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Mulligan Stew

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 before Joyce had published more than one or two magazine stories, and more than a decade before Yeats found the voice by which he is now for the most part remembered. Yeats, from all that we know, never bothered to read more than a few pages of Ulysses, and relations between the two men, especially in their later years, were largely formal, not to say frosty. Their styles, their habits of mind, did not easily jibe. Joyce never had much use for the peasant wisdom and peasant lore in which Synge and (for a while) Yeats professed to believe; Yeats could not begin to follow Joyce’s linguistic pyrotechnics. Temperamentally they were miles apart; and, recognizing that fact, they shrewdly made what limited use they could of each other, and for the rest maintained a deliberate distance.

Kenner reacts to the various difficulties of his task with a remarkable display of stylistic devices. Since much of what he has to recite is very familiar biographical and critical stuff indeed, Kenner jazzes it up with lecture-room jocularities which include a fondness for referring to Yeats as “Willie” and to Joyce as “Jim.” There are, the reader will be sorry to hear, several passages where Kenner slips into his version of the stage Irishman, for which there is no better adjective than “cute.” There are some condescending and stereotyped explanations of Irish character, Irish lore, and Irish speech habits; there are several collections of brief miscellaneous quotations about the Irish, assembled under the caption “Points to Ponder.” And there are a number of generalizations—many ingenious and a few substantial—through which Kenner in his own person tries to pull the facets of his story together.

The frequent slackness of these generalizations derives, I think, from the author’s fondness for configuration and coincidence, whether significant or insignificant, but in any case striking wherever possible. As originally planned, the Easter Rising of 1916 would have fallen on April 23, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and the tercentenary of his death. Kenner thinks well enough of this coincidence to report the fact twice, on pages 175 and 231; what it signifies, or what he thinks it signifies, the reader is left to guess. The book contains a good many of these apparently portentous but actually trivial juxtapositions. We learn that Ulysses was published on the author’s fortieth birthday, the very day, as it happened, when John Butler Yeats, father of the poet, died. The birthday publication was deliberate, the ostensible connection with the senior Yeats (who never looked at Joyce’s book, was utterly uninterested in his existence, and had been living in New York for fifteen years when he died) is an insignificant coincidence. Kenner tries to dress it up by reciting a story of Gogarty’s telling about an alleged encounter between young Joyce and old Yeats. It is a good story, good enough to entice Kenner into what he has previously disdained, the field of “Irish Fact.”

Irish Facts are a Kenner invention, with which he makes much play; they are good stories masquerading as literal truth, and Kenner has been known to complain publicly that Richard Ellmann in his biography of Joyce made too much or too confident use of them. But in the present book they are apparently all right, with or without accreditation. Nameless raconteurs, basing themselves on someone else’s hearsay, are admitted in evidence; the unspoken thoughts of Synge, while being interviewed by a journalist, are here laid out for us thanks to the happy intuitions of Mr. Kenner.

Practicalities, of course, have to be observed, in Ellmann’s enterprise as well as Kenner’s; a biographer who lays out in full detail all the reasons for accepting or rejecting a particular episode will never tell a coherent, let alone an interesting, story. But the whole category of the Irish Fact merits a moment’s examination. It’s not just in Ireland but throughout the world that apocryphal stories spring up around famous people, as biographers of Alexander the Great or Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln already know, to their cost. There is an aspect of Irish life, to which Kenner refers only glancingly, that may account for some special qualities of the island’s culture. Having been limited for many centuries in their access to learning English, the Irish have learned to rely, perhaps more than other peoples, on word of mouth and the formulas of oral transmission. That was the training of the ancient ollaves and their more recent descendants the bards; the hedgerow priest, who had only one well-worn book with which to teach his entire class, necessarily depended on verbal memory. People in Ireland remember a great deal, and often with astounding accuracy; and what they cannot remember they sometimes invent. But there’s nothing peculiarly Irish about this process, and the legend that the Irish are a tribe of irresponsible blatherskites is one of many canards to which, alas, even some of the Irish have lent themselves.

More ambitious and potentially more interesting is a general contrast that Kenner propounds between Irish (that is, English tinged by Gaelic) speech and the typically modernist or even “futurist” idiom. The former he qualifies as “aspective” because it minimizes the impact of verbs, describing instead the condition of things after the verb has made its point; in the latter the verb supplies the basic dynamos of the sentence, which other grammatical components control and direct. Lady Gregory and Synge made use of the Irish idiom; Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis were notable exponents of the modernist style. Yeats was subject to both influences at once; and how the two directives could go hand in hand is one of Kenner’s more sensible questions. He half answers it by saying that Yeats and Pound did not fight over the matter, as indeed they did not; but a fuller answer would be that in the later poems of Yeats the modernist idiom substantially prevails. Yeats’s skill at filling a stanza with a single marmoreal sentence is essentially Latinate; it suspends and re-suspends the thought, holding it incomplete till an act or image, most often a powerful controlling verb, pulls all into order. This is a process Kenner describes very well, but it is strictly a pattern of verbal action, and has less to do than he implies with the static qualities of noh plays or any other form of stage nonaction, including Beckett’s.

When one looks deliberately at the matter, it’s quite remarkable how much of A Colder Eye is hedged about with the formulas of supposition. It is “possible to credit” one thing and “difficult not to imagine” another; somebody “must” or “might” have been conscious of one matter or another, about which there is not the slightest evidence that he even thought. Beckett might have read a 1902 article by Yeats to get ideas for Endgame and a bit of business for Act Without Words No. 2; but there’s no evidence that he did, and the similarities are far from striking. In 1895 youthful James Joyce might have seen eccentric Professor Kavanagh trying to fly in College Park, therefore he did see him; and that, as much as Ovid, was what may have, or may well have, or at least possibly, suggested to him the myth of Dedalus and Icarus.

Again, when Joyce began writing Finnegans Wake with the Roderick O’Conor section (it now appears on pp. 380-382 of the book), though it clearly concerns an Irish king of the twelfth century as well as our perennial pubkeeper, HCE, Kenner thinks “it is difficult not to imagine” a connection with the execution three months earlier of the Irish terrorist named Rory O’Connor. But there is not the slightest evidence, in the passage or elsewhere, that he had any such thing in mind. Joyce was by then practically blind; newsprint would have been utterly beyond his reach. And in any case, the method of reading the Wake by importing random allusions from contemporary events on no grounds more solid than a single very common surname seems likely to create more chaos than any book can stand.

Carping makes dull work, and one undertakes it with reluctance. Kenner’s stock formulas, empty gestures, and flaccid rhetoric wouldn’t warrant extended reproof if his previous work hadn’t taught one to expect something much, much better. The Pound Era was a big, generous book, crammed with suggestions, insights, fresh recombinant patterns. Amid all the chaff of A Colder Eye one can still find the odd snip of sharp, perceptive commentary; but it has to be scratched for and picked out, bit by bit. The indigestible stuff predominates; as a whole, the book is to be read with a wary eye, a doubtful disposition, and enough preliminary information to make possible a heavy dose of distrustful discrimination.

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