Irish writing in major and minor keys
Shayla Warmsley reviews Irish writing: an anthology of Irish literature in English, 1789—1939 ed by Stephen Regan, Oxford World Classics 2004, ISBN 0 19 284038 X, £10.99 pbk
EDITING AN anthology such as this is a big and complex job – and one Stephen Regan, a Durham University academic (he recently moved there from London University) and heroic defender of poetry in particular, is well up to. To his credit, he has taken the path less travelled when he could have gone for a whiff of Tone’s literary gunpowder, things falling apart from Yeats and a picaresque Dublin scene from Joyce.
Instead, his material is highly, and gloriously, diverse: speeches and songs brush alongside travel writing, memoirs and drama extracts. Tragedy, high drama and comedy all appear here, from Emmet’s Speech from the Dock to O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.
But not in equal measure. Perhaps because he has chosen the 150 years from the late-18th century to the Irish Free State, Regan’s emphasis is often on fighting words. And of those, you can be sure, there are many.
That said, there are some questionable inclusions here. Why include the late 18th-century reflections of Frenchman La Chevalier de la Tocnaye, for instance, except to bulk up a section on Irish culture? The exclusions are even more questionable: Beckett – Samuel, of Godot fame – gets a single, meagre extract.
Regan’s purpose is ‘to encourage readers to discover for themselves the strange and unexpected ways in which works of literature engage with their times’. His vast notes, bibliography and biography sections will help. But the pedagogic urge gets in the way at times. The extract from Maria Edgeworth’s mocking masterpiece, Castle Rackrent, is as equal parts narrative and glossary, for instance.
You could also question his selection of themes. Politics and nationhood get top billing, of course, and he points up "a preoccupation with psychic disturbance and the supernatural" (bizarrely, as though the Gothic novel were peculiarly Irish). Yet satire, exile and loss – to name just a few themes pulsing at the back of this selection – are at the same time curiously absent from the criteria for selection.
Nor is that much made of the ambivalence of these writers towards the English language. Although Regan covers ‘linguistic dispossession’ in his introduction, it doesn’t emerge particularly strongly from within these pages.
In any case, it’s a problematic concept. Yeats described the English language, as mastered by Joyce, as ‘a native weapon’. Just as Dylan Thomas was a classic Welsh poet who spoke barely a word of Welsh, Irish was Joyce’s national tongue but English his native one.
Is there a specifically Irish genius? It would seem so. (Could Yeats have been, say, Belgian?) But to canonise Joyce for his thoughts to the Irish nation yet to miss the small matter than he fragmented and rebuilt and changed, irrevocably, language seems slightly absurd.
After all, when he wasn’t manning the (Parisian) barricades, he was a decent little scribbler.
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Copyright © 2004 Shayla Warmsley