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Critical Review by Hugh Kenner
SOURCE: "There's Music in the Ould Sod Yet," in The New York Times Book Review, January 26, 1992, pp. 3, 23.
In the following review, Kenner outlines the contents of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, assessing its strengths and weaknesses.
At four times the word count of the King James Bible, the new three-volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing makes an Irish Statement: We've been here from Time's Beginning, and we're silver-tongued. What else it states is harder to paraphrase, so tangled has been the long Irish story of co-opting some past to serve some present end.
Cu Chulainn for instance, a noted skull-basher; the way a scribe wrote the story down in Irish maybe a millennium ago, this hero, attacked by such a dog as needed to be held by nine men, simply "put one hand on the apple of the hound's throat and the other at the back of his head, and dashed him against the pillar-stone … so that all the hound's limbs sprang apart."
An unlikely role model, you'd think, for W. B. Yeats, who could resemble a hearthrug ornament. But Yeats during his long life would devote five plays to Cuchulain, who in a time of windbags could seem Homeric; who moreover, mortally wounded, arranged that he'd be killed swinging his sword while tied upright to a stake. He became the very incarnation of Heroic Defeat, something Yeats's Ireland cherished with part of its mind. Patrick Pearse, who led the 1916 rebellion and died before a firing squad's volley—Pearse "summoned" (wrote Yeats) "Cuchulain to his side." The Dublin Post Office lobby, where Pearse's men held out for many hours, offers a bronze statue of Cuchulain bound to that stake.
Cu Chulainn? Cuchulain? That difference is part of the story. As Yeats used a legendary time, so a later age is using his, and one way of distancing the Age of Yeats has been to hint that its scholarship was amateurish, its revival of the old language merely enthusiastic. Still, however it's spelled, say "coo-HULL'n." Then reflect that uncertainty over what sounds to make remains one way to fence out aliens. Nowhere does this huge anthology offer a mite of help with the likes of "Eibhlin Ni Chonaill" (say Evelyn O'Connell) or "medhbh" (say, as Yeats did, "Maeve.") It's a great help just to know that "bh" everywhere makes shift for "v."
Such a sequence—era after era redefining preceding eras for present use—has called forth a big anthology indeed, since what's being framed is less a sequence of texts than a sequence of redefinitions, notably the one whose pages we're now turning. Thus a hundred pages of the chapter "Anglo-Irish Verse, 1675–1825" help make the point that, despite modern scholars' inattention, there were versifiers then about besides Swift. One is Nahum Tate, whose "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" is retrieved from English hymnbooks to enforce a continuing theme, that many "English" writers were really Irish, including such diverse figures as Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Sheridan, Oscar Wilde and Joyce Cary. (Tate's "seraph," by the way, gets footnoted "angel," though generations of hymn singers haven't been baffled; who needs help with what is a topic the editors don't address with any system.)
Volume One takes us to 1850; Volume Two, which includes Synge, Joyce and Yeats, to 1945; Volume Three, which includes Ronan Sheehan's story "Paradise," here published for the first time, to 1991. (The set was first published by Field Day Publications in Ireland.) The 1850–1945 range is especially interesting. Readers of Yeats and Joyce have long been aware of a foretime when a Great Past was being somewhat clumsily revived. Young Ireland (Thomas Davis) has been heard of, also Sir Samuel Ferguson; little else. But now the first half of Volume Two, some 550 pages, prepares us for the Abbey Theater period (1904 onward) with much that's been scarcely accessible, so unlikely would seem the rewards of dredging it up.
Thus we've 111 pages of "Poetry and Song 1800–1890," headed by Seamus Deane's tart observation that "some of the best-known poems are, to present-day taste, among the worst." That was because "incoherence of purpose was disguised in the language of utopian possibility," a likely outcome when Catholics, Protestants, Gaelic fanatics, Temperance zealots, others, were vying to identify an essential Irishness that might surge toward rebellion, or revolution, or separation from Britain, or independence under the crown, or an orgy of head-bashing, or just the threat of it, or any combination (or none) of the above. Utopian possibility, everyone was agreed on that; all agreed too that Literature should bespeak the soul of the people. Hence—O Lord—hence
Why leave I not this busy broil,
For mine own clime, for mine own soil,
My calm, dear, humble, native soil!
There to lay me down at peace
In my own first nothingness.
—which is George Darley in 1835, pretending in London that he longs to be back in dear Ireland, where all is serene, composed. (Hah. Why did he linger in London?)
Or here's Thomas Furlong (1829, two years posthumously) identifying Irish Song with the simply natural:
Fling, fling the forms of art aside—
Dull is the ear that these forms enthrall;
Let the simple songs of our sires be tried—
They go to the heart, and the heart is all.
What's being flung aside would include Campion, Mozart, Schubert…. But, ah, Irish Eyes Are (artlessly) Smiling. (That song, by the way, the one "Irish" song everyone knows, stems not from the Ould Sod but from New York, where its intent was to nudge exiled Irish lads toward smiling-eyed Irish lasses. Racial purity, yes.)
Or here, in another section, is (amazingly) Fred Higgins, who in 1940 feigned he'd been given some bones of Queen Jezebel's:
And as once her dancing body
Made star-lit princes sweat,
So I'll just clack: though her ghost lacks a back
There's music in the old bones yet.
Though Yeats in his final phase made that possible, in no incarnation could Yeats have written it. It's remembering "Archy and Mehitabel." Assimilations were nothing if not eclectic.
Volume Three though, 1945 to now; and look, where's Desmond Egan? The first Irish poet who hasn't had to find ways to sound Irish? Yes, he's absent. Totally. Not a mention. In a clique-ridden land, he may have got on someone's nerves. Or some schema or other doesn't accommodate him, the way it seemingly accommodates … oh, look for yourself.
But if "Contemporary Irish Poetry" (120 pages) disappoints, Volume Three can offer riches aplenty elsewhere, notably the best short introduction to Beckett ever printed (it's by J. C. C. Mays); a wondrous selection of "Political Writings and Speeches: 1900–1988" gathered by Mr. Deane, the general editor of the anthology and a professor at University College, Dublin; or a "Revisionism" section, where you find Sean O'Faolain asserting (in 1944) that a slogan like "Not merely free but Gaelic as well, not merely Gaelic but free as well" could set mouths a-watering Pavlovlike. That's still true after half a century.
One could wish throughout for better proofreading, also for some sense of what doesn't need annotating, also for a scheme of cross-references that would tell us how the Irish original for this in Volume Two is available in Volume One. Still, if you're interested at all in Ireland, forgo two meals on the town and buy the set.
This section contains 1,209 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)