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Michael Allen: Close Readings

Essays on Irish Poetry
Michael Allen; Fran Brearton (ed)
Publisher
Irish Academic Press
Price
€29.99
ISBN
9780716533047


EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From Chapter 1 "Provincialism and Recent Irish Poetry: The Importance of Patrick Kavanagh"

Provincialism was a major European social and literary preoccupation in the nineteenth century; but why does it still remain such a central concern in Ireland? Seamus Deane's suggestion that Ireland was 'a provincial backwater' between 1930 and 19551 is a variation on Daniel Corkery's general notion that Ireland is most provincial when most peaceful. One explanation of the continued Irish concern with this issue must obviously have to do with her relationship with England: the custom that lies upon her '"heavy as frost and deep almost as life'", Corkery says, is not her 'own custom, it is England's'.2 Louis MacNeice, in his book on Yeats, offers another explanation: that Ireland may sometimes be united against England, but is always divided against herself, characterised above all by an intensity of local feeling: 'a man from the next parish is a foreigner'.3 The example of Patrick Kavanagh, the most influential poet to have lived with Deane's twenty-five years of provincialism, shows that the preoccupation can be fruitful as well as debilitating; it lends support to both the above explanations which may thus be taken as complementary rather than contradictory.

As a nineteenth-century idea, the pejorative notion of provincialism, 'pertaining to a narrow and limited environment', appealed to that sense of superiority on grounds of mobility and wide acquaintance with the best people on which upper-class people thrived socially. Their own presumably broad and expansive environment they could see as 'cosmopolitan' or 'metropolitan'; their way of life as 'urbane'. For intellectuals and artists these socially accepted, opposed or overlapping 'catchwords' (A.O. Lovejoy)4 offered the idea of the whole world as a structured hierarchical system of places. One's art, one's style, one's flow of thought, it was assumed, would profit from location in, or free access to, places high up in the hierarchy like Paris or London. Those doomed to places lower down could be pitied or patronised. Matthew Arnold snobbishly introduced this idea of provincialism to the English literary journals in the course of popularising the critical terminology of Sainte-Beuve in 1864. The provincial note, he said, occurred in the writer 'left too much to himself with 'ignorance and platitude all round him' too far from a 'supposed centre of correct information, correct judgement, correct taste'. Writing produced in such circumstances would, he said, exaggerate 'the value of its ideas' or rather 'give one idea too much prominence at the expense of others'.5 This sense of'provincial' was immediately taken up in the critical essays in Victorian periodicals, the literary talk in London salons. But Arnold's very high standards, his castigation of the whole of English culture as provincial in comparison with that of France, tended to get lost when the distinction was used by, say, Thackeray and his circle: they would use it to dignify their own ethos and patronise a Charlotte Bronte or a Thomas Hardy. It probably seemed no more than common sense to assume that such provincial writers were inferior in cultural advantage and could only profit by gaining mobility and access to superior circles. George Eliot accepted her assimilation into the metropolitan melting pot gratefully; Charlotte Bronte half accepted the benefits of her London links. Even the young Hardy accepted the assumption initially, deciding that, as a writer, he must have his headquarters in or near London.

It seems clear to us now that for a writer whose art is uniquely dependent on a native love of a particular terrain, an authentic sense of a local society, such considerations might seem irrelevant (Faulkner is the most obvious modern example). While Hardy conceded the value of the metropolitan visits which continued after he had settled in Dorchester, his confidence in his own gifts led him to repudiate the basic premises of urbane patronage. 'Arnold is wrong about provincialism', he wrote, 'if he means anything more than a provincialism of style and manner ... A certain provincialism of feeling is invaluable. It is of the essence of individuality, and is largely made up of that crude enthusiasm without which no great thoughts are thought, no great deeds done.'6 We can speculate that like Clym Yeobright he had originally renounced the provinces for a metropolis where he thought customs and values would be infinitely superior; but that he too found that he was putting off 'one sort of life for another' that was 'not better than the life [he] had known before. It was simply different.' He still recognised the limitations of provincial society in terms which partially reflect Arnold's: the scene of The Woodlanders for instance is a place 'where may usually be found more meditation than action and more listlessness than meditation; where reasoning proceeds on narrow premises____ ' But it is important that he added 'and results in inferences wildly imaginative'.7 The relationship between these inferences and his own 'provincialism of feeling', 'individuality', 'enthusiasm' was to be established and objectified through the creation of a self-contained fictional world. Genteel and cosmopolitan characters and scenes could be subordinated or excluded since 'there was quite enough human nature in Wessex for one man's literary purpose'.8 This conception of art rooted in the re-creation of an authentic self-contained regional world reached its height when Faulkner, an even more intransigent provincial, discovered what could be achieved by writing about his own little postage stamp of native soil, sublimating the actual into the apocryphal. These formulations are suggestive of the mode of Patrick Kavanagh's best work. What is more, the nineteenth-century 'debate' in which they germinated remains relevant in Ireland, where Yeats played Arnold's role and Kavanagh (I shall maintain) played Hardy's. In his book on the Southern writer, Cleanth Brooks9 argues that Hardy and Faulkner both gained great artistic strength from their identification with provincial cultures in a period when the intellectual and social values of the metropolitan commercial and cultural centres were defective. He is wrong, however, to place Yeats alongside these authors. Certainly Yeats was not a thoroughgoing cosmopolitan; he earned Joyce's rebuke ('a treacherous instinct of adaptability') in as much as he was not prepared to reject Irish literary circles for their 'temporising and poltroonery, their attitude of timid covert revolt on all issues not purely national' as Joyce did.10 But this was precisely because Dublin was as important to him as Sligo: he differs from the other writers referred to by Brooks in that he had no intimate and exclusive relationship with a rural traditional culture. In fact, in Autobiographies he described Irish culture in Arnoldian terms.