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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Mystery of the Pitilessness of Eavan Boland

Not James Henry

Eavan Boland has a new book out. It's called Domestic Violence, and features a poem called 'The Nineteenth Century Irish Poets'. She writes:

[...] now, looking back, I think they were poisoned −
every word they used contaminated by the one it was not.

Now I see what it is they left us. The toxic lyric.

The poem for which there is no antidote.

{Quotation ends}

In case of Samuel Ferguson, break glass.

I don't really understand the poem, I confess. Boland is someone with a lifelong gripe about Irish literary history, which is fine, but which she has translated here into a back-of-the-envelope scribble or note for a poem, but not a poem itself. I have no idea why she thinks nineteenth-century Irish poets were poisoned. Was it something to do with the water supply? Or what exactly the missing antidote is meant to be. An article about the Field Day anthology perhaps?

A very fine nineteenth-century Irish poet is James Henry (1798-1876), whose combination of two first names and their resemblance to Henry James makes him almost impossible to look up on the internet. He doesn't make Yeats's list in 'To Ireland in the Coming Times' ('Mangan, Davis, Ferguson'), he never, ever features in Field Day-style academic debates about nineteenth-century Irish writing, he displayed zero interest in Irish nationalism, but even so, sight unseen, I presume Eavan Boland's toxic diagnosis extends to him too.

Christopher Ricks included quite a few of his poems in his Oxford Book of Victorian Verse and then his Oxford Book of English Verse before doing an edition of him for the estimable Lilliput Press. His striking similarities to Beckett (death-obsession, animus against a sadistic God) combined with the thinness of the biographical papertrail made me wonder if Ricks had made him up. But he didn't.

Here's his poem 'Another and another and another', a dead-ringer intertext for Arsene's speech in Watt, not to mention the poem 'elles viennent':

Another and another and another
And still another sunset and sunrise,
The same yet different, different and the same,
Seen by me now in my declining years
As in my early childhood, youth and manhood;
And by my parents and my parents' parents,
And by the parents of my parents' parents,
And by their parents counted back for ever,
Seen, all their lives long, even as now by me;
And by my children and my children's children
And by the children of my children's chilren
And by their children counted on for ever
Still to be seen as even now seen by me;
Clear and bright sometimes, sometimes dark and clouded
But still the same sunsetting and sunrise;
The same for ever to the never ending
Line of observers, to the same observer
Through all the changes of his life the same:
Sunsetting and sunrising and sunsetting,
And then again sunrising and sunsetting,
Sunrising and sunsetting evermore.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Yes, a fine and determinedly non-poetic poet. Having read Ricks on Beckett I can see why you might imagine he'd invent someone like JH. A similar , anti-mythopoeic poem to the one you quote is the one that begins 'So Father Adam was his own born son'. I also like his absurdly logical dialogue between an unborn baby and a 'Stethoscopist'.