Literary Renaissance (Celtic Revival)

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Literary Renaissance (Celtic Revival)

By the mid-1880s in Ireland the stirrings of a revival of literature had begun that was part of the cultural, artistic, and political awakening that contributed to the creation of a nation in the 1920s. Writers central to this revival tended to commit themselves consciously to the project of recovering as well as creating a national literature. As claimed by W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), the westward-moving Renaissance had been stalled for three hundred years of repressive British rule. The failure of the Parnellites to bring Home Rule to Ireland roughly coincided with the return from exile of the Fenian John O'Leary (1830–1907), around whom rallied young disciples such as Yeats, Maud Gonne (1866–1953), and T. W. Rolleston (1857–1920). Rolleston became editor of the Dublin University Review in 1885 and, with Yeats, a founding member of the Rhymers' Club in London and the Irish Literary Society. The Society developed a proposal for a New Irish Library, a series of books to honor Irish culture, with Rolleston and Douglas Hyde (1860–1949) as editors. Yeats' work in the press was particularly notable for defining the "best Irish books" for a public whose appetite for reading was stimulated by the mannerisms of his own richly symbolic, incantatory early poems. The lists featured the translations and scholarship of Hyde, Standish O'Grady (1846–1928), and Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810–1886), as well as poetry by close friends such as Katharine Tynan Hinkson (1861–1931) and George Russell, or "AE" (1867–1935).

The Irish Literary Renaissance had two geographic centers in Dublin and in London. A traveler between the two, Yeats acted as a synthesizing agent. As a member of the Rhymers' Club, he propounded and adapted himself to the tenets of the primarily British Decadent poets of the fin de siècle, including Anglo-Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), Ernest Dowson (1867–1900), Lionel Johnson (1867–1902), Arthur Symons (1865–1945) and others whom he dubbed "the tragic generation" (pp. 219–266). He quarreled with fellow members of the Irish National Alliance on the politics and poetry of Thomas Davis (1814–1845), particularly with friend-turned-enemy Frank Hugh O'Donnell (1848–1916), and enlisted Lionel Johnson in the defense, later publishing a collection of Johnson's poetry and the book Poetry and Ireland (1908), with essays by Yeats and Johnson. In Ireland, Yeats's interest in magic brought him into conflict with O'Leary, a Young Ireland Society member and the influential author of Recollections of Fenians and Fenianism (1896), though Yeats's interests agreed with those of his former art schoolmate, the visionary poet and editor, AE. The amalgamation of competing interests led for a time to an idealized, nationalist-oriented poetry of rarified senses and vague or fantastic symbolism named after the title of one of Yeats's books, The Celtic Twilight (1893) and its culminating poem, "Into the Twilight." The attempt to collect and define as a phenomenon the poetry of the Celtic Revival helped to promote the work of like-minded individuals and define a "book of the people." A Book of Irish Verse (1895), edited by Yeats and dedicated "To the Members of the National Literary Society of Dublin and the Irish Literary Society of London," featured poetry by Rolleston, Hyde, Tynan (Hinkson), Johnson, AE, several other friends, and notes and an introduction by himself. The effort as publicist for a cause was one with Yeats's prolific journalism and career as a self-made folklorist and editor of Irish fairy tales at this time.

By the 1890s, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory (1852–1932), inspired by The Celtic Twilight, had begun collecting folktales of her own that would fill the five volumes of "Kiltartin" stories that she published between 1906 and 1910 and the two-volume Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), written in collaboration with Yeats. Though she did not make his acquaintance until 1896 when he was visiting at the country estate of Edward Martyn (1859–1923), she soon became an indispensible partner in projects undertaken for the stage. Martyn's The Heather Field and Yeats's verseplay The Countess Cathleen were performed in 1899 to celebrate the creation of the Irish Literary Theatre, which they started with Lady Gregory. When public disturbances occurred at the opening of Yeats's play, partly agitated by political opponents such as O'Donnell in the press, the young James Joyce (1882–1941) was there to take note, and in 1916 he would recreate the scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, parodying the "Celtic Twilight" style, which Yeats himself tired of as he rewrote the play. Less talented imitators such as Thomas MacDonagh (1878–1916), the author of Literature in Ireland (1916), as well as disagreeable collaborators such as George Moore (1852–1933), drove Yeats in another direction, aided by Lady Gregory. Consequently in 1902 the first of a series of plays were performed in the name of the Irish National Theatre: AE's poetic Deirdre and Yeats's patriotic Cathleen ni Houlihan (written with Gregory). A restrictive crown patent was issued solely for production of "plays in Irish and English languages, written by Irish writers on Irish subjects" (Holloway 1967, p. 42); and thus the Abbey Theatre came into being on 27 December 1904, with the curtain rising on Yeats's heroic drama On Baile's Strand and Lady Gregory's comedy Spreading the News. Yeats, Gregory, and John Millington Synge (1871–1909) were the theater's co-directors and featured playwrights.

Saved from obscurity by following Yeats's advice to "go to the Aran Islands and find a life that had never been expressed in literature" (p. 262), Synge became the pivotal Abbey dramatist. From his notebooks he completed a book of observations called The Aran Islands in 1901 with illustrations by Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957), but delayed publication until just after the riotous first production of The Playboy of the Western World in January 1907. Among his half dozen plays, two were produced posthumously under Yeats's supervision as executor: Deirdre of the Sorrows and The Tinker's Wedding. Somewhere between the antirealism of Yeats's poetic drama and the local color of the one-act peasant plays Lady Gregory wrote in dialect (in a few instances with Yeats), Synge's work anticipated the lively and satirical tragicomedies of Gregory's protégé, Sean O'Casey (1880–1964). The grim beauty of Synge's west gave place to the squalid working-class settings of O'Casey's "Dublin Trilogy," The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926), plays that dealt critically with the realities of culture and class in time of insurrection and civil war between 1916 and 1923. Certainly, by then, the objective of reviving the literary capacity of the Irish people had been achieved. In 1923, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Yeats, and in 1926 to Ireland's great successor to Wilde in London, George Bernard Shaw.

The literary renaissance in Ireland still continues if the Celtic Revival is only its formative stage, precisely correspondent with the transitional, proto-modernist phase of international literature in English. What is Irish literature? The question was answered in 1904 by Justin McCarthy (1830–1912), editor in chief of a five-volume anthology entitled, simply, Irish Literature. Like the combined advisory board and contributing editors of the more recent Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991), McCarthy and associates—Gregory, O'Grady, Hyde, Russell (AE), Rolleston, Yeats, and many others—answered the question with selections that exemplify thought at the time. Consensus is negotiated. Since then, thought has shifted from the nationalist agenda of the Celtic Revival to the global view of Ireland's place in literature as a whole. Lately, the east-to-west migration of the renaissance in Europe seems to have shifted north in Ireland.

SEE ALSO Arts: Modern Irish and Anglo-Irish Literature and the Arts since 1800; Drama, Modern; Gonne, Maud; Yeats, W. B.


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Wayne K. Chapman

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Literary Renaissance (Celtic Revival)

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