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The late Richard Ellmann is remembered as the author of the massive and monumental biography of James Joyce, as well as for his scholarly books on Yeats, his editing of Joyce's letters, and his sponsorship of numerous serious projects involving study of modern Irish writers. It is a bit surprising, therefore, against this background of academic weightiness, to read his four short essays adapted from lectures delivered at the Library of Congress from 1982 to 1985, collected under the title of Four Dubliners. Here, in fewer than twenty pages per writer, Professor Ellmann is able to throw off the ponderous machinery of notes and bibliography, of charts and catalogues, to speak as a man talking to men and women of four writers not often lumped together in a literary heap. [End Page 721]
With ease and charm, the author relates these artists to one another not merely as Dubliners but in points of biographical connection, philosophy, common approaches to literature—thematic and stylistic—and in the manner they sought to cope with their world.
With obvious relish (as the author of the forthcoming biography of Oscar Wilde), Ellmann distills the essence of Wilde into his short lecture. Many stereotypical misconceptions about Wilde are exposed. The reader learns that Ruskin, not Pater, exerted the stronger influence on Wilde at Oxford and that Wilde was a proclaimed aesthete only in a half-mocking way. True, he seriously pondered conversion to Catholicism, but he also flirted with atheism and Freemasonry. True, he traveled to Rome as a religious quester, but he also went to Greece for its pagan appeal. True, in his writing Wilde is an apologist for homosexuality, but in his own young life he practiced heterosexuality at university, even acquiring syphilis from a female prostitute. Thus Richard Ellmann tries successfully to show that Wilde was a man of contradictions who, as it turned out, profited from them.
Ellmann applies this test of contraries to his other subjects too. Yeats sees life as a "conflict of contraries" and so paints it in his poetry, whether the topic is love or art or a philosophical overview of existence. Beckett also deals in contradiction: it is difficult to know whether Murphy is seeking plentitude or emptiness. It is hard to distinguish the difference between laughter and tears. Ellmann's treatment of Joyce's contradictions is less straightforward, but the lecture gives a fascinating view of the Irish novelist as philanderer. The four pieces are memorable not only for what they contribute in insight but for the witty and urbane quality of the writing.
The Mechanic Muse is Hugh Kenner's contribution to the lecture circuit—four talks on Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Beckett, with an introductory and a concluding essay on related topics. Like Ellmann's, Kenner's talks are polished, erudite, crackling with esoteric information, and warm with humor and wisdom. The thread that ties the lectures together is the burgeoning influence of mechanical progress on literature and the literary mind in the early twentieth century.
The alarm clock and the underground network of urban train systems offer T. S. Eliot powerful images of the modern condition as they impinge on, and actually contribute to, the arid lives of millions of Londoners, forcing them into a lockstep of daily awakenings, of fruitless departures and arrivals that constitute "life." That Eliot is wearily aware of the mechanical forces governing the urban waste land is clear. His employment of such images is at once a protest and a recognition of their dominion over him as citizen and artist.
For Pound, as Kenner sees it, the influence of the machine is more evident in techniques involving the placement of lines on the printed page of poetry than in the employment of imagery. The critic's demonstration of Pound at work in such a poem as "The Return" is masterful—and clear proof of his thesis. Beyond that, Professor Kenner shows how Pound's credo for the Imagists...