A reply to Roland Burke Savage’s “Literature at the Irish Crossroads"
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[ 293 A reply to Roland Burke-Savage’s “Literature at the Irish Crossroads,” University College, Dublin, 23 Jan 1936 On his first visit to Ireland from 22 to 26 Jan 1936, TSE was the special guest of University College, Dublin, as respondent, lecturer, interviewee, and playwright for the inauguration of the English Literary Society in Earlsfort Terrace. The opening address on Thursday evening 23 Jan was given by the Society’s Auditor, Roland Burke-Savage, SJ, with an untitled response by TSE, who also proposed a “vote of thanks” for the speaker. The next day he delivered his formal lecture, “Tradition and the Practice of Poetry”; on the 25th he was interviewed for an Irish radio broadcast; on the 26th he attended a production of Murder in the Cathedral by the College Dramatic Society. Avowing that there is “a legitimate place for an Irish literature in the English tongue,” Burke-Savage argues that the present generation of Anglo-Irish writers, including Yeats, AE, Joyce, and others of whom he is highly critical, are members of “a non-Catholic clique” writing primarily for non-Irish readers. Quoting TSE’s statements in After Strange Gods about the relation of tradition, orthodoxy, and personality, he points to the lack of a strong philosophical and moral tradition by the writers: “Separated geographically from England, they are in revolt against Ireland, which is essentially Catholic, by reason of their Protestantism.” In the future, he declares, “Young Irish writers have only to steep themselves in their own traditional Catholic culture if they wish to give birth to a true Anglo-Irish literature. . . . Which of the ways shall Irish Literature go? We are at the Crossroads” (see textual note). The Proceedings were broadcast and were reported in the Irish Times of 24 Jan under the bylines “Literature at the Cross-Roads / College Society Paper / Views of Living Irish Writers.” So far as I am qualified to comment at all upon the subject matter under discussion, I am in agreement with the speaker on his main point, that the next generation in Irish literature has a new and difficult task before it, and that it cannot take its direction or its interests from the men who have made Irish literature in the last forty years.1 Furthermore, there is a choice before the next generation, which is perhaps more difficult than that which any previous generation has been faced with, and which will demand the greatest effort of consciousness and conscience. And if one believes that in imaginative writing is expressed the consciousness of a nation and a race, this is a very serious matter. What I have to say in comment, will be first an attempt to qualify the rather drastic criticism of the last generation, that we Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 294 ] have heard; and second, an attempt to place the crisis here in relation to the crisis of literature everywhere, as I see it. I should like first to pay my tribute of homage to the great work of Yeats. Of what he has done for Ireland I am not qualified to speak, but I know something about what he has done for poetry and drama in general. During the first years of the century, Yeats is the only poet whom I can remember who was doing any serious work in the English language at all. After the abortive movement of the nineties, England suffered from a poetic inbreeding which led to sterility; and America had produced nothing whatever since the death of Whitman. The poetry that Mr. Yeats produced during those years is not the work of his that I like best, but it was always the work of a serious craftsman; and just as he kept alive our hope of a poetic drama and a living theatre, so he maintained, for those who were able to recognise it, the tradition of living verse and the reality of an individual rhythm. If his work had come to an end twenty years ago he would still have performed a great service to letters. But Mr. Yeats’s verse has, in my opinion, steadily improved and has been at every moment, so to speak, up to date. As an example of lifelong devotion to poetry, he illustrates, for the benefit of every poet writing in any language, the reminder that a poet should go on developing, making new discoveries and taking new risks, throughout his life.2 And I venture to say that...