The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats

The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats

The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats

The Politics of Irish Literature: From Thomas Davis to W. B. Yeats

Excerpt

Modern Ireland provides us with the classic case of an impressive literature brought to birth by politics. My purpose here is to set that literature back into place in its original historical context. In my opinion, this operation lights up in a startling cross-illumination both the literature and the historical narrative associated with it. It is professionally hazardous, though, for it is "interdisciplinary," involving both history and literature, two separate, autonomous, and boundary-conscious academic establishments that are not commonly at ease in one another's company. Still, my task sounds as if it ought to be easy to bring off. Given: the familiar corpus of Irish literature. What could be simpler than interleaving into it the supposedly simple chronicle of Irish history ?

It is not really quite so simple. Frustration begins with our discovery that the old reliable mechanisms of literary annotation cannot be domesticated in the Irish environment. An illustration of this problem is found in a popular anthology which quotes Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben," and for the lines

You that Mitchel's prayer have heard,
"Send war in our time, O Lord!"

gives the following annotation: "John Mitchel, an Irish patriot imprisoned for his activities, wrote in his Jail Journal: 'Give us war in our time, O Lord!'" The gloss is approximately accurate but very bare. We sympathize, but we can only say of this editor's friendly foray against our ignorance:

You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Yeats despised historians and ordered them to get off the earth. They disrupted the market where he brought his intuitions. For ourselves, we cannot be so rash. We need to stay with the gloss on Mitchel until it surrenders its pertinent meaning. The inquiry cannot be pursued by halves, and it will grow at last into a full-length account of the life and times of nineteenth-century Ireland. This by necessity, since Irish history, like the old-time religion, gives true baptism only through total immersion.

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