A Farewell to English
A Farewell to English
Michael Hartnett 1975
“A Farewell to English” is a political poem, presenting to readers a moment in the poet’s life when his consciousness awakened to the problem of being an Irish writer who wrote in the English language. The scene depicted shows the poet in a pub, listening to the bartender talk to other patrons in the smooth flow of the Gaelic language. Although the poet does not understand all of the words, the music of the language stirs some sort of genetic memory in him, connecting his life to the ancient history of the Irish people. He goes on to muse about the complex thought processes that he regularly undertakes while writing in English, but becomes convinced that obeying the laws of the English language is not the best approach.
At the time, Ireland’s struggle for independence England had reached a violent stage, reminiscent of past conflicts. In Northern Ireland, citizens were being killed in the streets, caught between rebel actions and retaliations from the British government. The more mundane incident in the bar in this poem was powerful enough to change Hartnett’s life. Up to 1975, Hartnett had spent most of his career writing in English. Two years later he published Poems in English 1958-1974, concluding his poetry composition in English. He continued to write essays and translations in English, then returned to writing verse in the English language in 1985.
Michael Hartnett was born in Newcastle West in County Limerick, Ireland, in 1943. He attended National University of Dublin, graduating in 1962, and later graduated from Trinity College in Dublin in 1972. In between, he worked a variety of jobs, including dishwasher, postman, house painter and security guard. Already a recognized poet in the 1960s, his Collected Poems was published in 1970. With his popularity as a writer, he could have easily secured a job teaching, but preferred working for the Irish telephone company. He turned to teaching, in 1976, the year after A Farewell to English and other Poems was published.
Along with his numerous collections of poetry, Hartnett is a respected translator, ranging from a translation from Old Irish of the ancient tale Hag of Beare to an edition of the Romancero Gitano by Frederico Garcia-Lorca, a Spanish poet who was executed by the government after the start of Spain’s civil war in 1936. Lorca’s poetry and his political commitment served as powerful influences on Hartnett. Through the 1960s and early 70s, Hartnett wrote in English, increasingly using Irish words. The poem “A Farewell to English” marked, as its title implies, a break away from his use of the English language in his poetry. After that, he wrote almost exclusively in Gaelic, often publishing under his Gaelic name, Micheál Ó hAirtnéide, until he eased back into using English in 1985. He served as co-editor of the literary magazines Arena and Choice, and was the poetry editor of the Irish Times newspaper for a short time. He died in Dublin, where he had lived most of his life, on October 13, 1999.
for Brendan Kennelly
Her eyes were coins of porter and her West
Limerick voice talked velvet in the house:
her hair was black as the glossy fireplace
wearing with grace her Sunday night-dance best.
She cut the froth from glasses with a knife 5
and hammered golden whiskies on the bar
and her mountainy body tripped the gentle
mechanism of verse: the minute interlock
of word and word began, the rhythm formed.
I sunk my hands into tradition 10
sifting the centuries for words. This quiet
excitement was not new: emotion challenged me
to make it sayable. The clichés came
at first, like matchsticks snapping from the world
of work: mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin: 15
they came like grey slabs of slate breaking from
an ancient quarry, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach,
álainn, caoin, slowly vaulting down the dark
unused escarpments, mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach,
álainn, caoin, crashing on the cogs, splinters 20
like axeheads damaging the wheels, clogging
the intricate machine, mánla, séimh,
dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin. Then Pegasus
pulled up, the girth broke and I was flung back
on the gravel of Anglo-Saxon. 25
What was I doing with these foreign words?
I, the polisher of the complex cause,
wizard of grasses and warlock of birds
midnight-oiled in the metric laws? 29
This poem is set in a pub where the speaker is watching a serving woman as she prepares drinks for the customers and talks to them in Gaelic, the traditional language of Ireland. Her eyes are “coins of porter”: porter is a very dark, strong beer served in Irish pubs, so this image makes the woman desirable while blending a reference to beer and money. Limerick, the city mentioned in the second line, is a working-class town in the middle of Ireland, a port on the river Shannon. Limerick is surrounded by some of Ireland’s most fertile land, and it is a natural center for local farmers and for sailors around the world. The fireplace in this pub is glossy, indicating that it is probably made of inexpensive painted steel that has been scrubbed, not black with caked-on soot. In this humble setting, the serving woman is wearing her best clothes, the clothes that she would wear to a dance. The effect of these first few lines is to present a scene of a pub and a woman who looks comfortable and neat in humble circumstances.
Having introduced the bartender and implied the speaker’s attraction to her, the second part of the poem puts her into motion. Because beer is carbonated and tends to foam when it is poured, she scrapes the top of glasses, removing excess foam. In addition, she slams a glass of whiskey on the bar to knock any sediment in the drink to the bottom, where it will be left when the glass is drained. These two mechanical gestures, common to the bartender’s trade, create a swish-and-bang rhythm that draws the attention of the poem’s speaker to the rhythm of the speaker’s language. The adjective “mountainy” in line 7 should not be taken to mean that the server is huge in stature, in which case she would be called “mountainous”: mountainous” implies one large thing, “mountainy” gives the idea of having many curves, in addition to giving the idea of being a part of a larger landscape, as the woman and her language is part of the larger Irish culture. Watching the woman, the speaker follows the rhythm of her work. Then, the vague musical pattern of the language she is speaking becomes more and more understandable, even though the words themselves are not clear.
In lines 10 and 11, tradition is represented as a substance like dirt or sand that can be sifted through to find buried objects. That symbolism relates the traditions of culture to region. The poem’s speaker, having had his interest in his own culture awaked by the bartender and her flowing use of Gaelic, becomes involved with the language, giving himself over to it by burying his hands in it, a metaphor that connects dirt and sand and also alludes to the act of writing. The break between lines 11 and 12 draws attention to the fact that the poem is forcing two contrasting ideas together, “quiet” and “excitement.” The feeling the speaker has about hearing this language is one he experienced before, but he does not know how to express it. It is significant that at the same time he is excited about recognizing the sound of Gaelic, he is discovering that speaking English is insufficient to capture the excitement he feels. He is driven to form his ideas in Gaelic in response to a “challenge” from his emotions.
Gaelic words that keep going through the speaker’s mind head are identified by him as “cliches,” as words that have lost their significance by being used over and over, possibly in such situations as he is experiencing—the poetic moment of describing an attractive woman in melodious language. The very point of the poem is that the Gaelic words do not have English equivalents; any translation has to be recognized as very loose, not even nearly able to capture the true sense of what the Gaelic words mean to the poet. For example, the meaning of “álainn” has to do with “beauty” and “beautiful”; “dubhfholtach” refers to a person with black hair; and “mánla” “séimh” and “caoin” are all close to the meaning that the English language gives to “graceful” and “gentle.” These rough translations let readers know that he is thinking about the bartender, but it is almost impossible for someone not familiar with the language to relate to the feeling the poem is trying to capture. In this case, the words are not just tools to capture the meaning of what he wants to express, they affect what he is feeling. They are part of the emotional experience.
The experience of hearing the Gaelic language spoken so beautifully is one of liberation and of inevitability. The words liberate the mind of the speaker of the poem, allowing it to fall free, like a large slab of slate that breaks free of a quarry wall. It is no coincidence that the stone mentioned is slate, material used to make chalkboards that are used in schools of formal teaching. The reference contrasts the social acceptability of English with the poem’s point, that Gaelic is innate to the Irish. The “unused escarpments” in line 19 are the recesses of the speaker’s natural mind, his instinctive nature, which he has not had use while thinking in English. These lines repeat the Gaelic words— “mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin”—like a mystical incantation, as if they can free his mind if he keeps chanting them to himself.
Slate cracks into splinters when it breaks, and Hartnett mixes the image of slate shattering with an idea of a machine. Machine cogs are often referred to by poets when they want to point out something that is a small part of a large man-made scheme. In this case, the implication is that the speaker, by speaking and writing in English, has been part of an “intricate system,” a tool. Using the Irish language, then, not only liberates him, but it helps damage the machine that had used him.
In Greek mythology, Pegasus was a winged horse. Bellerophon, the prince of Corinth, captured Pegasus and tried to ride him to the top of Mount Olympus, which was the home of the gods, but Pegasus threw him off and he fell back to the ground. The speaker of this poem feels that he is just about to ascend to heaven via his experience of hearing the Celtic language spoken so beautifully. Abruptly, however, the spell is broken—the “girth” that he refers to is the strap that goes around a horse’s waist to hold its saddle on. He ends up using plain, worldly English again, “the gravel of Anglo-Saxon.”
The speaker of the poem is pulled back from the magical spell that the Gaelic language had drawn him into, back into the ordinary reality that he knew before. The same words that he described in line 10 as “tradition” he describes here as “foreign words.” The poem uses the sound of the English language more conspicuously in the last lines, especially the device of alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, such as the hard “c” in “complex” and “cause,” the “w” sound formed with the lips (“wizard” and “warlock”), and the “m” of “midnight” and “metric.” This sort of wordplay is referred to as “metric laws” at the end of the poem, implying that English-language poetry is more a matter of trickery than of actual meaning. The last three lines of the poem are graceful, for English, but they still prove weak when compared with the ennobling experience of the speaker in hearing Gaelic.
Language and Meaning
“A Farewell to English” addresses an old, long-running philosophical question of whether language describes meaning or creates it. The poem’s speaker is inspired by the sound of the Irish words he hears, particularly their rhythm, and not by their meaning. As a poet, he is of course aware of both the sounds and meanings of words, but the few Gaelic words are not significant to him for what they say. They express the sorts of ideas that might be expected to drift through one’s mind in a social setting—beautiful, black-haired, graceful, gentle—but they do not combine in meaning to make a life-altering experience.
The speaker’s life is definitely altered, though. The metaphor he uses for his new awareness, slabs of slate falling, break the forms of meaning he used to know. In this poem, it is language that destroys old meanings and creates new ones, but, ironically, it is the sounds of the words, not their definitions, that changes this person’s sense of meaning.
The setting of this poem, a pub, is a typical Irish gathering place. The bartender, with her black hair and deep, dark eyes, is a typical symbol of Irish beauty. The speaker of this poem is a poet, though, and it is the Gaelic language that awakens him to
Topics for Further Study
- Because of the use of English in international business, several countries have passed resolutions declaring their original language to be the “official” one. Choose a country and research its official language and report on what measures are taken to assure its use.
- Study the history of England’s involvement with Ireland. Explain why you think the Irish language has become so rare.
- Old Irish is used more often in music than in poetry. Find some recordings of people singing in Old Irish, and explain what is musical about the rhythm and sounds of the words used.
- Do you think people of one culture could have a “cultural memory” that would allow them to recognize a language they have never heard before? Explain why or why not.
- Some people see the Irish Republican Army as a group of freedom-fighters who have made it possible for Ireland to stand up against the tyranny of Britain, while others consider them murderers for their terrorist acts that have taken many lives. Research the history of this organization and support your own judgement about them.
- Read about County Limerick, and explain why you think Hartnett makes a point of mentioning that this event happened there.
his true Irish identity. Through the middle of the poem, the excitement that he experiences, that sends him “sifting the centuries for words,” is all expressed in the fine Irish words that he keeps repeating: “mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin.” Even after the music of the words has stopped exerting its effect on him, though, he realizes that he will never be able to look on his Irish identity in the same way as before. The Anglo-Saxon words he once used now look foreign to him: in fact, his former business as a poet of English strikes him as questionable at best. The poem’s title tells readers that the cultural awakening described here led Hartnett to turn away from using English to express himself, and to embrace his Irish identity.
Writing in English, as it is presented in this poem, is polishing “the complex cause,” which implies both the sense of urgency that a cause would have and the dedication to minute details that comes with complexity. The English-language poet is considered a “polisher,” a “wizard” and a “war-lock”: all of these imply someone who makes things out of reality, instead of just appreciating it as it is found. Irish language, in the other hand, controls the poet, rather than being in his control: the “minute interlock of word and word” pulls him in. He is not able to manipulate reality because the words are “sunk.” The culture clash presented here is between one group that understands the past and another that has no use for the past because it is busy controlling the present. It is natural that an intellectual poet would work in English. It is also natural that the poet, aware of his feelings, would be drawn to a deep understanding of the Irish culture, as Hartnett is here. As it is presented, English is about thought and Irish is about experience.
The speaker of this poem is evidently an intelligent, self-aware person, a “polisher of the complex cause,” who knows how to control his perception of reality by manipulating words in English. Still, his experience with the true force of Gaelic awakens in him a new kind of consciousness about his cultural identity. It starts with a fairly common situation; sitting in a pub, admiring a pretty bartender, listening intently to her. But in lines 8-11 he becomes more aware of how the musical sound of the Gaelic language connects him with the tradition of his people, and he becomes conscious of how his life is intertwined with the traditions of centuries gone by. It is a vague awareness that he has felt before: “This feeling was not new,” he explains. Still, having the feeling and opening his consciousness up to what it means are two different things. He is not able to achieve full awareness of his link to the past because he has never had the right words to describe the way he feels. The few Gaelic words that he knows take him in the direction of consciousness, but, as he points out, they are cliches. Even though they come close, they are never able to capture the feeling exactly. In the end, he is able to fully open his consciousness up to his Irish heritage, and he becomes more conscious of the shortcomings of the Anglo-Saxon language, which had previously been his chosen method of expression.
It is interesting to note that this poem, which praises the Irish language for its “gentle mechanism of verse” and faults English for its “metric laws,” is written in the most common meter that there is in English, iambic pentameter. “Iambic” means that means that the basic unit of rhythm in the poem is the “iamb,” which consists of one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. For example, in the first line of the poem, the even-numbered syllables receive greater emphasis when read aloud: “her eyes were coins of por-ter.” Pentameter” means that there are five of these units, five iambs, per line, adding up to a total of ten syllables in each line. In some cases, the rhythm might not seem to be strictly iambic. For instance, the seventh line, taken by itself without the context of the poem, would begin with the first three and the seventh syllables stressed: and her moun-tainy bo-dy.” Overall, though, iambic pentameter is the dominant rhythm, which sometimes forces readers to adjust their pronunciations of words to fit the pattern.
The iamb is the most naturally-occurring rhythm in English speech. Iambic pentameter is the most common meter used in English poetry. It is possible that Hartnett used this form to capture the simplistic sound of English, while working against this language’s simplicity with the multi-syllabic complexity of the Irish words he includes. This shows off their free-floating grace in contrast to the English language’s more rigid formality.
The Division of Ireland
Many Irish people had been opposed to the country’s domination by Great Britain ever since it had been annexed in 1801. Most of the history of Ireland during the twentieth century is marked by the violent struggle for independence. A turning point came in 1916 with the Easter Rebellion, during which several Irish nationalists took over key government buildings, to protest the British taking away Irish political power a few years earlier. The
Compare & Contrast
- 1975: After nearly twenty years’ involvement in the war between South Vietnam and North Vietnam, the United States withdraws the last of its troops.
Today: Hostile relations between Vietnam and the United States have ended. The two governments share economic programs.
- 1975: Nineteen-year-old computer wizard William Henry Gates III drops out of Harvard to form software manufacturer Microsoft.
Today: Bill Gates is the world’s wealthiest individual.
- 1975: Belfast, Northern Ireland, is widely considered one of the most dangerous places on earth. The Irish Republican Army, fighting for Northern Ireland’s freedom from Great Britain, and British forces often engage in open warfare.
Today: Peace treaties have been signed between Great Britain and the Irish separatists, but a lasting accord has not yet been reached.
Easter Rebellion was quickly put down by British troops, and its leaders were executed, but in memory they became martyrs to the cause of freedom. More rebellious organizations formed, including the Irish Republican Army. In 1920, Britain tried to solve the trouble between Irish who wanted independence and those who wanted to remain a part of the British United Kingdom by passing the Government of Ireland Act. This act divided the country into separate parts: the six northernmost counties became Northern Ireland, and the rest became the Irish Free State, or Eire (which changed its name to the Republic of Ireland in 1949).
Beside political divisions, religion also played a part in the tensions; the majority of the people in the north were Protestant and they identified themselves with Protestant Britain, while the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland supported reunion with the rest of the island, which was predominantly Catholic.
As the decades went by, the animosity deepened between the Protestant majority, which supported staying tied to Britain, and the Catholic minority. who thought of Britain as a foreign invader. In 1955, the Irish Republic Army, which had been formed in the 1920s as a reaction against the country’s separation, became more active in terrorist violence to push toward reunification. During the 1960s, a period of civil strife that came to be known around the world as the Troubles began in Northern Ireland. A cycle began: Catholics protested, the government made new rules to punish the protestors, and this repression led to more protest. Housing allocation and voting rights were the areas of greatest discrimination against Northern Ireland’s Catholics. Protests in Northern Ireland became larger and more vocal, so British troops were sent to keep the peace. Incidents followed: a protestor died of wounds after being beaten by police following an incident at a parade, then a soldier died fighting a violent mob.
One of the definitive moments in Northern Ireland’s struggle against British rule came shortly before this poem was written, on January 30, 1972. At a Catholic protest in Derry, British paratroopers opened fire on the crowd, killing fourteen people. The troops claimed that they acted in self-defense, that the protestors were turning violent, but observers say that the attack was unprovoked. A British inquiry, led by the country’s Lord Chief justice, found that the soldiers did nothing wrong, which only infuriated the Catholics more and led many angry Catholic youths to join the IRA. This date has come to be referred to as Bloody Sunday. Historically, it marks the end of the period of hostility between the Unionists (for a united Ireland) and the Nationalists (supporters of Great Britain), and the beginning of all-out warfare between the two sides.
The very first examples of a language that resembles the modern Irish language appear on stones dated to around 300–400 BC; this language is called Ogham. Though the language was adapted through the years, it has basically stayed the same. In the 1100s, when the Anglo-Normans from the European mainland came to Ireland, the Irish language remained the dominant one spoken. By the 1500s, Irish was almost exclusively spoken.
In the 1600s, wealthy English lords settled large estates in Ireland, and they promoted laws that would curtail the Irish language and make English the official language spoken. A series of Penal laws enacted in 1695 did much to suppress the Irish language, as well as much of Irish culture, in Ireland. By the mid-1800s, when the Irish Potato Famine wiped out half of the farming population, the vast majority of Irish people spoke English. Some areas in the west and northwest of Ireland, such as West Limerick mentioned in the poem, still maintain a strong cultural personality and have many Irish speakers, but they are the minority.
Hartnett was already a moderately well-known writer in Ireland by the time “A Farewell to English” was published in 1975: James Simmons, discussing his work in the 1974 anthology Ten Irish Poets, made a point of mentioning that Hartnett’s work was “well thought of in Dublin, and in the North he is the most widely admired Southern poet.” Since “A Farewell to English,” however, it has been difficult for critics to discuss Hartnett’s poetry without giving their opinions of his decision to write in a dead language. As Denis Donoghue explained in the Sewanee Review in 1976, “Irish writers find it particularly difficult to know what they are doing; they live on a fractured rather than an integral tradition; they do not know what voice is to be trusted. Most of them speak English, but they have a sense, just barely acknowledged, that the true voice of feeling speaks Irish, not a dead language like Latin but a banished language, a voice in exile.” Soon after publishing this poem, Hartnett received several awards from Irish patriotic associations, serving more as recognition of his nationalism than of his poetic ability.
Even looking beyond nationalistic sentiments, though, Hartnett has not gained a very broad reputation outside of his native country. In his review of Hartnett’s 1996 Selected and New Poems, Ben Howard recounts the period of time when Hartnett only wrote in Irish, but he is also able to consider the post-Gaelic period. Howard praised Hartnett, but found that “his characteristic tone is one of grievance, historical and personal”; still, he noted, “the black clouds of Irish history sometimes lift, revealing the freshness of the physical world.” Eamon Grennan, whose relationship with Hartnett went back to college days in the early 1960s, was less reserved in his review for the Southern Review, calling Selected and New Poems “a gift to Hart-nett’s admirers, as well as to those readers approaching his work for the first time.” Grennan’s, like most reviews, gives readers a background of the poet’s career of over thirty years: during that time, Grennan recognizes that Hartnett’s reputation has not spread beyond a small audience of poetry enthusiasts and Irish patriots.
Kelly is an instructor of Creative Writing and Composition at two colleges in Illinois. In the following essay he examines the causes and problems that can arise from the sort of separation that Hart-nett proposes in “A Farewell to English.”
Most of us will never know what it must be like to be a colonized people, to have to contend with two different histories—the official one, which is the history of the colonizers, and also the suppressed history of your own people. Even worse would be the terrible responsibility of having to decide how much of the pre-colonial past should be held on to. Making it even more difficult is the fact that much of the past in question is not even a personal matter, not the past of people living now but of their ancestors, people who left the earth long ago. When is the right time to stand up against the ugly idea that history is written by the victors? When is it time to give in and focus on the here-and-now?
The Irish poet Hartnett took his stand with a 1975 poem entitled “A Farewell to English,” in which he described a common incident—hearing Old Irish, or Gaelic, spoken in a bar—that led him to the resolution to quit writing in English and to
“His statement was artistic, it was political, and of course it was personal; it was one of those choices by which one defines one’s own identity”
work from then on in Irish, even though his mother-tongue has for several centuries been a near-dead language. His statement was artistic, it was political, and of course it was personal; it was one of those choices by which one defines one’s own identity. It only lasted ten years, and then Hartnett was back to writing in English again. In some respects, it hardly seems that Hartnett’s good intention was worth the embarrassment of seeming shallow in the long run. On the other hand, Hartnett’s declaration drew attention to an issue he felt strongly about then, and it eventually led him to a voice of his own, a way of poetic expression more important than either English or Irish.
The poem is an expression of pride in his culture and tradition, and readers, naturally, support the poet in his stand against the oppressive forces from England that had leached Ireland of its heritage. If cultural identity were clearly, undeniably right, then we might be able to say that the idea behind “A Farewell to English” is a good thing, or that it is a bad thing. Strong cultural identity has as many evils as virtues, however. For every heart surging with patriotic pride, there is someone dead on a battlefield somewhere, killed when the balance shifted from “love of us” to “hatred of them.”
Colonized people are supposed to forget their old ways, to take on the ways of those who are their new rulers. In America, our clearest example of this is the treatment of the indigenous people who were here before Europeans arrived. When the land was taken from the Indians, those who were not killed were moved onto reservation lands, where they were allowed to follow their own traditions and customs and speak in their native tongues. About the 1930s, though, there arose a new way of thought that said that Indians were being held prisoners within their small societies; maintaining their culture was seen as a racist trick to keep them out of the wider American culture. New programs and policies from the thirties to the seventies were aimed at encouraging Indian youths to leave the reservations and assimilate. This theory was reversed in the 1970s, at about the time that Hartnett wrote “A Farewell to English.” The government came to realize that it was destroying hundreds of years of Indian heritage in order to offer young people a chance to make money, and opponents argued that a better job could be done to promote both prosperity and culture. The primacy of retaining tribal ways was established once again on the reservations.
Around the same time—in the late 1960s and early 1970s—black Americans began to assert their own cultural identities. The situation of blacks was in some ways worse than the cases of either the Irish of the Indians because they were so far removed from their original situations. Their ancestors had been from different tribes across the African continent, taken from the physical setting which had formed their cultural identities, without any relics to remind descendants of why practices developed as they did. The culture of former slaves should be considered the pure American experience if anything is, since they were so detached from their former lives and had to create an almost entirely new cultural identity here. Instead, they were rejected by the dominant American culture as well. In the 1960s and the 1970s the Black Pride movement raised public awareness about the rich cultural history of African-Americans. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had struggled to establish that there was nothing wrong with being black, and the Black Pride movement pushed beyond that with the assertion that there was in fact everything right about it.
As with life on the reservation, though, establishing a cultural identity had the unwanted effect of separating African Americans from mainstream society, which meant that those who made their culture an obvious part of their identity could not rise to America’s highest political or economic levels. Today there is a debate about the language used by America’s blacks that has parallels to the issues Hartnett was addressing with “A Farewell to English.” At different times in the country’s history, educational groups have recommended that the public school system should accept the pattern of speech that has developed among black Americans, calling it Black English, or, more recently, Ebonics (a phrase coined from “ebony” and “phonics”). Recognition of this way of speaking could be taken as a political gesture, as an affirmation of a black culture’s separation from the mainstream. It could also be used as a tool to convert speakers from Ebonics to standard English more effectively. As is the case with Irish opponents of Gaelic, a considerable number of African Americans are cautious of Ebonics because they can see that giving the minority their own language without teaching competence in standard English would exclude them from the overall economic competition—the word we use for political separation like this is that it “ghettoizes” them.
In Hartnett’s poem, the Irish language is liberating, a chance for the speaker to return to his true nature. The Irish words that he recalls hearing in a bar stir an excitement that “was not new,” but that he felt compelled by emotion to express in words, finding English inadequate to the task. The language he needed was definitely not language of business, and in fact the few Gaelic words that he recognized broke down the smooth functioning of commercial discourse, “clogging the intricate machine.” English had been the language of Ireland since the 1690s, when British landowners passed laws requiring its use. Gaelic remained common in the country, where it was not necessary to conduct formal business transactions. The famous potato famine of 1847 though, severely depleted the rural population of Ireland. The population went from 10 million people in 1841 to 6.5 million just a decade later, and dwindled yet another million in the following twenty years. The number of Irish people speaking Gaelic cut in half during the famine, from four million to two million. Millions died, and a million others emigrated to other countries, specifically Australia and the United States, which were both English-speaking countries. Those who remained in Ireland, no longer able to feed themselves with what they grew in their fields, shifted further and further into the English-speaking economy. Today, English is the language of international business, required for transactions throughout Europe, Africa and Asia.
It is understandable that victims of the potato famine, struggling to make ends meet, would abandon Gaelic and take up English if it would give them an economic advantage. It is also understandable that Hartnett would, in the 1970s, take up Gaelic. First, there are aesthetic reasons, which are clearly identified in “A Farewell to English.” Some emotions that Hartnett felt just could not be captured by the logic of English, and needed the sweet flow of music that Old Irish offered. The poem hints at some sort of genetic code that is tickled by the sound-combinations of the mother
What Do I Read Next?
- Hartnett’s last volume of poetry, The Killing of Dreams, was published after his death, in 2000, by The Gallery Press.
- The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia-Lorca, available from New Dimensions, provides a good sampling of the work of the Spanish poet who was a major influence on Hartnett.
- The Irish poet best known in America today is Seamus Heaney, the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. His works are available in many anthologies, and his career is on display in Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996.
- Thomas Kinsella, one of Ireland’s most respected poets and a contemporary of Hartnett, edited The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, which includes poems from the sixth century to today. From Oxford University Press, 1986.
tongue, an assumption that seems less and less plausible the more you think about it, but then, the point of getting away from English is precisely to leave over-analysis behind.
Another reason his decision is a sound one is that it reminds us that economic dominance is no reason to forget one’s own culture. As already mentioned above, someone has to fight against the concept that the winners of any fight are the ones who get to leave their mark on history. The 1970s were a time of struggle for dependence in Northern Ireland (where, by the way, Hartnett did not live nor work: most of his life was spent in County Limerick and Dublin, in the south). The fight for freedom from Great Britain reached was at the height of its violence, and Hartnett sought the preservation of the Irish culture by pumping life back into a language that was nearly dead.
At least he was doing what he could to counter the forces that would have caused his tradition to disappear. Throughout the twentieth century, the world became aware of the systematic removal of any sign of a defeated culture. The example of the
“I propose that the language of the poet, the poet’s ability to elicit intense feeling with a minimum of words and a wealth of image and sound, is a language unto itself.”
American Indians has already been mentioned, with the late-found respect for their ways, which were nearly obliterated by a few well-meaning people and many racist enemies. It took Hartnett’s generation, raised in the shadow of World War II and its subsequent revelations about the Nazis’ plan to erase all signs of the gypsies, Jews, and homosexuals from the land they conquered, to realize that an entire culture could in fact be erased as if it had never existed. Since then, there have been plenty of examples, from Pol Pot’s Cambodia to the massacre of the Hutus by the Tutsis of Rwanda to the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia to illustrate the need for people like Hartnett to defend dying cultures against genocide.
A third benefit is that his shift to Gaelic, though it did not last, made Michael Hartnett a better writer, a more introspective poet, in tune with the world around him. In a little collection called Ten Irish Poets published just before “A Farewell to English,” James Simmons acknowledged Hartnett’s popularity, but was himself unimpressed. “He seems to me to have considerable talent and dedication, perhaps a little turned in on himself and obscure,” Simmons wrote. “There is certainly a strong ambition to be a poet which is well on the way to being fulfilled.” Hartnett became an important writer during his ten years away from English. This might have been a result of working with a language that was more attuned to what he had to say, as he anticipated in his “Farewell.” It might have been the natural maturation process, taking him to that point he was “well on the way to” anyway. Most likely, though, the very act of making a choice about language and identity, of looking deeply at who he was and what he wanted to say, had more to do with his development than his connection with the faded language of centuries gone by.
Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Karen D. Thompson
In this essay Thompson discusses the ambiguities that cast doubt upon Hartnett’s intention to bid farewell to English language, politics, and poetry and embrace his Irish heritage.
Geometry students learn early that any point on a line can be divided into an infinite number of points. Some students may further understand that since every point can be infinitely divided, a line actually has no finite beginning, middle, or end. Those students may go on then to make connections and end up pondering a similar quality of infinity in, for example, history class. When does a war actually begin? Did World War II (1939-1945) really start with ill feeling over the Treaty of Versailles (1919)? If that’s so, then isn’t the real first cause of World War II the end of World War I because without it there would have been no Versailles Treaty? And on and on and on. Ultimately the conclusion may be drawn that every beginning, middle, and end is likewise ambiguous and cannot be discussed in finite terms, but only in terms of defining moments.
This theory transposes nicely upon the work of Hartnett. At some time in his life, a civil war began to rage within the writer between poetry and politics, Irish and English, heart and head. He chronicled this war in “A Farewell to English,” and as is the case with most wars, the battle rages back and forth; and even when it reaches its supposed end, there is an uncertain peace and a great many unanswered questions.
Astute readers, those who pay attention to the nuances of language, first question Hartnett’s true intentions after considering the title “A Farewell to English.” If the reader knows anything of Ireland’s tempestuous relationship with England or of Hart-nett’s poetic background, the reader rather quickly deduces that Hartnett intends to take leave of English influence, including English poetry, language, and politics. Yet the word “farewell” is gentle and conveys connotations of amicable partings and kind wishes. “Farewell” is an unusual word to use in regard to a conflict as passionately violent as that between things English and things Irish.
Readers become more uncertain of Hartnett’s intentions by the end of the first stanza. Visually, readers are prepared for a ballad, definitely Irish, by the poem’s appearance on the page and its division into short stanzas. The beautiful woman at the bar in stanza one inspires in Hartnett the need for poetry, and by line 15, he has slipped into Gaelic with these descriptions: “mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin.” These Gaelic phrases are repeated over and over until the reader is caught up in the intoxicating beauty of the barmaid and of the poetry. Hartnett’s preference for Gaelic seems unquestionable when he uses the image of being “flung back on the gravel of Anglo-Saxon.”
But no sooner does the reader become satisfied that Hartnett is condemning English in favor of Gaelic, than the reader is confronted by contradictory images in lines 20-22. These lines could have been overlooked among the overwhelming evidence of nationalistic love for Irish form and language. In lines 7 and 8, Hartnett shares that the beautiful woman pouring ale has “tripped the gentle mechanism of verse” within him, and he begins “sifting the centuries for words.” Immediately, lilting adjectives rise to his consciousness. And then? His romance with the language of his ancestors explodes in his image of Gaelic words like slabs of stone “crashing on the cogs, splinters / like axe-heads damaging the wheels, clogging / the intricate machine” which is poetry. These words (“mánla,” “séimh”) are foreign to him and awkward, not sensual like the barmaid, not intimate like a lover.
The poem continues then with distinct Irishness. In the second stanza, Hartnett’s words are pastoral, glorifying nature with evocative images of “a gentle bench of grass” and strawberries that “looked out with ferrets’ eyes.” He brings forth the old men who shuffle toward Croom and Cahirmoyle. These black-coated men are the bards of early Ireland who, we are told in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, descended from the mystical filidh and held an esteemed position in Irish society. However, Hartnett introduces another paradox. These traveling bards, dressed in mourning black and carrying ashplants along with a “thousand years of history in their pockets” are also “snotnosed” and “half-drunk.” Regardless of his justification, Hartnett has conveyed an ambiguous message about the rank of his ancestral poets.
A look backward at poets would not be complete without a consideration of, perhaps without a tribute to, William Butler Yeats. According to Hart-nett’s analogy, “Chef Yeats, that master of the use of herbs / could raise mere stew to a glorious height” by stirring in a “soupçon of philosophy.” In other words, Yeats could combine philosophy and poetry and produce excellent results. Hartnett then seems to honor contemporary Irish poets by calling them chefs also, but he calls his own sincerity into question by calling them “commis-chefs.” By tying the newer poets to the “commissary” chefs, Hartnett has thrown them under the questionable light of politics; “commissary,” according to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, is closely related to “commissar,” a decidedly political word that carries the connotation of an autocrat or dictator. The culinary efforts of these commis-chefs result in an “Anglo-Irish stew” flavored with allusions to Ireland’s great mythology and poetic tradition. In this description the emphasis is not on the “glorious heights” as it was in the description of Yeats’s poetry. Instead the emphasis is on the stew, a many-ingredient meal in which every ingredient loses its distinct flavor.
The poem moves through stanza after stanza offering contrasting political points of view as it moves through different battles within Hartnett’s internal war. While the first three stanzas specifically consider the value of the Irish and English language and Irish and English poetry, the fourth shifts to a perspective on politics which is continued through the fifth and sixth stanzas. Still, ambiguity permeates these sections. In the fourth stanza, Ireland becomes the brood sow raped by the English boar, but the description is not as simple as perpetrator and victim. Instead, Ireland is depicted as a wanton whore who would “allow / any syphilitic boar / to make her hind-end sore …” Towards the end of the fourth stanza, Hartnett criticizes Ireland for the failure, in 1922, to make a clear stand on self-determination. Ireland’s failure to make her own fate certain is the exact type of ambiguity, or ambivalence, that this poem examines and mirrors.
The fifth stanza begins as a requiem for the murdered Spanish poet Garcia-Lorca and the banished Russian writer Boris Pasternak. Though Garcia-Lorca died as the result of a heinous act of violence, Hartnett offered a memorial to him that was celestial in its imagery and symbolism: “my Lorca holding out his arms / to love the beauty of his bullets.” Then, at the end of the stanza, Hartnett changes his tone as he lauds his contemporaries, including those who “write / with bitterness in their hearts,” and proclaims that the very “act of poetry / is a rebel act.”
In the sixth stanza Hartnett overtly criticizes politicians and condemns them for not “wanting freedom— / only power.” He blasts them for lacking a conscience and thus forgetting the political dominance of Ireland by England, even though he previously established that the Irish sow was not unwilling. The final line of this stanza casts doubt once again over Hartnett’s intention. The miasmatic spectacle of dwarf-riding dwarves racing toward an obscene prize ends in a “dead heat.” Figuratively, this means that nothing was decided, no resolution reached. But even the two words considered separately present a paradox. “Dead” means the absence of life. The absence of life in a human would leave the body cold, with no heat. Additionally, “heat” connotes the same sexual images that Hartnett supplied in the first stanza with the sensual bartender. It also reminds us of the sow “in heat.” A “dead heat,” then, is an oxymoron and further representation of the paradox presented throughout this poem.
At last Mr. Hartnett leaves his political discourse for a more personal one. In his final lines, he seems to consider—more than art or country or politics—his own heart and mind. Is he clear here? No more than in the preceding stanzas. He says that he has “made my choice / and leave with little weeping: / I have come with meager voice / to court the language of my people.” Even in the final line, Hartnett’s meaning is enigmatic. Consider the use of the word “court” in the final line. Is Hartnett simply rounding out the poem, finishing it nicely by alluding back to the intimate encounter between the poet and the beautiful woman he is possibly “courting”? Perhaps. Or, perhaps his diction is intentionally conflicting. “Court” has numerous meanings. One would be the pursuit of a romantic interest, but another would be a place of law, a political place. Hartnett may be saying that he still has not made a decision; he has not quite committed himself to the language of his heart, Irish, or the language of his “well-oiled” previous poetry, English. And what does he think of his English poetry: is it simply “smooth,” or is it mechanical?
If Hartnett’s honest intention was to cast off English and use only his Irish poetic heritage, why did he not make a final transition back to the Gaelic he had used in the first stanza of the poem? Is it because some of his readers might not understand Gaelic or because he could not say precisely what he wanted to say without using the English?
This last question will remain unanswered, but the question of whether Hartnett would compose in English or Irish was answered finally in later works. He chose the language of his people, Gaelic, almost exclusively after 1975. This decision could not, as evidenced by the raging conflict within this poem, have been one made lightly.
One cannot deny the power of this poem, “A Farewell to English.” No scathing governmental report, no angry editorial could lay claim to the effectiveness of Hartnett’s assertion that “We woke one morning / in a Dublin digs / and found we were descended / from two pigs.” Furthermore, only rare prose could capture the image Hartnett put forth when he described the governments of Ireland and England as “horribly deformed dwarfs” racing “towards the prize, a glass and concrete anus.” These descriptions are written in English; would they lose or gain impact if written in Gaelic?
Certainly not. They may lose the slightest bit in translation, but no more so than a melody transposed to a different key—especially if the translator is one as gifted as Hartnett. Language is a tool only, employed by a poet as Bach employed notes. Does Bach’s genius disappear if a piece is performed on a piano as opposed to an organ or a harp-sichord? I do not believe so. I do not believe Hart-nett’s poetry achieves its heights because of the language in which he wrote. In fact, I propose that the language of the poet, the poet’s ability to elicit intense feeling with a minimum of words and a wealth of image and sound, is a language unto itself.
Hartnett is an artist. His work rises above the scrutiny of government censors, breaks the bonds of language, and transcends the page. Consider once again the beautiful maid in stanza one. At the same time that “her West / Limerick voice talked velvet” and she wore “with grace her Sunday-night-dance best,” her “mountainy body” “cut the froth from glasses with a knife / and hammered golden whiskies on the bar.” Her paradoxical description brings to mind Haphaestus, huge and disfigured, using hammer and anvil and brute strength to turn out spectacular metal ornaments for the gods of Olympus.
That is what Hartnett accomplished in “A Farewell to English.” Shackled by a language which he feels inferior, which cripples him, he still delivers a thing of beauty.
Source: Karen D. Thompson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Bradley, Anthony, “Irish Poetry,” in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton University Press, 1993.
Donoghue, Denis, “Being Irish Together,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 84, No. 1, Winter 1976, pp. 129-33.
Grennan, Eamon, “Wrestling with Hartnett,” in Southern Review, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, p. 655.
Howard, Ben, “Review of Selected and New Poems,” in Poetry, May 1996, pp. 109-11.
Simmons, James, Ten Irish Poets, Carcanet Press, 1974.
For Further Study
Hoagland, Kathleen, ed., 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present, William S. Konecky, 1999.
This anthology shows how the Irish tongue evolved over the centuries, to the Anglicized form that Hart-nett turned his back on with this poem.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise, Ancestral Voices: Religion and Nationalism in Ireland, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.
O’Brien is one of the most respected contemporary observers of Irish politics. His analysis of the violence in Northern Ireland is very helpful to understand the sentiments Hartnett expresses in this poem.
Taylor, Peter, Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein, TV Books, Inc., 1999.
Based on Taylor’s award-winning documentary that was telecast in England and America, this book gives a contemporary view of the terrorist acts and the negotiations for peace that divide Northern Ireland.