Thomas McGreevy and the
Pressure of Reality
 
Lee Jenkins 
                                          To Thomas MacGreevy Hypertext Chronology Homepage To Copyright Information Page

University College Cork

First published in The Wallace Stevens Journal 18:2 (Fall 1994) p157-169.
This text has not been re-edited for this hypertext version.


BECKETT DESCRIBED THOMAS MCGREEVY'S Poems (1934) as probably the most important contribution to post-war Irish poetry," yet McGreevy remains for the most part unknown, in Ireland as elsewhere.1 McGreevy's name will, however, be familiar to readers of the Letters of Wallace Stevens.2 After the death of Henry Church in 1947, McGreevy presumed on his friendship with the Churches to write to Stevens in 1948, and he became perhaps the most valued correspondent of Stevens' later life.

McGreevy, as Peter Brazeau and George Lensing have shown, is an interesting adjunct to Stevens studies, but is he worth attention in his own right as a poet?3 His slender output (he published only one volume of poetry) has suffered all but complete critical neglect. McGreevy's association with several of the major players of modemism—Beckett, Joyce, and Stevens—may in itself have contributed to his marginal standing. McGreevy, who spent much of the late twenties and early thirties in Paris as lecteur d'anglais at the École Normale Supérieure, was a close friend of Joyce, and he was one of the twelve contributors to the 1929 Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.4 Bair's biography of Beckett has shown the crucial importance to Beckett of his correspondence with McGreevy, whom he came to regard as his "alter ego."5 That McGreevy's name more often appears in the biographies and letters of other writers than in its own right has an effect of relegating him to the position of an amanuensis, a secondary or ancillary figure.

McGreevy's association with Stevens would seem to confirm this effect: the poets with whom Stevens engaged in sustained correspondence, such as José Rodríguez Feo, tend to be comparatively minor figures, to whom Stevens inevitably stands as literary patron. The "simplified geography" of Feo's Cuba, like McGreevy's Ireland, contributed to what has been called Stevens' "postcard imagination," his secondhand and even voyeuristic participation through his foreign correspondents in other lives and other places.6 McGreevy, for Stevens, although he is "as warm-hearted a person as any that I know," is also "mythical, theoretical, an inhabitant of the world of names," perhaps, as Ellmann remarks, "because he thought of his own world as essentially a nameless one."7 But McGreevy evidently occupied a special place in Stevens' mental geography, and it could be argued that Stevens' association with McGreevy, going beyond the postcard imagination, contributed to the "regionalism," or descriptions of places, of Stevens' late poems. In a letter to McGreevy, Stevens stated that "Whatever I have comes from Pennsylvania and Connecticut and from nowhere else. That too, no doubt, is why Ireland, green as it is, seems to me so much greener than it is, and why you seem to be the best of all my correspondents."8

It was McGreevy, of course, who prompted Stevens' poem of 1948 "Our Stars Come from Ireland." Here, Stevens freely adapts from McGreevy's poem "Recessional," where the roar of the waterfall at Engelberg "Is drowned / By a long silvery roar / From the far ends of memory": this is "The long, silvery roar / Of Mal Bay" in Co. Clare, across the Shannon estuary from McGreevy's birthplace in Tarbert, Co. Kerry.9 Brazeau, who in his examination of "The Irish Connection" argues that Stevens' poem can be read as a "meditation on the aesthetics" of McGreevy's "nostalgic art," also acknowledges Stevens' "compliment to the emotional reach of 'Recessional.'"10 In Stevens' poem, "The sound of him / Comes from a great distance and is heard" (CP 455), and McGreevy remarked that the poem "'was like talking to myself."11 In another sense, perhaps, it could be suggested that McGreevy loses his voice, as his original poem is translated into materia poetics. Stevens pays McGreevy the unusual compliment of naming him, in the subtitle to the first part of the poem, Tom McGreevy, in America, Thinks of Himself as a Boy, yet "Our Stars Come from Ireland," the most tangible product of the Stevens-McGreevy correspondence, also serves as the most tangible example of how McGreevy's name has become accessory to the names of other, major writers.

But this is a reductive interpretation both of the Stevens-McGreevy relationship and of Stevens' poem. What Richardson calls McGreevy's "religious, mystical kind of perceptiveness" that led him to conceptualize his relationship with Stevens in terms of a quasi-mystical twining is reciprocated by Stevens in "thinking of himself as a Tom of America" in "Our Stars Come from Ireland."12 McGreevy remarked, "I can only be grateful that you should write to me as if you were writing to yourself" (29 December 1948), and although McGreevy puckishly concedes Stevens' seniority—

Wallace Stevens was born at Reading, Pa., on October 2,1879, fourteen vears and 24 days before Tom McGreevy was born in Tarbert, Co. Kerry, and yet the said Tom McGreevy gives himself the airs of a wise man in writing to Wallace Stevens. He'd like Wallace Stevens to forgive him. (10 May 1948)

  —he should not be seen as an ephebe. When Stevens confessed that "I have not even begun to touch the spheres within spheres that might have been possible if, instead of devoting the principal amount of my time to making a living, I had devoted it to thought and poetry" (L 669), McGreevy could respond that "In His scheme nothing is lost and where it seems that something has been lost we have no alternative but to leave it to Him. And that we might as well do with a good grace," adding the disarming rider, "Sorry I suspect I've begun to preach, Don't mind me" (8 March 1950). It is tempting to speculate that Stevens' Irish Catholic friend played some part in Stevens' alleged deathbed conversion to Catholicism. In any event, Stevens called McGreevy "a blessed creature, sustained by a habit of almost medieval faith" (L 682) in which, if Stevens did not share, he nonetheless found an imaginative sanction. As Richardson has noted, McGreevy played his part in "how Stevens came to terms with himself in the time left to him."13

If the Irish connection proved fruitful for Stevens, the correspondence was no less important to McGreevy, who had written to Stevens in the first instance to discover if Stevens had, as Henry Church had told him, "praised his work" (L 592). McGreevy's response to Stevens' anxiety about the limitations of his achievement was deeply empathetic; he himself had remarked in an earlier letter giving Stevens permission to use "Recessional" in "Our Stars Come from Ireland," "Not to have written the poems one might have written had the Lord God had His way with one instead of organised society—but let that be. And after all you have written my poem for me" (4 August 1948). The endorsement McGreevy sought from Stevens was a retrospective one: he had all but ceased to write poetry by the forties and had, in Ellmann's phrase, "withered into success" in the art world.14 McGreevy, one imagines, relished the remark in the first letter he received from Stevens, that "a man who writes poetry never really gets away from it. He may not continue to write it as poetry, but he always remains a poet in one form or another" (L 586).

McGreevy in fact withered into considerable success. He would become Director of the National Gallery in Dublin in 1950; in 1941 he became art critic for the Irish Times, and his pioneering study of the painter Jack B. Yeats was published in 1945. A common interest in art was an obvious bond between McGreevy and Stevens, and Jack Yeats, in particular, is a recurring and seminal figure in their correspondence. On Stevens' suggestion, McGreevy sent him a copy of his Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation with a profile of the author by Yeats on the flyleaf.15 This was an apt beginning for a correspondence, one signature of which is the "passion for reality" (L 597) Stevens found in Yeats and that he adumbrated throughout the correspondence in a way germane to his own thought.16 In remarking on the imperative to reality he found in McGreevy's own poetry, Stevens proves himself one of the few sensitive and accurate critics McGreevy has had. In an early letter Stevens commented on the lines from McGreevy's poem "Homage to Hieronymus Bosch," which he would subsequently refer to and remold in the second quatrain of "Our Stars Come from Ireland":

High above the Bank of Ireland
Unearthly music sounded,
Passing westwards. (12)

Stevens noted that "one's attention is focused on the reality" in the arrangement of the lines, and he added that "It is possible to see that you were (and I hope are) a young man eager to be at the heart of his time" (L 596). As Schreibman notes, "Stevens's acute observation that these lines were rooted in reality speaks for the whole of McGreevy's corpus."17 II

"Homage to Hieronymus Bosch" was occasioned by a notorious incident in the Irish War of Independence, the hanging of Kevin Barry in 1920. Like many Irishmen, McGreevy had fought in the British Army in World War I in a bid to guarantee the rights of small nations, and he was on a special degree program for ex-officers at Trinity College Dublin at the time of the hanging. He had petitioned the Provost of Trinity, the "nursery governor" in the poem, for the eighteen-year-old Barry's reprieve:

But the nursery govemer flew up out of the well
of Saint Patrick,
Confiscated by his mistress,
And, his head bent,
Staring out over his spectacles,
And scratching the gravel furiously,
Hissed—
The words went pingg! like bullets,
Upwards past his spectacles-
Say nothing, I say, say nothing, say nothing! (12)

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast with the popular rebel ballad "Kevin Barry." McGreevy's poem, which appears in anthologies of surrealist verse,18 is titled "Homage to Hieronymus Bosch" and not "Homage to Kevin Barry": Bosch and the vehicle of surrealist allegory and the visualization of dislocated language in the words that "Lay, wriggling, one the ground" (11) dramatize the recalcitrance of contemporary Irish reality to expression within a conventional prosody. The poem is an exemplar of the tensions that inform McGreevy's work: 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. His troubled geographies are the Ireland of war and civil war, and in "De Civitate Horninem" the France of World War I and Ypres.

T'he title "De Civitate Hominem' ("of the city of men") is taken from Augustine"s "City of God," in which the ungodly city of men is contrasted with the righteousness of God. This is McGreevy's onl "war.poem." it is, as Anthony Cronin remarks, "one of the finest and lyeast known poetic products" of the Great War, and it is worthy of comparison with the work of any of McGreevy's better known soldier-poet contemporaries; except that, as Cronin goes on, crucially, to note, "it cannot be compared, being in diction and imagery a truly modern poem, which Owen's or even Rosenberg's are not."19

The morning sky glitters
Winter blue.
The earth is snow-white,
With the gleam snow-white answers to sunlight,
Save where shell-holes are new,
Black spots in the whiteness—

A Matisse ensemble. (2)

The deployment of rhyme and internal rhyme, and the "answers" in the early Part of the poem, suggest a harmony and a consonance scarred by the blackness of the shell-holes. just as the winterscape is disturbed by the intrusion of the shells, so our expectations of the conventions of the "war poem" are shattered by the following line, "A Matisse ensemble." It is Partly McGreevy's choice of Matisse here, a painter one does not readily associate with the travail of war, that disconcerts-had he chosen the Picasso, whose "'hoard / Of destructions" " may be "an image of our society" (CP 173) in Stevens' "The Man with the Blue Guitar," the arresting effect of the line would have been lessened. The poet steps back to make a Painterly review of the scene, a movement expressed in his single fine, typographically distanced from what has gone before. Throughout the poem McGreevy refracts the scene through the idiom of art, only to return to referents in the current, terrible reality to which he is witness. "Zillebeke Lake and Hooge" (in the Ypres Salient, western Belgium) "gleam" "Like the silver shoes of the model," but the pursuit of the painterly metaphor, the artist's model, is interrupted by the abrupt statement,

The model is our world,
Our bitch of a world ... (2)

—McGreevy's version perhaps of Pound's diagnosis of "a botched civilization" as an "'old bitch gone in the teeth.-" The poem examines the relations between poetry and painting and the relation of both to war: again, the poet sees himself as "The nature morte accessory," but he continues in a pun on "morte," the French term for "still life,"

Morte ...
'Tis still life that lives,
Not quick life—(3)

The poem goes on to describe in painterly terms the shooting down of an airman: "There are fleece-white flowers of death"

And he streams down
Into the white,
A delicate flame,
A stroke of orange in the moming's dress. (3)

The painterly language heightens ironically the surreal horror of the war as McGreevy perceived it; but the painterly idiom is again counterpointed by the direct speech that follows:

My sergeant says, very low, 'Holy God!
'Tis a fearful death.'

Holy God makes no reply
Yet. (3)

The assault of war on religious belief is articulated again in "Gloria de Carlos V":

When we come back from first death
To our second life here
It is no longer the same Christianity. (36)

But a snatch of belief persists and the poem concludes in an epiphany that merges religious and artistic "vision":

For a moment I may suppose,
Gleaming blue,
Silver blue,
Gold,
Rose,
And the light of the world. (36)

A number of McGreevy's poems dramatize the dilemma of religious conviction in a world seemingly abandoned by God, and the poet Brian Coffey, in his obituary tribute to McGreevy, suggests that the persistence of religious belief in his thought made McGreevy's poetry "unfashionable."20 Another reason for McGreevy's neglect may have to do with Beckett's influential division of the Irish poets of the thirties into "antiquarians and others." The "antiquarians," W B. Yeats and his followers who pursue Revivalist themes, are characterized by their "flight from self-awareness," while the somewhat shadowy "others," emergent poets like Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin, suggest a self-aware countertradition, McGreevy occupies an "independent" position between the two camps. and as an independent he has not proved easily assimilable to a literary criticism that has tended to adopt Beckett's bipartite construction of Irish poetry in the period.21 McGreevy is in many ways an independent and even a paradoxical figure. He had served in the British Army but, as his Kevin Barry poem and others show, he vehemently opposed English imperialism in Ireland; he was a Catholic nationalist, but at the same time he was a cosmopolite, a European modernist antithetical in mind to the dominant Revivalist poetics championed by Yeats. As a modernist drawn to the European imagination of Joyce he was regarded with suspicion in Eamon De Valera's Ireland, where cultural as well as economic protectionism proved hostile to continual modernist innovation.

At the same time, McGreevy diverges from Beckett and Joyce in relating to Ireland and not maintaining lifelong exile. If Beckett's 'metaphysics of absence"22 can in part be predicated upon his experience of exile, or if Ireland itself can be postulated as absence in his work, McGreevy in contrast demonstrates an imperative to witness the turbulence of contemporary Ireland. "The Six Who Were Hanged" was prompted by the execution of six Republican prisoners during the Irish War of Independence:

'Tis you shall have the golden throne—

It will come ere its time.
It will not be time,
Oh, it will not be time,
Not for silver and gold,
Not with green,
Till they all have dropped home,
Till gaol bells have clanged,
Till all six have been hanged. (7)

The italicized quotation is from James Clarence Mangan's poem "Dark Rosaleen," where Ireland "shall have the golden throne, / 'Tis you shall and reign alone."23 McGreevy counterpoints the ideal temporality of Mangan's prophecy of national liberation with the precise time of the six hangings:

There are two to be hanged at six o'clock,
Two others at seven,
And the others,
The epilogue two,
At eight. (8)

The poem is a self-reflexive exploration of the felt contingency of his witness to the distress of the "hundreds of lamenting women and girls" gathered outside Dublin's Mountjoy jail. It is less reportage than improvised polyphony—we hear snatches of the telling of the Rosary by the waiting women and we hear in asides the responses of the poet who waits with them, asking "Why am I here?"

Tired of sorrow,
My sorrow, their sorrow, all sorrow,
I go from the hanged,
From the women,
I go from the hanging;
Scarcely moved by the thought of the two to be
           hanged,

I go from the epilogue.

Morning Star, Pray for us!

What, these seven hundred years,
Has Ireland had to do
With the morning star?

And still, I too say,
Pray for us. (9)

McGreevy concludes with the witness' signature of date and place, Mountjoy, March, 1921.

In his "Nocturne of the Self-Evident Presence" McGreevy exchanges the phrases of the liturgy for a quintessentially modernist evocation of metaphysical bereavements." This is the imagist's winterscape:

Fortunate,
Being inarticulate,
The alps
Rise
In ice.... (42)

Beckett judged that in McGreevy's poetry "it is the act and not the object of perception that matters"24 and the "Nocturne" is an epiphany of pure percipience; but the distillation of temporality in epiphany, here, and the "dry, high silence" in which the poem concludes are not available in the temporal and vocal contexts of other of McGreevy's poems.

And the others
I see no immaculate feet on those pavements,
No winged forms,
Foreshortened,
As by Rubens or Domenichino,
Plashing the silvery air,
Hear no cars,
Elijah's or Apollo's
Dashing about
Up there.
I see alps, ice, stars and white starlight
In a dry, high silence. (42-43)

The crystalline intensity and imagistic spareness refuse the mediation of the painterly metaphor so often deployed by McGreevy—although the metaphor must persist in a negative deployment to guarantee his point. The detached and impersonal aesthetic of the "Nocturne" suggests the kind of poetry McGreevy might have written had his experience not been punctuated by the insistence of events. As it is, much of his poetry has an urgent contemporary subject matter—the Great War, war and civil war in Ireland, and the formation of the Irish Free State. McGreevy was indeed, as Stevens remarked, "at the heart of his time," and the imperative to reality in his work presents a particular and challenging context in which to interrogate the formal strategies of modernism. Poems such as "De Civitate Hominem," "The Six Who Were Hanged," and 'Homage to Hieronymous Bosch" suggest the need to experiment in form in rendering events too disruptive to be contained within a conventional grammar or prosody. III

Proper evaluation of McGreevy's achievement would require an extended analysis: there is his extraordinary poem about "Red" Hugh O'Donnell, "Aodh Ruadh 0 Domhnaill," and his poem-sequence "Cron Trath na nDeithe" ("The Twilight of the Gods") where he attempts a counterpart in poetry to Joyce's prose. Here McGreevy displays an eclectic Joycean voracity in cultural reference—his evocation of the Dublin of the emergent Irish Free State draws on sources in classical and Celtic myth, the Catholic liturgy, Dublin street songs, and Der Ring des Nibelungen. McGreevy's cultural contribution was itself eclectic: he published studies of Jack Yeats, Poussin, and a guide to the collection of Italian art in the National Gallery of Ireland; he translated a number of European writers, including Valéry; and as a literary critic he produced in 1931 the first extended critical study of T. S. Eliot.25

Why McGreevy stopped writing poetry is a matter for conjecture. Stevens' lengthy silence after Harmonium has been the subject of considerable speculation, but the abandonment of poetry, temporary in Stevens' case, cannot with certainty be ascribed to a single-motive cause. In the case of McGreevy, the hostile reception of his work in Ireland as well as what he called in writing to Stevens "extraneous reasons" (27 April 1948) and the demands of "organised society" may well have contributed to the frustration of a poetic talent already diffused by the eclecticism and exuberance for living26 that made him a brilliant conversationalist and, for Stevens, the best of correspondents. For Anthony Cronin, one of the few contemporary critics to echo Beckett's endorsement of his work, McGreevy is minor only in the sense that he wrote comparatively few poems: those he did write are "among the best written anywhere in English in this century."27 In the second letter he wrote to Stevens, McGreevy discussed the "capacity to understand," which is often frustrated by what he terms in"Original Sin" or "self-will." For McGreevy, Stevens was "a man of understanding" (27 April 1948). McGreevy's reputation is currently in the ascendant, and with recent renewed interest in his work he may eventually be seen, not as a poet on the margins, but as Stevens saw him, a poet "at the heart of his time." Darwin College Cambridge University Notes

1. Thomas McGreevy, Poems (London: Heinemann, 1934). Samuel Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, ed. Ruby Cohn (London: John Calder, 1983), 74. Back to Text.

2. In a letter to Stevens, McGreevy explained that while his name is registered as "McGreevy," he "let the people who prefer Mac, which obviously is more correct, use Mac" (Letter to Wallace Stevens, 8 March 1950). To remain consistent with Stevens' spelling, I have used "McGreevy" throughout. Quotations from the Thomas McGreevy papers are given with the permission of the Board of Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), and with the permission of Elizabeth Ryan and Margaret Farrington. Back to Text.

3. Peter Brazeau, "The Irish Connection: Wallace Stevens and Thomas McGreevy," The Southern Review 17 (Summer 1981): 533-41; and George Lensing, Wallace Stevens: A Poet's Growth (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1986). Back to Text.

4. Thomas McGreevy, "The Catholic Element in Work in Progress," Our Exagimination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1929),117-29. Back to Text.

5. Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), 159. Back to Text.

6. "A Word with José Rodríguez Feo," The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1954), 333. Further references will be designated parenthetically in the text as CP. The phrase "postcard imagination" is used by Alan Filreis in his Wallace Stevens and the Actual World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 207. Back to Text.

7. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1966), 738. Further references will be designated parenthetically in the text as L. Richard Elhnann, a long the riverrun, 2d ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), 206-07. Back to Text.

8. Letter to Thomas McGreevy from Wallace Stevens, 17 April 1953. TCD 8123/29. Back to Text.

9. The Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy: An Annotated Edition, ed. Susan Schreibman (Dublin: Anna Livia Press, 1991), 41. Further references to this edition will be given parenthetically in the text. I should like to acknowledge my debt to Schreibman's valuable scholarship. I should also like to thank the British Academy for the Fellowship that funds my own research. Back to Text.

10. Brazeau 536, 535. Back to Text.

11. Letter from Thomas McGreevy to Wallace Stevens, 4 August 1948. Excerpts from McGreevy's unpublished letters to Wallace Stevens are quoted with the permission of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, where they are included in the Wallace Stevens Archive, catalogued as WAS 141-80. Further references will be given by date in the text. Back to Text.

12. Joan Richardson, Wallace Stevens: The Later Years 1923-1955 (New York: William Morrow, 1988), 312. TCD 8123/46. Back to Text.

13. Richardson, 312. Back to Text.

14. Ellmann, 230. Back to Text.

15. Dublin: Victor Waddington, 1945. Back to Text.

16. '[T]he imagination is always made active by some contact with reality" (L 696); see also L 597, 608, 652. Back to Text.

17. Schreibman, xxi. Back to Text.

18. For instance, English and American Surrealist Poetry, ed. Edward B. Germain (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), 76. Back to Text.

19. Heritage Now: Irish Literature in the English Language (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon, 1982),156. Back to Text.

20. The Capuchin Annual (1968), 278. Back to Text.

21. Beckett, 74. Back to Text.

22. Seamus Deane, Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980 (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), 130. Back to Text.

23. James Clarence Mangan, Selected Poems, ed. Michael Smith (Dublin: Gallery Books, 1974),16. Back to Text.

24. Beckett, 74. Back to Text.

25. Nicolas Poussin (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1960); Some Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin: National Gallery of Ireland, 1951); Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci. Paul Valéry (London: J. Rodker, 1929); Thomas MacGreevy, Thomas Stearns. Eliot: A Study (London: Chatto & Wmdus, 1931). Back to Text.

26. See Bair, 65, and Brenda Maddox, Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, 2d ed. (London: Minerva, 1989), 314. Back to Text.

27. Cronin, 159. Back to Text.

© Copyright 1994 Lee Jenkins.

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