The Dead Kingdom

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1658

John Montague has been writing poetry for more than twenty-five years, and ever since his first volume, he has tried to write what might be called a “national” poetry. The presence of Ireland, its landscape, historical consciousness, and people, have been as important to his poetry as his own personality. In 1966, the American critic M. L. Rosenthal wrote about Montague’s second collection of poems, Poisoned Lands (1961): “In Poisoned Lands as a whole, indeed, that sense of involvement with the whole of Irish reality, at once nostalgic and critical, appreciative and uncompromising, is what gives the work its authority.” Since then, Montague’s concern for Ireland, whether as history, as current events, legend, or essence, has remained constant, and he has dealt with it from a variety of perspectives in the six volumes that have followed Poisoned Lands. One of those collections—The Rough Field (1972)—contains a long sequence of poems on Ulster’s history. In addition, Montague has immersed himself in old Irish literature and edited The Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974). His latest collection, The Dead Kingdom, is an interesting attempt by a resourceful poet to fuse personal experiences with a distilled sense of the nation in which he lives, with Ireland.

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There are several good reasons for wanting to write a “national poetry.” It brings with it a large readership and establishes an immediate communicative bond between reader and writer. It confers a broader meaning on the places, people, and objects described in the poems, acting as an instant mode of reference. The poet’s desires and aspirations become comparable to national aspirations; by reference to the nation, impulses which might be isolated or unique, without any broader reverberation, become laden with significance—they become those of everyman or, in this case, every Irishman. The potential rewards are enormous. It can permit the poet to be both respected, or serious, and popular at the same time. Some of the most famous poets have been also national poets, such as Walt Whitman in the United States and William Butler Yeats in Ireland. The greatest poets of numerous European countries have been associated with a sense of national mission—and when that nation has had a relatively recent awakening, as in the case of Ireland, the pressures to write a patriotic or broadly national poetry are enormous.

There are, however, pitfalls. One is that of parochialism, or narrowness—what is the non-Irish reader to make of these poems? Luckily, Montague adopts a critical as well as loving attitude toward Ireland, and the audience for which he writes is broader than a purely ethnic readership of Irish and Irish-Americans. A moving poem about Ulster in this volume, “Red Branch (A Blessing),” has the following stanza:

Sing an end to sectarianism,Fenian and Free Presbyterian,the punishment slowly grownmore monstrous than the crime,an enormous seeping bloodstain.

Nationalism, too, is a form of sectarianism. In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), the nation is one of the nets of which Stephen Dedalus must fly free in order to find his true artistic identity and freedom. Another pitfall, not always avoided in this book, is overreliance on place-names and historical associations. The poem “Bog Royal” ends:

the soundof bells in monasticsites, above the stillbroadening Shannon,or sheltered on some lakeshore or wooded island:from Derg to Devenish,Loughs Gowna to Erne.

Even for the reader who can recognize the names, it is a disappointing closure for a poem.

A further pitfall, almost impossible for an Irish poet to avoid, is the overpowering presence of predecessors. Other poets with a highly charged sense of national identity have preceded Montague, and his endeavor can easily become derivative if it is not renewed and made immediate by his own personal experience. The presence of Yeats hovers over most of the poems in this collection: It can be seen in their form, especially the slim stanzas with their five- or six-beat lines. As in “Bog Royal,” Montague has adopted the visual form of these stanzas more than the Yeatsian rhythm:

A nomadic world ofhunters and hunted;beaten moons of gold,a flash of lost silver,figures coiling arounda bronze trumpet mouth

The “beaten” metal, the gold and silver, are part of the Yeatsian repertory. When a younger poet or epigone has read and reread Yeats, and read others who have submitted to his influence, the cumulative effect comes to operate on a subconscious level; it becomes almost too much not to submit to it in turn. The process of forming metaphors becomes Yeatsian: “The sky presses down/ metal heavy, a helmet/ banding the forehead ” (“Lake Dwelling: Crannóg”).

Certain words, whose particular associations have been defined by another poet, are also used with those same associations—as in “sweet” well water. The presence of the older poet and senator can also be seen in the tone of many poems in this volume, and the rather slow, deliberate movement of the lines as they progress, with calculated forward-moving enjambment, recalling Yeats’s ceremonial decorum and deliberateness. Also, the iconography of memory and childhood is heavily influenced by Yeats, as well as the appeal to myth: “A ghostly swan dips by;/ Fionnuala, lost in her tragedy?”

The dilemma of Montague is not his alone, although it must be acutely felt by Irish poets. In the United States, too, especially in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, poets and critics alike felt the overpowering influence of Yeats. Theodore Roethke described his own act of composition in his essay “On Identity”; he had recently finished writing the poem “The Dance”: “I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down—I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence—as if Yeats himself were in that room” If the influence was so irresistible for an American poet—who before then had developed a highly original, idiosyncratic style of his own, quite different from the formal style of Yeats—how much more so it must have been for a young Irish poet beginning to write in the 1950’s. What is remarkable, probably, is that Montague has resisted Yeats’s influence as much as he has. He in turn immersed himself in Irish history and mythical lore, and retrieved his own relevant myths, such as that of “The Black Pig” in the third section of The Dead Kingdom.

The fourth and fifth sections of the book probe in a very different direction—Montague’s own family history. Section 4—“The Silver Flask”—is about his parents and the voyage they made to the United States as economic immigrants. His father earned little money and the family did not prosper, eventually returning to Ireland. In this section of the book, Irish mythology and the formal influence of Yeats are happily left behind. The family split up, and the young Montague was put in a foster home—the poems at the end of the volume, in particular “A Flowering Absence,” try to come to grips with this traumatic rejection.

Year by year, I track it downintent for a hint of evidence,seeking to manage the pain—howa mother gave away her son.

This poem is one of the most moving in the book; it is direct and honest. The language is strangely close to prose, even more so than that of the first two sections of the book. “Year by year” has a hint of deadness and Lowellian self-flagellation. Later in the same poem, Montague mentions his father and continues:

So I found myself shipped backto his home, in an older country,transported to a previous century,where his sisters restored me,natural love flowering around me.

Is this really the language most appropriate for such a hurt, such pain? The poignancy, the authenticity of the experience are never in doubt, yet it is strangely difficult to visualize the “flowering” love stated narratively but not rendered. The poem concludes with a description of his Irish elementary-school teacher ridiculing his Brooklyn accent and prohibiting the other schoolchildren from talking like him. This reinforced his wound of rejection and produced a speech impediment—a stutter—that was to torture him for two decades. “My tongue became a rusted hinge/ until the sweet oils of poetry// eased it and light flooded in.” The notion of the “oil,” or eloquence, of poetry has a convincing metaphorical basis in the “rusted” stuttering tongue which needed to be lubricated in order to be freed. Nevertheless, the oils are “sweet”—once again the residual Yeatsian rhetoric, used sparingly but in no way excluded.

The Dead Kingdom represents a very resourceful exploitation of national history on the one hand, bitter personal experience on the other, and the two modes are contrasted, the book begins with the first—the national—and ends with the second—the personal. The language to a certain extent holds them together but not completely. The “oil,” or sweet eloquence, of literary tradition is more prominent in the first two sections, although mixed with rhythms that are essentially prose. It is greatly diluted in the last sections, with nothing to take its place despite the very different subject matter. These are confessional poems only in content, not in form. How difficult it is to be a writer who must follow in the footsteps of giants—the lot of an epigone is not a happy one, as Roethke knew. Still, it can be looked at from a totally different perspective—if one can make an imaginative leap, seeing his own epoch from a great distance—and other poets, other readers, might exclaim with a sudden sense of recognition: how overdue people are for a renewal of language, for revolt. Perhaps some literary and rhetorical traditions are so strong and so intertwined in a nation’s history that revolt against them is inconceivable.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14

British Book News. September, 1984, p. 566.

Listener. CXII, July 19, 1984, p. 25.

Times Literary Supplement. October 5, 1984, p. 1124.

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