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Laura O’Connor
Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006,
264 p., $49.95 hardcover, ISBN: 978-0-8018-8433-7.


Reviewed by Claire Hélie


Seamus Heaney, in “The Redress of Poetry” (1995), praises poetry as “an agent for proclaiming and correcting injustices” but pinpoints how that corrective power might jeopardize poetry as a linguistic “eminence.” Centred on poets who successfully avoided the trap, Laura O’Connor’s recently published Haunted English: The Celtic Fringe, the British Empire, and De-Anglicization explores “how the colonial history of English inflects the literary vernaculars of Anglo-Celtic modernists W.B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Marianne Moore” [IX]. Acknowledging her debt to her doctoral research supervisor Edward Said, the author theorizes the Anglicization of Gaelic cultures as a case of “linguistic imperialism,” a term coined by Robert Phillipson in his 1992 eponymous book, since it deprived Celtic writers of their medium, leaving them dispossessed; subsequently O’Connor reads de-Anglicization as a way to repossess a lost culture—to borrow another two Heaney concepts. She then examines how the three poets mentioned above resolved, each in their own specific poetic ways, the dilemma of writing in the colonial tongue by conjuring up the ghost voices of Celtic literature, and how such solutions can be deemed characteristic of their signature styles. The critical approach to her study is directed by the concept of autopoiesis (self-making) which she borrows from Giambattista Vico’s “We can only borrow what we have made,” from A General Introduction to my World (1937).

The title calls for images of ghosts disturbing the English language to get their idiosyncratic post-mortem voices heard, but the introduction lacks a clear definition and a typology of the different meanings she assigns to such haunting. The reader is left alone to appreciate the many opportunities such a word offers. Set aside the analyses of poems dramatizing the actions of a revenant, “an indigenous Gaelic literary device for bridging gaps between epochs and worlds” [14], only a couple of references are made to “ghost voices” and “revenant” texts, defined as works that speak “out of an immemorial past to potential audiences in the future because the likelihood of finding a positive reception in the Anglocentric culture of the time was so slim” [13]. Her passing remarks on linguicism (that is, the role of English as “an instrument of Gaelic linguicide” and as a “medium of linguistic racism and ethnicity class antagonism” [XIII]), on the nostalgic and melancholy trends in Anglo-Celtic poetry or on the uncanny read as extensions of that haunting theme, even combined, don’t quite give the main theme of the book and tend to be overlooked in her chapters on MacDiarmid and Moore, in favour of a hunting of intertextual references. The concept O’Connor mainly uses and gives variations of instead seems to be that of glottophagie, a word coined by Louis-Jean Calvet in Language Wars and Linguistic Politics (1998): "Haunted English contends that there is a relationship—though by no means a straightforward one—between the glottophagie that occurs within the Pale / Fringe contact zone and that which takes place within the poet and gets expressed as style (e.g., Yeatsian) [64].

In her introduction, Laura O’Connor delineates the theoretical frame of the Celtic Fringe. She begins by reminding her reader that the term “Celt” does not refer to one particular ethnic group but encapsulates several (the Irish, the Scottish, the Welsh, the Cornish and the Manx), each with its own specific elements but subsumed under a generalizing concept. She calls it a “philological abstraction” [XII] meant to be understood as a synonym for “not Anglo.” She also notes that “The history of Anglicization in the British Isles is figured as the providential advance of the ‘English Pale’ and concomitant recession of the Gaeltacht (Gaelic speaking areas) and Welsh Wales into a notional ‘Celtic Fringe’” [XIII]. Such acculturation and peripheralization induce that the symbolical sense of the phrase supplants its geographical sense to make the Fringe coterminous with otherness, past and loss, in the English-only myth, and arouses many affects ranging from fear to nostalgia. The subsequent Victorian dogma that Anglicization represents the ongoing march of progress goes hand in hand with a Celtophilia that regards the re-Gaelicization of Ireland as a way to restore a putative harmony that was lost because of colonization. The de-anglicization of the Celtic Fringe thus testifies to “the emergence of language and culture as a medium of decolonization” and lays the “emphasis on the primacy of ‘language as such’ in European cultural modernism” [XVII].

In her first chapter, O’Connor explores the historical movement leading from English-only Anglicization to fin-de-siècle de-Anglicization. Initiating her reflection by commenting on Spenser’s drastic solutions on how to Anglicize Ireland in A View on the Present State of Ireland (c. 1596), she lists the different battlegrounds of what she calls a “war over literature” [7], be it the role of translation in extinguishing cultural identity, or of “auditory censorship” [9] in creating a hierarchy between languages, or yet again of ethnography in turning the Celtic culture into “an exotic discourse to be ‘carried across’ to the normative mainstream” [17]. She then demonstrates how the suppression of Gaelic culture led to a nostalgic recuperation, with debates over antiquities that contributed to turning Gaelic into a dead language. The two trends emphasize the alterity of the Celtic culture, which makes it the object of debates over such matters as modernity, gender, secularism… She then traces the evolution of Celtic studies triggered by Victorian Celtophilia and Matthew Arnold’s reading of Ernest Renan’s Sur la Poésie des races celtes (1884) in On the Study of Celtic Literature (1865) to the Romantic revival of Irish nationalism in Hyde’s fostering of the Gaelic Revival and Yeats’s championing of the Irish Literary Revival. She analyses leitmotivs such as the “more Irish than the Irish” one, genres such as the aisling, and texts such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan. She concludes those preliminary insights into de-anglicization by underlining the paradox of making English the medium of Irish literature, a burden which sets off the creative process of the poets she examines in the next three chapters.

O’Connor does not just analyze famous texts in their printed form to illustrate her point, she also compares them with their variants and revisions, thus unfolding a diachronic perspective that sheds light on the maturing process of the writers’ poetics throughout their lives. This is particularly true of her reading of Yeats, which spans the fifty years of his career, concluding with “how the manifold retranslations of the matter of Ireland into the ‘Collective Yeats’ recapitulate the history of Gaelic from the early mythological cycles to its decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth century” [110]. She begins by investigating the way he worked symbolical materials in balladic forms in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) to give a hint on the elusiveness of Ireland’s Gaelic past. She then proceeds with the deeply intertextual “The Tower” (1928) and pits the Irish world of songs and Raftery’s “Mary Hynes” against the English world of written poetry and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Finally, she tackles the poem “The Curse of Cromwell” (1937) in which a rambling filí takes stock of an Ireland gone to rack under the English law. What she claims here is that Yeats’s glottophagie is an act of incorporation of both the culture of the English oppressor Yeats is committed to and Irishry (“the sense of Ireland’s history of colonial persecution and its status as a resilient enclave of antiquity and romance” [60]) he has a sense of solidarity with. Consequently, the difference between eater and eaten is abolished and the poet is left alone, the very last ageing bard of a lost world: “Yeats made his own life and the matter of Ireland the conjoined subject of his poetry by creating the fable of a national bard who is part of his own distinctively Irish phantasmagoria” [59].

In her third chapter, O’Connor reminds her readers that Christopher Murray Grieve’s use of an English dictionary in 1922 to help him lampoon the literary praxis of Kailyard poets had such a liberating effect on him that he was reborn Hugh MacDiarmid. She then proceeds on tracing the poet’s evolution from “Synthetic Scots” “composed in an ambiguous zone of inter- and intra-lingual translation between Scots and English, under the remote influence of Scotland’s third language, Gaelic” [112], especially in his poem “The Watergaw” (1922), through to his “epic encyclopedism in ‘Synthetic English’ (a vernacular loaded with scientific terminology)” [146], To Circumjack Cencrastus (1930), dwelling on A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) as an intermediary phase in which his caricatural poetics find its most achieved expression. Here again, O’Connor borrows a word akin to glottophagie to describe the key concept at the core of the poet’s writing process; that of “cannibalism” [112], a particular way of ingesting the national dictionary. Yet, to describe MacDiarmid’s self-constructed personality as a poet for Ireland, she recurs to the language of the bogey and defines him as a revenant bard, “isolated from the group that determines his personal identity,” hence the fact that the poet “functions as a synecdoque for the shared sense of a phantom core nationality in the Scottish cultural unconscious” [149].

When she turns to Marianne Moore, O’Connor can’t but admit to a difficulty since this most American writer seems to be a very “unlikely poet with which [sic] to explore the gendered discourse of Celticism and the long history of colonisation” [154] and the title of her third chapter, “An Irish Incognita,” bears testimony to such a problematic approach; hence the fact that the author dedicates a long part of her analysis to further explore the gender issues at the heart of the Pale/Fringe culture, which she re-labels Pale/Pudeur. She observes that Moore’s mixing of derogatory commonplaces about Ireland and her declarations of Irishness (mainly drawn from a letter to Pound) both represents the dynamics of colonial gender discrimination and camouflages personal disclosure, which she tracks in two poems. In “Sojourn in the whale” (1917), Moore engages with the 1916 insurrection in the most reticent way and yet, as the woman poet she is, conflates her destiny with that of Ireland, examining “how the Victorian stereotype of the ‘essentially feminine’ Celt is experienced by those in the fringe” [152]. In “Spenser’s Ireland,” Moore probes the Irish cultural identity as formed in a certain number of texts, ranging from Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland (c.1596) to Maria Edgeworth’s novels and translated Gaelic folklore. By digging up these texts, O’Connor unravels Moore’s “chameleon” poetics which makes her “most American when traversing the borders between cultures in which the writing of cultures takes place” [187].

In each chapter, O’Connor focuses on a specific element the three poets under scrutiny picked up from their reading of Gaelic literature and understanding of the Pale/Fringe culture and re-worked in their own writing to give them a twist that gives an insight into their own creative process. For instance, dinnscheanchus or placelore, “a prominent feature of Irish folklore” that “translates the local landscape into a mythical terrain” [37] and síscealta (fairy legend) are of utmost importance for Yeats who reinvested them to build up lieux de mémoire for his own Irish topography. As for Hugh MacDiarmid, he draws on the Caledonian antisyzygy, a term coined by Gregory Smith in Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919) to designate the commingling of two moods, one dealing with commonplace detail, the other with a delight for the fantastic, understood as a “riposte to the Victorian dichotomy of Celtic whimsy and Anglo-Saxon despotism-of-fact” [124], to upset the stable categories of normal and bizarre, most notably in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. Yet O’Connor is even more convincing when she examines Moore’s use of the “Irish bull,” a blunder made by semi-anglicized Irish which is quoted and becomes cited as such, enabling the insiders of the Pale to mock the outsider blunderer. In “Spenser’s Ireland,” the Irish bull is read as a device to imaginatively re-appropriate the country Moore feels estranged from.

One of the main strengths of the analysis O’Connor makes of de-anglicization is the wide range of fields in which she inspects its applications. In each one of her three chapters on a poet, she starts with the topographical imagery of the Pale/Fringe opposition and moves on to its subversion, be it in terms of geography, or themes, or gender, and so on and so forth. Most importantly, she closely reads the texts she picks up to show how the Irish language plays against English prosody. The couple of unnecessary repetitions of definitions and the sometimes inconsistent use of the terms Gaelic and Celtic do not mar the seriousness with which Laura O’Connor takes us through the languages of the Celtic Fringe and the importance of de-anglicization in Yeats, MacDiarmid and Moore.



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