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DOUGLAS HYDE - THE NECESSITY FOR DE–ANGLICISING IRELAND (1892)

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DOUGLAS HYDE

 THE  NECESSITY  FOR  DE–ANGLICISING  IRELAND (1892)



(This important statement, from which the following is an extract, was addressed to the National Literary Society in Dublin on 25 November 1892. Hyde was president of the newly formed Society. The address, like so much in his career, reveals Hyde’s anxiety to limit the proposed revival of the Irish national spirit to the sphere of culture; it also exposes the difficulties attendant upon such an attempt).

When we speak of “The Necessity for De – Anglicising the Irish Nation”, we mean it, not as a protest against imitating what is best in the English people, for that would be absurd, but rather to show the folly of neglecting what is Irish, and hastening to adopt, pell-mell, and indiscriminately, everything that is English, simply because it is English.

This is a question which most Irishmen will naturally look at from a National point of view, but it is one which ought also to claim the sympathies of every intelligent Unionist, and which, as I know, does claim the sympathy of many.

If we take a bird’s – eye of our island today, and compare it with what it used to be, we must be struck by the extraordinary fact that the nation which was once, as every one admits, one of the most classically learned and cultured nations in Europe, is now one of the least so; how one of the most reading and literary peoples has become one of the least studious and most un – literary, and how the present art products of one of the quickest, most sensitive, and most artistic races on earth are now only distinguished for their hideousness.

I shall endeavor to show that this failure of the Irish people in recent times has been largely brought about by the race diverging during this century from the right path, and ceasing to be Irish without becoming English. I shall attempt to show that with the bulk of the people this change took place quite recently, much more recently than most people imagine, and is, in fact, still going on. I should also like to call attention to the illogical position of men who drop their own language to speak English, of men who translate their euphonious Irish names into English monosyllables, of men who read English books, and know nothing about Gaelic literature, nevertheless protesting as a matter of sentiment that they hate the country which at every hand’s turn they rush to imitate.

I wish to show you that in Anglicising ourselves wholesale we have thrown away with a light heart the best claim which we have upon the world’s recognition of us as a separate nationality. What did Mazzini say? What is Goldwin Smith never tired of declaiming? What do the Spectator and Saturday Review harp on? That we ought to be content as an integral part of the United Kingdom because we have lost the notes of nationality, our language and customs.

It has always been very curious to me how Irish sentiment sticks in this half – way house – how it continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them; how it continues to clamour for recognition as a distinct nationality, and at the same time throws away with both hands what would make it so. If Irishmen only went a little farther they would become good Englishmen in sentiment also. But – illogical as it appears – there seems not the slightest sign or probability of their taking that step. It is the curious certainty that come what nay Irishmen will continue to resist English rule, even though it should be for their good, which prevents many of our nation from becoming Unionists upon the spot. It is a fact, that although they adopt English habits and copy England in ever way, the great bulk of Irishmen and Irishwomen over the world are known to be filled with a dull, ever – abiding animosity against her, and – right or wrong – to grieve when she prospers, and joy when she is hurt. Such movements as Young Irelandism, Fenianism, Land Leagueism, and Parliamentary obstruction seem always to again their sympathy and support. It is just because there appears no earthly chance of their becoming good members of the Empire that I urge that they should not remain in the anomalous position they are in, but since they absolutely refuse to become the one thing, that they become the other; cultivate what they have rejected, and build up an Irish nation on Irish lines.

But you ask, why should we wish to make Ireland more Celtic than it is – why should we de – Anglicise it at all?

I answer because the Irish race is a present in a most anomalous position, imitating England and yet apparently hating it. How can it produce anything good in literature, art, on instructions as long as it actuated by motives so contradictory? Besides, I believe it is our Gaelic past which, though the Irish races does not recognize it just at present, is really at the bottom of the Irish heart, and prevents us becoming citizens of the Empire, as, I think, can be easily proved.

To say that Ireland has not prospered under English rule is simply a truism; all the world admits it, England does not deny it. But the English retort is ready. You have not prospered, they say, because you would not settle down contentedly, like the Scotch, and from part of the Empire. “Twenty years of good, resolute, grandfatherly government”, said a well – known Englishman, will solve the Irish question. He possibly made the period too short, but les us suppose this. Let us suppose for a moment – which is impossible – that there were to arise a series of Cromwells in England for the space of one hundred years, able administrators of the Empire, careful rulers of Ireland, developing to the utmost our national resources, whilst they unremittingly stamped out every spark of national feeling, making Ireland a land of wealth and factories, whilst they extinguished every thought and every idea that was Irish, and left us, at last, after a hundred years of good government, fat, wealthy, and populous, but with all our characteristics gone, whit every external that at present differentiates us from the English lost or dropped; all our Irish names of places and people turned into English names; the Irish language completely extinct; the O’s and the Macs dropped; our Irish intonation changed, as far as possible, by English schoolmasters into something English; our history no longer remembered or taught; the names of our rebels and martyrs blotted out; our battlefields and traditions forgotten; the fact that we were not of Saxon origin dropped out of sight and memory, and let me now put the question – Now many Irishmen are there who would purchase material prosperity at such a price? It is exactly such a question as this and the answer to if that shows the difference between the English and Irish race. Nine Englishmen out of ten would jump to make the exchange, and I as firmly believe that nine Irishmen out of ten would indignantly refuse it.

And yet this awful idea of complete Anglicisation, which I have here put before you in all its crudity, is, and has been, making silent inroads upon us for nearly a century.

Its inroads have been silent, because, had the Gaelic race perceived what was being done, or had they been once warned of what was taking place in their own midst, they would, I think, never have allowed it. When the picture of complete Anglicisation is drawn for them in all its nakedness Irish sentimentality becomes suddenly a power and refuses to surrender its birthright. What lies at the back of the sentiments of nationality witch the Irish millions seem so strongly leavened, what can prompt them to applaud such sentiments as:

They say the British Empire owes much to Irish hands,

That Irish valour fixed her flag o’er many conquered lands;

And ask if Erin takes no pride in these her gallant sons,

Her Wolseleys and her Lawrences her Wolfes and Wellingtons

Of course it is a very composite feeling which prompts them; but I believe that what is largely behind it is the half unconscious feeling that the race which at one time held possession of more than half Europe, which established itself in Greece, and burned infant Rome, is now – almost extirpated and absorbed elsewhere – making its last stand for independence in this island of Ireland; and do what they may the race of today cannot wholly divest itself from the mantle of its own past. Through early Irish literature, for instance, can we best form some conception of what that race really was, which, after overthrowing and trampling on the primitive peoples of half Europe, was itself forced in turn to yield its speech, manners, and independence to the victorious eagles of Rome. We alone of the nations of Western Europe escaped the claws of those birds of prey; we alone developed ourselves naturally upon our own lines outside of and free from all Roman influence; we alone were thus able to produce an early art and literature, our antiquities can best throw light upon the pre – Romanised inhabitants of half Europe, and – we are our father’s sons.

There is really no exaggeration in all this, although Irishmen are sometimes prone to overstating as well as to forgetting. Westwood himself declares that, were it not for Irishmen, these islands would possess no primitive works of art worth the mentioning; Jubainville asserts that early Irish literature is that which best throws light upon the manners and customs of his own ancestors the Gaulus; and Zimmer, who has done so much for Celtic philology, has declared what only a spurious criticism can make an attempt to doubt about the historical character of the chief persons of our two epic cycles, that of Cuchullain and that of Finn. It is useless elaborating this point; and Dr. Sigerson has already shown in his opening lecture the debt of gratitude which in many respects Europe owes to ancient Ireland. The dim consciousness of this is one of those things which are at the back of Irish national sentiment, and our business, whether we be Unionists or Nationalists, should be to make this dim consciousness an active and potent feeling, and thus increase our sense of self – respect and of honour.

What we must endeavour to never forget is this, that the Ireland of today is the descendant of the Ireland of the seventh century, then the school of Europe and the torch of learning. It is true that Northmen made some minor settlements in it in the ninth and tenth centuries, it is true that the Normans made extensive settlements during the succeeding centuries, but none of those broke the continuity of the social life of the island. Dane and Norman drawn to the kindly Irish breast issued forth in a generation or two fully Irishised, and more Hibernian than the Hibernians themselves, and ever after the Cromwellian plantation the children of numbers of the English soldiers who settled in the south and midlands, were, after forty years’ residence, and after marrying Irish wives, turned into good Irishmen, and unable to speak a word of English, while several Gaelic poets of the last century have, like Father English, the most unmistakably English names. In two points only was the continuity of the Irishism of Ireland damaged. First, in the north–east of Ulster, where the Gaelic race was expelled and the land planted with aliens, whom our dear mother Erin, assimilative as she is, has hitherto found it difficult to absorb, and in the ownership of the land, eight – ninths of which belongs to people many of whom always lived, or live, abroad, and not half of whom Ireland can be said to have assimilated.

What the battleaxe of the Dane, the sword of the Norman, the wile of the Saxon were unable to perform, we have accomplished ourselves. We have at last broken the continuity of Irish life, and just at the moment when the Celtic race is presumably about to largely recover possession of its own country, it finds itself deprived and stript of its Celtic characteristics, cut off from the past, yet scarcely in touch with the present. It has lost since the beginning of this century almost all that connected it with the era of Cuchullain and of Ossian, closest contact with the traditions of the past and the national life of nearly eighteen hundred years, until the beginning of this century. Not only so, but during the whole of the dark Penal times they produced amongst themselves a most vigorous literary development. Their schoolmasters and wealthy farmers, unwearied scribes, produced innumerable manuscripts in beautiful writing, each letter separated from another as in Greek, transcripts both of the ancient literature of their sires and of the more modern literature produced by themselves. Until the beginning of the present century there was no county, no barony, and, I may almost say, no Townland which did not boast of an Irish poet, the people’s representative of those ancient bards who died out with the extirpation of the great Milesian families. The literary activity of even the eighteenth century among the Gaels was very great, not in the South alone, but also in Ulster – the number of poets it produced was something astonishing. It did, however, produce many works in Gaelic prose, but it propagated translations of many pieces from the French, Latin, Spanish, and English. Every well – to – do farmer could read and write Irish, and many of them could understand even archaic Irish. I have myself heard persons reciting the poems of Donogha More O’Daly, Abbot of Boyle, in Roscommon, who died sixty years before Chaucer was born. To this very day the people have a word for archaic Irish, which is much the same as though Chaucer’s poems were handed down amongst the English peasantry, but required a special training to understand. This training, however, nearly every one of fair education during the Penal times possessed, nor did they begin to lose their Irish training and knowledge until after the establishment of Maynooth and the rise of O’Connell. These two events made an end of the Gaelicism of the Gaelic race, although a great number of poets and scribes existed even down to the forties and fifties of the present century, and a few may linger on yet in remote localities. But it may be said, roughly speaking, that the ancient Gaelic civilisation died with O’Connell, largely, I am afraid, owing to his example and his neglect of inculcating the necessity of keeping alive racial customs, language, and traditions, in which with the one notable exception of our scholarly idealist, Smith O’Brien, he has been followed until a year ago by almost every leader of the Irish race.

Wherever Irish throughout Ireland continued to be spoken, there the ancient MSS. Continued to be read, there the epics of Cuchullain, Conor MacNessa, Deirdre, Finn, Oscar, and Ossian continued to be told, and there poetry and music held sway. Some people may think I am exaggerating in asserting that such a state of things existed down to the present century, but it is no exaggeration. I have myself spoken with men from Cavan and Tyrone who spoke excellent Irish. Carleton’s stories bear witness to the prevalence of the Irish language and traditions in Ulster he began to write. My friend Mr. Lloyd has found numbers in Antrim who spoke good Irish. And, as for Leinster, my friend Mr. Cleaver informed me that when he lived in Wicklow a man came by from the Country Carlow in search of work who could not speak a word of English. Old labourers from Connacht, who used to go to reap the harvest in England and take shipping at Drogheda, told me that at that time, fifty years ago, Irish was spoken by every one round that town.

So much for Ulster and Leinster, but Connacht and Munster were until quite recently completely Gaelic. In fact, I may venture to say, that, up to the beginning of the present century, neither man, woman, nor child of the Gaelic race, either of high blood or low blood, existed in Ireland who did not either speak Irish or understand it. But within the last ninety years we have, with an unparalleled frivolity, deliberately thrown away our birthright and Anglicised ourselves.

So much for the greatest stroke of all in our Anglicisation, the loss of our language. I have often heard people thank God that if the English gave us nothing else they gave us at least their language. In this way they put a bold face upon the matter, and pretend that the Irish language is not worth knowing, and has no literature. But the Irish language is worth knowing, or why would the greatest philologists of Germany, France, and Italy be emulously studying it, and it does possess a literature, or why would a German savant have mate the calculation that the books written in Irish between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and still extant, would fill a thousand octavo volumes.

I have no Hesitation at all in saying that every Irish-feeling Irishman, who hates the reproach of West-Britonism, should set himself to encourage the efforts which are being made to keep alive our once great national tongue. The losing of it is our greatest blow, and the sorest stroke that the rapid Anglicisation of Ireland has inflicted upon us. In order to de-Anglicise ourselves we must at once arrest the decay of the language. We must bring pressure upon our politicians not to snuff it out by their tacit discouragement merely because they do not happen themselves to understand it. We must arouse some spark of patriotic inspiration among the peasantry who still use the language, and put an end to the shameful state of feeling-a thousand-tongued reproach to our leaders and statesmen-which makes young men and women blush and hang their heads when overheard speaking their own language.

We can, however, insist, and we shall insist if Home Rule be carried, that the Irish language, which so many foreign scholars of the first calibre find so worthy of study, shall be placed on a par with-or even above-Greek, Latin, and modern languages, in all examinations held under the Irish Government. We can also insist, and we shall insist, that in those baronies where the children speak Irish, Irish shall be taught, and that Irish-speaking schoolmasters, petty sessions clerks, and even magistrates be appointed in Irish-speaking districts. If all this were done, it should not be very difficult, with the aid of the foremost foreign scholars, to bring about a tone of thought which would make it disgraceful for an educated Irishman-especially of the old Celtic race, MacDermotts, O’Connors, O’Sullivans, MacCarthys, O’Neills-to be ignorant of his own language-would make it at least as disgraceful as for an educated Jew to be quite ignorant of Hebrew.

Declan Kiberd  -  Deanglicization

From  Inventing Ireland

In exalting the fight against England into a self-sustaining tradition, the leaders of the previous century had largely forgotten what it was that they were fighting for: a distinctive culture of folktales, dances, sports, costumes, all seamlessly bound by the Irish language. This grave error became clear to a young Protestant named Douglas Hyde, a rectory child at Frenchpark, County Roscommon, who learned from humble cottiers in the fields around his parents’ home the idioms and lore of a culture quite different from that of the Anglo-Irish drawingroom. By the time he had entered Trinity College, Hyde was an enthusiast: asked by a bemused fellow-student if he could actually speak this exotic language of which he talked so movingly, he responded “I dream in Irish”. In 1892, his ideas came to fruition in a famous lecture which was to be Ireland’s declaration of cultural independence, analogous to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s epoch-making address on “The American Scholar”.

Hyde’s gospel was epitomized by one word: deanglicization. He argued that previous leaders had confused politics and nationality, and had abandoned Irish civilization while professing with utter sincerity to fight for Irish nationalism. He sought to restore self- respect to Irish people, based on a shared rediscovery of the national culture: far from being “the badge of a beaten race”, as Matthew Arnold had called it, the Irish language be spoken henceforth with pride. Hyde’s suggestion met with much cynicism and much amusement. Society ladies on meeting Hyde would whisper to friends that “he cannot be a gentleman because he speaks Irish”: and even those more sympathetic to the language were often irritated by Hyde’s wide-eyed fervour. George Moore wickedly remarked that whenever in his public speeches Hyde reverted to his incoherent brand of English, it was easy to see why his greatest desire was to make Irish the first official language.

But the young Yeats was profoundly impressed, on hearing Hyde’s songs sung by haymakers in Connacht fields who were quite unaware that their author was passing: in such a moment, Yeats saw the return of a learned art to people’s craft. Hyde truly had the capacity to make Ireland once again interesting to the Irish. Fired by his example, Yeats hoped for “a way of life in which the common man has some share in imaginative art. That this is the decisive element in the attempt to revive the Irish language I am quite certain”. He dreamed of a literary form so pure that it had not been indentured to any cause, whether of nation or of art, a form so fitted to a people’s expressive ensemble that it would seem but an aspect of daily life.

Yeats wrote: “In Ireland, where the Gaelic tongue is still spoken, and to some little extent where it is not, the people live according to a tradition of life that existed before commercialism, and the vulgarity founded upon it; and we who would keep the Gaelic tongue and Gaelic memories and Gaelic habits of mind would keep them, as I think, that we may some day spread a tradition of life that makes neither great wealth nor great poverty, that makes the arts a natural expression of life, that permits even common men to understand good art and high thinking, and to have the fine manners these can give”. He went on:

Almost everyone in Ireland, on the other hand, who comes from what are called the educated and wealthy classes…seeks…to establish a tradition of life, perfected and in part discovered by the English-speaking peoples, that has made great and great poverty, that would make the arts impossible were it not for the sacrifice of a few who spend their lives in the bitterest of protest…



The line of approach impressed many readers in England, too, who saw in it an interesting development of Matthew Arnold’s critique of the specialist barbarism of the commercially-minded middle class. In seeking to express Ireland, these writers also hoped to challenge the culture of commercial exploitation in England: rather than have the Irish imitate the worst of English ways, they hoped to bring around a time when the English could emulate the finest Irish customs.

The invention of their idea of Ireland by Hyde and his friends happened, it should be noted, at the same time as English leaders were redesigning the image of England, in the decades between the 1880s and the Great War. These were the years when Queen Victoria, recovering from the republican challenge of Dilke and from her own grief after bereavement, restored a dimension of public pageantry to the monarchy, with much ancient costumery, archaic carriages and historical symbolism. Her 1887 jubilee proved so successful that it was repeated ten years later in 1897, and this prompted Irish nationalists in the following year, under the guidance of Maud Gonne, W. B. Yeats and James Connolly, to mount a similar counter-commemoration of the rebellion of 1798. Yeats said in March of 1898: “This year the Irish people will not celebrate, as England did last year, the establishment of an empire that has been built on the rapine of the world”. The new mania in England for erecting statues to historic figures was also emulated by the Irish, who began at once to collect funds for a massive monument to Wolfe Tone (as if a state which still did not exist were already rehearsing its consolidation by ceremonial recollections of the revolutionary struggle). Both the jubilee-cult and the statuary were relatively new phenomena, and mocked for their sentimentality by the young James Joyce in Dubliners, but it is easy to understand the function which they served.

The world was changing more in those thirty years than it had since the death of Christ. All over Europe leaders sought to reassure peoples, gone giddy from the speed of the changes, with images of stability. Part of the modernization process was the emergence of nation-states, which often arose out of the collapse of the old ways of life and so were badly in need of legitimation: this was afforded by the deliberate invention of traditions, which allowed leaders to ransack the past for a serviceable narrative. In this way, by recourse to a few chosen symbols and simple ideas, random peoples could be transformed into Italians or Irish, and explain themselves by a highly-edited version of their history. Gaelic Ireland had retained few institutions or records after 1601 to act as a brake on these tendencies: all that remained were the notations of poets and the memories of the people. These played a far greater part in Hyde’s remodelled Ireland than they did in many of the other emerging European countries. His lecture, rather cumbersomely titled “The Necessity for Deanglicizing Ireland”, was delivered to the Irish Literary Society in November 1892, and it led, within a year, to the foundation of the Gaelic League, a movement for the preservation of Irish. The fall of Parnell, and subsequent split in the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, may have left a number of unionists and landlords feeling free to express a cultural (as distinct from political) nationalism. If so, there was a real shrewdness in Hyde’s strategy. He launched his appeal for Gaelic civilization as one coming from a man who could still feel the landlordly hankerings of a disappointed imperialist:

… It is curious certainty that come what may Ireland will continue to resist English rule, even though it should be for their good, which prevents many of our nation from becoming unionists on the spot… It is just because there appears no earthly chance of their becoming good members of Empire that I argue that they should not remain in the anomalous position they are in, but since they absolutely refuse to become the one thing, that they become the other; cultivate what they have rejected, and build up an Irish nation on Irish lines.

That subterranean pull back to all things English as touchstones of excellence is ironic in a text headed “deanglicization”, but Hyde knew what he was about. He wanted to found Irish pride on something more positive and lasting than mere hatred of England. Yeats agreed: 'I had dreamed of enlarging Irish hatred, till we had come to hate with a passion of patriotism what Morris and Ruskin hated“. The reactive patriotism which saw Ireland as not-England would have to give way to an identity which was self-constructed and existentially apt. Those peoples who had constructed themselves from within, the French for instance, never accused their bad citizens of being “unFrench”: but throughout the nineteenth century delinquents were often called “unIrish”, because Irish nationalism too often defined itself by what it was against.

The Gaelic League might properly be seen as a response to the failure of a political attempt by nationalist leaders to shock English opinion by showing up the discrepancy between English order at home and misrule on the neighbouring island. The Irish resolved instead to instil in their people a self-belief which might in time lead to social and cultural prosperity. In its early years, the League received encouragement from the more enlightened colonial administrators like Augustine Birrell, who hoped that it might help to solve problems which the authorities had found intractable.

As a movement, the League was opposed to the antiquarianism of previous groups like Gaelic Union, only six of whose members could speak Irish properly: it was, in fact, modern in its view of tradition as a yet-to-be-completed agenda, and in its insistence on combining ancient custom and contemporary method.

Some cynics accused Hyde of confusing Anglicization with modernization. Joyce’s Stephen Hero, noting the willingness of the Catholic clergy to support the League, said that the priests hoped to find In Irish a bulwark against modern ideas, keeping “the wolves of unbelief” at bay and the people frozen in a past of “implicit faith”. This was a rather sour response from a Joyce whose experience of the League had been fatally narrowed by his attendance at the Irish classes of Patrick Pearse. (Pearse in his youthful days found it impossible to praise Irish without virulent denunciations of English, an approach much less ecumenical than Hyde’s). In the 1892 lecture, Hyde feared that people, ceasing to be Irish without becoming English, were falling into the vacuum between two admirable civilizations, as one nullified the other. His disgust was not caused by a baffling modernity or a difficult hybridity, so much as by the anomalous English element in every self-defeating document of Irish nationalism. He pointed to “the illogical position of men who drop their own language to speak English, of men who translate their euphonious Irish name into English monosyllables, of men who read English books and know nothing about Gaelic literature, nevertheless protesting as a matter of sentiment that they hate the country which at every hand’s turn they rush to imitate”.

This was a subtle probing of Irish psychology: patriotic Anglophobia it attributed not to a troublesome difference with England so much as an abject similarity, leading like poles to repel one another with scientific predictability. Anglophobia seemed most extreme in those areas of maximum deference to English ways, while in the Gaeltacht itself physical-force nationalism made little headway. Hyde was merciless on the mentality which “continues to apparently hate the English, and at the same time continues to imitate them”. Since people absolutely refused to become English, he concluded, they might as well resolve to be Irish.

This analysis had many salutary effects. Most important, it was the signal for a rebirth of cultural and literary criticism. Before the end of the decade, D. P. Moran could remark that “much the perpetual flow of ridicule and largely unreasonable denunciation of England was turned from its course and directed back-where it was badly wanted-upon Irishmen themselves”. Moran went on: “From the great error that nationality is politics, a sea of corruption has sprung. Ireland was practically left unsubjected to wholesome native criticism, without which any collection of humanity will corrupt … To find fault with your countryman was to play into the hands of England and act the traitor”. For most of the previous century, a kind of national narcissism had pervaded debates: ever since O’Connell had told his followers that they were the finest peasantry in the world, even constructive criticism had been treated as sacrilege. Such a high-minded allergy to critique has been found in the early phases of most movements for cultural resistance-but this sentimentality had to be transcended. D. P. Moran suggested that an Ireland content to continue as a not-England would be indescribably boring: “Will a few soldiers dressed in green, and a republic, absolutely foreign to the genius of the Irish people, the humiliation of England corpses with Irish bullets or pikes through them, satisfy the instinct within us that says “Thou shalt be Irish?” It was Irish strength, rather than English weakness, which count in the end.

What shocked Hyde about contemporary England was the apparent ease with which its people had endured the loss of so many of their traditions for the sake of material advancement. For English folk traditions he had, like Yeats, much respect and tenderness. When he spoke of “this awful idea of complete Anglicization”, the phrase, if taken literally, could only offend unionists: if it were taken as a reference to the pollution and greyness of an environment despoiled by unplanned industrialism, it might win many over. Hyde insisted that the English would not finally be to blame if the Irish decided to abort their own traditions: “what the battleaxe of the Dane, the sword of the Norman, the wile of the Saxon were unable to perform, we have accomplished ourselves”. This was true in the sense that Irish declined in the nineteenth century only when large numbers of the people opted to learn English, as a prelude to emigration or to a more prosperous life at home. The tally-stick, later to be cited by chauvinist historians as a weapon of British cultural terror, had actually been devised for the schoolroom by Irish people themselves, as Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar) observed with dismay in a Galway schoolhouse of the midcentury.

The Gaelic League, acting on Hyde’s precepts, became in effect one of the earliest examples of a Workers’ Education Movement, at a time of limited opportunity for many. It was also, in some respects, a precursor of the movement for multiculturalism which, in later decades, would seek to revise and expand syllabi, with the introduction of subaltern cultures and oral literatures. In other respects, of course, its leaders were dismissive of many popular publications and magazines which current exponents of Cultural Studies find worthy of attention.

There were only six books in print in Irish at the founding of the Gaelic League in 1893, and most Irish speakers in the countryside were still illiterate. Yet much was achieved very rapidly: in one years alone, according to Yeats, the League sold 50,000 textbooks. Thousands registered in language classes, and, in a decade which saw Fabian cyclists and suffragists take to the countryside for summer schools, the League was an interesting Irish version of the phenomenon. A civil rights agitation was mounted. Letters and parcels were addressed in Irish, much to the confusion of the postal authorities; and when a Donegal trader was prosecuted for inscribing his name in Irish on his wagon, he was defended in court by the young Patrick Pearse (his only appearance as a barrister, in what he called the ignoblest of professions).

Questions were raised in the House of Commons about such issues, but the crucial controversy arose in 1899, when evidence was taken by the Committee of Intermediate on whether or not it should ratify Irish as a valid school subject. The professors of Trinity College Dublin had taken fright at the League’s success and warned Dublin Castle that it was a movement infiltrated by “separatists”. Now they made a massive effort to remove Irish altogether from the secondary school system.

In calling for a return to national traditions, Hyde had made a telling point: that far from being fixated on the past, the Irish were in danger of making an irreparable break with their inheritance. This blockage had its roots in the enforced migrations and interrupted family histories of the nineteenth century, which had disrupted the national archive.. Hyde, by his promotion of Celtic scholarship and of Irish, was seeking to repair and restore it. He was dismayed by that weird blend of external deference and private rebellion which characterized the Irish relation to England. What remained of the Irish identity had been preserved through the spiritual leadership given to many people by the Catholic church, but that same church had also blocked the expression of that identity by the more militant nationalists and republicans.

Hyde, in untstopping the sentiment, was also careful to recognize the spiritual dimension in a collection like Abhrain Diaga Chuige Chonnacht (The Religious Songs of Connacht). He did indeed woo the Catholic clergy, though for subtler reasons than Joyce might have suspected: he needed their endorsement as an answer to those pious Catholics who condemned the mingling of sexes at League functions as “occasions of sin”.

Apart from being a great ecumenist and reconciler himself, Hyde was ever the cunning tactician-properly grateful to have the support of prestigious Catholic priests, whose presence could serve to glamorize the Irish language in the eyes of a peasantry for whom it had long been a token of shame. As the priests had once done, so now he-a Protestant gentleman-scholar – assumed leadership of a people whose traditions had been so disrupted that they were estranged from their very environment.

A major agent of that estrangement had been the Board of Education, which throughout the previous century, in Ireland as in India, had encouraged the materially ambitious natives to abandon their culture. These people had been encouraged to view their own great narratives as mere myths to be discarded (much as the Elizabethan Historians like Stanyhurst had mocked the “unscientific” memorialists of Gaelic Ireland). If anything, the situation in Ireland was more extreme than that in India, for the Irish school texts were given to every child and brooked no nationalism, whereas the Indian books were intended only for the elites and did allow a modicum of national sentiment. The value of the new education, the British claimed, was that it would help the people to dismantle the myths which still bound them to their own culture, and instead, in the words of Lord Macaulay’s minute on India, “make them look to this country with that veneration which the youthful student feels for the classical soul of Greece”. However, the pitched battle put up by Trinity College against the Gaelic League had precisely the reverse effect to that intended and had thrown this entire process into jeopardy. By 1903, the constitutional nationalist Stephen Gwynn, a member of parliament, could write that “ have heard the existence of an Irish literature denied by a roomful of professors, educated gentlemen, and, within a week, I have heard, in the same country, the classics of that literature recited by an Irish peasant who could neither write nor read. On which party should the stigma of illiteracy set the uglier brand?”.

The disarray of political nationalism in the 1890s had allowed some unionists to adopt a more relaxed attitude to the Gaelic tradition, and the League made an appeal to a much wider version of nationality. The movement was so powerful in Belfast by 1899 that it could cram a meeting-hall which called for the teaching of Irish in schools:

All classes and creeds were represented at the gathering. The first resolution was proposed by an MA of Trinity College. Nationalists and Unionists, Protestants and Catholics, were equally earnest in their advocacy of the language-the Protestant Bishop of Ossory wrote in open approval of “a platform on which all lovers of our dear native land could meet as nationalists in the truest sense of the word”.

By 1904, it was the strongest democratic organization in the country, wooed by the directors of the Abbey Theatre and by John Redmond’s Parliamentary Party offered Hyde a seat in Westminster. He refused, but only on being cautioned that such a gesture would reduce the inflow from nationalist sympathizers in the United States. The long-term implications of Hyde’s position were by then becoming clear, and they were spelt out vividly by the Protestant canon James Hannay (alias George Birmingham, novelist) in 1907.

I take the Sinn Fein position to be the natural and inevitable development of the League principles. They couldn’t lead to anything else … I do not myself believe that you will be able to straddle the fence for very much longer. You have, in my humble opinions, the chance of becoming a great Irish leader, with the alternative of relapsing into the position of a John Dillon. It will be intensely interesting to see which you choose. Either way, I think the movement you started will go on, whether you lead it or take the part of a poor Frankenstein who created a monster he could not control.

Hyde did lose control. The Fenian sub-text of his own language impelled his more ardent supporters towards a brazenly political commitment: and Hyde, whose uninterest in politics helped to widen his initial support, now found that his political naivete could lead to the League’s decline or, at any rate, its co-option by other forces. Though thousands of students had enrolled in the League’s classes, few ever got beyond the learning of a few token phrases. Without state support, there was a clear limit to what could be achieved. Equally, the Gaeltacht, the repository of unbroken traditions, could hardly be saved by a non-political organization which, by its own self-denying ordinance, could never expect to bring about industrial reform. The Gaelic League saw very clearly that if the Gaeltacht were left to survive on tourism, it would soon become a mere reservation, a museum: “the language, the industries, and the very existence of a people are all independent, and whoever has a living care for the one cannot be unmindful of the other”. So Patrick Pearse urged a programme of industrial development and called upon Leaguers to settle in the west, thereby making a real commitment over and above the use of ritual phrases. They did not go, preferring, as Sean O’Casey sarcastically noted, to stay in the more respectable Dublin suburbs of Donnybrook and Whitehall, “lisping Irish wrongly” and wincing at workmen like himself who frequented their meetings.

Some Leaguers projected an ideal self-image of the Gael as a descendant of ancient chieftains and kings. Irish Ireland countered the petty “seoinin” or West Briton, who asserted his superiority by imitating English manners, with its own form of invented Gaelic snobbery. Ireland became not-England, an apophatic construct which was as teasing to the mind as the notion of  a wheelless car. Anything English was ipso facto not for the Irish, as it might appear to esaken the claim to separate nationhood, but any valued cultural possession of the English were shown to have their Gaelic equivalenta. Thus was born what Sean de Freine has acutely called an ingenious device of national parallelism:

English language              – Irish language

English law                      – Brehon law

Parliament                       – Dail

Prime Minister                 – Taoiseach

Soccer                            – Gaelic football

Hockey                           – Hurling

It mattered little whether those devices had a secure basis in Irish history, for if they had not previously existed they could be invented, Gaelic football being a classic case of instant archaeology but definitely not a game known to Cuchulain.

Equally, because Englishmen were sensible enough to wear trousers in their inclement climate, it followed that the romantic, impractical Irishmen must have worn a kilt. This garment pleased the revivalists with its connotation of aristocracy, of Scottish chieftains and pipers marching into battle; but the garment never was Irish; and subsequent historians have shown that the Irish wore hip-hugging trousers long before the English (and were reviled for the barbarous fashion by the new invaders). The kilt wasn’t properly Scottish either, having been devised by an English Quaker industrialist, seeking an outlet for unused tartan after the highland clearances: it was worn by Scottish workers in the new factories because it was cheaper than trousers.

The idea that the revival might be a revolt against imitative provincialism completely escaped Dowden, though it had been signalled by Thomas Davis in the refrain in his most famous song:

And Ireland, long a province, be

A nation once again.




Even less did it strike Dowden or Eglinton that this revolt was also a protest against the provincialization of England by the forces of industrial society. The leaders of that protest saw provincialism as taking one of two forms: the first and more obvious being found in people who looked to some faraway centre for approved patterns of cultural significance, the second and more insidious being found in those who were so smugly self-assured that they had lost all curiosity about any other forms of life beyond their own. The Irish in the previous century had suffered from the former provincialism, as had many parts of England; but it was modern English who, even more than the nationalist Irish, were now suffering from the latter kind. While the former existed only as a comparison with a remote model, the latter refused any comparison at all. Neither Dowden nor Eglinton could concede what stared artists like Yeats and Joyce in the face: that England itself had grown smugly provincial in its imperial phase, because its citizens had lost the capacity to conceive of how they appeared in the eyes of others. They were psychologically driven to conquer largely because they had no sense of their own presence.

The English decline into the first form of deference had been diagnosed by George Eliot in the novel Middlemarch (1871 - 2), whose subtitle was “A study of provincial life”. In it, the Middlemarchers all choose to define themselves in the distorting mirror of other people’s opinions and this is the cause of their undoing: “Even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin”. By the new century, the decline into imperial smugness had fed massively off the earlier insecurity, but the underlying problem of provincialism remained to be documented by D. H. Lawrence: in Women in Love be shows lovers leaving home because “in England you can’t let go”, only for them to find that England is a state of mind which they bring with them wherever they travel. It was hardly a coincidence that, as English culture lapsed into this provincialism of spirit, Irish artists rediscovered their long-suppressed yearnings for the wider world. The moment might even be dated to 1892, when the Examiner of Plays un the Lord Chamberlain’s office refused a licence for the performance of Salome, a play by Oscar Wilde. The Examiner, E. F. Smyth Pigott, was called by Shaw “a walking compendium of vulgar, insular prejudice”. Wilde, for his part, responded with the assertion that Paris was now the true home of personal freedom. Salomee was published there in 1893 and performed in the city three years later.

From this point onwards, Irish thinkers turned to Europe, and beyond, as they had done so often in previous centuries, for ideas and audiences. The debate in Joyce’s story “The Dead” is about whether the Irish person of the future will holiday for recreation on the Aran Islands or on continental Europe. All of a sudden, England was a bore: which was what George Moore meant by his famous telegram announcing that the centre of gravity in the literary world had shifted from London to Dublin. Certainly, the axis which had once run from Dublin to London now ran from Dublin to Paris instead.

Little of this seems to have borne in upon Dowden or Eglinton. As the years passed and the evidence mounted, Yeats made it perfectly clear that his Irish revival was a revolt against a provincialism of mind which can sometimes inhere in imitative nationalism, sometimes in complacent imperialism, but which always seeks to reproduce itself in facsimile wherever it is found. After the Playboy riots, Yeats discovered that, in order to protect his movement, he had to fight as hard against nationalism provincialism as he had once fought against the closed minds of Trinity College:

Many are beginning to recognize the right of the individual mind to see the world in its own way, to cherish the thoughts which separate men from one another … instead of those thoughts that had made one man like another if they could, and have but succeeded in setting up hysteria and insincerity in place of confidence and self-possession.

The Gaelic obscurantist, the anti-intellectual priest, and the propagandist politician were all as inimical to the revivalist ideal as were the empire men or the shallow cosmopolitan. Yeats had believed that the language movement and the thought movement could be reconciled; though remaining open to influences from Europe, Asia and beyond, he based his doctrines on the conviction that there is no great literature without nationality and no nationality without literature.

Over five decades later, but in an analogous situation, in French Algeria, Frantz Fanon, the revolutionary and psychiatrist, found that he too had struggle against the “traditional points of view” embedded in French, “a language of occupation”: this he did by broadcasting in French the programmes of Radio Fighting Algeria, “liberating the enemy language from its historic meanings’. It was doubtless a similar complex of feelings which, in more recent years still, led the Indian novelist Salman Rushdie to declare: “Those of us who use English do so in spite of our ambiguity towards it, or perhaps because of that, perhaps because we can find in that linguistic struggle a reflection of other struggles taking place in the real world”. Like Yeats, Rushdie clung defiantly to the hope that something was gained rather than lost in the act of translation, one result of which might be “radically new types of human being”.

The deployment by postcolonial writers of historically-sanctioned English, and their speaking of it in a writerly, erudite fashion, have become much-remarked feature of this process. Back in the 1890s, Walter Pater had said that he wished to write English as a learned language. This was precisely how the Irish actors of Yeats’s theatre spoke it, as the London critic A. B. Walkley discovered on attending a performance: “The unexpected emphasis on the minor syllables has an air of not ungraceful pedantry, or, better still, of world courtliness. We are listening to English spoken with a wonderful care and slightly timorous hesitation, as though it were a learned language”.

The decolonizing programme of the theatre was made very obvious in Yeat’s repeaded invocations of the writers of the American Renaissance as models for his own. His notions of a national literature were derived from Walt Whitman, but so also was his idea of the reception of such writers: “If one says a National Literature must be in the language of the country, there are many difficulties. Should it be written in the language that one’s country does speak of the language it ought to speak?…Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman are national writers of America, although the one had his first acceptance in France and the other England and Ireland”. The man or woman of genius moulded the nation, rather than being made upon its mould: and because of their creative unpredictability, the encountered opposition, but they were embraced there “in the end”. In the meantime, they might have to turn for protection to the despised police of the colonial power, as Yeats did during the Playboy riots and as Rushdie would decades later: expressing the people’s life was far more dangerous than merely exploiting it.

Yet, though Yeats’s Samhain article and Rushdie’s essays in Imaginary Homelands would be separated over tjme by eighty, years, the experiences evoked in them did not markedly alter. Yeat’s new species of man is recognizably one of Rushdie’s hybrids, “people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves-because they are so defined by others-by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and find themselves”. The experience recalled in the essays is one of becoming, identity being not so much a possession as a way of being in the world. For that reason, the image of the migrant or traveller features much in their work, not only because in his displacement he symbolized the uprooted intellectual, but more especially because he is adaptive, one who moulds the new places that serve also to mould him. “The migrant is not simply transformed by his art; he also transform his new world”, writes Rushdie, who says that in consequence “migrants become mutants, but it is out of such hybridization that newness can emerge”. The search is for a mode of expression, a fuller articulation, and this quest becomes its own point for the writer. It becomes clear that for such, reality is a mere artefact until it has been embodied in a style: what Rushdie calls “the sense of a writer feeling obliged to bring his new world into being by an act of pure will, the sense that if the world is not described into existence in the most minute detail, then it won’t be there”.

Yeats, who had undergone these experiences so many years before Rushdie, was also led to the paradoxical conclusion that a nation could only achieve consciousness through exposure to others Similarly, a self could only awaken by an act of hybridization: for nothing could be created until first it was split in two:

All literature in every country is derived from models, and often as not these are foreign models, and it is the presence of a personal element alone that can give it nationality in a fine sense, the nationality of its maker. It is only before personality has been attained that a race struggling towards selfconsciousness is the better for having, as a primitive times, nothing but native models, for before this has been attained, it can neither assimilate nor reject. It was precisely at this passive moment, attainment approaching but not yet come, that the Irish heart and mind surrendered to England, or rather to what is most temporary in England; and Irish patriotism, content that the names and opinions should be Irish, was deceived and satisfied. It is always necessary to affirm that nationality is in the things that escape analysis.

This powerful and penetrating paragraph is one of the first Irish articulations of the dialectics of postcolonial liberation. It repeat the warnings of Hyde, Moran and others about a nationalism which would be no more than an imitation of its English begetter: but it transcends their diagnoses by offering a subtle account of how so many who dream of liberation become blocked at that mimic stage.

Declan Kiberd

The National Longing for Form

From  Inventing Ireland

Ireland after the famines of the mid-nineteenth century was a sort of nowhere, waiting for its appropriate images and symbols to be inscribed in it. Its authors had no clear idea of whom they were writing for. Many of the native Irish were caught between two languages, shame-facedly abandoning Irish and not yet mastering English.

Those Irish who were literate in English were not great buyers of books and so Irish artists wrote with one eye cocked on the English audience. They were, for the most part, painfully imitative of English modes, which they practised with the kind excess possible only to the insecure.

Cultural colonies are much more susceptible to the literature of the parent country than are the inhabitants of that country itself, since plays and novels of manners have always been exemplary instruments in the civilizing of the subject. A colonized people soon come to believe that approved fictions are to be imitated in life, and this notion in due time proves vitally useful to the exponents of resistance literature. Merely to describe a colonial society mimicking an approved literature is, however, to repeat in a boringly predictable fashion the previous modes. The most inspiring lesson which the resistance writer learns from the occupier is that the society around him or her may be no more than institutional inferences drawn from an approved set of text.

The ideal of a national poet, whether a W. S. Yeats or a Walt Whitman, is to displace constricting environment and its accompanying forms: since freedom cannot be won in them, it must be won from them. This is the overweening ambition of many great writers, to create a new genre in the act of destroying another, but it is almost unbearably intensified in a colony. Irish radicals in the nineteenth century had been gravely informed by the political theorist Mazzini that theirs was an economic problem requiring resolution rather than the question of an oppressed nation. Mazzini denied that they possessed the unique philosophy, language, dances or games which together were the sign of authentic nationhood. This was a brutal version of the tragic paradox confronts all subject peoples: political independence is deemed justifiable only by a distinctive national “idea”, yet the very forms of colonialist discourse prevent its articulation. So the very search for a method must become the decolonizer’s justification. As Patrick O’Farrell has observed:

in fact, the two searchings, the British for an answer, the Irish for a meaning to their question, intersected on each other to their mutual frustration. No proposed external solution could ever satisfy the Irish, calm their troubles, for they as a people neither knew who they were, not what they wanted-these were problems they would have to solve for themselves, themselves alone.

Yeat’s search has long been recognized as a quest for a mode of expression, which would precede any truth which in might express; even in later poems he could write:

A passion-driven exultant man sings out

Sentence that he has never thought…

or:

Where got I that truth?

Out of a medium’s mouth.

Out of nothing it came…

This was nothing other than the search for a national style and, as such, the purest Celticism. Matthew Arnold had suggested that in Celtic writing, expression seemed usually to precede conceptualization: “Celtic art seems to make up to itself for being unable to master the world and give an adequate interpretation of it, by throwing all its force into style…”

Most nation-states existed, so to speak, before they were defined, and they were thus defined by their existence: but states emerging from occupation, depossession or denial had a different from of growth. Some (like Israel) were fully defined before they existed and so fulfilled the criteria set down by Mazzini. These, however, were few, and there was (and is) a lot of strain attending this artificial process by which an abstraction is converted into reality. Most dispossessed peoples fought a different fight. Under occupation, they could never be their distinctive selves, but in answer to Mazzini’s challenge they had to seem to by an adopted attitude, an assumed style. This they would later proceed to justify by a recovered or discovered content. Style was the thing to be seized, the zone in which the battle of two civilizations would be fought out; and Yeats hoped that from his style a full man might eventually be inferred and, in due course-such was the enormity of his ambition- a nation.

The attempt, at a purely personal level, is well familiar to students of the romantic lyric, which is predicted on three selves: a past self, a reporting self which writes, and the self which the author will become by the very act of writing. In such a transaction, the “I” is necessarily precarious or inchoate, disappearing or scarcely born; but it is the identity towards which the lyric moves that is its raison d’etre, and this by definition cannot be established until expression has ceased. It was such a model which Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari had in mind when they defined a minor literature, which is to say, a literature written in a major language by a minority group in revolt against its oppressors:

… A major or established (i.e., imperial) literature follows a vector that goes from content to expression. Since contest is presented in a given from of content, one must find, or discover, or see the form of expression that goes with it. That which conceptualizes well expresses itself. But a minor, or revolutionary literature begins by expressing itself and doesn’t conceptualize until afterward.

This explains why in Ireland the cultural renaissance by many years the declaration of political independence (unlike the United States, which waited for over sixty years for its literary revival). It would also account for the preponderance of creative over critical texts in every phase of modern Irish literature. “Expression must break forms, encourage ruptures and new sproutings”, wrote Deleuze and Guattari: “When a form is broken, one must reconstruct the context that will necessarily be a part of the rupture in the order of things”. Those national authors, like Yeats and Whitman, who effect such breakages thereby become the first artists of the decolonizing world, prime exponents, of the emergent literatures of modernity, which are formed around a single question: how to express life which has never yet found full expression in written literature?



The pressures on such an author are immense. A writer in a free state works with the easy assurance that literature is but one of the social institutions to project the values which the nation admires, others being the law, the government, the army, and so on. A writer in a colony knows that these values can be fully embodied only in the written word: hence the daunting seriousness with which literature is taken by subject peoples. This almost prophetic role of the artist is often linked to “underdeveloped” societies, but the notion that a people’s economic state defined their total cultural condition can lead to such absurdities, mocked by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, as “show me a people’s plumbing, and I can tell you their art”. Nonetheless, the need to resort to non-representational art is obvious to those writers who seek to elaborate a landscape of internal consciousness rather than submit to a despised external setting.

The Dublin of Ulysses, an occupied city, exists only on the fringes of Stephen Dedalus’s gorgeous consciousness, for much the same reason that Yeats found it hard to attend to anything less interesting that his own thoughts. Attention is given less to the concrete world-about which the writer cares too little even to spurn it-than to the fertile minds which repeatedly displace in with their own superior alternatives. Art in this context might be seen as man'’ constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him: against the ability to imagine things as they are, it counterpoises the capacity to imagine things as they might be. Fictions, though they treat of the non-existent, by that very virtute help people to make sense of the world around them.

Hence the yearning among peoples for the freedom which a magical consciousness can always create for itself. The realists, complained Wilde, “have sold our birthright for a mess of facts”. To challenge English ideas is merely to treat symptoms; only by rejecting English forms could the mind be opened to the democratic muse. There are the hints of alternative forms in Gaelic poems and place names, whose recovered literal meanings allow the poet to see his native landscape anew. Whitman’s admiration for the word Mississippi (which to his ear flowed and unwound like the river) is paralleled by Yeats’s ritual invocation of places known and esteemed. The love of catalogue common to both national poets may have its roots in the epic poetry of the Gael amd the native American; but the ecstatic lists of native placenames which result are the Adam-like incantation of writers, rediscovering the exhilaration with which the first persons in Ireland or America named their own place and, in that sense, shaped it.

In such a self-charged context, nation-building can be achieved by the simple expedient of writing one’s autobiography: and autobiography in Ireland becomes, in effect, the autobiography of Ireland. To read the autobiographies of Yeats, George Moore or Frank O’Connor is an experience akin to the study of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: it is to be constantly impressed and unnerved by the casual ease with which they substitute themselves as a shorthand for their country, writing an implicit and covert constitution for their republics in images of their very creation.

The republican ideal was the achieved individual, the person with the courage to become his or her full self. The imperialists were not to be thought of as different, so much as aborted or incomplete individuals. By a weird paradox, their incompleteness, was by their polished surface, their premature self-closure which left them at once incomplete and finished. The glossy, confident surface indicated a person immune to self-doubt and therefore incapable of development.

The Irish self, by contrast, was a project: and its characteristic text was a process, unfinished, fragmenting. It invited the reader to become a co-creator with the author and it refused to exact a merely passive admiration for the completed work of art.

Wilde had said that the only question about a work of art was whether it was well or badly written. Yeats concurred, contending that “books live almost entirely because of their style”; he argued that the part in men of action which corresponded to style was the moral element. He found, therefore, in style that middle term which reconciled the seemingly opposed worlds of action and interpretation:

… Men are dominated by self-conquest; thought that is a little obvious or platitudinous if merely written, becomes persuasive even, if held to amid the sway of events. The self-conquest of the writer who is not a man of action is style…

Self-conquest, as opposed to conquest by others: what was proposed here was not a self-cancellation, but a self to possessed that it could withstand the pressure of proffered, innapropriate forms. So “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was praised by the artist as the first poem with his own music and rhythm about it.

What Yeats meant by style, therefore, was something much more expansive, muscular and demanding than the usual interferences drawn from the world. “Is not style not born out of the shock of new material?”. Synge had asked him, on returning with his destined dialect from the Aran Islands. The poet simply glossed that brilliant question with the observation that the new material was Ireland, awaiting its shaper, like wax upon a table. On the islands, Synge had found in his objective surroundings a world which, until that moment, had been a subjective puzzle within his own unclear and disordered imagination. But his discovered style had freed Synge from the merely literary, said Yeats, enabling him “to take the first plunge into the world beyond himself, the first plunge away from himself that is always pure technique, the delight in doing not because one would or could, but merely because one can do”. Ideas were of strictly limited importance in a process which dictated that style anticipate subject matter, which in truth it helped to bring to birth; and self-conquest was redefined as the plunge away from self into pure technique.

Synge’s life became in Yeats’s interpretation a demonstration of the fact that confident self-possession was the polar opposite self-assertion, which invariably arose from uneasiness. Thinking perhaps of the Negative Capability of Keats, of his ability to allow character to pass into intellectual production, Yeats submitted that the act of appreciation of any great thing was an act of self-conquest, such attention being very close to prayer. In that context, his famous injunction to Synge to express a life that has never found expression may be taken as referring to Synge’s own experience rather than that of the islanders (whose lives, after all, had been most fully expressed in Gaelic literature and lore). Style in Yeats’s system was the antiself, the opposite which turned out on inspection to be the secret double: achieved on Aran what Wilde achieved in England, a language which was the opposite of all that he had known and heard in childhood and in youth.

The Wildean style had been adopted as a gross assumption, a mask. Yeats agreed: virtue, to be active, must be an endless theatrical playing with such masks, for the self evoked by style was external, something encountered as coming from without, which only later led the discovery of an answering self within. He castigated those rudimentary souls who lacked this sense of the theatrical. The provincial’s inability to imagine a second self, to play instinctively before a mirror, to formulate an awareness of how he must appear to others, was a failure of the republican imagination, for which style was always a conscious relation between a past and a putative self.

Whenever Yeats raised the question of style, it was as if he saw in it the promise of an antidote to Anglicization. “The difficulties of modern Irish literature from the loose, romantic legendary stories of Standish O’Grady to James and Synge had been in the formation of a style”. Douglas Hyde’s ordinary English style was “without charm”; his Hiberno-English, on the other hand, was the coming of a new power into literature. “England had turned from style”, and it was style, therefore, which allowed one “to look into the lion’s face (as it were) with unquivering eyelash”. But England once upon a time had known style, in the “heroic self-possession” of Hamlet, who could teach a nervous Irish youth how play magnificently with hostile minds. In imitation of his hero, the young Yeats made model speeches as a training for the world rather than because he had anything to say: expression once again preceding concept in his development. It was his awareness of this rather strange sequencing which led to one of his autobiography’s most famous aphorisms: “It is so many years before one can believe enough in what one feels even to know the feeling is”. First, there was a cadence, or perhaps an image, later, a sense of its inner content-and that became the trajectory of Autobiographies, the bringing into being of a real man who might finally be found to lie behind the style which evoked him: “I must go on that there may be a man behind the lines already written”.

This version of identity is a cornerstone of Protestantism. “The love of God for every human soul is infinite, for every human soul is unique”, wrote Yeats in Anima Mundi; and so the individual must justify God’s love by perfecting its object. Near the close of his autobiography, he explained that style was the slayer of the old, derived self and the enabler of self-conquest. His authority for this was the Protestant service for the Burial of the Dead:

A writer must die every day he lives, be reborn as it is said in the Burial Service, an incorruptible self, that self the opposite of all that he has named “himself”.

Polonius’s ideal of truthfulness to oneself was cited by the poet as an example of bogus romantic sincerity: against it, he posited a Wildean notion of personality, intensified over many multiplications, until it achieved a fragmentary but real authenticity. “Men rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things”, the title of a youthful essay, turned out for all its didactic banality to be a truer Protestantism: the Keatsian and Wildean self, though conceived as a theatrical search for an enabling style, became the surest basis for intelligent self- scrutiny. Style rather than sincerity was the important thing, since style bespoke authenticity. For Yeats, therefore was no final conflict between morality and style. In his view, the only morality was style, for in the crisis of creation it was this which caused a person to fuse with the opposite, buried self. A great writer would thus be one who became his own ideal reader, an effect increasingly achieved by Yeats within the major poems composed after he had begun to work on his autobiography.

Such a struggle is tragic in exactions, demanding that one daily recreate all that environment and circumstances snatch away: however, it enables Ireland to challenge England and to transcend the slot-rolling antithesis between the two peoples. Natinalism and Unionism are but one other’s headache; those who insist that art must be either English or Irish are boring; but a nation having defined itself by passing through opposites, may see those opposites acquire sex and engender. When this happens, an end will come to that restless arraignment of the English Other and to the consequent purging of heresy within: instead there will emerge a self-creating Ireland produced by nothing but its own desire. Though offered primarily as the fusion of a great man with his Image, Yeats’s account of this moment has implications for Anglo-Irish relation and for the liberated person who may yet be their outcome:

The two halves of their nature are so completely joined that they seem to labour for their objects, and yet to desire whatever happens, being at the same time predestinate and free, creation’s very self. We gaze at such men in awe, because we gaze not at a work of art, but at the recreation of the man through the art, the birth of a new species of man.

The project of inventing a unitary Ireland is the attempt to achieve at a political level a reconciliation of opposed qualities which must first be fused in the self. In other words, personal liberation must precede national recovery, being in fact its very condition. His father'’ idea of uniting Catholic imagination with Protestant efficiency must have seemed to Yeats a wily appropriation for Ireland alone of the Arnoldian theory of Irish creativity 'completing“ English pragmatism in a unified British personality. Here, again, a potentially insulting cliché is retrieved by Yeats in a subtle and subversive fashion, to underwrite the very separatist claim which Arnold sought to deny.

Yeats’s new species of Irishman is not so much the creator of the Image as its outcome: and the liberated people are not inventors of personal style but its inferred content. That content is necessarily a throwback to a premodern culture common to England and Ireland before relations went sour, a people’s culture in which “all, artist and poet, craftsman and day-labourer, would accept a common design”, and in which literature “though made by many minds, would seem the work of one mind”. The paradox is again Whitmanian: perfect freedom of individual expression is possible in a code whose values are nonetheless communal. Deleuze and Guattari find such a paradox underlying all minor literatures:

Because collective national consciousness is often in external life and always in the process of breakdown, literature finds itself charged with the role of collective enunciation. Especially if a writer is on the margins, this allows him all the more scope to explore the community consciousness.

The songs of Douglas Hyde were sung by the common people: Yeats was massively moved by this and desired to achieve a folkloristic impersonality in his ballads, an utterance which, though personal, would seem communal, possible only to one who thinks like a wise man but speaks like the common people. He would ultimately seek that utterance in Unity of Culture.

What most moved Yeats about Wilde was the sense of his all-white rooms in London as the dramatized play of a consciousness, a style. This fascination persisted Irish writers: Synge sought to be the first great artist of the bilingual style; Beckett insisted that it was the shape rather than the content of the sentence that counted; and Joyce left that traditional division open to question with his claim that in Ulysses the style was the subject. To all of them, style was potentially redemptive, charged with the power to lift the fallen material of the given world to a new place of consciousness. Yet there was a price to pay;  and Yeats would wonder in more than one poem if this early elevation of form over matter had been advisable. Useful it had undeniably been as a ploy with to kick-start national poetic; but what if the style never found its subject, what if the singer born lacked a theme, what if it was only (as Beckett bitterly joked) a bow-tie worn over a throat-cancer? The price was discharged most painfully by Joyce, whose Ulysses is a compendium of style no one of which seeds into flower. Whitman’s own obsession with masturbation may be rooted in a similar desperation: the uncertainty behind the excessiveness of tone testified to a fear of unfruitfulness.

To write a deliberately new style, whether Hiberno-English or Whitmanian slang, was to seize power for a new voice in literature: and the pretence of the national poet is that he or she is not constructed by previous literary modes. Synge wrote as if he were Adam and this the first day of creation: so did Whitman and so, at times, did Yeats. Their problem was that the worlds which they created existed only as linquistic constructs and solely for the duration of the text. Each artist had, strictly speaking, no subjective self preceding the book as predicate; and so the text had no time other than that of its enunciation. Yeats gave his own rueful account of how he could only set up a secondary or interior personality “created out of the tradition of myself” and “alas only possible to me in my writings”. Since there were no clear protocols for a national poet, Yeats and Whitman were compelled to charm an audience into being by the very tone of their own voices, assuming a people in order to prove that they were really there. It followed that the role which they imagined for themselves had to be announced and then demonstrated in the very act of writing.

In his attempt, Yeats was able to invoke the ancient Gaelic bards as he tried to educate an English-speaking audience: but even more stunning is his insistence on self-explanation and autocriticism within the poem itself. He shared with Whitman the lonely pioneer’s need to talk to himself, to review his own work, to become his own first and ideal reader. Both men did not just say things: they also said why these things were appropriate to a national poet. They affected to discuss their own performances with the implied nation of readers in an unbuttoned fashion seldom possible within the English poetic tradition. The poets became their own critics, even as they urged their readers to become their own poets.

A consciousness which liberates a national idea by means of a renovated style lives in eternal peril: that, after humiliating failures to reproduce itself in the material world, it may become an end in itself. The beautiful soul, too good for this world, ends up experiencing society only as an irritant on the fringe of awareness, and those who began in hopes of recreating the conscience of a race may finally settle for defending a wearied sensibility. That is the progress of many a revivalist autobiography, not least that of Yeats. He started out in the conviction that texts by Synge, Lady Gregory and himself would provide the foundation for “the idea of a nation”: much later, he sadly concluded that he must settle for expressing “the individual”. One consequence of this was that Yeats, like Whitman, could never write a satisfactory novel. Nor, truth to tell, could the great Irish or American novelists. Joyce and Beckett, like Melville and Hawthorne, so transformed the genre that the characteristic narrative in both cultures was asocial, the ongoing monologue. Such monologues originated in a puritan tradition of anxious self-scrutiny, of every person being his or her own priest.

The crucial passages in a book like Moby Dick or Ulysses are written as soliloquy: and the great poems by Whitman and Yeats are based on introspective self-analysis. The Yeats who saw poetry as a confession by one side of his personality to the other clearly operated in this way, much like the Protestant child who awakened to the accusing voice of conscience in the opening pages of his autobiography. In many late lyrics, Yeats sought to “cast out remorse” as a prelude to the moment when the body blazed and he could celebrate it. “I sing the body electric” proclaimed Whitman in launching an ecstatic catalogue of bodily parts: and Yeats praised “the thinking of the body” in a democratic equality of matter and mind. For each poet, the decolonization of the body was a task almost as important as the decolonization of the native culture: those two freedoms went together. If the body was a metaphor for the state, then its repossession in an epic mode meant as much to Whitman as to Yeats and Joyce: it was part of their attempt to construct themselves as national artists.

Nineteenth-century American literature was such a clear instance of a decolonizing culture that it would have been amazing if its writers did not exert a tremendous influence on the makers of the Irish revival. The influence of Whitman on Yeats is perhaps the most striking of all. In the 1904 issue of Samhain, the journal of his national theatre society, Yeats remarked that a national literature “is the work of writers who are moulded by the influences that are moulding their country, and who write out of so deep a life that they are accepted there in the end”. This seems a deliberate echo of Whitman’s famous declaration that “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it”. In the 1904 essay, Yeats went on to say that the initial relationship may be adversarial, since whenever a country produces a man of genius he is never like that country’s immediate idea of itself: “When I was a boy, six persons who, alone out of the whole world it may be, believed Walt Whitman a great writer, sent him a message of admiration, and of those names four were English and two were Irish, my father'’ and Professor Dowden’s. It is only in our own day that America has begun to prefer him to Lowell, who is not a poet at all”. Though Yeats would later claim that Whitman, like Emerson, lacked “the vision of evil”, he never ceased to regard the American as a test-case, devoting his analysis of Phase Six in A Vision to Whitman’s attempt to reconcile individualism with communal ideals: which is to say that he used him as a sort of sounding-board in his own internal struggle between “freedom” and “necessity”, self and society.

Both Yeats and Whitman were initially more popular in England than in their home countries. Amy Lowell accused Whitman of playing the wild man or stage Yank and thus of appealing to recent immigrants whose America is large, simple, and had to be remade from day to day, i.e., those whose America had to be blatantly asserted rather than effortlessly assumed. The same strictures against Yeats as professional Celt were, of course, offered by Joyce and subsequent writers in Ireland. Yet both poets were far more subtle than such a critique implied: Whitman’s theory of poetic “suggestiveness” is close to the Yeatsian doctrine of “the half-said thing”. Their poems are founded on a necessary contradiction: they celebrate a nation’s soul, while at the same time insisting that it has yet to be made. The tendency of many of Yeat’s poems to begin with an emphatic statement only to end in self-questioning offers a variant on Whitman's theory that it is the reader, rather the poem, who needs to be complete.

Whitman mythologized himself, as Yeats later would, by pursuit of a mask, realizing what his disciple would put into words: that the poet is never the bundle of accident that sits down to breakfast, but one who speak through a phantasmagoria. Both described their ambitions in bardic terms, invoking the example of Homer and Shakespeare in their new national contexts: and both wrote their greatest texts out of the subsequent tragedy and disappointments of civil war. Whitman saw himself as counselor of president and people: and so did Yeats. Both assumed intimacy with their personal lives on the part of their readers, expecting even such esoterica as Whitmanian phrenology or Yeatsian gyres to be indulged and understood. Both, experiencing themselves as media for unseen forces which spoke through them, staked their claim as “representative men”, as types of a nation. Yet the traditions which they pioneered were also international, in the sense that they were certain that the conditions which produced them and their poems could be repeated in other places. Yeats was indeed an exemplar to Indian poets like Rabindranath Tagore, as was Whitman to many Latin Americans including Pablo Neruda. Thus was born “the international theme”. The Irishman, no less than the American, was the heir of all the ages, creating not just a national poetic but also a new species of man.








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