Dublin academic Julie Anne Stevens is an expert on the great Irish writing duo Edith Somerville and her cousin, Violet Martin – who wrote under the pseudonym, Martin Ross. Prurient reader speculation on the exact nature of their relationship, however, remains unsatisfied. Were they more to each other than a professional team? Stevens quotes from a letter that suggests they shared the same bed. She also states that Edith rejected the advances of a well-known lesbian, Ethel Smyth. Other than that this book concentrates on their nascent feminism.
In the mid 1880s Somerville travelled frequently to Europe, studying art in Dusseldorf and Paris. She saw that men were more readily accepted into that world; women were thought of as muses or models rather than artists. Some of the sketches that Stevens has selected for Two Irish Girls in Bohemia are portrayals of women artists and others have women as central figures.
Violet Martin was often a subject of the drawings including one entitled Miss Neruda Jones which was part of a cartoon strip showing an androgynous being in spectacles, bowler hat and short hair.
Stevens suggests that there is comedy in the fact that Violet is pretending to be ‘Neruda’ who is herself posing as an artist. Somerville and Ross are mocking themselves by showing that their status as professional writers/illustrator is seen by the outside world as amusing frippery rather than serious work.
In Paris Somerville was able to live in a flat with other women artists, to study alongside men in studios and museums, and to move unchaperoned in the public parks. Combining her Anglo-Irish sense of social superiority with these new-found freedoms enabled her to define and develop a sense of professionalism which fed into the financial success that she and Ross, as impoverished latter-day members of their nearly extinct tribe, required.
Away from their family homes in West Cork and Connemara Edith and Violet were exposed to all sorts of exotic behaviours and these they diligently recorded. As well as being prolific correspondents they kept diaries and journals of notes and sketches. Stevens foregrounds many of the Edith’s drawings and suggests how they provide a context for the pair’s published work.
Although they spent time abroad Somerville and Ross wrote most memorably about Ireland. In their well-known works, The Real Charlotte and the series of Irish R.M. stories, they satirise all echelons of late nineteenth century Irish life. Visiting Englishmen, such as the eponymous Resident Magistrate, come in for the same savage treatment as the inhabitants of the Big House, the servants’ hall or the thatched cottage. They wrote more compassionately and enthusiastically about horses and hounds and pet dogs.
Violet Martin thought that, partly as a result of the work of Revivalists such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Irish had developed a ‘fear of being laughed at’ resulting in an ‘incapacity to recognise true art’. Ross and Somerville’s irreverent class and gender based humour was out of kilter with such works as W.B. Yeats and George Moore’s romantic Diarmuid and Grania. In their version of the tale Diarmuid becomes a skittish ‘horse called Dermot’ ridden and controlled by a woman.
In her informative, if somewhat repetitive, account of the lives and work of Somerville and Ross Stevens concludes that they might have been more lauded had they not been women with Anglo-Irish backgrounds who used ‘humour as the weapon to attack male vanity’. Their style, then regarded as vulgar, is now seen as ground-breaking.
Somerville, E. and Ross, M. The Real Charlotte. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1894
—. Some Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1899.
—. Further Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1908.
—. In Mr Knox’s Country. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1915
Stevens, J. A. Two Irish Girls in Bohemia. Dublin: Somerville Press. 2017.
Yeats, W. B. and Moore, G. Diarmuid and Grania. digireads.com. 2011.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 3rd February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser by Trevor Joyce.
Londoner Edmund Spenser, born mid sixteenth century, travelled to Ireland to help put down the Desmond Rebellions. As Secretary to Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s Deputy, Spenser was able to lay his hands on property in North Cork where he settled at Kilcolman Castle.
There he wrote much of the great epic poem The Faerie Queen, a work in which the figure of Gloriana represents his queen. The locations reflect the glorious pastoral countryside in which Spenser lived but the representation of Irishness is entrusted to deceitful, treacherous characters such as Malengin. Spenser also wrote a prose work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, an excruciatingly racist account of the Irish often considered to have influenced Oliver Cromwell’s later earth-scorching and ethnically genocidal practices in Ireland.
Published posthumously with the final segment of the twelve-book poem, are the Mutabilitie Cantos. These tell the story of a challenge that Mutability makes to the king of the gods, Jove. She says that he has stolen her birthright because Jove’s father, Saturn usurped her father, Titan. Now, she mocks, Jove can only keep power by using military might. Eventually, however, Jove’s position is confirmed after a court case overseen by Nature.
Cork-based Trevor Joyce is fascinated by Edmund Spenser and published a translation of his sonnets, Ruines of Rome, retitled Rome’s Wreck (2014). His latest book, Fastness is a reworking of the Mutabilitie Cantos. In his introduction Joyce explains how Nature’s court is on Arlo Hill, a name Spenser used for ‘Galtymore, the tallest mountain in the Galty range, which itself continues the arc of the Ballyhouras’. Joyce points out the similarity between the sounds Arlo and Aherlow, concluding that the setting for the Mutabilitie Cantos is thus the Glen of Aherlow.
Joyce suggests that Spenser, himself a local planter, felt threatened by ‘wolves and human miscreants’ in the glen, which was used by ‘insurgents during the Desmond Rebellions’. Spenser might be explaining to his Protestant queen that only her military power could ensure the safety of her loyal subject on his plantation in North Cork. Famously Spenser was run out by Hugh O’Neill. On his return to London and feeing betrayed by that queen he died, aged 46, in poverty.
As a poet Joyce decides that the best way to refute Spenser’s imperialistic or land-grabbing stance is to recast his verse. He thinks that it is his right to ‘intervene’ in Spenser’s work because he feels that Spenser has intervened in his own heritage. In other words the Protestant English colonists affected every aspect of Irish history and culture so that Joyce and every Irishman alive today is tainted with their stink.
Joyce rejects ‘highfalutin’ language and replaces it with his own vernacular. This is because he feels that the character of Mutability (Ireland) in her need to outmanoeuvre Jove (England) is diverted from her muscular aggression to the ‘high rhetoric’ of the courthouse. Thus she mistakenly decides to fight Jove with his own weapon, the Queen’s English. Joyce suggests that if Mutability had used different means she might well have succeeded. Had Ireland fought on her own terms and rejected English laws and customs then the island might have been free of the yoke of imperialism much earlier and more completely.
He annexes Spenser’s tale and replaces the rhetoric with something much grittier but arguably more accessible. He writes his own view of late sixteenth century Ireland in the penultimate stanza, ‘I’m sick to death of seeing / this dodgy state of things’. On the back cover David Lloyd calls Fastness ‘a radical postcolonial Irish poem’. It’s worth engaging with.
Joyce, T. Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. Miami University Press. 2017. Print.
Spenser, E. The Fairie Queen. 1609. Print.
A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.
Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law by Adrian Hardiman
The late Honourable Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Supreme Court Judge, had completed a rough draft of this book when he died suddenly last year. His name was well known to the public because of his fearless fight for, and defence of, the Irish Constitution and Irish Law. He was a believer in freedom within the law and abhorred prejudice. He refused to be swayed by media pressure and stood for honesty and integrity in every area of society, including and especially the Gardá.
The published text of Joyce in Court had to be edited by Neil Belton, who had commissioned it. The two men had worked successfully together on the early chapters so it seems likely that Hardiman would have approved of the result. The book reads like one of his elaborate court arguments and it is redolent with the knowledge for which he was renowned. It is a seemly memorial of his professional life in the courts as well as his parallel life as literary scholar.
One of Hardiman’s pet hates was the obfuscation that is the result of the “contrived terminology cultivated by so many Joycean critics”. Hardiman, whose papers on James Joyce, unlike those of some of the academics he criticised, kept to the facts. He researched the court cases mentioned in Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Joyce’s journalism. In addition he studied the legal context of Joyce’s life as a child and young man at a time when Ireland was moving from fin de siècle to twentieth century. As an opening quotation to Joyce in Court Hardiman chooses Joyce’s own words, “I tried to keep close to fact, to reality, which always triumphs in the end”.
Hardiman thinks that Joyce was so concerned about facts because he discerned a laziness all around him, in newspapers, for example, or at the bar – in both public houses and criminal courts – to establish what is beyond reasonable doubt. In other words Joyce, like Hardiman, was fascinated and horrified by miscarriages of justice caused by prejudice of one kind or another.
Hardiman points out that the most egregious cases at the turn of the century in Britain were those in which prejudice, either gender or ethnicity based, was at work. He also explains that it was following these that the Court of Criminal Appeal came into being. It would, of course, be many years before Ireland, then still called the Free State, got her own appeal court in 1924. A theme of the book is a comparison between British and Irish law and the tendency for Irish law to be left behind because of British prejudice against the Irish and their competency as a self-sufficient society.
Hardiman mentions that Ulysses includes references to 31 different criminal and civil cases from both Ireland and Britain. He also lists those who conducted them, including 11 judges, 13 barristers and any number of lesser professionals including a variety of hangers-on or disgraced practitioners. Hardiman obviously takes delight in minutiae as he details not only the participants but also the types of case from the momentous to the petty.
In September 1899 Joyce attended the three-day trial of Samuel Childs for the murder of his brother, Thomas. This, according to Hardiman, was life changing for 17 year-old Joyce. He states that it began a “lifelong preoccupation with guilt, innocence, proof, framings and officials who were ‘unscrupulous in the service of the Crown’”. Hardiman argues that Irish trials like Childs would have been forgotten had they not figured in Ulysses. He relishes the power of the great novel to keep them alive partly because he feels that they help provide the rich context of legal, political and social practice of the time.
Additionally Hardiman sees Joyce’s references to the law as a key technique in the novelist’s aim to achieve universality whilst writing only of Bloomsday. Part of Joyce’s technique, according to Hardiman, is to have his characters speak or think of the cases without any authorial explanation. They were part of the fabric of that day.
For many readers, however, the cases might be less familiar and this is where Hardiman’s helping hand becomes desirable. Thomas Childs was a rich, miserly, single recluse. His brother Samuel, the only other key-holder of the house in Bengal Terrace near Glasnevin Cemetery, was the sole heir to Thomas’s estate. He needed money as he had been made redundant and had insufficient to meet the needs of his wife and children.
The Crown’s case collapsed in front of Joyce’s eyes. This fed his suspicion of the police and the prosecution. They were seeking the death by hanging of a man against whom they had a weak case. Hardiman, to the joy of the reader, assesses the case himself and comes up with a likely scenario, considering that no one alive today saw what happened. One of Joyce’s and Hardiman’s interests in the Childs case is the fact that Samuel’s wife is not allowed to give evidence because of her status as his spouse.
A further chapter, fascinatingly intricate, is on the subject of life insurance. Here a focal point is the question of suicide and the fact that life insurance policies did not pay out in that event. In addition it proves to have been the case that many citizens mortgaged out or sold their policy, resulting in possible non-payment on death. This applies to Joyce’s character Patrick Dignam who dies suddenly leaving his wife and five children impoverished as well as bereft. Joyce concentrates on the fate of the children especially the elder two who will be apprenticed to augment the family’s income.
In spite of its being set in 1904 Ulysses is infused with references to the romantic Irish hero Robert Emmet. In Joyce in Court there is a chapter on his trial in 1803 and at the end of the text there in an appendix with an account of it. Both Joyce and Hardiman, like many others, are mightily impressed by Emmet’s speech. It is quoted at length and admired for its elegance, balance and content. They are also both, somewhat gorily, insistent on detailing the process of hanging, drawing and quartering.
Finally Hardiman turns his attention to censorship and legal attempts to prevent the publication of Ulysses. These focus mainly on America and England although it is impossible to overlook the heinous behaviour of the Irish Censorship of Publications Board. It is wonderful that today anyone can read Joyce’s work and then check out the legal context in Hardiman’s book.
Joyce in Court is not entirely cohesive because it is to a great extent a collection of the papers written, for differing purposes, during Hardiman’s lifetime. Some chapters skim over vast areas whilst others go into the forensic detail of one case. In the latter there is a tendency to repeat sections from the former – not only in terms of content but also the bon mots which are so much a part of Hardiman’s style. It is impossible, however, not to feel a tear at the corner of an eye in reaction to the poignancy of the words of such an eloquent man, one who devoted his life to law, history and literature. And to facts.
Hardiman, A. Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law. London: Head of Zeus. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 21st October 2017. It is republished here by permission of the Editor.
My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis.
His legs bestrid the ocean.
It is astonishing that this line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra does not appear in Kevin Toolis’s book, My Father’s Wake. This may be since Toolis favours quoting from the Iliad, preferring the ancient Greeks, to the English bard. This is not unusual: Irish literati are often fond of the classics as can be seen in great works such as Brian Friel’s Translations or James Joyce’s Ulysses.
The description of Mark Antony is fitting as Toolis’s legs have, since babyhood, bestrid the ocean that is the Irish Sea. And, his second favourite word, not far behind his absolute favourite – death – is ocean. Toolis prefers ocean to sea to the point of repetitiousness. But this is because he is talking about the Atlantic – the grand ocean that crashes against the west coast of Ireland, and in particular, Achill Island. For Achill Island, although unnamed in the book, is the seat of his ancestors. Toolis, like so many of the diaspora, has a leg in both camps, the West of Ireland and the UK.
Toolis writes powerfully about the coast ‘where huge Atlantic storms break onshore, scouring the landscape … surging in assault, striking at the rattling roof, the shaking windows, to suck you out, every living soul within, up into the maelstrom’. He relates how many, most, of his family had, over the years, been driven out of the island by its hostile weather and infertile land. Men and boys had left for the building trade, resulting in the family homestead being abandoned and left to rot.
Toolis himself was brought up in Edinburgh and suffered at an early age from the threat of death. In a chapter headed Intimations – an allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality – Toolis describes his two month incarceration, at the age of eleven, in the Male Chest ward. He was waiting for test results to prove that he merely had tuberculosis and not lung cancer. Men around him coughed and wheezed, visiting the smoking lounge to irritate the surfaces of any bit of lung unexcised by surgery.
This intimation of his own mortality, along with his brother’s death at 26 from Leukaemia, is what started Toolis on his life long obsession with the phenomenon. He worked with death, mostly as a journalist, in theatres of war, terrorism, mortuaries, famine, AIDs and the Troubles. Toolis became intimate with death, incessantly and intrusively questioning the bereaved until one day he decided that he, like death, had lost all purpose.
The subject of this philosophical memoir is how the Irish prepare for death from an early age. It is centred in rituals of reposing, removal, mass, internment and, especially, wake. Toolis, Irish by heritage, and Scottish by birth, writes critically about the Anglo-Saxon approach to death. He abhors modern habit of hiding behind euphemisms and condemning the moribund to agitated deaths in frenetic hospital wards. He calls this the Western Death Machine.
In the first chapter, Mortalities, Toolis’s father is dying. Surrounding the bed the family and neighbours pray, chant, and keen in unison as if they were one sorrowing creature not separate selves. Interspersed through the rest of the book are chapters returning to the deathbed, the death and the aftermath. Toolis celebrates the fact that on Achill, when someone dies, hundreds of people, from children to centenarians, participate in what he calls teaching ‘us how to live, love and die’.
Toolis, K. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2017.
A version of this review first appeared on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 14th October 2017. It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.
Hailing from Belfast, MacLaverty now lives in Glasgow, having spent the majority of his life in Scotland, first as a teacher, including a spell in the Hebrides, and afterwards living by his writing on the mainland. As a young man at Queen’s College, where MacLaverty was working in the biology department, he joined a writing group with Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley. There his proferred poems were soundly rejected (by Heaney) although his short stories were lauded.
Avid readers of MacLaverty have been waiting for a new book since 2013, when many of his stories were republished in a collection. Previous to that there was Matters of Life and Death in 2006, other collections of stories and four novels, including Lamb, and Cal, both of which were filmed (the former with Liam Neeson and the latter with Helen Mirren). Whilst Cal and Lamb both provide contemporaneous accounts of the politics and violence of the Troubles, which MacLaverty lived through, Midwinter Break deals with the aftermath.
During the early years of their marriage, the central characters, Gerry and Stella were indirectly involved in bombings and shootings. He always sought solace in the bottom of a glass whilst she turned to her religion. Now that they are retired each can give full attention to these crutches.
A long weekend in Amsterdam enables each an opportunity to indulge themselves. Gerry drinks most of a bottle of duty free whisky on their first night allowing Stella to rise the following morning without waking him. She makes her way to visit a religious order. Unfortunately Stella’s contact will not be available until Monday morning so she and Gerry have an uninterrupted Saturday and Sunday. For Gerry this means he can have a fat-laden cooked breakfast in the hotel whilst Stella makes do with a croissant and jam in a café.
There is time to visit art galleries and the red light area. MacLaverty draws parallels between the two experiences in a slightly clumsily manner. Both are perceived framed – the women behind their windows, the paintings also orientated as landscape or portrait. Perhaps MacLaverty is suggesting that both the women painted by Vermeer and the present day prostitutes are victims of economic deals.
But Gerry is not a philistine. He has made a career as an architect and loves classical music. Stella, who was a teacher, is no saint. Both are selfish in their ways. Both are loving and compassionate too.
It is important and moving to find elderly people as protagonists in novels. Their habits are irritating. Their bodies are failing. One needs artificial eye drops to replace the essential tearing function of the eye. One snores. Neither has a beautiful body. Both make love with each other.
All couples must face these sorts of issues if they want to stick together until ‘death us do part’. An important question is, did the personal horrors that afflicted Gerry and Stella during the Troubles lead to their current unhappiness? I am not sure what MacLaverty would say in answer to that.
But, in an interview with the Guardian in 2013, he did explain that in 1975, already a father of four children, he said to himself, ‘Why do I have to stay here? I can teach anywhere’.
Who would condemn him for leaving his motherland? For taking his wife and children to a safe island off the coast of Scotland? For writing wonderful books, which became films and gave him an entry into the life of the arts in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Many writers in the North found safe havens in small cottages in remote areas. Many, like Seamus Heaney, are accused of watering down politics or hiding, in for example, the bog poems, behind ambiguity and metaphor. It may be that MacLaverty is saluting the late Irish poet, when, at the end of Midwinter Break he includes a meditation on bog people.
Heaney, S. North. London: Faber & Faber. 1975.
MacLaverty, B. Cal. Jonathan Cape. 1983.
— Collected Stories Vintage. 2013.
— Lamb. Penguin. 1980/
— Matters of Life and Death. Norton. 2006.
—Midwinter Break. Jonathan Cape. 2017.
A version of this review was first published on 26th August 2017 in the Weekend section (page 37) of the Irish Examiner.
Richard Murphy, three iambs of whose sonnet ‘Sri Lanka’ you can see above, is a poet of Anglo-Irish heritage. I had never heard of him but was pleased to be invited to an English Department research seminar on 8th March at UCC. The speaker was Benjamin Keatinge, associate professor at SEEU, and his talk was subtitled ‘Richard Murphy’s Sri Lankan Poems and Irish Postcolonial Studies’.
We are currently studying Colonialism and Post-Colonialism as part of our MA in Irish Writing and Film so it seemed an ideal opportunity to learn how Keatinge approached his subject.
We heard how Murphy was born in Ireland but spent much of his childhood in Sri Lanka. His father was the last mayor of the capital city, Colombo. When his parents left diplomatic service they retired to Southern Rhodesia. Murphy wrote to his mother saying that he felt that they had made a wise decision. His father and mother seem to have been ex-pat through and through and accustomed to a certain standard of living. Murphy has been restless too, finally returning to Sri Lanka where he is living into his nineties in a house on an old tea plantation and is looked after by a Sri Lankan family. It sounds patrician, and even imperialistic, but it would be presumptuous for me to suggest that. His reasons for spending his last years in this manner may be to do with the fact that there is an octagonal building there for writing and meditation. Or, as he wrote in 1984 on returning to Sri Lanka, he just loves the ‘smell of decay’ which comes from a warm, moist climate.
“I’m looking across a paddy field cultivated by buffaloes. A hill of jungle and palm trees rises steeply to a Buddhist temple on the summit. The warmth, exotic birdcalls, and the smell of new rain on a road of dust, remind me of my early, strict and pampered childhood in Ceylon, when this country, before gaining independence in 1948, was a resplendent jewel in the crown of the British Empire.” (Interview with JP O’Malley 2013)
In his early manhood Murphy lived on the West Coast of Ireland, writing Sailing to an Island (1955) which Michael Longley called Murphy’s ‘milestone collection‘. This included ‘The Last Galway Hooker’ and ‘The Cleggan Disaster’, both, like the title poem, narrative pieces. According to Longley, Murphy’s loveliest poems are in a later collection, High Island, written between 1967 and 1973.
In spite of restoring a Galway hooker and running it as a fishing boat, Murphy seems never to have felt fully accepted in the West of Ireland. He thinks that he would have always be regarded as a West Brit. In the interview with JP O’Malley, Murphy stated: “I was often criticised for my forlorn attempt to shed my colonial past and implant myself in the 99% Republican West of Ireland. But because I was unalterably Anglo-Irish it seemed I was doomed to fail”.
Keatinge suggests that Murphy had a ‘quarrel with his own inheritance’. That he sees ‘himself as a victim as well as an inheritor of colonialism’. I find it poignant thinking of Murphy – sexually ambivalent, ancestrally misbegotten, and spatially unsettled – his life seems to have been exceedingly liminal. For further elucidation you might read Maurice Harmon’s 2007 ‘In Good Form’, an interesting account of Murphy’s life and work and/or his own piece ‘Notes for Sonnets’ published in The Poetry Ireland Review (2011).
What I find most interesting about Murphy is his use of the sonnet form. I have always regarded this structure as a sort of corset for composing poems. If you can get into it, it provides an elegant silhouette. But if you are flabby or loose you’d be better off leaving it alone.
In his journal ‘Notes for Sonnets’ Murphy writes to himself: ‘Have all possible cadences been tried and exhausted in the sonnet? … Ask this question in the Wellington sonnets … ? Are you square bashing in rhymed metrical verse … ? constrained by the left right left right of the metre and the rhyme, the platoons of polished boots on the parade?’
Needling my native sky over Phoenix Park
I obelize the victory of wit
That let my polished Anglo-Irish mark
Be made by Smirke as a colossal spit.
Properly dressed for an obsolete parade,
Devoid of mystery, no winding stair,
Threading my unvermiculated head,
I’ve kept my feet, but lost my nosey flair.
My life was work, my work was taking life
To be a monument. The dead have won
Capital headlines. Look at Ireland
Rife with maxims. Need you ask what good I’ve done?
My sole point in this evergreen oak aisle
Is to maintain a clear laconic style.
The traditional English form of the sonnet is an entirely appropriate choice for this poem as although Wellington (as was Murphy) was born in Ireland he was educated (as was Murphy) in England. Murphy writes in ‘Notes for Sonnets’ that he and Wellington were sent to school in England … to train [our] tongues and teach [us] manners’.
The form is militaristic in its structure which makes it suitable for its content. The tight metre and rhyme scheme are a perfect fit for the sardonic wit that both Murphy, who wrote the sonnet, and the monument itself, which voices the sonnet, wish to display. An analysis of the poem would need to focus on metre and enjambment as well as diction and double meanings. This blog, however, is centred on a much later poem ‘Sri Lanka’.
There is a constant tension in Murphy’s work between his Anglo-Irish/ex-pat background/education and his intellectual/emotional choice of Republicanism/Irishness. If we look again at the title that Keatinge gives his paper ‘To seem a white king’s gem’ we will immediately notice the reference to ‘this precious stone set in a silver sea’ from Richard II. But, the most significant word might be ‘seem’. Just like the island, Murphy may not be what he seems.
Here is the sonnet.
Being nearly heart-shaped made me seem a ham
On early spice trade navigators’ charts.
Tinctured with cinnamon, peppered with forts,
To be eaten up under a strong brand name
Like Taprobane, Serendip, Tenarisim –
Copper-palmed lotus island slave resorts –
And I succumbed to lordly polished arts
That cut me down to seem a white king’s gem,
A star-sapphire teardrop India shed
On old school maps a lighthouse of retorts
Flashing from head to head. My leonine blood
Throbbed wildly when resplendent freedom came
Mouthing pearl tropes with Pali counterparts,
Exalted, flawed; and made me seem as I am.
Fortuitously, if unexpectedly, there is a recording of Murphy reading this poem on RTÉ Radio 1. I think the clarity of his diction is extraordinary. The schooling of his tongue clearly worked.
Murphy explains how the poem is voiced by the island itself. That maybe Murphy’s unique characteristic. He has insensate phenomena voice his poems. I don’t like this actually. I can’t help thinking that it is an aspect of Murphy’s unease with himself and, perhaps, with other human beings. But it is, after all, only people who can read and write poems. They are not much use to animals, buildings or islands. And it seems to me to be an artifice too far to introduce into a form of art which is already sufficiently highbrow. The poems, like their writer, are infused with the flavours of English public school education.
For me ‘Sri Lanka’ has no scent of the island itself and could barely be understood by someone who had not matriculated from a top English university (Oxford). The slant rhymes, hyphenated enjambment, paradoxes/oxymorons and diction do, however, speak of an island which has been interfered with by many colonising powers before finding independence.
Harmon, M. ‘Richard Murphy in Good Form’. Poetry Ireland News. Sep/Oct. 2007. Web. 12 Mar 2017.
Keatinge, B. ‘To Seem a White King’s Gem: Richard Murphy’s Sri Lankan Poems and Irish Postcolonial Studies’. Reading. 8 Mar 2017.
Longley, M. ‘The Pleasure Ground: Poems 1952-2012 by Richard Murphy’. The Irish Times. 25 Sep 2013. Web. 13 Mar 2017.
Murphy, R. Richard Murphy: Collected Poems. Wake Forest University Press, 2000.Print.
– High Island:New and Selected Poems. London: Faber, 1974. Print.
– ‘Notes for Sonnets’. The Poetry Ireland Review, No. 104. Sep 2011. 92-104. Print.
– Sailing to an Island. Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1955. Print.
– ‘Sri Lanka’. RTÉ radio 1. Poetry Programme. 23 May 2015. Radio. 12 Mar 2017.
O’Malley, JP. ‘A Rebellious Son of the Ascendancy Who Found His Voice in Connemara’. Irish Examiner. 21 Sep 2013. Web. 8 Mar 2017.
Richard Murphy died at home in Sri Lanka on 30th January 2018. He was 90.
“Never mind the bum notes, keep the music going until the end.” (Murphy, R. Yeats International Summer School 1970)
Reclaimed, by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness and Stubbs’s book provides an insight into the Dubliner who insisted he was English.
In his introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in both the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. Ordained in a high church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well, of course, as Catholicism.
Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough; the former Lord Treasurer, Earl of Godolphin and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.
Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality. Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.
Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time – one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ (Esther Johnson) and one in London, ‘Vanessa’ (Esther Vanhomrigh). His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. Another, darker side of Swift emerges too – consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.
Swift was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.
On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.
It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. Medical approaches have suggested that he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Although, as his father is recorded to have died from this disease it may be that it was congenital. Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.
Nevertheless it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy went sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.
With an education in the classics under his belt Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in ascendant.
In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. Now 21, Swift became secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.
By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin. In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough. At this time, and in this location, the role of the Established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians.
In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Sir William at Moor Park in Surrey. When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.
He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.
Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift was offered, and accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Strange though it may seem he was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. But on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.
Thus Swift’s entered into the church and state politics of his homeland. A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. Instead he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.
He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.
Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.
Stubbs, J. Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. London: Penguin Random House. 2016.
An earlier version of this review appeared in The Irish Examiner, Weekend section pages 33 and 34 on 18 Feb 2017.