The Three Provincialities
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390 ] The Three Provincialities1 The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Design, 2 (Spring 1922) 11-13 It has been perceptible for several years that not one but three English literatures exist: that written by Irishmen, that written by Americans and that composed by the English themselves. Thirty years ago Irish and English literature were in a state of partial amalgamation. That is to say, the literary movement in England was very largely sustained by Irishmen; for some years, otherwise on the whole rather barren years, the depleted English ranks were filled by Irishmen. English literature lacked the vitality to assimilate this foreign matter; and, more recently, in accord with political tendencies , Irish writers (mostly of minor importance) have reassembled in Dublin.2 There remain, as a permanent part of English literature, some of the poetry of Yeats, and more doubtfully the plays of Synge (probably too local for permanence). As for the future, it may be predicted that the work of Mr. Joyce should arrest the separate Irish current, for the reason that it is the first Irish work since that of Swift to possess absolute European significance . Mr. Joyce has used what is racial and national and transmuted it into something of international value; so that future Irish writers, measured by the standard he has given, must choose either to pursue the same ideal or to confess that they write solely for an Irish, not for a European public. No more comic peasants, epic heroes, banshees, little people, Deirdres;3 Mr. Joyce has shown them up. Mr. James Stephens (I think it was) in a recent number of the Outlook advocated that Irish writers should return to the Irish language.4 In that case, there will be no further need to discuss Irish literature at all. American literature, in contrast to Irish, has not yet received this death blow from a native hand. Owing to the fact that America possesses a much greater number (even making full allowance for the difference of population ) of able second order writers than England, its “national literature” is extremely flourishing. If it has produced nothing of European importance it nevertheless counts a considerable number of intelligent writers; has several literary critics more alert and open-minded than any of their generation in this country; and some of its poets and novelists at least admire respectable ideals, and tend towards the light. The advance of “American [ 391 The Three Provincialities literature” has been accelerated by the complete collapse of literary effort in England. One may even say that the present situation here has now become a scandal impossible to conceal from foreign nations; that literature is chiefly in the hands of persons who may be interested in almost anythingelse;thatliteraturepresentstheappearanceofagardenunmulched, untrimmed, unweeded, and choked by vegetation sprung only from the chance germination of the seed of last year’s plants. It is a sign of the poverty and blindness of our criticism that in all three countries a mistaken attitude toward nationality has unconsciously arisen or has been consciously adopted. The point is this: literature is not primarily a matter of nationality, but of language; the traditions of the language , not the traditions of the nation or the race, are what first concern the writer. The Irish radicals are commendable in so far as they mark the necessity for a choice. Ireland must either employ a language of its own or submit to international standards. It is immaterial, from my point of view, whether English literature be written in London, in New York, in Dublin, in Indianapolis, or in Trieste. In fifty years time it may all make its appearance in Paris or in New York. But so far as it is literature of the first order, not merely an entertaining sideshow, it will be English literature. Should America in time develop a superior language (as Ireland may try to revert to a more barbarous one) there would be a separate American literature – contingent, probably, upon the disappearance or sufficient degeneration of the English language in England. Every literature has two sides; it has that which is essential to it as literature , which can be appreciated by everyone with adequate knowledge of the language, and on the other hand it has that which can only be enjoyed by a particular group of people inhabiting a particular portion of the earth. As in the end adequate knowledge of the language means complete knowledge , and as no person can ever have...