Thursday, May 26, 2011
‘The Celtic-Aristocratic-Classical Channel’: Lyle Donaghy and Samuel Beckett
Beckett fact no. 96.
Text of a short talk I gave the other day.
‘Enter again into the womb /(...) Descend into the dark cell’, wrote Lyle Donaghy in his 1927 poem Primordia Caeca. The theme of Beckett and the dark cell of his Irish beginnings has received generous attention in recent times, notably in Emilie Morin’s book Samuel Beckett and the Problem of Irishness and Seán Kennedy’s edited essay collection, Beckett and Ireland. A significant shift to have occurred in recent years, I would suggest, is the abandonment of previous models of Beckett’s evolution that saw him achieving artistic maturity through the expedient of rejecting his Irish background. Writing of Beckett’s dealings with his poetic contemporaries in the 1930s, for instance, Seán Kennedy argues that ‘the evidence gleaned from Beckett’s immersion in the field (...) is not that he became modernist “despite” his Irish roots (...), but precisely because of them.’ The non serviam moment of ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ in 1934 is a good test case for this position, as critics first argued that Beckett had identified the small number of like-minded internationalists in 30s Irish poetry, then shifted their ground to stress the Irishness and well as the modernism of these writers (MacGreevy, Devlin and Coffey), before, most recently, questioning the extent of Beckett’s commitment to these writers and how much, if anything, they really had in common. A name peculiarly absent from these debates is Lyle Donaghy, whose work I have been researching with a view to publishing a Selected Poems. At a slight oblique angle to Revivalist culture though they were, the triumvirate of MacDevley, to resort to shorthand, at least formed a support network among themselves, with likeminded figures such as George Reavey offering critical validation. Donaghy’s literary friendships failed to find him a critical champion, and it is a telling symptom of his apartness that a posthumous tribute issue of the Ulster journal Rann devoted to him should consist entirely of reprinted poems, with not a word of reminiscence or appreciation. In this critical vacuum Donaghy’s reputation could only dissolve, which it duly did. It is always a bad sign when reference books cannot agree on a fact as basic as the year of an author’s death (Donaghy’s death is often listed as taking place in 1947, and Anthony Cronin dates it to 1942), but this is only one of numerous indignities suffered by Donaghy since his actual death in 1949. Who was Lyle Donaghy?
Lyle Donaghy is the most significant unread Irish poet of the 1930s and 1940s. He was born on 28 July 1902 in Larne, the eldest son of a Presbyterian minister, and was educated at Larne grammar school and Trinity College, Dublin, after which he became a schoolteacher. The chronology of his adult life is often mysterious, with even the Dictionary of Irish Biography struggling to flesh out the ‘elusive details of Donaghy’s personal life’. He was in London in 1930, but was back in Ireland shortly afterwards, living in Dublin and Wicklow. In Dublin, Donaghy was active in theatrical circles. In 1927 he produced Chekhov’s The Bear at the Abbey, for ‘The Anomalies’ theatre company, and in 1932 founded The Phoenix Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. An Irish Times report described this group as ‘experimental’ in aim and devoted to the evolution of a new national drama, as Donaghy hoped to demonstrate in a production of his own play ‘The Fall of Conchobar’, now lost; and thereafter the trail goes cold. In his poetry, meanwhile, Donaghy cast himself as a hybrid of the Gaelic and classical traditions, writing with skill and sensitivity of the natural world and ranging from the short lyric to the longer visionary sequence. He published in Eliot’s Criterion; two of his collections were published by the Yeats sisters’ Cuala Press; and he appeared (intermittently) in anthologies of the day, such as the Devin-Adair volume New Irish Poets (1949). Long before this date, marital and mental breakdown had complicated the picture, and on his death from tuberculosis on 4 May 1949 he was described in an Irish Times obituary as being ‘aged about 45 years’. The destruction of his papers after his death, possibly out of a fear of infection, set a precedent for the striking of Donaghy’s name from the record that followed.
The Beckett-Donaghy connection is as elusive as it is intriguing. Their association dates from at least 1930, when Beckett visited Donaghy in London. In a letter of 26 March 1936, Beckett describes to Arland Ussher walking with Jack Yeats by Stephen’s Green and quoting Donaghy’s ‘A Thought of Suicide’. On 7 July of the same year he tells Thomas MacGreevy of travelling to Glencree to visit Donaghy’s estranged wife Lilian, who was then living with Charlie Gilmore, brother of George Gilmore, founder of the Republican Congress (the poet’s son Kevin retains a cordial memory of these visits). Into the Light, Beckett tells MacGreevy, was ‘full of good things in what [Donaghy] believes to be the Celtic-Aristocratic-Classical channel’, though he deplored the preface with its ‘words like puissant and affiliations with F.R. Higgins’, always a Beckett bête noire. Donaghy’s Wicklow years were marked by solitude and mental distress, at a time when Beckett’s depression drove him into the same terrain, as he wrote to Mary Manning Howe on 30 August 1937 (‘I lie for days, on the floor, or in the woods, accompanied & unaccompanied...’). On 10 December 1937, Beckett reported to Mary Manning that ‘Donaghy is in Enniskerry, living in sin with his beard’, the Powerscourt Arms in Enniskerry being a favourite watering hole of Beckett’s on the return leg of his walks to Glencree. The difference between the two men’s plight was that 1937 was also the year of Beckett’s definitive flight from Foxrock to Paris, while Donaghy stayed where he was, sinking further into the mantic vortex of his two last books, Wilderness Sings (1942) and Wild Sun and Moon (1949).
The tiny print-runs of Donaghy’s books mean that many of these poems could hardly have been much more read in their day than they have been subsequently; in the words of the addendum to Watt, they have ‘never been properly born’. The place of publication of Wild Sun and Moon, Brockagh, is a mountain in Wicklow, where it seems Donaghy was then leading a semi-destitute existence. For the reader of Donaghy’s work exploring these long-out-of-print collections in Dublin’s National Library, there is the surprise of marginal communications in the author’s own hand: a prefatory note to ‘Sonnet’ in Wilderness Sings informs us of Donaghy’s composition of ‘a certain Philosophical Work in Two Volumes, called An-t-Slighe Cruithuighthe (Creation Path)’ only for a fountain-pen to upgrade that ‘two’ to ‘three’. No trace of this pantheist tract has survived.
I mentioned Wicklow, that county derided by Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks for its abundance of ‘breasts and pimples’. When Beckett set out from Cooldrinagh for a walk, he would regularly proceed to Glencullen and thence to Glencree, the long glacial valley overlooked by Prince William’s Seat, of sacred memory to Watt’s Mr Hackett, and from the north by the Lemass memorial on the Featherbed Mountain, as contemplated on their rambles by Mercier and Camier, a small gesture of patriotic memory of the kind that inspired the contemporaneous description (in ‘First Love’) of those rural sites where ‘nauseated time has dropped one of history’s ancient turds’, in the ‘Elysium of the roofless’ that was the Free State. ‘The lowest mountains here terrify me’, Beckett noted in 1932: ‘was reduced almost to incontinence by the calm secret hostility.’ He is ‘exhausted of meaning by the mountains’ in 1934, chained by them to the ‘oar of his fidgets’, as he announces in the midst of a disquisition on landscape and Cézanne. The Wicklow of Donaghy’s last years may have retained the aura of Synge’s melancholy essays a generation before, but more brashly modern influences were also in evidence. George Plant, IRA gunman and Church of Ireland renegade, stalked the hills until his arrest and execution in 1942 in one of the Free State’s most notorious court cases. German Abwehr agents parachuted into the country would make their way to Iseult Gonne’s cottage in remote Glenmalure, its address supplied to them by the Berlin-based novelist and amateur broadcaster Francis Stuart; some of these agents, including Herman Goertz, would find a permanent Wicklow resting place in the German war cemetery in Glencree. Here again then, the larger European picture is more actively at work in Ireland than a simplistic dichotomy of Ireland and elsewhere allows. If anything, the claustrophobia evident in those well-known lines from First Love, as in other works from this period such as Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, not to mention Donaghy’s poetry spells out unmistakably the violent efforts required to impose its appearance of pastoral harmlessness on Irish society at the time.
Donaghy’s work displays a Revivalist patina round its edges, with a weakness for postures of ‘exorbitant loneliness’ and desire to commune with the ‘proud in beauty and the laurelled head’. An appreciative Irish Times review of Into the Light in 1934 put it in Little Chandleresque terms: ‘Call it the Gaelic note’. These poems’ pastoralist leanings are not all swooning daydreams of Tir-na-nÓg, however. As Beckett suggests in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, the long central poem of Primordia Caeca is a veritable Saison en enfer, with Blake’s prophetic books are an appreciable presence too; the sprawling long poems of his final books show an encyclopaedic ambition comparable to late Hugh MacDiarmid. The poem I wish to consider, ‘The Falcon’, is something different again. Raptors are a recurrent Donaghy motif, and the aforementioned mountain named as the place of publication of Wild Sun and Moon adjoins a lonely corrie, Lough Ouler, whose name translates as ‘eagle lake’. Something aloofly murderous patrols the ‘granite headland’, leaving a mess of carrion in its wake. Consider Malone Dies’ Sapo, who had ‘gull’s eyes’ and ‘loved the flight of the hawk’, fascinated by its ‘extremes of need, of pride, of patience and solitude’. Where Beckett’s vulture, from Echo’s Bones, ‘stoop[s] to the prone’ with food on its mind, Donaghy’s bird finds itself subject to the rending of a cruel trapping post, the handiwork, perhaps, of one of the pigeon-fanciers so abundant ‘in these islands’, as Beckett notes in ‘Recent Ireland Poetry’ [lines three and four of each of the following stanzas indented one tab: sorry still can’t format this properly]:
The slick numb gin beneath the trapping post
Corrodes the falcon’s limbs – those limbs
From which the choughs veered windily
Under the granite headland.
The chain lies still upon the rocks: the long
Keen eyes are lidded heavily – those eyes
Which only closed when the hot gorge
Had followed flight and stoop.
The gin teeth shut, now, on a bone-breadth,
But the iron-hurt beak is unfrenzied – that beak
From which the chough gore dropped
So often down ledge and ledge;
The rabbit bait dries from the bones – he shall not return
To his shapely mate, nor ascend with new
Sticks to the nest, nor chisel with wide wing
His steely joy.
‘Hunger, earth and sky’ will be reduced to ‘offal’ before the birds reascends, but the power of Donaghy’s poem, as with Beckett’s responds to a subtle logic of absence and belatedness. In ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ Wallace Stevens wondered which he preferred, ‘the beauty of inflections /Or the beauty of innuendoes, /The blackbird whistling /Or just after.’ Beckett’s and Donaghy’s poems are very much poems of afterwards, but all the more powerful for that. The ‘steely joy’ of Donaghy’s last line is a risus purus of pure posterity, echoing from the ‘no-man’s-land, Hellespont, or vacuum’ identified by Beckett as a prime hunting ground for his fabled rupture of the lines of communication.
Should we follow Donaghy into this inhospitable territory in search of further dispatches? Most certainly so, I would suggest. Literary history is all too often a raft of The Medusa rather than a lifeboat, its poets eyeing one another up beadily and braced for posterity’s push overboard. Strictly literary rather than sociological acts of retrieval can only go so far, and there is a sober pleasure to be derived from the utter defunctness of sub-Revivalist warblers mentioned in passing in ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ such as Irene Haugh, R.N.D. Wilson and Pamela Travers. Others again such as Geoffrey and Blanaid Salkeld have more substance to them, and await their own appeal hearings for reprieve from the library special collections in which they now languish. But, as I have attempted to convey, Donaghy’s achievement goes well beyond special pleading. His work offers multiple rewards, both in itself and concomitantly for what it tells us about Beckett and our still-evolving sense of 1930s Irish poetry. It is work of substance and achievement, and deserves to re-enter the modern Irish canon and stay there.