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Ireland and Romanticism


Publics, Nations and Scenes of Cultural Production


Edited by Jim Kelly


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Hardcover. 229 p. ISBN 978-0-230-27457-0. £50.00


Reviewed by Sylvie Mikowski

Université de Reims-Champagne-Ardenne


The word “romanticism” sits uneasily with the literary history of Ireland. First, because as Jim Kelly, the editor of this volume, puts it in his introduction, the coinage was appropriated by Yeats who in his poem “September 1913” lamented the passing away of “Romantic Ireland”, a nostalgia that many contemporary critics have deemed reactionary and at odds with the social realities of the country. Then because the same year as The Lyrical Ballads were published in England in 1798, the United Irishmen rebellion broke out in Ireland, an uprising supported by the French Directoire, and it ended up in a blood bath and the decision in 1800 to incorporate Ireland into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland—a far cry from the Republic imagined by Theobald Wolfe Tone and his followers. All this goes to say that the political situation in England and in Ireland was not such that it could lead to the production of the same forms of culture and literature in the two countries. Yet, as Jim Kelly contends, the widening scope of Irish studies in the recent decade, as well as the revising of strict definitions of Romanticism, especially through the recent contributions of historicist studies, now allow to consider the relationship between Ireland and Romanticism in a new perspective, which is decidedly historical rather than generic.

Irish literature in the Romantic era was intensely political, at a time when writers believed that they could either explain the Irish situation to their English readers or persuade members of the Protestant Ascendancy to mend their attitudes and behaviours towards their Irish Catholic tenants. Yet it is one of the aims of this volume to show that Irish writers of the time were also fascinated by other cultures and tried to define their own national identity through the example of other nations. This opening up of Irish literature to the rest of the world works two ways, Irish writers making an imprint on European culture as well as receiving decisive influence from it. Despite received ideas about the insularity and backwardness of the Irish—an idea enhanced by the Revivalist ideal of an immutable, timeless Irish character—the circulation of newpapers and books allowed Irish society in the early 19th century to be permeated by the same ideas as the rest of Europe, as is exemplified by Pronsias O’Drisceoil in his chapter about an amateur antiquarian whose diary provides a valuable insight into the cultural ideas in provincial Ireland in the 1820s and 1830s. O’Drisceoil shows that the knowledge of international events helped the Irish to forge an opinion on the process of modernisation going on in their own country at the time, especially regarding the decline of the Gaelic language in favour of English.

Conversely, the violent and tragic events going on in Ireland at the turn of the 19th century impressed English people’s imagination, as is put forward by Tim Webb relating the fate of a 1798 rebellion informer who was hanged and whose corpse was mutilated by the Dublin crowd, justifying the disgust of the English audience at the ferocity of the Irish Catholic mob. The newspapers’ reports of the events, more or less inaccurate and distorted, nurtured gothic imagination of such men as William Goldwin, who travelled to Dublin at the time of the execution and reported it in a letter to his daughter Mary.

But the dialogue between Ireland and the world was not restricted to England. Chapters in this volume examine various kinds of relationships between Irish writers and Spain, Switzerland, Scotland, Canada, and of course the USA. The great political instability of the period in Catholic Spain thus provided Irish writers with a constant parallel, increased by the tradition of Irish priests going to Spain to be educated in Catholic colleges. The Spanish romanceros in particular and ballad tradition were attractive to Irish poets, among whom James Clarence Mangan. Calderón was as well received in Ireland as he was in Germany or England. As to the relation between Ireland and Scotland, it is of course embodied by the poet Robert Burns, whose influence in Ireland according to Stephen Dornan in this volume must not be limited to the Ulster Presbyterians. Two of the instances he offers are William Carleton, called “our great prose Burns” by Yeats, and Thomas Moore, particularly through his interest in the genre of the national song.

Moore is obviously regarded by scholars as central to Irish Romanticism, if one must take into account the number of articles devoted to him in this volume. Jane Moore examines him under an unexpected angle when she reminds us of the poet’s travels to Canada and the United States in the earlier part of his career. The lyric verse he composed in Canada was in complete contrast with the satires he wrote on America, a duality Jane Moore considers essential to understand “the transatlantic dimension of British and European Romanticism in the early nineteenth century”. Surprisingly enough, Moore was very critical of what he found in the young American republic, and expressed strong anti-Jeffersonian opinions in his Epistles, Odes and Other Poems (1806). He was especially outraged by the hypocrisy over slavery from the Democrats, and imbued with a sense of his own cultural superiority. In Canada on the contrary he found in the wildness of the landscapes an inspiration to experiment in the Romantic sublime, a vein which he had not used so far and was to influence his later work, most of all the famous Irish Melodies, which placed him at the heart of nineteenth-century Irish romanticism.

It is up to Adrian Paterson to take up from there and examine what exactly is romantic about the Irish Melodies. What made Moore a quintessential romantic poet in Paterson’s view is that Romanticism concerns itself deeply with the issue of origins and that “no poet played with origins and originality more than Moore”. The origin of the Irish Melodies was of course music, which, according to German philosophers and to Rousseau, preceded words in its capacity to express feelings. The Melodies, with their frequent allusions to sighing and breathing, were supposed to express feeling, where language and music originate. Moore is famous for his use of the image of the harp, a symbol which was also familiar to Sydney Owenson, another central figure of Irish romanticism, if only as the alleged founder of the genre of the Irish national tale. Yet as Susan Egelnof reminds us, Owenson wrote novels set in France, Italy, Greece, India and Belgium. Besides, all her works were primarily published in London, and for most of them, in Philadelphia and New York as well, and everywhere in her work the European influence is marked, to such a point that a critic has defined the representation of her heroines as “hyper-hybridity”.

Besides, Christina Morin in her own chapter questions the boundaries established in literary criticism between “the national tale” and the Gothic novel, two genres considered typical of Irish Romantic fiction. She establishes a parallel between Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey—a now-forgotten romance which was hugely popular in the last decade of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century—and Maria Edgeworth’s The Absentee. Whereas the first is generally considered Radcliffean gothic, and the second held by critics to illustrate the genre of the National Tale, Morin’s point is to show the actual porosity of the two genres, how Ireland interferes in Roche’s allegedly gothic story and how, conversely, Edgeworth’s tale displays gothic features through the character of Grace Nugent, who embodies “threatening Irish catholicism and the Gothic return of the past it represents”. Moreover, both novels testify to the terror of the past and the hold of the dead over the living, despite readings of them as romances of reconciliation through marriage identifying them as “national tales”.

As may be understood, the volume raises questions as to the relevance of such a phrase as “Irish romanticsm”, and two chapters address the particular issue of canon formation. For Jim Shanahan, there is a need to re-evaluate the way the canon of Romantic literature was centred around English literature, and how it incorporated Irish Romanticism instead of considering it as a separate entity. Shanahan also argues that literary history should take into account texts which enable us today to have an insight into what he calls “their own time’s space of experience”. We should be able to grasp in what ways “readers and reading in the past operated in a different reading environment from that of today”. A telling example of the blind spots of literary history is that of the “national tale”, a label which Shanahan deems largely “retrospective”. Irish texts in the 1790s, he points out, were as likely not to be about Ireland at all as they were to deal with Irish issues; and when they did, it was not always in a homogenous way, as he shows in his analysis of a novel called The Matron of Erin: A National Tale, which contradicts the main political, symbolic or social tenets of Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl.

In his afterword, Stephen Behrendt insists again on the difference which must be made between “Irish Romanticism”, “Ireland and Romanticism”, and even “Romanticism and Ireland”. Like Shanahan he deplores the practice of defining “British” romanticism almost exclusively in terms of English writers. One of the reasons why Irish literature of the period is generally considered marginal except for the names of Moore or Owenson, Behrendt suggests, is because the “native” production, written in Irish, was itself buried and forgotten, either because it was mediated by English authors, or because it was, and still is, neglected by scholars who too often spread the idea that Irish by the end of the 19th century was largely an extinct language. That is why texts of all sorts must be recovered and reassessed, and questions about reading and writing conditions investigated—hence the importance of book history for that period.




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