Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition

Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition

Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition

Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition


In Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition, Donna L. Potts closely examines the pastoral genre in the work of six Irish poets writing today. Through the exploration of the poets and their works, she reveals the wide range of purposes that pastoral has served in both Northern Ireland and the Republic: a postcolonial critique of British imperialism; a response to modernity, industrialization, and globalization; a way of uncovering political and social repercussions of gendered representations of Ireland; and, more recently, a means for conveying environmentalism's more complex understanding of the value of nature.

Potts traces the pastoral back to its origins in the work of Theocritus of Syracuse in the third century and plots its evolution due to cultural changes. While all pastoral poems share certain generic traits, Potts makes clear that pastorals are shaped by social and historical contexts, and Irish pastorals in particular were influenced by Ireland's unique relationship with the land, language, and industrialization due to England's colonization. For her discussion, Potts has chosen six poets who have written significant collections of pastoral poetry and whose work is in dialogue with both the pastoral tradition and other contemporary pastoral poets. Three poets are men--John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley--while three are women--Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Né Dhomhnaill. Five are English-language authors, while the sixth--Né Dhomhnaill--writes in Irish. Additionally, some of the poets hail from the Republic, while others originate from Northern Ireland. Potts contends that while both Irish Republic and Northern Irish poets respond to a shared history of British colonization in their pastorals, the 1921 partition of the country caused the pastoral tradition to evolve differently on either side of the border, primarily because of the North's more rapid industrialization; its more heavily Protestant population, whose response to environmentalism was somewhat different than that of the Republic's predominantly Catholic population; as well the greater impact of the world wars and the Irish Troubles.

In an important distinction from other studies of Irish poetry, Potts moves beyond the influence of history and politics on contemporary Irish pastoral poetry to consider the relatively recent influence of ecology. Contemporary Irish poets often rely on the motif of the pastoral retreat to highlight various environmental threats to those retreats--whether they be high-rises, motorways, global warming, or acid rain. Potts concludes by speculating on the future of pastoral in contemporary Irish poetry through her examination of more recent poets--including Moya Cannon and Paula Meehan--as well as other genres such as film, drama, and fiction.

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Anthony Bradley’s “Pastoral in Modern Irish Poetry” and Sidney Burris’s The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition (1990) inspired me to reconsider the relationship of Heaney and, eventually, other contemporary Irish poets to the pastoral tradition. Bradley divides Irish poets into two groups: those of the Irish literary revival who lacked direct experience of the land, much less an understanding of the people who worked on it; and those post-revivalists such as Patrick Kavanagh, whose firsthand experience of the land made them resist idealizing either the land or those who labored on it. Having loved and respected Virgil’s Georgics and the poetic tradition that grew out of it, with its emphasis on the land as the site of labor rather than of leisure, and having been raised in southwest Missouri, where my family farmed a couple of acres, I had an affinity for the georgic, or “anti-pastoral” tradition of the post-revivalists. Although I studied Yeats in college, Seamus Heaney, with his rural County Derry upbringing and his subsequently less romanticized view of country life, was the first Irish poet who really spoke to me. As I began to consider how contemporary Irish poets employed the pastoral tradition in their own work, Bradley’s and Burris’s postcolonial approach formed the basis for my own. Yet I could not ignore a number of other forces that have obviously contributed to and shaped contemporary Irish poets’ particular versions of pastoral. Pastoral poetry since Kavanagh has served not only as postcolonial critique of British imperialism but also as a response to industrialization, modernity, the commodification of landscape, and gendered representations of Ireland and their political and social repercussions. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Irish cultural nationalism was reformulated and to some extent transformed by the environmental movement.

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