A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers
by Hugh Kenner
Knopf, 287 pp., $16.95
Hugh Kenner, who has written two books on Joyce, two on Beckett, two on Pound, and one on Eliot, has now written one on the modern Irish writers, by whom he means primarily Yeats, Joyce, and Synge. Two of these figures have been dead for more than forty years, one for nearly seventy-five; but there’s no need to be chronological about the word “modern.” By one civilized and defensible calculation, everything written since 1750 is “modern,” and it’s no paradox to propound that we’ve hardly begun to catch up with the modernity of William Blake. So Yeats, Joyce, and Synge can perfectly well be modern Irish writers; it’s less clear that they are the modern writers, since there were after all a number of others. Kenner’s account of, or neglect of, these others involves him in a good deal of cross-stitching and hopscotching.
His preliminary note frankly disavows any attempt to write something on the order of a survey, declaring not without a touch of airiness that this is to be “one kind of book and not another kind.” Its emphasis will be on telling “a coherent story, which could be subtitled Yeats and His Shadow.” But if the story is the very reverse of coherent, and Joyce regularly declines to take his assigned position in the shadow of Yeats, what kind of book do we have then? A clever performance, to be sure; Kenner is incapable of writing a leaden book. But what he has written is a careless, invertebrate, dodgy one, in which, when you discount the known biographical facts and long-established critical interpretations, he has remarkably little to say that is new about Yeats, Synge, Joyce, and their work.
For a sample of Kenner’s coherent story, consider the chapter entitled “The Ulysses Years.” It begins with twelve pages on Ulysses, of which three are devoted to Oliver Gogarty and a couple of others to miscellaneous matters (Dubliners, the OED, the “stock” English novel); it breaks for seven pages on Sean O’Casey, about whom Kenner has substantially nothing to say; and it concludes with nine pages in which the greatest poetry of Yeats, that of The Wild Swans at Coole, The Tower, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, and The Winding Stair, slides smoothly past us, the latter two volumes not even being mentioned by name. Isolated and often very acute remarks on the poetry of Yeats are scattered throughout the book; comment on Joyce is a good deal less successful (an imaginary “plot” for Finnegans Wake is proposed on page 230 and discarded, not an instant too soon, on page 231); only The Playboy of the Western World receives something like a careful critical analysis. But as for a “coherent story,” that is not the impression one gets.
In fact, for three men who knew one another, Kenner’s “modern Irish writers” followed notably independent paths; their stories do not combine easily or naturally into a single narrative. Synge was dead …