restricted access A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, and: The Irish Short Story: A Critical History (review)
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Reviewed by
Hugh Kenner. A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. New York: Penguin, 1984. 367 pp. pb. $8.95.
James F. Kilroy, ed. The Irish Short Story: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1984. 251 pp. $17.95.

"A Colder Eye" is an expression of Yeatsian origin, and it does not signify what the casual reader might think. As Kenner notes, the connotation of the English word "cold" in the sense of disinterested, or the antonym of passionate, is not what Yeats forced it to mean in his language. There it means concentrated, [End Page 377] even passionate attention. Thus this book must define terms we thought we knew, even from the title onward, in quite peculiar ways.

This book raises challenges for itself, then meets them. Kenner makes us see afresh the importance of Yeats, of Synge, of Joyce and Beckett, and others, in the creation of International Modernism—which defined itself in the years 1910-30. Its principal effect was that "English" ceased to belong to England, "where they shared usages, intonations, hence memory, a history." The language of International Modernism, English "now belonged to the English, the Irish, and the Americans, but most particularly, to the Irish," whose masterpieces "define a tradition of their own." Not the least of this book's delights derives from the author's relish for the Irish appropriation of the English language, which somewhat preceded the reacquisition of their statehood. That appropriation was, as Kenner remarks often, a virtuoso performance. Both Yeats and Joyce carried it out deliberately, and they "took possession of the language" making of it "contrivances" so wholly original as to disengage English from the literary history of England. The conquest was achieved by these and other modern Irish writers who transformed the language by redefining the intentions of words (for example, "cold"), by including in their writings the speaking habits of (non-literate) Irish, and by adding "Celtic humor, acquired in pubs or from the blood." Three entrancing chapters, not themselves devoid of humor, wherever derived, trace the efforts of several figures in the Irish Revival and their collective impact on Yeats and Joyce particularly. For once, a book on Irish writers in English deals intelligibly with the specific effect that the Irish language has on them—especially wherein it differs strongly from English.

Demonstration of the effect of the Irish tongue on Yeats is exceedingly difficult (especially because Yeats never really learned it himself), but Kenner is persuasive. As the reigning Anglo-Irish poet, Yeats's burden was two-fold: he carried the history of Ireland and the history of the English language, a burden implicit in every word. His tradition in poetry was that of English, whereas the true Irish mind is "held by the realities of talk," and thus Yeats's early poetic efforts did not inform the Irish public of its heritage. To do that, he turned to plays, wherein the living Irish voice could be heard.

The reputation that Yeats virtually created for Synge and his, efforts to place Synge "into the myth of modern Ireland" plus Synge's own independent success as a dramatist, and his contribution to the Irish legacy, are given new currency in Kenner's appraisal of him in the chapter titled "The Living World for Text." However, it was Joyce's privilege to cast a colder eye upon the English language. Both Dubliners and A Portrait reflect Joyce's invaluable experience of teaching English according to the Berlitz system, which forced him to confront anew the English language, idiom by idiom. For Kenner, Ulysses is a "book from which we are systematically taught the skills we require to read it." The subject of study in "The Book of the Century" is the English language, itself. Kenner's subsequent remarks when discussing both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake treat Joyce's onomastic resourcefulness on some of the best pages of Joyce criticism in this generation.

Kenner is adept at sketching the poetic reputations of Paddy Kavanaugh and Austin Clarke as they stand out from Yeats's lengthy shadow in a chapter titled "Two Eccentrics." In "The Mocker" he remarks on Flann O'Brien's [End Page 378] ingenuity...


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