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Spring Term Notes #2: Three Poems of Irish Nationhood

Appropriately enough insofar as I'm writing this in Dublin, I'd like to continue my series of short blogs on last term's teaching by turning to poems of Irish nationhood. Engaging early Yeats and the poetry of Young Ireland as one week on a nineteenth-century 'British' literature survey module, in a university in south-west England predominantly attended by English-born students, obviously looks very different to how it might in Trinity College Dublin: or indeed an institution once home to two of the lecturers on this module, Maynooth. Not least, I'm no expert in the critical field surrounding it. Yet it led to vibrant seminars, and I'd like to point to one discussion about Yeats' 'To Ireland in the Coming Times', Davis's 'A Nation Once Again' (1845), and Mangan's 'To my Native Land' (1832).

An intriguing way of organising the three texts was suggested by one small group, who claimed that whilst Davis and Mangan's ideas of Ireland were locked into a binary, a binary emergent from historical struggle and defined ultimately by Britain, Yeats' concept of the nation attempted to define Ireland from itself: or, at least, from some deeper image or reserve of itself. This has the admirable benefit of clarity. Two poems operate within a binary of mutual definition; one strives to release itself from such a binary. I think that we would have to advance carefully - Yeats' own imaging of Irishness is not entirely untainted by romanticised depictions equally circulated by the oppressor; Yeats' own Protestant background is awkwardly hyphenated and has led to revisionist critique - but I think there is certainly something in it.

The problem that all of the poems face, and which is foregrounded in their very titles, is the question of nationhood: or, rather, the absence of nationhood. How to write about, or to, something that the colonial condition has abolished in the present moment? How to write historically, when living through a painfully prolonged duration of shattered history? Indeed, of course, negotiating this set of problems is one reason why this verse exists at all: whilst all nations, as Benedict Anderson would remind us, are imagined communities, when political, demographic and geographical community are subject to force, then literature has a crucial role to evoke what is materially absent.

However, following the students' model, the lyrics of Mangan and Davis seem to find themselves somewhat paralysed by the moment of historical struggle which can only evoke 'Ireland' as its own absence. The colonial relation with Britain is one which both defines it as nation, but in the same movement negates it as nation. The idea of Ireland becomes one essentially articulated through another nation's acts of historical violence. For Davis, Ireland is in fetters, 'long a province' (l.7); for Mangan, more gothically, it is simply a site of dishonour and now a barely speakable 'thing thou art' (l.23). It's a paradox of colonial identity writ large: the struggle for self-definition must begin from the point that you don't have a self to define, and are defined as the colonial power's 'other'.

Both these poems hence have temporalities which are suspended between an elegiac past and a unrealised future (something which also came through clearly in seminar discussion). As, I think, correctly argued by other students, Mangan's is the darkest: it evokes a ruined, desolated nation and whilst invocations repeatedly stir the nation to 'arise, arise, shake off thy dreams' (l.1, passim), the poem is haunted by the idea that Ireland shall basically vanish from historical process and 'linger as thou lingerest now' (l.54). Davis attempts to find fragments of history - Greek liberty, Hebraic exile, and in other poems Ireland's own Celtic past - to which he can connect Ireland's dislocated present, and render, as the title makes clear, a renewal of nationhood, translating from province to polity. Yet, even here he struggles with the contradiction that whilst he has come of age as a man, the country he yearns for has not.

If the present moment hollows out Ireland, defining it as Britain's colony, and rendering the very idea of present Irish nationhood absent, then Yeats would seem to attempt to take up a different position (as the students noted) in relation to historical struggle. The title of his poem recalls the kind of text associated with Davis and Mangan - 'To Ireland in the Coming Times' - prophecies an era of national renewal, and he explicitly affines himself with the poets of Young Ireland in line 15. Yet, of course, his poem is both historical and deeply concerned with breaking and re-marking our sense of the historical: from 'her, whose history began / Before God made the angelic clan', to the personification of Time inside the bounds of the poem, to the evocation of life (the historical present) as 'the winking of an eye' (l.36). His definition of Ireland seems to come from as much from 'things discovered in the deep' (l.21) - faery, druidism, something archaic and mystical - as it does from the binary 19th century politics of 'Ireland's wrong' (l.3). It is this atavistic heartbeat (cf. l.12) of Irish identity which is dragged to the surface by Yeats' uniquely differentiated rhymes (cf. l.20).

Perhaps the clearest way of crystallising this difference is to note the motif of sleep. For Mangan, Ireland's absence from history is interpreted as a sleep; Davis too deploys this trope in 'The West's Asleep'. Poetry becomes a revolutionary aubade, calling Ireland to wake. By contrast, for Yeats, the depths 'where only body's laid asleep' (l.22) are precisely the reserve from which Ireland can define itself. If Mangan and Davis find nationhood in Ireland's waking, but cannot envision this daybreak for historical and temporal reasons; then Yeats finds nationhood in Ireland's dreams, displacing the historical and temporal in a way which makes them subject to, rather than brutally resistant to, the poetic imagination.

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