THE NECESSITY FOR DE–ANGLICISING
(This important statement, from
which the following is an extract, was addressed to the National Literary
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
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
I answer because the Irish race is a
present in a most anomalous position, imitating
To say that
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:
That Irish valour fixed her flag o’er many conquered lands;
Wolseleys and her Lawrences her Wolfes and
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
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
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
What the battleaxe of the Dane, the
sword of the
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
So much for
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
In exalting the fight against
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
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
The invention of their idea of
The world was changing more in those
thirty years than it had since the death of Christ. All over
… It is curious certainty that come
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
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
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
What shocked Hyde about contemporary
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
A nation once again.
Even less did it strike Dowden or
Eglinton that this revolt was also a protest against the provincialization of
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
From this point onwards, Irish
thinkers turned to
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,
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
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
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
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.
The National Longing for Form
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…
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
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
The pressures on such an author are
immense. A writer in a
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.
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
In such a self-charged context, nation-building
can be achieved by the simple expedient of writing one’s autobiography: and
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Both Yeats and Whitman were
initially more popular in
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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