Category Archives: Ireland

Connections: Julio Cortazar, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, Victor Shklovsky, Zbigniew Herbert

“… the feeling more than the awareness, the intuition that literary prose – in this case, I picture myself while I am writing – can manifest as pure communication and in a perfect style, but also with a certain structure, a certain syntactic architecture, a certain articulation of words, a rhythm in the use of punctuation or separation into sections, a cadence that the reader’s internal ear can recognize more or less clearly as a musical element.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class 

“And there was also something in his practice which corresponded to the poetics of Robert Frost, in so far as the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.”

  • Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

“That’s where the problem begins, because if he uses the language that expresses the world he is attacking, that language will betray him. How can he denounce something with the tools that are used by the enemy, that is, the stratified, codified language, a language already used by the masters and their disciples?”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“… knowledge of the oppressor

is the oppressor’s language

yet I need it to talk to you

(the fracture of order

the repair of speech

to overcome this suffering…)”

“At the beginning there appeared a poet like Mayakovsky. He destroyed the language of poetry and prose and created a new language, which isn’t easy to do. It wasn’t immediately understandable, and it contained dizzying and difficult images.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“Bits of landscape melted into – burned themselves into – Mayakovsky’s poems.”

  • Victor Shklovsky, Once Upon a Time

“… colonization, poverty, and goonish governments also mutilate us aesthetically.”

  • Julio Cortazar, Literature Class

“It didn’t require great character at all

our refusal disagreement and resistance

we had a shred of necessary courage

but fundamentally it was a matter of taste

                                    Yes taste

in which there are fibers of soul the cartilage of conscience

So aesthetics can be helpful in life

one should not neglect the study of beauty…

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Filed under Colm Toibin, Ireland, Julio Cortazar, Poland, Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert

Connections: Proust and Wilde

From the Loose Signatures blog:

“The visits that Bergotte paid us were a few years too late for me now, because I didn’t like him as much any more—which doesn’t contradict the fact that his reputation had grown. An oeuvre is rarely completely victorious and comprehended without another writer’s work, perhaps still obscure, beginning to replace the cult that has almost finished coming to the fore with a new one (at least among a few more hard-to-please minds). In the books of Bergotte that I re-read most often, his sentences were as clear before my eyes as my own ideas, the furniture in my room, and the cars in the street. All things were comfortably obvious—even if not exactly as you had always seen them, at least as you were used to seeing them at the present time. But a new writer had started publishing works where the relationships between things were so different from those that bound things together for me that I could barely understand anything he wrote. For example, he said, “The watering hoses admired the lovely upkeep of the highways” (and that was easy; I slid down the length of those highways) “which left every five minutes from Briand and from Claudel.” I didn’t understand any more, since I’d expected the name of a city, but instead it gave me the name of a person. I didn’t just think that the sentence was poorly made; I thought that I wasn’t strong and quick enough to go all the way to its end. I picked up my spirits and clambered on hands and feet to get to a place where I could see the new relations between things. Each time I got a little closer to the midpoint of the sentence, I fell back down, like the slowest soldier in a regiment during the “portico” exercise. I admired the new writer no less than the clumsy kid who gets a zero in gym class admires a more dexterous child. From then on, I admired Bergotte less; his limpidity now seemed to come from inadequacy. There had once been a time when people recognized things when Fromentin painted them, but not when Renoir did.

Today, people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great painter of the nineteenth century.* But in saying so, they forget Time, and that it took a lot of it—well into the twentieth century—for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To successfully be recognized as such, the original painter or artist must set forth like opticians. The treatment of their painting, their prose, isn’t always pleasant. When finished, the practitioner tells us: “Now look.” And behold—the world (which was not created just once, but as often as a truly original artist appears) looks entirely different to us from the old one, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those of the past, since they are Renoirs—those same Renoirs in which we long ago refused to see any women at all. The cars are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky. We feel like we are walking in a forest like the one which on the first day seemed to us like everything excepta forest—like a tapestry with a number of nuances that nevertheless lacks just those nuances that a forest should have. That is the universe, new and perishable, which has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer who is truly original.”

  • Proust, The Guermantes Way, part 2, chapter 1

—-

“Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art. You smile. Consider the matter from a scientific or a metaphysical point of view, and you will find that I am right. For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing. One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. Then, and then only, does it come into
existence. At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them. Now, it must be admitted, fogs are carried to excess. They have become the mere mannerism of a clique, and the exaggerated realism of their method gives dull people bronchitis. Where the cultured catch an effect, the uncultured catch cold. And so, let us be humane, and invite Art to turn her wonderful eyes elsewhere. She has done so already, indeed. That white quivering sunlight that one sees now in France, with its strange blotches of mauve, and its restless violet shadows, is her latest fancy, and, on the whole, Nature reproduces it quite admirably. Where she used to give us Corots and Daubignys, she gives us now exquisite Monets and entrancing Pissaros. Indeed there are moments, rare, it is true, but still to be observed from time to time, when Nature becomes absolutely modern. Of course she is not always to be relied upon. The fact is that she is in this unfortunate position. Art creates an incomparable and unique effect, and, having done so, passes on to other things. Nature, upon the other hand, forgetting that imitation can be made the sincerest form of insult, keeps on repeating this effect until we all become absolutely wearied of it. Nobody of any real culture, for instance, ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old-fashioned. They belong to the time when Turner was the last note in art. To admire them is a distinct sign of provincialism of temperament. Upon the other hand they go on. Yesterday evening Mrs. Arundel insisted on my going to the window, and looking at the glorious sky, as she called it. Of course I had to look at it. She is one of those absurdly pretty Philistines to whom one can deny nothing. And what was it? It was simply a very second-rate Turner, a Turner of a bad period, with all the painter’s worst faults exaggerated and over-emphasised. Of course, I am quite ready to admit that Life very often commits the same error. She produces her false Renes and her sham Vautrins, just as Nature gives us, on one day a doubtful Cuyp, and on another a more than questionable Rousseau. Still, Nature irritates one more when she does things of that kind. It seems so stupid, so obvious, so unnecessary. A false Vautrin might be delightful. A doubtful Cuyp is unbearable. However, I don’t want to be too hard on Nature. I wish the Channel, especially at Hastings, did not look quite so often like a Henry Moore, grey pearl with yellow lights, but then, when Art is more varied, Nature will, no doubt, be more varied also. That she imitates Art, I don’t think even her worst enemy would deny now. It is the one thing that keeps her in touch with civilised man. But have I proved my theory to your satisfaction?”

 

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Filed under France, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde

‘Confusion is not an ignoble condition’: Brian Friel: Plays (Contemporary Classics: Volume 1)

In the middle of Brian Friel’s play, The Aristocrats, a character recites the lines of the Scottish poet Alastair Reed’s ‘My Father Dying:

“But on any one
of these nights soon,
for you, the dark will not crack with dawn,

and then I will begin
with you that hesitant conversation
going on and on and on.”

In a way, these lines exemplify Friel’s work. ‘Hesitant conversation’ marks his characters’ interactions with each other, in different ways. As Seamus Deane puts it in his Introduction to this collection of six plays, it is “the failure of language to accommodate experience, the failure of a name to fully indicate a place, the failure of lovers to find the opportunity to express their feeling…” The human relationship, whether it is between father and son (Philadelphia, Here I Come!), husband and wife (Living Quarters), or lovers of occupied and occupying nations (Translations), is stymied by the insufficiency of language which, in Friel’s hands, becomes a viscous and resistant substance, its thickness lying heavy upon the page. We are always looking for words. We never find them. Perhaps because they do not exist.

The use of the word ‘conversation‘ in the poem is not straightforward either. ‘… the dark will not crack with dawn‘ signifies the death of the poet’s father, and how does one have a conversation with a dead man? It is at best a monologue, conducted with someone who can no longer speak for himself. It is the poet who must take upon himself the burden of representation. And likewise, in Friel’s plays – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Ireland’s colonial past – there is a constant struggle for representation. The characters in the play struggle to represent themselves against those outside the play, whether it is an off-stage Judge and a sociologist in The Freedom of the City, a seemingly omnipotent “Sir” in Aristocrats, or the protagonist’s own private persona in Philadelphia, Here I come! Again, Deane: “[Friel’s] plays are full of what we may called displaced voices. American sociologists, English judges, and voice-overs from the past play their part in the dialogue in set speeches, tape-recordings, through loudspeakers. The discourse they produce is obviously bogus. Yet its official jargon represents something more and something worse than moral obtuseness. It also represents power, the one element lacking in the world of the victim…”

Brian Friel was an Irish dramatist who had a long and distinguished theatre career, at home and abroad. The beginnings of his theatrical life coincided with the beginning of ‘The Troubles‘ in Northern Ireland, a period of sustained political and sectarian violence. Like in the case of his great poetic contemporary, Seamus Heaney, this has left an indelible mark on Friel’s artistic work. Out of the six plays that constitute Volume 1 of the Contemporary Classics edition of his work (Philadelphia, Here I Come!The Freedom of the CityLiving Quarters, Aristocrats, Faith Healer, Translations), two deal with the overtly political theme of the relationship between the English and the Irish (Freedom of the City and Translations), while politics is rarely far away from the rest. Nonetheless, Friel’s relationship with politics is not simplistic, and his plays are anything but polemical. In a certain sense, he seems to view the relationship between art and politics in a manner similar to Heaney: there is a constant tension between keeping art apolitical, and using art to actively intervene in politics, to make a statement, as it were. But ultimately, Friel’s plays exemplify what Heaney himself said, in The Redress of Poetry:

“Poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.”

In fact, each of the six plays are primarily dedicated to exploring the immense complexity of human relationships, and they do so in limpid, bare and stark prose, that strips everything down to its essentials. In the opening play, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Gar O’Donnell is a young man soon to leave the suffocating little Irish village of Ballybeg for the United States. Torn between regret at the loss of something undefinable, and relief at the prospect of escaping the provinces, a Gar’s “public” and “private” personas (two separate characters) struggle with each other, and with those they are leaving behind: a former lover, childhood friends, the maid, and a father. As Private Gar tells Public Gar, “no one will ever know or understand the fun there was; for there was fun and there was laughing – foolish, silly fun and foolish, silly laughing; but what it was all about you can’t remember, can you? Just the memory of it – that’s all you have now – just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it is being distilled of all its coarseness; and what’s left is going to be precious, precious gold.” But it is his interaction with his father that takes on an almost terrifying intensity. Having never shared a meaningful relationship through their lives, on the eve of Gar’s departure, the two of them find that having dammed up river of words for so long with the logs of sullen silences, the bed has now run dry: “Say – say – say – say, ‘Screwballs, with two magnificent legs like that, how is it you were never in show biz? Say, ‘It is now sixteen or seventeen – Say – oh, my God – say – say something.”

The Freedom of the City is set during a civil rights protest in County Derry. Three marchers mistakenly enter the Guildhall to escape from the smoke and tear gas of the English. Right from the beginning, we are told that all three are going to be shot dead; in fact, the play alternates between the protagonists’ dialogue among themselves, a tragi-farcical judicial investigation into the “shooting”, as well as an off-stage American sociologist pontificating about the working class. It would be easy for politics to overwhelm the play, to turn it into little more than an anti-colonial polemic. Friel escapes that because of his acute sensibility: Lily’s thoughts at the moment of her death, for instance, are painfully, viscerally human, irreducible to any form of politics:

“The moment we stepped outside the front door I knew I was going to die, instinctively, the way an animal knows. Jesus, they’re going to murder me. A second of panic – no more. Because it was succeeded, overtaken, overwhelmed by a tidal wave of regret, not for myself nor my family, but that life had somehow eluded me. And now it was finished; it had all seeped away; and I had never experienced it. And in the silence before my body disintegrated in a purple convulsion, I thought I glimpsed a tiny truth: that life had eluded me because never once in my forty-three years had an experience, an event, even a small unimportant happening been isolated, and assessed, and articulated. And the fact that this, my last experience, was defined by this perception, this was the culmination of sorrow. In a way I died of grief.”

Living Quarters and Aristocrats are about the disintegration of family: the first through an extramarital affair, and the second through inevitable exile. Living Quarters, in particular, uses an interesting device. It has what seems to be an omniscient figure, only known as “Sir”, who opens the play by informing us that all the characters have gathered to relive a fateful evening, and to try and understand what happened. Through the play, it becomes clear that the characters are not only trying to understand, but trying to escape, to change the course of events. Their attempts are futile, giving them an (almost) grotesque appearance of keenly self-aware, self-regarding, regretful marionettes.

Faith Healer is considered to be one of Friel’s strongest works, although I found it to be the least powerful of the collection. Friel’s special device here is to write a four-act play, each act of which is effectively a monologue by one of the three protagonists of the play (the ‘Faith Healer’, his wife, and his manager). As the three of them go over the same tragic events, Friel gives us a compressed and immensely powerful demonstration of how neither memory nor facts are stable, how everything is subject to interpretation, how there are three sides to every truth.

My own favourite, however, was the last play: TranslationsTranslations is set in 1833 in County Donegal, Ireland, around the very real events of the Ordnance Survey – an attempt by the English to draw up a map of Ireland, and in doing so, replace all the local, Irish names with their English variants. As Druim Dubh becomes Dromduff, and Poll na gCaorach becomes Poolkerry, tensions begin to rise, especially as one of the members of the community acts as a go-between, informing the soldiers and the surveyors about the Irish names, and suggesting their anglicisation. And matters are further complicated when an Irishwoman and an English soldier begin to fall in love, with their languages a desperate, almost insurmountable barrier between them. From Philadelphia, Here I Come!, we have turned a half circle: there, communication ceased because words could no more be found; here, all the words in the world will not help, since they come from different universes. And the tragically inadequate, unfinished relationship between words and the world is at the heart of this play: the abortive relationship between the lovers is mirrored by the fear of the death of the Irish language with the great renaming, and the consequent death of Ireland itself. As Hugh, the schoolmaster says:

But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.”

And yet, soon after that, he contradicts – and corrects – himself:

“James thinks he knows too. I look at James and three thoughts occur to me: A – that is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language. James has ceased to make that discrimination. .. B – we must never cease renewing those images; because once we do, we fossilize.”

And realising as he does so, the limits of it all:

“I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea. But it’s all we have. I have no idea at all.”

And, as in the case of language itself, Friel leaves the play unfinished, ambiguous, unresolved. Perhaps it is the last few words of the play that best sum up Friel’s work itself, in its refusal to embrace easy certainties:

“Maire: Master, what does the English word ‘always’ mean?

Hugh: Semper – per omnia saecula. The Greeks called it ‘aei’. It’s not a word I’d start with. It’s a silly word, girl.”

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Filed under Brian Friel, Ireland

“A torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets”: Seamus Heaney’s Redress of Poetry

In Seamus Heaney’s Casualty, a poem about a pub-going Ulsterman who ignores a curfew during the peak of the Troubles, and is killed for it, the last three lines (the poet speaking to the dead man, the “casualty”), are a study in ambivalence:

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

The ambivalence is one that runs through Heaney’s poetry, perhaps best exemplified by the section in Station Island, where (in a fictional meeting), James Joyce tells the poet to “let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” The ambivalence is about the relationship between poetry and politics, instantiated by the tension between the desire to keep words apolitical, and the temptation to intervene directly through poetry.

If such questions remain unanswered in Heaney’s verse, then The Redress of Poetry – a collection of ten lectures delivered at Oxford – gives him a chance to answer them in prose. Eight out of the ten lectures are about other poets – Christopher Marlowe, Brian Merriman, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Hugh McDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is in and through writing about these poets, however, that Heaney painstakingly constructs his own poetic manifesto, dealing with the relationship between words, culture, politics, and the world.

It is almost trite to say that politics suffuses our world, and that nothing – not even poetry – can be free of it. The very use of language is a political act, and the dream of an apolitical realm of pure art is simply that much – only a dream. This is something that Heaney is acutely aware of, and he is acutely aware of his own subject-position: as an Irishman, part of a colonised culture, and yet as a white European, also part of a colonising culture. But the question remains: and then what? The task of The Redress of Poetry is to show how language and poetry are tangled up with politics and with the burden of history, and yet not reducible to it.

The project is set out in the opening, eponymous essay, where Heaney notes that “poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.” Soon after, he writes that “[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.” 

If there is whiff of the old poetry-as-a-vehicle-for-revealing-hidden-aesthetic-[apolitical]-truths here, it is quickly dispelled when Heaney moves to examining his selection of poets. The first essay is about Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, and Heaney begins by acknowledging that he has “learnt to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism”, and therefore “what I want to do here… is to find a way of reaffirming the value and rights of Marlowe’s poetry in our own post-colonial time.” How is one to do this? Heaney’s answer is that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even for the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things… it is obvious that poetry’s answer to the world is not given only in terms of the content of its statements. It is given perhaps even more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; and it is given also by its need to go emotionally and artistically ‘above the brim’, beyond the established norms.” Form, then, is the answer: form that, in a certain sense, exists prior to language, language with all its baggage and burdens of history (it is perhaps no coincidence that Heaney uses the phrase “musical trueness). At another place – in his essay on Hugh McDiarmid, Heaney seems to affirm this when he writes that “the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.” 

And yet, in the same essay, Heaney describes his poetry as composed of “a language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” In a collection that is otherwise so acutely conscious about the place of language in the world, the reference to “language pure as air” (a little reminiscent of Colm Toibin, at one point, talking about language that is free and untouched) comes across as surprisingly naive. Indeed, it directly contradicts a particularly brilliant observation that Heaney makes in his essay on Elizabeth Bishop: “it is precisely Bishop’s linguistic virtuosity that creates the delightful illusion of access to a pristine, pre-linguistic state.”

In fact, the contrast is all the more jarring, because Heaney spends a substantial amount of time interrogating the precise relationship between language and the world. In his essay on John Clare, Heaney writes that “Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of those whose spoken tongue is an English which sets them at cultural and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative ‘Official Standard’.” This paragraph comes soon after he approvingly quotes Tom Paulin’s description that there is a “sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language.” The use of the adjective “authoritarian” to describe “language” is surely a carefully-chosen one, and is meant to indicate the political baggage that language carries. And in that same essay, Heaney ends with one of his most eloquent passages, basing the idea of a “world culture” in the equality of languages:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

Of course, even as he speaks about a world culture, Heaney’s vision is enclosed within his own “horizon” (to borrow a term from Gadamer): to make his point about “outback” and “dialect” cultures, he references an Australian (Les Murray) poet’s choice of a Greek image (Boeotia). While Boeotia might be an “outback” relative to Athens, and Hesiod a rustic in relation to Homer, these references are all part of an existing canon that is the product of a certain universalisation of a “Western” aesthetic. It would be churlish, of course, to blame Heaney for this: the Redress of Poetry is a beautifully self-aware book – but it is a point that must be made. In a similar fashion, in his essay on Dylan Thomas, Heaney writes about how he treated “language as a physical sensation“, and then goes on to call this an “Egyptian” style (with references to fertility, the Nile, and Anubis)! He uses the word “Egyptian” on more than one occasion to describe Thomas, and each time it is as if Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is swimming in one’s mind’s eye – you could not ask for a more textbook case of unthinking, internalised Orientalism. Gadamer was right after all: nobody can escape the bounds of their horizon. I point out these (what in my opinion are) slips, to highlight, as well, that any exploration of such topics in the world constructed along the axes of power and dominance, is fraught with peril, and even a walker as sure-footed as Heaney is bound to slip on a couple of occasions.

And these are but minor blemishes – for the most part, The Redress of Poetry is a beautiful book. Heaney has that unique ability of capturing the essence of a poet, or a poem, with impossible economy. In his analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he writes that “the master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” I cannot think of a more perfect description of Wilde, and of this poem of Wilde’s. His description of Hugh McDiarmid is equally pithy and brilliant: “In 1922 he emerged like a new and fiery form out of the agitated element of Christopher Grieve’s imagination; or it could be said with equal justification that he emerged from the awakened energies of the Scots language itself.” On Dylan Thomas: “Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language.” And perhaps, in closing, it would be most apt to quote his observation on poetry and the world, as a whole: “The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.”

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Filed under Ireland, Seamus Heaney

The tears of things: Heaney, Virgil, Frost

In the Introduction to his collection of Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney excerpts Robert Frost’s Directive, calling it “in some important but oblique way, an apologia for all art.” Directive, which is a semi-allegorical poem about a journey to a deserted town and the discovery of a children’s playhouse, has had its share of admirers and detractors; here, Heaney writes:

Frost suggests, in fact, that the life endured by the occupants of the actual house find its best memorial and expression in the house of ‘make-believe’. He convinces us that the playhouse has the measure of the other house, that the entranced focus of the activity that took place as the make-believe on one side of the yard was fit to match the meaning of what happened on the other side, and in doing so Frost further suggests that the imaginative transformation of the human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it. What Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, can be absorbed and re-experienced in the playthings of the playhouse – or in the words of the poem.”

This sense – that the purpose of poetry (or, more broadly, of art) is to take raw emotion and, in a certain sense, ‘aestheticise’ it, is an old one. It has its echoes in the Greek idea of the role of tragedy being to induce catharsis; in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot famously wrote that the task of the poetic mind is to “transmute the passions which are its material”, and that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion“; and in praising the short stories of Danilo Kis, Joseph Brodsky wrote that “[Kis] can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics…[in such a way that] the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties.”

But what interests me here is Heaney’s almost off-hand reference to Virgil: “lacrimae rerum, the tears of things“. The quotation is from The Aeneid, Book I (line 462): “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”. The context is that while staying with Dido, Aeneas is taken to the building of a Temple to Juno. There, he sees a mural depicting some of the scenes of the Trojan War (in which he himself, of course, was a participant) “in their correct order“. This sight gladdens his heart, and he says:

Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.”

Which translates to:

Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety.”

Interestingly, in his essay, The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry invokes precisely this scene to describe something he calls “sublimation” – “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision.” Parry writes:

“The perfection of the lines itself imposes a kind of artistic detachment, and we are put in the position of Aeneas himself, as he sees, in Carthage, the destruction of Troy represented as paintings in a gallery of art… these paintings remind Aeneas of all that has been, of the tears of human things; and at the same time, Virgil tells us, they fill him with hope. In a larger way, the whole poem is such a painting. It is about history, but its purpose is not to tell us that history is good, or for that matter that it is bad. Its purpose is rather to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.”

As we can see, Parry’s idea of “sublimation” is close to what Heaney is saying when he writes about how the tears of things can be “absorbed and re-experienced… in the words of a poem“. The task of art is the “imaginative transformation” that makes this possible. In the Aeneid itself, of course, there is a two-layered meaning: Aeneas experiences the feeling of sublimation while gazing at the mural depicting the scene of his own tragedy, and Virgil uses this to convey to his readers the manner in which poetry and art can bring about such sublimation. And it is precisely this double-layer that Heaney attributes to Directive.

The throwaway Virgil quote, therefore, turns out to be much more than that. It is an intertextual reference that locates both Frost and Virgil in a poetic tradition, and as poets committed to – in the words of the collection – “the redress of poetry“.

 

 

 

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“He saw her as merely a name in his diary”: Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’

“It was easier to be old here, he thought; no colour was simple, nothing was fresh, even the sunlight itself seemed to fall and linger in ways which had been honoured by time.”

Previously, I described Colm Toibin’s writing as a “breath on glass“, borrowing his own words in The South. In The Master, Toibin uses another phrase that would be perfect to describe his writing. Between Henry James and Minnie Temple, he writes, there was “much that would have to be left unsaid and a great deal that would never be known.” The Master, a thickly fictional biography of Henry James, defines its protagonist by what is left unsaid and what would never be known, and is itself defined by the unsaid and the unknown. In The South, Toibin wrote of the “subtleties of silence“. The Master is an entire book filled with silences, half-suggestions that one must strain to catch, murmurs that resemble “breathing on glass in its uncertainty and its delicacy... [and to] see a pattern before the breath was cleared away.

The portrait that Toibin paints of Henry James is of a man wedded to his art, keenly aware of the opposing pull of human relationships and human intimacy, and yet determined to reject it. “We all liked you,”, reminisces the Baroness von Rabe on a late evening in Rome, “and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much.” “Only sentences are beautiful“, Henry says at another time, merely half-joking. Reality is to be studied, but never to be embraced – until art sublimates it into something worth embracing. And so, while his own experiences with intimacy are dilute and attenuated, full of awkward retreats and withdrawals, it is in his companions’ death that the relationship nears completion: “he had them now, all three of them, and he would embrace them, hold on to them and let them improve with time, become more complex and less vulgar, less ugly, more rich, more resonant, more true not to what life was, but to what it might be.”

Toibin follows Henry James as he moves through Europe at the closing of the 19th century, a Europe that suggests a fading, weary lustre, whether it is the “openness and grand vistas of Rome“, or the “modest and guarded proportions” of his garden in the English village of Rye, “closer to the scale of the landscape they had been moving in, and strangely closer to their range of feeling.” As someone who made his career writing about Americans abroad in Europe, Henry too feels the same dissonance, the “yearning openness of Americans, their readiness for experience, their eyes bright with expectation and promise” contrasted sharply with “the dry nature of English experience – sure of its own place and unready for change, steeped in the solid and the social, a system of manners developed without much interruption for a thousand years.” In the pages of the book, a long (and illustrious) caste of characters traipses through, never staying too long, never long enough to establish themselves in the woodwork of the novel, quickly dissolving into memories “sharp in… outline and faded in… detail”: James Gray and Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Alice James, Minnie Temple and Constance Woolson. With each of them, James shares a troubles and ambiguous relationship, often terminated by untimely deaths.

A number of James’ relationships are with women, and it is here that Toibin is at his keenest and most sensitive as a writer, as an observer, as a portraitist. In the most effortless way imaginable, he describes the same world that is full of openness and possibility for a man like James, and is cloying and stifling for women like Alice, Minnie and Constance:

“Considering her insistence on raising the issue of Constance Fenimore Woolson the previous evening and her insinuation that he had abandoned her friend and left her to her fate in Venice, he wondered if she, too, Lily Norton, had been abandoned, or if she lived in fear of such an eventuality. Her not marrying, not being allied with someone who could offer her greater purpose and scope for all her flair and charm, was, in his view, a mistake and would likely seem more so as time passed. As he looked at her across the table, it occurred to him that the re-creation of herself, her deliberate broadening of her effect, could have atrophied other qualities more endearing to a potential suitor.”

And:

“‘I think it’s difficult for all of us. The gap is so wide,’ Constance said.

‘You mean between her imagination and her confines?’ Henry asked.

‘I mean between using our intelligence as women to the full and the social consequences of that,’ Constance said. ‘Alice has done what she has to do, and I admire her.’

‘She really has done nothing except stay in bed,’ Henry said.

‘That’s precisely what I mean,’ Constance replied.

‘I do not understand,’ he said.

‘I mean that the consequences get into the marrow of you soul.’”

It is with Woolson, in particular, that James’ inability – or unwillingness – to comprehend intimacy is at its sharpest, and most tragic. Woolson dies by throwing herself off her balcony in Florence, after unsuccessfully importuning Henry to come to Italy for the winter. And Henry is left to make sense of a relationship that “had been so tentative and full of possibility”, and is now reduced to “her absence in all its finality.” But if the purpose of tragedy is to infuse life with meaning, even in death, then Toibin – through James – denies us the simplicity of closure, or the ease of discovering meaning. There is always that sense of elusiveness, of meaning evading us, just out of reach of our grasp, breath on glass, the unsaid and the unknown. Henry comes to realise, at the end, “how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain.”

There’s a sense of Elizabeth Bishop here, a poet whom Toibin has written about with great sensitivity and admiration. Bishop’s One Art ends with the lines “it’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” These lines have always indicated, to me, that the shape and texture of loss – “its weight and meaning” is created only through the act of writing, and of course, even that is never complete. For James – and Toibin – meaning itself is created through loss, and is always incomplete, no matter how much you may try to write it!

There is another way in which the presence of Bishop pervades The Master. In his book on Elizabeth Bishop, Toibin quotes Lowell’s ode to her as a fine description of her work:

Do/ you still hang your words in the air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your noticeboard with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase -/ unerring Muse, who makes the casual perfect.

Who makes the casual perfect.” In Toibin’s writing – both in The South and in The Master, there is a search for depth in the everyday acts that constitute the layered lives of people. In The Master, he puts it perfectly, again in the thoughts of Henry James:

“In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

Detail, dialogue, slow movements, against abstraction, the foolishness of large concepts. There is a literary philosophy, to which one might add: the foolishness of easy emotions, the temptation of easy memories, the myth of easy meanings. In Toibin’s writing, like the colours of Rome, nothing is simple. Not even the city of Rome at the turn of the century:

“As Rome became more modern, he wrote to Paul Bourget, he himself became increasingly antique. He had fled from Venice, from the memories and echoes that had settled in its atmosphere, and had at first refused all Roman invitations and offers of shelter. He lodged instead in a hotel close to Piazza di Spagna and he found himself in his early days in the city walking slowly as though the heat of high summer had come in May. He did not at first climb the Spanish Steps, nor make a pilgrimage to any site further than a few streets from his hotel. He tried not to conjure up memories deliberately, nor to compare the city of almost thirty years earlier with the city of now. He did not allow any easy nostalgia to colour the dulled sweetness of these days. He was not disposed to meeting himself in a younger and more impressionable guise and thus feeling sadness at the knowledge that no new discoveries would be made, no new excitements felt, merely old ones revisited. He allowed himself to love these streets, as though they were a poem he had once memorized, and the years when he had first seen these colours and stones and studied these faces seemed a rich and valuable part of what he was now. His eye was no longer surprised and delighted, as it once had been, but neither was it jaded.”

The Master is a book like that. It understands the limits of surprise and delight in this world, but rejects the empty alternative of the jaded.

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Addendum: Edward Said and Colm Toibin

Coincidentally, soon after finishing Colm Toibin’s The South, I came across the following lines in Edward Said’s Culture & Imperialism, analysing the novels of Flaubert and Conrad:

“Unlike Robinson Crusoe on his island, these modern versions of the imperialist who attempts self-redemption are doomed ironically to suffer interruption and distraction, as what they had tried to exclude from their island worlds penetrates anyway. The covert influence of imperial control in Flaubert’s imagery of solitary imperiousness is striking when juxtaposed with Conrad’s overt representations.

Within the codes of European fiction, these interruptions of an imperial project are realistic reminders that no one can in fact withdraw from the world into a private version of reality.”

The constant impingement of the world into increasingly desperate, and increasingly doomed, attempts to create a private reality is, I feel, one of the central concerns in Toibin’s The South.

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