One of the questions that invariably crops up when Irish literature is the hot topic of conversation is why a country of approximately 5 million inhabitants, on the edge of Europe, has produced four Nobel laureates in literature and another half-dozen or so who could well have been recipients of the world’s greatest literary award?
And what’s more, why is it that of the four writers who were so honoured – William Butler Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Seamus Heaney (1995) – three are poets (that’s certainly how Beckett saw himself before the fiction and drama took over). So then, why?
There is no simple answer but in editing the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets I think I can see certain influences at play that go back at least as far as the Companion’s opening essay (the 1550s) – on Spenser’s Island. For the simple truth of the matter is that the English language, or should I say, the mastering of English, proved to be both an amazing inspiration but also a root cause of much disaffection and anguish at the loss of Irish in the 19th century.
In the thirty essays that span four centuries covered by the Companion the appropriation of English merges with the greater personal and artistic journeys into the world of other literary cultures and languages undertaken by the selected poets. Simply put, it is a combination of all this which characterises so much of Irish poetry from, say, Jonathan Swift to James Clarence Mangan to Paul Muldoon and Nuala Ni Dhombhnaill.
the Companion homes in on the lives and work of Irish poets while offering a valuable overview of where they fit as individuals into the world of Irish poetry.
This vibrant and daring music is full of conviction but also, crucially, an openness to the world, whether one is exploring the amazing longevity and transitions of W B Yeats, or the tender pastoral byways of Francis Ledwidge – his life cut short by WW1 at barely thirty years of age – or the hypnotic spiralling dreamlands of Medbh McGuckian, who has remained in her native city of Belfast to this day.
From traditions in popular bilingual culture to highbrow experiment, from the landscapes of Sligo, Cork, Tyrone or Derry to the urban fastnesses of London, Paris, Dublin or New York, the Companion homes in on the lives and work of Irish poets while offering a valuable overview of where they fit as individuals into the world of Irish poetry.
Written by leading authorities in the field, critics as well as poets, the Companion provides lots of source material, guidance, background information and challenging thought when the question of Ireland’s pre-eminence as a global literary powerhouse comes to mind. But whether there is ever one answer to the question of why the island produced those four Nobel laureates in the space of seventy years is, as we say, another day’s work altogether.
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