Reflections on Twentieth-Century
There is no Irish literature without history. There is no Irish history without literature. Our understanding of twentieth-century Ireland is inextricably cultural. Evidence of this surrounds you in the exhibition before you, the published works, letters, rarities, and playbills all imprinted by the tumult of decades that saw Ireland achieve independence in 1922. The struggle towards that moment registers in Yeats and Shaw. Its aftermath shadows Beckett and Heaney. Each of these writers tried to make sense of his own moment; each was fugitive—imaginatively and, at times, physically—from the pressure of politics, Yeats taking to his tower during the Irish Civil War, Heaney moving south of the border to Wicklow during the Northern Troubles. No surprise, then, that each writer
W. B. Yeats's On the Boiler (1938).
Checklist no. 13. experimented with fugitive forms, the strength of this exhibition the depth and quality of its printed editions and its ephemera. Think, before you read further, of Yeats's On the Boiler, one of only about four originals in existence, once owned by the poet's son, Michael, or Heaney's Night Drive, possibly unique in the form we have it, and marvel at the miracle that books, like individuals, survive at all. Yeats, still, is the major figure of modern Irish literature; his birth in 1867 is one point of inauguration for a literary renaissance that produced, or provoked, John Millington Synge, James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, and Samuel Beckett. Their influence weighs on those to follow, Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon among them. It is no coincidence that the ascent of Yeats's powers coincided with a political revival of Irish nationalism after the devastation of the famine in the late 1840s—a devastation that extended beyond the ravaged fields of the western island to Dublin's public sphere, a creeping paralysis that Joyce catches so famously in Dubliners, the drunks and the depressed raising their glasses to the ghost of Charles Parnell, the aristocrat who
Samuel Beckett's Whoroscope (1931).
Checklist no. 29. promised to unite the country, undone by his adultery. That melancholy dispersed with the explosive events after 1916, the beginning of a revolution that would end in 1922 with Ireland's partial secession from the British Empire and the threat, tragically realized, of civil war. And that movement's first leader? Patrick Pearse, schoolteacher and poet, executed for the violent theatricality of his active rhetoric. Throughout the fight for independence, the breaking of the link with Britain after long centuries of struggle, the civil war, emigration, the Northern Troubles, and last—most miraculous of all—the material transformation of the Celtic Tiger, Irish art has committed itself to such performative dissent. And here, I think, begins its present connection to the world, an openness to translation that derives from local adaptability. The poet Patrick Kavanagh described this relationship as between the Parish and the Universe, the known the first step to the unknown, the rub of what you hold a prompt to imagination's flight, a slow burn, a step into the dark. If that parish, for argument's sake, is Ireland, a palette of inevitable images comes to mind: the green, rolling hills; the sea; the people. These images, not coincidentally, proceed from a colonial sense of Ireland as a place outside time, a Celtic otherworld inhabited by a race only loosely harnessed by logic. Ironically, this super-saturation of received characteristics has made Irish writers seem familiar to a global audience, an audience established at least since the nineteenth century, Dion Boucicault's play The Colleen Bawn running to great success in New York, the stage sets bringing Killarney's lakes to Broadway. The point, simply, is that embedded within the stock images of Ireland and its landscape, there are traces, hints of modernity's pressure on the local population, the traditional gifts of speech and poetry, the oral traditions that reach back into far time, squeezed, in their way, into the international trade of literature. And this, to speak to our present exhibition, culminates in the entry by Yeats, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney to the prestigious membership of the Nobel Prize for Literature. These writers' work is collected the world over, their novels, poems, and plays read, remembered, and performed from Belfast to Beijing. This was not always so. When Yeats heard he had won from the editor of the Irish Times, his first response—having been poor for so long—was to ask how much the prize was worth. Shaw called it "a hideous calamity...almost as bad as my 70th birthday." Beckett did not attend the award ceremony and hid from the press in a Tunisian village. And while Öesten Sjöestrand introduced Seamus Heaney by saying that "poetry can never be reduced to a political, historical or moral issue," it seems inescapable that Ireland's history—political and cultural—has factored in the writing, and so the recognition, of its artists. Yeats's and Shaw's prizes were won in 1923 and 1925. Ireland gained independence from the British Empire in 1922. Seamus Heaney won his prize in 1995. The Northern Irish Peace Process, under way since early that decade, was to culminate in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which also produced two Nobel Peace laureates the same year: the politicians John Hume and David Trimble.
Samuel Beckett's En attendant Godot (1952).
Checklist no. 35. Only Beckett, perhaps, stands outside this web, refusing even to allow the Irish ambassador to accept the prize for him in absentia. Beckett had his reasons. James Joyce, his early inspiration, never won the Nobel and was never reconciled to Ireland after independence, continuing to live in Paris despite invitations to return, warning an Irish cabinet minister that a nomination would not win Joyce the prize and would get the politician sacked. Joyce was one of Beckett's formative influences, as you can read in Beckett's first separately published work, Whoroscope, astrology and prostitution two parts of a play on words that ironizes art's capacity to make things better. The parodic modernisms of Joyce and Beckett find their historical parallel in the new Irish state's struggle towards coherence, the limited hopes of a fragile peace marked and mocked. Other, greater, dislocations followed, Beckett surviving France in the Second World War, a fallen world reflected in his most famous work, En attendant Godot (a play you more likely know as Waiting for Godot), first produced in Paris's Théâtre de Babylone during the 1952–53 season. Working between two languages, in Beckett's case between French and English, is a hidden connection to an Irish culture that experienced its own linguistic transition between Irish and English, a loss devastating still, for all the bitter gifts it gave in compensation. Beckett, like Yeats and Shaw, had no deep knowledge of the Irish language. Their Hiberno-English bears its imprint nonetheless, an association Heaney has long mined in his explorations of the buried significance of place name and local phrase. Thinking of this past, of the Elizabethan plantations, Cromwell, his brutalities, the famine, the failed risings, brings us back to the place and situation of an Irish writing that has always committed itself to the moment. Here, history is instructive not of the past but of the future, a persisting resistance one register of Irish writing's wider speech, its vocabulary of imaginative restoration. Such active memory marked William Butler Yeats's Nobel acceptance speech, Yeats remembering his fellow artists, Lady Gregory and Synge, who established the Abbey Theatre, a national forum for the reinvention of Irish identity. Synge, long dead, haunted Yeats as he spoke, the poet's memory returning to their early meeting in Paris, their commitment to the Aran Islands off Galway's coast. Standing in Stockholm, Yeats found it "too soon yet to say what will come to us from the melodrama and tragedy of the last four years.... Audiences grow thin when there is firing in the streets. We have, however, survived so much that I believe in our luck." Perseverance is key to Yeats, as it is to all writing, of whatever tradition.
George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan (1924).
Checklist no. 26. Shaw made this point differently in Saint Joan, the play that was to win him the 1925 prize. The subject, a fifteenth-century heroine burned at the stake as a heretic, seems, at first, an odd one. Shaw, as always, clarifies his choice in his, as always, lengthy preface, portraying Joan of Arc as an individual so extraordinary as to be intolerable by society, whatever her virtues. To Shaw, if we do not allow such dissidence, and do not have "a well-informed sense of the value of originality, individuality, and eccentricity, the result will be apparent stagnation covering a repression of evolutionary forces which will eventually explode with extravagant and probably destructive violence." What else was he thinking of here but Ireland after 1916, the city streets destroyed in the Easter Rising, one of its martyrs, Roger Casement, mentioned in Shaw's preface, one of its participants, Constance Markiewicz, later acting the role of Joan in his play? Decades later, the proximity between writing and politics was still current to Seamus Heaney, who thought of Yeats as he stood before the Swedish Academy. Heaney's speech, "Crediting Poetry," argues for the imagination as a pivot of civility, art the means by which to shape a new world of community from the broken barbarity of the old. So Heaney invokes Yeats as evidence that the creative intellect survives destruction, if only in fragments, quoting the great refrain from "Meditations in Time of Civil War": The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Heaney opened himself to the present world of disturbance in his speech, reminding his audience of the "actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth." The dead weight of conflict, ever shifting, placed a weight on Heaney such that he only later opened his eyes "to make space...for the marvellous as well as for the murderous." The image he took was of St. Kevin, a monk with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross at Glendalough. A blackbird landed in St. Kevin's hand, which he kept open until a nest was made and fledglings were hatched and left. To Heaney, the image speaks "true to life if subversive of common sense," poetry, like St. Kevin, a source of refuge and renewal. This commitment speaks to readers; it pledges the imagination to hold, like the twigs of St. Kevin's nest, sharp, broken, pliable elements that make for a viable, provisional place in the world. There are no absolute positions, but sets of responses made in the moment, under duress. Such adaptability is hard learned. Heaney, for one, spent years playing with another Irish myth, that of Sweeney, the warrior cursed into the shape of a bird. Sweeney is an image of the poet caught between worlds, the delight of the air experienced in isolation. Which takes me back to Beckett. Nowhere in literature is the line between private and public drawn so taut, or voiced with so much humorous bitterness, as in Beckett, Waiting for Godot a running poetry of mental dislocation. Lucky: ... in the plains in the mountains in the seas by the rivers running water running fire the air is the same and then the earth namely the air and then the earth in the great cold the great dark the air and the earth abode of stones in the great cold alas alas.... If warmth is to be found in the stones, it is caught in the books and manuscripts you look at in this exhibition: in Yeats's fugitive first work, Mosada; in the typed prompt copy of Shaw's The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet; in the dual-language editions of Beckett; in Heaney's Eleven Poems, published for a long-forgotten Queen's University Belfast Festival, Heaney declaring, "I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing." Those echoes found their way around the world. Some, attuned, heard them early, Henry Pearson among them, his artist's sense keen, sharp, true. Now, as you look at the books before you, think of Ireland and its literature, yes, and think also of each generous act of community that allows imagination live so far from its roots.
W. B. Yeats's Mosada (1886) and
Seamus Heaney's Eleven Poems (1965).
Checklist nos. 1 and 45.
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