In A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, Hugh Kenner adds yet another to his impressive list of books on modern literature. Having previously published important studies of, among others, Ezra Pound (two), Wyndham Lewis, James Joyce (three), Samuel Beckett (three), and the American modernists, Kenner is one of the kings of twentieth century literary criticism. In A Colder Eye, he turns his attention to Ireland, re-creating in his own idiosyncratic way the milieu out of which came so much that is central to modern literature.
It is common in modern literature and art for technique or style to attract more attention than content in the traditional sense. In A Colder Eye, Kenner contributes to a similar trend of recent years in the formerly staid world of literary criticism. From his opening dedication of the book to the memory of a fictional character, Leopold Bloom, to his arch one- and two-word descriptions of each person listed in the index (Pablo Picasso: “modish painter”; Beckett: “immobilist”), Kenner gives a study in the manipulation of tone, juxtaposition, and anecdote to create an extended effect rather than a logical argument.
The “colder eye” of Kenner’s title is not only that of William Butler Yeats’s horseman in his poem “Under Ben Bulben”; it is Kenner’s, too, as he surveys modern Irish culture. Although at times affectionate, Kenner’s tone is essentially condescending. Many writers and critics, following John Millington Synge and Yeats, have seen Ireland as primarily tragic; others, following Joyce, as largely comic. Kenner follows the later tradition, but without the sympathetic identification that keeps the comic spirit from turning to detached cynicism. Of the 1916 Easter Uprising he says, “If you can suppress thought of the pain, the bloodshed, all the spilt idealism, much of what’s left is Keystone comedy.” It is clear here and throughout that Kenner has little difficulty suppressing such thoughts; he follows this observation with an anecdote about a carload of inept rebels driving off the end of a pier and drowning themselves. That this central event in Irish history has frequently been mythologized beyond recognition is a point often made and well-taken; that it should be depicted as merely the bumblings of fools seems less advisable.
Kenner’s puckish air extends to the writers he treats individually, none more so than Yeats. Kenner, refreshingly at times, will have none of the heavy seriousness with which other critics have treated every aspect of Yeats’s passion for the occult, for private symbolic systems, ancient towers, and the like. Instead, Kenner presents to the reader a thoroughly materialistic Yeats striding self-importantly up and down the aisles of the Abbey Theatre assessing the nightly take, a coddled Yeats playing the sensitive poet summer after summer at Coole Park. Which aspects of a writer’s character one heightens for what effect is a critic’s choice, made for distinct purposes. Interestingly, in his masterpiece The Pound Era (1971), Kenner chose to treat with tragic high seriousness two men, Pound and Wyndham Lewis, whose lives and personalities offer at least as much potential for caricature and deflation as those of Yeats and his countrymen.
Kenner prepares the groundwork for his deflationary treatment of twentieth century Irish culture in his opening chapter, entitled “Warning,” with a discussion of what he calls “Irish Fact.” Bluntly put, Kenner says that the Irish are liars, though for charming reasons. There is a preference in Ireland for the rhetorically satisfying over the merely true, and Heaven help the wandering critic who believes everything he is told by priests, peasants, pub keepers, or even fellow critics. Kenner adduces various entertaining “Irish Facts,” but does not address one’s suspicion that there is nothing uniquely Irish about misinformation, tall tales, leg-pulling, apocryphal stories, and the like. By so beginning his book, however, Kenner offers a clear “reader beware” for what follows, thereby both protecting himself from certain kinds of criticism and aligning himself with a typically modernist view of truth, memory, and the past.
The part of the past with which A Colder Eye is primarily concerned is that modern movement in Irish culture often called the Irish Revival. Again, Kenner finds mostly buffoonery and benightedness; his novelist’s gift for setting a scene is particularly evident in his evocation of the 1907 Abbey Theatre outbursts over Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907). Kenner portrays the revival as doomed, in a sense, by inherent tensions within Ireland itself. The revivalists, led by the...
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