W. B. Yeats, ‘Modern Irish Poetry’, in Irish Literature , ed. Justin McCarthy (Philadelphia 1904), pp.vii-xv.

[Source: Internet Archive & Google Books online ; acccessed 11.09.2010.]

[Textual Note: formerly the Introduction to A Book of Irish Verse, 1895; rev. edn. 1900, and eds. to 1912, and 1920. The edition of 1920, called the 4th edn., reprints the Preface of the 1900 edition and states that changes have been made to the original Introduction since ‘some phrases in the introduction which seemed a little petulant in form’ (signed 15 Aug. 1899.) such Shanges are chiefly the revision of ‘contention’ [1895] to ‘strife’ [1900], being revised once again in this version to ‘quarreling’ [1904]. Note also the following which are present in the 1895 Introduction but not in the current version (1904): ‘the seas of literature are distraught by storms and currents, and full of the wrecks of Irish anthologies’, and ‘[this book is] intended only a little for English readers and not at all for Irish peasants, but almost wholly for the small beginning of that educated and national public, which is our greatest need and perhaps our vainest hope.’ (1895, p.xxvii.) Both of these might have been struck out by the American editors. BS.]

The Irish Celt is sociable, as may be known from his proverb, “It is better to be quarreling than to be lonely,” and the Irish poets of the nineteenth century have made songs abundantly when friends and rebels have been at hand to applaud. The Irish poets of the eighteenth century found both at a Limerick hostelry, above whose door was written a rhyming welcome in Gaelic to all passing poets, whether their pockets were fall or empty. Its owner, himself a famous poet, entertained his fellows as long as his money lasted, and then took to minding the hens and chickens of an old peasant woman for a living, and ended his days in rags, but not, one imagines, without content. Among his friends and guests had been Red O’Sullivan, Gaelic O’Sullivan, blind O’Heffernan, and many another, and their songs had made the people, crushed by the disasters of the Boyne and Aughrim, remember their ancient greatness.

The bardic order, with its perfect artifice and imperfect art, had gone down in the wars of the seventeenth century, and poetry had found shelter amid the turf smoke of the cabins. The powers that history commemorates are but the coarse effects of influences delicate and vague as the beginning of twilight, and these influences were to be woven like a web about the hearts of men by farm laborers, peddlers, potato diggers, hedge schoolmasters, and grinders at the quern, poor wastrels who put the troubles of their native land, or their own happy or unhappy loves, into songs of an extreme beauty. But in the midst of this beauty was a flitting incoherence, a fitful dying out of the sense, as though the passion had become too great for words, as must needs be when life is the master and not the slave of the singer.

English-speaking Ireland had meanwhile no poetic voice, for Goldsmith had chosen to celebrate English scenery and manners; and Swift was but an Irishman by what Mr. Balfour has called the visitation of God, and much against his will; and Congreve by education and early association ; while Parnell, Denham, and Roscommon were poets [vii] but to their own time. Nor did the coming with the new century of the fame of Moore set the balance even, for his Irish melodies are too often artificial and mechanical in their style when separated from the music that gave them wings. Whatever he had of high poetry is in “The Light of Other Days,” and in “At the Mid Hour of Night,” which express what Matthew Arnold has taught us to call “the Celtic melancholy,” with so much of delicate beauty in the meaning and in the wavering or steady rhythm that one knows not where to find their like in literature. His more artificial and mechanical verse, because of the ancient music that makes it seem natural and vivid, and because it has remembered so many beloved names and events and places, has had the influence which might have belonged to these exquisite verses had he written none but these.

An honest style did not come into English-speaking Ireland until Callanan wrote three or four naive translations from the Gaelic. “Shule Aroon” and “Kathleen O’More” had indeed been written for a good while, but had no more influence than Moore’s best verses. Now, however, the lead of Callanan was followed by a number of translators, and they in turn by the poets of Young Ireland, who mingled a little learned from the Gaelic ballad writers with a great deal learned from Scott, Macaulay, and Campbell, and turned poetry once again into a principal means for spreading ideas of nationality and patriotism. They were full of earnestness, but never understand that, though a poet may govern his life by his enthusiasms, he must, when he sits down at his desk, but use them as the potter the clay. Their thoughts were a little insincere, because they lived in the half-illusions of their admirable ideals; and their rhythms not seldom mechanical, because their purpose was served when they had satisfied the dull ears of the common man. They had no time to listen to the voice of the insatiable artist, who stands erect, or lies asleep waiting until a breath arouses him, in the heart of every craftsman. Life was their master, as it had been the master of the poets who gathered in the Limerick hostelry, though it conquered them not by unreasoned love for a woman, or for native land, but by reasoned enthusiasm, and practical energy. No man was more sincere, no man [viii] had a less mechanical mind than Thomas Davis, and yet he is often a little insincere and mechanical in his verse. When he sat down to write he had so great a desire to make the peasantry courageous and powerful that he half believed them already “the finest peasantry upon the earth,” and wrote not a few such verses as

“Lead him to fight for native land,
His is no courage cold and wary;
The troops live not that could withstand
The headlong charge of Tipperary” —

and to-day we are paying the reckoning with much bombast. His little book has many things of this kind, and yet we honor it for its public spirit, and recognize its powerful influence with gratitude. He was in the main an orator influencing men’s acts, and not a poet shaping their emotions, and the bulk of his influence has been good. He was, indeed, a poet of much tenderness in the simple love-songs “The Marriage,” “A Plea for Love,” and “Mary Bhan Astór” and, but for his ideal of a fisherman defying a foreign soldiery, would have been as good in “The Boatman of Kinsale”; and once or twice when he touched upon some historic sorrow he forgot his hopes for the future and his lessons for the present, and made moving verse.

His contemporary, Clarence Mangan, kept out of public life and its half-illusions by a passion for books, and for drink and opium, made an imaginative and powerful style. He translated from the German, and imitated Oriental poetry, but little that he did on any but Irish subjects has a lasting interest. He is usually classed with the Young Ireland poets, because he contributed to their periodicals and shared their political views; but his style was formed before their movement began, and he found it the more easy for this reason, perhaps, to give sincere expression to the mood which he had chosen, the only sincerity literature knows of; and with happiness and cultivation might have displaced Moore. But as it was, whenever he had no fine ancient song to inspire him, he fell into rhetoric which was only lifted out of commonplace by an arid intensity. In his “Irish National Hymn,” “Soul and Country,” and the like, we look into a mind full of parched sands where the sweet dews have never fallen. A miserable [ix] man may think well and express himself with great vehemence, but he cannot make beautiful things, for Aphrodite never rises from any but a tide of joy. Mangan knew nothing of the happiness of the outer man, and it was only when prolonging the tragic exultation of some dead bard that he knew the unearthly happiness which clouds the outer man with sorrow, and is the fountain of impassioned art. Like those who had gone before him, he was the slave of life, for he had nothing of the half-knowledge, the power of selection, the harmony of mind, which enables the poet to be its master, and to mold the world to a trumpet for his lips. But O’Hussey’s Ode over his outcast chief must live for generations because of the passion that moves through its powerful images and its mournful, wayward, and fierce rhythms.

“Though he were even a wolf ranging the round green woods.
Though he were even a pleasant salmon in the untamable sea,
Though he were a wild mountain eagle, he could scarce bear, he,
This sharp, sore sleet, these howling floods.”

Edward Walsh, a village schoolmaster, who hovered, like Mangan, on the edge of the Young Ireland movement, did many beautiful translations from the Gaelic and Michael Doheny, while out “on his keeping” in the mountains after the collapse at Ballingarry, made one of the most moving of ballads; but in the main the poets who gathered about Thomas Davis, and whose work has come down to us in “The Spirit of the Nation,” were of practical and political, not of literary, importance.

Meanwhile Samuel Ferguson, William Allingham, and Aubrey de Vere were working apart from politics; Ferguson selecting his subjects from the traditions of the bardic age, and Allingham from those of his native Ballyshannon, and Aubrey de Vere wavering between English, Irish, and Catholic tradition. They were wiser than Young Ireland in the choice of their models, for, while drawing not less from purely Irish sources, they turned to the great poets of the world, Aubrey de Vere owing something of his gravity to Wordsworth, Ferguson much of his simplicity to Homer, while Allingham had trained an ear, too delicate to catch the tune of but a single master, upon [x] the lyric poetry of many lands. Allingham was the best artist, but Ferguson had the more ample imagination, the more epic aim. He had not the subtlety of feeling, the variety of cadence of a great lyric poet, but he has touched, here and there, an epic vastness and naiveté, as in the description in “Congal”‘ of the mire-stiffened mantle of the giant specter Mananan mac Lir, striking against his calves with as loud a noise as the mainsail of a ship makes, “when with the coil of all its ropes it beat the sounding mast” He is frequently dull, for he often lacked the “minutely appropriate words” necessary to embody those fine changes of feeling which enthrall the attention; but his sense of weight and size, of action and tumult, has set him apart and solitary, an epic figure in a lyric age.

Allingham, whose pleasant destiny has made him the poet of his native town, and put “The Winding Banks of Erne” into the mouths of the ballad singers of Ballyshannon, is, on the other hand, a master of “minutely appropriate words,” and can wring from the luxurious sadness of the lover, from the austere sadness of old age, the last golden drop of beauty; but amid action and tumult he can but fold his hands. He is the poet of the melancholy peasantry of the West, and, as years go on, and voluminous histories and copious romances drop under the horizon, will take his place among those minor immortals who have put their souls into little songs to humble the proud.

The poetry of Aubrey de Vere has less architecture than the poetry of Ferguson and Allingham, and more meditation. Indeed, his few but ever memorable successes are enchanted islands in gray seas of stately impersonal reverie and description, which drift by and leave no definite recollection. One needs, perhaps, to perfectly enjoy him, a Dominican habit, a cloister, and a breviary.

These three poets published much of their beat work before and during the Fenian movement, which, like Young Ireland, had its poets, though but a small number. Charles Kickham, one of the “triumvirate “ that controlled it in Ireland; John Casey, a clerk in a flour mill; and Ellen O’Leary, the sister of Mr. John O’Leary, were at times very excellent. Their verse lacks, curiously enough, the oratorical vehemence of Young Ireland, and is [xi] plaintive and idyllic. The agrarian movement that followed produced but little poetry, and of that little all is forgotten but a vehement poem by Fanny Parnell and a couple of songs by T. D. Sullivan, who is a good song writer, though not, as the writer has read on an election placard, “one of the greatest poets who ever moved the heart of man.” But while Nationalist verse has ceased to be a portion of the propaganda of a party, it has been written, and is being written, under the influence of the Nationalist newspapers and of Young Ireland societies and the like. With an exacting conscience, and better models than Thomas Moore and the Young Irelanders, such beautiful enthusiasm could not fail to make some beautiful verses. But, as things are, the rhythms are mechanical, and the metaphors conventional; and inspiration is too often worshipped as a familiar who labors while you sleep, or forget, or do many worthy things which are not spiritual things.

For the most part, the Irishman of our times loves so deeply those arts which build up a gallant personality, rapid writing, ready talking, effective speaking to crowds, that he has no thought for the arts which consume the personality in solitude. He loves the mortal arts which have given him a lure to take the hearts of men, and shrinks from the immortal, which could but divide him from his fellows. And in this century, he who does not strive to be a perfect craftsman achieves nothing. The poor peasant of the eighteenth century could make fine ballads by abandoning himself to the joy or sorrow of the moment, as the reeds abandon themselves to the wind which sighs through them, because he had about him a world where all was old enough to he steeped in emotion. But we cannot take to ourselves, by merely thrusting out our hands, all we need of pomp and symbol, and if we have not the desire of artistic perfection for an ark, the deluge of incoherence, vulgarity, and triviality will pass over our heads. If we had no other symbols but the tumult of the sea, the rusted gold of the thatch, the redness of the quicken-berry, and had never known the rhetoric of the platform and of the newspaper, we could do without laborious selection and rejection; but, even then, though we might do much that would be delightful [xii] that would inspire coming times, it would not have the manner of the greatest poetry.

Here and there, the Nationalist newspapers and the Young Ireland societies have trained a writer who, though busy with the old models, has some imaginative energy; while the more literary writers, the successors of Allingham and Ferguson and De Vere, are generally more anxious to influence and understand Irish thought than any of their predecessors who did not take the substance of their poetry from politics. They are distinguished too by their deliberate art, and by their preoccupation with spiritual passions and memories.

The poetry of Lionel Johnson and Mrs. Hinkson is Catholic and devout, but Lionel Johnson’s is lofty and austere, and like De Vere’s never long forgets the greatness of his Church and the interior life whose expression it is, while Mrs. Hinkson is happiest when she embodies emotions, that have the innocence of childhood, in symbols and metaphors from the green world about her. She has no reverie nor speculation, but a devout tenderness like that of St. Francis for weak instinctive things, old gardeners, old fishermen, birds among the leaves, birds tossed upon the waters. Miss Hopper belongs to that school of writers which embodies passions, that are not the less spiritual because no Church has put them into prayers, in stories and symbols from old Celtic poetry and mythology. The poetry of “A.E.,” at its best, finds its symbols and its stories in the soul itself, and has a more disembodied ecstasy than any poetry of our time. He is the chief poet of the school of Irish mystics, in which there are many poets besides many who have heard the words, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them,” and thought the labors that bring the mystic vision more important than the labors of any craft.

Mr. Herbert Trench and Mrs. Shorter and “Moira O’Neill “ are more interested in the picturesqueness of the world than in religion. Mr. Trench and Mrs. Shorter have put old Irish stories into vigorous modern rhyme, and have written, the one in her “Ceann dubh Deelish”‘ and the other in “Come, Let Us Make Love Deathless,” lyrics that should become a lasting part of Irish lyric poetry. “Moira [xiii] O’Neill” has written pretty lyrics of Antrim life; but one discovers that Mrs. Hinkson or Miss Hopper, although their work is probably less popular, come nearer to the peasant passion, when one compares their work and hers with that Gaelic song translated so beautifully by Dr. Sigerson, where a ragged man of the roads, having lost all else, is yet thankful for “the great love gift of sorrow,” or with many songs translated by Dr. Hyde in his “Love Songs of Connacht,” or by Lady Gregory in her “Poets and Dreamers.”

Except some few Catholic and mystical poets and Professor Dowden in one or two poems, no Irishman living in Ireland has sung excellently of any but a theme from Irish experience, Irish history, or Irish tradition. Trinity College, which desires to be English, has been the mother of many verse writers and of few poets; and this can only be because she has set herself against the national genius, and taught her children to imitate alien styles and choose out alien themes, for it is not possible to believe that the educated Irishman alone is prosaic and uninventive. Her few poets have been awakened by the influence of the farm laborers, potato diggers, peddlers, and hedge schoolmasters of the eighteenth century, and their imitators in this, and not by a scholastic life, which, for reasons easy for all to understand and for many to forgive, has refused the ideals of Ireland, while those of England are but far-off murmurs. An enemy to all enthusiasms, because all enthusiasms seemed her enemies, she has taught her children to look neither to the world about them, nor into their own souls, where some dangerous fire might slumber.

To remember that in Ireland the professional and landed classes have been through the mold of Trinity College or of English universities, and are ignorant of the very names of the best Irish writers, is to know how strong a wind blows from the ancient legends of Ireland, how vigorous an impulse to create is in her heart to-day. Deserted by the classes from among whom have come the bulk of the world’s intellect, she struggles on, gradually ridding herself of incoherence and triviality, and slowly building op a literature in English which, whether important or unimportant, grows always more unlike others; [xiv] nor does it seem as if she would long lack a living literature in Gaelic, for the movement for the preservation of Gaelic, which has been so much more successful than anybody foresaw, has already its poets. Dr. Hyde has written Gaelic poems which pass from mouth to mouth in the west of Ireland. The country people have themselves fitted them to ancient airs, and many that can neither read nor write sing them in Donegal and Connemara and Galway. I have, indeed, but little doubt that Ireland, communing with herself in Gaelic more and more, but speaking to foreign countries in English, will lead many that are sick with theories and with trivial emotion, to some sweet well-waters of primeval poetry.

Signed: W. B. Yeats


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