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Friday, July 20, 2007

Slippery Sam and Tomtinker Tim
















Beckett fact no. 89. An essay on Beckett and Thomas MacGreevy. With endnotes, even. Classy!

‘[Y]our interest was passing from the man himself to the forces that formed him… But perhaps that also is the fault of my mood and my inability to understand… a phrase like “The Irish People” or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the union or after, or that it was ever capable of any thought or act other than rudimentary thoughts and acts delved into by the priests and demagogues in service of the priests, or that it would ever care or know that there was once a painter in Ireland called Jack Butler Yeats. This is not a criticism of the criticism that allows as a sentient subject which [recte that which?] I can only think of a nameless and hideous mass whether in Ireland or in Finland, but only to say that I as a prod of prejudices prefer the first half of your work with its real and radiant individuals to the second with our national scene’ – Beckett to MacGreevy, 31 January 1938.[1]

Just as Samuel Beckett recommended the contemplation of a carefully folded ham sandwich, in his 1929 essay on Joyce’s Work in Progress, for its ‘soothing’ qualities, the shape of Irish poetry in the 1930s has often seemed to assume reassuringly sandwich-like contours, with Yeats as the meat at its centre held in place by a pulpy mass of ‘antiquarians and others’, to invoke the categories of Beckett’s other well-known early essay, ‘Recent Irish Poetry’. What the ‘others’ lack in numbers they have made up for in recent years in new-found academic interest, as a concerted revisionist effort on their behalf attempts to right the wrongs of decades of neglect. The four principal ‘others’ are Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey, Thomas MacGreevy and Beckett himself, and it is on the last two of these that I wish to focus here. MacGreevy met Beckett in Paris in 1928, introducing him to Joyce, just as he would later introduce him to Jack Yeats. Despite their widely different backgrounds – MacGreevy the Kerry-born Catholic nationalist, Beckett the lapsed Protestant for whom Ireland was the ‘haemorrhoidal isle’ – the two men enjoyed a warm friendship, and his letters to MacGreevy remain the single most revealing, if tantalizingly unpublished, point of entry into the young Beckett’s thought processes. Nevertheless, real and profound differences existed between the two, centring on the connection (or lack thereof) between their modernist poetics and the concept of an Irish tradition they respectively embraced (MacGreevy) and comprehensively rejected (Beckett). In Finnegans Wake the pair appear as Slippery Sam and Tomtinker Tim in the Butt and Taff episode of part II,[2] and it is not entirely fanciful to see a template for Beckett and MacGreevy’s differences in Shem and Shaun and the endless procession of warring siblings into which they morph in Joyce’s book.

If the problem with Beckett’s poetry is that his fiction and drama have all but eclipsed it, MacGreevy’s problem is that there was no fiction or drama to eclipse his poetry, and after his solitary collection, Poems (1934), there was precious little more poetry either. As a writer, he simply ran aground. Had his predicament arisen out of a sense of beleaguered cosmopolitanism at odds with Free State Ireland, where he lived from 1941 until his death, such a fate would be understandable enough. But what gives it its peculiar poignancy is that, in many ways, MacGreevy was anything but at odds with the new dispensation, in theory at least. In poems such as ‘The Six Who Were Hanged’, ‘Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill’ and ‘Gloria de Carlos V’, he fuses modernist innovation with mystical Catholic patriotism. For all his natural resistance to such things, Beckett is forced to acknowledge this side of MacGreevy in his 1934 review of Poems, from his opening boast that ‘All poetry […] is prayer’ to his enthusiasm for MacGreevy’s ‘flag dipped in Ave, not hauled down in Miserere’ and the ‘nucleus of endopsychic clarity, uttering itself in the prayer that is a spasm of awareness’.[3] The glaring incompatibility of this with his review of Denis Devlin’s Intercessions only four years later – ‘art has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear’ – underlines how uniquely he had been struck by MacGreevy’s work, and how far he was prepared to accommodate its differences from his own. There were limits to this accommodation though, as we shall see: as J.C.C. Mays notes, ‘Beckett’s interests led him to understand MacGreevy as a more self-absorbed writer than he is’,[4] the alleged self-absorption serving to edit out the side of MacGreevy least to Beckett’s taste, his nationalism.

None of the two men’s shared interests throws their differences into sharper relief than the work of Jack Yeats, on whom MacGreevy wrote an early book, and whose novel The Amaranthers Beckett reviewed in 1936. Discussing the relationship between Yeats’s art and Irish politics, which MacGreevy finds writ large in the painter’s work, Yeats’s biographer Bruce Arnold is dismissive: ‘It simply does not exist.’[5] In his review of The Amaranthers Beckett too rules out a political reading: ‘The Island’ of the novel’s setting ‘is not throttled into Ireland, nor the City into Dublin […] The landscape is superb, radiant and alive, with its own life, not the hikers.’’[6] MacGreevy’s chance to have his say on Beckett came in his own review of Devlin’s Intercessions, in which he compares Beckett and Devlin at length. Once again the nationalist note is insistently struck: if the two men avoid the ‘facetiousness’ of English writers ‘perhaps the credit should go to their Dublin upbringing’, but this aside ‘the poets could hardly be more different from each other.’[7] Unlike the more evocative Devlin, Beckett ‘gathers all his forces into single precise statements’, eliminating where Devlin accumulates. He is ‘cloistered within himself’, ‘a poet of the cloistered self on whom experience is an intrusion.’[8] The discussion of Devlin then turns to comparisons with Renaissance painting, before reverting inexorably to the national question: ‘It is notable that there is no poem here on the subject of Ireland. Have the politicians so degraded La Houlihan that the younger poets do not even notice her existence?’[9]

By way of a delayed answer Beckett returned to the question in his 1945 review of MacGreevy’s study of Yeats, toning down the extremism of his 1938 letter quoted earlier in my epigraph, but holding firm none the less: ‘The national aspects of Mr Yeats’s genius have, I think, been over-stated, and for motives not always remarkable for their aesthetic purity.’[10] Given all this, the question must be asked: if the terms of Beckett’s anti-cultural nationalist polemic in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ mean anything, what could his and MacGreevy’s poetry possibly have in common? To answer the question I would like to compare MacGreevy’s long poem set in Dublin ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ with a selection of poems from Beckett’s Echo’s Bones. Of the thirteen poems in that collection eight have recognizable settings, and the five I will be concentrating on also take place in and around Dublin: ‘Enueg I’, ‘Enueg II’, ‘Sanies I’, ‘Sanies II’ and ‘Serena III’. Rather than read them separately I will alternate between the two writers, taking MacGreevy’s long poem section by section and interleaving it with the five poems from Echo’s Bones.

Of all MacGreevy’s poems ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ comes closest to Beckett’s style, though its most obvious debts are to the recently published masterworks of Joyce and Eliot.[11] The poem’s title is a loose Irish rendering of the German Götterdämmerung, and with its two musical quotations from the Ring Cycle the poem is not without Wagnerian ambitions of its own. In the aftermath of revolution and civil war, surveying the wreckage from which a new nation has arisen, MacGreevy ponders what has survived and what has perished. The persistence of culture amid political emergency was something he knew only too well. In his classic memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man’s Wound, Beckett’s friend Ernie O’Malley describes meeting MacGreevy in the Abbey Theatre while on the run: in a memorably incongruous image, MacGreevy helps the playwright Lennox Robinson play Beethoven on a pianola by pressing on the wooden pedals while O’Malley nurses his shotgun and watches an Auxiliary raid from an upstairs window. If the city is subject to imperial occupation, MacGreevy begins ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ with the standard nationalist response of images of female virtue, alternately outraged and virtuously preserved. The first of the poem’s two epigraphs is from Isaiah and bewails how the ‘faithful city’ has ‘become a harlot’; the second is from the ballad ‘Cockles and Mussels’,[12] celebrating the mythic barrow girl Molly Malone. The poem’s introit mimics the brilliant musicality of the Wandering Rocks chapter of Ulysses, as the poet enters the cab that will take him from Broadstone Station on the city’s northside across the Liffey to Merrion Square, passing evidence of the revolutionary period as he goes, or ‘the squalid elements of civil war’ as Beckett calls them in his Dublin Magazine review.

In contrast to County Mayo, whence he has just come, Dublin is a place of ‘stale voluptuousness’; Ascendancy Ireland, as MacGreevy portrays it, is never without an undercurrent of seediness and menace. In the opening lines of section one we find ‘inquisitive moulting swans’ on the Royal Canal, and from the myth of the Children of Lir, transformed to swans for nine hundred years, MacGreevy takes the short step to another proverbial era of self-exile, that of Ireland since the Norman invasion of 1169: ‘How long since your last absolution? /Answer: Seven hundred years’ (CPM, p. 15). The fusion of nationalist complaint and the Catholic sacrament of penance interrogates the city from the perspective of a history shot to fragments, fragments the poem does not pretend to be able to reassemble. ‘Remember Belgium!’ MacGreevy exclaims, ‘You cannot pick up the /pieces’ (CPM, p. 15). Applied to MacGreevy himself these lines have a very personal resonance, given his service in the First World War and subsequent extreme disillusionment with British rule in Ireland. Conjuring images of 1916 and the War of Independence, the ‘wrecked’ houses he passes are not evidence of a heroic struggle but merely ‘Wrecks wetly mouldering under rain’. The only hope in such a landscape, it seems, is to transcend history altogether in a moment of visionary insight: ‘In the absurdity of ugliness /Some found quick doom /And some of us /Saw’ (CPM, p. 16).

Turning from ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ to Echo’s Bones, we find that Ireland as a setting has the following discernible effects on Beckett: the sensation of a closed space from which no physical exit is possible, or any but the most abortive moments of imaginative release; the atomisation of experience into a discontinuous patchwork like the ‘turmoil of objective and immanent contradictions’ of Proust, ‘over which the observer has no control’;[13] a taboo on human interaction, combined with a sense of haunting ghostly presences; an accompanying thwarting of the sexual instinct, providing at best a point of painful contact with the world of the ghostly female; and a constant need for movement as a stay against paralysis and death. As one half of the ‘pseudocouple’ says in Mercier and Camier, ‘What does it matter […] where we are going? We are going, that’s enough.’[14] As a Beckett landscape, in other words, it could hardly be more ideal. Further, if the lone wanderer of these poems is invariably in a state of profound alienation from his surroundings, their status as public spaces in post-independence Ireland does not disappear, but becomes all the more claustrophobically insistent. As Henri Lefebvre writes in The Production of Space: ‘What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space with it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?’[15] The framing, ideological space of Free State Ireland is registered even as it is rejected, whether in the ‘grey spew of the sewer’ in ‘Enueg I’, the sexual corruption of ‘Sanies II’ or the emblematic Misery Hill of ‘Serena III’.

On my reading of Echo’s Bones, therefore, the poems’ Irish settings act as the figure and ground of a negative identification with the same public spaces to which MacGreevy is drawn. Their political differences aside, the two men’s work speaks of and from the cultural ‘interregnum’ of 1920s and 30s Ireland, in the Gramscian sense, and the ‘great variety of morbid symptoms’ by which the Italian thinker characterised that condition.[16] It is not to detract from the usefulness of the term to find John Goodby, in his Irish Poetry Since 1950, applying it to a later decade (‘The spirit of change haunted the 1950s […] in a way reminiscent of Gramsci’s characterization of an “interregnum” period, whose crisis “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born”’);[17] for both Beckett and MacGreevy it is not just the founding moment of the state that stands between two worlds but the entire public sphere that results from it, as reflected in their poetic addiction to in-between states, thresholds and instability. (The loaded term ‘partition’ does, after all, appear in one of Beckett’s most famous descriptions of this state, in The Unnamable: ‘perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two […], I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition’.[18]) The restive and peripatetic quality of Beckett and MacGreevy’s writing is further reflected in their view of the Irish landscape’s allegorical and symbolic potential. Where MacGreevy enthusiastically takes over Eliot’s ‘mythic method’, Beckett is hostile to such transformations, as his review of The Amaranthers made clear. But, again, this does not mean that his poems subsist in a realm of low-mimetic naturalism, free of all symbolic or allegorical taint. Far from it: they actively court such possibilities, only to reject them all the more forcefully. The effect of this is immediately visible in a reading of ‘Enueg I’. As surely as the journey to Mr Knott’s house in part one of Watt, ‘Enueg I’ is a via dolorosa, or defies us not to read it as such. But as when reading Watt we labour under the disadvantage of ‘no symbols where none intended’,[19] as Beckett interrupts and sabotages our attempts at any such interpretation. Writing on Beckett’s juvenilia Patricia Coughlan comments that ‘both the poetic method and the handling of theme emphasize disjunction in such a forced way as to wreck the whole enterprise of sequential or comprehensible utterance’,[20] but even when Beckett has brought his method under control, as here, a studied suppression of narrative continuity remains central to the poem. From its opening line, ‘Exeo in spasm’, the opening stanza proposes a Dantean journey from the Hell’s gate of Portobello bridge into the west:

Exeo in spasm

tired of my darling’s red sputum

from the Portobello Private Nursing Home

its secret things

and toil to the crest of the surge of the steep perilous bridge

and lapse down blankly under the scream of the hoarding

round the bright stiff banner of the hoarding

into a black west

throttled with clouds[21]

The setting of Jack Yeats’s novel may not have been ‘throttled into Ireland’, but the black west on the horizon is ‘throttled with clouds’. He continues under a row of ‘algum trees’, a detail that baffled Denis Devlin when Beckett read him the poem,[22] but whose resemblance to algos, Greek for ‘pain’, sets the tone for his self-description in the lines that follow: ‘my skull sullenly /clot of anger /skewered aloft strangled in the cang of the wind /bites like a dog against its chastisement’. Trundling along the canal bank he encounters a ‘dying barge /carrying a cargo of nails and timber’, raising the prospect that this via dolorosa will presently lead to Beckett’s crucifixion over Parnell Bridge. For Iain Sinclair in his own book of city walks, Lights Out for the Territory, ‘the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything,’[23] but at key moments such as this Beckett chooses not to notice the symbolic opportunities he has engineered and abruptly moves on. ‘Enueg I’ now retreats to a view of the mountains in the distance, ‘annulling’ its controlling mind in an image of willed resignation and loss of control:

[…] across a travesty of champaign to the mountains

and the stillborn evening turning a filthy green

manuring the night fungus

and the mind annulled

wrecked in wind (BP, p. 13)

Despite this stark isolation, the poem’s next section contains the only example of dialogue in the entirety of Echo’s Bones, when a ‘fidgeting’ child asks whether they would be admitted to a field to watch a football game. Beckett answers in the affirmative, but the boy succeeds in outdoing him for diffidence (no small achievement) by slouching off anyway. As Walter Benjamin writes in his study of Baudelaire, ‘The flâneur only seems to break through this “unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest” by filling the hollow space created in him by such isolation, with the borrowed – and fictitious – isolation of strangers,’[24] evidently suffering a case of what Beckett diagnoses in Proust as ‘the attempt to communicate where no communication is possible.’[25]

The poet then descends the Kylemore Road into the Joycean borough of Chapelizod, whose connections with the legend of Tristan and Iseult fuel the imagery of the ‘sweaty heroes’ by whom he finds himself surrounded:

hastening down for a pint of nepenthe or moly or half and half

from watching the hurlers above in Kilmainham (BP, p. 14)

Allowing for the echoes of the Circe chapter in Ulysses here, such are the swinish pieties of Irish life: hurling, a field spot beloved of Cuchulainn, and that holiest site of Irish political martyrdom, Kilmainham gaol. Nepenthe and moly by contrast are, respectively, a drug that induces forgetfulness of sorrow and the magical root that freed Ulysses’ sailors from their captivity on Circe’s island (‘Moly’ is also the original title of one of Beckett’s uncollected early poems, ‘Yoke of Liberty’). Once again though the poem lurches into a jump-cut transition, bringing us down into the Liffey basin and finding in the river not a Joycean source of life and renewal but only cloacal filth: ‘a slush of vigilant gulls in the grey spew of the sewer’. The poem concludes with a quatrain adapted from Rimbaud’s ‘Barbare’ which parades its unreality as clinching proof of the chasm between imagination and sordid reality: ‘Ah the banner /the banner of meat bleeding /on the silk of the seas the arctic flowers /that do no exist.’[26] The poem’s pursuit of disconnection and evasion culminates in the supreme good of non-existence.[27]

Returning to MacGreevy’s poem, in section two we find the metaphor of sexual purity used once again as a response to colonial occupation. MacGreevy shows how sexual corruption has survived into Free State Ireland in the form of the ‘green soldiers’, rather than the redcoats of old, who now frequent the quay-side prostitutes: ‘The unfaithful city /Has gone away backward’ (MCP, p. 17). Quoting a musical extract from Tannhäuser, he asks ‘But how long till your swagger-sticks blossoms?’ (MCP, p. 18) – a question to which, we cannot help feeling, one of Joyce’s Nighttown prostitutes might have come up with an earthier answer than MacGreevy cares to supply. The Beckett comparisons here are with ‘Enueg II’ and ‘Sanies I’, two very different poems on desire and the female image. After a fourfold anathema of the hated ‘world’, ‘Enueg II’ invokes a face whose ‘grave’ presence forms a ‘cloud against the evening’, and which by apposition appears to belong to the woman he addresses as ‘veronica mundi /veronica munda’, before asking her to ‘give us a wipe for the love of Jesus’. The phrasing recalls an incident reported by Bair when Beckett stormed out of the painter Sean O’Sullivan’s studio, decrying another painter as ‘a Veronicist who would wipe the face of Christ with a sanitary towel.’[28] But the speaker of ‘Enueg II’ makes an unlikely Christ, lying inert on O’Connell Bridge ‘sweating like Judas /tired of dying /tired of policemen’ (BP, p. 15). Just as Revelation’s ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord’ is elsewhere truncated by Beckett to ‘Blessed are the dead that die’,[29] a familiar Latin tag is delivered stillborn: ‘de morituris nihil nisi’. Nisi – what? To speak well, even of the dying, is beyond the tongue-tied poet. As the ghostly face floats above him the poet feels his ‘old heart the old heart /breaking outside congress’, a line that entertains the ghost of a pun on the Dublin Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and its celebration of Catholic triumphalism, from whose ideas of congress, in every sense, the lovesick poet could not but feel deeply estranged. The poet is scarcely there at all, only speaking in the first person through a German negative qualifier: ‘doch I assure there’.[30]

‘Sanies II’ is a very different kind of poem. Though apparently set in the American Bar in Paris, it was in fact inspired by a visit to Becky Cooper’s Dublin brothel.[31] If ‘Enueg II’ cannot bring itself to articulate desire or the full presence of the female, ‘Sanies II’ exposes the imaginative collapse attendant on the fully embodied female form. As in ‘Alba’, Dante and Beatrice make an appearance, but with a heavy admixture of bathos. A letter to MacGreevy recounts an episode in which he was ejected from a Dublin brothel for ‘sneer[ing] at the coloured reproduction of Dante Beatrice – Lugarno intersection’,[32] which here becomes ‘lo Alighieri has got off au revoir to all that /I break down in quite a titter’. By way of debauching another literary reference, Beckett gives the prostitutes names from the Perrault fairy tales he was reading at the time (Gracieuse, Belle-Belle, Percinet). But where ‘Alba’ can elicit a delicate and epiphanic lyric from only the most obliquely hinted-at erotic coupling, ‘Sanies II’ requires the poet to be violently flagellated to get any sort of response from him at all: ‘spare me good Becky /call off thine adders Becky I will compensate thee in full’.

In section three of ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ MacGreevy continues to fret in the shadow of Anglo-Irish Dublin. His notes present the poem as an allegorical agon whose ‘gods, heroes, virtues’ are ‘mostly presented sculpturally in Dublin’, as in Gandon’s Custom House (occupied and burned out in the Civil War) with its figures of Hope and Union, while elsewhere ‘Neptune dr[ives] away Famine and Despair’. Though complimentary of such Augustan elegance he anticipates Louis MacNeice’s view that Dublin, ‘Fort of the Dane, /Garrison of the Saxon, /Augustan capital /Of a Gaelic nation’[33] is ‘not an Irish town’: above all else Gandon’s masterworks proclaim the sovereignty of the Anglo-Irish, ‘who religiously as culturally are alien to the tradition of the people.’[34] But where to find ‘the people’, or how restore to them their usurped nationhood? On this score the poem is much less confident. His response to the burning of the Four Courts synthesizes Wagner and seventeenth-century Gaelic poet Aodhagán Ó Rathaille without being able to produce the requisite gesture of assertion from the subaltern people in their moment of destiny:

Folge mir Frau

Come up to Valhalla

To gile na gile

The brightness of brightness

Towering in the sky

Over Dublin

[…]

Dark night has come down on us, mother

And we

Do not look for a star

Or Valhalla (MCP, pp. 19-20)

After Beckett’s moly and nepenthe, MacGreevy has his magic potion too (‘Our Siegfried was doped by the Gibichungs’ (MCP, p. 20)), but one that induces only slumber and not awakening.

In another journey poem, ‘Sanies I’, Beckett revisits the primal awakening of his birth. ‘Sanies’ means a blood-tinged seropurulent discharge from an ulcer or infected wound, and in its mood of pus-like discharge it can be read as an excretory parody of childbirth, ‘written’ as Beckett said of his poetry to MacGreevy, ‘out of a cavity, a statement and not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pus in the spirit.’[35] Cycling through north Co. Dublin Beckett finds ‘sad swans’ in Turvey (BP, p. 19), perhaps the stone swans on a gateway that Lawrence Harvey, retracing Beckett’s steps, found on a visit to the now-demolished Turvey House.[36] That these are heraldic birds, announcing (like MacGreevy’s) an historical claim, is confirmed by the narrator’s description of himself as ‘potwalloping now through the promenaders’ in Swords. Constituted by James I, Swords was initially one of the few free boroughs in Ireland, with its franchise vested in its ‘potwallopers’, ‘Protestants who had been resident for a continuous period of six months’[37] according to Weston St John Joyce’s The Neighbourhood of Dublin. Even on the move, Beckett is aware of the ingrained Ascendancy temptation to appropriate the landscape as he moves through it.

Rather than reconnecting with his roots, however, the poem carries its regression to neurotic extremes, fantasising a return to the womb (‘ah to be back in the caul now with no trusts /no fingers no spoilt love’) while Beckett garnishes its language with archaisms and classical tags (‘cere wrack’, ‘pot-valiant’, ‘atra cura’). The joyous effect of his bicycle on the poet propels the narrative forward even as it compounds the sense of anally channelled revenge on the maternal womb for having expelled him: ‘all heaven in the sphincter /the sphincter’ (BP, p. 19). His talk of ‘sparkling beestings’ (BP, p. 20), or maternal milk, is not altogether off the mark, as his destination turns out to be his parents’ home, where he is expected for dinner. Once again, Beckett approaches and veers away from a symbolic template for his predicament, as his mythologized landscape refuses to take its oedipally fixated poet seriously, leaving him ‘courting the sneers of these fauns these smart nymphs /clipped like a pederast’. As in the excursion to Fingal in More Pricks Than Kicks, with its ill-fated bout of voyeuristic ‘sursum corda’, in Belacqua’s anatomical euphemism, the pastoral impulse to feminize the landscape is taken to grotesque and absurdist levels. The poem ends with a final Botticellian apparition, identified by James Knowlson as Ethna McCarthy,[38] and self-consciously unveiled by Beckett as the true object of the poem’s meandering search at last, though even here he cannot resist inscribing the ban on sexuality in the very grammar he uses:

I see main verb at last

her whom alone in the accusative

I have dismounted to love

The possibility of erotic encounter is safely defused by a return to Holles Street maternity hospital, and its reassuringly infantilist associations:

gliding towards me dauntless nautch-girl on the face of the water

dauntless daughter of desires in the old black and flamingo

get along with you now take the six the seven the eight or the little single-

decker

take a bus for all I care walk cadge a lift

home to the cob of your web in Holles Street (BP, p. 20)

In section four of ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’, MacGreevy employs a similar classical and colonial backdrop, but again fails to spark him into affirmation: in his ‘city of unbeautiful fountains’ the poet’s muse is ‘constricted /Like Sir Philip Compton’s trickle’ (MCP, p. 21). The only signs of life occur in scarcely mentionable ‘matrimonial suburbs’[39] while the classical muse deserts the city altogether: ‘Our Gandons turn mariner /And, quarrelling, sail oceans’ (MCP, p. 22); and just as Beckett’s ‘cere wrack’ suggested a ‘cerement’ or winding sheet, Molly Malone vainly seeks out her ‘dangerous occasions of beauty’, good now only for ‘a wet sheet’. By now a reader could hardly be blamed for noticing that, whatever his stated politics, MacGreevy is plainly in thrall to the overpowering authority of Anglo-Ireland: again and again what comes after it has failed to spark his imagination into anything but stylised resignation. Despite its loco-specific quality, the poem is written out of a Dublin of the imagination, somewhere between past and future but unable to inhabit the ‘interregnum’ space of the present in which it finds itself. In a late poem about MacGreevy, ‘Our Stars Come from Ireland’, his friend Wallace Stevens performs a similar act of displacement on him, imagining MacGreevy as an American immigrant remembering the County Kerry of his youth and mentally refashioning the landscape to his needs: ‘What would the water have been, /Without that that he makes of it?’[40] As Justin Quinn has written of the MacGreevy character in this poem, ‘His mind is the postcolonial imagination in small.’[41] It is in the transformation of the place rather than the place itself, in other words, that MacGreevy is truest to the city he describes.

It is on this shifting ground, far from their widely divergent politics, that MacGreevy’s and Beckett’s poetics find their commonality of purpose. In one last example from Beckett, ‘Serena III’, displacement becomes the basis in itself for the proper representation of place. From the outset, it establishes (but also attacks) a duality of female and male, stasis and mobility, redemption and fallenness, in line with previous poems such as ‘Dortmunder’ and ‘Alba’ in which the female stoops or ministers to the abject poet from a realm of grace somewhere beyond the turbulence of male desire:

fix this pothook of beauty on this palette

you never know it might be final

or leave her she is paradise and then

plush hymens on your eyeballs (BP, p. 27)

The turbulence, or in the terminology of the Proust monograph ‘intrinsic flux’, is manifest in the imperative tenor of Beckett’s verbs: ‘fix’, ‘leave her’, ‘cock up thy moon’, ‘swoon’, ‘dart away’, ‘slink down the Ringsend Road’, ‘hide yourself’, ‘keep on the move’. Finding himself ‘on Butt Bridge’, the poet compensates by ‘blush[ing] for shame’, but mostly, like the frustrated bridge that Stephen Dedalus hears behind “Pyrrhus, ‘a pier’”, Beckett’s images resolutely fail to connect: two Dublin lighthouses are ‘the Bull and Pool Beg that will never meet /not in this world’. From this image Beckett ricochets into the journey southwards and out of the city of the poem’s last stanza, bringing the city, the female and the unattainable transcendent together one last time:

whereas dart away through the cavorting scapes

bucket o’er Victoria Bridge that’s the idea

slow down slink down the Ringsend Road

Irishtown Sandymount puzzle find the Hell Fire

the Merrion Flats scored with a thrillion sigmas

Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour His Finger

In Murphy, Miss Counihan is ‘quite exceptionally anthropoid’ ‘for an Irish girl’,[42] and here too the soon-to-be ‘decorticated multiparas’[43] encountered on Sandymount Strand are treated much more abrasively than Gerty McDowell in Ulysses:

girls taken strippin that’s the idea

on the Bootersgrad breakwind and water

the tide making the dun gulls in a panic

the sands quicken in your hot heart

hide yourself not in the Rock keep on the move

keep on the move

Keeping on the move, its fifth and final section brings MacGreevy’s journey poem to one last memorial, the cenotaph to Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins recently erected in the grounds of Dáil Éireann: ‘this plaster riddle-me-riddle-me-rie / […] Rotting rain-soaked wreaths against it.’ Intended as a tribute to two founding fathers of the state, for MacGreevy it merely underlines the Limbo of incompletion in which the new state languishes. The Joycean parallel here is with the Sirens chapter of Ulysses, in which Ben Dollard’s singing of ‘The Croppy Boy’ reminds Mr Bloom of Robert Emmet’s celebrated speech from the dock and its demand that Emmet’s epitaph not be written until ‘my country takes her place among the nations of the earth’. By way of a protest against this barroom patriotism Bloom punctuates Emmet’s speech with a series of farts, and though such intestinal debunking would seem at a far remove from the solemnity of MacGreevy’s poem, it too appears to peter out in a series of fundamental noises (no pun intended): ‘How long? /How long? /How long since? /Long till? //Long //Trot /Tr…’ This is not quite the end, since there remains the poet’s dateline: ‘Easter Sunday, 1923’. Seven years after the 1916 Rising, April 1923 witnessed the final dissolution of the revolutionary period as, first, Liam Lynch was shot by Free State forces, and on the twenty-seventh of the month De Valera ordered the suspension of the anti-Treaty campaign. For better or worse, the Free State had arrived. Poised between its abortive exorcisms of Anglo-Ireland and pessimistic prognosis for the newborn Irish state, MacGreevy’s poem situates itself squarely on the fault-line of this cultural interregnum: the space, in its own words, between ‘How long since?’ and ‘How long till?’ The fictitious isolation of strangers in Beckett is balanced in MacGreevy by the fictitious public space of post-imperial Dublin: fictitious, that is, beside the ghost-ridden, corrupt and empty shell that is all the present has to offer even after the nightmare of colonial rule appears to have come to an end. Where both versions of the city converge is the shared need for ‘absolution’ (MacGreevy’s word) or ‘compassion’ (Beckett’s), some form of release from the Purgatory or Limbo to which the poets find themselves condemned.

In the absence of this compassionate absolution, the authors of ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ and Echo’s Bones could only feel at odds with Free State Ireland. If MacGreevy harboured any illusions about its receptivity to his unique blend of Catholic nationalism and modernist experiment, his experiences with Con Leventhal’s avant garde journal The Klaxon in the same year that he completed his long poem may have come as a rude surprise. MacGreevy’s contribution, a passionate defence of Mainie Jellett’s cubist art, was couched in patriotic and even anti-English terms, but was not enough to save the journal, which failed to make it to a second issue.[44] In Beckett’s case, Echo’s Bones signally failed to launch Beckett’s career as an Irish poet (the pre-emptive critical strike on his contemporaries in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ in 1934 can hardly have helped), and within two years he had settled permanently in Paris and was composing poetry in French, his first real breakthrough in that language. Failing in its bid to usher in the revolution of the word in Ireland, MacGreevy and Beckett’s poetry went underground, resurfacing in a periodic series of revivals and rediscoveries ever since. Beckett’s poetry has been the subject of only one critical study, Lawrence Harvey’s Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (1970), which offers a comprehensive reading but fails to engage with its Irish modernist genealogy; the best reading of Beckett within that framework is Patricia Coughlan’s ‘“The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves”: Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry’.[45] Nevertheless, as his centenary approaches it is remarkable that no satisfactory Collected Poems exists, the last attempt to produce one having descended into the realms of scholarly farce.[46] MacGreevy enjoyed the esteem of younger writers such as Thomas Kinsella and Anthony Cronin during his lifetime, emerged as a figurehead for Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce’s Lace Curtain/New Writers’ Press group of the 1970s, and is now the subject of an extensive online archive project by the editor of his Collected Poems, Susan Schreibman. Smith and Joyce had in turn been inspired by the presence of work by Brian Coffey in the Irish University Review under the editorship of Lorna Reynolds, whose own work forms a link to the same 30s generation. In the 1990s the emergence of Randolph Healy’s Wild Honey Press and reemergence of the New Writers’ Press gave fresh impetus to these innovative strains in Irish poetry; Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis’s Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s in 1995 launched the most concerted revival of interest to date in these writers. The question as to whether the relationship between modernist and mainstream styles in Irish poetry has ever been resolved, however, is a different debate again, and not one this article claims to settle one way or the other.

In many ways, therefore, Beckett and MacGreevy’s modernist poetics remain an incomplete or never-to-be completed project, but as glimpses of the Free State modernism that never their work maintains its elusive fascination. Theirs is an urban poetics owing more to Joyce than to Yeats, and that after the all-too-isolated moment of the 1930s goes missing until the emergence of Thomas Kinsella in the late 1950s (Austin Clarke, it is worth remembering, published no poetry between 1938 and 1955, and his own great Dublin poem, Mnemosyne Lay in Dust, did not appear until 1966).[47] If there is something haunted and crestfallen about Beckett and MacGreevy’s poetry of the 20s and 30s it may be one more symptom of the poetic interregnum they inhabit; but if we are to read their poetry today it must be in more than a spirit of worthy academic revivalism, or idle desire for with what might have been. ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ and Echo’s Bones demand to be celebrated in their own right and on their own terms, whatever the consequences for the carefully folded sandwich of the Irish canon with which we began. It is a peculiar irony to base a plea for a more outward-looking and adventurous poetics on two such claustrophobic works, but a belated coming to terms with the courageous experiments of ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’ and Echo’s Bones can still assist in overcoming the ‘antiquarian’ conformism Beckett and MacGreevy set out to overthrow – an antiquarianism all too entrenched in Irish poetry even today. Failing which, as he put it in an addendum to Watt, and to speak only of Beckett: ‘for all the good that frequent departures out of Ireland had done him, he may as well just have stayed there’.[48]


[1] Quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (London: Viking, 1990), pp. 298-9.

[2] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), pp. 341-2.

[3] Samuel Beckett, ‘Humanistic Quietism’, review of Poems, Dublin Magazine July-September 1934, reprinted in Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (ed. Ruby Cohn, London: John Calder, 1983), pp. 68-69.

[4] J.C.C. Mays, ‘How is MacGreevy a Modernist?’, in Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 115.

[5] Bruce Arnold, Jack Yeats (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 205.

[6] Beckett, ‘An Imaginative Work!’, Dublin Magazine July-September 1936, reprinted in Disjecta, p. 90.

[7] Thomas MacGreevy, ‘New Dublin Poetry’, Ireland Today, October 1937, p. 81.

[8] ‘New Dublin Poetry’, p. 82.

[9] ‘New Dublin Poetry’, p. 82.

[10] ‘MacGreevy on Yeats’, Irish Times, 4 August 1945, reprinted in Disjecta, p. 96.

[11] Joyce thought highly enough of MacGreevy’s homage to echo the poem in Finnegans Wake (p. 556); cf. Collected Poems, p. 108.

[12] Susan Schreibman (ed.), Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy (Dublin: Anna Livia Press, 1991), p. 14. Hereafter cited parenthetically in-text as CPM.

[13] Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965), p. 47.

[14] Mercier and Camier, p. 90. But cf. Camier on the same subject: ‘We are not faring for the love of faring, that I know of […] Cunts we may be, but not to that extent’ (p. 67).

[15] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwells, 1992), p. 44.

[16] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, tr. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), p. 276.

[17] John Goodby, Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Stillness into History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), p. 20.

[18] Beckett, The Unnamable (London: Calder & Boyars, 1975), p. 100.

[19] Beckett, Watt (London: John Calder, 1963), p. 255.

[20] Patricia Coughlan, ‘“The Poetry is Another Pair of Sleeves”: Beckett, Ireland and Modernist Lyric Poetry’, Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 189.

[21] Beckett, Poems 1930-1989 (London: John Calder, 2002), p. 12. Hereafter referred to parenthetically in-text as BP.

[22] Beckett to MacGreevy, 9 October 1933, TCD MS 10402. There are no algum trees in Ireland, but as Watt would say, not in this work.

[23] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta, 1997), p. 4.

[24] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, tr. Harry Zohn (London: Verso, 1983), p. 58.

[25] Beckett, Proust, p. 63.

[26] Cf. the ‘arctic flowers’ of Mercier and Camier (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), p. 118, and Rimbaud, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), p. 144.

[27] For more on this poem, cf. my ‘“Oar of my fidgets”: Beckett’s “Enueg I”’, Review of Postgraduate Studies (Galway) no. 5, 1997, pp. 53-56.

[28] Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, p. 122.

[29] Beckett, Mercier and Camier, p. 115.

[30] In Beckett’s notebooks for the abandoned play Human Wishes, written shortly after these poems, the phrase ‘Dr J in love’ is annotated ‘Doch’ in the margin. The same notebooks also describe Johnson’s habit of saying ‘No, sir’ when he wished to express agreement (Reading University Library MSS 3461/1 and 3461/3).

[31] A feathered member of Becky’s household may have inspired a counterpart in Helen’s establishment in Mercier and Camier: ‘What brought us up to her house was the parrot she kept in the house. We were amazed with it talking; it used to say “Becky not here. Becky not here”’ (Terry Fagan et al., Monto: Madams, Murder and Black Coddle (Dublin: North Inner City Folklore Group, n.d.), p. 31).

[32] Beckett to MacGreevy, 9 October 1931.

[33] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), p. 164.

[34] MacGreevy, Collected Poems, p. 57.

[35] Beckett to MacGreevy, 18 October 1932. Several of the letters to MacGreevy speak of creativity in similarly sexual terms, as when a poem is described as ‘a double-yoked orgasm in months of aspermatic nights and days’ (21 December 1931).

[36] Lawrence Harvey, Samuel Beckett: Poet and Critic (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 140.

[37] Weston St John Joyce, The Neighbourhood of Dublin (Dublin: M.H. Gill & Co., 1912), p. 289.

[38] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 61.

[39] In his essay on Work in Progress, MacGreevy attributes the rising censorship in Free State Ireland to ‘half-educated suburbans’ (‘The Catholic Element in Work in Progress’, Our Exagmination Round his Factification for the Incamination of Work in Progress (London: Faber and Faber, 1929), p. 123.

[40] Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry & Prose (New York: Library of America, 1997), p. 389.

[41] Justin Quinn, Gathered Beneath the Storm: Wallace Stevens, Nature and Community (Dublin: UCD Press, 2002), p. 133.

[42] Beckett, Murphy (London: John Calder, 1963), p. 83.

[43] Beckett, ‘Censorship and the Saorstat’, Disjecta, p. 87.

[44] Cf. Tim Armstrong, ‘Muting the Klaxon: Poetry, History and Irish Modernism’, in Coughlan and Davis, Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, pp. 43-74.

[45] In Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis (eds), Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), pp. 173-208.

[46] Cf. my review of Beckett, Poems 1930-1989, The Irish Times, Weekend, 27 April 2002, p. 11.

[47] For more on Beckett and Clarke, cf. my ‘The Mercyseat and “The Mansion of Forgetfulness”: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, Austin Clarke’s “Mnemosyne Lay in Dust” and Irish Poetic Modernism’, English Studies (83/6, December 2002), pp. 527-540.

[48] Beckett, Watt, p. 249.

3 comments:

Lucy said...

erm...ahhh Huh????

I'm trying to figure out who the man is that can write what I just read about Irish Poetry and be a fan of Twenty Major at the same time....

Let you know what I come up with..

Lucy

puthwuth said...

Thanks for that, Lucy. Erm ahhh Huh to you too.

Lucy said...

In case you didn't get it..

After reading some of your other entries, it's not so stange after all...

And I mean that is the nicest possible way.

Will be stopping by once in awhile if you don't mind.