Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass
Mairéad Ashe Fitzgerald (ed.): A Terrible Beauty. Poetry of 1916. The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2015
From the moment you pick up this book, you know it’s a sacred object: a little larger in format than a prayer-book, and not as thick, but with an inbuilt green page-marker (of the sort one might find in a missal). Its handsome hard cover is dark green, with black and green embossed interlaced designs in two different shapes on the cover. Inside, the paper is thick and creamy and the decorative motifs (often the rose but also Celtic motifs) are liberally spread throughout, and as well there are handsome decorative green pages to mark section breaks and sketches of each of the poets. It’s a book one wants to handle, and it invites reverence as an artifact in its own right. And it has been priced, very modestly, for the gift market rather than the antiquarian book market. The publishers, The O’Brien Press, hope to put into many hands and I, for one, share the hope that every home in the Irish diaspora puts it on the shelf having devoured its not insubstantial 158 pages of poems contemporary with the Rising.
It reminds me of the much larger folio editions of the Picturesque Ireland or Historic Ireland variety that came out of the Irish Literary Revival and travelled with my Irish forebears half way around the globe in the early twentieth century. They were similarly books for devotional perusing and meditation. The production quality of this offering is far in advance of the quite basic series on the Leaders of the Rising we’ve been reviewing in Tinteán as they are released in Ireland.
Mairéad Ashe Fitzgerald, the editor of this anthology of poems written close to the Rising, has chosen her representative poems well. And each poet, even the bit players, are framed up biographically and relevantly before each selection. It’s very well done. The information is concise and relevant, and demonstrates the diversity of this close cultural friendship group.
In the first section, entitled The Confluence of Dreams, the three signatories of the Proclamation, Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Joseph Mary Plunkett, who were executed, get honoured place heading the volume. Each of them, and indeed every poet represented in the collection, 16 of them, gets a pithy, well-chosen introduction which gives some insight into their divergent politics, background and circumstances.
The first three, all poets and utopian dreamers, are strikingly resonant and rhetorical in their death’s eve poetic expression. It’s the view from the cell the night before, and the months and years leading up to this moment that we get in these poems, and they cannot fail to move, however dated and Victorian their style. That Pearse had the composure to write at such a time is testament to the firmness and security of his vision of his own blood-sacrifice. It is a young man’s lament about leaving the world:
The beauty of the world hath made me sad.
The beauty that will pass.….
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way
The man was not yet 40, but he had made a substantial mark on his world – as a poet, editor, Irish speaker and translator, influential reformist teacher, Gaelic Leaguer, orator, and patron of artists from many disciplines. He was also a leader and Irish Volunteer, and member of the IRB.
Joseph Mary Plunkett, though ill-health made him look older was in fact younger than Pearse: he was not yet 30, but again, a man of broad cultural interests – in Egyptian archaeology, in languages (he spoke several European languages), in Irish theatre, and he was editor of The Irish Review.
As well he knew and admired Casement and had engaged in diplomacy (or espionage) during the Great War with Germany.He was a dying man at the Rising, but his knowledge of radios was useful in the General Post Office. Little details like that often truly surprise in these biographies. His poetry is fey, and infused with romantic Christianity, pre-modern in every sense. His poem to the woman who converted to Catholicism (on 7 April 2015) for his sake and married him just before he was executed honours her courage:
The joy of Spring leaps from your eyes,
The strength of dragons in your hair,
In your young soul we still surprise
The secret wisdom flowing there;
But never word shall speak or sing
Inadequate music where above
Your burning heart now spreads its wing
In the wild beauty of your Love.
Like Pearse, he had tutored his beloved in the inevitability of blood sacrifice through poems like ‘I See his Blood upon the Rose’ and ‘The Little Black Rose Shall be Red at Last’. Neither of them questioned, it seemed, the imperatives of such spilling of blood. Thomas MacDonagh, who might have made a better poet than either of them had he lived, also a devoted Irish speaker, and a university teacher of Irish Literature, in a moving poem prayed for the four year-old son he left fatherless. It is impossible not to be moved by his confidence that his ultimate sacrifice would bear fruit for the son he would fail to rear. The language is that of an honest and thoughtful father:
Now my son is life for you,
And I wish you joy of it, –
Joy of power in all you do,
Deeper passion, better wit
Than I had who had enough,
Quicker life and length thereof,
More of every gift but love.
…for you, so small and young,
Born on Saint Cecilia’s Day,
I in more harmonious song
Now for nearer joys should pray –
Simpler joys, the natural growth
Of your childhood and your youth,
Courage, innocence, and truth:
Those for you, so small and young,
In your hand and heart and tongue.
No excuses, self-pity, just plain strong, tender words from an honest man for a child he can imagine inheriting his own strength and purpose.
The three executed poets are buttressed by their peers in the succeeding sections (hauntingly titled ‘When the Dawn is Come’, and ‘Aftermath and Requiem’): AE (George Russell, mystic, literary mentor and painter), Francis Ledwidge (who died at Ypres in 1917), and the greatest of them all, W B Yeats, Eva Gore Booth (sister of Constance Markiewicz and a proud Trade Unionist), Sir Arnold Bax (Irish by adoption, a composer as well as a poet), James Stephens, Sean O’Casey, Thomas Ashe (hunger striker), Joyce Kilmer, Joseph Campbell, Dora Sigerson Shorter (a sculptor and a poet), Padraic Colum and Canon Charles O’Neill. These poems often joust with one another’s ideas; it is a poetic conversation of a particularly intimate kind among close friends (Ledwidge on MacDonagh and Mrs Joseph Plunkett, Eva Gore-Booth on Francis Sheehy Skeffington, the pacifist, and on Roger Casement (she would try to save him when many wouldn’t because of the slurs cast by the diaries) and Sean O’Casey who ‘sullenly’ kept vigil as his friend Thomas Ashe chose death over life and later wrote about him.
Dublin was a small and deeply interconnected community, and the Rising removed a very significant generation of young and promising individuals who knew and loved one another. The trauma is raw and palpable in their peer group. They suffered ghastly survivors’ guilt, but the overwhelming sense is that even if they disagreed with the violent means, they deeply understood the motivations of the insurrectionists. The press towards pacific means of achieving their objectives sounds loudly among the survivors, just as the chants about blood sacrifice toll loudly for the victims of the Uprising. What also surprised me but perhaps shouldn’t is how much Christian language gets spilt in the rhetoric of nationalist sacrifice – the dying Christ is more often invoked than Cuchulainn.
We celebrate Yeats’s famous and eloquent ambivalence about the Rising in ‘Easter 1916’, but it surprised me to find it was a threnody in many of these poems. I was astonished to hear AE, poet and mystic, strike the note, in a similarly structured poem, ‘Salutation: To the Memory of Some I knew Who Are Dead and Who Loved Ireland’ which salutes four of his Rising heroes, including Constance (I rejoice to see the women honoured, but it is far too infrequently):
Here’s to you Pearse, your dream, not mine,
But yet the thought for this you fell
Has turned life’s waters into wine.
His is not a sentimentalising impulse, and neither is Arnold Bax’s when he comments
Well, the last fire is trodden down,
Our dead are rotting fast in lime,
We can all sneak back into town,
Stravague about as in old time,
And stare at gaps of grey and blue
Where Lower Mount Street used to be,
And where flies hum round muck we knew
For Abbey Street and Eden Quay.
And when the devil’s made us wise
Each in his own peculiar hell,
With desert hearts and drunken eyes
We’re free to sentimentalise
By corners where the martyrs fell.
We could do a lot worse than be reminded by this poem, Arnold Bax’s ‘A Dublin Ballad – 1916’, of the ‘broth of love and hate’ that was stirred on that unglamorous Monday morning in Dublin in 1916, and the high price that was paid by the generation of 1916.
I will treasure this book, not so much for its poetry, though there are good poems, even some modern ones among them, but for the strength of feeling, and the reminder that the patriot group accommodated a range of responses to the Rising, and a plethora of political positions.