Padraic Colum

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Padraic Colum 1881–1972

Irish-born American dramatist, poet, novelist, essayist, biographer, children's writer, and editor.

Colum was a central figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance. He first gained recognition in 1902 as one of the founders of the Irish National Theatre, later known as the Abbey Theatre. Unlike William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, who were also co-founders of the Abbey, Colum rejected intellectual treatment of Irish issues and believed that Ireland would be most accurately represented by the dialect and lifestyle of its peasantry. Colum and John M. Synge are regarded by many critics as the company's most important nationalistic playwrights because of their emphasis on the speech and the attitudes of the common Irishman.

Colum's first plays, Broken Soil (1903), The Land (1905), and Thomas Muskerry (1910), were among the most popular of the Abbey's early productions. However, Colum left the company because of a disagreement in policy and wrote little subsequent drama, becoming instead a poet of modest reputation. While his poetry is largely narrative and free of obscure symbolism, it is also lyrical and illustrates the musical dimension of the peasant dialect. Wild Earth, a volume published in 1907, contains many of Colum's best poems.

Colum moved with his wife to the United States in 1914, and lived there for the rest of his life. However, the themes of his work remained as devoted to the Irish people as when he lived in Ireland. Colum's first novel, Castle Conquer (1923), has a poetic quality and focuses on the rural folkways which are so prominent in his poetry. The late novel, The Flying Swans (1957), is a bildungsroman which resembles James Joyce's Stephen Hero and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Throughout his career Colum wrote many books for children; these stories and tales are rich in mythology and Irish folklore. Through these works, as well as his factual chronicles, Colum sought to expand international recognition and appreciation of Irish literature. Colum's entire oeuvre is dedicated to the importance of Irish tradition and the beauty of Ireland's speech and history.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed. [obituary]; Something about the Author, Vol. 15; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 19.)

Alice Corbin Henderson

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Padraic Colum is one of the most gifted, if not the most gifted, of the younger Irish poets…. Some of the other younger Irish poets have seemed to echo Mr. W. B. Yeats, as was indeed quite natural; but Mr. Colum by no means wears the mantle of the older poet. Whereas Mr. Yeats' own dreams are usually reflected in his poems representing peasant life, or whereas Mr. Yeats almost always sees the peasant through the glamour of "old mythologies," Mr. Colum gives us the peasant as nearly as possible in the peasant's own terms, and with a direct, concrete touch. Of course the distinction is not watertight, nor meant to be. Mr. Yeats' old woman making the fire at dawn, when "the seed of the fire gets feeble and low," is as direct as possible; and Mr. Colum's poems are not untouched by the glamour of tradition and "the thought of white ships and the King of Spain's daughter." How else could it be, and he a poet?

However, the reader who turns to Mr. Colum's poems [in Wild Earth and Other Poems ] with this distinction in mind will realize something of his artistic method. He has identified himself with his subject, and his own personality is not obtruded except as it is incidentally revealed. This is the method of genuine "folk" poetry—be it Greek or Irish or of any race at all. Such poetry has the solidity of life, of...

(This entire section contains 464 words.)

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the hills or of the earth itself, and the titleWild Earth is indeed appropriate. (pp. 105-06)

I do not mean to indicate by what I have said that Mr. Colum's poems are entirely objective, or that, being objective in method, they do not serve to convey subjective and personal emotions. There are many beautiful poems in the book that give us the sense of personal vision and passion. The Wayfarer … is one of these. There is much primal feeling—I know no other way to name it—in all that this poet writes. His poems take hold of earth and do not let go. This is a feeling which does not recognize division between nature and man or between man and man. (p. 106)

Mr. Colum is an artist with the conscientiousness of a thorough craftsman, and his touch is always authentic. I have not mentioned his humor, which makes him doubly sympathetic—of course there is no real sympathy without humor; but that goes without saying. His work is a definite contribution to Irish literature; it is a permanent contribution to English poetry. (pp. 107-08)

Alice Corbin Henderson "That Wilder Earth" (© 1917 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry and the Literary Estate of Alice Corbin Henderson), in Poetry, Vol. X, No. 11, May, 1917, pp. 105-08.

The Dial

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[Mogu, the Wanderer] is fantastic and full of authentic oriental color. It moves in a world, both physically and psychologically remote, where Fate, though never actually present to the eye, is really the chief actor. It is a world intrinsically democratic where, by Fate's intervention, a beggar and his daughter may serve as lofty a purpose as a king. There Fate makes all, least and greatest, but the puppets of its will. The actors suffer and rejoice, and believe themselves to be acting freely, but he is most wise and content who realizes that he is only the servant of a higher power. To the occidental believer in the power of the will, there is something too humiliating in this belief, an indefinable something too spineless, too resigned and weak. To some, however, the mystic idea of self-immolation is lofty and beautiful. To these, the yielding of will and responsibility only makes man the more free in his actions. Mogu, the beggar, made vizier for a brief time, plays both parts with the proper gestures, returning to beggardom gracefully. The working out of his destiny is necessarily accompanied by a grim humor with suggestive, comic high-lights that make the play very readable. Mr. Colum displays his talent as a dramatist in the ordered and economical use of few materials and in his easy familiarity with stage technique. (pp. 445-46)

A review of "Mogu, the Wanderer," in The Dial, Vol. LXII, No. 742, May 17, 1917, pp. 445-46.

Ernest Boyd

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Padraic Colum was the first of the peasant dramatists, in the strict sense of the word; he was, that is to say, the first to dramatise the realities of rural life in Ireland. Where Synge's fantastic intuition divined human prototypes, Colum's realistic insight revealed local peasant types, whose general significance is subordinate to the immediate purpose of the dramatist. Together they define the limits within which our folk-drama has developed, for none of the later playwrights has added anything to the tradition initiated by Padraic Colum and J. M. Synge. With rare exceptions, which will be noticed, their successors have failed to give personality to their work, contenting themselves with certain general formulae, whose elaboration leaves them as far from the restraint of Colum as from the flamboyancy of Synge. For, it is interesting to note, the former dramatist is the direct antithesis of the latter, nor has he been at all influenced by him, in spite of the disparity of their respective successes. Synge's fame and work made resistance difficult for all but the most original of his young contemporaries. But Colum has remained, at the cost of popular recognition, faithful to the spirit of Broken Soil, whose almost simultaneous appearance [in 1903] with Synge's first play precluded any possibility of imitation. (pp. 335-36)

The Land, although his second play, was published in 1905 prior to Broken Soil, which did not appear in book form until its material had been recast as The Fiddler's House, two years later. It is at once more logical and more significant that Padraic Colum's published writings should begin with that "agrarian comedy," for there he handles the central and fundamental fact of peasant life, the call of the land. The struggle between town and country to hold the people, the problem of rural life, which is at last receiving serious attention, is the leading note of The Land. In Ireland it is against the attraction of the United States, no less than against the lure of urban civilisation, that resistance must be strengthened, and the dramatist shows us the drain upon the countryside resulting from the emigration of the young and vigorous. (p. 337)

The Fiddler's House is a study of another aspect of peasant life. Having shown us the peasant face to face with the fundamental problem of his existence, in his relation to the land, the dramatist now portrays him in his spiritual and artistic manifestations. The ties of the soil are, of course, a part of the drama, for Conn Hourican is the peasant as artist, and the essential factor of that condition is not wanting. But while the land hunger finds its expression in his child Anne, the father is primarily a study in temperament. The old fiddler, for all his attachment to home, carries within him the yearning for change and freedom, the inability to remain settled, which we associate with the nature of genius. The trait which unites the artist and the vagabond brings Conn Hourican somewhat nearer to the symbolic types of Synge than is usual with the carefully realised figures of Colum's drama…. The deep distrust entertained by respectable peasants towards the unattached man of the roads, the concern of Conn's daughters at his desire to resume his vagabondage, are the fitting background against which to set this fine old figure. The sympathy and realism which have gone to the portrayal of Conn Hourican make of him the personification of that element of our peasant life to which folk-art and folk-poetry owe their existence and preservation.

With the exception of the specifically agrarian problem, which was the point of departure of The Land, there is no question more vital than the patriarchal family system which obtains throughout rural Ireland. In selecting this theme for Thomas Muskerry Padraic Colum displayed his characteristic feeling for those situations and aspects of life which present themselves most readily to the mind of a people mainly composed of the peasant class. The sacrifice of the individual to the family unit is a tradition preserved most carefully in the agricultural communities of Western Europe…. It is strange that no writer of Irish fiction has given us an equivalent to Henry Bordeaux's Les Roquevillard. But all through the work of Colum the sense of family life is evident. We have the problem suggested in The Land, where the revolt of the younger generation is, in part, accounted for by the exigencies of paternal authority. In Thomas Muskerry the full significance of the system is revealed.

Instead of illustrating his subject by the elaboration of those hints at revolt which are noticeable in the earlier plays, the dramatist has preferred to reverse the process. It is not the children who feel the restraints of family duty, but the old father, Thomas Muskerry, who dies a pauper in the workhouse of which he once was master, after being cruelly exploited by his relations. This middle-class family in a country town is aptly chosen for the development of such a theme. Being just one remove from the soil, they retain all the worst traits of their immediate peasant forerunners and serve best to emphasise the evils to which the exaggerated sense of domestic obligations may lead. The kindness and generosity of Muskerry have for years encouraged his children and their dependents to exercise their cupidity and unscrupulousness at his expense. When they find him no longer profitable, they cease to play upon the family relationship, and frankly abandon him, having robbed him of his good name, his dignity and his money. The tragic end of this victim of the claims of kinship is the culminating event in a grim story of petty meannesses and sordid motives, all rising out of the exploitation of kindness in the name of family solidarity. There are few writers who have disclosed with such insight the under-currents of existence in our provincial towns, where the virtues of the peasant are lost in the indirect contact with the ambitions and practises of urban civilisation. (pp. 339-41)

It would be misleading to leave the dramatic work of Padraic Colum without making clear his innocence of any avowedly didactic purpose. A brief analysis of his plays involves the use of phrases which are perhaps more convenient than accurate. The Land and Thomas Muskerry envisage certain phases of Irish life which constitute the "problems" of our sociologists, but the latter need not suspect him of any intention to anticipate their conclusions. The effort of the dramatist is not to propound or solve social questions, but is directed, as he says, "towards the creation of situations." "For character conceived as a psychological synthesis he has only a secondary concern." In thus defining the attitude of the playwright, Colum clearly demonstrates the character of his own work. The three plays that have been mentioned are primarily attempts to situate the Irish peasant in such circumstances as to bring out the essential drama of rural life. Coming from the Midlands, and viewing the world from the standpoint of the peasantry, he saw at once the naturally dramatic situations in which they revealed themselves most characteristically. These restrained and faithful pictures, from which every exaggerated or adventitious element is eliminated, have a quality which recalls Ibsen in their almost purely intellectual action. Colum even avoids the melodramatic dénouements which the author of Hedda Gabler did not disdain.

In this last respect, but in that only, the later peasant playwrights approach more closely to Ibsen. The majority, indeed, show so marked an affection for violent effects and purely external drama, that the local setting of their work seems fortuitous. The drama of Padraic Colum, on the other hand, is peculiarly Irish, and has its very basis in peasant conditions. One cannot imagine Conn Hourican, Murtagh Cosgar or Thomas Muskerry transplanted to another soil…. The greater part of our pseudo "peasant" drama is merely melodrama with an Irish accent. The situations are not inherent in, or peculiar to, our national life, but are adapted…. Even where the national and literary quality of the work done by his successors is beyond dispute, the achievement of Padraic Colum only gains by comparison. Without any predecessors of importance, he shares with Synge the right to be considered the most original of our folk-dramatists. (pp. 341-43)

Ernest Boyd, "The Dramatic Movement: Third Phase," in his Ireland's Literary Renaissance (reprinted by permission of The American Play Company, Inc.), revised edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1922 (and reprinted by Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968), pp. 335-43.


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The material [of Castle Conquer] is rich and interesting: a feudal Ireland for a background; a plot of political conspiracy and peasant revolt; a love tale; Irish tenant farmers, peddlers, soldiers, landowners; Irish songs, frolics, dancing, fairs. The prose is fresh and easy-flowing. And a music comes into it by way of lovely Irish names and the peculiar Irish-English dialog. Nor, given the peasant rhythm, can one seriously object to the book's slow movement, or to the somewhat episodic way in which it unfolds. What, then, is wrong? This: for some reason, perhaps because Mr. Colum has placed too much reliance upon his content, upon its inherent soil-ness and lyricism, upon the general interest in Ireland's struggle for political autonomy, because he has given himself too sparingly unto his work, the poetry of the material and the poetry of the prose fail to achieve a mutually transforming contact. There is no sustained interchange between them. There is no complete intersaturation…. Hence Castle Conquer, for all its fresh loveliness and health, misses that living beauty which one somehow expects from it.

A review of "Castle Conquer," in Broom, Vol. 5, No. 1, August, 1923, p. 53.

Ernest Boyd

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Those who have followed the work of Padraic Colum from its beginnings in "Wild Earth" have always looked forward to the novel which one felt he could and would write. That anticipation is not disappointed in "Castle Conquer." In spite of the years that have slipped by since he gave us that first book of poems, since "The Land," "The Fiddler's House," and "Thomas Muskerry" established him in an unassailable position in the Irish Theater, this book betrays nothing of the changed life, the varied activities that have since been his. "Castle Conquer" belongs to the period preceding his hegira, and the perfume of Irish earth clings about it as unmistakably as it breathed out of every page of his early plays and poems. This prose has all the simple charm, the fresh tang that made the poetry of "Wild Earth" irresistible.

The story centers about Francis Gillick, the returned student from the Irish College in Salamanca, who has given up his studies for the priesthood and come to settle down among his own people. As a "spoilt priest" he is too greatly handicapped in the immediate circle of his own friends and relatives, so he goes to another part of the country to work on the farm of Honor Paralon, whose daughters Oona and Brighid befriend him, until inevitably both girls are more deeply involved by their affections than mere friendship. It is to Brighid that Francis pledges himself, and their love is drawn by the author in scenes of a whispered and passionate intensity which contrast curiously with the mawkish sentimentality, on the one hand, and the pathological realism, on the other, which are an essential feature of the average novel of today. In the relations of these two there is a tender shyness, charmingly rendered, which is as characteristic, in its way, as the brutalities of James Joyce, who, too, has described one phase of the Irish attitude in matters of sex. But Colum shows how this idyll, like so many other normal human impulses, is overshadowed in Ireland by the figure of Kathleen ni Houlihan, into whose mouth W. B. Yeats has put words that are not forgotten: "It is hard service they take that help me. Many that are red-cheeked now will be pale-cheeked; many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries … and for all that they will think they are well paid."

In such service Francis Gillick gradually finds himself enrolled and in his adventures we watch the beginning of the Land War in Ireland, and see how inevitably the land and the nation became identical in the eyes of many generations. The evolution of Gillick, the pressure of innumerable little circumstances which transform him into a "rebel" in the eyes of the British authorities, and finally, the accusation which lands him in jail—all these elements inseparable from the life of the period are skilfully woven into Mr. Colum's narrative. His great skill lies in the unostentatious way in which he develops this main theme, without ever insisting upon it. This is not just the story of a young Irishman's revolt, for the individual hero is merely the focusing-point of an era and a people. "Castle Conquer" is a true microcosm of Irish country life, the Ascendancy minority, harsh, always insecure and baffled, with its servitors drawn from the people, and then the people themselves, with their own life and traditions, sustained by a definite hope and the will to survive. Padraic Colum knows the Irish countryside, its physical aspects at all seasons, the customs and beliefs of the peasantry, the striking characters who may be found by those who know how to seek them…. (pp. 299-300)

One lays down a book of this caliber with a regret for all the cheap sentimentalities and trivial humor which make up the usual popular novel of Irish life, against which one wishes to set a "Castle Conquer," or such a work as Seumas O'Kelly's "The Weaver's Grave." The manner of the telling is a delight in itself, a style full of poetry and tenderness and color, touched with laughter which does not depend upon verbal caricature, that great stock in trade of the manufacturers of "Irish" fiction for export. With his first novel Padraic Colum has enhanced the distinction of his already valuable contribution to Anglo-Irish literature, his work as poet and dramatist. (p. 300)

Ernest Boyd, "Romantic Ireland," in The Nation (copyright 1923 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. CXVII, No. 3037, September 19, 1923, pp. 299-300.

Walter Prichard Eaton

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["Balloon"] is a four act comedy in prose. The jacket says "it is the first play to be based on modern philosophical ideas. The action takes place in a 'Spenglerian' world in which life has become externalized and where the idea of height and distance is dominant." Perhaps that is the matter with it. Or perhaps that is the matter with me. I have only the haziest notion of what a "Spenglerian" world is, and the ideas of height and distance become dominant in my life only when I climb a mountain….

Caspar, the hero of "Balloon," invites people to take a peep at the moon through his telescope outside the Hotel Daedalus, the glittering skyscraper pile where the sophisticated of the world gather…. Along comes the architect of the hotel, world weary, and pays Caspar a large sum for his telescope, so off goes Caspar into the hotel…. He tries to make a balloon ascent from the roof with a famous movie actress, but she calls off the stunt when she learns there are to be no papers printed the next day. However, when he encounters a dancer whom he had loved as a wandering gypsy girl and she wants him to take her up in the balloon he funks and proposes a ferry ride. She goes up instead with the architect, who has got tired of contemplating the moon, and poor Caspar stands broken-hearted on the roof, persuaded that one of his kind does not belong in the Hotel Daedalus. But there is a happy ending. The girl drops by a parachute back to the roof, hitting it exactly. She couldn't hear what the architect said to her in the higher altitude, so she and Caspar take the elevator down, presumably to hit the gypsy trail together.

All this is fantastic, preposterous…. Caspar, the telescope man, and the rest in "Balloon" have no reality, and hence can arouse no dramatic emotion. It is not necessary to make them characters out of "Street Scene." But within their fantastic and symbolic world they must function with feeling, they must have three dimensions, they must possess sufficient specific gravity to make us take them seriously. Of course, in a world "where the idea of height and distance is dominant" no doubt specific gravity is a drawback, but in a comedy on the stage the lack of it certainly makes for the other kind. "Balloon" is singularly unfunny.

Yet there is in this fantasy the makings of a wistful and significant comedy. What it needs is less Spengler and more Barrie…. But that would mean the development of … scenes along the lines of tested human emotional reactions, as all dramatists have done since drama was, and as they will all have to continue to do even in a Spenglerian world.

Walter Prichard Eaton, "Spenglerian," in New York Herald Tribune Books (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), July 14, 1929, p. 14.

Harold Clurman

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[Though] "Balloon" cannot be regarded as an "intellectual" play, it is none the less true that its writing must have first been impelled by a general idea. To put it briefly, Mr. Colum purports to show that a man's acts are significant only as they are expressions of his own inner being, and that a world where action becomes a value in itself is a ludicrous and empty show.

But this is the world we live in; and in the play it is represented by the great hotel in Megalopolis. Here are gathered all the heroes of the earth, the moral and literal acrobats whose astonishing and useless feats make the daily spectacle of our civilization. Here athletic actresses, esthetic millionaires, erudite sportsmen and lettered politicans pass in a fleeting and colorful pageant. And on the square outside the hotel stands Mr. Colum's little hero, Casper, who, like all of us, yearns to be part of the glory he beholds but cannot share. If the opportunity offered itself, he wonders, could he too not accomplish some overwhelming deed to place him with these fabulous creatures? Fortune favors him, and he is enabled to take a room in the hotel for a day. Because he is a person simple enough to be extraordinary he wins a momentary notoriety. But he soon learns that the most beautiful woman in the hotel is a girl he once knew when he was traveling with a sort of circus, the most companionable man, an old clown of the same company. More than one opportunity for the "great" deed is offered him—the most sensational being the chance to steal away in a balloon with his girl—but he seems inadequate to all of them. At last he renounces the idea of doing things he didn't want to do in the first place and, with his girl, returns to the square, his trade and the open road.

With such material, a satire or a philosophic parable might have been written. But though "Balloon" may be said to include elements of both, it is neither one nor the other. The quality of Mr. Colum's talent is not for these forms. His comedy is essentially a fairy-tale. When we have seized its spirit we discover that the locale of its action is not so much the great hotel which the stage directions indicate, as a comic wonderland peopled by elves and sprites created in the image of journalism, opera-singers, ambassadors and prize-fighters! Mr. Colum's gift has a happy ambiguity, a peculiar and adorable unconsciousness that lends these figures their original charm. They seem to have been conceived in all seriousness, even, if one could credit Mr. Colum with such candor, as realistic characters. They are utterly unaware of their doll-like and puckish absurdity. They wear their little masks very gravely, and with incongruous suddenness perform their grandiose and impossible little gestures. They behave according to a logic of their own. They are poised, reasonable and unexpectedly perverse. We might, at first, mistake them for bodies of flesh and blood, but soon we note that there is something awry in everything they do. They are puppets whom the author believes in as people. The protagonists alone are sufficiently developed to have emotions, and, in them, emotion is only a kind of wistfulness.

To use a facile critical formula, "Balloon" is a minor treatment of a major theme. But it has nevertheless a significance that exceeds its own individual scope. For a retrospective summary will show us that Mr. Colum has succeeded in doing what most of the expressionists, in an entirely different mood and more deliberately, have really been trying to do. He has taken a socially vital subject and has presented it in theatrical terms that are both universal and immediately relevant. If there is a tendency in the modern theater, this is it. This is what the contemporary dramatist is groping for; a form that will create new myths and new symbols to express in the most general and complete manner the preoccupations of our day.

Mr. Colum has succeeded in this crucial artistic task not through any theory or awareness of our esthetic needs, but because he is a poet. Because he is a poet his plot and nearly all its details are deeply right…. These details, moreover, are not merely static literary metaphors. They are admirable theatrical images: the man of the theater can work with them.

Here, then, is a paradox, a paradox with a moral. A poet has written a play that has greater theatrical than literary interest. This suggests that, were they encouraged to do so, the poets and other creative literary artists might be more apt to provide our theater with fresh themes and new impulses than the hacks and showmen now engaged in the profession. (pp. 266-67)

To do their part in the theater, however, the poets cannot, of course, remain outside it. With more intimate knowledge of the art, they will learn that the largely contemplative attitude of the literary man is wrong for the playwright. Like everyone else in the theater, he must, in a psychological sense, be himself an actor. He must consider the play not as something he watches and listens to, but something he himself acts. In this respect "Balloon" betrays its literary derivation. The writing of some of the speeches and very frequently their ordering reveal Mr. Colum as still innocent of any sure theatrical instinct. (p. 267)

Harold Clurman, "A Poet Writes a Play," in The New Republic, Vol. LIX, No. 764, July 24, 1929, pp. 266-67.

Melvin Maddocks

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Written over the past 10 years, ["The Flying Swans"] lacks momentum, as works extended over a period of time often do. It sprawls rather than drives through a 538-page account of the childhood and youth of Ulick O'Rehill. The narrative is a series of jerky jumps from scene to scene. The numerous characters dragged in and out of the action tend to be flat when they are not blurred.

But as a nineteenth-century Irish pastoral, "The Flying Swans" is an evocative book. In the earlier chapters when Ulick is in the country, there is an almost physical sense of well-groomed horses prancing across fields in early morning; of fresh cream and sweet butter in the dairy; of corn crakes singing in the meadow grass at twilight. When Ulick moves to the town of Cairnthual, there are mellowed scenes in an old-fashioned candy shop, at the village fair, and along the sea wall.

But the golden haze of nostalgia that bathes these Irish remembrances of things past makes them seem part of a dream, and the charming, sad people who move against these backgrounds in generally picturesque but often inept postures do not engage a reader's concern as less fey, more substantial characters might. The women, curiously remote and unhappy, suffer passively through mistaken marriages, from Ulick's mother Saba to his sweetheart Christine. The men live on a thin margin of slowly vanishing hopes and … stumble to disaster "with bowed heads making their way through a desolate country."

The story ends with Ulick, in early manhood, reunited with his younger brother Breasal and determined to continue in his apprenticeship to a stonecutter with the prospect of art school in the offing. But since this has been largely a backward-looking story, it is largely a story of loss. Ulick's father's fall, not Ulick's anticipated climb, makes the dominant curve….

Against this motif of faded better days the fresh green background of Ireland seems vivid to too little purpose.

Melvin Maddocks, "Morgan and Colum with Novels of Italy and Ireland: 'The Flying Swans'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1957 The Christian Science Publishing Society, all rights reserved), June 20, 1957, p. 11.∗

Vivian Mercier

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A broad plain, frequently accented by little hills, would certainly form an appropriate metaphor to describe the effect of Padraic Colum's new novel [The Flying Swans]….

I would not recommend this contemplative book to the kind of reader who expects a novel to give him a roller-coaster ride, on which, once pinned down by the safety bar, he is swept breathless up dizzy heights and hurtled screaming down dizzier depths, until the vehicle deposits him, retching and staggering, on firm ground once more. This is rather the kind of book that one lays aside from time to time in order to daydream over one's own youth. (p. 404)

In the long run, when this novel's characters and incidents have faded from the reader's mind, one abiding influence will remain with him—its style. Perhaps it would be more correct to call it a language rather than a style, that collective language of the first generation of the Irish literary revival. The most recent generation of Irish writers seem to have lost it completely. To them Gaelic is Gaelic, English is Oxford or Hollywood, and Irish English is a bastard dialect never spoken off the stage of the Abbey Theatre. As a result, their novels and plays are unreadable, their poems readable but not speakable.

But here, with scarce-diminished vigor, the sinewy style rides once more, giving—in narrative as well as dialogue—the old sense of a language reborn, of an English grafted on Gaelic, almost every phrase of which has been formed, not by pen or typewriter, but on the living lips of men. (pp. 404-05)

Vivian Mercier, "Sinewy Style of the Irish Literary Revival," in Commonweal (copyright © 1957 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXVI, No. 16, July 19, 1957, pp. 404-05.

William Turner Levy

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Padraic Colum has been acknowledged as a master of the Irish faerie: the quaint and leprechaunish peasants have been celebrated by him in prose and verse. This is simply not true. His tales for children include fairy stories, but Colum is the vigorous, hard-headed spokesman of the true peasant, the recorder of the historic fate of Ireland; and even in the books for the young he has never talked down but has sought to hand down both the historic and mythic past. As poet and playwright and essayist—and now as novelist—he speaks the true spirit of his nation and has the versatility of a scholar-poet. Most important, he has written poems that would astonish those who know only the set anthology pieces—"The Plougher," "A Drover," and "An Old Woman of the Roads."… [The Collected Poems of Padraic Colum] is a proud book, and it ranks its begetter among the authentic poets of Ireland. (p. 493)

In 1903 with Broken Soil (later rewritten as The Fiddler's House), [Colum] created the peasant play. It was a felicitous moment, with Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory and AE all striving in the National Theatre Movement, which centered around the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. (pp. 493-94)

Colum's next play, The Land, was the Abbey's first success. Together with Thomas Muskerry, these two plays have been called second only to Synge's. With no predecessor of importance, young Colum wrote of the call of the land, the struggle between town and country to hold people (a people also attracted to America), peasant conditions, and the revolt of the young against the patriarchal system which embodied the authority of the older generation. He was the first to do the peasant on his own level and in the speech of the field and marketplace….

Before long, Colum was writing poems, and it is not unnatural that this should have been so. Æ said, "There is probably no poetry published for generations which sank so deeply into the affections of Irish readers …" Confronted with the statement, Colum replied that it was really not surprising, for all that he was doing was giving back to the people what he had taken from them. He considers himself fortunate that as a child in his grandmother's house, which was a folk household, he had been able to hear the story tellers and the ballad singers. (p. 494)

Colum's verse has been widely translated, and into languages like Albanian and Ukranian as well as the more familiar; it is not surprising, for his subjects are universal for all their particularity—with gravity and simplicity he communicates the dignity of a people without material gifts, the changing beauty of natural things and the timeless surroundings of farm and cottage; the dependence of the landless, the skill of the craftsman, the peasant mixture of realism and fantasy—he knows—and man's fight for freedom, and man's haunting interest in animals, especially the shy, neglected, or exotic ones. (pp. 499-500)

If his most original contribution was the form of the dramatic lyric; his continuous sense of history and an alert curiosity of eye as well as mind, account for the chief qualities of his work. Out of the language and dramatic situations of the theatre he conceived dramatic lyrics like "A Drover," "A Poor Scholar of the 'Forties" and the splendid "Dermott Donn MacMorna." Browning was an influence, but Douglas Hyde's "The Love Songs of Connacht" gave the pattern and the language…. (p. 500)

Colum's dramatic sense can be measured against Tennyson's, say, if one compares the over-romantic, dramatically conceived "Ulysses" with "The Burial of Saint Brendan." The canny saint has decided none will thwart his will to be buried at Cluan, so his words arise out of a necessary situation. They are perfect—as is the poem—felt, not conceived, and, unlike Browning, arrogantly unself-conscious. Colum understands his saints. In "A Saint" he paints the gala day …, but then he probes the cost to the saint in denial and strife and work in order that his name might sanctify those who did not welcome him. And he understands their Master, too, as he proves in his verses for the Stations of the Cross.

In view of his nation and the state of the nation, his fascinated study of history is not surprising. It everywhere enriches the scope of his work…. (p. 501)

Which poem is his finest? "The Bird of Jesus." But it is a collection of poems, not one, that he offers us. In their honesty, richness, and variety, they produce in us a reverence for what has been done by the poet:

     A song is more lasting than the voice of the birds!
     A word is more lasting than the riches of the world!
                                                (p. 504)

William Turner Levy, "Padraic Colum, Poet," in The Literary Review (copyright © 1958 by Fairleigh Dickinson University), Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer, 1958, pp. 493-504.

Zack Bowen

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It is wholly proper that Padraic Colum is best known as poet, for his poems are his most significant contribution to literature…. To dismiss Colum's style as merely straightforward, accurate, or simple, as many critics have done, is to do the craftsmanship of the poetry a considerable disservice. The way Colum says things is very often beautiful and his poetic scenes and the characters as delightful as they are unassuming and familiar. His language is unpretentious and his verse forms are predominantly lyrical and rhyming with heavily accentuated iambs and tripping anapests, the sort of poems that on first reading tend to inspire song rather than thought…. I suspect the forthrightness of the poet's style has been the principal cause of the dearth of literary criticism about his poetry, since the fashionable critics are now more explicative than descriptive.

Colum's subject matter and conclusions reflect the same directness. His subjects are generally common people and common sights, commemorated without bravado in their own language and terms. (p. 25)

Colum thinks of himself as one of the few authentic national poets of Ireland because his upbringing is rural and Catholic, as opposed to the Protestant ascendency backgrounds of poets like Yeats, AE and Lady Gregory, whose links with the peasant people are at best studied and vicarious. Much of Colum's poetry retains its roots in the Catholic peasantry of the Irish Republic, dealing occasionally with the joys and aspirations of the people but far more with their sorrows, hopelessness and disintegration. Always, however, his people are uncomplicated and readily understandable and his language sparse and accurate.

Colum cannot be considered typical of any particular modern tradition. Hailed as a poet of the Irish Renaissance, his poems lacked the nationalistic didacticism which plagued other Irish poets, whose vision of things was colored by recollections of an unblemished past and the certainty of a utopian future…. [Colum] is perfectly at home in the world as it "appears," that is, presents itself to his senses. The tendency in modern poetry is to seek the truth behind what we see, to get a meaning of the world by interpreting the objects and events around us as symbols or indicators of the truth which lies behind and above. For Colum, however, the truth of things resides in the accurate perception of them…. His poetry is designed to enhance perception by clear delineation and description. (pp. 26-7)

The chief characteristic of Colum's work … lies in his insistence that the ultimate truth of things does in fact lie in the world of appearances, in how they look and in what they say. Things cry out only to be observed, digested, and understood. Colum's philosophy—that the depth of understanding of the essential qualities of nature and people is accessible by merely letting down the artificial barriers to perception—is reminiscent of Thoreau's….

Colum's continual marveling at shapes and colors is a main facet of his poetry about plants and animals. Two sizeable collections, Creatures (1927) and The Vegetable Kingdom (1954), abound in a breathless description of color and appearance. (p. 28)

The direct, honest manifestations of experience in Colum's poetry are at one time his source of excellence and the source of frustration to a literary critic attempting to deal with his work. (p. 29)

The most marked aspect of Colum's poetry is unquestionably its lyrical quality. This becomes apparent through his use of meter and rhyme as well as his heavy utilization of the ballad stanza and refrain line. Only the narrative poems, such as The Story of Lowry Maen and the introductions to several of the sections of Poet's Circuits, are not essentially strong and regular in meter. (p. 30)

If Padraic Colum's principal poetic technique is lyric, the content of his poetry can best be described as romantic. He is preoccupied with such romantic subjects as the remote, the ancient, the supernatural, the pathetic, the exiled and the passionate. Because he is an Irish romantic poet, he is inescapably concerned also with nationalism and elegiac veneration of Irish heroes. His love of nature and all living creatures is still another aspect of his romanticism. Yet for all the passionate intensity his subjects would seem to provide, they are all made to seem familiar, natural and unpretentious.

Colum's penchant for things and stories of ancient times and remote places was destined to build an international reputation for him as a legend collector and folklorist. It is really only a short step from his ballads and folk poems to the legends of antiquity, and his poems constantly reflect this kinship between the past and present. (pp. 44-5)

Another major romantic tendency in Colum's poetry is an underlying sense of the pathetic: of poverty and hopeless love, of past deeds and glories which can never be duplicated, and of old people hopelessly resigned and young people grown old before their time. Even the poems which are not essentially about a particular calamity have a gentle air of pathos about them. (p. 48)

I do not mean to imply that all of the poetry is sad or resigned. There are moments of passion, though admittedly few, to rival any in romanticism's sturm und drang movement. (p. 51)

Like most Irish poets and romantic poets, Colum has written his share of poems of exile. His longest poem Lowry Maen combines folklore and antiquity with exile in a long narrative about a young prince who, after years of trial and planning, returns to his country at the head of a mighty alien army to recover his usurped throne. Some poems, like "Ishmael the Archer" …, glory in the pride and strength of the outcast, while others stress the loneliness and isolation of the exile. (p. 52)

For an author whose earlier plays were in the nationalistic tradition, who was referred to from the very early days as a spokesman for the Irish people and peasantry, there are surprisingly few poems devoted to the didacticism and propaganda which were so prevalent in the patriotic pieces of Lady Gregory and Yeats. (p. 53)

Colum's elegies are, in a sense, his most nationalistic poems. If they lack militancy, they are no less indicative of national pride and patriotism. Veneration of departed heroes, while a universal trait, is a particularly Irish preoccupation, and Colum's elegies have been reprinted with additions in Dublin every two or three years since 1958. These poems are gaining considerable stature as an increasingly significant part of his work. They are described in the volume Irish Elegies as being less elegies than memorabilia, and indeed it is the quality of the poet's having known these men intimately as friends as well as great men of Ireland that has given many of the poems their personal charm and significance. (pp. 53-4)


Most students of Irish literature know Padraic Colum as a poet, a dramatist and perhaps even a writer of children's stories. It may come as a surprise that he has written a considerable number of short stories, two novels, two biographies and four books of essays, as well as contributions and prefaces for fifty-one books and pieces of various sorts for more than sixty newspapers and periodicals….

Almost all of Colum's fiction grows out of its Irish milieu, and similarly most of his nonfiction is an elaboration on the country, its people and its customs. (p. 90)

Just as his subject matter is predominantly Irish, his style can also be generally described as familiar and colloquial. His most characteristic stylistic trait is his abundant use of the present tense narration in fiction as well as nonfiction. This together with a first person narrator places him in the role of a storyteller sitting by a turf fire spinning out tales of things familiar to him and wondrous to his audience. This posture that Colum tries to maintain in his work is one he is well suited to. The particular criteria of excellence in evaluating Colum's work are not the normal currency of contemporary literary critics, because few other serious writers attempt what he is doing, and our appreciation of it has fallen into disrepair through disuse. (p. 91)

Colum's greatest achievement as a fiction writer was not to come until … [late] in his life with the publication of the second of his two novels, The Flying Swans. Because the first, which enjoyed far more critical acclaim when it was printed, afforded a necessary preparation for the second, it should be given some consideration here.

Castle Conquer has all of the flaws one would expect from a writer who had never before attempted a long piece of fiction. It is a romance set in the late 1870's and early 80's having as its background the struggle against the oppressive landholders who preceded the uprisings of the early twentieth century. The young protagonists, Brighid Moynagh and Francis Gillick, must undergo the torments of their own youthful temperaments and community censure as well as the persecution of a tyrannical system…. [The] reader feels more and more the encroachments of Irish nationalistic propaganda altering the motivations of the couple and the artistic integrity of the book.

Although Colum's accurate ear for Irish speech is as apparent in Castle Conquer as it is in The Flying Swans, I will defer a fuller discussion of this aspect of style until the discussion of the latter novel. Colum also includes such typically Irish literary devices as the indispensable informer, the occult mysticism of the road people, and a plethora of dreams and omens.

Further, Castle Conquer affords the first example of what was to become a favorite format of the author in such later works as The Flying Swans and the Noh plays: the relationship of recurring action to a place. The plot of Castle Conquer centers around the castle itself and around O'Failey's tower, which Gillick's ancestor built and which is the site of the protagonist's commitment to the Irish militant movement. (pp. 93-4)

Francis Gillick was obviously intended to be one of Ireland's deliverers from these evils, and if Colum has not succeeded in casting him as an epic hero, the author has not left him wholly without credentials for his role as emancipator. He is a member of the ancient Irish aristocracy. Family ties and bloodlines hence become a major motif of the book. This theme, which is to recur as a main motif of The Flying Swans, is to its heritage minded author part of the heroic idea.

The other major aspect of Colum's concept of heredity is that of the natural dignity and nobility of the common Irish people. This motif is implicit in all of Colum's work, but nowhere is it spelled out as explicitly as in Castle Conquer….

The political aspects of the novel are based upon another theme central to the Colum canon, one which we have seen before in his plays: the love for the land. Castle Conquer represents the tyranny of the land usurping establishment, and Francis Gillick's enmity is aroused by the plight of a peasant, Martin Jordan, who is about to be evicted….

[Castle Conquer is] by no means an uninteresting book. The love story is poignant, the action for the most part absorbing and realistic, and the characters believable. Despite its flaws the book did produce a number of themes and characters which Colum was later able to employ in such widely diversified works as The Flying Swans and Poet's Circuits. (p. 97)

[The Flying Swans] is well constructed, written in a language which is always striking and often beautiful, and searching in its themes. It is a Bildungsroman influenced by those Irish sagas dealing with expulsion and return of the Irish heroes and by The Mabinogion, the series of Welsh romances concerning the youthful exploits of various Celtic heroes. The novel traces its protagonist, Ulick O'Rehill, from his birth to young adulthood.

Though Colum was writing fairy stories as his main source of income during the more than ten years that The Flying Swans was in progress, there is little of the childlike fantasy which was to make his children's books so popular. The world he describes in his book is realistic, if undatable. His Irish countryside is populated with lifelike characters who are unique even if their identities as types of Irish peasantry seem familiar.

One of the most remarkable things about Colum's fiction as well as his drama and poetry is his ability to reproduce so accurately the nuances of Irish speech, particularly the midland dialect. The Flying Swans is no exception to this rule. In both narration and dialogue the novel abounds in such Irish expressions as bychild for bastard, behindhand for behind, and fornenst for in front of. Other more usual Irish expressions like myself, himself and herself as direct objects also appear in the narration and dialogue, but these are not uncommon in Irish letters.

If many writers use the Irish idiom, none do it so completely as Colum and few so well. He conveys the Irish lilt not only in his choice of words, but also in his ordering of them. For example he very often reverses past participle and verb ("when he had a sup taken") and subject and predicate adjective ("Oh, very poor was the boy's mother"). This produces the downward cadence and tone of voice at the end of the phrase or sentence which is characteristic of Irish speech. Colum also enriches the rhythms of his prose by occasionally repeating words, especially polysyllabic words, for no apparent reason beyond the sensuous quality of the sound ("On this day pigs were grunting and grunting in its street"). Often these word repetitions give the narrative a fairy-tale aspect…. Because the inverted syntax, the cadenced speech and the word and phrase repetition are all indigenous to poetry, it is not surprising to find that a good deal of The Flying Swans sounds much like a poem. Colum's prosodic style helps capture in his peasant characters the natural dignity their counterparts possess in life.

Colum lends to the formality of his narrative by frequently giving formal introductions to various narrative segments and stories the characters relate…. The device is one used extensively in Colum's children's stories to make them appear more magnificent and meaningful in the eyes of their audience. While American readers may at first find this particularly Irish use of words and word order a bit disconcerting, the devices wear well and are easy to accept after a few chapters of The Flying Swans.

Though the narrative perspective of the novel is third person, it parallels fairly closely the impressions and feelings of the protagonist. The events that make the greatest impression on the youngster, like the death and funeral of his grandfather, Breasal O'Breasal, are given predominance. Colum followed the pattern Joyce set in A Portrait of the Artist by constructing a novel of impressions as well as events. (pp. 98-100)

Colum divided his novel into ten sections, each consisting of from seven to seventeen chapters. The smaller divisions deal with specific scenes and events while the larger correspond to various stages of Ulick's and Breasal's life and maturity. The novel begins in the market town of Dooard and follows the travels and fortunes of the family of Robert O'Rehill throughout Ireland until it comes full cycle back to Dooard and history begins again. The cyclical aspect of the book can be largely attributed, as can a number of other scenes and devices, to Joyce, to whom, along with James Stephens, the novel is dedicated. (pp. 105-06)

Though The Flying Swans, like the bulk of Colum's work, is striking on first reading, principally for its cadenced Irish language and its realistic images and description, this novel also has the depth and durability of structure, theme and characterization that withstand and reward repeated reading. It is a book which deserves far more critical attention than it has received. (p. 109)

Zack Bowen, in his Padraic Colum: A Biographical-Critical Introduction (copyright © 1970 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1970, 162 p.


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