- Learning to be Brutal: Synge, Decadence, and the Modern Movement
Prematurely dead in 1909, Synge’s shade haunts early modernism. In John Gould Fletcher’s 1937 autobiography, Life is My Song, for instance, the sometime Imagist poet invokes the Irish writer in the context of recollecting his ecstatic reception of the first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre de printemps in May 1913. The ballet confirmed in him his “determination to risk everything in order to become a modern artist”:
To be a modern artist involved, I saw, a determination to make and accept every kind of experiment, and not to flinch from any novelty, however strange and uncouth it might seem, or however deeply it aroused the hatred of the mob. . . . There was but one lesson the modern artist must learn and ponder: the lesson already proclaimed by the Irish dramatist Synge, who had said that poetry, to be human again, must learn first to be brutal.1
Gould’s self-styled “revolt against the elaborations of end-of-the-century aestheticism” alludes to Synge’s famous assertion in his preface to the posthumously published Cuala Press edition of his Poems and Translations (1909). Synge wrote,
In these days poetry is usually a flower of evil or good, but it is the timber of poetry that wears most surely, and there is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay & worms. Even if we grant that exalted poetry can be kept successful by itself, the strong things of life are needed in poetry also, to show that what is exalted, or tender, is not made by feeble blood. It may almost be said that before verse can be human again it must learn to be brutal.2 [End Page 33]
Disarmingly, Synge concedes immediately that the majority of the sixteen original poems included in this slim collection do not conform to these precepts. Indeed, only a handful of Synge’s later poems—among them “Queens,” “The Passing of the Shee,” “The ’Mergency Man,” and “Danny”—appear to exhibit, to varying extents, the “brutality” that the preface advocates and which Gould enthusiastically endorsed.
In contrast, Synge’s earlier poetry and related prose is enmeshed in precisely that Aestheticism Gould applauded him for programmatically rejecting. Among Synge’s earliest sustained work, Vita Vecchia (an unfinished mixed-genre work of poems framed and interlarded with prose, after the example of Dante’s La Vita Nuovo) flounders amid the influence of the avant-garde nineteenth-century French and English literature in which Synge was immersed during his sojourns in Paris from 1895 to 1903. The later preface’s echo of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal might be taken to betray the ambivalence with which Synge, in the 1890s, absorbed the Decadent and Symbolist writings of J. K. Huysmans, Stéphane Mallarmé, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, and which we find him addressing directly in Etude Morbide, an early prose piece closely associated with Vita Vecchia.3 Unlike Huysmans’s protagonist, Des Essientes—who delights in flowers that look artificial—Synge’s persona in the Etude eventually realizes he cannot renounce nature for artifice: “among the hills,” unable to stomach poetically anything “except the songs of the peasants and some of Wordsworth and Dante,” he asserts that all “art that is not conceived by a soul in harmony with some mood of the earth is without value. . . . When I am here I do not think without a shudder of the books of Baudelaire or Huysmans” (Prose 35).
In the Etude, Breton culture and the landscape of Brittany grant the persona a vista of an alternative experience of art to that imparted by such now-distasteful metropolitan authors. Residing “near the end of Finisterre,” he comments, [End Page 34]
Since I came here my daily readings of the saints and Stoics have lost their interest, and I live simply and naturally as the peasants do. . . . I have my fiddle here and I make the peasants dance in the evenings. My skin shivers while I play to see that in spite of the agony of the world there are still men and women joyous enough to leap and skip with exultation...