Padraic Colum Colum, Padraic - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

I do not mean to...

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The Dial

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Walter Prichard Eaton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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…....

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Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Melvin Maddocks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Vivian Mercier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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William Turner Levy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Zack Bowen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 2664 words.)