Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutually-reinforcing: as the owner cares for him, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.

Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond any individual’s life. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel.

Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.

A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent how life often imitates art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.

The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines.

Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres would depart in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.

Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, whose rejection leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.

Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters. It is hard to identify any real hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.

Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation.

Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.

The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to the character of Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.

But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fete which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:

I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!

The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.

It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society an all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr foretells the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his erstwhile associates.

It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing it, ensures we will never know.

The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

This imposes a great burden of responsibility on the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.

(This article was published in the April/May edition of The London Magazine

Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

I start with a little criticism before I get into rhapsodies. For a venue to prohibit a band from playing any covers during a performance strikes me as misguided. I commend encouragement of artistic creation, but this rule offends my Romantic sensibility; it could encourage a breakdown of hallowed musical and poetic form.

Experimental music has its place, even at a concert, but there is ample room for creativity within established patterns; nothing is ever entirely original, only the muse brings inspiration. It came as a surprise to scholars who discovered that the Homer poet – whoever that is – relied on stock epithets like ‘rosey-fingered dawn’, to build strict hexameter verse. These folk expressions were recited from memory before the arrival of writing, and joined with the poet’s own invention, to the accompaniment of strings.

We should remain wary of lapsing into cliché, as George Orwell sagely noted: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. But idioms that have been handed down bring colour to our speech and writing: tropes connect us to our ancestors in sound. It is the devotion that we give to the Word that is important, and this protects us from sounding hackneyed. The first syllable in ‘rhapsodise’ refers to stitching in needlework, the second to song; so it involves threading songs together, which is the stuff of epic.

Even the arch-Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who overthrew conventions such as belief in an almighty god, relied on poetic forms inherited from past masters such as Spencer, and Milton especially. Creativity is evident in the integration of new ideas into old structures. Thus, Homer’s genius in the Iliad was to develop a short episode within the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. This gives his tale a compelling energy, and encapsulates the longer struggle, which an expansive account cannot achieve. Each age plays with legends that have been handed down.

Café Blum in Berlin’s Neukölln, is a gorgeous old-worldly venue that was filled to capacity for the Loafing Heroes first concert in Berlin for six years. It’s a sign of their stellar quality that two Berlin members could slip seamlessly into the collective.

An exquisite array of instruments were in evidence: Bartholomew Ryan with voice and guitar, Giulia Gallina with voice, concertina and dulcimer; Judith Retzlik on violin, viola, trumpet and a little piano; and Fenster’s Jonathan Jarzyna on percussion, along with a mysterious electronic instrument.

Having organised a few Irish tours for the band I am accustomed to audiences – especially in pubs – occasionally not being respectful to their ethereal music which lilts, rather than declaims; especially Giulia’s haunting voice – and she doesn’t appreciate shouting over a crowd… But this Berlin crowd was almost meditative in its attention: a sturdy forest of straight backs that I viewed from my latecomer’s vantage.

And yet such respect seemed alien to me. I yearned for a drop of devilment, so an inner Irish gremlin compelled me to breath a few heckles for the amusement of an Irish mate who staged some in return. Out of earshot we mouthed barbed comments between ourselves, honouring the sacred craic: ‘Jaysus would you look at your man!’

At the end of the performance the audience clapped for a good five minutes. This was deep appreciation, if not the rapture of an Irish crowd that has been tamed. The band weren’t going to get away without an encore. But the hard-pressed musicians had only a day to prepare, and it took a little while for them to settle on which of their back catalogue to play.

In the meantime I started raucously shouting for covers I know they play, and would usually intersperse through a set. But my cries went unheeded, for the reason I discovered afterwards.

Yet they had just finished with their old favourite, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, in which Bartholomew recites the poem to a familiar melody, out of which the band improvise on their assorted instruments. I have heard Judith wind a moistened finger around the top of a wine glass giving a high-pitched hum that somehow worked for the song; here she chose the piano as her weapon. It was a pity not to have Jaime McGill’s usual bass clarinet, and arsenal of peddles, but
Jonathan was making deranged noises on his electronic contraption to compensate. No performance of the song is ever the same – not least because members come and go – but it operates within an established pattern, as an evolving legend.

The poem is a classic statement of the modern condition: ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.’ But I think the main reason it goes down so well is because it is so rare for poetry to be recited nowadays, and especially where the speaker really inhabits the verse, leaving an audience spellbound.

There is an amusing story to the recording that is now up on Youtube. A few minutes in you can make out the sound of phone ringing, which was Jaime McGill trying to say she was running late. Sometimes out of seemingly ugly imperfection something new and beautiful arises, and it now seems obvious that a phone should start ringing in the middle of Prufrock.

If a band includes a spoken word recital of a poem is that a cover?! The mind boggles. The distinction between song and poetry is artificial, to some extent a legacy of Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot. Having mastered lyrical verse, he moved away from established forms, favouring enjambments, whereby one line merges with another, and a consistent rhythm is not developed. Eliot did this with a deep knowledge of the poetic tradition, and the Wasteland is still beautiful on the ear: ‘April is the cruellest month … ‘. But poets since the 1950s have strayed into more dangerous waters, where the past is ignored, leaving a boring narcissism instead.

Of course post-modern poetry can work splendidly, as with Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

It also permits some of the worst excesses of self-indulgence at ‘dreaded’ poetry readings. It is hard to avoid an inclination to return to W.B. Yeats, and submit to the hard labour of learning the poetic trade, while occasionally giving vent to a post-modernism that has seeped into our bones.

There was some gnashing of teeth in literary circles when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Songs are often inextricably bound to musical compositions, and when you just read them song lyrics have nothing like the same force. Interestingly Paul Simon dismissed the connection between his song-writing and poetry in an interview in 1968:

‘I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs … But the lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet, then people think you are putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.’

Simon was right that a lot of derivative nonsense has been passed off as poetry in song, and that a great tradition was often sadly ignored, but that should not obscure how the songs Bob Dylan have entered the poetic canon, and even lyrics of his own.

Dylan was the leading light – though not my personal favourite – among a generation that developed poetry out of Rock n’ Roll and the folk revival. The prize seems appropriate to me if I ignore the etymology of the word literature, which means writing formed from letters. A Nobel Prize for poetry rather than literature would be more appropriate, which would include all forms, including the novel.

Dylan was of course also iconoclastic, going electric to the horror of some folkies. Labelled ‘Judas’, he responded: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ He had learnt at the feet of great ballad singers such as Liam Clancy and Woody Guthrie, but wanted to expand into new domains. This is the dangerous breaking of boundaries that re-connect with what has come before so as to avoid incoherence. Now, millions strum and sing the songs of Dylan, who took words and melodies from others in turn. That’s how the Songlines flow.

Ewan McCall who led the folk revival in Britain, and composed the classic Dirty Old Town, which is mistakenly assumed to be about Dublin (it’s about Salford in England), had another unbending rule in the folk club he founded that artists could only sing songs from their native countries. But as a Communist he should surely have realised that identity has an evolving plasticity, and anyway nowadays many bands, such as the Loafing Heroes, have multi-national casts.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious Irish streak – I’m still hoping to meet my orderly inner German – but I am wary or rules dictating what a poet can or cannot sing.
So when is a song, or a recital, a cover? There is no firm dividing line, and it becomes a matter of taste. Nothing is truly original, it is all adaptation out of a familiarity, and serendipity is evident too – like a phone ringing in the middle of a recording.

The Leaving Certificate Mind

The Leaving Certificate Mind

It is worth reflecting on why criticism is not easily absorbed in Ireland. Tempers seem to flare easily, often excluding meaningful dialogue.

I attribute a great deal of this to a secondary education system which avoids profound interrogation of ideas. We lack the detachment gained from the French philosophical training in a Baccalaureate or even the English (or really Scottish) tradition of dispassionate rational enquiry. This is an adolescent nation that seems to have drawn selectively from Plato’s 4th century BC idealisation of a city state in The Republic.

The formative educational experience in Ireland comes from the Leaving Certificate, whose results divide students into the relative substrates of gold, silver, bronze and iron; the origin myth that Plato propagated in The Republic to keep people in their place.

In common with The Republic, the Leaving Certificate exalts mathematics above other disciplines, with bonus points attaching at higher level; you can’t attain ‘the maximum’ without an A1. This, however, is not an enquiring mathematics, at least in the 1990s, it wasn’t.

The tedium of text books was legendary; sometimes there were practical questions grounded in ‘real world’ solutions, such as calculating compound interest; subliminal messages woven through the text, aligning students to dominant ‘managerial’ values.

Abstract fields were entered, but given no context. We were supposed to shut up and take the medicine. I only wish I had been acquainted with the relationship between mathematics and beauty or astronomy. Then perhaps I wouldn’t have spent so much time drawing faces on my copybooks, or flicking paper balls at my mates.

I recall a fascination at the end of my transition years when a physics teacher – who until then seemed to speak exclusively in the mysterious language of equations – extemporised on the origins of the universe, and time travel. Alas, by that point my grounding was so feeble that any attempt to ignite a mathematical career was beyond me.

The poet most of us identify with Leaving Certificate English is W.B. Yeats, who was fascinated by Plato, although – to my consternation – Yeats did not appear on the English paper my year, as had been his bi-annual habit.

Yeats is said to have measured out metre with a metronome (although he was also apparently tone deaf). His sharply delineated poetry was sculpted with great precision into iambs and rhyming patterns, exacting labour he bemoans in ‘Adam’s Curse’ (1904):

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.

This gives his work a musical ring evident throughout his corpus, making him perhaps the leading English language poet of the twentieth century.

It is symptomatic that in my time the transgressive language of James Joyce’s equally precious works found no place on the syllabus. Thus, Leaving Certificate English inclines towards Platonic order, rather than a questioning iconoclasm. Yeats’s Platonic idealism, notwithstanding exotic heresies, also fitted with a reigning Catholicism still inhabiting state institutions, right up to the Constitution itself.

In the humanities Leaving Certificate methodologies are a debased form of Catholic scholasticism; rather than addressing concepts with Aristotelian rigour, in most subjects rote learning is demanded: mindless, increasingly secular, catechisms.

What saved me from academic oblivion and middle class shame (that came later), was a capacity to recall that raw detail, allied with a genuine interest in history. I ascended to the level of non-mathematical silver in the Platonic scale, and became an Arts student in lumpen-UCD.

The Leaving Certificate brands and stamps you with its legacy. University results do not have the same kudos, because there, it is understood, you study subjects you have chosen rather than a wide range. Years afterwards, one is aware of someone’s Leaving Certificate results, bringing flawed assumptions of brilliance, or mediocrity.

There is much to be said in favour of a broad-based approach encompassing all facets of a Liberal education. But the narrow lens of Leaving Certificate methodologies ignores the function of education, including mathematical, that Plato identifies in his Republic, which is to develop philosopher-rulers. Philosophy is not even a Leaving Certificate subject.

Another insight we may draw from The Republic is that Plato banishes unruly poets from his putative state, and imposes his own mythology. Similarly, many Irish writers have been compelled to display the Joycean qualities of ‘silence, exile and cunning’, allowing the Catholic Church to propagate a singular
Biblical mythology. The former principal of Glenstal Abbey Mark Patrick Hederman acknowledged that Irish Catholicism was ‘bullying and insensitive’ at the time of Joyce. That demand for conformity was imported into the final state examination.

The Leaving Certificate Mind is apparent at many levels of Irish society, and seems to fit people to work, submissively, in large corporate bodies. This may be economically advantageous in the medium term, but creativity, and perhaps entrepreneurship, are given insufficient scope.

Moreover, the shadow of this submissiveness is an irrational anger where a slight is perceived. This reveals an inability to fall back on dispassionate philosophical enquiry, and often what we are left with unseemly shouting matches.

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Nothing quite matches the rancour of artistes scrapping for funding. They make a pack of feeding hunting dogs seem positively polite. Of late, teeth are gnashing on the pages of the Irish Times over an anticipated windfall being siphoned into a new quango: Creative Ireland. It’s not so much a call for art for art’s sake, but leave it to the Art’s Council, for f*ck’s sake.

Taoiseach Varadkar left a pretty vocal hostage when he let it be known during the Fine Gael leadership run-off that he wanted to double arts expenditure. But the literary establishment are worried this won’t be passing through their glad hands.

John McAuliff, the paper’s poetry editor, deputy chair of the Arts Council, and professor of creative writing at Manchester University wrote an op-ed dismissing Creative Ireland in symbolist terms as: ‘part-car, part-temple, part-group-hug and part-energy-drink’.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Culture Editor Hugh Linehan who took to the airwaves on RTE’s Arena to bemoan the state of affairs last week.

No doubt the government have some awful schemes up their pin stripes through Creative Ireland. They’ll be fitting out leprechaun suits, sending comely maidens to dance at crossroads, and offering throaty renditions of Danny Boy. Anything for the Yankee dollar.

But the current model of funding doesn’t make Ireland an easy place for artists to operate. A career in the arts is, overwhelmingly, a middle class luxury; and in order to survive most spend an inordinate amount of time filling out funding applications.

Here, the worth of projects often seem to be measured in abstruseness, what McAuliff refers to as the ‘painstaking annual decision-making process’. Not as painful as some of the resulting output one could say.

What most artists would settle for is a reduction in the cost of living across the board, but especially in the capital. This would make the pursuit of money a less overwhelming necessity. Most artists accept they will never be wealthy, but even a low income now is a form of penury, with dramatic rises in rents making life especially difficult. Bringing selected artists, usually already middle class, up to a middle class income does nothing to make society at large more sympathetic to art.

Most artists just want to get on with their work rather than justifying it in lengthy applications processes, and then feel compelled to promote themselves constantly among the select group who decide on funding. That means most who get serious go away.

James Joyce once playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’ Not under the current regime.

It’s hard to think of a single poet writing in Ireland today that has managed to transcend a readership of fellow-poets, or a visual artist who is really speaking to the public. As ever, most of what is good on the Irish cultural scene is happening far from the filing cabinets.

Leonardo’s Helicopter Day

Leonardo’s Helicopter Day

Leonardo in the market place
Catches sight of a row of caged birds
In a frenzied row
Tweeting as if obliged
To share a song and thirst
For better life to come
Beyond the confines of this
Their cruel capture
He walks among them mesmerised
Not appalled really, but amazed
At the sheer profundity of their cries
That recall not torture
Yet visited on man with all his
Capacities for insight.

And so he spies their captors
In the dusty marketplace
Under the Duomo
A layer of dirt
Clouding his judgment
And seeks out what seems to be
Their leader, an aged gentleman
Who, long-endured from town to town
The frenzied cries of all the many
Inured to what he has heard
And smelt and touched
Principled in many respects
Performs services uncalled for
Honours his daughters
Providing healthy dowries
To take into their market place
And three fine sons alive
Counting on the benches
Not usurers really
But offering service
To ease commerce

Leonardo seeing all this
Staggers and imagines each bird
Counts their blessings and realises
In a flash of inspiration
The precise possibilities of flight
Joyfully he greets the man
Whose eyes darkly consider
This grey presence whose fame
Now has spread beyond
Even Italy’s highways
This curious figure who, it is said
Breaks all conventions giving
Vent to passions wild and unusual
But a great man it is clear
Even he knew that
And assumed great wealth too.

Suddenly Leonardo took from his pocket
All the ducats he could muster
Not caring to enquire how many
But a frenzied handful
Sexual in his disregard
Passion’s play awakened
He pressed the sum into the hand
Of the man who could hardly
Refuse so great a weight
And then the artist cried
‘I wish to buy them all
Each and every one and cages too’.

Respectfully the deal was done
Leonardo passed by each cage
Opening them all he allowed
All a freedom
They gladly soared beyond
Their caged-lives
And the cages his attendants
Gathered in succession.

Stillness fell upon the market place
The dust settling
The artist in a daze
Amazed at the inspiration
Of his boundless empathy
He entered the celestial realm
Of his soaring imagination
And found a freedom untold
A god-awoken realisation
A helicopter day brimming
With a delight he could hardly
Understand how his vision could
Centuries henceforth descend
From the idea of a rescue
Of walkers lost on mountain tops
Becoming instead a gun ship
Astride the jungle spouting fire
Or drenching crops with pestilence
How could man murder imagination?
A vision of freedom repelled
By the vile torturers
Counting on the benches
Becoming ecocide.

(Listen on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/frank-armstrong-649911741/leonardos-helicopter-day)

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

Body Parts

Body Parts

Your beauty was a lie,
When I heard a djinn’s cry,
Through your teeth she came,
A wisp atop a flame,
On whom I lay the blame.

Your beauty was a lie,
With all my will I try,
To interrogate that moment,
When passion did foment,
Before my eyes hell bent.

Your beauty was a lie,
A catchphrase to belie,
A wretched mouth came unstuck,
Loose-ed charms which ran amuck,
As flower deadens when you pluck.

Your beauty was a lie,
I allow myself let fly,
Hollow words betray cheek,
Such a chill as you seek,
When the ocean greets your feet.

Your beauty was a lie,
As colours used to dye,
And the contours on your face,
Fall apart with little grace,
At the end of the chase.

Your beauty was a lie,
What is that I espy?
A heaving bosom’s pitfall,
Below a banshee’s shawl,
Calls up death who stands tall.

Your beauty was a lie,
The judge’s verdict I defy,
I lost faith in my ears,
And music that endears,
Has realised my fears.

Your beauty was a lie,
What do you imply?
I cannot take any longer,
A brew that’s grown stronger,
The more I did hunger.

Your beauty was a lie,
Prince charming leaves high and dry,
Any maiden that seeks wonder,
Hand in hand before the slumber,
Her dreams torn asunder.

Your beauty was a lie,
I do not wish to imply,
That you should throw away,
An impulse that guides your day,
To kneel down and pray.

Your beauty was a lie,
Oh me, oh my,
Knees high in the air,
Do not reveal you care,
Lest you’re driven to despair.

For a Friend in Dreadful Straits

For a Friend in Dreadful Straits

The deep sea mourns a passing current,
Profound indeed and cavernous in brine,
The waves that crash upon yon’ cliffs foment,
The god he grieves a passing such as thine;
A suffering as seems to know no end,
As where the far horizon meets the gloom,
And surly tempests rise above the blend,
When days decline and meet the frosty doom;
Yet look up high the clouds have cleared to show,
A light to guide the sailor’s ship and more,
A wind to cross the current’s flight and blow,
There manifold and bright the comfort of the shore,
Illumined by a thousand stars you find,
A calm harbour awaits to still your mind.

In Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/frank-armstrong-649911741/for-a-friend-in-dreadful-straits

The Slow Death of Poetry?

The  Slow Death of Poetry?

Oliver Saint John Gogarty tells a story about the twenty-three-year old James Joyce at the time of W.B. Yeats’s fortieth birthday party. Yeats was staying in the Cavendish Hotel on what was then Rutland Square (now Parnell Square). On a whim, the twenty-two year old Joyce called on the revered poet. Gogarty recalls: ‘he solemnly walked in and knocked on Yeats’s door. When Yeats opened the door of the sitting-room he said, ‘What age are you, sir?’ and Yeats said, ‘I’m forty.’– ‘You’re too old for me to help I bid you good bye’.

Apparently Yeats was greatly impressed at the impertinence of his young protégé, and it is axiomatic that each artistic generation rises up against its predecessor. Thus the Modernist Joyce slew the Romantic Yeats.

But in that pursuit of originality there is also recognition of past achievement. Occasionally, however, a tradition may reach a level of decadence such that it falls into abeyance. This would appears to be the fate of the high poetic tradition, in Ireland and elsewhere. It now enjoys a popular audience equivalent to the angling notes in the paper of record. The descent is apparent in the extended exercise in wordplay evident in the output of its leading Irish light, Paul Muldoon.

In Ancient Greece, when the values of Homer’s epics the Iliad and Odyssey held sway, there were at least seven systematic activities including poetry, warfare, farming and rhetoric which required a disciplined apprenticeship in pursuit of ‘excellence’. There was acknowledgement of past achievement that permanently defined any field, but aspirants knew that rupture was necessary to transcend previous heights. According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: ‘the greatest achievement in each area at each stage always exhibits a freedom to violate the present established maxims, so that achievement proceeds by rule-keeping and by rule-breaking.’

In order to scale the dizzying heights of his masterpieces Joyce first had to purge his own Yeatsian tendencies. As Jahan Ramazani in his Poetry and Its Others puts it: ‘Although Joyce wrote lyric poetry, the novelist is sometimes unrecognizable in the Elizabethan song forms, sentimental lyricism, and static retrospection of Chamber Music and Poems Penyeach.’ He cites a rather insipid passage where the iconoclastic brilliance characterising his novels is barely discernible:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

Like Joyce, the precocious Muldoon spent much of his early career in the shadow of another poet, Seamus Heaney, but unfortunately his “rule breaking” is a slide into irrelevance. This polemical critique of Muldoon, makes no claim to be exhaustive, but is a delayed reaction to the collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015); his musical collaboration with Shaun Davey ‘One Hundred Years a Nation’ for the Rising commemorations last year; and a characteristically long poem that appeared in the January 2017 edition of the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Superior Aloeswood’.

Muldoon held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1999 to 2004, and is now a professor at Princeton, as well as being current poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is a brilliant critic, whose radio essay for the BBC on the legacy of W.B. Yeats at 150, to my mind, was by far the most perceptive among those offered by a number of Irish intellectuals including John Banville and Fintan O’Toole. But his poetry must be assessed independently, and without fear or favour.

It is obvious that the works of Muldoon I consider are influenced by the mood and techniques of T.S. Eliot, especially in terms of dispensing with hallowed forms in rhyme and meter, extensive recourse to enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza), and obscure allusion to mythology. The influence of his friend Seamus Heaney is also apparent in the flinty, ‘Northern’ texture of language evocative of Viking raiders.

But rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further riddles into his work, so puzzling as to be tiresome. James Joyce famously joked that his Finnegans Wake held so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep professors busy for centuries. But that book of dreamtime is a unique, and highly-original, literary experiment. For all its complexity, appreciable linguistic novelty is not apparent in Muldoon’s poems: they read like difficult crossword puzzles.

Another Modernist rupture came about through T. S. Eliot’s seminal ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). It is by most measures a difficult poem to make sense of, just like the quest for the Holy Grail on whose symbolism it draws. Yet nestling in the obscurity are moments of arresting emotion that succour the reader, such as the opening sequence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Anyone can inhabit these lines, stimulating curiosity for the difficult quest ahead. Here at least, abides by Aristotle’s maxim: ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man’, even if the remainder of the poem demands profound textual analysis.

Of course applying Aristotle’s maxim tout court excludes most poetry since the Middle Ages, and I suggest that all of the great poets accommodate, to some degree, the demotic with the esoteric. It is widely held that Eliot’s high Modernism fell over the edge into the terrain of ‘academic poetry’, but there are concessions to a popular audience.

There is little evidence of Muldoon living among “the common people” in the opening poem of his last volume: ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’. Dedicated to Seamus Heaney one expects an outpouring of a universal grief. This, however, like almost every other poem in the collection, is impenetrable to a point of alienation.

The title revives a touching tale about the seventh-century Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert whose recitation of the psalms attracted the attention of the local otters, but unlike Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, the tale itself is only alluded to. Rather, we are expected to find out about it for ourselves, and are then treated to obscure references that fail to arouse sympathy. Is he likening Heaney to St Cuthbert? Are we, his readers, the otters? It is hard to know, or care.

Already in the first stanza there are archaic words such as ‘darne’, ‘fain’, ‘limen’, ‘flitch’, that display the erudition of the author. There is no concession to the general reader, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.

There are also a series of non-sequiturs that appear as riddles such as in the second stanza: ‘It’s true they’ve yet to develop the turnip clamp / and the sword with a weighted pommel / but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige.’ Is it really worth the bother of finding out what he means here?

We also find hints at humour: ‘The Benedictines still love a bit of banter / along with the Beatitudes. Blessed is the trundle bed, / it readies us for the tunnel / from Spital Tongues to the staithes.’ And personal recollection: ‘I once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat.’ This may be free association of a highly-learned man, fond of resurrecting abandoned words, if so it is hard to identify its poetic qualities.

There may be merit in pure imaginative flow such as Percy Shelley likened to the burning coal of inspiration, but he contained his poetry within sympathetic meter and rhyme that allows a reader to float along the lyrical stream of his consciousness.

The only obvious concession to his grief arrives in the line ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’, but use of the archaic ‘thole’ reveals this as a private commemoration limited to Northern poets. This is comparable perhaps to Shelley’s elegy to Keats: ‘I weep for Adonais – he is dead’. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility is hardly a household name, but the dying Adonais attains an immortality in art, while the use of the verb ‘thole’ just reeks of scholarly nostalgia.

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney points to his use of the word thole – ‘endure, suffer, hold out’ – not as an archaism but as a word linking his own Ulster dialect to Old English dialect. Muldoon thus situates himself as Heaney’s successor, but little appears to remain of the kingdom he lays claim to.

What of Muldoon’s contribution of a song-poem to the Rising Commemorations? Here we find the poet speaking more directly to “the common people”, and we find fairly predictable symbols of Irishness beginning with ‘from glen to glen’, the opening lines of Danny Boy, along with the stag and the yellow bittern. There is a predictable reference to Finn MacCool – of the macho warrior cult – as opposed to summoning characters from more subtle and colourful sagas such as ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, or ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ to represent the origins of the nation. The second half displays the influence of hip-hop and delivers rather populist digs at the ‘establishment’:

when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn MacCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers

It struck the right notes for a windswept Miriam O’Callaghan on the night, and the musical accompaniment is genuinely rousing, but it could easily have been written to parody a decadence that is explicitly ventilated in one of his latest poem of ‘Superior Aloeswood’, published in the January edition of the New York Review of Books.

This takes a longer form making it all the more painful to endure. The theme here is beneficial rot: when the Aloeswood or Agarwood is digested by bacteria it produces agar, a resin valued for its fragrance in incense and other aromas. We are also subjected to an inventory of cheeses and wines which experience a similar bacterial breakdown; nods to the Biblical Nicodemus who embalmed Jesus (with such spices) in John’s gospel; numerous references to characters from Moby Dick, and more curiously, varieties of oysters.

It seems that these references have something to do with: ‘the Tower of Wrong / being built by Trump’, and ‘Bashar al-Assad training his bombardiers / on his own citizenry (grace a Putin), or perhaps: ‘Why the electorate choose the likes of Ronald Bonzo and George W. Bozo / as Commander-in Chief has already defied exegesis’. This is bewildering because the political rot can hardly be construed as beneficial. Moreover, if the great poet cannot explain how these men came to power then where does that leave the rest of us?

The lines: ‘Though we’d hoped to meet at the Blue Plate Oysterette / you’d been confined to barracks / on account of the side effects, I surmised, of steroids.’, reveal a debased successor to Eliot’s withered, but still lyrical ‘Prufrock’: The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.’ The patient is no longer etherised upon a table but in remission.

Muldoon bears no personal responsibility for his own self-expression, and for getting on in the world. His ‘success’ nonetheless suggests the poetic tradition, which in epic form provided heroic models against which the Ancient Greeks measured themselves, has devoured itself through conceptual innovation over the past century of seismic technological shifts.

Similarly, Will Self argues that the novel has been consumed by the Digital Leviathan. He poses the question whether, assuming the vast majority of texts will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web: ‘do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no,’ he says, ‘then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.’

It will survive he says but only as a state-supported indulgence like Classical music. He further contends that ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. This leaves even less scope for poetry to attract a popular audience, especially given an inherent predilection for mystery. Conversely, considering Muldoon’s stature, what remains of the tradition survives by recourse to even greater abstraction. This is the “rule breaking” of an already dated post-Modernism.

Since the nineteenth century – linked perhaps to the increased pace of life produced by the railway, the steamship and the telegraph – poetry has been in decline relative to prose. But until recently it has filtered through and resonated with a wider audience. Much of what remains has descended into self-parody.

Paradoxically, however, versifying endures through popular forms such as slam, and song especially. These bring a visceral immediacy, although the scope for depth is diminished, and the great exemplars of the past are increasingly forgotten. This is perhaps a necessary dislocation before a revival.

More hearteningly Ramazani observes: ‘I began writing this book as a consideration of poetry’s dispersal into its others. But as I studied ever more examples of just such melding, I found time and again that poems reassert themselves as poems even in the moments of seeming to fuse with their others.’ The timeless, and primal, patterns of poetic speech reasserts itself notwithstanding the excesses of the current masters.

Poetry needs to grow a new skin for the old ceremony. Until then it will inhabit the space between the angling notes and the Church of Ireland notices, and political decay may continue apace. We need new heroes to measure ourselves against.
(Published in Village Magazine, March, 2017)

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.

These include the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’; ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ which offers a fleeting glimpse of pre-Christian beliefs; ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’ interpreted as a Christian parable; and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ that foreshadows the disintegration of Gaelic civilisation. These subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cualígne, that has tended to adorn the nationalist self-image.

Defining the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods, has long proved elusive to scholars. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that ‘there is bright colour but no sense’, although the elves of his Lord of the Rings were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of the archaeological evidence of a contiguous ‘Celtic’ culture associated with excavations from La Téne in modern-day Switzerland.

Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:

“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries.”

Efforts to taxonomize the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century; the early W.B. Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales.

The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the vision of an unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the varied manifestations of the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.

Williams speculates that the gods of the Irish prior to the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated by a Christianity that brought literacy; the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences ‘immanent in the landscape’. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.

It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless re-casting of indigenous tropes.

It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. It was believed that as fallen beings we cannot approach noesis (eschatological knowledge) directly; a position akin to physicists in the quantum realm contending with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thus, rather than viewing Christianity as a monolithic, deadening force, in earlier times at least, it seemed to bring a refined admixture to a disorderly civilisation. Moreover, scholars were also acquainted with Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony beloved of poets.

As when two ocean plates collide to produce an effluxion in life, a great cultural ferment characterised the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents. It is evident that individual genius is expressed within the context of a particular society, and Williams discerns among the literati of the time a sense that they were playing their part in a rather special movement. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular literature arose in Ireland, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as ‘an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity’, distinguished by ‘moments of ferocious weirdness’. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to address these issues when direct criticism could have proved dangerous, and artistically limiting.

Irish filid (poets) held expertise in memorialization of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, unusually for the time, aspects of their educations overlapped. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. More than simply entertainers, they were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; Percy Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in other words.

These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: ‘They were expert in the grammatical analysis … in the highly formalized rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know.’ Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.

‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ (Cath Maige Tuired) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the so-called Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). Applying my own Jungian analysis – especially relying on Laurens van der Post’s excellent treatment in Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) – to the saga may be useful to the reader, and I think suggest Williams’s wide ranging approach offers an invitation for new readings.

It consists of a series of fantastical episodes of enduring interest. We meet a Tuatha Dé exhausted by impossible labours and tributes after the half-Formorian Bres becomes high king. He had replaced Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle. We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions him a prosthetic silver limb in its place. In the meantime, Diancecht’s son Miach begins to heal Nuada’s real severed arm, but the father prefers his own methods and surgically kills his son by removing his brain. Miach is buried by his sister Airmed and from his grave sprout three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs, which she orders in her cloak. Diancecht has other ideas, however, scattering the herbs, each of whose value would remain obscure.
In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more effective Complimentary approach, the poet may be suggesting that the best healing comes from within the body itself, while the scattering of the healing herbs could represent ignorance of the cures available in Nature. It is also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its secrets, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, where human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfilment of René Descartes’s Dualistic idea of a homunculus controlling a mechanical body.

The ‘Second Battle’ parades scenes of Rabelaisian excess, especially involving one character, the Dagda, who undertakes a mission inside the territory of the Formorians. There he meets a distortion of hospitality, whereby he is compelled to consume vast quantities of porridge to a point where is belly is the size of a cauldron. Afterwards he must loosen his bowels before sexual congress with a Formorian princess. In Williams own ‘less genteel’ translation: ‘The girl jumped on him and whacked him across the arse, and her curly bush was revealed. At that point the Dagda gained a mistress, and they had sex’. Smutty Irish humour has long antecedents.

The Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, and the audience themselves. The Formorians are an external force that corrupt and indebt the native inhabitants, a narrative familiar to contemporary Ireland. However, the half-Formorian Bres is eventually succeeded by Lug who is also of mixed parentage. Yet he combines all the highest attributes of the áes dána. Lug and Bres differ in that the former’s father is Tuatha Dé and his mother Formorian, while the latter’s ancestry is the reverse. This might appear simply as an expression of approval for patriarchal bias, but we may divine an enriching symbolic meaning by seeing a favourable balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry being struck between the thrusting, will to power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side with the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s. He achieves wholeness when, paradoxically, the female characteristics arrive through a dominant male parentage wherein the thrusting Formorian energies are contained (Mf:Fm = Fm). Bres differs in that the ‘male’ Formorian outlook remains ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé female energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).

There is another fascinating scene after the Formorians are vanquished when Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing that the Tuatha Dé should plant crops four times a year. Lug recognises this as impossible, or unsustainable, and only spares his foe when he reveals how the men of Ireland could operate a plough. According to Williams: ‘the Formorians in the saga are characterized by a monstrously exploitative and unnatural relationship to the organic world, in a strange anticipation of contemporary agri-business’. This may be so, but Lug’s character also has a Formorian dimension, that, crucially, is contained positively by his (Fm) parentage. Similarly, in this episode, when Bres’s knowledge is refined from the approach of ploughing the earth four times a year, we find he confers a crucial skill. The relationship between the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians may also have been a commentary on the benefit of accommodating the skills of Norse raiders who brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing, alongside carnage.

There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to bring a task to fruition but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. We might extend this further by allusion to the nefarious consequences of the contemporary separation of religion from science. As Laurens van der Post in his excellent study of Carl Jung puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb. We could also draw an analogy with the unfavourable balance between the roles struck between the two hemispheres of the brain at present, persuasively argued in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Formorian represents left-sided, ‘male’, singular focus, the Tuatha Dé holistic, female, right-sided awareness.

‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magic spells, featuring perhaps the greatest femme fatale in Irish literature. Based on recurring shape-shifting, we find hints of belief in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – preceding Christianity. Only fully translated in 1930, the tale was beloved of Revivalists such as Yeats, who found there imagery to stir any poetic imagination. Here the Tuatha Dé are reduced from the giants of the ‘Second Battle’ to ethereal síde, ‘faeries’, living in síd mounds, familiar in folklore today.

When Midir of the Tuatha Dé demands that Aengus his foster son gives him the most beautiful woman in Ireland in compensation for the infliction of an accidental injury trouble begins. She is Étaín whom Aengus earns by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Midir, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach who does not take kindly to the new arrival, turning her into a giant bluebottle through a magic spell. Even in this altered state Midir finds fulfilment in her company, and the divine Calliphora vomitoria performs various miracles along the way. Furious, Fúamnach summons great winds to drive Midir’s buzzing consort away. Eventually, exhausted, she falls into the drink of a woman who swallows her and becomes pregnant, reproducing Étaín 1,002 years after her original birth. The beauty is then married off to another high king of Ireland Eochu. Unfortunately his brother Ailill upon setting eyes on Étaín falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon his health begins to return. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín agrees to an amorous exchange, but insists, for the sake of propriety, this should not take place under the king’s roof. In the meantime, the apparently immortal Midir puts Ailill to sleep and assumes his form, explaining to Étaín their ancient love when they meet. She agrees to give it another go, but only if Eochu agrees to sell her. Naturally he refuses, only for Midir to win her from him in a game of chess after bluffing for the first few rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape together. In response Eochu orders his men to dig up every síd mound in the country. At this stage Midir plays a trick on him by returning a replica of Étaín, who it transpires is actually Eochu’s daughter, Étaín having been pregnant with her.

Eochu’s fate is in an interesting inversion of the Oedipus myth, and echoes Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious whereby ignorance and unawareness carry the greatest offence. As van der Post puts it: ‘in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance where it serves as representative of inner unawareness.’ In this tale the folly lies in denying the expression of love, especially when the Tuatha Dé are involved. Nevertheless Étaín is a moral exemplar bound by social conventions whereby she refuses to dishonour Eochu’s home by fornicating with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of voicing innermost feelings. Also, Étaín only agrees to return to Midir if Eochu consents. Having lost Étaín in chess he welches on the bet and is punished by unconsciously committing the taboo of incest. The enduring image is of two swans, who in nature mate for life, escaping through the skylight. The idea of beauty inhabiting the generally disparaged bluebottle attests to a joyful relationship with Nature. As the Eesha-Upanishad says: ‘Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.’

From 900 there is a shift in the name of the Túatha Dé, crystallizing as Túatha Dé Danann ‘the Peoples of the Goddess Danu’ in about 1200 which Williams suggests may have been ‘a deliberate attempt at inducing mental estrangement’. In the later medieval we find pseudo-histories such as ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn) c.1150 which tells the story of Ireland and its various waves of settlers and invaders from the time of Noah’s Flood to the era of the Gaels or ‘Milesians’, meaning the ethnic Irish themselves. Here the Tuatha Dé are stripped of godlike qualities and instead imagined as a race of pagan necromancers preceding the Gaels. Historicising the Tuatha Dé also winnowed the creative possibilities available to poets, and Irish language literature thereafter fails to scale the earlier heights.

The Tuatha Dé become darker presences usually associated with human failings.
Suspicion extends to their bewitching music. In one episode of the ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ (Accalam na Senórach) c.1220 the character of St. Patrick expresses these reservations: ‘‘Good it was,’ said Patrick, ‘were it not indeed for the magical melody of the síd in it.’ Yet their creative presence is still acknowledged in traditional Irish music: the word for session is derived from síde.

‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Lir) c.1450 is a tale familiar to most Irish people. The story involves a wicked step-mother Aoife whose magic transforms Lir’s two sets of twins from his first wife into swans. Forced to endure what is portrayed as an unhappy fate their resolve is strengthened by one of them, Fionnghuala, who seems to have an inner knowledge of Christian revelation. Eventually they meet a saintly monk called Mochaomhóg who baptises them whereupon the spell is broken, and they become withered old human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this tale to the earlier ‘Wooing of Étaín’ where the shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative form of escape into a wild nature. According to van der Post:

“the bird always and everywhere from Stone-Age man to Stravinsky has been the image of the inspiration, the unthinkable thought which enters our selves like a bird unsolicited out of the blue, it was for Jung … one of the signs of confirmation from nature that sustain the spirit in its search for enlightenment and emancipation from the floating world of appearances.”

In ‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ a censorious cage is placed over the bird of imaginative possibilities, which fitted neatly the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, a lifeless human form is preferred as long as salvation is available from the one true Apostolic Church.

‘The Tragic Deaths of Children of Tuireann’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann) c.1500 returns to the subject-matter of the ‘Second Battle of Moytura’, but at this point internal rivalry bedevils the Tuatha Dé, leading to the murder of Cian, the father of Lug, by the sons of Tuireann. The sons attempt to bury Cian’s mangled remains six times but each time the earth rejects his body, illustrating Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious where nature itself rises up against a nefarious deed. This idea is also found in Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin where a murdered husband haunts the landscape of those responsible for the deed, his wife and her lover who are driven to commit suicide together.

Lug intuits that the sons are responsible for the deed and succeeds in gaining a commitment for them to pay éric, the legal compensation for homicide. Unsurprisingly the sons meet a sorry fate in their quests to satisfy this, but perhaps more interesting is the depiction of the Tuatha Dé as an enfeebled race incapable of contending with the Formorians. The illusion to the fractious politics of that period is obvious, and as Gaelic Irish culture crumbled after the Tudor conquest and subsequent plantations the vibrancy of the gods diminished, until their resuscitation, ironically, via descendants of their conquerors.

The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry (1900) Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:

These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’

Yeats, however, felt: ‘Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry’. Perhaps he believed he could offer greater authenticity in his verse through his childhood contact with fairy-lore in his mother’s country Sligo, alongside his continued investigations.

Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life) as he found there vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical, and, importantly, Hindu models. In Yeats’s view: ‘Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement.’

As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds which emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal opportunities enchanters that make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.

Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: ‘Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity.’ It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged: ‘Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922, except to vent a repressed sexuality in the work of Liam O’Flaherty and Austin Clarke. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete Finnegans Wake should he expired before doing so. Sadly, most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language.

It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late twentieth century Irish literature coincides with a loss of vividness and magical elements. Thus, in John McGahern’s novel Among Women, perhaps the most famous Irish novel of the second half of the twentieth century, we find a realist portrayal of rural life that is bereft of fantastical imagery. This reflects a wider cultural shift as van der Post bemoaned: ‘The free exercise of fantasy which is the imagination unsevered from its instinctive roots at play, has gone from literature and art’.

Williams suggests that a mythology: ‘furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant’. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural. Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious minds; which is as real as any other observed phenomenon, especially through the work of Jung, who analysed 67,000 dreams, we can approach an understanding of a common and elusive inheritance.

It is also worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’. He claimed that: ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Jung also identified supernatural belief with wholeness involving reconciliation to a ‘female’ side our nature.

Mythology can be a constituent of Richard Kearney’s idea of ‘Anatheism’: ‘the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: the polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history.’

John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast with the sheer erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life Dreamtime, Revisited was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times describing it as ‘priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery’, although the reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so.

Mark Williams’s book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the Táin Bó Cualígne into his narrative. It may also have benefitted from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating font of creativity that may help us unlock our most vivid ideas.