Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser

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Fall of the Titans by Rubens. Image classic tales.edu.cam.ac.uk

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.images-1.jpeg

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.

spensersfaeriequ01spenuoft1.jpegPublished 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.

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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.

Works cited

Joyce, T. Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. Miami University Press. 2017. Print.

Spenser, E. The Fairie Queen. 1609. Print.

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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.

 

 

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Glob-bog-blog

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I wanted to call this final blog ‘the blog of blogs’ but I think someone else has done that already.

And, as I was reading Seamus Heaney’s bog poems in North for an upcoming seminar with Dr Adam Hanna, I thought I would open my final blog with a class that hasn’t yet happened.  This illustrates, once again, my rebellious and unnecessarily maverick approach.  So my blog journey, instead of going forward from the first blog, goes backwards from 20th March 2017 to 8th October 2016.

There are quite a lot of blogs but it’s cheating really as 50% of them (those in orange) are book reviews that I wrote for the Irish Examiner. I included them because Donna encouraged me to display my published work. There are another five review blogs in my drafts box, waiting for publication dates in the paper, and another three actual books, to be reviewed, on my kitchen table. So that’s at least another eight blogs to go, after this one.

Today! March 20th: Glob-bog-blog

March 18th: Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep

March 13th: Horrorshow

March 13th: To seem a white king’s gem

March 12th: Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock

March 17th: #textualities17

March 6th : Paddling with Pecha Kucha

February 11th: The novel of the century

February 10th: Jonathan Swift: the reluctant rebel

February 8th: Walsh and Wiki

January 26th: My Literature Review

December 19th 2016: Goldfinch in the Snow

November 26th 2016: Not Waiting for Godot

November 20th 2016: Not normally angry in Ireland

November 10th 2016: It’s the Economy Stupid!

November 4th 2016: A Shared History: Dadland

November 3rd 2016: Darkness Visible

October 30th 2016: They Dreamed and are Dead

October 29th 2016: Perils of Popery

October 8th 2016: Not all Plans are Idiot Proof

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photo: Irish Examiner

The book reviews are rarely viewed which is a shame as I think they’re quite interesting.  I never know what the book editor will send me and I sometimes wonder if he is a bit of a sadist.  Why would anyone send an ‘oh so English’ woman Blanketmen?  It’s ‘an untold story’ written by one of the hunger strikers. I chose every word that I wrote very carefully.  Proofreading had to reach the highest level possible.

When I look at my categories and tags I know that it’s the book reviews ‘what done it’.  Catholicism and Protestantism rule the tag cloud although I see that Enda Walsh has now overtaken them.

The Jonathan Swift review , in particular, would be interesting to the student of Irish Literature.  It’s a brilliant literary biography and if anyone wants the book just ask and I will give it to you. Or if you fancy any of the other texts let me know and I will bring them in.  Not the Meryl Streep book though.  Donna’s got that.  And Blanketmen has gone to the head of maths at the Camden school in which I taught from September 2002 to July 2015.

Donna’s list for the Glob-Bog-Blog:

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I think Donna means that we should have everything well organised or in good order rather than ordered numerically.  And she hasn’t mentioned citing.  I checked on Ellan’s and Emilio’s blogs-of-blogs from last year.  It looks as if you just cite your own blogs.  Other works mentioned, perhaps, are merely found within the blog.  Here is Emilio’s:

Works Cited:

Bonome Ares, Emilio José. ‘About‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 16 Sept. 2015.Web. 24 Mar.2016.

—. ‘Banned Sexuality in “I Can’t, I Can’t” (1969)‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 29 Nov. 2015 .Web. 24 Mar.2016.

—. ‘From American Naturalism to Colonial Determinism: Reading Backwards to the Ireland of Spenser’s Time‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 20 Mar. 2016 .Web. 24 Mar.2016.

—. ‘Irish Films on the Road to the Oscars‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 22 Jan. 2016 .Web. 24 Mar.2016.

—. ‘Textualities ’16: Blogging Back‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 13 Mar. 2016 .Web. 24 Mar.2016.

—. ‘The Irish-Galician Connection‘. Irishness and Beyond: An Irish Writing and Film Student’s Blog. WordPress. 12 Oct. 2015 .Web. 24 Mar.2016.

So, there you go… What do you think of that?

Horrorshow! was posted on March 13th and gives my reflections on the mini-conference.  It picks up on #textualities and  Paddling with Pecha Kucha which charter my journey towards Textualities 2017.  Extracts from  Horrowshow! suggest that by 13th March I am not feeling too bad.  Extracts from my previous blogs are given in pink.

When the day came I was no longer nervous. Either I was numb as my nerves could support no more effort or I was as well prepared as I could be and I could do no more. And I knew that my mate Emilio would be coming to support me.

Also it was just so great seeing everyone ready to go. Daniel Lynch in a suit is a sight for sore eyes. And there were some amazingly elegant high heels on display.

Donna was in the room and when she is there I always feel calm.  

Annie and Rebecca had my back on technicalities. They were both so kind and so competent. It would all be cool.

[…]

Then it was me doing my talk on Enda Walsh’s use of ‘living room’ in his plays. I like the images as they are all simple – just photographs of stage sets. But they looked good I think.

Annie was there to press the buttons so that everything worked. I launched into my carefully timed narrative. Questions, when they came, from Graham Allen, Adam Hannah, Anne Etienne and others were supportive and not hostile as I had feared. I am looking forward to engagement with all three named faculty before I get much deeper into my research.

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#textualities is the live blog that I did on March 10th.  It was the final panel of the day and I was quite tired by this time.  I would probably give that blog a fairly low grade (like 3/10), although Siobhán, whose presentation I blogged, was very generous. She sent me a comment:

Wow! You really kept on top of that, Josephine. Much impressed by your powers of endurance and attention. Well done!

It was really hard to listen and type – as I had no idea what they would say or in what order.  I did not know what the key points might be.  But I tightened my narrative up a bit during Q&As and was able to publish immediately.  I felt that it was important to have it published and entered as a link on Twitter before we broke up for the day.  So this shows you how far I have gone in technical terms.  This is mainly down to Donna, of course, and Emilio, who was on the MA in Irish Writing and Film last year with me.  He gave me one-to-one tutorials.

Sorry !

Unknown.pngI have just had to leave this blog for a few minutes to Tweet about my best ever acting student, Daniel Kaluuya, who opens in Cork tomorrow (it is not tomorrow now but was St Patrick’s Day) in the comedy horror Get Out.  There are serious issues for him (and for me, although that does not matter so much) in terms of the way people regard him racially.  You can see my blog from last year about this and I will write another soon once I have seen the film.

So now we journey back to March 6th.  It’s Paddling with Pecha.  I sort of like this title as it links in with a book review I was writing at the same time but which is not yet published.

Unknown-1.pngI headlined the review Queueing with Elephants.  The book is about finding a place, in the world , a sacred combe. in which you can commune with your soul.

But, for me, Pecha Kucha was not really a place that I could use for communicating with my soul.  But I did paddle in it and I felt that I understood and liked and respected it in the end.  Nevertheless I think that I would prefer a spot in West Cork or on the Hook Peninsula for my combe.  Although I am quite fond of certain parts of London, especially bridges.

My Pecha Kucha is complete. The slides are chosen and ordered. The narrative is written. I forgot to do the storyboard thing but never mind.

Others are beavering away at the online presence and organisational matters. Thanks to all of them. Soon the day will come and we will strut our stuff. Then it will be over. Bring it on.

Donna’s list, above, tells me that I must mention my two research seminar blogs.  To Seem a White King’s Gem was posted on March 13th.

This was a seminar given by Benjamin Keatinge about the Anglo-Irish poet Richard Murphy.  I was thrilled by the prospect as it particularly focused on Post-Colonialism and form.

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?’

So I would say that this is the best blog I have written in terms of the MA.  After I had written it I send it to Adam Hannah, who had been at the seminar.  He sent me a really useful link to a film by Richard Murphy’s niece, about her parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents in their ‘quite’ big house, Milford.  It is fascinating if you are interested in the last remnants of the Anglo-Irish.  And shows me how useful research blogs can be if someone reads them and offers useful comments.  Thank you Adam.

Back we go to February 8th and it’s the aftermath of the Wikipedia Editing session.  I am writing about my efforts to edit the page on Enda Walsh.   I was quite interested in the idea that the entries on Wikipedia had to be factual and objective, like an encyclopaedia.  That was a discipline.  There were more gushing compliments to Donna and Emilio, of course.

I put in another new heading which is ‘Themes’. There is an issue with this I think. Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia and the idea of themes might be a little too interpretative. To get around this I used only Walsh’s own words. He is a great one for saying what his plays are about, unlike Beckett or Pinter, but he doesn’t always say the same thing. I love his sweeping statements which suggest that all his plays are about . . . whatever he says at that moment. So, even if someone eventually cleans this section off the page I have put in on as I think it is fascinating.

[…]

I found the technicalities of citations, links and screenshots very straightforward. I also managed to send some rather dull tweets although I am not sure whether I am following enough people or if enough people are following me. Thank you Annie, Roy and Donna for your ‘likes’. I am indebted to Donna Alexander and Emilio Bonome-Ares for teaching me how to edit Wikipedia. They were both very kind and supportive. Also calm in the face of my panic.

In terms of live Tweeting.  I got a reply from an Irish friend who is a Chelsea supporter but not, in the slightest bit, interested in my studies.  He said that I had to put an icon on my Twitter account.  All Greek to me… Icon?  But I dug out an old photograph.

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Me 1969. Photo: my sister

Actually this had been scanned for me by the Irish Examiner for an illustration for my review of Dadland.  It wasn’t used in the end but three other images of my family were used.  The reason for this was that the writer, Keggie Carew, and I were born around the same time, as were our fathers.  So my review looked at her father in terms of his success as a soldier and failure as a dad.  My father was the opposite although he had been ‘steady under fire’ at DDay+1.

In England we call that the Second World War whereas in Ireland it was known as the Emergency.  My father came from a family of Quakers and pacifists – both my grandfathers were conscientious objectors during the Great War – but he felt strongly that, weedy as he was, he would have to take up arms against the evil of Hitler and Nazism.  Many Irish fought alongside my father.  So died, some lived.

Back we go to January 26th and I am on my high horse about the literature review.  Heather Laird had delivered an inspiring session and I had rushed home and drafted a literature review, a concept on which I blogged in my usual mean-spirited way.  I have not even looked at the review since – but, oh gosh,  we have now had strict instructions to submit our literature review under Turnitin.  Maybe because I mentioned the availability of buying one we all have to use Turnitin.  Whoops!

As I do not choose to avail myself of a bought product I will have to re-write the Literature and IT Review shortly, in the light of work that I, and no one else, have done since January 26th.  The deadline looms.  Hoping to meet it somehow.

Now it’s a long way back…

December 2015.  I was writing about Modern Irish Gothic.  This post springs from a reading of Irish work at the UCC Boole library.  I was very taken by a story Eílísh Ní Dhuibhne called Goldfinch in the Snow. I wanted to write about it for the Gothic to Modernism unit.  I was not allowed to as I have not been taught the work, the writer nor modern gothic.  So I wrote a blog instead.  I think it has particularly nice images and Heather liked my work on colour imagery.

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Amy Holliday. 2011

Ní Dhuibhne uses colour in interesting, if rather heavy-handed, ways. Darina, the eponymous goldfinch, looks like one. She wears ‘high heels and … black lacy stockings’. On her feet are ‘shoes, black patent, strappy, more sandals than shoes?’ and ‘her long black hair [has] the tiny red cap on top … the scrap of yellow silk at her throat’ (54/55). Darina is representative of colour. We hear of the colour of her home town of ‘Golden Beach’ (presumably Golden Sands, near Varna, on the Black Sea) where the sea is blue, the boats and birds are white, and ‘the women in their bikinis’ are ‘like tropical birds’. We hear about the liminal colour of dawn, ‘a pale, milky colour … a pale bluey grey … maybe, pearl blue’ (53/58).

I am quite annoyed that only 4 people looked at this blog as I am proud of it.  One was Heather Laird, of course.  One was my partner.  One was Margaret, my peer from Irish Writing and Film.    And it is one of my key blogs as it counts as a Research Seminar blog.

Unknown.jpegBut I know that some of my feminist peers would have been interested to read it, had they known.  I read Louise O’Neill, in the Examiner, every week, and have read her novel, Asking for It, about rape.  I have also reviewed, for the Irish Examiner, the book Animal by Sara Pascoe.  My review cannot be blogged yet as it has not been published.  Other reviews of it have already appeared.  Pascoe, a woman from Essex, is an ardent feminist and comedienne. She is brave and funny.  images-4.jpegPascoe cannot believe that it is illegal to have an abortion in Ireland.
Unknown.jpegShe comments in her introduction to the reprint of her book that she feels confident that by the time the reprint is published the Eighth will have been repealed.  Well, the reprint was published a while back.  And, according to my sources, the Eighth is nowhere near being repealed.  For me abortion is a basic human right.   But I am too ignorant on the detail of the Irish debate to comment.

Before Goldfinch in the Snow we find a blogging fest in November 2016. Three reviews, including Dadland and one blog about Remembrance Day.  The latter is another of my high horse issues.  I am not a fan of the establishment.  Not in England and not in Ireland.  But I have a blog with images of Queen Elizabeth II of England and prime ministers and presidents.

What is going on?

I am offended as there is , in Ireland, to my knowledge, no official two minutes’ silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  We do have this in England at schools and workplaces.

I am a bit of an aficionado of literature of and about the First World War.  I taught it for years for a synoptic paper at A level.  I led trips to the battlefields and identified site-specific readings for my students to deliver.  I took a particular interest in Irish literature as my partner was working here in Cork.  In fact, I wrote about it in the Irish Examiner and my partner wrote about the historical context.  He also spoke to my students, over the intercom in the coach, about the history of the war and the contribution of the Irish.

To return to the point, Armistice Day, is a commemoration of the ending of a violent event, rather than the violent event itself. Can that be argued for commemoration of the Easter Rising? If you commend Bruton’s remarks then you should not really celebrate an uprising which deflected resources from a world war which was fought to establish the self-determination of small nations; especially given the contribution to the hard-won victory by soldiers from the island of Ireland. I recommend Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way to anyone wanting to engage with the conflicting ideas of this period.

My interest in the First World War was deepened by reviewing a book about shell shock called Breakdown.  Ignorance and fear led to traumatised young men being badly treated or even shot at dawn.

I also wrote, on 26th November about a book by the Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington.  It was called The 101 Greatest Plays.  My blog, which focussed only on the Irish playwrights therein, was called Not Waiting for Godot.

Nine Irish playwrights and a total of ten plays make the cut. Farquhar, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Shaw (twice), Joyce, O’Casey, Beckett, Friel and McPherson. But where are Boucicault, Synge, Behan, Keane, Murphy, McGuinness, Carr, Barry, and Walsh? Another nine off the top of my head, and I haven’t even started on those born elsewhere such as McDonagh.

[…]

Instead Billington chose All That Fall, a radio play, because of its “vivid particularity” rather than “exemplary archetypes”. Helen accuses Michael of a “dated penchant for observant realism” but he insists that the play contains “all the great Beckett themes given flesh and colour”.

Interestingly, although the MA students studying English and American Literature and Film did study Waiting for Godot, we in Irish Writing and Film looked at Happy Days.  I wrote an essay for Anne Etienne on Lust, Love and Loss in the play.

Finally, leaving out a few more book reviews, I want to mention my first blog on Corkucopia.  It was mainly about the film Young Offenders.  I linked it through location to the deep mapping project that Professor Clare Connelly is leading near Lough Hyne.

This is one of the few blogs that I have written which has received a comment – and one from a total stranger!

Well, that was an interesting juxtaposition of subjects! I thought more Bill and Ted than George and Lennie, but I enjoyed both the film and your review. Cheers.
BTW interesting dilemma about the barnacle!

What a result!  The above popped in five months’ later on March 16th 2017.  

So my blogging journey has been long and varied.  I would say that is nothing like scholarly enough – I tend to keep that for my essays.  But I have really enjoyed writing it and I have enjoyed reading my peers’ blogs too.  Have a look at my first post for a laugh.

Oh guess what?  I do not think this blog-of-blogs will be shown as an example of excellence next year, do you?  But here is what Maureen sent me before leaving for her sabbatical: A model blog! You have tags, a category ‘cloud’, links to other blogs, thoroughly engaging, provocative entries, made with regular frequency and which strike the perfect tone. Your multimedia elements are appropriate and Illuminating and your citations are pristine!

Works cited

Barnes, S. The Sacred Combe. London. Bloomsbury. 2015. Print.

Fenton, Josephine.’#textualities17‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 17 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘A Shared History: Dadland‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 4 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Breakdown: the crisis of shell shock on the Somme,  1916. By Taylor Downing‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 12 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Goldfinch in the Snow‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 19 Dec. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 18 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar 2017.

—. ‘Horrorshow‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘How the perils of popery led to an alliance with the Islam world‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 29 Oct. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—.’Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 10 Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘My Literature Review‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 26 Jan. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Not all plans are idiot proof‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 8 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Not Normally Angry in Ireland‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 20 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Not Waiting for Godot‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 26 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Paddling with Pecha Kucha‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 6 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘They Dreamed and are Dead‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 30 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘To seem a White King’s Gem‘. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Walsh and Wiki’. Corkucopia: Irish Writing in English. Feb. 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2017.

—. ‘Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?’. josephinefenton. 23 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017

Glob, V.P. The bog people: Iron Age Man Preserved. US: Cornell University Press. 1969. Print.

Heaney, S. North. London: Faber & Faber. 1975. Print.

Kaluuya, Daniel, Performance. Get Out. Written and Directed by Jordan Peele. 24 Feb. 2017. Film.

Murphy, F. ‘The Other Irish Travellers’. Storyville. BBC4. 2013. Film.

O’Neill, L. Asking for It.  UK: Quercus. 2015. Print.

 

 

 

‘To seem a white king’s gem’

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’.

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Richard Murphy in Sri Lanka: photo Benjamin Keatinge

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).

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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?’

Wellington Testimonial

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.

December 1982

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Wellington Testimonial: irelandposters.com

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.

Sri Lanka

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Forts of Sri Lanka: amazinglanka.com

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.

Works cited

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.