|Irish Poetic Modernisms: A Reappraisal
University College Cork
First published in Critical Survey 8:2
This text has not been re-edited for this hypertext version.
The current revision of our understanding of European and American modernism has implications for the study of Irish literature from the revival through the early years of the Free State. The undermining of New Criticism's narrow conception of the modernist text as a 'well-wrought urn' or manifestation of 'spatial form', and the recognition that modernism embraces a wide, and often conflicting, diversity of practitioners, theorists and propagandists, allows us, in turn, to reappraise the literature produced in Ireland from the 1880s to the 1930s, and beyond. John Wilson Foster's important 1981 essay, 'Irish Modernism', contributed to this process by observing the close connections between the Irish literary revival and certain strains or tendencies within early modernism, their shared preoccupation with 'mysticism, symbolism, millenarianism and anti-modernization'.1 In what follows, I compare the modernism of the revival, as exemplified in the work of Yeats, with that of a later generation of Irish writers, principally Thomas MacGreevy, but with reference to Samuel Beckett and Brian Coffey. With the obvious exception of Beckett, critical notice of these writers has been sporadic, though of recent years their work is beginning to be seen as of more than peripheral interest.2 They have tended to be seen as simply rejecting Yeats as an example, in favour of Joyce and European modernism; and indeed, their own critical writings tend, on occasion, to encourage such a view, as we shall see below. Robert F. Garratt, for instance, claims that 'they regarded both Yeats and revivalism as false trails', adopting 'modernist techniques, which they derived from Ulysses'.3 While these statements are not untrue, their oversimplified nature renders them misleading. The younger poets' rejection of revivalism stems from the different inflections of their modernist poetics from the modernism of Yeats. To state that these writers derived their 'techniques' from Ulysses is implicitly to claim a monologic (in this case, Joycean) understanding of modernism, to which Yeats stands opposed. In short, the opposition revivalism/modernism is a reductive and erroneous binary opposition with which to examine the response made by certain writers to the example of Yeats. By way of contrast, taking modernism as a plural entity, as a number of modernisms, a modest revisionary approach to Irish poetry in the aftermath of the revival is made possible.
Of course, to conceive of Yeats, among the revivalists, as a modernist is hardly mould-breaking, though it is surprising the extent to which his modernism is accepted by critics a priori. For there is a powerful counter-argument to this view, one made most powerfully by Harold Bloom,4 in which Yeats is interpreted as a belated romantic poet. At the risk of caricature, one can gloss Bloom's thesis as a conception of romanticism in which the would-be poet, or ephebe, wrestles with a precursor-figure, seeking to quell 'the anxiety of influence' created by the precursor's example through a powerful misreading or 'misprision' of his (rarely her) work.5 Yeats's precursors, in the English literary tradition, are Shelley and Blake, to whom Yeats devoted a great deal of critical and scholarly attention, but whose influence, according to Bloom, Yeats needed to overcome through a strong act of misreading. Bloom's capacious grasp of romanticism, and Yeats's place within that tradition, is elastic enough to embrace modernism as simply one of its moments. Its weakness, however, is that it tends to obscure some of the critical differences between Yeats and his admired precursors. By focusing on those differences it is also possible to foreground the genuinely modernist 'anxiety' in Yeats's work, an anxiety that, as we shall see, links Yeats's work, albeit indirectly, to that of later Irish modernist writers.
One point of entry into this area of Yeats's poetry is via the early poem 'The Song of the Happy Shepherd', and its relationship with the epigraph Yeats chose for the Crossways section of the Collected Poems, which the poem opens. The epigraph is a quotation, or rather a misquotation, from Blake's The Four Zoas: 'The stars are threshed, and the souls are threshed from their husks'. Blake's words, from 'Night the Ninth' of his epic poem, are rendered in Yeats's and Edwin John Ellis's 1893 edition of The Works of William Blake6 thus: 'And all the Nations were threshed out, and the stars threshed from their husks'. Yeats's alteration of Blake's line - whether we decide to treat it as an act of misprision or not - denudes it of its social and political dimension, and emphasises, by way of contrast, the individual 'soul' at the expense of collectivity. In miniature, the discrepancy between Blake's original line and Yeats's version encapsulates one difference between late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century romanticism and Yeats's palaeo-modernism. Romanticism's intense concentration on solitariness does not preclude a concomitant concern with the interaction between the poet and the public sphere. The poet is a privileged figure, yet his aspiration is to be representative; he or she aims, to paraphrase Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads, to communicate to others in a recognisable because shared language of experience. For all the hermeticism of the symbolism deployed in his prophetic book, Blake's The Four Zoas, and indeed his work as a whole, works towards a regeneration of intersubjective experience - towards the state, in both an individual and political sense, envisaged in the magnificent final plates of Jerusalem:
And from the thirty-two nations of the earth among the living creatures:
All human forms identified, even tree, metal, earth & stone. All
Human forms identified, living, going forth & returning wearied
Into the planetary lives of years, months, days & hours - reposing
And then awaking into his bosom in the life of Immortality.
And I heard the name of their emanations: they are named JERUSALEM.7
In contrast, the theme developed in Yeats's 'The Song of the Happy Shepherd' is the absence of intersubjectivity; and it is precisely this absence that identifies this fairly conventional late-nineteenth-century lyric as modernist in its preoccupations, if not in its form.
An earlier title for the poem was 'Song of the Last Arcadian', which is, perhaps, more in keeping with the poem's intense concentration on the isolation and belatedness of the persona than the Crossways title: he is the last Arcadian, deprived of a community which has vanished into an indefinite past: 'The woods of Arcady are dead,/ And over is their antique joy . . .'.8 The Arcadian shepherd's isolated predicament certainly looks back to the romantic solitary; and there is more than an echo of Blake in the extent to which the persona inveighs against the soullessness of empiricism, the 'Grey Truth' that has supplanted poetic truth. However, the poem's romantic emphasis on the individual's specificity - the claim that 'there is no truth/ Saving in thine own heart' - also strikes a modernist note to the extent that the speaker's isolation is a consequence of his awareness of the problematic relationship between poet (or singer) and a public sphere. The Arcadian's advice to the reader is premised on the belief that the cultural and the social no longer possess any meaningful contact with one another in a lifeworld in which, it would seem, intersubjective communication has ceased:
Go gather by the humming sea
Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell,
And to its lips thy story tell,
And they thy comforters will be,
Rewording in melodious guile
Thy fretful words a little while,
Till they shall singing fade in ruth
And die a pearly brotherhood;
For words alone are certain good:
Sing, then, for this is also sooth.
The penultimate line of this passage marks a retreat into a private language, recourse to which derives from the speaker's despair over the role of poetry after Arcady has gone. His linguistic turn marks a break with romanticism's moving aspirations for poetry to function within the public sphere. Therefore, if the poem still feebly emits a properly romantic concern with the uniqueness of the poetic subject, missing from Yeats's text is any faith in the communicative possibilities of poetry. To put this another way, for all Yeats's explicit admiration for Shelley, a poem like 'The Song of the Happy Shepherd' articulates an antithetical claim to that of The Defence of Poetry: Yeats's last Arcadian does not believe that the poet can act as an 'unacknowledged legislator' for the social sphere, he is simply unacknowledged.
In the light of the above, Yeats's early lyric can be seen as closer, in its implications for the role of art, to Baudelaire's aesthetic formulations of the mid-nineteenth century than to those of the English high romantics half a century before. Baudelaire's own version of symbolism, in which the material, historically embedded word grants the apprehension of a spiritual realm is, of course, related to high romantic symbolism. However, due to the specific historical pressures on Baudelaire (the 1848 revolutions), and his response to those pressures, Baudelairean symbolism is deeply imbued with a rejection of any correspondence of the poetic and the political. Instead, it postulates a correspondence between the poetic word, the symbol, and a realm that transcends the world of telegrams and anger (and Parisian barricades). In Raymond Williams's words, 'this form of poetic revelation involved a fusion of present synaesthetic experience with the recovery of a nameable, tangible past which was yet "beyond" or "outside" time'.9 For the young Yeats, that 'nameable' past outside' temporality is called Arcady, and his last Arcadian confronts a dismal modernity which is back-dated, as it were, to a point at which it embraces historical time. The only solace lies in words divorced from communicative action with other inhabitants of this landscape: in symbols alone are certain good.
Thus, prior to the poetry he wrote under the direct influence of French Symbolism (through the mediation of Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, 1899), Yeats's work evinces the symbolist abstention from the social as developed from Baudelaire to Mallarmé and Verlaine. It is a desire for a 'beyond' which Yeats, late in his life, described to Dorothy Wellesley as 'the road I & others of my time went for certain furlongs. It is not the way I go now but one of the legitimate roads'.10 Therefore, Stan Smith's contention that Yeats's modernism can be dated from 1910, from the poems collected in The Green Helmet, 'which mark the major breakthrough in his style, heralding a new, tough, argumentative dialogism ... rather than retreating to the twilight's glimmer',11 is open to question. The changes in Yeats's style, signalled by this collection, mark a shift of direction within a poetic already coloured by modernism in its symbolist form.
The responses made by Irish poets of the mid-century to Yeats's developed modernism are frequently ambivalent, on occasion highly sceptical. Writers as diverse as Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke and Samuel Beckett confronted, and sought to evade, the influence of Yeats through a variety of strategies. Kavanagh's studied dismissal of Yeats as a Victorian, whose idealised evocations of an imaginary Ireland should be read as the target of Kavanagh's mature realism in The Great Hunger and elsewhere, constitutes a powerful riposte to the literary revival as a whole, at least as Kavanagh understood it. In Kavanagh's words:
Yes, Yeats, it was damn easy for you protected
By the middle classes and the Big Houses
To talk about the sixty-year old public protected
Man sheltered by the dim Victorian Muses.12
Austin Clarke's lifelong attempts to be free from the shadow the older poet's work cast over his poetic and dramatic endeavours are, arguably, more complex and more interesting than Kavanagh's overt rejection of revivalism. From his experiments with celto-romanesque material in Pilgrimage as a possible alternative to Yeats's early Celticism, through the intense dialogues with Yeats in The Echo at Coole and Other Poems, to the sexual exuberance of his late poem, Tiresias, Clarke's texts inscribe themselves within the margins of Yeats's, paradoxically remaining parasitical in their very defence of their own autonomy.13
However, few have been so scathing in their condemnation of Yeats as Brian Coffey, a friend and contemporary of Beckett, who described Yeats as 'A power-hungry seducer who gathered a right gang of praisers around him, and who blocked off the kind of talent he didn't like'.14 In a draft of Coffey's long poem Missouri Sequence (1962) Coffey's antipathy to Yeats is less outspoken, but still present: Yeats is admitted to be 'a great poet', but one 'who failed/ when he advised our Irish poets'.15 Coffey's antagonism is prefigured in Beckett's better-known discussion of the influence of Yeats on younger poets in his article 'Recent Irish Poetry', first published in The Bookman in 1934. Beckett directs his scorn at those poets he views as 'antiquarians', pale imitators of Yeats, among whom he numbers F. R. Higgins, Monk Gibbon and - somewhat over-hastily - Austin Clarke. All continue to peddle, in Beckett's words, 'the Ossianic goods'; that is, their work draws upon a body of conventional' tropes and themes central to the literary revival's cultural nationalism: 'Oisin, Cuchulain, Maeve, Tir-nanog, the Táin Bo Cuailgne, Yoga [?], the Crone of Beare - segment after segment of cut-and-dried sanctity and loveliness'.16 David Lloyd has argued that Beckett's essay evinces an awareness that Irish cultural nationalism, from its inception in the early nineteenth century, is unable to free itself from a model of national identity that is dependent upon the imperial model to which, in theory, it is diametrically opposed. The nationalist writer, from the Young Irelanders to the revivalists, is 'representative of ... the racial spirit' which, though submerged, almost lost, will be brought to realisation through the genuinely national author:
Paradoxically, in adopting such a model of cultural identification, whose complement is the development through literature of a feeling of nationality in the citizen, Irish nationalists reproduce in their very opposition to the Empire a narrative of universal development which is fundamental to the legitimation of imperialism.17
Even if one rejects Lloyd's further claim - that Beckett's writings approach 'the threshold of another possible language within which a post-colonial subjectivity might begin to find articulation' (p. 56) -- it still holds that, as early as 1934, Beckett is fully cognisant that for an aesthetic modernism the relationship between the cultural and the social spheres is by no means unproblematic. Hence his essay's emphasis on a 'rupture of the lines of communication', a 'breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook' (p. 70)..These reflections can be read as an acknowledgement that art's representative status in nationalist aesthetics, that which Lloyd refers to as its 'organic connection with the nation' (p. 79), is highly questionable ' Scored through Beckett's essay, in other words, is a sense that the mimetic - in a broad sense - quality of the national artwork is illusory. Yeats's imitators unself consciously consider that the images of Ireland proffered in their poetry provide an adequate representation of an essential Irishness; that their poetry touches and engages with a racial 'reality' that pre-exists the rhetorical resources of their poetry.
However, as the above discussion of Yeats's 'The Song of the Happy Shepherd' should suggest, Yeats's cultural nationalism is more complex than Beckett's essay implies. As we have seen, from early on Yeats's work registers its own sense of a 'rupture of the lines of communication', and his subsequent development as a poet can be seen as an attempt to negotiate a relationship between the modernist artwork and the representative national text. It is an attempt which, by the 1920s and 1930s, Yeats finds untenable: 'The book of the people' that 'Coole and Ballylee, 1931' (p. 295) envisages as the revivalist variant on Le Livre remains unwritten. Incoherently and movingly Yeats projects the unwritten Anglo-Irish epic back into the past:
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
(p. 295; and see Lloyd, pp. 67-8)
In this context, Homi Bhabha's distinction between 'cultural diversity' and 'cultural difference' is of great relevance to understanding the nationalist dimension of Yeats's modernism. Cultural diversity entails the 'recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs', and can give rise to either a liberal tolerance of 'multiculturalism' or a 'radical rhetoric' of 'unique collective identity'. Cultural difference, in contrast, emphasises the instability of the subject's identification with a cultural tradition and community due to its 'articulation of new cultural demands, meanings, strategies in the political present':
The enunciation of cultural difference problematizes the binary division of past and present, tradition and modernity, at the level of cultural representation and its authoritative address. It is the problem of how, in signifying the present, something comes to be repeated, relocated and translated in the name of tradition, in the guise of a pastness that is not necessarily a faithful sign of historical memory but a strategy of representing authority in terms of the artifice of the archaic.18
Bhabha's notion of the 'hybridity' of culture is underscored by his belief that tradition only grants a limited sense of identity for the colonised or dominated. In restaging (Bhabha's term) tradition in the present the past is reinscribed, 'appropriated, translated, rehistoricized and read anew' (Bhabha, p. 37). Beckett's antiquarians clearly resist such a self-conscious restaging. In Yeat's case, an over-riding essentialism ('We Irish') pre-empts any putatively postmodern conception of cultural hybridity and, by way of contrast, places great weight on the significance of tradition in the formation of national 'collective identity'. This aspect of Yeats's thought, unsurprisingly, drew Coffey's ire:
One remembers that Yeats expressed himself as wishing to 'preserve that which is living and help our two Irelands, Gaelic Ireland and AngIo-Ireland, so to unite that neither shall lose its pride'. But then we should have to go well back behind the seventh century, back as far as maybe never to find our aboriginals and their instinctively habitual modes of action and being. All the while, too, we should be forgetting how fruitless paired categories (Gaelic with Anglo-Irish, Protestant with Catholic, insular with missionary, etc.) are for thinking social and political reality with, not to mention poetic reality.19
Here Coffey notes Yeats's desire to root his poetry in, and find an 'organic connection with', a sense of national identity, an identity out of kilter with the realities of a post-colonial social formation. Yeats's faith in tradition is a faith that, in 'The Municipal Gallery Re-visited', he says united himself, Synge and Lady Gregory:
All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.
We three alone in modern times had brought
Everything down to that sole test again,
Dream of the noble and the beggarman.
Of course, as Coffey comments, Yeats's vision of a 'living' Ireland as Gaelic and Anglo-Irish, in which noble and beggarman function as privileged figures, is a wholly inadequate prism through which to view the 'social and political reality' of modern Ireland. Yeats's expressed wish to 'unite' a divided society, however, arguably reveals a more fundamental urge to overcome the dissociation of cultural and political spheres that so much of his verse and prose implies is a given in 'modern times'. Therefore, for all the disparities between the poetic projects of Yeats, Beckett and Coffey, all three need to be perceived in the context of European modernism, and specifically in the context of certain aesthetic presuppositions that, ultimately, derive from French nineteenth-century poetry.
Space forbids a detailed discrimination between the modernist projects of Yeats and some of his avant-garde successors in the 1920s and 1930s.20 I will thus confine myself to a brief consideration of the poetry of Thomas MacGreevy. MacGreevy's friend and confidant, Beckett, identified MacGreevy's poetry as concerned with 'the act and not the o bject of perception': 'Mr MacGreevy is an existentialist in verse, the Titchener of the modern lyric' (p. 74). In support of this claim, Beckett adduces the four line poem 'Nocturne':
I labour in a barren place,
Alone, self-conscious, frightened, blundering;
Far away, stars wheeling in space,
About my feet, earth voices whispering.21
Beckett's reflections on MacGreevy seem justified by his choice of text to the extent that the reaction of the poem's speaker to his predicament certainly evinces the existential angst of being 'thrown' into the- world. However, the being-in-the-world that this short lyric examines is rooted in a specific historical moment, as well as suggesting a given of human existence. MacGreevy served in the British Army during the First World War, and was twice wounded at the Somme. The poem's epigraph, which Beckett does not quote, refers to the fate of a fellow officer of MacGreevy in the Royal Field Artillery: 'To Geoffrey England Taylor, 2nd Lieutenant, R. F. A. "Died of wounds" '; and the lyric is placed in a section of MacGreevy's Poems (1934) headed '1917-1918' (which includes one other poem, 'De Civitate Hominum'). These framing elements to the quatrain turn the 'barren place' of the opening line into a warscape; the bewildered actions suggest the fear of the front-line soldier; while the 'earth voices whispering', with which the poem closes, possess intimations of possible death. The poem lacks the mimeticism that characterises the more famous war-poetry of Owen in that its reference to World War I is oblique. But reference it makes, and in this respect the poem is indicative of MacGreevy's poetry, as Lee Jenkins has observed: 'his poetry is highly experimental, reflecting the emergent technical innovations of European modernism, and at the same time his poems very often have an urgent and specific subject matter',22 often conflict in France or Ireland. The obliquity of MacGreevy's allusions to contemporary events combined with the urgency and intensity of their presence is the signature of his poetry. Its origins lie in his experience of war, which, in his 1931 monograph on Richard Aldington, he claimed prevented combatants from writing poetry too abstract, 'too Mallarméan':
No poet who went through the war can go back to that ... The effect of the war on Aldington and [Jean] Lurçat has been to bring their work closer to objective reality, but I do not think there is any immediate danger of their technical point of departure is not realistic, and in the second place returning to the undiscriminating realism of the nineteenth century, because in the first place the principal reality that has been impelling them to expression is so vast and terrible to look back on, that, grasping its full tragic significance as they slowly and sensitively and thoughtfully have done, they cannot, in the nature of things, fall into the mere pathetic of, say, Monet or Zola.23
In this passage MacGreevy rejects the ideal of Mallarmé's symbolism, the desire to wrest language free from its referential function, yet simultaneously resists naturalism's fidelity to empirical reality. In this respect, MacGreevy prefigures Coffey's complex negotiations with Mallarm6 from a position influenced by the aesthetic theories of Jacques Maritain. Coffey also viewed the 'Mallarmean ivory tower' (MacGreevy, Richard Aldington, p. 31) with suspicion, arguing that it marked an utter disengagement of art from the social sphere, and an abrogation of the 'humanity' of the artist in its quest for a language divorced from its necessarily human context. As Coffey bluntly states in Missouri Sequence: 'This much is certain: . . . he [i.e., the poet] must not attempt escape/ from here and now'.24 However, in line with Beckett's pronouncements in 'Recent Irish Poetry', MacGreevy is clearly aware that a 'rupture of the lines of communication' has rendered both realist and naturalist conceptions of a transparent relationship between sign and referent unworkable. Without belittling the horror of MacGreevy's experiences during the war, the impossibility of adequately representing it in its totality is at one with the general predicament of modernist writers disabused of realist aspirations (including Yeats). Modernist writers find themselves, in Fredric Jameson's words, in 'a historical situation in which the truth of our social life as a whole . . . is increasingly irreconcilable with the aesthetic quality of language or of individual expression'.25 The war is a 'terrible' revelation of art's inability to map an 'objective reality' through the resources of a shared literary language; and yet the omnipresence of that alienated object world presses all the more acutely on the artist. The war, in other words, is an event that throws into relief a more diffuse sense of a crisis in the representational capacity of art, of which Beckett's emphasis on 'breakdown' and 'rupture' is to be seen as a late example.
'Crón Tráth na nDéithe', first published in transition in 1929, is MacGreevy's most sustained attempt to render an 'objective reality' -- in this case, Dublin in the aftermath of civil war - in a non-realist fashion. On first reading, the poem seems overly derivative of Eliot's The Waste Land (which MacGreevy greatly admired) in its citations from popular and 'high' culture, montage effects, fragmentation of form, etc. However, the poem can equally be read as a reply to a quality of Eliot's work which, in Richard Aldington, MacGreevy later formulated as its occasional lapse into a remote manner'of expression (p. 31). The fashion in which MacGreevy's poem seeks to impress upon its reader the immediacy or 'closeness' of its speaker's experiences of the cab-drive through the shattered streets is illustrated by the opening section of the poem:
Ter-ot. Stumble. Clock-clock, clock-clock! Quadrupedante, etcetera,
And heavy turning wheels of lurching cab
On midnight streets of Dublin shiny in the rain!
No trams squirt wide the liquid mud at this hour.
The dark-and-light-engulfing box
Wheels through the wetness
From empty healthy air in Mayo
To Dublin's stale voluptuousness
Such rutty, muddy streets to clock, clock-clock on, horse!
The first line's onomatopoeic quality is followed, in the second, by a reference, as Susan Schreibman has noted, to the eighth book of Virgil's Aeneid: 'quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum', a line 'in which the harsh consonants and dactyls convey the sound of galloping' (MacGreevy, Poems, p. 110). MacGreevy's allusion to the Latin epic is, in part, a literary joke, but it also bears upon the relationship of language to 'objective reality' in his work. Onomatopoeia is, of course, an instance of language in which some quality of the object or event referred to is said to be evoked by the sound of the signs themselves. As such, it is a figure that grants the powerful illusion of being 'closer' to that which it denotes than other sign-structures.26 MacGreevy's truncated allusion to Virgil's great example of this literary effect - 'Quadrupedante, etcetera' - foregrounds the extent to which his poem deploys onomatopoeia in the service of a non-realist poetic which is difficult to construe in New Critical terms (or that of spatial form'). In this respect, MacGreevy holds what Charles Altieri calls a presentational theory' of poetry; that is, his poetry embodies the poet's desire to articulate his or her emotions in an artwork that is not a straightforward 'copy' of the non-linguistic world, but a 'purposive structuring of experience'.27 Hence, the centrality to 'Crón Tráth na nDéithe' (and to MacGreevy's work as a whole) of the speaker, whose reactions hold the poem together as a single narrative in a manner clearly distinct from Eliot's use of disjointed personae and settings in The Waste Land. MacGreevy's method of 'structuring' experience is apparent in a passage such as the following, from section I of the poem:
Wrecks wetly mouldering under rain,
You cannot pick up the
But, oh, Phoenicians, who on blood-red seas
Come sailing to the Galerie des Glaces
And you, gombeenmen
On blue hills of office
No man hath greater lunacy than this.
The damaged buildings in the speaker's immediate range of vision give way to a recollection of the propaganda used to encourage Irish Catholics to enlist in the British Army in World War 1. This is succeeded by a juxtaposition of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles with the doubtful practices of government officials, and concludes with a bitter rewriting of St John. These are all fragments or 'pieces' of a totality, a socio-political context, which cannot be grasped directly - it is too 'vast and terrible' - but can be structured only according to an individual's specific experience and systems of belief. This manner of registering history, as wholly subjectivised, is comparable with the despair articulated by Yeats's expropriated Arcadian, despite the gulf separating the two texts in terms of formal influences. MacGreevy's poem differs from Yeats's, however, in its implicit refusal to entertain the consolations of a private poetic, language ('In words alone are certain good'). In comparing these two very different texts - texts separated by over thirty years - we can see the presence of certain strains of what we now think of as modernism: anxiety over the social function of art; the collapse of realist conceptions of thought and language; alienation from an object world that cannot be transcended. fully (note that the Arcadian speaks of, but doesn't experience transcendence through language) - the predicament, in short, inherited by the post-Baudelairean poet.
In conclusion, there are important continuities between the revival's palaeo-modernism and the neo-modernism of writers who, in varying degrees, wrote out of an intense dissatisfaction with the literary achievements of their predecessors. In revising our conception of the nature of Irish poetry in this century it is necessary to identify these overlooked connections, and, in so doing, to move beyond the partial accounts of the involuted currents of modernist writing in Ireland that have dominated much of the discussion to date.28 Notes
1 John Wilson Foster, Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture (Dublin: Lilliput, 1991), p. 55. Foster appears to consider the romantic nationalism of the revival as at odds with its modernist dimension. However, it is surely time to reconsider modernism's supposed 'internationalism'. Nationalism and/or regionalism are central to many writers we commonly think of as modernist: Basil Bunting and David Jones, for example. Foster is also ambivalent about the importance of spatial form -- 'the autonomy of the Modernist fictive structure' (p. 56) -- to a definition of modernism. It is central to a particular kind of modernism, that which received canonical formulation in the writings of the New Critics. Back to text.
2 The most recent contribution to the growing body of work on these poets, and on Beckett as poet, is Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995). Back to text.
3 Robert F. Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 94, 96. Back to text.
4 See Harold Bloom, Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), especially chapters 4 and 5. Back to text.
5 This theory is elaborated most fully in Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973). A useful introduction to, and critique of, Bloom's work is Graham Allen's Harold Bloom: A Poetics of Conflict (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994). Back to text.
6 Published in London by Bernard Quaritch. Back to text.
7 William Blake, Jerusalem, pls 98-9, The Complete Poems, ed. W. H. Stevenson (London: Longman, 1971), pp. 840-1. Back to text.
8 W. B. Yeats, The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Dent, 1990), p. 33. Back to text.
9 Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, ed. Tony Pinkney (London: Verso, 1989), p. 71. Back to text.
10 Quoted in The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, vol. 1, 1865-95, eds John Kelly and Eric Domville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 381. In the same letter Yeats states that Mallarmé 'escapes from history'. The full letter awaits its place in the complete edition of Yeats's letters. Back to text.
11 Stan Smith, The Origins of Modernism: Eliot, Pound, Yeats and the Rhetorics of Renewal (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), p. 208. Smith is contesting the common assumption that Pound's influence on Yeats resulted in the latter 'becoming' a modernist in the poems collected in Responsibilities (1914). Back to text.
12 Patrick Kavanagh, 'Yeats', The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (Newbridge: The Goldsmith Press, 1984), p. 349. Back to text.
13 A point elaborated upon by Edna Longley in a lecture delivered to the Yeats Summer School, Sligo, 7 August 1995. Back to text.
14 Quoted in Michael Smith, 'Irish Poetry Since Yeats: Notes Towards a Corrected History', Denver Quarterly, 5 (1971), 7. Back to text.
15 Brian Coffey, letter to Thomas MacGreevy, 11 January 1953, Thomas MacGreevy Papers, Trinity College, Dublin, MS 8110/41. Back to text.
16 Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983), pp. 70-1. Back to text.
17 David Lloyd, Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (Dublin: Lilliput, 1993), p. 46. Back to text.
18 Homi Bhabha, The Locations of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 34-5; emphasis mine. Back to text.
19 Brian Coffey, 'A Note on Rat Island', University Review (Dublin), 3:8 (1966), 25-6. Back to text.
20 In the present context, the most rewarding essay to consult with regard to Beckett is Patricia Coughlan, "'The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves": Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry', in Coughlan and Davis, pp. 173-208. Coffey's modernism is examined in my "'Poetry is Ontology": Brian Coffey's Poetics', in Coughlan and Davis, pp. 150-72. Back to text.
21 Thomas MacGreevy, Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy: An Annotated Edition, ed. Susan Shreibman (Dublin: Anna Livia, 1991), p. 1. Schreibman dates the poem late 1928 or early 1929. Back to text.
22 Lee Jenkins, 'Thomas MacGreevy and the Pressure of Reality', The Wallace Stevens Journal, 18:2 (1994), 149-50. Back to text.
23 Thomas MacGreevy, Richard Aldington: An Englishman, Dolphin Books, no. 10 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1931), pp. 31-2. Back to text.
24 Brian Coffey, Poems and Versions 1929-1990 (Dublin: Dedalus, 1991), p. 81. See also Coffey's comments on the 'humanity' of poetry and the dangers of Mallarmé's poetic in 'Brian Coffey, An Interview by Parkman Howe', Eire-Ireland, 13:1 (1978), 113-23. Back to text.
25 Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971-1986, vol. 2, The Syntax of History (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 131. Back to text.
26 The debate over onomatopoeia has tended to concur that the meaning of the utterance is as important to its effect as is the sound - such at least is the conclusion reached by such influential commentators as John Crowe Ransom and William Empson. Saussure famously held that the relationship between sound and sense in onomatopoeic words is as arbitrary as it is for any other sign. For a scrupulous interrogation of this whole issue see Peter Makin, Basil Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), chapter 12 and Appendices 5(a) and 5(b). Back to text.
27 Charles Altieri, 'The Poem as Act: A Way to Reconcile Presentational and Mimetic Theories of Literature', Iowa Review, 6 (1975), 111. Back to text.
28 I am thinking in
particular of Edna Longley's inability to see the formal
innovativeness of, for example, MacGreevy's and Coffey's work.
Her claim that Coffey's work is 'pastiche Eliot' is made on the
strength of a brief quotation from one of the earliest poems
preserved in his Poems and Versions, and thus safely
ignores his major sequences from the 1960s and 1970s, the poems
on which his reputation will ultimately rest. The obverse of this
form of critical meanspiritedness is to be found in Michael
Smith's extreme valorisation of Coffey and MacGreevy, among
others, by means of an over-reductive conception of 'revivalism'
and its supposed opposite, 'cosmopolitanism'. See Edna Longley, The
Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland
(Newcastle: Bloodaxe), pp. 203-4; and the article by Michael
Smith cited in note 14. Back
© Copyright 1996 Alex Davis.