence, contradiction, reconciliation, and fracture. Thus, while Yeats’s ‘system’ is central to his aesthetic, it by no means encompasses the full consequence of his work, which ultimately resides in the intersecting complexity of his individual poems and plays. In many ways, Yeats’s percipience is lost through generalization. A pivotal poem for understanding his art, in the 1930s, is the sequence ‘Vacillation’, written between 1931 and 1932.5 Introducing his work in 1937, Yeats wrote: ‘I hated and still hate with an ever growing hatred the literature of the point of view.’6 Yet ‘Vacillation’ is ostensibly, like many of his lyrics, a poem of averment. Yeats presented the poem as an assertion of personal belief, written to confront his leanings towards institutional religion: ‘I . . . play a predestined part. j Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.’7 Such a paradox typiWes Yeats’s remorselessly dialectic procedure. He wrote of his later work: ‘the passion of the verse comes from the fact that the speakers are holding down violence or madness—‘‘down Hysterica passio’’. All depends on the completeness of the holding down, on the stirring of the beast underneath.’8 Of course, this emotional and psychological struggle cannot be detached from broader aesthetic and historical dialectics in Yeats’s work: between beautiful forms and shocking convulsions, between social cohesion and savage anarchy. Mythical archetypes, historical contexts, and the mechanics of poetic form are obsessively bound by Yeats, so that aesthetic modalities and historical forces perpetually 4
Louis MacNeice, Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938),
80. 5 Dates for Yeats’s poems are taken from Norman JeVares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1984). 6 W. B. Yeats, Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961), 511. 7 ‘Vacillation’, The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 503. Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear on 15 December 1931, alluding to his having begun ‘a longish poem’, and pleading: ‘I begin to think I shall take to religion unless you save me from it’ (The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 788). Writing to Dorothy Wellesley in 1937, he maintained: ‘when I am ill I am a Christian & that is abominable’ (Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), 143). 8 Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 86.
W. B. Yeats
combust and reconWgure in the linguistic pressure zones of his art. And ‘Vacillation’, an outlandish amalgam of avowal and inscrutability, demonstrates Yeats’s desire to let the ‘beast underneath’ rise up more violently than before. The poem is written in eight sections. Section I opens with a clipped proposition and ends with an implosive question: Between extremities Man runs his course; A brand, or Xaming breath, Comes to destroy All those antinomies Of day and night; The body calls it death, The heart remorse. But if these be right What is joy?9
This declaration is replete with ambiguity. It is not clear that the ‘extremities’ and ‘antinomies’ are quite the same thing, although they are analogous, Xipsides of the one coin. The poem thus suggests that the duality of life and death is already encompassed within life’s cycle of ‘day and night’; but, at the same time, the ‘Xaming breath’ that brings about ‘death’ seems to be autonomous, with an agency external to the circuitry of life’s antinomies of ‘day and night’. In this way, the verse conveys a sense that life and death are compounded through a dialectical continuity, a kind of enclosed loop, while it simultaneously intimates that these are hostile others, that the ‘extremities’ and ‘antinomies’ are ironically discrete. This reading might seem pernickety: the section’s overall sense is clear, setting up a quest for joy in the light of death. But Yeats, in the 1930s, consistently writes verse that is at once vigorously assertive and indeWnitely suggestive, and this stanza reveals his technical virtuosity and semantic complexity in subtle fusion. For example, the punctuation is unobtrusive yet pivotal. Yeats is fond of semicolons, often using them to undermine the continuity between successive clauses under the guise of grammatical clarity. Here, the Wrst semicolon is an axis of ambivalence, coyly suggesting but not conWrming the structural and conceptual parallels between ‘extremities’ and ‘antimonies’. Further on, lines 9–10 9
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 499–500.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
of this passage seem to respond directly to lines 7–8—‘these’ referring to ‘body’ and ‘heart’. However, another semicolon would have better conveyed this progression. Instead, we have a full stop, which opens out the possibility that the question refers to all of lines 1–8. So, the question remains, ‘What is joy?’, but it is asked not just through an apprehension of death; rather, it queries the entire sense of the verse, which may not be ‘right’. Rhyme is also used to transWgure assertion into something more enigmatically dense. The verse’s rhyme scheme seems to have been improvised (a b c d a e c b e d ) to manipulate particular eVects. For instance, the rhyming of ‘Xaming breath’ with ‘death’, man’s ‘course’ with ‘remorse’, suggests a synonymity that may be misleading. Meanwhile, the delayed rhyme between ‘destroy’ and the question ‘What is joy?’ might subliminally pre-empt the answer that joy resides in the opposite of destruction, which is a key note to Yeats’s poetry in the 1930s. Thus, the rhyming’s play of identity and diVerence augments the tension between continuity and ironic rupture. The rhyme scheme exempliWes Yeats’s negotiation between formal order and experimentation, and ‘Vacillation’, as a whole, formidably stretches out this taut mediation. Having innovated the lyric sequence in The Tower, Yeats here pushes the boat out a little further. Each section of ‘Vacillation’ manifests within itself a characteristic tussle between traditional form and ‘the beast underneath’. But, further, the continuity between its eight parts is unhinged so that the poem is constructed out of distinct but intersecting planes of representational technique, each utilizing diVerent assumptions about reality and language. Thus, the poem’s interstices are sites of play between conjunction and disjunction; and, while this is similar to the technique of MacNeice, Yeats intensiWes his ambivalence through the range of modes encompassed within the economy of his poem. Section II presents a tree that alludes back to, and fuses the antinomies of, his early poem ‘The Two Trees’.10 The sudden leap into a diVerent aesthetic modality is striking, yet the poem does not dwell on such shifts. Like Section III, this is written in ottava rima, a form that here somehow normalizes the content, particularly since Section III returns to direct speech. Such a technique, indeed, is common. Paul de Man writes of Yeats’s work: ‘Even when an altogether supernatural 10
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 134–6.
W. B. Yeats
realm is being evoked, it is often done in a matter-of-fact, circumstantial manner, as if it were a perception in ordinary time and space.’11 Yeats is, of course, recognized as a master of mythopoesis; but what diVerentiates him from Joyce, Eliot, and other peers is the formal means by which he conjugates divergent realities. Here, the juxtaposition of variant literary modes, within the same ottava rima form, creates a distinctly peculiar conXuence. And this technique lets Yeats traverse alternative imaginative orders without breaking his stride, while it simultaneously imparts a perplexing impression of the wilful arbitrariness of the act. Nevertheless, Section II unravels some of Section I’s riddle: A tree there is that from its topmost bough Is half all glittering Xame and half all green Abounding foliage moistened with dew; And half is half and yet is all the scene; And half and half consume what they renew, And he that Attis’ image hangs between That staring fury and the blind lush leaf May not know what he knows, but knows not grief.12
The play with dualities, with repetitions and inversions, continues Section I’s gamesmanship with parallelisms. But here we have something of an answer to the question ‘What is joy?’, because, if the Xaming half of the tree is akin to the ‘Xaming breath’ of Section I, then it is now certiWably part of an organicist whole: ‘And half is half and yet is all the scene.’ The ‘Xaming breath’ is no longer an autonomous agent of termination, but part of a cycle of perpetual regeneration: ‘And half and half consume what they renew.’ Joy, or at least the negation of grief, is attainable through a fusion of dichotomies as they generate a cycle; thus ‘joy’ is found precisely where the poem began: ‘Between extremities’. These diverse roles played by ‘Xame’ exemplify Yeats’s manipulation of perspective. What is organicist and contained from one angle can be manifested as ironically disruptive from another. So, if Yeats’s poetic seems at times to be anchored in a cyclical system, his poems are invariably cast ironically so that they Xit between revelation and 11
Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984),
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 500.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
negation. In ‘Vacillation’, Section III conWrms that joy stems from an acceptance of death. But the pivotal question is whether this acceptance is bound by a vision of broader cohesion, of reincarnation and continuity, or whether it is a matter of nihilistically laughing in annihilation’s face. And, in this, Section III is unforthcoming: No longer in Lethean foliage caught Begin the preparation for your death And from the fortieth winter by that thought Test every work of intellect or faith, And everything that your own hands have wrought, And call those works extravagance of breath That are not suited for such men as come Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.13
The kind of work that is ‘suited’ to ‘such men as come j Proud, openeyed and laughing to the tomb’ is not speciWed, leaving the source of their joy unknown. Therefore, what stands the ‘Test’ of ‘death’, and what is merely an ‘extravagance of breath’, remains open to question.14 Section IV gives one answer, Sections V and VI give a diVerent one. The Wrst ventures that joy derives from blessedness: While on the shop and street I gazed My body of a sudden blazed; And twenty minutes more or less It seemed, so great my happiness, That I was blesse`d and could bless.15
With its echo of ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’s’ Wnale, this associates blessedness with reciprocity, with a sense of interconnectedness.16 Yet such idyllism skirts around death. By contrast, Section V embroils itself with the intractability of time, as mortality opens out to division and the irreversibility of history. In this way, ‘Vacillation’ reverses the order of ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’, so that blessedness leads onto remorse: 13
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 500–1. Ibid. 501. 15 Ibid. 16 ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ ends: ‘So great a sweetness Xows into the breast j We must laugh and we must sing. j We are blest by everything, j Everything we look upon is blest’ (Ibid. 479). Elsewhere, Yeats had described such ‘unforeseen’ moments, which, strikingly, come after he has read poetry (sometimes his own) and is Wlled with excitement: ‘I look at the strangers near as if I had known them all my life, and it seems strange that I cannot speak to them: everything Wlls me with aVection, I have no longer any fears or needs’ (Mythologies (New York: Macmillan, 1959), 364–5). 14
W. B. Yeats
Things said or done long years ago, Or things I did not do or say But thought that I might say or do, Weigh me down, and not a day But something is recalled, My conscience or my vanity appalled.17
This is poised between concentration and convolution. By provoking, so intensely, the phantoms of what-might-have-been, death Wgures as a zero-point around which contemplation is spun with nullifying absorption. The Wrst three lines’ dualisms suggest a kind of collapse, capturing what Yeats elsewhere calls the ‘soul’ as it ‘begins to tremble into stillness, j To die into the labyrinth of itself’.18 Thus, death, here, is neither singular nor Wnal, but a site of negative conceptual generation, apprehended through vacuous linguistic concamerations. However, as Section V veers into a slough of remorse, Section VI suddenly shifts away from the personal-confessional mode, bouncing back with fabular snapshots of a celebratory nihilism. After Section V’s compression, the poem launches, in a tellingly audacious move, into its most negative phase by taking an extravagant Xight through aeons of time. The move authenticates irony by locating it in history, and by the sheer imaginative release of the section. But, at the same time, this is a peculiar, mythological, and perplexing history. In another example of Yeats’s curiously duplex use of myth, provoking our credulity and incredulity simultaneously, the section manages to be both dramatically concrete and tenuous: A rivery Weld spread out below, An odour of the new-mown hay In his nostrils, the great lord of Chou Cried, casting oV the mountain snow, ‘Let all things pass away.’ Wheels by milk-white asses drawn Where Babylon or Nineveh Rose; some conqueror drew rein And cried to battle-weary men, ‘Let all things pass away.’19 17 18 19
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 501. ‘The Phases of the Moon’, ibid. 374. Poems of W. B. Yeats, 502.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
In one sense, nihilism is legitimized by the expansion into history and myth. But, in another, its credibility is postponed because of the sheer bewilderment occasioned by the verse’s breakneck rapidity, authoritative speciWcity, and weird historicity. And, yet, this highly ambivalent atmosphere provides the context for the section’s conclusive declaration: ‘What’s the meaning of all song? j ‘‘Let all things pass away.’’ ’20 Thus, the poem tumbles from blessedness to remorse to nihilism. But, as its pendulum swings towards negation, its juxtapositional form makes its narrative extremely equivocal. As the poem swings towards nihilism, the positive message of Sections II and IV remain, in a sense, as alternatives, oases of possibility. But, at the same time, this nonintegration makes the poem smack of arbitrariness, as the jumps from one section to another abandon any clear logic of cause and eVect. And this, it will be seen, is central to Yeats. Yeats could have drawn to a conclusion by wrapping up the disjointed elements of his poem. Instead, ‘Vacillation’ charges ahead on its self-regulatory course of surprise and innovation. The pivotal and penultimate Section VII ostensibly holds the key to the poem’s overall import, yet it takes the shape of another distinct form that clashes with what immediately precedes it: Seek out reality, leave things that seem. What, be a singer born and lack a theme? Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire? Struck dumb in the simplicity of Wre! Look on that Wre, salvation walks within. What theme had Homer but original sin?21
The Soul. The Heart. The Soul. The Heart. The Soul. The Heart.
‘Heart’ in particular, but also ‘Soul’, pop up recurrently in Yeats’s œuvre, denoting an indeterminate abundance of conXictual signiWcance. They are allegorical mouthpieces that few other poets would have ventured to use with a straight face by the 1930s. But Yeats wears a poker face more often than is acknowledged, often manipulating the fact that his poetic career stretches back forty years, into now-defunct traditions, to iconoclastic eVect during his last decade. ‘Heart’ and ‘Soul’ enlarge the poem’s imaginative domain and alienate simultaneously. Moreover, their dialogue’s fusion of fragmentation and compression seems to frustrate the hope for a clear denouement. 20
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 502.
W. B. Yeats
Key to the dialogue is ‘Isaiah’s coal’, which turns out to be a symbol of Christianity’s limitations: Then Xew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from oV the altar: And he said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged . . . And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not.22
Salvation, here, depends upon a denial of knowledge and acquiescence to authority. And, in this sense, the dialogue’s conclusion can be seen as central to Yeats’s poetic of the 1930s—associating Homer, the Godfather of the poetic tradition, with the Fall. For Yeats, the poet deals with transgression, and joy resides in an acceptance of the Fall, in spite of its negation. Thus, ‘Vacillation’ might be recast as a psychological testing ground for Yeats’s resolve. The nihilism brought about by the Fall serves as a temptation to accept Isaiah’s coal, but theological certitude is a forbidden fruit to Yeats, who must rather cultivate fortitude in the face of irony, transience, and death. Section VIII then concludes the poem with the victorious self-surety of its rejection of Christianity, in the guise of Von Hu¨gel:23 I—though heart might Wnd relief Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief What seems most welcome in the tomb—play a predestined part. Homer is my example and his unchristened heart. The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said? So get you gone, Von Hu¨gel, though with blessings on your head.24
This concession to the attractiveness of Christianity merely emphasizes the speaker’s conWdence in his own conviction, reXected in the stanza’s rhetorical Xourish. However, certain problems persist. This conclusion sits on the unstable shoulders of the sequence’s aesthetic, which has been alienating in its disjuncture. Moreover, it hinges on arbitrary allusions: the conclusion’s intertextuality perpetuates the incompletion that has infected the total poem. Peter McDonald claims that, more often than 22
Isa. 6: 6–9. Yeats had been reading Baron Friedrich von Hu¨gel’s The Mystical Element of Religion, as Studied in St Catherine of Genoa and her Friends ( JeVares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 304). 24 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 503. 23
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
not in Yeats, the deWnitive closures of his poems represent ‘a battle won rather than an accommodation easily engineered’.25 But the civilized, intellectual disagreement that closes ‘Vacillation’ rather covers over the battle scars of the poem, which are left to fester beneath its grandiose self-assurance. At the same time, however, one can see that the poem’s complex and ultimately inconclusive structure performatively dramatizes its version of postlapsarian experience: the poem’s meaning has been sublimated into the immanence of its form. If the Wnal resolution constitutes a transcendence of vacillation, this has come about through a leap of poetic faith, which has taken place elliptically in the dislocations of the narrative. And, in this sense, the poem has found joy, but has not overcome the problems of death and negation; rather, joy is generated from creative action, and aYrmation, wrought in the eye of the hurricane. ‘Vacillation’ thus shows that contradiction and the indeWnite are selfconsciously riven into the core of Yeats’s poetic in the 1930s, against the grain of which he nevertheless engineers closures that ramify in their emphatic consonance. Yeats’s poems were always poised between fulWlment and negation, but, from The Tower onwards, he increasingly yokes generation and the void together in infernal engagement: The rage-driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop, Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at arm or at face, Plunges towards nothing, arms and Wngers spreading wide For the embrace of nothing . . . 26
And as a vacuum of nullity begins to burgeon in Yeats’s poetic, the sonnet ‘Meru’ comes to Wgure as a kind of black hole: Civilization is hooped together, brought Under a rule, under the semblance of peace By manifold illusion; but man’s life is thought, And he, despite his terror, cannot cease Ravening through century after century, Ravening, raging, and uprooting that he may come Into the desolation of reality: Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome! Hermits upon Mount Meru or Everest, 25 Peter McDonald, Serious Poetry: Form and Authority from Yeats to Hill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 146. 26 ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 426.
W. B. Yeats
Caverned in night under the drifted snow, Or where that snow and winter’s dreadful blast Beat down upon their naked bodies, know That day brings round the night, that before dawn His glory and his monuments are gone.27
The opening lines directly echo ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: The night can sweat in terror as before We pieced our thoughts into philosophy, And planned to bring the world under a rule, Who are but weasels Wghting in a hole.28
By zooming in on the impossibility of bringing civilization ‘under a rule’, ‘Meru’ manifests a bleakness as encompassing in its Wnality as anything else in twentieth-century literature. History constitutes a perpetually downward trajectory through illusion, terror, and desolation. And, while the monothetic nihilism of ‘Meru’ is quite unique in Yeats, to the extent that the poem does little to confront it with a positive opposite or contrary, the dramatic experience of the abyss is nevertheless at the core of Yeats’s poetic in the 1930s: the heroic acceptance of the Fall is cheapened if an authentic apprehension of its terror is unregistered. Lucy McDiarmid has intercontextualized the work of Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, focusing on their common goal of ‘saving civilization’, which, she argues, ‘was not only a response to international politics but a reaction to late romanticism’s separation of art and society’.29 Essentially, McDiarmid traces a generational decline in belief that art can aVect history, ‘from Yeats’s faith through Eliot’s questioning and Auden’s skepticism’.30 Yeats registers the suture between art and society, but, McDiarmid argues, the rabid intensity of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is ‘calmed down’ in the 1930s. For her, ‘Meru’ signals a ‘systematic distancing’ of Yeats’s art from history, a withdrawal into a purely autonomous realm, so that his poetry becomes an escape from the Real, a kind of funhouse of illusion, in which art’s centrality and power remain undiminished. Meanwhile, the ‘pressures of history do not disappear so easily in poems by Eliot and Auden’.31 27
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 563. Ibid. 429. 29 Lucy McDiarmid, Saving Civilization: Yeats, Eliot and Auden between the Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 7. 30 Ibid., p. xvi. 31 Ibid. 115. 28
Irish Poetry of the 1930s
However, by not attending to Yeats’s Irish contexts, McDiarmid inevitably shortchanges him. The links between ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Meru’ are enough in themselves to conWrm the link between Ireland and Yeats’s mushrooming sense of nullity. And, thus, a balance between Irish and international perspectives is required: the broad problematics of cultural and aesthetic modernity, the contexts of the 1930s, and the contexts of Irish culture are inextricable in Yeats’s art. Undoubtedly, he was marginalized by hegemonic Irish nationalism, but behind this lay the intersecting problem of High Art’s disenfranchisement within bourgeois culture. In brisk terms, Yeats’s response was to contextualize the contemporary within a macrocosmic historical framework that not only insisted that art was the driving force of history, but predicted that modernity was about to be eclipsed through a transformation wrought by an aesthetic such as his own. Thus, throughout the 1930s, Yeats went about the chore of ‘saving civilization’ with maniacal intensity. And, if his interests sometimes seemed to focus exclusively upon Ireland, it is always implied that a transformation of Irish culture, aVected by his art, would act as a beacon, or test case, for wider cultural change. Moreover, to the extent that his interest in Ireland conjoins questions of democracy, totalitarianism, ethnic identity, political violence, bourgeois reiWcation, mass culture, and the role of art: Ireland in his work becomes a microcosm of Western culture in general throughout the decade. While negation and dissolution are symptomatic of a rupture between art and society, they more profoundly Wgure as one pole of a broader dialectic that Yeats locates at the core of historical existence. Desire, and the will-to-form, make up the other pole. Art, for Yeats, is the driving force of history because it freely fuses these antinomies in dramatic conWgurations. More speciWcally, given the contexts of modernity and contemporary Ireland, art’s historical potency, its transformative agency, reside precisely in its Otherness, its oppugnancy to bourgeois certitude. But, in either case, poetry’s power and signiWcance are bound up entirely with the immanent dynamism of its form, and with the polymorphism of its symbols or images. The formal sapience and emotive voltage of Yeats’s poetry are generated by the depth of its negativity as much as by its aYrmation: the more taut the dialectic the greater the potency. Contradictorily, then, the ultimate impact of Yeats’s poetic, throughout the 1930s, gains from the authenticity with which it manifests negation.
W. B. Yeats
II While Yeats claimed that ‘Vacillation’ was written to ‘shake oV’ his ‘Crazy Jane’ persona,32 its victorious confrontation with negation also seems to have been a delayed response to the elegiac despondency of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’,33 which stands as a gravestone to many of the aspirations that had driven Yeats’s life’s work.34 He had already written the commemorative ‘Coole Park, 1929’, which celebrated Great works constructed there in nature’s spite For scholars and for poets after us, Thoughts long knitted into a single thought, A dance-like glory that those walls begot.35
But ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ is a much bleaker threnody, situating Coole’s ‘glory’ within a symbolic framework fraught with a necrological pessimism, which destroys the continuity between Coole’s ‘book of the people’ and the scholars and poets of the future.36 The Wrst stanza traces the River Cloone’s passage from Ballylee to Coole, ending enigmatically with a ‘Spread to a lake and drop into a hole’.37 Daniel Harris writes of this: ‘the central principle of Yeats’s geometry, its cyclical pattern, is wholly absent. The river, however reminiscent of Yeatsian recurrence, represents linear time; it expresses no idea of afterlife or rebirth. Half-conscious of its own teleology, it Wnishes up in Coole Lake; beyond that, there is nothing, death, ‘‘a hole’’.’38 In this manner, the stanza manipulates another play of perspective: its trajectory connotes the ‘commodicus vicus of recirculation’ that the river might be taken to symbolize, but explicitly refuses. And, because circulation is also suggested by the idea of generation, the stanza’s ambivalence is accentuated by its Wnal line, which follows the 32
The poem was originally titled ‘Wisdom’. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, 788. This second ‘Coole Park’ poem was written some ten months previous to ‘Vacillation’ in February 1931. 34 In 1927, Lady Gregory sold Coole Park to the Irish Government. As Daniel Harris puts it: ‘decreased participation in Abbey aVairs, the loss of close friends, recurrent cancer, and intermittent broodings on death made the sale a personal and historical crisis.’ Strikingly, Yeats decided to give up Thoor Ballylee the day after Gregory told him she was intending to lease Coole (Yeats: Coole Park and Ballylee (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 223–4). 35 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 488. 36 Ibid. 492. 37 Ibid. 490. 38 Harris, Yeats: Coole Park and Ballylee, 235. 33
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river’s ‘drop into a hole’ with the question: ‘What’s water but the generated soul?’39 Thus, the stanza evidences Yeats’s skill in counterpointing denotation against connotation, in an ambivalent compact that partially deXects attention away from its negativity, but that also, by hinting at a continuity that is not there, ultimately makes it more acute. And this creates an undercurrent of ambivalence that vibrates throughout the rest of the poem, uprising to aVect the tenor of Coole’s commemoration in its Wnale. The poem hinges upon a ‘mounting swan’ that fuses past and present, absence and presence: Another emblem there! That stormy white But seems a concentration of the sky; And, like the soul, it sails into the sight And in the morning’s gone, no man knows why; And it is so lovely that it sets to right What knowledge or its lack had set awry, So arrogantly pure, a child might think It can be murdered with a spot of ink.40
In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, Yeats wrote of the swan as an emblem of ‘the solitary soul’, and imaged its ‘breast thrust out in pride j Whether to play, or to ride j Those winds that clamour of approaching night’.41 And, here, the swan also heralds the night in which it will disappear, like the moon.42 In a single action, the swan both transposes the generated soul into the ever-presence of a white sky, and drops it into the hole of a night that quickly passes. If Coole’s commemoration is bound up with the river and the swan, then, the poem is rendering it both past and present in a double movement, diVusing it into the permanence of the elements, discarnate yet eternal, while stressing that it is irretrievably gone. The swan’s arrogant purity harks back to Baudelaire’s ‘Le Cygne’,43 and also to Mallarme´’s ‘cygne’ from ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel 39
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 490. Ibid. 490–1. 41 Ibid. 430–1. 42 The poem also echoes lines from ‘The Tower’: ‘When the swan must Wx his eye j Upon a fading gleam, j Float out upon a long j Last reach of glittering stream’ (ibid. 414). 43 The speaker in Baudelaire’s poem muses: ‘I think of my great swan, his gestures pained and mad, j Like other exiles, both ridiculous and sublime, j Gnawed by his endless longing!’ (Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans. James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 177). 40
W. B. Yeats
aujourd’hiu’.44 But, while these poems undoubtedly provide a subtext, the swan in ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ is already saturated with multiple signiWcance. It signiWes something beyond intellection that ‘sets to right j What knowledge or its lack had set awry’;45 but it is also associated with the soul, with the sky, with loveliness, with purity, and with arrogance; it proVers relief from ‘Nature’s . . . tragic buskin’ and the speaker’s gloom; it elevates the past into an ecstatic everpresence; and yet it nevertheless disappears. Moreover, its arrogant purity seems to provoke in people a childlike, arrogant belief that they might capture it with ‘a spot of ink’, in attempting which they would, in fact, kill it. Then, again, it is perhaps arrogance to think the swan might be ‘murdered’ by attempted representations, because its emblematic vitality supersedes any individual depiction, since derived from the multiple associations assigned to it through the richness of tradition. The swan of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ is thus an indeWnite fusion of these multiple contexts, most of which are unstable because of the poem’s ambivalence. And the swan then enters into a problematic relationship with the rest of the poem, whose ultimate meaning is aVected by this multeity. The lines telling us that ‘a child might think’ the swan ‘can be murdered by a spot of ink’ deXects the positive tenor created by its beauty. If the poem testiWes to the power of Coole’s artistic tradition, these lines seem to cast a distinctly negative shadow over Coole’s achievements. On the one hand, Coole’s ‘book of the people’ has dissolved into a Mallarme´an absolute whiteness, into the blank of a page that a ‘spot of ink’ would murder; it has dropped out of history’s continuity and would be violated by any future artist’s attempt to preserve or resurrect it. Indeed, Coole’s ‘book of the people’ has dropped out of history precisely because its writers constituted the last tradition (‘We were the last romantics’), dying and being replaced by the ‘darkening Xood’ of rootless modernity.46 But, on the other hand, an earlier version of the poem placed greater emphasis upon questioning the achievements of any artistic endeavour, including Coole’s. In this sense, the poem intimated that art and culture are
44 Stephane Mallarme ´ , Collected Poems, trans. Henry WeinWeld (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 67. 45 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 490. 46 Ibid. 491–2.
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going to rack and ruin, but that they are always equivocal in their accomplishments anyway. When Wrst printed in Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems, in 1932, the poem that is now ‘The Choice’ was inserted between the penultimate and last stanzas of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’. And this considerably qualiWed the movement from Coole’s description to the poem’s sweeping conclusion: A spot whereon the founders lived and died Seemed once more dear than life; ancestral trees, Or gardens rich in memory gloriWed Marriages, alliances and families, And every bride’s ambition satisWed. Where fashion or mere fantasy decrees We shift about—all that great glory spent— Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent. The intellect of man is forced to choose Perfection of the life, or of the work, And if it take the second must refuse A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. When all that story’s Wnished, what’s the news? In luck or out the toil has left its mark: That old perplexity an empty purse, Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse. We were the last romantics—chose for theme Traditional sanctity and loveliness; Whatever’s written in what poets name The book of the people; whatever most can bless The mind of man or elevate a rhyme; But all is changed, that high horse riderless, Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode Where the swan drifts upon a darkening Xood.47
The poem’s earlier published version, then, spoke not just of the demise of a culture, but of the vanity and remorse of artistic endeavour. Coole provided an environment for art, yet the agon of poesis overshadowed the privileges endowed by its rareWed atmosphere. But even more intriguing is another sense that all of Coole, as a corporate artistic project, refused a ‘heavenly mansion’ and thus damned itself to a 47
Poems of W. B. Yeats.
W. B. Yeats
‘raging’ hell. Moreover, this self-damnation may have been in vain because, now that the ‘story’s Wnished’, both the cultural ideal and the art account for virtually nothing. Thus, the adage of ‘Vacillation’— ‘What’s the meaning of all song? j ‘‘Let all things pass away’’ ’—is here registered with an emotive bruise. The removal of ‘The Choice’ simpliWes ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’: now Coole has gone, the displaced speaker, left to ‘shift about’, derives consolation from its ‘great glory’ while lamenting it is ‘spent’. However, the relationship between Coole and the swan remains troublesome. The swan of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, by riding the ‘winds that clamour’, is associated in that poem with ‘the labyrinth of the wind’, upon which is Xung the ‘tumult of images’ precipitated by the apocalyptic unleashing of ‘Herodias’ daughters’.48 It is also associated with ‘the labyrinth that [man] has made j In art or politics’, which ensures that if our works could But vanish with our breath That were a lucky death, For triumph can but mar our solitude.49
This despondency returns the speaker of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ to the swan: The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven: That image can bring wildness, bring a rage To end all things, to end What my laborious life imagined, even The half-imagined, the half-written page.50
Thus, if one reads meanings into Yeats’s swan that he assigns elsewhere, the glory of Coole’s ascent into the heavens is also a dissolution into ‘Meru’s’ ‘desolation of reality’.51 Its ‘stormy white’ might be read as an aspect of ‘the cold and rook-delighting heaven j That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice’.52 Moreover, as the swan in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is Xung on the winds of apocalypse, so might Yeats be symbolically transposing the spirit of Coole into the unforgettable shape of Zeus the rapist, on his way to germinate a cataclysm.53 48 51 53
49 Ibid. 431. 50 Ibid. Ibid. 433. 52 ‘The Cold Heaven’, ibid. 316. Ibid. 563. ‘Leda and the Swan’, ibid. 441.
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Yeats’s technique teases out the multidimensionality created by his symbols’ associative force and complexity. He insisted throughout his life that literary works must be completed, unitary forms if they are to be considered as art; yet, in a sense, his aesthetic vitiates the autonomy of his poems. If a work is made up of ‘symbols that have numberless meanings besides the one or two the writer lays an emphasis upon, or the half-score he knows of’, then it is implanting within itself alternant meanings outside its own emphasis.54 And this is how Yeats thought poetry should work. Back in 1897, he claimed that Blake left ‘three primary commands’ to writers: ‘to seek a determinate outline, to avoid a generalised treatment, and to desire always abundance and exuberance.’55 Art’s abundance depends upon its determinate outline, but also upon an elasticity that can release its symbolic contents’ multiformity. Yeats’s aesthetic thus encourages multiple levels of reading. In the Wrst place, a symbol signiWes whatever its poem’s context assigns to it. But we have seen how ambivalent this can be; and Yeats’s aesthetic encourages a second mode of reading. The presence of the swan in other Yeats poems multiplies its signiWcance, casting open new contexts for ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’. Indeed, the nature of Yeats’s symbolism suggests that the meaning of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ cannot Wnally be extricated from this protean network of signiWcance. The closely interwoven nature of Yeats’s collections, and ultimately of his Collected Poems, creates a tapestry of echo and counterecho, in which individual works of ‘unexpended energy’ interanimate, contradict, and reinforce one another. Coole’s ‘book of the people’ has vanished. Because ‘all has changed’, it has been disallowed any mode of historical continuity with the present and future. In this manner, the poem emphasizes Coole’s solitude more than its triumph: Coole’s demise, the reality of death and transience, makes a mockery of the continuity of tradition. Through the swan, Coole has been commemorated as a symbolic essence sublimated into the elements. That essence may well be ‘Traditional sanctity and loveliness’, but it has dissolved into a nothingness, an absent presence that can no longer have any aVective function in the present, can no longer enable ‘Great works’. While the swan had transformed a bleak winterscape into the ‘glittering reaches of the Xooded lake’, it now ‘drifts upon a darkening Xood’.56 And, just as the swan disappears before morning, 54
Essays and Introductions, 87.
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 490–2.
W. B. Yeats
the poem ends with the night of Coole’s dispersal, with the waters as they ‘drop into a hole’. However, the presence of ‘that high horse riderless, j Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode’, is of course key to the poem’s ultimate trajectory.57 In one sense, the ‘high horse riderless’ emphasizes the rupture between ‘Tradition’ and the present; but, in another, because still ‘mounted’ in Homer’s saddle, it suggests that all is not lost. Yet, because of the total dissolution of Coole, the poem’s trajectory disallows the possibility of any future riders, even as its symbolism allows for them. The poem’s projection is that of a train-track leading straight to a cliV edge, throwing history’s content into the abyss; and yet it maintains that somehow the train survives the crash, and that new tracks must be laid. And it is here that the denotation of termination comes up against the connotation of continuity. While it is commonly noted that dissolution leads to renewed creativity, and to new historical epochs, in Yeats’s aesthetic, what is germane is the extent to which ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ itself focuses upon the impact of dissolution. The ending suggests a possible continuity but disallows its means, thus making its negation all the more caustic. Coole was gone, Lady Gregory soon died, Yeats was old, Ireland had given itself to bourgeois materialism. ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ represents a deeply felt nadir, a death that can be seen to aVect all his subsequent work. The valedictory tone of ‘Vacillation’ was that of a rootless voice, cast out upon the ‘darkening Xood’, but nevertheless resolute in the eye of negation. Similarly, while ‘Coole and Park Ballylee, 1931’ contains latent intimations of an imminent cyclicism through which an aesthetic culture might be resurrected, it explicitly opens out to the transience of culture, the black hole underneath it. And this constitutes the ground upon which ‘Vacillation’, and Yeats’s tragic gaiety in the 1930s, is predicated. In Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, Paul StanWeld argues that ‘the Wnal defeat of all he cherished freed Yeats, with his cyclical view of history, to imagine its perhaps slow, perhaps sudden, but certainly 57 The ‘high horse’ has been interpreted to be Pegasus ( JeVares, A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats, 291), but this occludes its associations with other horses ridden in Yeats’s poems, from the ‘strange horse’ of ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’, to those of the apocalyptic ‘Werce horsemen’ in the last poems (‘Three Songs to the One Burden’). Most pertinently, ‘Easter 1916’ alludes to Pearse, claiming he ‘rode our winge`d horse’, which further associates Coole’s disenfranchisement with the legacy of 1916 (Poems of W. B. Yeats, 54, 605, 392).
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inevitable return’.58 But, Wrst and foremost, ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ impresses the impact of this ‘Wnal defeat’, the negativity of which will determine how he postulates his dynamic of historical change, as the poem’s bleak sense of the future becomes an insistent counterpoint, throughout the 1930s, to any intimation of renewal.
III In A Vision, Yeats outlined a ‘vast system’ putatively combining his aesthetics, his philosophy of history, and his interest in the occult, in a universal schema dictated to him by ‘instructors’ through the medium of his wife’s automatic writing, in what Terence Brown has called ‘one of the strangest acts of imaginative collaboration in all literary history’.59 In many ways, the impact of Yeats’s zodiacal fantasy is unfortunate, detracting from Yeats’s poetry, which plays upon the contradictions between system and experience.60 But, nevertheless, he incessantly manipulated the relationship between poem, poems, and system; and the philosophy found in A Vision is thus central to the poetry’s sense of history, explaining and creating the context for many of Yeats’s strategies throughout the 1930s.61 Moreover, it explains how Yeats could contrive a position of strength from the negativity of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’, making that poem’s hiatus the source of his poetry’s potency, rather than a sign of its resignation. What needs to be stressed about A Vision is Yeats’s fundamental entwining of individuality and macrocosmic historical processes. In a sense, A Vision doubles as a sub-Viconian blueprint of the plot of world history, and a supposedly comprehensive catalogue of psychological possibility. For Yeats, world history and individual psychic processes StanWeld, Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, 37. Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography, 252. 60 Paul de Man has indicated a primary problem that this systematic work creates for readers of his poetry: ‘The reader vacillates between two extremes, reXected in the two main trends that dominate in Yeats’s interpretation: the tendency to give in to the natural seduction of the images, to read the poems without afterthought and to protest against any intrusion of ‘‘systems’’ or pedantic erudition; or, on the other hand, the tendency to read them as if they were esoteric puzzles accessible only to the initiates as a reward for an act of faith. The two approaches are hard to reconcile’ (The Rhetoric of Romanticism, 203–4). 61 A Vision was Wrst published in 1926, but it remained a live concern throughout most of the 1930s, as Yeats was preoccupied with rewriting it, eventually publishing a revised edition in 1937, which is the text referred to in the following discussion. 58 59
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alike go through ‘wheels’: any epoch or personality being identiWable through its stage in the wheel. The wheel is turned by a dialectic between subjectivity and objectivity, which Yeats understands to be ‘intersecting states struggling one against the other’.62 Yeats insists that this dialectic creates a circular system, which passes through twentyeight phases. A state of pure subjectivity is identiWed with the full moon and takes place at phase Wfteen; pure objectivity with the dark of the moon at phase one. Either of these phases, however, is too absolute for human experience. Phase eight is the key juncture at which subjectivity begins to dominate over objectivity, dwindling after phase Wfteen, until objectivity becomes increasingly dominant at the other key phase of twenty-two, only to dwindle after phase one again, and so on. Yeats claims that subjectivity ‘tends to separate man from man’, while ‘objectivity brings us back to the mass where we begin’.63 Subjectivity is thus associated with individuality and its eVort towards and attainment of form, while objectivity is associated with communality, convention, and formlessness. Subjectivity is further associated with the West and objectivity with the East. However, beyond collocating individuality and the broad sweep of history, Yeats’s system is above all a theory of aesthetics. His poetics of world history (outlined in the ‘Dove or Swan’ section of the book) is fundamentally a history of art, in which artworks provide the means by which cultures can be understood and judged, and which also provide the dynamics of historical change. The 2,000 years before Christ constitute Yeats’s Wrst wheel of history. He claims this epoch began in a state of ‘intellectual anarchy . . . grown barbaric and Asiatic’.64 ‘Then came Homer’, he argues, sparking ‘a desire for . . . independent civil life and thought’.65 Yeats proceeds to map ancient history as a battle between aesthetic styles, with ‘Doric vigour’ uprooting ‘Ionic elegance’, giving rise to a cultural zenith as these styles synthesized in the sculpture of Phidias. As time passed on, however, the balance of Phidias’s art became warped, as Greek culture was increasingly driven by the systematizing power borne of selfrealization, until dominated by mere ‘formula’, because bereft of internal antagonisms. The Greeks had created ‘statues where every muscle has been measured, every position debated’, and these statues 62 63 64 65
W. B. Yeats, A Vision, 2nd edn. (London: Macmillan/Papermac, 1981), 71. Ibid. 72. Ibid. 269. Ibid.
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embodied ‘man with nothing more to achieve, physical man Wnished and complacent’.66 With nothing more to achieve, this individualistic spirit dissolved into Christianity, which Yeats Wgures as an era of Asiatic objectivity: ‘the heroic life, passionate fragmentary man, all that had been imagined by great poets and sculptors began to pass away.’67 In the Christian era: ‘sages lure men away from the arms of women because in those arms man becomes a fragment’.68 Christianity works in the opposite direction of the Homeric impulse: ‘God is now conceived of as something outside man and man’s handiwork.’69 The problem with Christianity is that it removes divinity’s immanence from within the human, an immanence normally revealed through art.70 The Christian God gives the world a greater formal order than Greek art ever could, but in a way that is ‘outside human genius’. Yeats writes that the Christian God ‘controlled what Neo-Pythagorean and Stoic could not—irrational force’: ‘He could announce the new age, all that had not been thought of, touched, or seen, because He could substitute for reason, miracle.’71 Thus, Christianity, or objectivity, reduces humanity to passivity: ‘Night will fall upon man’s wisdom now that man has been taught he is nothing.’ Yeats continues: ‘It is even essential to this faith to declare that God’s messengers, those beings who show His will in dreams or announce it in visionary speech, were never men. The Greeks thought them great men of the past, but now that concession to mankind is forbidden.’72 It is worth remembering that during the Wn de sie`cle, Yeats claimed he was interested in ‘the words that have gathered up the heart’s desire of the world’, the ‘dominant moods and moulding events’ of life.73 And he saw poems as ‘symbolical histories of these moods and events, or rather symbolical shadows of the impulses that have made them’.74 Through ‘long frequenting of the great Masters’,75 history, the ‘Great Memory’ of 66
W. B. Yeats, A Vision, 2nd edn. (London: Macmillan/Papermac, 1981), 270–1. Ibid. 272. 68 Ibid. 273. 69 Ibid. 70 Christ, however, Wgures as an attainment of formal, systematic perfection; according to Yeats he was the physical incarnation of aesthetic order: ‘Christ alone was exactly six feet high, perfect physical man’, (ibid. 273). 71 Ibid. 274–5. 72 Ibid. 274. 73 Essays and Introductions, 65, 36. 74 Ibid. 36. 75 Ibid. 256. 67
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literature, became alive, a pervading if intangible presence, like a strong smell in a closed room.76 Poetry animates impulses inside its reader that are the timeless drives at the core of history; but, further, poetry moulds them into deliberate and cultivated shapes wrought from a tradition of human thought and expression. So, the problem with objectivity is that it elides the process through which human-made art reveals this ‘Great Memory’ of impulses to be immanent within the individual. Christianity replaces the great poets with angels; it replaces reason with a servile reliance on external miracle; and it homogenizes humanity to the extent that its goal is to change the world into ‘a featureless dust’ and ‘make man also featureless as clay or dust’.77 Nevertheless, in a purely subjective state humanity is ‘shut within the circle of its senses’.78 Thus, on one extreme of Yeats’s dialectic is a formalization so perfected it becomes wholly autonomous and shut oV from the world; and, at the other, is a dank featurelessness that Wgures as the negation of humanity. While humanity might reach its peak when working upon subjective impulses, fusing the data of its sensory reason into form, a degree of objectivity remains essential to its health. Creative power derives from the interaction of self and the objective world, as dependent upon the chasm between them as much as their integrativeness. Therefore, what Yeats celebrates, in a way, is fragmentation: ‘the heroic life, passionate fragmentary man’.79 Art Wgures as an intensiWed interaction between self and otherness, the ideal form of which takes place between lovers. Both lover and artwork, for Yeats, are to be appreciated in themselves and not as a means towards some other end: Love is created and preserved by intellectual analysis, for we love only that which is unique, and it belongs to contemplation, not to action, for we would not change that which we love. A lover will admit a greater beauty than that of his mistress but not its like, and surrenders his days to a delighted laborious study of all her ways and looks, and pities only if something threatens that which has never been before and can never be again.80
By contrast, the Christian ‘discovers himself in the likeness of another . . . and in that other serves himself’.81 In Christianity, the diVerence between self and other is diminished, as individuality gives precedence to a generalized type of humanity, conceived in organicist terms. The artwork and the lover, meanwhile, bring self and other into 76 79
Ibid. 50. Ibid. 272.
A Vision, 274. Ibid. 275.
78 Ibid. 273. Ibid.
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conjunction while preserving diVerence: ‘though there is still separation from the loved object, love accepts the separation as necessary to its own existence.’82 Yet this relationship is not idyllic because it is crossed by a desire for possession. The lover’s uniqueness is the cause of love, and makes the self yearn for oneness; but this would override that uniqueness and be the end of love; therefore, one is stuck in an endlessly fraught mediation between identiWcation and contrariety. This balance between negation and attraction sends lovers into a spiral in which ‘each die the other’s life, live the other’s death’, a description Yeats assigns to Heraclitus.83 Elsewhere, in A Vision, Yeats concocts an afterlife in which the deceased re-experience the impulses that drove their life, and then their opposites, until they attain a kind of completeness that enables their puriWcation and passage back into new life.84 Yeats writes: ‘We all to some extent meet again and again the same people . . . until all passionate relations are exhausted.’85 And because such ‘passionate relations’ most likely involve ‘cruelty and conceit’, they must be expiated by ‘suVering and submission’.86 Thus, the ‘souls of victim and tyrant are bound together’: the ‘victim must . . . live the act of cruelty, not as victim but as tyrant, whereas the tyrant must by necessity of his or her nature become the victim’.87 What is audacious about Yeats’s idea of history is that it constitutes a material, macrocosmic embodiment of this personalized wishful-thinking. Epochs dominated by one polarity transform into their opposite, and then back again, each time permitting the historical enactment of what has formerly been oppressed: ‘Each age unwinds the thread another age had wound . . . all things dying each other’s life, living each other’s death.’88 In this manner, Yeats endows history and individual existence with a redemptive totality that can never be experiential. To return to Yeats’s outline of history, his denunciation of objective Christianity is followed, in his queer chronology, by a passage describing the subjective Roman Empire. Roman sculpture matches the best of the preceding Greek and succeeding Byzantine art;89 but what is striking is Yeats’s version of Roman society: All about . . . is an antithetical aristocratic civilisation in its completed form, every detail of life hierarchical, every great man’s door crowded at dawn by 82 85 88
A Vision, 136. Ibid. 237. Ibid. 270–1.
83 Ibid., 275, 197. 87 Ibid. 238. Ibid. 89 Ibid. 277.
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petitioners, great wealth everywhere in few men’s hands, all dependent upon a few, up to the Emperor himself who is a God dependent upon a greater God, and everywhere in Court, in the family, an inequality made law, and, Xoating over all, the Romanised Gods of Greece in their physical superiority.90
Here is Yeats’s aesthetic of fragmentary and unequal relations transposed into the politico-cultural realm: the subjective will-to-form has sculpted its systematic hierarchies into the mass of the body-politic with imperious deWnition. But this, in turn, is contextualized as an evolutionary stepping stone towards the more integrated culture of Byzantium. In Byzantium, ‘religious, aesthetic and practical life were one’, and ‘architect and artiWcers . . . spoke to the multitude and the few alike’.91 Byzantium is a material realization of Yeats’s ‘phase’ of pure subjectivity (phase Wfteen), which is akin to the ideal of love.92 One can deduce that the Roman empire was a manifestation of the phase in which objectivity passes into subjectivity (phase eight), which constitutes a ‘War between Individuality and Race’, or between self and society, and in which he locates ‘The Beginning of Strength’ and ‘a condition of terror’.93 According to Yeats, the particularly strained, conXictual nature of this phase is necessary to precipitate the change to better times: ‘Only a shock resulting from the greatest possible conXict can make the greatest possible change.’94 Thus, the willed and cultivated reciprocity of Byzantium, whose unity is a projection of human desire fused with accomplishment or attainment, is dependent upon the painful process of subjectivity breaking through the disempowering formlessness of the objective world, a process that manifests itself in the harsh inequalities of Rome. One more striking characteristic of Yeats’s philosophy is uncovered in his account of Byzantium. This resides in the Byzantine artworks, which mark the apotheosis of humanity’s will-to-form, its highest degree of accomplishment: 90
Ibid. Ibid. 279. 92 Yeats writes of phase Wfteen: ‘Now contemplation and desire, united into one, inhabit a world where every beloved image has bodily form, and every bodily form is loved. This love knows nothing of desire, for desire implies eVort, and though there is still separation from the loved object, love accepts the separation as necessary to its own existence’ (ibid. 136). 93 Ibid. 116–17. 94 Ibid. 119. 91
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Even the drilled pupil of the eye, when the drill is in the hand of some Byzantine worker in ivory, undergoes a somnambulistic change, for its deep shadow among the faint lines of the tablet, its mechanical circle, where all else is rhythmical and Xowing, give to Saint or Angel a look of some great bird staring at miracle.95
Thus, at its zenith, art reveals nothing: it leads one back to the realm of miracle that is its opposite. Yeats writes that he holds in his ‘imagination vague Grecian eyes gazing at nothing . . . those veiled or half-veiled eyes weary of world and vision alike’.96 Yeats rounds his history oV with an account of the ‘heterogeneous loam’ of modernity.97 Here, the will-to-power of individuality gives way to modernist art: ‘synthesis for its own sake, organisation where there is no masterful director, books where the author has disappeared’.98 At this phase, the ‘individual intellect’ gives way to ‘a sensual or supersensual objectivity’.99 At the zenith of a subjective epoch, the Byzantine statues had looked out somnambulistically at just such a supersensuality, and now history is slouching towards that realm’s discarnate realization. According to the logic of Yeats’s system, once modernity has spiralled towards his ‘phase one’, history will reverse back again towards concrete subjective form. Of ‘phase one’, Yeats writes: Mind has become indiVerent to good and evil, to truth and falsehood; body has become undiVerentiated, dough-like; the more perfect the soul, the more indiVerent the mind, the more dough-like the body; and mind and body take whatever shape, accept whatever image is imprinted upon them. . . . There may be great joy; but it is the joy of a conscious plasticity; and it is this plasticity, this liquefaction, or pounding up, whereby all that has been knowledge becomes instinct and faculty.100
In other words, history is moving towards a state that is primed for the shaping artist subjectively opposed to his epoch—the kind of state that Yeats had been foisting upon Ireland from his youth. However, at the exact moment ‘the black night of oblivion’ is overthrown, it crawls back. The attainment of a concrete form, which unites sensuality and reason, leads one back on a route towards formlessness, which will, in turn, lead back to concrete form, ad inWnitum. 95 98
A Vision, 280. Ibid. 300.
96 Ibid. 277. Ibid. 105.
97 Ibid. 282. Ibid. 183.
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Two core implications can be unravelled from Yeats’s system. First, its cyclical nature renders his version of history extremely ironic. Yeats claims that this circularity permits an opening-out to all history, in terms that are surprisingly analogous to the postmodern rejection of progressive history: The historian thinks of Greece as an advance on Persia, of Rome as in something or other an advance on Greece, and thinks it impossible that any man could prefer the hunter’s age to the agricultural. I, upon the other hand, must think all civilisations equal at their best; every phase returns, therefore in some sense every civilisation.101
This might seem ethically and imaginatively enticing, but behind it lies the savage relativity that Samuel Beckett discerned in Joyce’s Work in Progress: On this earth that is Purgatory, Vice and Virtue—which you may take to mean any pair of large contrary factors—must in turn be purged down to spirits of rebelliousness. Then the dominant crust of the Vicious or Virtuous sets, resistance is provided, the explosion duly takes place and the machine proceeds. And no more than this; neither prize nor penalty; simply a series of stimulants to enable the kitten to catch its tail.102
The second implication is that, after establishing his system’s ironic base, Yeats commits every bead of his sweat, his passion and emotive force, towards reacting against it. Subjectivity is clearly his circuit’s positive to objectivity’s negative. Yeats thus mostly rages for formal order on an immediate level; but, although he is committed to creating artworks that will inspire Ireland to turn its state of abjectness on its head, this is complicated by his intuition of oblivion’s ever-presence. In the general introduction to his work written in 1937, Yeats explained his creed in the following terms: I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it; my Christ, a legitimate deduction from the Creed of St Patrick as I think, is that unity of Being Dante compared to a perfectly proportioned human body, Blake’s ‘Imagination’, what the Upanishads have named ‘Self’: nor is this unity distant and therefore intellectually understandable, but imminent, diVering from man to man and age to age, taking upon itself pain and ugliness.103 101
Ibid. 206. Samuel Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce’, in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983), 33. 103 Essays and Introductions, 518. 102
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Art is equated with Christ, then, as it had been in 1897;104 but A Vision clearly states that art’s opposite, the void, is equated with God.105
IV Part of Yeats’s sublimity stems from his creation of powerfully achieved forms that are haunted by their own negation. A particular success is ‘The Statues’: Pythagoras planned it. Why did people stare? His numbers, though they moved or seemed to move In marble or in bronze, lacked character. But boys and girls, pale from imagined love Of solitary beds, knew what they were, That passion could bring character enough, And pressed at midnight in some public place Live lips upon a plummet-measured face.106
‘Pythagoras planned it’—‘planned’ what? Is the plan bound up with metempsychosis, or with the mathematical harmony of the universe and music? Is Yeats claiming that, through one or both of these, Pythagoras implanted the mechanism that will drive history? By saying that ‘numbers’, rather than the anthropomorphic images they give rise to, ‘moved or seemed to move j In marble or bronze’, Yeats superimposes abstract pattern upon bodily form in a reversal that creates an eVect of irresistible weirdness, which he then transplants onto the historical plane. The qualifying ‘or seemed to move’ makes this transference all the more uncanny, unleashing a spectral ambivalence that will haunt the rest of the poem’s rhetorical emphasis. Moreover, by enveloping this phenomenon within a dismissal—the numbers ‘lacked character’, so why stare?—the poem implants a sense that it contains a higher knowledge, a key to its own mysteries, which it is withholding 104 In 1897 Yeats wrote that Blake had ‘learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the Wrst emanation of divinity . . . and he drew the deduction . . . that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ’ (Essays and Introductions. 112). 105 Yeats claims that the passage towards ‘phase one’ is ‘an approach to absolute surrender . . . to God’ (A Vision, 111). 106 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 610.
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from the reader. Thus, the poem somehow manages to channel its ambivalence into an intractable apprehension of ungovernable fate. ‘Whence Had They Come’, written four years earlier in 1934, began: Eternity is passion, girl or boy Cry at the onset of their sexual joy ‘For ever and for ever’; then awake Ignorant of what Dramatis Personae spake.107
Meanwhile, this eternal passion, ‘the onset of . . . sexual joy’, is sparked oV, in ‘The Statues’, by the formal propensities of art’s mathematical order. Thus, art replaces the phantom ‘Dramatis Personae’ of dreams, to give a concrete outlet for the eternity that is immanent within the human, as Pythagoras’s ‘numbers’ animate human impulses, directing the historical actions that will fulWl desire. But the poem’s conXuence, of honed human instinct with the inhuman, realizes its implicit surreality when awakened sexual desire leads to the kiss of ‘Live lips’ upon a public statue. Here, the ‘numbers’ invade the human through a willed violation of naturalism, as young lovers leave behind ‘imagined love’ to unleash their passion in an embrace of chiselled stone or metal. Thus, Yeats conjoins humanity with something implacably alterior, imperiously stark, and agelessly vampiric. Not just ‘numbers’, but the depthless plummets of the void, are sucked into the body in that kiss. The second and third stanzas are practically impenetrable without A Vision: No! Greater than Pythagoras, for the men That with a mallet or a chisel modelled these Calculations that look but casual Xesh, put down All Asiatic vague immensities, And not the banks of oars that swam upon The many-headed foam at Salamis. Europe put oV that foam when Phidias Gave women dreams and dreams their looking-glass. One image crossed the many-headed, sat Under the tropic shade, grew round and slow, No Hamlet thin from eating Xies, a fat Dreamer of the Middle Ages. Empty eyeballs knew 107
Irish Poetry of the 1930s That knowledge increases unreality, that Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show. When gong and conch declare the hour to bless Grimalkin crawls to Buddha’s emptiness.108
The Wrst stanza’s inception leads onto Phidias’s aesthetic perfection. Yet, just as ‘Asiatic vague immensities’ are ‘put down’ with the ‘manyheaded foam’, along comes a singular Buddha, manifesting the nothingness of Meru. It should be noted how closely Yeats follows the ideas of Oscar Wilde in ‘The Decay of Lying’: Remote from reality, and with her eyes turned away from the shadow of the cave, Art reveals her own perfection, and the wondering crowd that watches the opening of the marvellous, many-petalled rose fancies that it is its own history that is being told to it, its own spirit that is Wnding expression in a new form. But it is not so. The highest art . . . develops purely on her own lines. She is not symbolic of any age. It is the ages that are her symbols.109
‘The Statues’ dramatizes an aesthetic alterity’s shaping of, and fusion with, history. But the poem surpasses Wilde’s vision in that the aesthetic realm is itself predetermined to transform, collapse, and emerge again. Historical reality may thus be a mirror reXecting Neoplatonic forms or archetypes, but this higher realm of form is itself ceaselessly transformative, veering towards either deWnite structure or the void, and essentially made up of both. Because this dynamic aesthetic is so implacably Other, historical knowledge is rendered prurient: ‘Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show.’ History, for Yeats, is a man-made ‘Mirror-resembling dream’,110 a construction whose reality is undermined by the sublime uncontainability of the aesthetic. Key to Yeats’s power, however, is his next move of projecting the ineluctable aVects of this Otherness onto the speciWcs of contemporary Ireland:
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 610–11. Oscar Wilde, The Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Isobel Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 234. In the most famous summation of the essay, Wilde writes: ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to Wnd expression, and that Art oVers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy’ (ibid. 239). 110 ‘The Tower’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 415. 109
W. B. Yeats
When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, What stalked through the Post oYce? What intellect, What calculation, number, measurement, replied? We Irish, born into that ancient secret sect But thrown upon this Wlthy modern tide And by its formless spawning fury wrecked, Climb to our proper dark, that we may trace The lineaments of a plummet-measured face.111
In such a manner, Yeats uses the abstract formula of A Vision to create searing intercessions into Irish historical consciousness. Yet the poem remains extremely ambivalent. Just as Irish destiny and the suprahuman wheels of history coalesce, the speaker is unsure of that fusion’s content. One of Yeats’s most powerful tricks is to transcribe his audacious propositions as rhetorical questions. The questioning here intensiWes the ambivalent apprehension of, but uncertainty about, the higher workings of an extra-human fate. EVectively, the technique renders the Wrst three lines of this stanza a call to reconsider the nature of the Irish revolution from a late-1930s standpoint. Of course, the lines conWrm that a seismic historical shift occurred in 1916, aligned with the deep, aesthetic, ineluctable workings of universal order. On Wrst impression, the invocation of ‘calculation, number, measurement’ seems to imply that this shift was towards subjectivity, a return to the poem’s initial inception of Pythagorean form, after stanza three’s dissolution into ‘Buddha’s emptiness’. However, the speaker’s questioning also opens out the possibility that what ‘stalked through the Post oYce’ may have been just such a ‘round and slow’ harbinger of Asiatic objectivity. Certainly the poem, as it jumps into the present tense of 1938, is unequivocal about contemporary Ireland’s formlessness: so either 1916 constituted Ireland’s wreck upon the ‘Wlthy modern tide’, or else something drastic has taken place in the interim. Yeats’s conclusion implies that ‘We Irish’ must, in fact, register modernity’s ‘formless spawning fury’, and acknowledge that ‘Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show’, in order to inaugurate a new historical era. In other words, while its rhetoric militates with vehemence against contemporary dissolution, the poem’s symbolism turns on the fact that emptiness is an inherent and ‘proper’ part of historical and Irish reality. The new dispensation is not fatalistic enough to 111
‘The Statues’, ibid. 611.
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acknowledge the nature of history; thus modern Ireland refuses to climb downwards into its negative core, and, for this reason, it is truly ‘wrecked’ upon the ‘many-headed foam’. Nevertheless, ‘We Irish’, if we lose our shallow optimism, are yet well placed to discover our form in the depths of the abyss, to fuse our subjectivity with our objectivity, and turn around the historical fall that 1916 seemingly failed to alter. ‘The Statues’ has been called a ‘eugenic love poem’. Elizabeth Cullingford writes: Sexual choice is the foundation of civilization, and art, which ideologically enforces the correct choices, is the agent, not the result, of historical and cultural change . . . Yeats exhorts the Irish, thrown on the ‘spawning’ tide of modern racial degeneration, to choose their mates according to the Greek standard of physical perfection and the heroism represented by Emer and Cuchulain.112
But this reading straitjackets the poem into an isolated facet of Yeats’s thought, which it does much to render ambivalent. Cuchulain’s destiny is to Wght with ‘the invulnerable tide’;113 his ‘physical perfection’ is fated to dissolve into its opposite: cuchulain: There Xoats out there The shape that I shall take when I am dead, My soul’s Wrst shape, a soft feathery shape, And is not that a strange shape for the soul Of a great Wghting-man?114
Further, what Cullingford calls the ‘ ‘‘spawning’’ tide of modern racial degeneration’ is, in fact, in ‘The Statues’, synonymous with the ‘foam’ in which ‘nymphs and satyrs j Copulate’ elsewhere;115 with the ‘palace of excrement’ where ‘Love has pitched his mansion’;116 and with ‘All that man is, j All mere complexities, j The fury and the mire of human veins’.117 Yeats was half in love with degeneration. But, nevertheless, Terence Brown has agreed with Cullingford’s interpretation, writing that the poem endows ‘elitist politics with a terrible sublimity’.118 112 Elizabeth Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 282. 113 ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 111. 114 W. B. Yeats, ‘The Death of Cuchulain’, Selected Plays, ed. Richard Allen Cave (London: Penguin, 1997), 270. 115 ‘News for the Delphic Oracle’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 612. 116 ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’, ibid. 513. 117 ‘Byzantium’, ibid. 497. 118 Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography, 369.
W. B. Yeats
Yeats was most certainly an elitist. But the ambivalence of ‘The Statues’ remains its central feature, and to ignore this is to miss its crucial point. Pythagoras is associated with metempsychosis as much as with mathematical form, and the poem’s historicity demands that historical entities, such as Ireland, must mutate into their opposite and back again, dying the other’s life, living the other’s death. History itself is encapsulated within the weird alterity of the statues, which is to say that history takes the shape of what Walter Benjamin called authentic art. Benjamin writes: ‘The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.’119 In ‘The Statues’, the ‘lineaments’ of Irishness are bound up with all that is transmissible of the beginning, duration, and experience of aesthetic form and history itself. Benjamin continues: ‘The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition is itself thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.’120 For Yeats, the uniqueness of Irishness is inseparable from tradition, but this tradition is multifarious and conterminous with the vastness of cultural history. Yeats desires that Irish consciousness be absorbed by this multidimensional boundlessness, that it becomes a fusion of its own uniqueness and the immeasurable depths. Irishness is historical and history is the sublime: that which cannot be absorbed. Yeats implies that post-1916 Irish culture has become like Benjamin’s mass culture, which attempts to adjust reality to itself and which would absorb the uniqueness of art, individuality, and history.121 His poem contravenes bourgeois historical progressiveness; it intimates a historical totality that proVers no comfort, but rather plunges his reader into alterity, ineluctable movement, and fragmentation; and, Wnally, it insists that identity, if it would be authentic, must partake of such realities. Meanwhile, contemporary Irish culture, the poem suggests, hides from these dark truths, because nationalist ideology dissipates its culture’s uniquely diVerent parts in an enforced homogenization, which is the real source of Yeats’s ‘formless spawning fury’. 119 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana; Collins, 1970), 223. 120 Ibid. 225. 121 Benjamin writes: ‘A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his Wnished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art’ (ibid. 241).
Irish Poetry of the 1930s V
In ‘Irish Philosophy’, written in 1933, and later retitled ‘A Race Philosophy’, Yeats wrote: Communism, Fascism, are inadequate because society is the struggle of two forces not transparent to reason—the family and the individual. From the struggle of the individual to make and preserve himself comes intellectual initiative. From the struggle to found and preserve the family come good taste and good habits. Equality of opportunity, equality of rights, have been created to assist the individual in his struggle. Inherited wealth, privilege, precedence, have been created to preserve the family in its struggle.122
In discussing this new dialectic between individual and family, Yeats eVectively turns his basic opposition, between subjectivity and objectivity, on its head. The ‘family’, which would seem to be antipathetic to individualism, comes to be associated with all the positive aspects of subjectivity, while individuality is negatively associated with bourgeois objectivity. Marjorie Howes writes: ‘whenever he diagnosed the ills of modern Ireland or De Valera . . . the faults he pointed to were invariably those associated with the wing of the antimony that favors the individual—democracy, degeneration, and equality, which Yeats took to mean a homogenizing loss of individuality.’123 The subjective opposite of this, the agency that will release the capacities of individuality, is kindred or family, which means any discrete cultural unit that is bound by historical association, the foremost of which is the nation.124 Thus, Yeats’s reading of Irish history in the 1930s is derived from a preoccupation with the subjective nation. In 1934 he apologized for using the Protestant Ascendancy of the eighteenth century as his model: ‘I seek an image of the modern mind’s discovery of itself, of its own permanent form, in that one Irish century 122 Cited in Norman JeVares, W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, 3rd edn. (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1996), 351–2. 123 Marjorie Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class and Irishness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 165. 124 Yeats argues that he understands by ‘family’: ‘all institutions, classes, orders, nations, that arise out of the family and are held together, not by a logical process, but by historical association’ (W. B. Yeats, Explorations (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 273–4).
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that escaped from darkness and confusion. I would that our Wfteenth, sixteenth, or even seventeenth century had been the clear mirror, but fate decided against us.’125 He nevertheless went on to make clear that this cultural epoch, inaugurated at the battle of the Boyne, symbolizes for him an inception of creative rationality.126 Therefore, the shaping will of this ‘Protestant aristocracy’ is to provide the historical model for Yeats’s subjective revolution in the 1930s. He takes pains to stress the non-sectarianism of his concept, arguing that his golden age Xoundered because the ‘refusal or postponement of Catholic Emancipation by the Irish Parliament brought disorder and the Act of Union’.127 Thus, unity between the two traditions is essential to Yeats, and the proof of this unity is to reside in the rights of the State to pass ultimate judgement upon its citizens: ‘We have not an Irish Nation until all classes grant its right to take life according to the law and until it is certain that the threat of invasion, made by no matter who, would rouse all classes to arms.’128 Such martial terms for discussing national unity reXect the insight of A Vision, that the world must turn to Roman severity before attaining the harmony of Byzantium. Thus, the unity that Yeats seeks is no longer to be found within organicism, but rather is to be derived from an admixture of fragments, a complex harmony wrought of unequal relations. Discussing Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, Yeats writes: ‘Style and its opposite [nervous obsession, nightmare, stammering confusion] can alternate, but form must be full, sphere-like, single.’129 And this insistence on formal structure is continuous, in Yeats’s thought, with his nationalism. He writes: ‘Every nation is the whole world in a mirror’; while Pound’s internationalism is ‘abstract and outside life’.130 Thus, 125
Ibid. 345. Yeats wrote: ‘The battle of the Boyne overwhelmed a civilisation full of religion and myth, and brought in its place intelligible laws planned out upon a great blackboard, a capacity for horizontal lines, for rigid shapes, for buildings, for attitudes of mind that could be multiplied like an expanding bookcase: the modern world, and something that appeared and perished in its dawn, an instinct for Roman rhetoric, Roman elegance. It established a Protestant aristocracy, some of whom neither called themselves English nor looked with contempt or dread upon conquered Ireland’ (ibid. 347). 127 Yeats adds: ‘We have something like the same situation to-day with the actors reversed . . . Will the devout Catholicism and enthusiastic Gaeldom commit the error committed at the close of the eighteenth century by dogmatic Protestantism?’ (ibid. 338). 128 Ibid. 129 W. B. Yeats, ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892–1935 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936), p. xxv. 130 Explorations, 337, 294. 126
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Yeats’s insistence on ‘traditional metrics’131 goes hand in hand with his historical rootedness in Ireland: ‘Thought seems more true, emotion more deep, spoken by someone who touches my pride, who seems to claim me of his kindred.’132 This aspect of Yeats’s thought cannot be ignored: he calls proportioned form his faith, his Christ, and the subjective impulse that creates it is the driving force of his poetic. Fundamental to Yeats’s conception of art is its determinate outline, its particularized focus, within which swarms the world’s teeming omnifariousness. And, yet, Yeats often seems to explode the parameters of his own aesthetic, which, in turn, has led critics to overestimate the aesthetic rupture that his later works are deemed to represent. But nevertheless, the likes of ‘The Statues’ and ‘Vacillation’ are, indeed, more estranging and arbitrary than earlier poems; and a queerness, a destabilization, is central to Yeats’s poetic in the 1930s. One element of the later work’s disorientation resides in its breadth of allusion, which can be garnered through the welter of personages Yeats name-drops into his poems: from Montashigi to Rhadamanthus; from Quattrocento to Charlemagne; from King Billy to Pearse and Connolly; from Rembrandt to Malachi Stilt-Jack. Importantly, however, the early work was similarly Wlled with Irish names, which had the double function of appearing exotic to non-Irish readers, while galvanizing Irish readers’ awareness of indigenous mythology and literature. The striking change in the later work thus occurs in the expansive mixing of Irish referents with a newly wide range of allusion to world culture. This is also noticeable in the later poems’ use of place names: Lissadell, Alexandria, Babylon, Algeciras, Byzantium, Nineveh, Eurotas, Cruachan, Cro-Patrick, Parnassus, Troy, Ben Bulben, Knocknarea, Rome, Jupiter, Saturn, Egypt, Greece, Meru, India, Henry Street, Lough Derg, China, Peru, Moscow, DrumcliV, Tara’s Halls, Salamis, Delphi, Pan’s cavern, the Vatican, Eden, Avalon, Montenegro. Clearly, then, Yeats’s aesthetic rootedness in Ireland is not an imprisonment. But, for every poem of international reference, in the 1930s, Yeats writes two that zoom in on Ireland. Just as he negotiates between poetic experimentalism and tradition, within an ingeniously expansive use of traditional forms, he maintains a balance between the local and beyond. Yeats himself diVerentiated between his ballads and 131
Essays and Introductions, 522.
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his ‘poems of civilisation’.133 Of the former, he wrote: ‘I write poem after poem, all intended for music, all very simple . . . I have recovered a power of moving the common man I had in my youth. The poems I can write now will go into the general memory.’134 He added: ‘I have several ballads, poignant things I believe, more poignant than anything I have written.’135 Yet his 1930s’ ballads mostly seek to lacerate the ‘common man’; and, thus, they explode the kind of organically imagined community with which balladry is normally associated.136 Nor is their design on the reader simplistic, or easily separable from modernistic complexity: With boys and girls about him, With any sort of clothes, With a hat out of fashion, With old patched shoes, With a ragged bandit cloak, With an eye like a hawk, With a stiV straight back, With a strutting turkey walk, With a bag full of pennies, With a monkey on a chain, With a great cock’s feather, With an old foul tune. Tall dames go walking in grass-green Avalon.137
Indeed, Yeats’s ballads do much to disrupt ideas of aesthetic propriety, or ‘sphere-like’ form. Conversely, Terence Brown has argued that the broad-ranging complexity of his ‘civilised’ poems counteract the crudity of his ballads, invested as they are in ‘the intensity and strangeness of radically disorientating, extra-territorial perspectives on reality’.138 But, 133
Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 148. Ibid. 135. 135 Ibid. 148. 136 They are, for example, the locus of his most pronounced thuggery: ‘The common breeds the common, j A lout begets a lout, j So when I take on half a score j I knock their heads about’ (‘Three Songs to the One Burden’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 605). 137 ‘The Statesman’s Holiday’, ibid. 627. 138 Brown, The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography, 352. Brown continues: ‘Yeats’s late poetry inhabits a kind of world geography in which ancient Ireland—with its mystic sites, Celtic crosses, burial mounds—is made to seem the spiritual kin of India, Japan, China, Alexandrine Egypt. This easily comparativist perspective gives to Yeats’s last collections of verse an imaginative spaciousness and universalism that is the antithesis of the truculent Anglophobic nationalism that some of his late ballads also indulge, and to the crude elitism of his social attitudes in some of his poems’ (ibid. 353). 134
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strangely, such an aesthetic likewise seems to counteract the ideals of traditionalism and national unity with which Yeats identiWed himself. However, as we have seen, Yeats’s idea of national order is, by the 1930s, complexly associated with ideas of subjective disruption and of civic inequality. Moreover, ‘The Statues’ aligned Irishness with history in a manner that exploded both in the act of constituting their synonymity. Therefore, with both ballads and ‘poems of civilisation’, Yeats creates a profoundly destabilizing, multifarious, and uneven aesthetic, which appears to be severely at odds with dominant conceptions of political unity and aesthetic stability. Yet, to understand his work, this must be contextualized with his apparently conXictual demand for traditional poetics, and with his Werce patriotism. The ultimate nature of his art and politics consists of this irreconcilable and outlandish dialectic. Regarding the disorientation of Yeats’s late work, Daniel Albright argues that Yeats had a dualistic repulsion–attraction towards poetic modernism, and he focuses on how Yeats’s poetry becomes more and more strange and unsettling as his career proceeds.139 He claims that in Yeats’s early poetry the meanings of symbols were, by and large, predetermined, but ‘as he grew old, his poems grew increasingly improvisatory, full of Wlmy and unrealised entities, half-symbols that gesture at meanings that they cannot embody’.140 And Albright proposes ‘Byzantium’ as an example of such ‘post-symbolic’ poetry: Among the dominant verbs in the poem are Xoats and Xit—the poem’s nonentities hover in the air, refuse to descend into formulatable language. The city of Byzantium is Wrst depopulated of soldiers and streetwalkers, then peopled with various impossible things: a self-unwinding mummy, a sensitive bird made of metal, a self-begetting Xame . . . the images in ‘‘Byzantium’’ are outrages to the imagination, artiWcial excitements that cannot satisfyingly terminate in a picture . . . At the end the half-random agglomeration of images—dolphins, statues, dancers, gongs—reaches such a pitch of frenzy that the imagination’s superstructure collapses, and the waves drown all.141
139 Daniel Albright writes: ‘In many ways, the disconnected verbal spasms of Sitwell and Eliot appalled Yeats; but such energetic contortions of language, such deliberate destructions of the boundaries between abstraction and concretion, between subject and object, all helped Yeats to approach those outer verges of art where he felt most excited’ ( Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Science of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 53). 140 Ibid. 82. 141 Ibid. 44–5.
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In ‘Byzantium’, however, the poem’s structure emphatically does not collapse: The unpurged images of day recede; The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed; Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song After great cathedral gong; A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains All that man is, All mere complexities, The fury and the mire of human veins.142
The poem’s rhyme scheme (a a b b c d d c) is central to its success, counterpointing the arbitrary progression of its weird imagery with an ordered sonority, a pattern of phonetic departure and return. This is augmented by the repetition of a predominant number of words and images, and further subtle, internal sound repetitions. For example, if we follow the poem’s m words, we discover a huge amount for a poem of Wve relatively short stanzas: images, Emperor’s, moonlit, man, mere, complexities, mire, me, image, man, more, man, more, image, mummy, mouth, moisture, mouths, summon, Miracle, More, miracle, moon, metal, Common, complexities, mire, midnight, Flames, storm, Xames, Xame, complexities, Xame, mire, smithies, smithies, Marbles, complexity, images, images. Moreover, the shortening of each stanza’s penultimate two rhyming lines generates a rhythmic rush and tumble into their strophe’s conclusion, which serves to underscore a sense of formal inevitability, almost normalizing the surreality of content: all complexities of fury leave, Dying into a dance, An agony of trance, An agony of Xame that cannot singe a sleeve.143
By the poem’s conclusion, then, the poem’s symphonic splendour compounds the onrushing wave of bizarre imagery into an incantatory fusion of surprise and susceptibility: Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood, Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the Xood, 142
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 497.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s The golden smithies of the Emperor! Marbles of the dancing Xoor Break bitter furies of complexity, Those images that yet Fresh images beget, That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.144
Like ‘The Statues’, one feels that this should collapse, that the imagery has severed itself from any logic of impressionability; and yet it does not, because of the subterranean manipulation of its patterning. However, Albright is correct to point out that much of late Yeats’s imagery is marked by its intensiWed subliminality. Yeats’s substitution of the word ‘image’ for ‘symbol’ itself suggests a movement away from conventional linkages between sign and tradition to something less deWnite. Certainly, in ‘Byzantium’, Yeats’s images are perhaps beyond intellection: they aim to connote the contours of an imaginative otherworld, hint at forms from the inWnitude of alterity. As early as 1910, Yeats had explained that in tragic art: ‘If the real world is not altogether rejected, it is but touched here and there, and into the places we have left empty we summon rhythm, balance, pattern, images that remind us of vast passions, the vagueness of past times, all the chimeras that haunt the edge of trance.’145 In the same passage, he urges artists to ‘leave out some element of reality as in Byzantine painting, where there is no mass, nothing in relief’.146 And we have seen how, in A Vision, supreme art manifests some kind of universal cavity, thus linking humanity with the unspeakable negative that makes up half its reality. Thus, the uncanny imagery of the late poems is essentially a means of evoking the unknowable, while their form, more often than not, intimates a cyclical interpenetration of this conscious world and its negative, repeatedly focusing on some moment of transference. The relationship between present consciousness and the ever-present absence of the universal totality that includes ‘the vagueness of past times’ is thus patterned on what A Vision prescribes as the workings of the universe itself: ‘Michael Robartes called the universe a great egg that turns itself inside-out perpetually without breaking its shell.’147 Alterity is encompassed within poetic form, but this is meant to take form to its breaking point, as the known and unknowable switch in and out of each 144 147
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 497. A Vision, 33.
Essays and Introductions, 243.
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other in psychological and historical revolutions, which ensure that form perpetually reconstitutes itself. Yeats thus presents formal unities that are beyond intellectual containment, but also always in process: paradigms of transmogrifying totalities that can Wgure forth both humankind’s redemption and damnation. The past, as a kind of ever-present absence, inhabits the same deracinated imaginative ether as the future: both conjured through the visionary present tense of the creative act.148 In ‘The Statues’, Yeats rages against bourgeois modernity for not accepting the alterity and incomprehensibility of this broader reality; and it is in this spirit that Yeats focuses upon Ireland in the 1930s. He explains that he is a nationalist because interested in ‘what is near and yet hidden’. He desires to be ‘part of some national mythology’, but claims that mythology is not ‘mere ostentation, mere vanity if it draws me onward to the unknown’.149 Yeats’s poetic of sounding out the unknown is foisted upon Irish consciousness in the belief that today’s mythic alterity will become tomorrow’s ‘wisdom, pride, discipline’.150 Thus, while he presses for new depths of national unity, he is calling for an explosion of dominant notions of historical and nationalist understanding. In 1938, he wrote: ‘Mathematics should be taught because being certainty without reality it is the modern key to power.’151 Objective images without ideas and subjective certainty without reality form the two poles of Yeats’s imagination at their most extreme. However, a dichotomy between weird imagery and achieved form does not do Yeats justice. His poems frequently manage to endow a kind of choice, or sense of alternant possibility, which works within and against their formal closure. Frequently, the substantive base of a key passage is pluralized. Often, this is done to express the imagination in process, working spontaneously while pulling the reader into the poem’s generation of images and inventive possibility. For example, in ‘Lapis Lazuli’: ‘Every accidental crack or dent j Seems a water-course or an avalanche, j Or lofty slope.’152 Earlier in that poem: ‘On their own 148 Edward Engelberg writes: ‘The eVect of a presence materialized by creating its absence is . . . Yeats’s method of achieving continuities between self and world, between world and time, between time and fate’ (The Vast Design: Patterns in W. B. Yeats’s Aesthetic, 2nd edn. (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1988), 226). 149 Explorations, 345. 150 Ibid. 151 Ibid. 440. 152 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 567.
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feet they came or on shipboard, j Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back.’153 Through this technique, the poem’s referential basis becomes multitudinous. Yeats is enamoured with the conjunction ‘or’, which binds things together while denoting their separateness. Indeed, Yeats often binds two alternatives together as if they did express one thing, his rhythm counterpointing his sense: ‘Some moralist or mythological poet’;154 ‘fashion or mere fantasy’;155 ‘A starlit or a moonlit dome’; ‘an image, man or shade’; ‘bird or golden handiwork’;156 ‘A brand, or Xaming breath’;157 ‘What motion of the sun or stream j Or eyelid shot the gleam . . . ?’;158 ‘nothing can be sole or whole’;159 ‘I have lost the theme, j Its joy or night seem but a dream.’160 The conjunction ‘or’, because it expresses alternatives, is more speciWcally termed a disjunctive, but Yeats’s use of it might be termed ‘inclusive disjunction’ because he allows that all alternatives are simultaneously possible.161 Yeats thus welds alternatives together into units of inclusive disjunction, so the substantive foundation of his poems is Wssiparous. Moreover, he is fond of concluding with such a technique. ‘The Tower’ ends with evils that Seem but the clouds of the sky When the horizon fades, Or a bird’s sleepy cry Among the deepening shades.162
Elsewhere, the disturbing last stanza of ‘A Bronze Head’ also hinges on an inclusive disjunction, the stanza’s power enhanced by the contrast between its authoritative Wnality and its postulation as a mere alternative possibility: ‘Or else I thought her supernatural . . . ’.163 ‘The Choice’, as we have seen, ends: ‘That old perplexity an empty purse, j Or the day’s 153
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 566. ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ibid. 430. 155 ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’, ibid. 491. 156 ‘Byzantium’, ibid. 497. 157 ‘Vacillation’, ibid. 500. 158 ‘Stream and Sun at Glendalough’, ibid. 507. 159 ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’, ibid. 513. 160 ‘The Man and the Echo’, ibid. 633. 161 Sylvia Chalker and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press; BCA, 1994), 120. 162 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 416. 163 Ibid. 619. 154
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vanity, the night’s remorse.’164 Through this ambivalent play with conjunction–disjunction, Yeats again generates semantic instability while rhetorically aVecting a powerful conclusiveness. Thus, Yeats’s poems often suspend the reader between closure and multiplicitous open-endedness. These ambivalent closures, in turn, counterpoint the sense of continuity that the poem’s imagery and form simultaneously allude to. We have seen with ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ that Yeats focuses upon the emotive force of moments of dissolution, loss, and catastrophe, while connoting a latent promise of succession. Elsewhere, he focuses on moments of emergence and self-realization, while connoting the rupture and violence these moments entail. Thus, while Yeats’s late poems aspire towards a ‘sphere-like’ formalization, the experience of the world they create can be nothing but conXictual, remorselessly unstable, and violent. Moreover, his poetry impresses this fatalism over and against his macrocosmic vision which demands it. The contradiction between continuity and rupture that was at the heart of ‘Vacillation’ is thus at the core of his poetic and its impact. ‘Vacillation’ performed a leap of faith somewhere in the hiatuses of its narrative progression, and ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ implied how such a leap might be necessary, because it left oV with the ‘high horse’, the vehicle of poetry and civilization, saddled but riderless: it intimated the possibility of continuity, but disallowed any logic of progression, by proclaiming the absence of any agents (poets or riders of the horse) who could enact it. And ultimately, by such means, Yeats’s poems imply that the ineluctable universal processes they intimate are of no beneWt, and oVer little comfort, to historical actors and the inevitable disaster of their experience.
VI On the one hand, Yeats in the 1930s perpetuated and developed his mastery of poetic form. But, on the other hand, he engaged in a wanton destruction of aesthetic civility. His poetry had long generated multitudinous perspectives on singular realities, and shape-shifted in its form. But in the 1930s he began to express his fatalistic world view with a 164
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discomfortingly rebarbative force. Where an earlier poem had propounded: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes, j What more is there to say?’,165 a later one proclaims: What hurts the soul My soul adores, No better than a beast Upon all fours.166
Pared-down variations on folk and ballad forms, in which Yeats attempts to embody his conXictual vision in vivid captions of dramatic expression, predominate in his poetic œuvre from 1935 onwards. His driving ambition seems to have been the articulation of stark passion, which he probably took to be a kind of poetic virility test, and a slap in the face of operosely complex modern art. But these poems deform his late œuvre into deeply uneven terrain. Voices burst onto the page, from nowhere, to rant on lust or antagonisms with a stridency that often implodes into extremely odd refrains. As these ballads accumulate, they impress upon us a jagged socio-political landscape, both viciously verisimilar and confoundingly phantasmagoric. And it is with these voices that the Yeatsian sense of inclusivity begins to erode, maximizing the disjuncture of his conXictual world view, and corroding the redemptive possibilities of other poems, so that, in the overall tenor of his late poetry, vatic historical vision begins to be overpowered by Munchian screams into the wind. As we saw with Kavanagh, ‘ruralism’ was a core facet of the Irish nationalist hegemony, used in the 1930s to maintain an ‘authentic’ sense of identity diVerentiated from materialist, imperial Englishness. Yeats, with his fetishization of the ‘peasantry’, contributed to this ideology, even though the puritanical literalness with which Irish Ireland adopted aspects of his art was a travesty of his aesthetic. Nevertheless, simplistic readings of Yeats’s early art led to him being scorned by writers in the 1930s as varied as Devlin and Kavanagh. But, contemporaneously, while de Valera strove towards a democratic national unity founded upon rural ‘values’, Yeats was urging for a hieratic national unity open to the eruptive force of nature. Yeats thought that Ireland had degenerated into abject plasticity, and prescribed a turbulent seizure and 165 166
‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, ibid. 429–30. ‘The Lady’s First Song’, ibid. 572.
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reshaping of culture ‘from the top down’: a transformation that would be eVected from the cultured ‘few to the many, from the subtle to the gross’.167 His target was bourgeois consciousness, which reiWes itself into an unquestioning, insular sense of security, bereft of an ‘antagonist’. And thus, Yeats’s fusion, of driving folk rhythms with articulations of social conXict, is designed to shatter this suppliant consciousness. Therefore, his ballads of the 1930s are excavations into the subterranean battleWelds of culture’s conXictual reality: battleWelds on which subjective forces are predestined to win, according to his historical chart. And, yet, this horoscope also pronounces that the battle is never truly won or lost; and, thus, his ballads become waylaid into impressing the eternal nature of conXict. Elizabeth Cullingford argues that ‘Yeats crosses the meter of the ballad with the brevity of a folk lyric to create a hybrid: the poem of emotion framed in a form associated with anonymity and collectivity’.168 This mesh of anonymity and collectivity underwrites the poems’ accumulated eVect of destabilization, as the voices come and go without any sense of context, articulating awkward fusions of didacticism and anarchic desire. Indeed, speaking of his project of publishing ‘handpainted broadsides’ with F. R. Higgins, Yeats claimed: ‘we want to get new or queer verse into circulation.’169 And his use of refrains deWnitively pushes his poems from commonality towards queerness. Cullingford claims that Yeats’s refrains Wgure as voices ‘without subjectivity’ that complicate ‘the univocality of the poetic text’.170 Richard Ellmann, meanwhile, argues that ‘the refrain has mystery as its chief motive’.171 But the basic function of Yeats’s refrains is to eVect a sense of recurrence, of a perpetual return to some underlying emotion or reality that either is expressed in the poem or that lies, perhaps oppositionally, behind it. This works most memorably when the underlying reality partakes of nonsensical absurdity, as with ‘The Pilgrim’s’ ‘all I have to say j Is fol de rol de rolly O’.172 Moreover, the sense of disruptive but elemental absurdity that can be carried by the refrain is sometimes strangely transposed into patriotic ballads to disrupt any hint of nationalist 167 168 169 170 171 172
Explorations, 337. Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry, 233. Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 32. Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry, 234. Richard Ellmann, The Identity of Yeats (London: Faber & Faber, 1964), 203. Poems of W. B. Yeats, 593.
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consolidation. For example, in another instance of Yeats’s negative revisionism of 1916, ‘The O’Rahilly’ ostensibly commemorates a martyr to the cause: but its celebration is completely undone by the refrain’s non-rhythmic and athematic unsuitability: ‘How goes the weather?’ 173 But these poems also provide a platform for Yeats to declare his ongoing patriotism, most famously in the Roger Casement poems written after the ‘diaries controversy’:174 What gave that roar of mockery, That roar in the sea’s roar? The Ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door.175
Yet the ballads’ patriotism is most often aimed at subverting the current hegemony; for example, in insistently returning to commemorate Parnell: And here’s a cogent reason, And I have many more, He fought the might of England And saved the Irish poor.176
Figures such as Parnell and O’Higgins bespeak an alternative, ‘true’ nationalism that Ireland has turned its back on: Had de Vale´ra eaten Parnell’s heart No loose-lipped demagogue had won the day, No civil rancour torn the land apart. Had Cosgrave eaten Parnell’s heart, the land’s Imagination had been satisWed, Or lacking that, government in such hands, O’Higgins its sole statesman had not died.177 173
Poems of W. B. Yeats, 585. These poems showed Yeats’s ability to pose as the ‘national’ poet well into the 1930s. In 1937 Yeats wrote to Dorothy Wellesley: ‘On Feb. 2 my wife went to Dublin shopping & was surprised at the deference everybody showed her in buses & shop. Then she found what it was—the Casement poem was in the morning paper. Next day I was publicly thanked by the vice-president of the Executive Council, by De Valera’s political secretary, by our chief antiquarian & an old revolutionist, Count Plunkett, who calls my poem ‘‘a ballad the people much needed’’. De Valera’s newspaper gave me a long leader saying that for generations to come my poem will pour scorn on the forgers & their backers’ (Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 126). 175 ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 583. 176 ‘Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites’, ibid. 586. 177 ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, ibid. 542–3. 174
W. B. Yeats
Indeed this poem, ‘Parnell’s Funeral’, postulates Parnell’s betrayal as a historical rupture that has brought nationalism to a kind of inverted standstill.178 It proclaims: ‘When strangers murdered Emmet, Fitzgerald, Tone, j We lived like men that watch a painted stage.’179 But, while the events of Ireland’s colonial past might have been beyond the agency of its natives, Parnell’s betrayal Wgures as a historical ‘reversal’, because it was eVected internally, within the nation’s self, lifting history out of the realm of theatre: ‘None shared our guilt; nor de we play a part j Upon a painted stage when we devoured his heart.’180 The foundation of the State, and the contemporary political generation, are implicated in this self-violation and thus are rendered bankrupt, while the present is considered a stagnant corruption of history, for which the poem, in familiar style, oVers no relief. Rather, the poem rises to the contemporary negation it diagnoses with a posture of spectacular opposition: Come, Wx upon me that accusing eye. I thirst for accusation. All that was sung, All that was said in Ireland is a lie Bred out of the contagion of the throng, Saving the rhyme rats hear before they die. Leave nothing but the nothings that belong To this bare soul, let all men judge that can Whether it be an animal or a man.181
Rather than being anti-nationalistic, then, Yeats engages in the most robust critique of the contemporary State to be found in 1930s Irish poetry, and does so from what he would call a virulently patriotic standpoint. Yet, instead of oVering a communal alternative, the poem intimates that the collective body is beyond recuperation, and that the only way out of the slump, the next historical ‘reversal’, will be the break-up of mass unity in favour of the ‘master solitude’ that Parnell symbolized.182 The speaker thus intimates his organicist relation to the national body, while articulating a movement towards its rupture and ironic break-up.
178 ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ is not a folk or ballad poem; but, opening 1935’s A Full Moon in March, it is thematically and atmospherically close to the ballads that follow. 179 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 541–2. 180 Ibid. 542. 181 Ibid. 182 Ibid. 543.
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Yet Ireland Wgures as the one arena that Yeats seemingly cannot relate to with full-scale irony. Ireland is the antithesis of Meru, for, in an era when Yeats frequently represents the empty futility and illusory nature of history, he admonishes his Irish audience: Justify all those renowned generations, Justify all that have sunk in their blood, Justify all that have died on the scaVold, Justify all that have Xed, that have stood, Stood or have marched the night long Singing, singing a song.
This poem continues: Fail, and that history turns into rubbish, All that great past to a trouble of fools; Those that come after shall mock at O’Donnell, Mock at the memory of both O’Neills, Mock Emmet, mock Parnell: All the renown that fell.183
These lines are part of the ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’ that Yeats wrote for the Blueshirts. Most critics have used Yeats’s Xirtation with this movement as a yardstick with which to measure his fascistic leanings. Yeats was propelled by a severe antagonism towards Ireland’s bourgeois modernization. But more than this, Yeats had not forgiven the current government, Fianna Fa´il, for its initial opposition to the State, and for the civil war: ‘Those fanatics all that we would do would undo; j Down the fanatic, down the clown.’184 However, Yeats notoriously had a problem with Irish democracy in general. Of life in a capitalist state, Yeats writes: All neighbourly content and easy talk are gone, But there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on. He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount, And we and all the Muses are things of no account.185
Without a doubt, the marginalization of art is of more consequence for Yeats than the break-up of neighbourliness. Democracy, for Yeats, is synonymous with mob rule, and the nationalist mob cannot fathom art 183 184
‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 546–7. 185 ‘The Curse of Cromwell’, ibid. 580. Ibid. 544.
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that would criticize or subvert.186 But, while Yeats would discursively argue for a strong government that might stiXe democracy, or mob rule, by ‘welding’ a ‘unity of culture’,187 his folk and ballad poems almost revel in the contemporary historical stasis. Yeats’s critique of Irish politics, of his own bourgeois class, and of Protestant marginalization, are sublimated into a singular dichotomy between a cultured aristocracy and the volatile masses. And the ‘aristocratic’ voice is that of ‘such men as come j Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb’. For example, ‘The Curse of Cromwell’ asks of the population: ‘What can they know that we know that know the time to die?’188 But, if the acceptance of death is a benchmark of cultural and political wisdom, this very nihilism also compounds the aristocrat’s marginalization. What these poems locate at the root of culture is the void’s non-meaning: ‘fol de rol de rolly O’. It is thus little wonder when a speaker concludes: ‘I must out and walk j Among the dogs and horses that understand my talk.’189 In this manner, the poems hit upon an underlying confusion of value that subverts the possibility of subjective ordering: Because this age and the next age Engender in the ditch, No man can know a happy man From any passing wretch; If Folly link with Elegance No man knows which is which.190
The present’s historical dissolution, its state of transformation, destroys culture’s value-structure, degenerating society into an anarchic free-forall. And concomitant with this is a generalized call for non-votation, which reXects Yeats’s belief that the masses should not be politically mobilized: 186 In a ‘Commentary on the Three Songs’, published in December 1934, Yeats wrote: ‘Sometimes as the representative of the Abbey Theatre I have called upon some member of Mr Cosgrave’s or Mr de Valera’s government to explain some fanatical attack—we are a State Theatre though our small subsidy has lately been reduced—once as a member of the Irish Academy to complain of the illegal suppression of a book, and upon each occasion I came away with the conviction that the Minister felt exactly as I felt but was helpless: the mob reigned’ (ibid. 836). 187 Ibid. 837. 188 Ibid. 580. 189 ‘The Curse of Cromwell’, ibid. 581. 190 ‘The Old Stone Cross’, ibid. 598–9.
Irish Poetry of the 1930s A statesman is an easy man, He tells his lies by rote; A journalist makes up his lies And takes you by the throat; So stay at home and drink your beer And let the neighbours vote.191
Indeed, the earthy bacchanalia of the drinking song signiWes a sole positive virtue that the poems propound for the nation’s majority. In this sense, the poems try to galvanize a communal energy that the subjective aristocracy could then shape in a new dispensation. Returning to the Blueshirts poems, Yeats’s rewrites are revelatory. One refrain from their Wrst version reads: ‘Drown all the dogs’, said the Werce young woman, ‘They killed my goose and cat. Drown, drown in the water-butt, Drown all the dogs’, said the Werce young woman.192
This is the proposed chorus of an autocratic insurrection. Indeed, the ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’ are the most explicit intimation that Yeats is reverting to ‘musical’ poems to capture the ‘driving force’ of a simple rhythm that, over and above the poems’ content, will propel the nation’s turbulent subjective impulse:193 Time for us all to pick out a good tune, Take to the roads and go marching along. March, march—How does it run?— O any old words to a tune.194
But Yeats, of course, rewrote the poems as ‘Three Marching Songs’, explaining that, because he realized the Blueshirt movement did not share his own aims, he ‘increased their fantasy, their extravagance, their obscurity, that no party might sing them’.195 What we are left with, then,
‘The Old Stone Cross’, ibid. 598. ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’, ibid. 546. 193 While composing his ballads, Yeats commented: ‘I am writing in short lines but think that I shall not use ‘‘sprung verse’’—now that I am close to it I dislike the constant uncertainty as to where the accent falls; it seems to make the verse vague and weak. I like a strong driving force’ (Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 47). 194 ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’, Poems of W.B. Yeats, 548. 195 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 837. 192
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is the bizarre simulacra of political marching songs that are apolitically warped and designed not to be sung: Robbers had taken his old tambourine, But he took down the moon And rattled out a tune; Robbers had taken his old tambourine.196
Thus, the call to justify history becomes a muted urge to remember it, whilst the refrain of ‘Drown all the dogs’ becomes: Be still, be still, what can be said? My father sang that song, But time amends old wrong, All that is Wnished, let it fade.197
These rewrites, however, divert attention away from the subversively negative elements his ‘Songs’ contained in their Wrst version: ‘Who’d care to dig’em,’ said the old, old man, ‘Those six feet marked in chalk? Much I talk, more I walk; Time I were buried,’ said the old, old man.198
Overall, then, Yeats’s folk and ballad poems are radically antagonistic towards the ‘common man’ he claimed to write them for. And, while they contain his poetry’s most explicit critiques of the State, they mostly revel in the stasis and dislocation Yeats divines in contemporary history, rather than proVer a way out of it. Predominantly they speak of conXict, fatalism, absurdity, and bitter discontent; while their musicality is often quite jarring, creating an unsteady momentum without direction that is implosive as often as eruptive. And yet the poems were vital to Yeats, and probably pivotal to the type of choices he made in The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, providing a counterpoint to the contemporary poetry he disliked, epitomized in the recent work of Ezra Pound. He wrote to Dorothy Wellesley: This diYcult work, which is being written everywhere now . . . has the substance of philosophy & is a delight to the poet with his professional pattern; but it is not your road or mine, & ours is the main road, the road of naturalness & 196 197 198
‘Three Marching Songs’, ibid. 616. Ibid. 613. ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’, ibid. 548.
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swiftness and we have thirty centuries upon our side. We alone can ‘think like a wise man, yet express ourselves like the common people’. These new men are goldsmiths working with a glass screwed into one eye, whereas we stride ahead of the crowd, its swordsmen, its jugglers looking to right & left.199
But, though Yeats would lead the crowd, his poems are immersions into rhythm and imagery ‘without ideas’, replenishments of subjective power, content with generating the anarchic violence of mere energy, with which he was intoxicated.
VII In a sense, Yeats’s idea of history is of an utter serration: each epoch is riven to the core by its negation, each cultural dispensation’s catastrophic collapse is predetermined. Yet, contradictorily, his historicity also hinges upon the ever-presence of tradition, art, and form’s potentiality. And, in the 1930s, Yeats demanded that Ireland become, in an age of cultural dissolution, an international beacon of this continuity, confounding the cyclones of change. His focus on Ireland thus pivots on how a particularized manifestation of formal order can be maintained in the context of ceaseless instability; on how it can be transferred from one doomed epoch to the next. And the search for such a mechanism of continuity provides the context for Yeats’s intensifying elitism. At the heart of Yeats’s politics is his interpretation of Swift’s Discourse of the Contests and Dissensions between the Nobles and the Commons in Athens and Rome: All States depend for their health upon a right balance between the One, the Few, and the Many. The One is the executive, which may in fact be more than one . . . but must for the sake of rapid decision be as few as possible; the Few are those who through the possession of hereditary wealth, or great personal gifts, have come to identify their lives with the life of the State, whereas the lives and ambitions of the Many are private. The Many do their day’s work well, and so far from copying even the wisest of their neighbours, aVect ‘a singularity’ in action and in thought; but set them to the work of the state and every man Jack is ‘listed in a party’, becomes the fanatical follower of men of whose characters he knows next to nothing, and from that day on puts nothing into his mouth 199
Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 64.
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that some other man has not already chewed and digested. And furthermore, from the moment of enlistment thinks himself above other men and struggles for power until all is in confusion.200
Underlying this conceptualization is the belief that all political states are inherently tyrannous: ‘[Swift] deWnes a tyranny as the predominance of the One, the Few, or the Many, but thinks that of the Many the immediate threat.’201 For Yeats, it is clear that a hierarchy of ‘the Few’ constitutes a preferred middle ground between two extremes. In the context of A Vision, history can be seen as a perpetual swing from the subjective order of ‘the One’ to the objective non-entity of ‘the Many’, with ‘the Few’ constituting a middle ground whose ‘hereditary wealth, or great personal gifts’ can withstand the maelstrom of ceaseless transformation. ‘Lapis Lazuli’ associates the strength of ‘the Few’ with the permanence of his own sense of artistic creation. Engaging with the ‘Auden school’, Yeats wrote: When there is despair, public or private, when settled order seems lost, people look for strength within or without. Auden, Spender, all that seem the new movement look for strength in Marxian socialism . . . they want marching feet. The lasting expression of our time is not this obvious choice but in a sense of something steel-like and cold within the will, something passionate and cold.202
In ‘Lapis Lazuli’, this steel-like will manifests itself through the opening’s levity, rather than dread, in the face of political violence; but the Xippant tone belies an underlying fatalism: I have heard that hysterical women say They are sick of the palette and Wddle-bow, Of poets that are always gay, For everybody knows or else should know That if nothing drastic is done Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out, Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in Until the town lie beaten Xat.203 200
Explorations, 351. Ibid. 352. 202 Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 8. 203 Poems of W. B. Yeats, 565. John Stallworthy points out that a ballad Yeats read in Irish Minstrelsy, called ‘The Battle of the Boyne’, included the stanza: ‘King James has pitched his tent between j The lines for to retire; j But King William threw his bomb-balls in j And set them all on Wre’. (Vision and Revision in Yeats’s Last Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 46). 201
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Paul StanWeld argues: ‘The telescoped reference to William of Orange and Kaiser Wilhelm . . . suggests that there is nothing new in the destruction of cities, though it may be accomplished in new ways, and that we cannot pretend we will be the Wrst to have to endure it.’204 The poem quickly jumps from ‘Aeroplane and Zeppelin’ to the performance of Shakespearian tragedies. It argues that the tragedy of an artwork is always the same: Though Hamlet rambles and Lear rages, And all the drop-scenes drop at once Upon a hundred thousand stages, It cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.205
Shakespearian actors do not ‘break up their lines to weep’ because of a performative ‘Gaiety transWguring all that dread’.206 And the poem’s tragic gaiety is based upon the adoption of this attitude by the actors of history. Thus, the only sane perspective on history is a stoical one. The lack of aesthetic distance in the ballads, the fact that, in them, contemporary Irish history is not a ‘painted stage’, is the reason for their lack of a stable perspective. ‘Lapis Lazuli’s’ third stanza leaves the stage to zoom out onto broader historical processes: On their own feet they came, or on shipboard, Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back, Old civilisations put to the sword. Then they and their wisdom went to rack: No handiwork of Callimachus, Who handled marble as if it were bronze, Made draperies that seemed to rise When sea-wind swept the corner, stands; His long lamp-chimney shaped like the stem Of a slender palm, stood but a day; All things fall and are built again, And those that build them again are gay.207
Artworks themselves do not last, merely the proclivity to make them, and the twisted gaiety of the artist derives from this knowledge of 204 205 206 207
StanWeld, Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, 109. ‘Lapis Lazuli’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 566. Ibid. 565. Ibid. 566.
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ephemerality. As was the case in ‘Vacillation’, then, joy is plucked from the teeth of nihilism. This stanza’s focus on transience counterpoints its conclusion of creative permanence, so that it eVects the Xash of conviction-without-reason upon which Yeats’s tragic joy is founded. The poem’s Wnal stanza moves to the ‘lapis lazuli’ itself: ‘Two Chinamen, behind them a third, j Are carved in lapis lazuli’: Every discoloration of the stone, Every accidental crack or dent, Seems a water-course or an avalanche, Or lofty slope where it still snows Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch Sweetens the little half-way house Those Chinamen climb towards, and I Delight to imagine them seated there; There, on the mountain and the sky, On all the tragic scene they stare. One asks for mournful melodies; Accomplished Wngers begin to play. Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes, Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.208
If the Chinamen are taken as allegorical artists, the poem can be seen to focus on the constructive impulse, the urge to impose form upon reality, rather than on a singular artwork. But its insight into the permanence of creativity is nevertheless derived from an artwork, the lapis lazuli itself. Thus, the poem’s sense of historical continuity is intimated through art, even though individual artworks, like the ‘handiwork of Callimachus’, will not survive. Instead, all art dissolves into a tradition whose primary function is to reveal the constructive impulse that gives rise to it. Subsequently, ‘Lapis Lazuli’s’ fundamental proposition is that history is nothing but the forms through which it is conceived. These forms do not contain history: they are constantly devoured by it; yet the only answer is to conceive new forms in an incessant battle against destruction. Moreover, the best forms are those, like the ‘lapis lazuli’, and the Yeats poem it gives rise to, which take heed of transience yet celebrate the creative act of ordering anyway. Such forms can do ‘nothing drastic’ to intercede in history, but give a
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distanced perspective on the relativity of suVering and catastrophe, which is the only comfort that the reality of history will allow. In perpetually coming to terms with his historical disenchantment, Yeats concentrates on valorizing heroic artists, of whom he is the primary model. He persistently champions ‘the Few’ who can withstand historical catastrophe and ‘build again’. The ‘Few’ are like the ‘Hermits on Mount Meru’: they fully comprehend the horror of history, but also the delight of culture symbolized in the beauty of art, and they maintain this double perspective no matter what historical context, good or bad, they live within. What ‘the Few’ are party to, then, is the irony that is at the heart of Yeats’s poetic. The hot and bothered masses take things too seriously, without a properly ironic perspective, as intimated by their inability to comprehend the dialectical autonomy of art. Thus, Yeats transfers his aesthetics onto politics, placing the burden of rebuilding a subjective Irish culture on the shoulders of ‘the Few’. They are to rebuild in the spirit of the Protestant Ascendancy: the antinomy of Ireland’s predominantly Catholic bourgeoisie.209 As argued above, Yeats took pains to stress the non-sectarianism of his project, simply arguing that no other Irish model exists for the present task in hand: ‘the mind’s discovery of itself’, dependent on ‘a capacity for horizontal lines, for rigid shapes, for buildings, for attitudes of mind that could be multiplied like an expanding bookcase’.210 To be sure, the Catholic bourgeoisie, and also the working classes of either denomination, were unlikely to be convinced by such a scheme. But, fundamentally, Yeats was proposing himself and his life’s work as a model for ‘the Few’ in whose spirit Irish culture should be remoulded. In this sense, Yeats’s argument with Irish culture in the 1930s is a perpetuation of his self-conscious desire to be at its centre. In many ways, Yeats’s reactionary rants serve a compensatory function. Yet he never slips into nostalgia for a lost golden age. Indeed, his poetic ironically disallows conservative stability even while it rages at its absence. Meanwhile, the imposition of a severely hierarchical order is represented as the only manifestation the turbulently emerging subjective impulse can take. This hierarchy will save the masses from the tyranny of their own inability to govern, ensuring their freedom because based on love: ‘Love, as distinct from pity, is the regard one distinct, 209 Put into praxis, Yeats’s idea of ‘the Few’ equated to the establishment of an Irish Academy of Letters. 210 Explorations, 345, 347.
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unique self holds for another because of the other’s very uniqueness, requiring neither Xight from self nor the usurpation of another self.’211 The remoulded society will be hieratical because its founding principle will be the fragmentation of love: it will constitute a charged metaphorical unity, a compact of identity and diVerence, rather than a homogenized, organicist nullity. And, because such a unity preserves the independence of its parts as much as it interrelates them, it will necessarily be held together by the power of the strong-willed, or else it will easily fall apart. Thus, the more complex and terse aesthetic of Yeats’s late poetry, in comparison with his early melliXuousness, is a kind of political model. While these late poems have been called ‘arbitrary’ and ‘inorganic’,212 they are, in fact, classically structured, held together by the alogicality of poetic form. Nevertheless, the apparent glee with which Yeats, in his last years, superimposes his macrocosmic horoscope onto the contemporary, waylaying completely the rights of ‘the Many’, is often shocking. Yeats fundamentally agrees with Marx that the superstructure of culture is dependent upon an economic base. Terry Eagleton writes: ‘freedom for Marx is a kind of creative superabundance over what is materially essential’, which is exactly what Yeats is interested in.213 On the prospect, in 1935, of war with Italy, Yeats wrote: ‘I dread crushing taxation, fewer and fewer people with enough Wnancial independence for intellectual courage.’214 Yet Yeats cannot bring himself to believe that with the abolishment of economic inequality, the rewards of culture could be enjoyed by everybody. The masses, for Yeats, remain ineluctably and arbitrarily uneducatable, even given Marx’s utopia of a state that is not bound by the necessity of labour: If some Wnancial reorganisation . . . enable[s] everybody without eVort to procure all necessities of life and so remove the last check upon the multiplication of the uneducatable masses, it will become the duty of the educated classes to seize and control one or more of those necessities. The drilled and docile masses may submit, but a prolonged civil war seems more likely, with the StanWeld, Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, 95. See, e.g., David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1993), 61–5. 213 Terry Eagleton, Marx and Freedom (London: Phoenix, 1997), 6. 214 Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, 29. Elsewhere he wrote: ‘every man has a profound instinct that idleness is the true reward of work, even if it only come at the end of life, or if generations have to die before it comes at all’ (Explorations, 278). 211 212
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victory of the skilful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses.215
This conviction, that the masses cannot be cultured, that their emancipation from labour would merely lead to their ‘multiplication’, seems to derive from Yeats’s interest in eugenics. There is some controversy concerning the sectarian nature of Yeats’s idea of the Irish ‘Few’. But, in his mind, genetic capability is derived from family traditions of cultured wealth, and it just so happens that the majority of such lineages in Ireland are Protestant. Yeats writes: ‘If the Catholic names are few history will soon Wll the gap’;216 thus he infers that the bloodlines of culture are garnered over time, that genetic capability is generated through a lineage that has been tragically joyful enough to withstand the ravages of history. His conception is founded, therefore, upon tough threads of historical continuity rather than with either transcendental or sectarian origins. But, since everyone outside such a familial lineage must be stiXed, put in their place to protect society from the prospect of tyranny, Yeats’s idea becomes repulsively violent in its ultraconservative policing of ‘degenerative’ majority forces. Ireland’s future unity, then, must be predicated on ‘the Few’ who, Yeats implies, should govern any way they seem Wt. Invoking ‘able men with public minds’, Yeats writes: ‘These men . . . are the core of Ireland, are Ireland itself.’ 217 And since Ireland is ‘the Few’, in the sense that ‘the Few’ represent the ideal Spirit of the country, Ireland’s purity depends upon the protection of their blood lines. And while this sentiment nauseates, Marjorie Howes suggests that Yeats is merely rendering explicit, in a stridently heightened mode, the ugly truths which underwrite any conception of national diVerence.218 Despite this, however, 215
Explorations, 425. Ibid. 442. 217 Yeats’s full statement reads: ‘I say to those that shall rule here: ‘‘If ever Ireland again seems molten wax, reverse the process of revolution. Do not try and pour Ireland into any political system. Think Wrst how many able men with public minds the country has, how many it can hope to have in the near future, and mould your system upon those men. It does not matter how you get them, but get them. Republics, Kingdoms, Soviets, Corporate States, Parliaments, are trash, as Hugo said of something else, ‘not worth one blade of grass that God gives for the nest of the linnet’. These men, whether six or six thousand, are the core of Ireland, are Ireland itself ’’ ’ (Explorations, 414). 218 Marjorie Howes writes: ‘Instead of secure and natural foundations, harmonious relations between the individual and the nation, and synthesis, Yeats’s eugenic nationality and 216
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the insult of Yeats’s thinking seems to be levied at the victims of class inequality, more than at parties deWned through religion or ethnicity. Walter Benjamin famously wrote, in 1938: ‘All eVorts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system’.219 In the same year, Yeats demanded a war to inhibit the political aestheticization of the masses while defending the traditional property system. Yeats’s apprehension of perfected organicism and nothingness amount to the same thing: ‘Where there is Nothing, there is God.’220 And this synonymity of perfection and negation is the pivot around which his system revolves. While organicist interconnectedness and its negation are the dialectical driving forces of history, history itself is merely a manifestation of energy ironically struggling to get to one side of the coin or the other. Yeats’s historical thought is therefore profoundly dystopian, though dependent upon utopian drives; his attempted amalgamation of Enlightenment progress with its antithesis creates a profound contradiction in whose furnace his poems are forged. Intrinsically related to this is Yeats’s concerted attempt to waylay the reductionism of logical, metonymic chains of cause and eVect with regards to historical understanding. Yeats is loathe to explain change through a rational mechanics of sequence; rather, change must be a kind of rupture, a Xash. But, since his system perceives opposites to be parts of a totality beyond perception, it is nevertheless predicated upon an intuited higher-level totality, in which parts are related to an organicist whole that is unrealized because history is still in process. However, Yeats predominantly chooses to focus upon the ironic rupture borne from the gaping holes between the parts that make up a historical transformation. Thus, he contrives to create a system of historical predetermination, to put on the knowledge of what shape the future will manifest, while simultaneously insisting upon the absolute alterity of the future, declaring that change is irrational and terrible: ‘Only a kindred politics oVer arbitrariness, violence, and irresolvable conXict. In other words, they present, in exaggerated and explicit form the things that often lurk behind the facades of more attractive versions of the nation. They expose, by re-Wguring and refusing, the naturalizing work that conventional conceptions of gender, sexuality and the family often perform’ (Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class and Irishness, 185). 219
Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, 243. Crucially, such an insight is old news to Yeats—‘Where there is Nothing, there is God’ is the title of a short story he published in 1897 (Mythologies, 184–90). 220
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shock resulting from the greatest possible conXict can make the greatest possible change’.221 Yeats writes: ‘I think profound philosophy must come from terror. An abyss opens under our feet; inherited convictions, the pre-suppositions of our thoughts . . . drop into the abyss.’222 The sense of the abyss, for Yeats, is essential to authenticity, an insurance against the abstractly formulaic, so that the rhythms of historical change may be intuitable, while the experience of the future’s becoming remains one of shock. In his last years especially, then, Yeats focuses his imagination upon the ironic hiatus between things and within processes, stressing the terror of experience. Yet his rage for order and totality intensiWes, and the contradictions of his thought begin to raze his poetic in an eruption of violent hatred. ‘Why do I hate man, woman or event?’ he asks; answering ‘Hatred of God may bring the soul to God’.223 Indeed, violence comes to Wgure as a descent into the negation of consciousness that can automatically bring about an ascent into the totality denied to it: Know that when all words are said And a man is Wghting mad, Something drops from eyes long blind, He completes his partial mind, For an instant stands at ease, Laughs aloud, his heart at peace. Even the wisest man grows tense With some sort of violence Before he can accomplish fate, Know his work or choose his mate.224
In a similar fashion must national unity be forged. Before, Yeats argued that political stability and national unity must be predicated upon the rights of the State over death.225 But now he urges for a war actively to precipitate such unity: ‘Desire some just war, that big house and hovel, college and public house, civil servant . . . and international bridgeplaying woman, may know that they belong to one nation.’226 He writes: 221
222 Essays and Introductions, 502. A Vision, 119. ‘Ribh Considers Christian Love InsuYcient’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 558. 224 ‘Under Ben Bulben’, ibid. 638. 225 Yeats wrote: ‘We have not an Irish Nation until all classes grant its right to take life according to the law’; ‘Much of the emotional energy in our civil war came from the indignant denial of the right of the State, as at present established, to take life in its own defence’ (Explorations, 338). 226 Ibid. 441. 223
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‘The danger is that there will be no war, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those older civilizations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.’227 Thus, Yeats’s lifelong philosophical brooding over the nature of history lapses into a bilious anti-humanism, an abstract dogma vividly manifested through a desire for the ecstasy of mass devastation in the name of aesthetic form.
VIII In the context of the late 1930s, the eugenics movement was respectably scientiWc, widespread, and powerful.228 And, given this backdrop, Yeats’s caricatured ‘roaring and . . . ranting’229 constitute a burlesque pastiche of its pseudo-scientiWc pretensions: Could that old god rise up again We’d drink a can or two, And out and lay our leadership On country and on town, Throw likely couples into bed And knock the others down.230
Marjorie Howes writes: ‘Critics have often claimed that in On the Boiler Yeats was deliberately courting the shock and outrage of his readers, and . . . that he wanted to Xaunt . . . his thoroughgoing contempt for the pieties of the Free State.’231 Of course, Yeats’s style cannot excuse his content, and certainly Mussolini, Hitler, and even Stalin would 227
Ibid. 425. Paul StanWeld writes: ‘the eugenics movement lobbied for laws that prohibited reproduction among the feeble-minded, either by isolation, or by voluntary sterilisation, or by forced sterilisation. England’s Mental DeWciency Act of 1913, which empowered the government to detain and sexually segregate the feeble-minded, results from this eVort, as did the sterilisation laws that thirty American states had enacted by 1931. The movement was international. By the time Germany passed its sterilisation laws in 1933, similar laws had already been enacted in Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. This legislation, disturbing and even frightening as it is in the light of subsequent history, serves to show that in the years before World War II, when Yeats became interested in eugenics, it was respected, widely inXuential and had even started to seem orthodox’ (Yeats and Politics in the 1930s, 159). 229 ‘Three Songs to the One Burden’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 606. 230 Ibid. 231 Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class and Irishness, 173. 228
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undoubtedly have found much to admire in his last tract; but nevertheless, as Fran Brearton has argued: ‘To castigate Yeats for illiberal views may be . . . a way of denying the history and responsibility of liberal ideology on the grounds of apparently non-totalitarian, non-ideological, (non-existent) consensual politics.’232 Just as eugenics uncovers the violent genealogy of the concept of nationalism, as Howes has argued, so does its violence towards the lower classes uncover the repressions of the bourgeois state. Terence Brown has written of Irish Ireland’s belief ‘that cultural protectionism might enable Ireland to sustain her unique identity’, with a ‘draconian censorship’ as ‘the means of providing that protection’.233 He adds that much of the public demand for a Censorship Bill ‘was orchestrated not by members of the political parties but by Irish Vigilance Societies . . . and by the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland’. Brown further argues: ‘It might reasonably have been feared that such bodies . . . would press for a censorship policy expressing not literary and aesthetic but strict Catholic moral values.’234 And of course, by the late 1930s, it was clear that such fears would have been well founded. Dermot Keogh writes: ‘Fianna Fa´il’s conservatism in the moral sphere was reXected in de Valera’s handling of literary and Wlm censorship. Some 1,700 books were banned by 1943, among them outstanding names in literature.’235 This censorship can be contextualized as an attempt to fortify the Xedgling State’s self-identity, but it was precisely such contemporary notions of national purity that Yeats’s aesthetic militated against. Yeats points to censorship as proof of mob rule, but Ireland’s protectionist ideology was more an insult to the intelligence of the masses. Fianna Fa´il’s ruralist ideology covered over the economic deterioration wrought by the party’s economic war, deluding the national psyche with illusions of a unique and non-materialist organicism while consolidating the State’s capitalist infrastructure. Thus, while the form of his critique turns into a repellent explosion of social prejudice, Yeats’s late politics represent a gross and inverted parody of the 232 Fran Brearton, The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 82. 233 Terence Brown, Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985, 2nd edn. (London: Fontana, 1985), 68. 234 Ibid. 69. 235 Dermot Keogh, Twentieth-Century Ireland: Nation and State (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1994), 74.
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conservatism that was dominant not just in Ireland, but across the West. If Yeats nauseates in the late 1930s, then, it should be remembered that his hieratic desire fundamentally demands a kind of instability at the heart of national self-identity, conceived as an improvement upon the exclusive ideology he would overthrow. When Yeats writes: wisdom is the property of the dead, A something incompatible with life; and power, Like everything that has the stain of blood, A property of the living . . . 236
the problem is not with the nature of the insight, but with the fatalism with which it is accepted. Nor is Yeats’s call to violence his last word on the subject: Did that play of mine send out Certain men the English shot? Did words of mine put too great strain On that woman’s reeling brain? Could my spoken words have checked That whereby a house lay wrecked? 237
This questioning, with its potent infusion of guilt and remorse for Ireland’s violence, bespeaks an ethical alternative that remains at the core of Yeats’s work, uncomfortably set alongside his hymns to power. In a similar vein, while he was calling for the coercion of the weak, Yeats was placing Cuchulain, his archetypal strongman and tragic hero, in their company.238 And, more generally, a poem such as ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ manifests aspects of order and decorum that represent a side of Yeats that should not be underplayed. Yeats’s extensive discourse proves, if proof were needed, that he was explicitly concerned with the historical situatedness and power of poetry, to a degree that leaves his contemporaries trailing in his wake. Indeed, the impact of Yeats upon the aesthetics of historical consciousness in the twentieth century generally should not be underestimated. Few other writers have evoked so arrestingly the sense that history is both a matter of perspective and the total aggregate of possible 236 237 238
‘Blood and the Moon’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 482. ‘The Man and the Echo’, ibid. 632. ‘Cuchulain Comforted’, ibid. 634–5.
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perspectives; that history is simultaneously a matter of power and limitation, of transformative potential and unchangingness, of individuality and communality; that everything that enters the mind, as well as the mind’s cognitive make-up, is absolutely historical; that this omniscient history is something defamiliar and problematic. Yeats has been a profoundly idiosyncratic fulcrum through which the particular historical pressures of Ireland have had an impact upon the globe in a startlingly variegated fashion. But Yeats’s pregnant obsession with the links between history and poetry reverberates most felicitously in the poems themselves. Where Yeats’s system collapses, his best poetry radiates. His poems fuse contradictory elements in a formal synergy comprised, Wrst and foremost, of phonetic sonority, parallelism, and rhythmic pulsion. While his poetry is not irrational, it cheats rationality through elliptic strategies; and while his system, and cultural arguments, might be easily dismissed, their aporias laid out in display, this type of criticism seems quite redundant when faced with the music of his art. His poems manipulate the tension between identity and diVerence; and this metaphoric mode, preserving the relative autonomy of subjects and objects while suggesting correlations and integrations, becomes a means of postponing historical ‘closure’ while pointing towards its imminent possibility. This mode of simultaneous fusion and disjuncture is compounded by his poems’ incessant, multidimensional, and free-ranging play upon perspective. As we have seen, his poetry generates a polyvalency through the transmutational nature of his symbolism: the swan of ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ is central to that poem’s meaning, but constitutes a labyrinth of signiWcation that transgresses the poem’s boundaries. On a broader scale, Yeats’s poems remain autonomous, yet they semantically osmose, through repetition and variation, to create a constellation that renders his poetry irreducible. Sometimes history is the eVect of human action: ‘None shared our guilt; nor did we play a part j Upon a painted stage when we devoured his heart’;239 and sometimes it is directed by extraterrestrial forces, as if the screenplay of the gods: ‘What sacred drama through her body heaved j When world-transforming Charlemagne was conceived?’240 Interpreting Walter Benjamin’s aesthetics, Terry Eagleton explains that the German thought phenomena ‘must not be grasped as a mere 239 240
‘Parnell’s Funeral’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 542. ‘Whence Had They Come?’, ibid. 560.
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instantiation of some universal essence; instead, thought must deploy a whole cluster of stubbornly speciWc concepts which in Cubist style refract the object in myriad directions or penetrate it from a range of diVuse angles.’241 And it is in such a manner that Yeats’s poetry modulates his symbols, and, also, his idea of history. Through the accumulation of poems, a multitude of ideas about history generate; and, thus, his poems’ parts do not add up to a coherent totality. Indeed, his system denies the possibility of historical organicism, while nevertheless being based upon its apprehension. Eagleton continues his exegesis of Benjamin: By revolutionizing the relations between part and whole, the constellation strikes at the very heart of the traditional aesthetic paradigm, in which the speciWcity of the detail is allowed no genuine resistance to the organizing power of the totality . . . The constellation safeguards particularity but Wssures identity, exploding the object into an array of conXictive elements.242
Yeats calls this explosion, at the lacunae of Otherness, either hate or love; for him, identity is always subject to this hiatus: within the self, between the self and others, within the nation, within historical epochs, and within historical change. While Yeats’s politics are worlds apart from those of Benjamin, there are deWnite aYnities between their apprehensions of political praxis redeWned through new aesthetic terms: Walter Benjamin was given to distinguishing between history proper and what he termed ‘tradition’, signifying the narrative of the dispossessed. Only by a ritual of revolutionary remembrance, lifting the Proustian me´moire involuntaire onto the historical plane, could this dangerous, precarious power of tradition be prised free of the ruling-class lineages with which it is bound up and revived as a strategy for unlocking the political present.243
For Yeats, ‘tradition’ is the arena of cultural continuity, the aesthetic warehouse of creative potentiality, which persists through history’s cataclysmic transformations. Yeats desires precisely the opposite of Benjamin: to keep tradition bound with ruling-class lineages. Yet, when the cultured ‘Few’ tap into tradition, the eVect is still an explosion of Proustian recall. Of this, Yeats’s young peer, Beckett, wrote: 241 242 243
Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Blackwell, 1990), 328. Ibid. 330. Ibid. 377.
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‘Involuntary memory is explosive . . . in its Xame it has consumed Habit and all its works, and in its brightness revealed what the mock reality of experience never can and never will reveal—the real.’244 Yeats’s tradition works in a similar manner. For him, ruling-class lineages are the only outlet that could withstand the true, explosive impact of tradition—what Shelley called ‘The awful shadow of some unseen Power’, which ‘Floats though unseen amongst us’245— and the purpose of ‘the Few’ is to mediate this power down to the rest of the nation and forge an authentic unity upon it. Therefore, just as Benjamin would unleash the power of tradition to explode the bourgeois status quo, so too would Yeats; the diVerence is that Yeats desires a turn back to what might vaguely be called feudal values, while Benjamin looks towards a communist state. But tradition’s turbulent eVect upon the present is the same for both writers. Poetic style, for Yeats, is itself mask and tradition, that which reconstitutes the self through a kind of fusion with the strangeness of history’s cultural endowment.246 He writes: If I wrote of personal love or sorrow in free verse, or in any rhythm, that left it unchanged, amid all its accidence, I would be full of self-contempt because of my egotism and indiscretion, and foresee the boredom of my reader. I must choose a traditional stanza, even what I alter must seem traditional . . . Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing. Ancient salt is best packing.247
Poetic labour is a means of giving oneself over to the formal propensity that, according to Pythagoras’s plan, is the underlying order of history and the universe. As we have seen, dream imagery, for Yeats, comes from other people’s dreams, the ‘Dreaming Back’ of the dead. Thus symbols and images are fundamentally communal, tapping into the 244
Samuel Beckett, Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1931), 20. Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’, Poems and Prose, ed. Timothy Webb (London: Everyman, 1995), 37. 246 Thomas Whitaker writes: ‘One’s double or shadow, though it is not merely a projection, constellates in projected form all that remains in darkness within the self, all that is denied or repressed by the ego. The interrogation of that shadow may therefore lead the poet toward an understanding, simultaneously, of two areas which seem dangerously ‘‘other’’: one in the world beyond himself, one in his own hidden nature. If the shadow appears in the guise of current history, he may partly discover, in a single act of perception, the evils of his time and his own secret complicity’ (Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History, 2nd edn. (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1989), 6). 247 Essays and Introductions, 522. 245
W. B. Yeats
agglomerative mind of society and history that is always more than what cognition can bear at any moment: a matrix conjoining the self and all that is beyond it. Likewise, the attainment of form is a means of cutting oV the ‘bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast’, in order to become something deWnitive yet other.248 ‘I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing’: art simultaneously fortiWes the self while turning it into a multitude and erasing it. Yeats’s uniqueness resides in the dialectical toughness with which, he argues, the individual must Wght against the trans-individualism of style, form, and tradition; even as he or she seeks to reconstitute him or herself through them. He writes that the works of Joyce, Woolf, and Pound suggest ‘a deluge of experience breaking over us and within us, melting limits whether of line or tint; man no hard bright mirror dawdling by the dry sticks of a hedge, but a swimmer, or rather the waves themselves. In this new literature . . . man in himself is nothing.’249 For Yeats, the assertion of individuality, and the fragmentation of totality, go hand in hand. Yet individuality is asserted through the attempt to unify the whole with one’s own image. This eVort can potentially transform the individual, and perhaps the nature of the whole. But the world will nevertheless remain beyond any singular comprehension or conWgurative formulation. And so the whole dance must start again. Ultimately, Yeats writes poetry that is critical of the past and the contemporary, poetry that desires to change culture, rather than to escape from it into an immediately accessible utopia. Art partially proVers freedom from the real, but Yeats’s poems remain aware that they are in the midst of a broader history that is illimitable. This irreducibility is partially due to the fact that history is ongoing, but is also due to the fact that it consists of unique individuals, groups, and cultural units that are irreconcilable, while nevertheless linked through their communal participation in the world. A keynote of the resultant kaleidoscope of poetic perspectives is that history hurts: the rupture between desire and reality, the manner in which history moves against us, is rendered as a self-violation. And redemption resides in dealing with this hurt, in creating and trying again. Yeats’s opulent sound structures, which manifest this hurt while intimating a harmonic totality that is otherwise inconceivable, represent 248
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the means by which the human will might come to terms with history. Seamus Heaney writes: ‘Yeats’s essential gift is his ability to raise a temple in the ear, to make a vaulted space in language through the Wrmness, in-placeness, and undislodgeableness of stanzaic form.’250 But, then again, Yeats also shows how dissociated such formal acuity might be from humanitarian values: his verse remorselessly forces the ear to take the negative with the positive. Yet, whether aYrming, perplexing, or just plain insidious, Yeats’s gift is his ability to bring multi-perspectives startlingly within perspective, in metaphoric fusions of endlessly suggestive signiWcance. Albright writes that Yeats’s ‘poems frequently leave oV in such a fashion that the meter seems to persist after the words terminate, as if such a powerful rhythm were achieved that it continues by sheer momentum through the air, through the white space at the end of the text’.251 And it is this rhythm that invades the head, implanting his poetry’s simultaneity of totality and breakdown in our consciousness. Adorno argues: ‘Works of art aVront prevailing needs by throwing new light on the familiar, thus meeting the objective need for a change in consciousness that might ultimately lead to a change of reality.’252 And Yeats’s poetry aVronts. It represents identity in diVerence through a compressed formal unity, which somehow makes its contradictions ever-more volatile: Out of Ireland have we come. Great hatred, little room, Maimed us at the start. I carry from my mother’s womb A fanatic heart.253
Through verse such as this, Yeats has been accused of transposing Ireland’s conXicts onto some ahistorical and immutable plane. During the recent Northern Irish Troubles, for example, this verse popped up recurrently in contexts that unleashed its awful fatalism. But, in the Wrst instance, the verse’s very stone-cast apprehension of Irish conXict denotes, by its very implacability, an objective need for cultural change. 250 Seamus Heaney, ‘Introduction’, in W. B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), p. xxv. 251 Albright, Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Science of Modernism, 50. 252 Theodor Adorno, ‘The Autonomy of Art’, in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 256. 253 ‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 506.
W. B. Yeats
And, in the second instance, the verse’s appositeness for the post-1960s North is a matter of chance, which has contributed to a misunderstanding of Yeats. Written in 1931, the poem almost certainly reXects the continuing and bitter impact of the civil war on Yeats, and his intimation of explosively contemporary diVerences within the Free State. Moreover, the poem does not actually stipulate a duality of opposition; therefore, it could signify a much more fragmented splintering of internecine conXicts than is normally thought. And, thus, the poem should be recontextualized, as Yeats himself should be more generally: his poem speaks of the violence within an emergent bourgeois democracy. In conclusion, Yeats’s poetry looks upon a changing world with changing eyes. But, by turning social antinomies into a dialectic of forms, it intimates their possible transformation.254 Through its remorseless intensity and multidimensionality, it demands that history has no end, that ideals will always be ruptured, that no one perspective is the correct one. His poetry articulates with uncomfortable force the contradiction between self-actualization and social harmony. It reveals the dehiscence within objects and within the modulations of aesthetic form: ‘O sea-starved, hungry sea.’255 But, against all this, his work bursts at the seams with a celebration of eVort, will, desire, and accomplishment. Yeats is always in excess of any singular interpretation; but he demands to be understood. Neither repudiation nor sycophancy will do him justice. As he wrote of Spinoza: ‘One imagines him among the theologians of his time, who sought always some formula perhaps, some sheep-dog for common minds, turning himself into pure wolf, and making for the wilderness.’256 254 Adorno argues: ‘Real partisanship . . . dwells deep down, where social antinomies turn into the dialectic of forms’ (‘The Autonomy of Art’, 249). 255 ‘A Crazed Girl’, Poems of W. B. Yeats, 578. 256 A Vision, 126.
Select Bibliography Irish Poets Writing in the 1930s AE (Ge o r g e Ru s se l l ), Selected Poems (London: MacMillan, 1935). —— Selections from the Contributions to the Irish Homestead (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1978). Be c k e t t, Samuel , Proust (New York: Grove Press, 1931). —— Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (Paris: Europa Press, 1935). —— Murphy (London: Picador, 1973). —— Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder, 1983). —— Dream of Fair to Middling Women (London: John Calder, 1992). —— More Pricks Than Kicks (London: John Calder, 1993). —— Collected Poems 1930–1989 (London: Calder Publications, 2002). Bo d k i n, Th o m a s Pa t r i c k, Eight Poems (Birmingham: School of Painting, 1939). Ca m p b e l l, Jo se p h, The Poems of Joseph Campbell (Dublin: Allen Figgis, 1963). Clarke , Au s ti n, The Vengeance of Fionn (Dublin: Mansuel, 1918). —— The Fires of Baal (Dublin: Mansuel & Roberts, 1921). —— The Sword of the West (Dublin: Mansuel & Roberts, 1921). —— The Cattledrive in Connaught (London: Allen & Unwin, 1925). —— Pilgrimage and Other Poems (London: Allen & Unwin, 1929). —— Collected Poems (London: Allen & Unwin, 1936). —— Night and Morning (Dublin: Orwell Press, 1938). —— Ancient Lights (Dublin: Bridge Press, 1955). —— Twice around the Black Church (London: Routledge, 1962). —— A Penny in the Clouds (London: Routledge, 1968). —— Collected Poems (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974). —— Selected Poems, ed. W. J. McCormack (London: Penguin, 1992). —— Reviews and Essays of Austin Clarke, ed. Gregory A. Schirmer (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1994). Co f f e y , Br i a n , Three Poems (Paris: Librarie Jeanette Mannier, 1933). —— Third Person (London: Europa Press, 1938). —— Dice Thrown Never Will Annul Chance (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965). —— Selected Poems (Dublin: New Writers Press, 1971). —— ‘About the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, Poetry Ireland (Spring 1963), 76–86.
—— ‘Denis Devlin: Poet of Distance’, in Andrew Carpenter (ed.), Place, Personality and the Irish Writer (Gerrards Cross: Smythe, 1977), 137–58. —— Poems and Versions 1929–1990 (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1991). —— and De v li n, De ni s , Poems (Dublin: Alex Thom & Co., 1930). Co lu m , Padraic , Old Pastures (New York: MacMillan, 1930). —— Poems (London: MacMillan, 1932). —— The Story of Lowry Maen (London: MacMillan, 1937). —— Flower Pieces: New Poems (Dublin: Orwell Press, 1938). —— Selected Poems, ed. Sanford Sternlicht (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989). Daik en, Le s li e H. (ed.), Good-Bye Twilight: Songs of the Struggle in Ireland (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1936). Devlin , Den is , Intercessions (London: Europa Press, 1937). —— Lough Derg and Other Poems (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946). —— Collected Poems of Denis Devlin, ed. J. C. C. Mays (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1989). —— Translations into English from French, German and Italian Poetry (Dublin: Dedalus Press, 1992). —— and Coff ey , Br i a n, Poems (Dublin: Alex Thom & Co., 1930). Donaghy , John Ly l e , Into the Light and Other Poems (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1934). —— Selected Poems (Dublin: Orwell Press, 1939). Fa l l o n , Pa d r a i c , Collected Poems (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1990). Gibb on , Mon k, For Daws to Peck At (London: Gollancz Press, 1929). —— Seventeen Sonnets (London: Joiner & Steele, 1932). He w i t t , Jo h n, ‘A North Light: Twenty-Five Years in a Municipal Art Gallery’, typescript, unpublished autobiography (University of Ulster at Coleraine, 1964). —— Ancestral Voices: The Selected Prose of John Hewitt, ed. Tom Clyde (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987). —— The Collected Poems of John Hewitt, ed. Frank Ormsby (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1991). Higgins , F. R., Arable Holdings (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1933). —— The Gap of Brightness (London: MacMillan, 1940). Ka v a n a g h , Pa tr i ck , The Ploughman and Other Poems (London: MacMillan, 1936). —— The Great Hunger (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1942). —— Collected Poems (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1964). —— Collected Pruse (London: Brian & O’Keefe, 1973). —— The Green Fool (London: Penguin, 1975). —— Selected Poems, ed. Antoinette Quinn (London: Penguin, 1996).
Ka v a n a g h , Patrick , A Poet’s Country: Selected Prose, ed. Antoinette Quinn (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2003). Mac Donagh , Do na g h, Veterans and Other Poems (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1941). Mac Don og h, Pa t r i c k, A Leaf in the Wind (Belfast: Quota Press, 1929). —— The Vital Fire: A Poem (Dublin: Orwell Press, 1941). Mac Gr e e v y , Th o m a s , Thomas Stearns Eliot: A Study (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931). —— Richard Aldington: An Englishman (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931). —— Poems (London: William Heinemann, 1934). —— Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy: An Annotated Edition, ed. Susan Schreibman (Dublin: Anna Livia Press, 1991). Mac Ne i c e, Lo ui s , Blind Fireworks (London: Gollancz, 1929). —— Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1935). —— and Au d e n, W. H., Letters from Iceland (London: Faber & Faber, 1937). —— Poems (New York: Random House, 1937). —— The Earth Compels (London: Faber & Faber, 1938). —— I Crossed the Minch (London: Longmans Green, 1938). —— Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938). —— Zoo (London: Michael Joseph, 1938). —— Autumn Journal (London: Faber & Faber, 1939). —— The Last Ditch (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1940). —— Plant and Phantom (London: Faber & Faber, 1941). —— The Strings are False: An Unfinished Autobiography (London: Faber & Faber, 1965). —— Varieties of Parable (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965). —— The Poetry of W. B. Yeats, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1967). —— Collected Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1979). —— Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987). —— Selected Poems, ed. Michael Longley (London: Faber & Faber, 1988). —— Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). O’Con no r , Fr a n k, The Wild Bird’s Nest (Dublin: Cuala, 1932). —— The Old Brothers and Other Poems (London: Nelson Press, 1936). —— The Fountain of Magic (London: MacMillan, 1939). O’Sullivan , Sea mus (James Starkey), Collected Poems (Dublin: Orwell Press, 1940). —— Essays and Recollections (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1944). Ro d g e r s, W. R., Awake! And Other Poems (London: Secker & Warburg, 1941). Sa l k e l d, Bl a n a i d, Hello Eternity! (London: Elkin Matthews & Marot, 1933). —— The Fox’s Covert (London: Dent, 1935).
—— The Engine Is Left Running (Dublin: Gayfield, 1937). St ua r t, Fr a n c i s, We Have Kept The Faith: Poems, 1918–1992 (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, 1992). Taylor , Ge o f f r ey Ba s il , A Dash of Garlic (Sutton Verney: Poulk, 1933). —— Seven Simple Poems (Sutton Verney: Poulk, 1937). Wi n g f i e l d , Sh e i l a, Poems (London: Cresset Press, 1938). Yea ts , W. B., The Tower (London: Macmillan, 1928). —— Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1932). —— The Winding Stair and Other Poems (London: Macmillan, 1933). —— A Full Moon in March (London: Macmillan, 1935). —— (ed.), The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892–1935 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936). —— New Poems (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1938). —— Last Poems and Plays (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1939). —— On the Boiler (Dublin: Cuala Press, 1939). —— Letters on Poetry: From W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940). —— The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (New York: Macmillan, 1955). —— The Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, ed. Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach ( New York: Macmillan, 1957). —— Mythologies (New York: Macmillan, 1959). —— Essays and Introductions (London: Macmillan, 1961). —— The Senate Speeches of W. B. Yeats (London: Faber, 1961). —— Explorations (New York: Macmillan, 1962). —— Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats: Volume 1, ed. John P. Frayne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970). —— Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats: Volume 2, ed. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson (London: Macmillan, 1975). —— A Vision, 2nd edn. (London: Macmillan, 1981). —— Selected Plays, ed. Richard Allen Cave (London: Penguin, 1997). —— Autobiographies. The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats: Volume III, ed. William H. O’Donnell and Douglas Archibald (New York: Scribner, 1999). —— W. B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney, ed. Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2000).
Other Texts Ad o r n o , Theodor , Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997). —— The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
Ad o r n o, Theodor , The Autonomy of Art’, in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O’Connor (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000). Ahmad , Aija z, In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures (London: Verso, 1992). Albright , Da ni el , Quantum Poetics: Yeats, Pound, Eliot and the Science of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Ar i s t o t l e, ‘Poetics’, in Classical Literary Criticism: Aristotle On the Art of Poetry; Horace On the Art of Poetry; Longinus On the Sublime, trans. T. S. Dorsch (London: Penguin, 1965). Armstrong , Ti m, ‘Muting the Klaxon: Poetry, History and Irish Modernism’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 43–74. Aud en , W. H., The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1986). Ba ir , De i r d r e , Samuel Beckett: A Biography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978). Ba r th e s , Ro la nd , Writing Degree Zero, trans. Annette Lavers and Colin Smyth (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967). —— S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (London: Jonathan Cape, 1975). Ba ud e l a i r e, Ch ar l es, The Flowers of Evil, trans. James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993). Be n j a m i n, Walter , Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana; Collins, 1970). —— ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, Collins, 1970), 219–53. —— Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: New Left Books, 1973). —— The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press; Harvard University Press, 1999). Bh abha , Homi , The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994). The Bible: Authorised King James Version, ed. Robert Caroll and Stephen Prickett (Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1998). Bl a k e , Wi ll ia m , The Complete Poems, ed. Alicia Ostriker (London: Penguin, 1977). Br e a r t o n, Fran , The Great War in Irish Poetry: W. B. Yeats to Michael Longley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Brendon , Pi e rs , The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s (London: Jonathan Cape, 2000). Br e t o n , AndrØ, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972). Br o w n , Terence , Louis MacNeice: Sceptical Vision (Dublin: Macmillan, 1975). —— Ireland: A Social and Cultural History, 1922–1985, 2nd edn. (London: Fontana, 1985). —— ‘Austin Clarke: Satirist’, Poetry Ireland Review, 22 & 23 (1988), 111–21.
—— The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999). Brg e r , Pe t er , Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984). Caesar , Ad r i a n, Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). Cairns , Da v id, and Richards , Sh a u n, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988). Ca u d w e l l, Ch r i s t o p h e r, Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1946). Chalker , Sy l v i a, and Wei ne r , Edmund , The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (Oxford: Oxford University Press; BCA, 1994). Ch e v a l i e r, Je a n, and Gh e e r b r a n t, Al a i n, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, trans. John Buchanan-Brown (London: Penguin, 1996). Co le r id g e, Samuel Ta y lo r , The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson., rev. edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Co r co r a n , Neil , Poets of Modern Ireland: Text, Context, Intertext (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999). Co r k e r y, Da ni el , Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (Cork: Cork University Press, 1931). —— The Hidden Ireland: A Study of Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century (Dublin: M. H. Gill, 1967). Coughlan , Pa tr i ci a, ‘ ‘‘The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves’’: Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 173–208. —— and Da v i s , Ale x (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995). Cronin , Mik e, The Blueshirts and Irish Politics (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997). Cu ll e r , Jonathan , Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature (London: Routledge & Paul, 1975). Cu ll i ng f o r d, Eli zabeth , Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London: Macmillan, 1981). —— Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Cu n n i n g h a m, Va le n ti ne , British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988). Davis , Al e x, ‘ ‘‘Poetry is Ontology’’: Brian Coffey’s Poetics’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 103–28.
Davis , Ale x , A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2000). Dea ne , Se a m u s , ‘Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism: A Survey’, in Douglas Dunn (ed.), Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey (Cheadle: Carcanet Press, 1975), 4–22. —— Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea (Field Day Pamphlet No. 4; Derry: Field Day, 1984). —— Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880–1980 (London: Faber & Faber, 1985). —— (gen. ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, 3 vols. (Derry: Field Day Publications, 1991). —— Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing since 1790 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997). Dea rlo ve, J. E., Accommodating the Chaos: Samuel Beckett’s Non-Relational Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1982). De Man , Pa u l , The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984). Ea g l et o n, Te re n ce , The Ideology of the Aesthetic (London: Blackwell, 1990). —— Heathcliff and the Great Hunger: Studies in Irish Culture (London: Verso, 1995). —— Marx and Freedom (London: Phoenix, 1997). El i ot , T. S., Collected Poems 1909–1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1974). —— Selected Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1999). El l m a n n, Richard, The Identity of Yeats (London: Faber & Faber, 1964). En g e lb er g, Edward , The Vast Design: Patterns in W. B. Yeats’s Aesthetic, 2nd edn. (Washington: Catholic University of America, 1988). En g l i s h, Richard, Radicals and the Republic: Socialist Republicanism in the Irish Free State (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). Fa l l o n , Br i a n, An Age of Innocence: Irish Culture 1930–1960 (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1998). Foga rty , An ne , ‘Gender, Irish Modernism and the Poetry of Denis Devlin’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds.), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), 209–31. Fos t e r, Roy , Modern Ireland: 1600–1972 (London: Penguin, 1989). —— W. B. Yeats, A Life, i. The Apprentice Mage, 1865–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). —— W. B. Yeats, A Life, ii. The Arch-Poet, 1915–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Foucault , Mi c h e l, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1994). Fr y e, Northrop , Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (London: Penguin, 1990).
Garvin , Tom , 1922: The Birth of Irish Democracy (Dublin: Gill & MacMillan, 1996). Go e t h e, Jo h a n n Wo lf g a n g v o n, Poems of Goethe, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1957). Goodby , Jo h n, Irish Poetry since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000). Gou l d , Wa r w i c k, and Lo ng l e y , Ed n a (eds.), Yeats Annual No. 12. That Accusing Eye: Yeats and his Irish Readers (London: Macmillan Press, 1996). Graham , Col i n, Deconstructing Ireland: Identity, Theory, Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001). Ha m b u r g e r, Mi c h a e l , The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modernist Poetry since Baudelaire, 2nd edn. (London: Anvil Press, 1996). Ha r m o n, Ma u r i c e , Austin Clarke 1896–1974: A Critical Introduction (Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1989). Har r i n g t o n , John , The Irish Beckett (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991). Ha r r i s, Da ni el Ar t h u r , Yeats: Coole Park and Ballylee (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974). Ha r v e y , La w r en c e, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970). He a n ey, Se a m u s, The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures (London: Faber & Faber, 1995). —— ‘Introduction’, in W. B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), pp. xi–xxv. How es , Ma r j o r i e, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class and Irishness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Hux l ey , Al d o us , Brave New World (London: Longman, 1991). Hy n e s, Samuel , The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s (London: Bodley Head Press, 1976). Is e r , Wolfgang , ‘ The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach’, in David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader (London: Longman, 1988), 212–28. Jameson , Fredric , Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). —— Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990). —— The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (London: Routledge, 1996). Jarrell , Ra n d a l l , Poetry and the Age, 2nd edn. (London: Faber & Faber, 1996). Jef fares , No r m a n , A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1984).
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Index Adorno, Theodor 23, 26–7, 32–3, 41, 132, 208 Ahmad, Aijaz 15 n. 35 Albright, Daniel 178–80, 208 Armstrong, Tim 107–8 Army Comrades Association 12 Auden, W. H. 6, 58, 100, 151 and the Auden Generation 6–9, 60 Bair, Deirdre 136 Barthes, Roland 23, 113 Baudelaire, Charles 98, 110, 154 Beckett, Samuel 15, 16–18, 26, 96, 119–40 and Beethoven 126; and Clarke 82, 93; and Coffey 130; and cyclicism 122, 129; and Descartes 122–4; and Devlin 100; and habit 124–5, 127, 134, 206; and fragmentation 124; and Goethe 131; and historiography 138–9; and Ireland 135–7; and Joyce 133– 4, 137; and Kant 124; and Kaun, Axel 126; and lyricism 127–9; and MacGreevy, Thomas 127, 137; and metaphor 133–4, 138– 9; and Nietzsche 138–9; and negation 119–21, 130, 135; and The Negro Anthology 136; and predestination 129; and Rimbaud 121, 126; and Schopenhaeur 124, 127, 130, 132; and Spanish Civil War 136;
and temporality 122–4; and Yeats, Jack 137; and Yeats, W. B. 140, 205–6 w r i ti n g s ‘Censorship and the Saorstat’ 136; Dream of Fair to Middling Women 126; ‘Enueg I’ 120–1; ‘Enueg II’ 128; ‘Gnome’ 128–9; ‘Home Olga’ 137; More Pricks Than Kicks 137; Murphy 82, 132 n. 124; ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ 15, 77; Proust 124, 127– 8, 134; ‘Sanies II’ 119; ‘Serena I’ 125; ‘Serena II’ 120; ‘The Vulture’ 131–2; ‘Whoroscope’ 122–4 Benjamin, Walter 94–5, 173, 199, 204–6 Blake, William 68, 158 Blueshirts 12, 188–9 Bolshevik Revolution 7 Brearton, Fran 202 Brendon, Piers 7, 30–1 Brown, Terence 13, 19, 39, 62, 75, 160, 172, 177, 202 Casement, Roger 186 Caudwell, Christopher 22 censorship 13, 90, 202 Chamberlain, Neville 48 Clarke, Austin 16, 77–95 and aesthetic organicism 20, 79, 85, 91–3; and apocalypse 84; and the Celtic Romanesque 84– 6; and Irish civil war 78, 95; and
Clarke, Austin (cont.): Irish mode poetry 79–82; and Irish Republicanism 78; and irony 86; and itinerary poems 83; and Joyce 78; and Kavanagh 88, 94–5; and sexuality 89–91; and Yeats 19, 79 writings The Cattledrive in Connaught 83–4; ‘Celebrations’ 77–8, 83; ‘Celibacy’ 85; ‘Civil War’ 78, 83; ‘The Confession of Queen Gormlai’ 90; ‘The Frenzy of Suibhne’ 83; ‘The Itinerary of Ua Clerigh’ 83; ‘The Jewels’ 88, 92; ‘The Lost Heifer’ 93; ‘The Lucky Coin’ 89; ‘Mortal Pride’ 88; Night and Morning 82, 85–94; ‘Night and Morning’ 85–8, 92; ‘No Recompense’ 91; ‘The Pedlar’ 83; Pilgrimage and Other Poems 82, 84–5; ‘Pilgrimage’ 85; ‘Repentance’ 89; ‘Secrecy’ 93; ‘The Straying Student’ 91; ‘Summer Lightning’ 92; ‘Tenebrae’ 88; ‘The Young Woman of Beare’ 90 Coffey, Brian 16–18, 96, 109–19 and aesthetic organicism 116; and Aquinas 109, 112; and Beckett 119; and chiasmus 112; and christianity 116, 118; and Devlin 97, 98, 111, 116; and Mallarme´ 114, 117; and Maritain, Jacques 109–10; and surrealism 110; and symbolism 114, 118–19 writings ‘Amaranth’ 115; ‘Dedication’ 110–11, 112; Dice
Thrown Never Will Annul Chance 114; ‘A Drop of Fire’ 115–16; Missouri Sequence 110; ‘Patience No Memory’ 115; Third Person 110– 19; ‘Third Person’ 116–18; ‘White’ 111 Column, Padraic 16, 80 Corkery, Daniel 13, 16 Cosgrave, William 10, 11, 77–8 Coughlan, Patricia 17, 119 Croce, Benedetto 40 Cronin, Mike 12 Cuchulain 172, 203 Culler, Jonathan 22 Cullingford, Elizabeth 90, 141, 172, 185 Cumann na nGaedheal 11 Cummings, E. E. 33 Cunard, Nancy 136 Cunningham, Valentine 6, 8 Daiken, Leslie 4 Davis, Alex 16, 100–1, 108–9, 110 Deane, Seamus 9, 76 de Man, Paul 144–5 de Valera, Eamon 11, 12, 13, 25, 62, 75, 174, 184, 202 Descartes, Rene´ 122 Devlin, Denis 16–18, 20–1, 96–109 and aesthetic organicism 103, 108; and apostrophe 97–8; and Baudelaire 98; and christianity 105–8; and Clarke 108; and enjambment 99; and Jansenism 108–9; and MacNeice 100–1, 104; and Mussolini 108; and parataxis 97; and sexuality 103; and surrealism 98, 100–1; and Yeats 109, 184
Index writings ‘Argument with Justice’ 98, 109; ‘Bacchanal’ 100–1, 105; ‘Communication from the Eiffel Tower’ 98, 100, 101–3, 107; ‘Entry of Multitudes into an Eternal Mansion’ 98; ‘Est Prodest’ 106–7; ‘Gradual’ 109; Intercessions 96–109; ‘Liffey Bridge’ 105; Lough Derg 106; ‘The Statue and the Perturbed Burghers’ 105; ‘Victory of Samothrace’ 97, 104, 106 Donaghly, John Lyle 16 Eagleton, Terry 76, 127, 197, 204–5 Eliot, T. S. 18, 35, 107, 145, 151 Ellmann, Richard 186 Engelberg, Edward 181 n. 148 English, Richard 13 eugenics 172, 198, 201–2 Fallon, Brian 16 n. 37 Fallon, Padraic 16 Ferguson, Samuel 79 Fianna Fa´il 11, 12, 95, 188, 202 Field Day 9, 75 Fine Gael 13 Fogarty, Anne 103–4 Forster, E. M. 58 Foster, Roy 10–13, 62, 78, 141 Foucault, Michel 24 Franco, Francisco 13, 136 Frye, Northrop 23 Garvin, Tom 10 Gentile, Giovanni 33 Gibbon, Monk 16, 80 Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 131 Gongora, Don Luis de 97 Goodby, John 79, 89
Graham, Colin 77 Gregory, Augusta, Lady 153, 159 Grigson, Geoffrey 31 Harmon, Maurice 84 Harris, Daniel 153 Harvey, Lawrence 120–3, 132 Heaney, Seamus 28, 208 Hegel, G. W. F. 53 Heraclitus 164 Hewitt, John 4 Higgins, F. R. 16, 80, 185 Homer 148–9, 159, 161 Howes, Marjorie 174, 198, 201 Huxley, Aldous 8 Hyde, Douglas 79 Hynes, Samuel 6 imagism 81 Irish civil war 10, 78, 209 Irish economic war 12 Irish Irelandism 13, 16, 75 Irish mode verse 16 Irish republicanism 11, 78 irony 25 Iser, Wolfgang 23 Jameson, Fredric 3, 22 Jarrell, Randall 100 Jennings, Michael 94–5 Johnston, Dillon 98 Joyce, James 4, 78–9, 133, 137, 145, 167, 207 Kant, Immanuel 124 Kavanagh, Patrick 16, 62–77, 94–5 and aesthetic organicism 20, 63–4, 73–4; and apocalypse 64, 65, 71, 73–4; and Benjamin, Walter 94– 5; and Clarke 94–5; and irony 71; and metonymy 70–1; and symbolism 70; and
Kavanagh, Patrick (cont.): Yeats 69–70, 184; The Great Hunger 62–77; ‘Pygmalion’ 68 Kaun, Axel 126 Keogh, Dermot 10–12, 202 Kermode, Frank 68 Knowlson, James 122, 135–6 Lloyd, David 14–15, 20 Longley, Edna 6, 20, 31–2, 35, 45, 47, 54, 56–7, 80, 141 Longley, Michael 61 McAuliffe, John 82 McCormack, W. J. 79, 80, 83, 85, 87, 136 MacDiarmid, Hugh 18 McDiarmid, Lucy 151–2 McDonagh, Thomas 16, 79, 80–1 McDonald, Peter 36–7, 52, 149–50 MacGreevy, Thomas 16, 127, 137 McGuckian Medbh 18 MacNeice, Louis 18, 20, 24, 28–61 and aesthetics 31–3; and the Auden generation 60; and autobiography 48; and Beckett 57; and Ireland 28–30, 56–61; and temporality 37–40; and Yeats 142 writings ‘Aubade’ 44–5 ‘August’ 39–40; Autumn Journal 28, 48–55, 56–9; ‘Birmingham’ 45–7; Blind Fireworks 37; ‘Circe’ 57; ‘The Closing Album’ 29; ‘Cradle Song for Miriam’ 37; ‘The Creditor’ 32; ‘Eclogue between the Motherless’ 56; ‘An Eclogue for Christmas’ 33–6; ‘Eclogue from Iceland’ 52–3; ‘The Glacier’ 38–9; ‘Homage to
Cliche´s’ 46; ‘The Lugubrious, Salubrious Seaside’ 37; ‘Mayfly’ 37; ‘Nature Morte’ 41; ‘Plant and Phantom’ 59; ‘River in Spate’ 33, 37; ‘Train to Dublin’ 42; ‘Valediction’ 28–9, 56 Mahon, Derek 56 Mallarme´, Stephane 114, 154–5 Mandelstam, Osip 118–19 Maritain, Jacques 109–10 Marx, Karl 53, 197 Matthews, Steven 8 Mays, J. C. C. 17, 99, 101, 106, 109, 110, 137 Mellowes, Liam 78 metaphor 25, 40–3, 47, 132–3 metonymy 25 modernism 8, 16–18, 166 Moran, D. P. 13 Mukarˇovsky´, Jan 23, 26 Munck, Ronnie 12 Munich agreement 48 Mussolini, Benito 12, 108 National Guard 12 Nietzsche, Friedrich 24, 138–9 O’Connor, Frank 74 O’Connor, Rory 78 O’Connor, Thomas 77 O’Donnell, Paedar 11, 25 O’Duffy, Eoin 12, 25 O’Faola´in, Sean 62–3, 74–5, 76 O’Flaherty, Liam 74 O’Grady, Standish 79 O’Higgins, Kevin 186 organicism, aesthetic 20, 26, 63–4, 73–4, 79, 85, 91–3, 101, 108, 116, 145, 175, 199, 205 Orwell, George 58
Index Parnell, Charles Stuart 186 Paulin, Tom 36 Picasso, Pablo 34 Pound, Ezra 18, 81, 175, 207 Proust, Marcel 124–8, 134, 205 Quinn, Antoinette 71, 74 Republican Congress (1934) 13 Reynolds, Laura 97 Ricks, Christopher 120 Rimbaud, Arthur 121, 126, 128 Rudmose-Brown, Thomas 136 ruralism 16, 62–3, 184 Schopenhauer, Arthur Scott, Clive 124 Shelley, Percy Bysshe 206 Sigerson, George 79, 80–2 Skelton, Robin 7 Smith, Michael 17 Spanish civil war 13, 136 Spinoza, Baruch 209 Stallworthy, Jon 48, 56, 193 Stanfield, Paul 141, 159, 194, 201 surrealism 98, 100–1, 110 Swift, Jonathan 192 symbolism 69, 114, 118–9, 158, 178– 80, 206 synecdoche 25, 26, 63–4 Thomas, Dylan 18 Vico, Giambattista 24, 133 von Hu¨gel, Baron Friedrich 149 Wall Street crash 7 Welch, Robert 97 Wellesley, Dorothy 191 Whitaker, Thomas 206 n. 246 White, Hayden 24, 41, 62–3, 138–9 Wilde, Oscar 170
Williams, Keith 8 Woolf, Virginia 207 Yeats, Jack 137 Yeats, W. B. 18–19, 141–209 and aesthetic organicism 145, 175, 199, 205; and Auden 151; and the Auden generation 193; and ballads 176–7, 184–92; and Beckett 167; and Benjamin 173, 199, 204–6; and Blake 158; and Blueshirts 188, 190; and the bourgeoisie 173, 185, 188, 196, 209; and Byzantium 165–6; and Casement 186; and Clarke 80; and christianity 142, 148–9, 162–3; and Crazy Jane 90, 153; and Cuchulain 172, 203; and cyclicism 145, 153, 159, 180; and democracy 188–9, 192–3, 209; and Devlin 109; and dialectics 142, 161–6, 174; and the Easter Rising 171, 186; and Eliot 151; and eugenics 172, 198, 201; and Heraclitus 164; and history, philosophy of 160– 8, 192–6, 203–4; and Homer 148–9, 159, 161; and inclusive disjunction 181–3; and Irish nationalism 152, 173; and lyric sequence 144–5; and MacNeice 144; and Marx 197; and the masses 188–9, 192–3, 196–8; and modernism 166, 178, 207; and modernity 166, 178, 207; and myth 145, 147; and nationalism 152, 173, 174– 5, 181, 187–91; and negation 148, 150–2, 168, 187, 199; and O’Higgins 186; and ottava rima 144–5; and
Yeats, W. B. (cont.): Parnell 186, 187; and Pound 175; and Protestant Ascendancy 174–5, 196; and Pythagoras 168–9, 173; and refrains 185–6; and Roman Empire 164–5; and ruralism 184; and Swift 192–3; and symbolism 158, 178–80, 206; and terror 200; and tradition 158–9, 173, 178, 195, 205; and Wilde 170 writings ‘Blood and the Moon’ 203; ‘A Bronze Head’ 182; ‘Byzantium’ 172, 178–80; ‘The Choice’ 156–7, 182–3; ‘The Cold Heaven’ 157; ‘Come Gather Round Me, Parnellites’ 186; ‘Coole Park, 1929’ 153; ‘Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931’ 153–60, 183, 204; ‘A Crazed Girl’ 209; ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ 172; ‘Cuchulain Comforted’ 203; ‘The Curse of Cromwell’ 188–9; ‘Death’ 37; The Death of Cuchulain 172; ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’ 146; ‘A Full Moon in March’ 187; ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ 186; ‘The Lady’s First Song’ 184; ‘Lapis Lazuli’ 181, 193–6; ‘Leda and the Swan’ 157; ‘The Man and the Echo’ 203; ‘Meditations
in Time of Civil War’ 150; ‘Meru’ 150–1, 157, 188; ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ 203; ‘News for the Delphic Oracle’ 172; ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ 151, 154, 157, 184; ‘The O’Rahilly’ 186; ‘The Old Stone Cross’ 189; On the Boiler 201; The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 191; ‘Parnell’s Funeral’ 186–7, 204; ‘The Pilgrim’ 185; ‘The Phases of the Moon’ 147; ‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech’ 208; ‘Ribh Considers Christian Love Insufficient’ 200; ‘The Statues’ 168–73, 176, 178, 180, 181; ‘Three Marching Songs’ 190–1; ‘Three Songs to the One Burden’ 177; ‘The Statesman’s Holiday’ 177; ‘Three Songs to the Same Tune’ 188, 190–1; The Tower 144; ‘The Tower’ 154, 170, 182; ‘The Two Trees’ 144; ‘Under Ben Bulben’ 200; ‘Vacillation’ 142–50, 157, 159, 176, 183, 195; A Vision 160–8, 169, 171, 180, 193; ‘Whence Had They Come’ 169, 204; ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ 69; ‘Words for Music Perhaps’ 156