«Northern Irish Elegy Naomi Marklew Thesis submitted for degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Department of English Studies Durham University ...»
Northern Irish Elegy
Thesis submitted for degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the
Department of English Studies
This thesis proposes that Northern Irish elegy is a distinctive genre of contemporary poetry,
which has developed during the years of the Troubles, and has continued to be adapted and
defined during the current peace process. It argues that the practice of writing elegy for the
losses of the Troubles has established a poetic mode in which Northern Irish poets have continued to work through losses of a more universal kind. This thesis explores the contention that elegy has a clear social and political function, providing a way in which to explore some of the losses experienced by a community over the past half-century, and helping to suggest ideas of consolation.
Part one focuses on three first generation Northern Irish elegists: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. Heaney is considered in a chapter which takes in a poetic career, through which might be traced the development of Northern Irish elegy. Following this are two highly focused studies of the elegies of Longley and Mahon. The place of artifice in elegy is considered in relation to Longley's Troubles elegies, while Mahon’s irony is discussed in relation to his elegiac need for community.
Part two looks at a second generation, represented by Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon.
Carson's elegies for Belfast are read in a discussion of the destruction and reconstruction that occurs during the process of remembering. This study explores the idea that elegies might also be written for places and temporal spaces. Carson's interest in poetic form is shown to be intricately related to his elegiac practice. The chapter on Muldoon surveys a career which has interrogated the connections between art and suffering. Muldoon raises questions of poetic responsibility, and also challenges poetry itself, on a formal and linguistic level. As his career develops, he includes not only the local threats of Troubles violence within his elegies, but also the global threats of disease, violence and terror.
Part three starts with Medbh McGuckian, whose work is discussed in relation to the third generation poets Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn and Colette Bryce. As McGuckian's poetry is perhaps the least immediately accessible of all the poetry covered here, the thesis considers ways in which her work might be read, before her poems are discussed as Northern Irish elegies. Following this are readings of poems from Morrissey, Flynn and Bryce, noting ways in which this generation works to develop the genre of elegy, working in the same broad themes that have been charted throughout this thesis.
Part Two: The Second Generation Chapter Three “Mutilation of the body and the city”: Remembering and Dismembering Ciaran 98 Carson’s Belfast
The copyright of this thesis rests with the author. No quotation from it should be published without the prior written consent and information derived from it should be acknowledged.
I would like to thank the University of Durham and the Department of English Studies for providing me with the opportunity to undertake this thesis. In particular, I thank Stephen Regan, my supervisor, for valuable insights and advice, and for patience in reading many draft versions. I am also very grateful to those members of staff at the University of Bristol who encouraged me to pursue an academic career while I was an undergraduate student. Thanks to the community at Hatfield College, Durham, and to the Hatfield Trust for their generosity in funding a number of research trips.
I am thankful to the many people who have supported me in different ways during the writing of this thesis, particularly those at Emmanuel Church, Durham, and the Banks and Marklew families. Thank you most of all to my parents, without whose support – financial, emotional and spiritual – this would have been impossible, and to Ryan, whose love, encouragement and friendship have become indispensable.
Background to the study Early in 2010, following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, Britain's Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, helped to organise a literary event to raise funds for the victims. Speaking about Poetry
Live for Haiti, Duffy explained:
We turn to poetry at intense moments in our lives. […] When we lose people, or are bereaved, we look for a piece of music or poem to read at the funeral, or when we fall in love we turn to poetry, or when children are born. And I think that can happen at moments of public grief too, as well as personal. It is so close to prayer, it is the most intense use of language that there is. It is the perfect art form for public or private grief.2 Duffy's instinctive poetic response to loss and crisis is one that is heard in the work of elegists writing about situations of personal and communal grief all over the world. She also echoes many of the theorists of elegy, in declaring that, just as in the past, poetry continues to be one of the most enduring sources of consolation, even in the twenty-first century. This thesis seeks to trace the development of a specific kind of poetry which has grown out of the need to work through the grief suffered during a period of violence and conflict that has taken place in recent decades; the years that have come to be termed the Troubles of Northern Ireland.3 Perhaps the most influential work done on elegy in recent decades has been Peter Sacks's book The English Elegy. Sacks sets out the conventions of the traditional genre of elegy, interpreting them largely through the lens of psychoanalysis, and taking inspiration from the notion of “the work of mourning”, which is found in Freud's essay “Mourning and Melancholia”.4 Sacks's study follows a chronological route, performing close readings upon the major elegies of poets ranging from Spenser to Yeats. It is from this foundational work that many subsequent understandings of the genre of elegy have developed, and many of the conventions identified by Sacks are the ones which are held up for comparison against the poems studied in this thesis. The pre-eminent inheritor of Sacks's project, however, is often 1 Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” Finders Keepers, (London: Faber, 2002) 14-25 (23).
2 BBC news website, “Poets to hold 'literary Live Aid',” 29th Jan 2010, accessed 17/02/2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/8485443.stm.
3 The term “Troubles” might be regarded as a problematic one with which to talk about a serious conflict: it might seem to be overly euphemistic and fail to carry the full weight of the losses experienced during the violence of the past decades in Northern Ireland. However, as it has become the most common way in which this period of history is referred to, the term will be used throughout the thesis, and without the continual use of quotation marks, for the sake of brevity and ease of reading.
4 Peter M. Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987) 1.
thought to be Jahan Ramazani.5 Sacks, in his study of pre-twentieth century poetry, builds on the idea that the work of mourning must be successfully performed in elegy in order to achieve consolation, but he finally comes to conclude that: “recent attitudes to death have made it increasingly difficult to write a conventional elegy”, as both modern “large-scale” warfare and the clinical detachment of hospital care make the experience of death “obscene, meaningless, impersonal”.6 It is this idea that is built upon in Ramazani's study, as he follows the other strand of thought found in Freud's essay, that of melancholia, arguing that the twentieth century has produced a type of dis-consolatory elegy.
Ramazani, acknowledging his debt to his predecessor, writes, nevertheless, that Sacks's model of “healthy” and “successful” mourning is, I think, inadequate for understanding in the twentieth-century elegy. As an alternative, I propose the psychology of melancholia or melancholic mourning, arguing that the modern elegist tends not to achieve but to resist consolation, not to override but to sustain anger, not to heal but to reopen the wounds of loss. To explore the paradoxically melancholic emphasis within modern poems of mourning, I recast the classical distinction between mourning and melancholia, shading it as a difference between modes of mourning: the normative (i.e., restitutive, idealizing) and the melancholic (violent, recalcitrant). [...] I contend that the elegy flourishes in the modern period by becoming anti-elegiac (in generic terms) and melancholic (in psychological terms).7 Defining the “anti-elegy”, Ramazani states that Over the course of the twentieth century, poets have drawn upon and transformed an age-old language of mourning, alloying the profound insights of the past with the exigencies of the present. Out of this fusion they have forged a resonant yet credible vocabulary for grief in our time – elegies that erupt with all the violence and irresolution, all the guilt and ambivalence of modern mourning.8
In becoming anti-elegiac, the modern elegy more radically violates previous generic norms than did earlier phases of elegy: it becomes anti-consolatory and anti-encomiastic, antiRomantic and anti-Victorian, anti-conventional and sometimes even anti-literary.9 Having set out his case in no uncertain terms, Ramazani then seems to make allowances for the
presence of seemingly conventional uses of elegy within his study:
[T]wo recent poets – Amy Clampitt and Seamus Heaney – suggest that a more traditionalist mode of elegy may have become viable once again, so long as it is sufficiently tempered by the skepticisms of our time. [...] Heaney is at first reluctant to transfigure the dead into heavenly beings or consolatory art. But he eventually resumes old-fashioned poetic codes in elegies for friends and family, depicting the dead as singing masters of the soul.10 Beginning his chapter on Heaney's elegies, Ramazani points out that unlike most contemporaneous poems in the genre, they also reveal an elegist unembarrassed by conventional imagery – a difference that may reflect not only Heaney's more conservative 5 Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994).
6 Sacks, 299.
7 Ramazani, xi.
8 Ramazani, ix.
9 Ramazani, 1-2.
10 Ramazani, xiii.
poetic temperament but also his upbringing amid the more traditional mourning customs and other rituals of Northern Ireland.11 It appears, then, that Heaney stands out against the main argument of Ramazani's study, failing to conform to the conventions of “anti-elegy” that have been so persuasively set out elsewhere in the book. There are a number of responses to this observation, and these are largely what constitute the impetus for the present thesis.12 Ramazani pleads a special case for traditionalism
in Irish poetry, and this thesis builds upon his contention that:
While questioning, analyzing, and even attacking the elegy's major subgenres and conventions, Heaney – together with such Irish contemporaries as John Montague, Michael Longley, and Derek Mahon – energetically reclaims them for our time.13 What Ramazani begins to argue for Heaney seems to demand a fuller exploration: a study of the Northern Irish elegy as a distinct tradition, diverging from other poetic discourses of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, yet still engaged with and influencing contemporary literature on a broader scale.
This chapter will consider some of the traditional conventions of the English elegy, by looking at John Milton’s “Lycidas” and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Adonais” as exemplars of the genre.14 It will also highlight some of the features of the aisling and the dinnseanchas, two poetic modes from the Irish tradition which will later be seen to have influenced the Northern Irish elegy. Northern Irish elegy, as will be explored in the course of this study, has developed during the course of successive generation, which means that there are a number of distinctive features which might now be used to identify it as a distinct tradition: for example, the five repeated themes which are discussed at the end of this chapter; the common interest in creating a “well-made poem”; the way in which death often enters the poem in a violent and abrupt manner, seeming to threaten or violate the poem itself. This last feature will be seen particularly in the studies of Longley’s and of Carson’s Troubles elegies.
The aim of the current study is to pursue this avenue in providing a more comprehensive evaluation of the ways in which Heaney and his fellow Northern Irish poets have worked to make the traditional genre of elegy one that can speak about their contemporary situation, whilst retaining many of its conventional consolatory aspects. References to specific events of the Troubles ensure that the poetry remains firmly in the present. This will be seen as the study considers Heaney’s elegy for his cousin, killed by paramilitary fighters, Longley’s 11 Ramazani, 336.
12 A further response to this, which will be explored more fully later in this chapter, is the fact that it is perhaps inaccurate to say that this kind of scepticism, or “anti-elegy”, is a modern phenomenon. In fact it might be identified as an integral part of the traditional genre (see Shelley's “Adonais” as a prime example). Elegy is inherently paradoxical, and while it has undoubtedly developed over time, traces of what Ramazani calls “anti-elegy” are present in the most traditional examples of the genre.
13 Ramazani, 337.
14 John Milton, “Lycidas,” The Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey, 2nd ed., Longman Annotated English Poets (Harlow: Longman, 1997) 237-56. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Adonais,” The Major Works, ed. Zachary Leader and Michael O'Neill (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003) 529-45.