A Colder Eye

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1941

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...

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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 likes of Yeats and Lady Gregory, tended to be Protestant, Anglo-Irish, and aristocratic in a time when any of these were cause for suspicion. Conflicts with single-minded nationalists were inevitable and debilitating. Nothing, including pure acts of the imagination, could escape politicization. It was enough to make one want to wash one’s hands of the whole mess, and Joyce, for one, did exactly that.

An early and central concern in the revival was the collection of Irish folklore and the preservation of the Irish language. Kenner finds fertile ground for mockery in the doings of these passionate amateurs whose missionary zeal and inevitable blunders make them easy targets. Kenner, who long ago abandoned dull scholarly prose in his books, entertains the reader by slipping into his own version of pseudoIrish to parody the ignorant popularization in Irish journalism of folk speech:The trick is to drop in many a ’tis and wisha and imbeersa, and always spell “yellow” yella, faith an’ begorra, and though you’ve no ear at all for the tune of a sentence ’tis Ireland’s Own and Our Boys will have ye into print so fast they’ll not even read proof, awonomsa, and ... make believe yer the voice of the oul’ sod itself, mossa, the same that is watered wi’ th’ blood o’ saints, begannies, and it rich too with the spuds, the Lord save us all.

Kenner has a fondness in all of his books for the unnoted connection in temporally contiguous events, and such juxtapositions are frequently startling in their suggestiveness. In A Colder Eye, however, they often seem strained (the supposedly metaphysical language of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World comes “only six years before Grierson’s edition of Donne”) or even farfetched (Kenner sees a hitherto undiscovered “conjunction of timing” in Synge’s death, Yeats’s sister having a vision of a ship on the same night, and the laying down, a week later, of the keel of the Titanic). As with much contemporary criticism, one admires the ingenuity without being certain what one has learned.

The same can be said for the considerable space that Kenner devotes to prosody. His careful attention to the intricacies of the poetic and dramatic line yields enough light from time to time to give one faith that something worthwhile is also being said when one no longer quite follows the argument. The confident identification of specific sources for particular poems and forms, however, tests that faith, sometimes to the breaking point.

If there is a thesis to the book, it has to do with language. Kenner sees the Irish co-option of the conqueror’s tongue as one of the central developments (and ironies) of modernism. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Kenner suggests, was a more effective act of rebellion than the Easter Uprising in that it simultaneously completed and destroyed the 150-year tradition of the English picaresque novel. The assumption that the Irish use the English language in the same manner as the English themselves masks a subversive intent—the secret revenge of the protean, oral Irish language.

Kenner is at his best in exploring the qualities of Irish and Irish English and their implications for modernist literature. The primary illustration is Joyce, and the ultimate exhibit his Finnegans Wake (1939), a book the language of which “is like Irish in its capacity for assimilating anything at all, likewise for being open to infinite misinterpretation.” Kenner cites a study of Celtic languages to support his contention that meaning in Irish words and syntax (not to mention pronunciation) is unusually fluid and contextual, congruent with the modernist sensibility that finds its beginning and fulfillment in Joyce.

It is worth noting that the strongest parts of A Colder Eye deal with Joyce and Beckett, on both of whom Kenner has written extensively; significantly, neither was a part of the Irish revival, which Kenner is simply unable to take seriously. Joyce avoided its energy-draining entanglements and soon left Ireland, while Beckett matured after it was spent and also left for good measure. Kenner treats each with more respect than those who dirtied themselves in the Irish mud.

Kenner’s characteristic love of the unusual angle enjoys mixed success in A Colder Eye. An attempt to link Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) with the Gospels is uninspired, and critical acrobatics with the significance of the number eleven in Ulysses are merely tedious, but these are compensated for by an intriguing connection between Joyce’s work as a Berlitz language teacher and the structure of Ulysses. The Berlitz method forbade the teacher to speak anything other than the tongue to be learned, the initial total ignorance of the learner notwithstanding. It was learning by immersion, each lesson making the next slightly more comprehensible. Likewise, Ulysses, Kenner points out, is a new kind of text which provides only gradually within itself the skills necessary to understand even the first page. Hence, the familiar observation that Ulysses cannot be read but only re-read.

A Colder Eye offers brief treatments of other Irish writers: Sean O’Casey, George William Russell (Æ), Patrick Kavanagh, and Austin Clarke among others. They serve more as tools for Kenner’s debunking than as subjects deemed worthy of study for their own efforts. O’Casey, for example, serves well to show the fate of those who challenged the heroic version of Irish history—in this case, of the Easter Uprising. The reception in 1926 of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey proved that the Irish had changed little since the time of Synge’s troubles. Kavanagh helps Kenner skewer the mythic version of the wonderful Irish peasantry so central to nationalist propaganda.

A Colder Eye is not easily evaluated. When one removes all of that which is doubtful, strained, or simply sarcastic, what is left? Kenner’s search for a biographical origin for the mythical Stephen Daedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) perhaps offers a clue. A certain physics professor, Kenner relates, tried to fly with mechanical wings in the park behind Dublin’s Trinity College: “... if (as seems probable when you think how word of queer sights gets round Dublin) one of the faces one day at the College Park railings was that of thirteen-year-old Jim Joyce, then. ...” It is not necessary to finish the sentence. A great improbability magically “seems probable,” and the Irish character is invoked to harden the evidence. More than anything else in A Colder Eye, the reader is in the presence of a critic playing Irish storyteller. Warning readers from the beginning to beware of the “Irish Fact,” Kenner has adopted a strongly oral and highly entertaining style, lapsing at times into the vernacular himself; as he has done in the past with books on Pound and T. S. Eliot, he has adopted the style of his subject. Those who object to the stereotype of the Irish as essentially comical, incompetent, born to futility, but lovable, especially when drunk, are not likely to be pleased by Kenner’s book. The rest may be satisfied that they have heard a good story, even if not the truth.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 48

Antioch Review. XLI, Fall, 1983, p. 507.

Choice. XXI, October, 1983, p. 278.

Christian Science Monitor. October 18, 1983, p. 25.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 15, 1983, p. 825.

National Review. XXXV, April 15, 1983, p. 444.

New Statesman. CVI, August 5, 1983, p. 26.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, May 12, 1983, p. 40.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, March 11, 1983, p. 74.

Saturday Review. IX, July, 1983, p. 48.

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