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«Nicoleta Stanca Ovidius University VERSIONS OF IRISH PASTORAL POETRY: W.B. YEATS AND SEAMUS HEANEY Keywords: pastoral poetry, tradition, ...»

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University of Bucharest Review

Vol. XII, no. 1, 2010

Nicoleta Stanca

Ovidius University



Keywords: pastoral poetry, tradition, post-colonialism, nationalism, Irishness

Abstract: The paper aims at presenting Yeats and Heaney as poets that inherited and continued

the Irish pastoral literary tradition. Irish literature has shown its preoccupation with place and nature since its creation of the ancient dinshenchas, i.e. place-name poetry, expressing the lore of the place. The Irish pastoral tradition has been fruitfully interwoven with the classical and the English one. Moreover, a nostalgic mood/mode, typical of the pastoral tradition, has been a prominent characteristic of a people who has always sought the means to bridge the past and the present, to recover the past and heal the traumas of disruptions and emigration. Yeats’s pastoral verse may have grown out of the need to create a self-consciously nationalist literature, as an attempt to continue previous models, in a context of the occult. Heaney’s pastoral poetry has emerged in post-colonial Ireland, during a period of violence and chaos, in an “in-between” space.

His early metaphors (the bog, the digger) and his representations of the Irish landscape, as feminine or as “the other”, endeavor to establish or, at least, question, spatial, historical and cultural continuity.

The article aims at presenting Yeats and Heaney as poets that inherited and continued the Irish pastoral literary tradition. What early elements of the Irish pastoral could be traced in Yeats and Heaney‟s works? How has the idealized version of Yeats‟s peasant been transformed into Heaney‟s digger or water-diviner? The article will attempt to show that there is much continuity and little discrepancy between the two poets, one representative of early-twentieth-century Irish culture and, the other, a spokesman of contemporary Ireland. If studies on Yeats tend to focus on his relying on the European and Romantic tradition to recreate a self-consciously national literature, or on the occult and the visionary in his poetry, it would be worth analyzing these elements, together with his immersion in folklore, myth, as a political tool and the manner in which he was offered responses in the Irish poetic tradition.

On the other hand, Heaney has been widely discussed as an inheritor of the Irish pastoral mode. The point is not to demonstrate the mere endurance of the Irish pastoral into contemporary poetry, from Yeats to Heaney, but to discuss the questioning and revisitations of this mode (traditionally associated a poetry of the landscape seen as feminine, and in terms of (dis)continuity and suffering) in Seamus Heaney‟s “frontier

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pastoral” (Frawley 146). Yeats had a double purpose, according to Heaney: “to restore a body of old legends and folk beliefs that would bind the people of the Irish place to the body of their world” and “to supplement this restored sense of historical place with a new set of associations that would accrue when a modern Irish literature, rooted in its own region and using its own speech, would enter the imagination of his countrymen” (Preoccupations 135).

Irish literature has shown its preoccupation with place and nature since its creation of the ancient dinshenchas, i.e. place-name poetry, expressing the lore of the place, the beauties of nature and local narratives. A nostalgic mood/mode, typical of the pastoral tradition, has been a prominent characteristic of a people who has always sought means to bridge the past and present and heal the traumas of disruptions and emigration, such as the Irish. Thus, the theoretical approach of the essay will resort to the conceptual framework of post-colonialism, nationalism and cultural identity. The pastoral, expressing in general the longing for a lost culture/ order, features the connection nature nostalgia. “Nostalgia” comes from nostos (Gr. = home) and algos (Gr. = pain) and was originally used as a term in 1688 by a doctor to describe a condition of “homesickness” (Frawley 3). According to Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space (qtd. in Frawley 3), memories represent the theoretically unrecoverable past and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are. This idea points to the connection between the localized place and nature in Irish literature and the theme of nostalgia.

The Irish pastoral tradition has been fruitfully interwoven with the classical and the English one. The term “pastoral” (in Latin - “pertaining to shepherd”) emerged as a minor but important mode which, by convention, was concerned with the lives of the shepherds. Its origins and many of the conventions are associated with Theocritus‟s bucolic poems (316-260 BC), in which the shepherds were involved in contests of piping.

The tradition has been taken over by Virgil in his Eclogues on the “golden age” in which innocent shepherds lived in primitive bliss. Christianity further developed the symbolism of the pastoral depicting Christ as the Shepherd and the world as His flock and the life of the shepherd as a model of tranquility and harmonious love.

For the classics, such as Theocritus or Virgil, who were known to the Irish people through seventh century translations by scribes, the pastoral mode meant an idealization of country life. As far as the Irish tradition is concerned, in the beginning, there was the “hermit poetry”, dating seventh to tenth century, which was believed to be the result of life in simple nature not pastoral conceit and which praised nature and did not mourn its loss. Early medieval Fenian literature presented conventional descriptions of nature as setting for the exploits of the fían, the travelling hunting warriors, whose primitive life was actually sophisticate, consciously chosen and a blending of culture and nature. With the twelfth – thirteenth centuries, nature poetry in Ireland is doubled by the nostalgic mode, in the sense that the pastoral is associated with figures of marginality, such as Sweeney, the cursed mad king forced into the desire for the outdoor beauties; thus, it is displacement that brings the natural world into focus.

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If Christianity grieved over the loss of the Garden of Eden as man‟s natural state, the Vergilian pastoral bemoaned the spoiling of nature through urbanization, Irish bardic poetry (1200-1700) – under the Norman influence – worried about the link between patrons and the natural world; this relationship emphasizes the representation of the lord as married to the personified land, which in time, led to the feminized Irish landscape, defeated by colonialism. With the Tudors‟ colonization (late sixteenth – early seventeenth century) and the increase in land ownership by English and Scottish planters and decrease in land ownership by the native Irish, place became more closely connected with nostalgia; the role of the bard and of poetry are questioned while the bardic order is under threat. In the Elizabethan era, with the deforestation of Ireland and the first cartographic attempts by the English in the country, the pastorals by Elizabethan writers, such as Spenser, tried to justify the colonial approach.

Interestingly, patterned on the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities, the museum, in the early eighteenth century, could be perceived as a signifier of European attitudes towards the natural and cultural world of the other, implying issues of ownership and colonization. The advent of the Irish museum implied an internal colonialism by admitting the passing of certain Irish cultural forms. Similarly, the Irish landscape may be seen as a natural museum of ancient Irish history, a bearer of the past. Therefore, the Irish Romanticism is different from the English one, with the emphasis on culture not nature and far from an aestheticist approach. It is easy to conceive of the difference if we bear in mind the fact that land in Ireland was a signifier of power and authority, the only way of surviving, an object of dispute, a sign of English colonialism. The eighteenth century also associated the pastoral with descriptions of particular places, being thus a topographical genre. In the 1830s, the Ordnance Survey, the mapping, chartering and recording and often altering of Ireland meant an assertion of colonial control over Ireland. In the 1840s and 1950s, the post-Famine Ireland looked like a war zone, the violent relationship with the land signifying to an extent the failure of the pastoral. The landscape of Ireland in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Irish, in the sense that it was physically attached to the country, and not-Irish, in the sense that Ireland was not independent. Thus, landscape is equal to culture rather than nature.

Initially rooted in Irish mythology and in the European Romantic tradition, Yeats‟s pastoral verse may have grown out of the need to create a self-consciously nationalist literature, as an attempt to continue models from the previous ages. For the Revivalists, the Irish nation meant rurality; the landscape was the site of real Ireland.

Yeats‟s writings develop a representation of nature infused with a pastoral nostalgia for an Ireland of the imagination; they partake of the Irish tradition of writing about place as a way of memorializing lost culture. Ireland was, for Yeats, an imaginary homeland “the sort of place endlessly invented and reinvented by exiles who fear that, if they do not give it a local habitation in words, it may entirely disappear” (Kiberd 99). By imaginatively “mapping” his Ireland of the mind, Yeats proposed to contribute to the creation of a modern Irish national literature through his retrieval of Irish place and to forge the

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consciousness of his fellow citizens, to use Joyce‟s words, just as he would try to achieve by founding the Abbey Theatre and through his activity as a public figure and senator in The Irish Free State. Yeats genuinely loved the west of Ireland for its beauty and its associations with folklore, legend and myth. He also saw “in the celebration of place a useful corrective to the abstractness of conscious patriotism” (Watson 99). Today, Yeats‟s name has come to be associated with Co. Sligo, Innisfree, Ben Bulben, Coole Park, Thoor Ballylee, which are known as. “Yeats Country” Yeats turned to the Irish past and literature; the holiness of the Irish landscape was found again in the tradition of the dinshenchas/ dinnsheanchas (=place-name poems/knowledge of the lore of the place). Correspondences between the world of old Ireland and the Ireland that Yeats sought to revive in the present aimed to create a nationalist literature by bridging past and present. Yeats was attracted to poets who considered nature, mysticism, the esoteric and vision as fundamental. Yeats was also influenced, in his endevour, by an American writer, Henry David Thoreau, whose texts epitomized the idea of writing itself as a political act and as the blending of the literary, cultural and political. On Thoreau‟s influence regarding the idealization of landscape,

Yeats wrote The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade. (31) I still had the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living, in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. (qtd. in Frawley 67) Interestingly, according to his own confession, this was the first poem in which he felt that he managed to strike the right note to express his ideas and feelings. Heaney makes the same statement about “Digging” (Death of a Naturalist), the title of which points at a pastoral loaded with heavier meanings than mere yearning for innocent existence in nature.

Another American influencing Yeats was Whitman (“the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” in Frawley 67), with his admiration for the word Mississippi (which to his ear flowed and unwound like the river).

Whitman‟s admiration for the American river is paralleled by Yeats‟s ritual invocation of places known and esteemed. The sense of place will become Yeats‟s touchstone and his art theories will depend upon rooting mythology in the earth. Coole Park, Lady Augusta Gregory‟s estate, became a special place engendering visions, which are crucial to

Yeats‟s poetics:

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I was crossing a little stream near Inchy wood and actually in the middle of a stride from bank to bank, when an emotion never experienced before swept down upon me. I said, ‘That is what the devout Christian feels, that is how he surrenders his will to the will of God’. I felt an extreme surprise, for my whole imagination was preoccupied with the pagan mythology of ancient Ireland, I was marking in red ink;

upon a large map, every sacred mountain. (qtd. in Frawley 73) Having immersed himself in the space of prophecy, the poet reaches the visionary. The power of nostalgia takes place in people‟s imagination, leading them to the projections of identities in the present, with the Irish nation as the ultimate projection.

Yeats‟s pastoral depicts a romantic and nationalist Ireland, the country of “saints and scholars”, to quote popular historians. The Revival magus is to be found in Ireland,

fathered by and closely attached to this landscape:

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