History and its Retrieval in Contemporary Northern Irish Poetry: Paulin, Montague and Others
Getting to grips with the past: this is a longstanding practice in Irish poetry. It is a matter of imaginative response, of compression and evocation. With Yeats and others, as Seamus Heaney has noted, contemplation of the past has been part of an attempt ‘to define and interpret the present’ — and, with early Yeats in particular, the antiquarian impulse which made such headway in the nineteenth century turned into something altogether livelier and richer, before subsiding completely. After Ferguson’s fustian (‘Clan Conal now lock close your shields, make fast your battle front; / The might, the might of Ulster comes, and Congal bears the brunt’) comes unregenerate Oisin flinging down the Christian artefact — ‘the chain of small stones’ — in the face of St Patrick’s admonitions. It is a heartening gesture, and devoid of archaic associations. Once he had mined the sagas for exaltation and romance, Yeats turned to an Ascendancy past to get a line on Irish uprightness and a spacious approach to living; all his appropriations were on the grandest possible scale, and presented in a tone not available to his successors, for whom the ‘filthy modern tide’ loomed inescapably. Historical allusion, equally inescapable, had to be toned down in the wake of Yeats, or take on an anachronistic colouring.
KeywordsClay Dust Assure Smoke Excavation
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- The poems discussed and quoted in this essay appear in Tom Paulin’s The Liberty Tree (London: Faber and Faber, 1983) and Fivemiletown (London: Faber and Faber, 1987);Google Scholar
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