Wars and battles: these words, appearing prominently in the titles of two of the books under consideration, might give the impression that poetry, or criticism, or the criticism of poetry, is a belligerent business. It doesn’t stop with the book titles, either: the chapter on Edna Longley in W.J. McCormack’s short and contentious study of Irish cultural debate requires us to attend to ‘the reaction from Ulster’, and sums it up thus: ‘Fighting or Writing?’ This humorously echoes the famous anti-Home Rule poster with its caption, ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,’ while referring specifically to the critical reception of the ‘Field Day’ pamphlets (nine to date), which deal with questions – thorny questions – of identity and cultural heritage in Ireland. Edna Longley, McCormack says, ‘has been the most consistent critic of the “Field Day” enterprise’, taking issue, as she does, with its refusal to distinguish properly between poetry and politics (fusing the two, that is, instead of allowing them to interact productively).
‘Poetry and Politics in Northern Ireland’ is the title of the essay (the penultimate one in Poetry in the Wars) in which Edna Longley gets to grips with ‘Field Day’. One of her objections to the ‘Field Day’ standpoint has already been mooted in the essay on Seamus Heaney’s North: she dislikes the practice of equating one set of circumstances with another, without sufficiently allowing for the differences between the two. Hence, she says, Heaney’s Iron Age Danish excavations yield up material so alien to contemporary Ireland that the two can’t be linked without a measure of falsification, even if the purpose is emblematic. Seamus Deane likewise comes in for criticism when he traces a line of continuity (in his first ‘Field Day’ publication, ‘Civilians and Barbarians’) from Spenser’s slurs on the Irish (‘stern and savage’) to certain terms bandied about today: ‘terrorist’, ‘bomber’. Brian Friel, another of the ‘Field Day’ directors, does something similar in his play, Translations, which isn’t only about the act of translating place-names from Irish to English, but also ‘translates’ a typical British battalion in the Belfast or Derry of the 1970s, back into a pungent era of the past. Friel manages this translation very well, Edna Longley admits, but falls short in his aim of recharging certain historical images, because, in the play, ‘no perspective discriminates between past and present, 19th-century Ireland and 20th-century Northern Ireland. There is simply equation ... ’
If such equations don’t come out right, neither can a case be made out for division of the kind propounded by Tom Paulin, when he tries, in his poetry, to reinstate some indiosyncratic words: so Edna Longley contends. ‘Paulin creates division where unities [i.e. a common language, standard English] already exist.’ In fact, it is hard to see what the objection is to Paulin’s rather sparing insertion into his poems of words like ‘sheugh’ (ditch) and ‘clabbery’ (muddy). This is just a way of asserting local singularity, and a perfectly reasonable poetic strategy. As Seamus Deane has noted, Paulin’s blending of ‘a kind of academic surrealism’ and the tones of darkest Ulster has an ironic ring to it; it doesn’t seem to me at all affected or patronising, as it does to Edna Longley. And it’s wrong to say of Paulin’s 1983 collection, Liberty Tree – as she does – that it ‘attacks contemporary Unionism for betraying the French and Irish Republican principles of ’98’. You can’t ‘betray’ what you never subscribed to, and Unionism evolved in direct opposition to those enlightened principles. What Paulin is deploring, in this book, is one kind of discontinuity, the ‘snapped connection’ which occurred after 1798, when Presbyterian and free-thinking Republicanism came to an end. That particular way of jettisoning a sectarian mentality was itself jettisoned. Throughout the 19th century, religious intolerance thrived in Ulster, culminating in the kind of arid conviction forcefully evoked by Tom Paulin in his poem ‘Desertmartin’:
This bitter village shows the flag
In a baked absolute September light.
Here the Word has withered to a few
Parched certainties, and the charred stubble
Tightens like a black belt, a crop of Bibles.
Odd to find Edna Longley dismissing these lines as ‘ cliché’d, external impression of the Protestant community’.
The Protestant imagination, as expressed in literature, has never allied itself with sectarianism: this is one of the points underlined in the collection of essays Across a Roaring Hill (subtitled ‘The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland’), which Edna Longley co-edited in 1985. Some of the contributors to this book sought to distinguish between the imaginations of certain Protestant writers, and a Protestant, or Catholic, cast of mind, both of which may occur in people professing either, or neither, religion. The book also upheld the claims to Irishness of those whose Ireland, non-Gaelic or not, is every bit as valid as any other. Its aim, you might say, was the opposite of sectarian: yet the word ‘Protestant’ in the subtitle got up the noses of a good many egalitarian critics, W.J. McCormack among them. McCormack, who was himself a contributor to the book, now sees it as perpetuating what he calls ‘a sectarian sociology of art’. In his Roaring Hill essay, he made out a case for not considering Anglo-Irish literature in isolation: internationalism, the argument goes, will soon make short work of sectarianism. Intellectual developments in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century, which opened the way for a scientific approach to ‘the interaction of religion and economics, class and culture, regional and metropolitan forces’, unfortunately bypassed Ireland, McCormack says in The Battle of the Books, leaving a vacuum into which – we may suppose – a lot of hot air has rushed. As part of his effort to do away with the type of insularity which fosters conservatism, McCormack raises the matter of ‘Field Day’s’ insufficient attention (so far) to various forms of ‘experimental’ writing, as well as questioning the ‘conventional’ critic’s emphasis on the individual imagination, when it comes to appraising literature, at the expense of whatever ‘social entity’ can lay claim to it.
The strong line taken by both Edna Longley and W.J. McCormack – who are sometimes in accord, but more often at loggerheads – testifies to the ebullience of Irish letters, in which things often get very heated indeed. Not invariably, it’s true: a level-headed approach is exemplified in the Irish essays of Denis Donoghue, in which sharpness of intelligence, a measure of asperity and an unfaltering lucidity can be found. McCormack’s book (more a pamphlet really) arose out of a series of weekly exchanges with his publisher, and is in a sense an adjunct to his study of 1985, Ascendancy and Tradition, in that it enables him to get some complaints concerning the reception of that book off his chest. Some of its themes are reiterated too. We find him still harping on the provenance of the terms ‘Anglo-Irish’ and ‘Protestant Ascendancy’, and not giving an inch in his estimation of the importance of getting it right. He also urges us to be very clear about what we mean when we use such terms. McCormack is as doctrinaire as ever, in The Battle of the Books, but rather more showy and discursive, as befits the informal undertaking.
Denis Donoghue was one of the critics whose reactions to Ascendancy and Tradition didn’t entirely please the author of the book, and McCormack goes to some lengths to persuade us that one or two of Donoghue’s assertions are rather shakily based. However, it looks to me as if McCormack’s objections amount to little more than quibbling – an indulgence of the argumentative faculty which seems highly developed in this critic. Donoghue’s arguments are presented in a different tone – indeed, he applies the term ‘latitudinarian’ to himself, not at all complacently. It’s a just designation, if we include tolerance and urbanity among its meanings. We Irish, judicious and unmalicious, is a joy to read. The title phrase, which may be traced back to Bishop Berkeley via Yeats, was quoted by Denis Donoghue in his Crane Bag essay (LRB, 21 April-4 May 1983); the essay reappears here (slightly shortened), but with the phrase extracted and expanded into an opening article, in which it and its implications are forcefully scrutinised. ‘We Irish’ – declaration of allegiance, defining term, or, as Berkeley used it, a way of repudiating some English trait? (‘We Irishmen cannot attain to these truths,’ he wrote about some line of reasoning that struck him as absurd.) Donoghue, at any rate, dissociates himself from Yeats’s idea that ‘to be Irish was ... to share a special mentality,’ and notes, more than once, the present-day resentment aroused by Yeats’s taking it on himself to speak for Ireland, an action which led to his sometimes appearing high-handed when he meant to be high-minded. To experience such resentment, though, Donoghue reminds us, is to bring a political attitude to bear on poetry.
Elsewhere, he refers to the complex, and much pondered, condition of being Irish, while acknowledging that other varieties of national consciousness may be just as stimulating to their holders. The first two sections of the book deal with Yeats and Joyce, respectively; the third considers the literary consequences of exigencies occurring at one time or another; and the fourth contains spirited appraisals of literary figures like George Moore and James Stephens.
Poetry in the Wars is notable for its alertness and assiduity. Edna Longley is a formidable critic, and never better than when she’s proposing a revaluation of someone wrongly discounted, like Edward Thomas. The first two essays in this book deal with Thomas, one relating him to Frost, the other to the English tradition – a sturdier strain of poetry than either the Georgian mode prevalent at the time Edward Thomas took to writing verse (1914-17) or the Modernism that displaced it. (A bit further on, there’s another essay which pairs Thomas with Philip Larkin, and clears both of them of the charge of giving in to nostalgia.) The neglect of Thomas and Frost, Edna Longley believes, goes hand-in-hand with the ‘overestimation’ of Pound and Eliot: but I don’t think it’s necessary to discard Pound and Eliot in order to appreciate the other two. The ‘Englishness’ Thomas worked to preserve is exemplified in his poem ‘Lob’, which gets a striking exposition here. Lob is a will-o’-the-wispish figure who may materialise in folklore, legend, history, proverb, everyday country life (‘Metamorphosis is the poem’s message as well as its method,’ says Edna Longley): ‘Lob-lie-by-the-fire, Jack Cade/ Jack Smith, Jack Moon, poor Jack of every trade.’ With the line, ‘One of the Lords of No Man’s Land, good Lob’, we get a topical piece of ambiguity: the poem was written in 1915, when Thomas had already enlisted (he was killed at Arras in 1917).
Thomas set out to shape his poetry in ways inevitably, rather than deliberately, English: he made the distinction himself, in a review he wrote in December 1914, when the concept of Englishness was being paraded for a propagandist purpose. ‘Rhetorical bullets’, Edna Longley calls those verses manufactured with militarism in mind, and says: ‘Wilfred Owen’s protest was also a form of literary criticism, correcting a false vocabulary, imagery and consciousness.’ Poetry in the wars needs to guard against the partisan impulse. It is also, Thomas noted, likely to improve as it becomes retrospective, when the poet’s understanding of the experience has had time to deepen. There’s a place, though, for the unsettled response, especially if the author’s temperament is a sceptical one.
Turning to a more recent war, or state of upheaval, we might question the generally disapproving attitude to the Heaney poem ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ – it’s as if Heaney’s high poetic standing disqualifies him from resorting to playfulness, in the eyes of certain commentators. This poem puts on record some hasty, but none the less astute reactions to the current disruption in Northern Ireland, and also to the efforts of banal, would-be tolerant people to repudiate extremism: ‘ “Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree,”/“Where’s it going to end?” “It’s getting worse ...” ’ There is also the implicit point that the wish of such people to appear unbigoted is in conflict with the irrational loyalties they’re lumbered with (the fly narrator doesn’t exclude himself from this burden). ‘Punishment’ likewise – though in a more compressed and lyrical manner – acknowledges the power of inherited allegiances, while not exactly upholding them.
Edna Longley is a good interpreter of Heaney’s poems, especially of those she finds praiseworthy, and she also acknowledges, in more general terms, his unique achievement: Heaney’s ‘poetic landscape receives a particular assent from all kinds of Ulster readers as an authentic common ground; almost, despite subterranean tensions, as a de facto imaginative recognition of the whole terrain’. (She takes the view, mistakenly I think, that North represents a wrong turning: a turning away from the profundity and sensuousness of the earlier books, towards a coarsening preoccupation – Northern politics.) She is excellent when it comes to specifying Louis MacNeice’s verve, Keith Douglas’s ‘rich’ economy of style, the poise and subtlety of Derek Mahon; and singularly illuminating when she turns her attention to the work of Paul Muldoon: the long Muldoon poems ‘Immram’ and ‘The more a man has’, in particular, come in for impressive elucidation. Throughout this collection of essays, in spite of a quota of things to carp at, like the faulty definition of ‘aisling’ and the wrong-headed denigration of certain departures in the work of one or two poets, we are conscious of the thoughtfulness, vigour and expertise of the author.
Mark Bence-Jones isn’t bothered by any ambiguity in the term ‘Ascendancy’: in his book, the Ascendancy consists of people of a certain social standing, living in Ireland but keeping to an English intonation, Protestant as a rule but not to a man, Unionist likewise, and generally including an ancestral house among their assets. By the 1870s, when the book opens, such people were on the wane, though this as yet entailed no conspicuous deterioration, and no loss of self-assurance. Mark Bence-Jones starts with Irish hunting, and makes of it a daredevil and jovial business; next comes the sporty slaughter of many woodcock and pheasants. The Irish aristocracy acts true to type in this study, down to the display of eccentricities, which enables the author to assemble a good collection of anecdotes and bon mots. One Edwardian Co. Cork lady, for instance, was in the habit of sliding down the stairs on a tray, wearing pink tights, and the wife of a Louth baronet had a passion for donkeys. Boredom during a church service could be alleviated by jabbing with a hatpin at the people in front.
The crucial questions of the day, disaffection among the ordinary Irish, England’s wars, the agitation for Home Rule, are tackled competently and straightforwardly in The Twilight of the Ascendancy: no ambivalence of attitude, or revisionist conscientiousness, to complicate things here. Sang froid – an attribute of the Ascendancy – was required after 1920, when the burning of great houses became a part of the republican programme, and economies for the upper classes didn’t only entail the selling of a yacht. It was after this that the once grand, now unrepairable house, with shabby fittings and rain coming through the roof, acquired such a hold on Irish literary imaginations. One or two of these ruined or delapidated houses, unbearably melancholy, stand out among the interesting photographs – family and official – with which the book is illustrated.
Seamus Heaney provides a foreword to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl; one of the nine contributors to this book is Polly Devlin, whose autobiography All of Us There (1983) gets its title from Heaney’s poem, ‘The Seed Cutters’. There’s another Heaney poem, ‘The Ministry of Fear’ (‘Ireland made me’ would have done as a subtitle), in which we find an allusion to the sense of inferiority foisted on Northern Irish Catholics (‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak/ As well as students from the Protestant schools’) – the grievance getting a stalwart and humorous airing. Polly Devlin has experienced this sense of imposed inferiority too, and has written about it, and about the need to overcome it, with flair and insight. The topic comes up again here, but in a muted way: the format doesn’t conduce to thoroughness of approach. The material in this book started off as a series of radio broadcasts, with each of the nine authors discussing her Irish upbringing. What results is inevitably a bit unstudied – memories, and thoughts about the past, all jostling for a place. Touching quirks are well to the fore. Maeve Binchy remembers wanting to swop her sister for a rabbit. Edna O’Brien, at a young age, would talk to the trees surrounding her Clare home. One of Molly Keane’s recollections is of horrid food. Joan Lingard can summon up a time when it wasn’t foolhardy to walk the streets of Belfast after dark. All stress their luck in being born where they were. The effect of all this is a little bland, though animated – ‘I remember, I remember’ more in the spirit of Hood than Larkin.