Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Reading John McGahern's the Barracks through Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Reading John McGahern's the Barracks through Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens"

Article excerpt

The sickness and subsequent death of Elizabeth Reegan, the protagonist of Irish novelist's John McGahern's The Barracks (London: Faber, 1983 paper ed. of 1963 First Edition) can be more easily understood through a realization of the Yeatsian intertext. McGahern's fictional landscape is modeled closely on his native County Roscommon and adopted home of County Leitrim in the northwest Irish midlands, not far from Yeats's Sligo. The theme of futile striving given in Yeats's early poem, "Down by the Salley Gardens" from Crossways (1889), has been adopted by McGahern in this novel that celebrates the rhythms of rural Ireland even as it shows the bone-crushing tasks of domestic work re-assumed by his heroine Elizabeth Reegan that lead to her death by heart attack after her bout with cancer. Her operation halfway through the novel has been successful, but the doctors are worried about her health since she resumes her accustomed household tasks. After an evening when her stepchildren enter with some perch strung on, significantly, a salley or willow branch (The Barracks, 159), a passage that follows suggests Elizabeth's deteriorating health. Finally her doctors warn: "It was her heart they feared most now, the strain of the operation and illness proving too much, and they told her to take things easy" (160; my emphasis).

This fictional infinitive phrase recalls the advice the speaker of Yeats's "Down by the Salley Gardens" is given by his lover in two similes drawn from nature: "bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;" and later, in line seven, "bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs" (The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, A New Edition, ed. Richard J. Finneran [NY: Collier, 1989]: 20; my emphases). McGahern's Elizabeth Reegan shows a deeply felt connection with nature throughout the novel and indeed, the doctors' advice comes immediately after a passage showing the slow change of the seasons from summer into fall. She, like Yeats's speaker, refuses to heed the advice offered to her and displayed in nature. The narrator tells us, "she paid no attention, how could she stay with them in this barracks and not be occupied" (160). Irish women in the 1950s had not achieved any rights to speak of, and married women of the lower classes were largely relegated to domestic work and child rearing; but Elizabeth carries another burden that combined with her tasks proves unbearable. …

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