NO CRITIC now writing has an eye and ear more alert to language than Hugh Kenner's. Perhaps this is because he is himself a fine if idiosyncratic writer, quirky, witty, mischievous, precise.
Influential critics who also write well are becoming rarer and rarer. The work of the fashionable post-structuralists is exciting, indispensable, far-reaching in its assumptions and its consequences, but only disciples can find it pleasurable. Often the reader pauses over a paragraph of ensnarled opacity, puzzled as to whether he is baffled by the profundity of the methodology or by the needless tortuosity of the syntax.
Kenner, on the other hand, is quite capable of laying traps for the reader, but they are intended to jolt us out of our literary complacencies, to sharpen dulled eyes and sensibilities. He is both the scholar and the celebrant of the Modernist movement, and has written well and instructively about its masters--Ford, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis. Pound, above all the others. The Pound Era (1971), his massive and deliberately eccentric study of the entire movement, defines its thesis in its title.
His own literary manners and strategies have been formed upon those of his master. Like Pound, he knows how to argue by juxtaposition and surprise, how to use wit as a form of logic. He knows the value of the exact image and the resonant anecdote. And like Pound, he is a skilled swordsman: reading Kenner is a lively and illuminating experience but it is best to keep one's guard up.
A Colder Eye seeks to explain the emergence, beginning in the 1890s, of a long and spectacular series of writers in a country as small as Ireland, and a country which at the time had no firm identity and was regarded, even by itself, as a provincial backwater. He attempts to establish for a literature of modern Ireland a central line of development, which begins with Yeats and closes with Beckett. As he says, it might have taken, as sub-title, "Yeats and His Shadow."
At first glance, the subject would seem ideally suited to Kenner's talents. In the past, he has touched it in tangents: in tracing Yeats' evolution from dreamy Celtic Pre-Raphaelite to monumental modern, in exploring Joyce's extraordinary appearance, while in his twenties, as a fully-hatched modernist. But something seems to have fallen athwart his enterprise, separating intention from execution. And that something, I suspect, was Ireland. Sooner or later, the various commanders sent out by Elizabeth to conquer Ireland sent back reports cursing the place as "a quaking bog." Later, academic explorers (myself included) have had similar experiences. Kenner joins a long procession. He has written a wonderfully witty and perceptive book, but it does not answer the questions it engages.
He begins with an assumption which is as sensible as it is bold. English literature in our century exists in one or another of three major dialects--the British (Woolf, Auden, et al.), the Irish (Yeats, Beckett, et al), and the American (Frost, Stevens, et al). This falls pleasingly upon the ears of us American and Irish ex-colonials: a linguistic liberation from the English imperium. England's literature, as he says, has become a special case, "the literature of one province among several."
The assumption is a genuinely liberating one, allowing the critical intelligence to move among the works of modern literature with a freedom not permitted by the strait-jacket of conventional classification by nationality. Kenner's difficulty issues from his further and more polemical assumption that all three literatures, British, Irish, American are "dialects in the light of a fourth phenomenon, International Modernism," which happens, apparently because of Joyce, to have elected English as its language. International Modernism, however, while it is a term quite properly employed when speaking of Joyce and Beckett, is largely irrelevant to the tale which Kenner's book unfolds. Were it relevant, then one would expect to discover Flann O'Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, two of the three recent writers discussed, to be international modernists in full flower. In fact, however, they were nothing of the kind. Indeed, in their very different ways they directed toward it the scorn of which they were vituperative masters.
There is a famous and pertinent passage in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, which Kenner quotes, as well he might. Stephen Dedalus listens to his English- born Dean of Studies, and thinks:
"The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine! I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language."
This locates with precision the situation of the Irish writer with respect to the language in which he thinks and feels. Or rather, to make a crucial distinction, of those writers who came, like Joyce, from the Catholic side of Ireland's divided culture. That other great Irish writer, Yeats, came to English as to his native inheritance, with no sense of it as either acquisition or imposition. "My ancestors," Stephen says bitterly to a friend, "threw off their language and took another," But Yeats' ancestors, English colonists, did not.
It is quite possible to see Ireland's great literary revival in comic terms, and Kenner is alert to that possibility. Yeats, luxuriantly at ease within the English language, sought to create within it a specifically Irish variant. He did so by turning, subtly and warily, toward those legends, traditions, habits of thought which were most firmly embedded in Gaelic, the older language. At the time, the turn of the century, it was a language which history had relegated to the peasants of the western seacoasts, although it was being revived by enthusiastic nationalists.
Yeats himself took no part in this revival. For one thing, he was, notoriously, a monoglot. More importantly, he was wedded to English as the very syntax of his imagination. Nevertheless, he was glad that it was there, somewhere, influencing Irish speech much as underground lodes of magnetic ore affect compass needles. He encouraged colleagues and one playwright of genius, Synge, to draw from the resources of Gaelic a kind of English which would be redolent of the verbal odors of Irish life. He himself employed this Synge-song sparingly and with indifferent results, but it served as a resonating-board for his own language. For some 20 years, from Synge's Playboy of the Western World to O'Casey's Plough and the Stars, it gave to Irish literature, and thence to the world, a beguiling and richly expressive language.
The great irony of the revival is that Joyce, like "the plain people of Ireland," looked upon this gift with suspicion. The aboriginal Gaelic and the peasant English which had been formed upon it were alike to him the speech of serfs, patronized for the moment by such summer visitors as Yeats and Synge. Shakespeare, says a character in Ulysses, satirizing the revivalists, "the chap that writes like Synge." Aside from being other, and perhaps greater, things, Ulysses is Ireland's declaration of linguistic independence. It was begun, in a Swiss exile, at about the time that other young Irishmen launched in the streets of Dublin a political rebellion to which Joyce was, on the whole, indifferent.
Kenner is attentive to such ironies. And he is right to assume that contemporary Irish literature, being post-Yeatsian, lies outside his subject. Ireland has found its voice, or rather its voices, and they come from within their culture. But the tensionas its within those voices generated by the knowledge that English is an "acquired speech" persists. As we know from the poetry of Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney and John Montague, it is a complex, subtle, muscular, and enriching tension, divisions of the soul and of the culture expressing themselves in the syntax of lines and the roots of verbs. And these tensions are too local--Kavanagh would say, too parochial--to be explored as aspects of internationalism.
Kenner began his book during a Dublin residence, and his opening chapter, entitled "Warning," cautions the reader that in Ireland a fact does not have the same specific gravity that it has in more sedate countries. An "Irish Fact," he says, "is definable as anything they will tell you in Ireland, where you are told a great deal and had best assume a demeanor of wary appreciation." He can explain no better than I can why this "maddening ostentation of the pseudo-fact should seem an Irish specialty." My suspicion, though, is that Ireland acquired its Anglo-Saxon respect for "facts" from the same source which gave it the language of the Anglo- Saxon--that is, without its consent. And Irishmen therefore feel entitled to use facts as they use the English language, creatively, resourcefuly, and with a conjoined wish to deceive and give pleasure. Kenner is Anglo-Saxon in his fidelity to fact, but Hibernian in his resourceful use of English. He and his Irish friends must have delighted and exasperated each other.