J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory

J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory

J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory

J. M. Synge and Lady Gregory

Excerpt

In the 1890s, in an Ireland still firmly under English rule, there occurred a quite remarkable upsurge of creative interest in literature and the arts. Temporarily frustrated in their struggle for political independence by the fall of the great nationalist leader Parnell, Irishmen of the middle and upper classes (mainly from the Protestant 'Ascendancy', which had all the educational advantages) turned for consolation to the epics of Ireland's ancient heroic past, recently translated by Celtic scholars. Folklorists like Douglas Hyde taught themselves the Irish language still spoken by the peasantry along the western seaboard, and made the exciting discovery that these same stories were still a living part of the folk consciousness, along with a vernacular poetry composed and handed down by wandering bards.

They also discovered that people whose first language was Irish Gaelic spoke an uncommonly musical and vivid English, partly based on mental translation from the Gaelic, but also filled with rich Elizabethan turns of phrase.

Plainly, there was a wealth of poetic material here. But it might never have got beyond the cottage hearth and the folklore conference, had there not coincided, in space and time, a handful of men and one woman with the gifts that could transmute it into a literature of universal appeal.

The leader was W. B. Yeats, already famous as a lyric poet, and hankering, as Shelley, Tennyson and Browning had done before him, after some means of reviving the poetic drama of the Elizabethans. The worst of artistic forms, he pronounced, was the play about modern educated people, with its meagre language and its action crushed into the narrow limits of possibility. 'Educated and well-bred people do not wear their hearts upon their sleeves, and they have no artistic and charming language except light persiflage . . .

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