Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Ecocriticism & Irish Poetry a Preliminary Outline

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Ecocriticism & Irish Poetry a Preliminary Outline

Article excerpt

Kuno Meyer claims, in Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, that an intense love of nature "in its tiniest phenomena as in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as to the Celt" (Meyer 1959: xii). Seamus Heaney strikes much the same pose as Meyer when he writes that Ireland's ancient nature verse "makes a springwater music out of certain feelings in a way unmatched in any other European language" (Heaney 1980: 182). Heaney also admires Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson who insists that Celtic literature "did not belong at all to the common culture of the rest of Europe; nor did it ever become more than partly influenced by it" (Heaney 1980: 183). Elsewhere, Jackson adds that even though Celtic literature was never more than partly influenced by European culture it did, at some point after the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (because of "foreign influences"), start to lose its "earlier spontaneity" (Jackson 1935: vii). Patrick C. Power agrees that nature verse was of immense importance before the 13th Century but believes that fewer and fewer nature poems were written after that time (Power 1967: 124). Sean O Tuama supports the basic thesis that Old/Middle Irish was awash in nature references and that things started to deteriorate at some point thereafter (O Tuama 1995: 263). Where O Tuama differs from some of the aforementioned critics, however, is that he thinks Ireland's nature verse only went into serious decline from 1601 on (O Tuama 1981: xxix).

Whatever critical value these different ecological notations possess, the significance of nature writing in the earlier stages of Irish literature, coupled with a diminution of interest in nature over time, requires much more scholarship before any critical verdict can be handed down. That said, it is clear that all the above critics share an ecocritical perspective concerning the Irish and their fondness for nature; a fondness which is supposed to stretch back to a pre-Christian era when humans and nature existed in a state of virtual bliss. It is also clear that such narratives provide a longstanding semiotic of nature discourse whereby the English imperium, not Roman Christendom or Europeanism, is held responsible for negating Ireland's topographic realm and creating a divisive universe characterized by destructive agricultural practices, the systematic exploitation of natural resources (in particular, the felling of native trees), and, at the level of language, literature and culture an ongoing ideological representation of the Irish people as uncivilized others--wild, savage, etc.

When Michael Viney writes in "Woodcock for a Farthing: The Irish Experience of Nature" that Irish and English views of nature have seldom coincided his statement is thus part truism, part understatement (Viney 1986: 59). Likewise, when Viney explains that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the English espoused an ideal type of "the land" and insisted it be cultivated in their image and likeness, he is quick to recognize that the Irish were never in any position to meet the excruciating demands of those who labeled them "wood-born savages"; as he later puts it with sardonic twist, "English destruction of the Irish woods was thus an act of civilization" (Viney 1986: 59). Rebecca Solnit makes much the same point as Viney in A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland where she observes, with respect to the sixteenth century, that not only did Spenser and Sidney then lay the groundwork for the English pastoral tradition but, in so doing, ensured that the viability of--the very idea of--a credible Irish pastoral was ruled out of court (Solnit 1997: 103-104). Solnit dwells on this ideological ruling further when she asks, with a calculated sense of naivete, "Does the English pastoral, and the security and abundance it represents, depend on the impoverished land and people of other lands?" (Solnit 1997: 103104).

In empirical terms, at least, the answer to Solnit's question involves, and this accords with O Tuama's position, the wholehearted destruction of Ireland's woods following Irish defeat at Kinsale in 1601: an Ireland that was still under substantial forest in 1600 had, by 1711, become a "treeless wilderness and a net importer of timber" (Solnit 1997: 104). …

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