The Dead Kingdom
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1658 words.)