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Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition

Donna L. Potts

Publication Year: 2011

In Contemporary Irish Poetry and the Pastoral Tradition, Donna L. Potts closely examines the pastoral genre in the work of six Irish poets writing today. Through the exploration of the poets and their works, she reveals the wide range of purposes that pastoral has served in both Northern Ireland and the Republic: a postcolonial critique of British imperialism; a response to modernity, industrialization, and globalization; a way of uncovering political and social repercussions of gendered representations of Ireland; and, more recently, a means for conveying environmentalism’s more complex understanding of the value of nature.


Potts traces the pastoral back to its origins in the work of Theocritus of Syracuse in the third century and plots its evolution due to cultural changes. While all pastoral poems share certain generic traits, Potts makes clear that pastorals are shaped by social and historical contexts, and Irish pastorals in particular were influenced by Ireland’s unique relationship with the land, language, and industrialization due to England’s colonization.


For her discussion, Potts has chosen six poets who have written significant collections of pastoral poetry and whose work is in dialogue with both the pastoral tradition and other contemporary pastoral poets. Three poets are men—John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley—while three are women—Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Five are English-language authors, while the sixth—Ní Dhomhnaill—writes in Irish. Additionally, some of the poets hail from the Republic, while others originate from Northern Ireland. Potts contends that while both Irish Republic and Northern Irish poets respond to a shared history of British colonization in their pastorals, the 1921 partition of the country caused the pastoral tradition to evolve differently on either side of the border, primarily because of the North’s more rapid industrialization; its more heavily Protestant population, whose response to environmentalism was somewhat different than that of the Republic’s predominantly Catholic population; as well the greater impact of the world wars and the Irish Troubles.



In an important distinction from other studies of Irish poetry, Potts moves beyond the influence of history and politics on contemporary Irish pastoral poetry to consider the relatively recent influence of ecology. Contemporary Irish poets often rely on the motif of the pastoral retreat to highlight various environmental threats to those retreats—whether they be high-rises, motorways, global warming, or acid rain. Potts concludes by speculating on the future of pastoral in contemporary Irish poetry through her examination of more recent poets—including Moya Cannon and Paula Meehan—as well as other genres such as film, drama, and fiction.


Published by: University of Missouri Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

Anthony Bradley’s “Pastoral in Modern Irish Poetry” and Sidney Burris’s The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition (1990) inspired me to reconsider the relationship of Heaney and, eventually, other contemporary Irish poets to the pastoral tradition. Bradley divides Irish poets into two groups: those of the Irish literary revival who lacked direct...

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pp. 1-18

The source of pastoral poetry can be traced to the boukolika (“ox-herding poems”) of the mid-third-century BC poet Theocritus of Syracuse. For Theocritus, “bucolic” poetry involved the exchange of song, often in a song contest, between herders, whether of oxen, sheep, cows, or goats. Writing in response to increasing urbanization of life and the consequent longing for the ...

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Chapter 1: A Lost Pastoral Rhythm: The Poetry of John Montague

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pp. 19-44

Antoinette Quinn describes John Montague as “a pastoral poet manqué, an elegist pining for the stability of lost rural rituals,” observing that even the village pub in his first collection, The Rough Field (1972), is named “The Last Sheaf.” “‘The Last Straw,’” she quips, “might have been more apt,” because Montague’s poetry is redolent with nostalgia for a lost world.1 Although ...

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Chapter 2: “The God in the Tree” : Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition

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pp. 45-74

Seamus Heaney’s 1975 review of The Penguin Book of English Pastoral Verse observes that its selections come primarily from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and include only three poets who could be considered modern—Hardy, Hopkins, and Yeats—suggesting that the editors regard pastoral as a dying tradition. Heaney questions this assumption, contending that ...

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Chapter 3: “Love Poems, Elegies: I am losing my place ” : Michael Longley’s Environmental Elegies

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pp. 75-97

In an interview with Fran Brearton, then a student at the University of Durham, Michael Longley was asked to discuss the closing lines of his book The Ghost Orchid: “Love poems, elegies: I am losing my place. / Elegies come between you and my face.” Longley quips that while Fran is at the stage in her life for going to weddings, he has arrived at the stage for going to ...

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Chapter 4: Learning the Lingua Franca of a Lost Land: Eavan Boland’s Suburban Pastoral

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pp. 98-117

In her 1988 homage to Elizabeth Bishop, “An Un-Romantic American,” Eavan Boland describes her first encounter with Bishop’s work, a poem titled “The Moose” in an anthology of American poetry she had been sent for review: ...

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Chapter 5: “In My Handerkerchief of a Garden” : Medbh McGuckian’s Miniature Pastoral Retreats

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pp. 118-138

Medbh McGuckian’s book The Flower Master, more than any of her sub-sequent collections of poetry, relies on the conventions of pastoral poetry. Replete with natural imagery, mentioning flowers, plants, fruits, and seeds in every poem but one (“The ‘Singer’”), it establishes contrasts between nature and civilization, city and country, ultimately privileging the values associated ...

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Chapter 6: “When Ireland Was Still under a Spell” : Miraculous Transformations in the Poetry of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

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pp. 139-161

In Southern Review’s 1995 special issue on contemporary Irish poetry and criticism, a recurring theme is the woman poet’s continued efforts to focus attention on the place of women in Irish culture—an effort that has often entailed rejecting the traditional iconography employed by male poets in favor of incorporating women as symbol—Mother Ireland, Queen Medbh, ...

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Conclusion: The Future of Pastoral

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pp. 162-178

It seems evident by now that reports of pastoral’s death, like that of Mark Twain over a hundred years ago, have been greatly exaggerated. Although Barrell and Bull traced its death to the ostensible erasure, in the nineteenth century, of the distinction between country and city; critics from Raymond Williams to Roger Sales charged it with a dangerous escapism that served to ...


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pp. 179-192


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pp. 193-206


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pp. 207-216

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272690
E-ISBN-10: 082627269X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219435
Print-ISBN-10: 0826219438

Page Count: 230
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 1