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Yeats & Company

ISSUE:  Autumn 1984
A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. By Hugh Kenner. Knopf. $16. 95.

Kenner’s title is taken from Yeats’s self-epitaph: “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death.” In his introduction Kenner says he might have subtitled this book “Yeats and His Shadow,” and that he is here endeavoring to present a coherent account of Yeats’ influence upon his Irish contemporaries and successors: Synge, Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, and some minor figures. It is implied that, from this distance in time (Yeats having been dead almost 45 years), it should be possible dispassionately and objectively to assess those who wrote in Yeats’ shadow. In intent, A Colder Eye resembles Ellmann’s Eminent Domain: Yeats among Wilde, Joyce, Pound, Eliot & Auden (1967), except that Ellmann’s book is concerned with cross influences and is much more coherent.

Kenner’s new study resembles a pointillist canvas, in which spots of vivid local color make it difficult to discern the larger design. Indeed, the reader wonders if there is one. A Colder Eye provides a stream of discrete, discontinuous apercus, anecdotes, speculations, and trouvailles, some of them fascinating but unstructured and incoherent. Kenner’s ravishing style, by means of which he sometimes expresses the virtually inexpressible in The Pound Era, is nevertheless overaddicted to “the eloquence to be had by arranging discontinuities.” A Colder Eye provides the close readings and startling chronological juxtapositions and displacements Kenner has become celebrated for. Here is one example among many.

. . . in 1905 Ulysses was seventeen years ahead. Back in Dublin Yeats was burbling of Sacred Books and rewriting yet again The Shadowy Waters, Oliver Gogarty was making ready to buy the kind of automobile you wore goggles to drive, Joseph Holloway’s journal was accumulating reprobations of Synge’s new play The Well of the Saints. . . . In Gaelic League classes patriots stumbled through Gaelic; in Dublin Castle authorities recruited spies. Easter was not to explode for eleven years.

As in so many of Kenner’s paragraphs, one searches in vain for a central idea or topic sentence. Similarly, few of his chapters address a single topic, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis—unless it be that Yeats casts a long shadow. He looms like a monolith among a storm of swirling atomistic particles.

A Colder Eye shows the relationship of the Irish Revival to the larger movement of international Modernism. Early in the century English divided into three great dialects, says Kenner—Irish, British, and American. One of the effects of Modernism was that ” “English” ceased to belong in its totality to a people resident on one storied island where they shared images, intonations, hence memory, a history.” English was appropriated, radically modified, and further pioneered by those from John Bull’s other island, by former colonists across the Atlantic, and by the close to four hundred million members of the British Commonwealth. Brilliant manipulation of English by the Irish may paradoxically be due, as Kenner says, to their feeling that English is theirs, yet not theirs; alienation from the language enables them to look at and use it with the kind of cold passion Yeats expresses and advocates. T.S. Eliot remarked that to write English well requires a certain animosity, not the cozy immersion in traditional associations which is an English birthright. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, closeted with the English dean of studies, muses on a series of English words that he pronounces very differently from the dean, and thinks, “His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech.” Kenner believes further that teaching English by the Berlitz method encouraged Joyce to scrutinize the language and to compel his readers, whom he treated like Berlitz pupils, also to watch it as it has never been watched before. Perhaps the Berlitz method did contribute to the style of “scrupulous meanness” Joyce adopts in Dubliners and to the disorienting welter of strangely named objects presented at the beginning of A Portrait.(A Berlitz instructor points out objects and pronounces their names in a foreign tongue, without translating into your own.) In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, language approaches the condition of music, Joyce wringing as much meaning out of sound as he can. As Kenner observes, in reading Joyce you should not screen out the seeming irrelevancies, but assiduously pursue them. If Joyce kidnapped English and metamorphosed it in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris into something familiar yet foreign, Beckett, as Kenner says, treats English as the foreign language into which he translates his works. In the interests of his bleak minimalism, he has first crossed it with French, which is a preeiser, purer language, without the Schwärmerei of associations English carries.

Few Irish writers have remained in Ireland. Most have gone into exile or done considerable traveling and writing abroad. Even Yeats lived only a third of his life in Ireland, spending many years in England and much of his old age in France. Joyce left Dublin at the age of 22; on turning 21, Beckett went to Paris to teach at the Ecole Normale Supérieure; he left Ireland permanently 10 years later. Of the writers Kenner discusses, only Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, and Flann O’Brien (only O’Brien is a modernist) remained in Ireland. The relationship of the Irish literary renaissance to international Modernism had to be one of conflict, for the former was parochial and nationalist, the latter international and cosmopolitan.

Due to its discontinuity and disjointedness, what remains of A Colder Eye after reading it are discrete, scattered insights. It is difficult to say anything new about Yeats’ style, but Kenner does and is good on it, whether early or late. He has an interesting chapter on differences in syntax and modes of expression between Gaelic and English. He notes Joyce borrowed and modified Yeats’ identification (in a literary speech) of three phases of literature, epic, dramatic, and lyric. In Dedalus’ aesthetic disquisition at the end of A Portrait, Joyce alters the order (probably to reflect the progress of his own career) to lyric, epic, and dramatic. Kenner speculates interestingly that Beckett may have been inspired to put some of his plays’ characters in bins or urns by a remark of Yeats—made when he fell under the influence of Noh drama and was impatient with frantic, restless actors—that he would like to confine them in barrels and wheel them about the stage. Kenner believes Synge influenced Beckett’s drama, notably in his fondness for tramps and confined stage settings.(The Abbey Theatre virtually required the latter.) Chapters on Synge and Beckett are among the best in the book. Kenner identifies a common plot for Synge’s half dozen plays (written in as many years), demonstrating Synge’s contention that “man is intellectually a nomad, and all wanderers have finer intellectual and physical perceptions than men who are condemned to local habitations.” In reviewing Joyce’s major works, Kenner observes that they are modeled on two great archetypal plots—that of “absent father, avenging son, beset wife, usurper” (as in the Odyssey and Hamlet) and that of picaro and benefactor, or errant son and beneficent father (as in Don Quixote and numerous English picaresque novels).

Kenner has now published 20 books, of which the most significant are studies of Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Beckett; his masterpiece is the magnificent The Pound Era (1971). This critic’s great theme is international Modernism, of which Samuel Beckett is now the sole surviving exemplar. In A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975), Kenner explores peculiarly American domestic versions of Modernism, as here he examines the Irish contribution, noting the while that no great modern work may be claimed for any national literature. The jacket blurb proclaims A Colder Eye to be “a creative and analytical enterprise on the scale of Kenner’s magisterial The Pound Era”. It is not, wholly lacking the scale, vision, passion, intricacy, and coherence of that work. Indeed, despite its title, this new book neither invites nor rewards a coldly analytical eye.


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