From An Claidheamh Soluis, June 2, 1906.
Commenting on our Irish leader of the week before last – of which our English leader of last week was an expansion – the Irish Peasant falls into pretty much the train of thought in which we were when we penned last week’s homily on the function of literature.
‘Ireland,’ writes our contemporary, ‘for a long time has been afraid of life. When people are afraid of life there can be no literature or art worth a moment’s consideration. In Irish Ireland, however, we are not afraid of life. But we have only discovered a little of its romance and wonder yet. We have not got to the great stage of vision and enthusiasm in which literature – which is something produced by people whose souls are really alive – is possible. But we are rapidly approaching it.’
We hope so. And it was to erect a beacon-light for the guidance of the marching host of young poets and storytellers that we wrote our article. For it seemed to us that there was a danger to be feared from the setting up of false standards, – a standard in poetry which regards the observance of certain recently-devised canons of prosody as the one thing essential to the making of an Irish poem, and a standard in prose which takes the gossip by a country fireside or in a village taproom as the high-water level both of its thought and of its style. For form we would go to the ancients; and for subject-matter we would have our young writers take (as the ancients did) Life; the Life within them and the Life around them.
Our view of literature as a criticism of life has been objected to as partial, – as covering only one aspect of the function of literature. This, however, is to restrict unduly the connotations both of ‘criticism’ and of ‘life.’ We do not mean that every piece of literature is for the most part singularly un-didactic; neither do we suggest that every writer ought to take up the discussion of knotty problems, psychological, social, political, and so forth. We simply put in compendious form the undoubted fact that every piece of literature, as indeed every piece of art, expresses the views of its creator on whatsoever may happen for the moment to be his theme. Even though it be the mere recording of an impression – a watercolour sketch of a sea-beach, a couplet describing an autumn sunset, a word-picture of a child met in a country laneway – it is, as far as it goes, the author’s view of something, and is in this sense a piece of criticism. It is a revelation of the artist’s soul; a giving back again to others of something as he saw it and felt it; his interpretation of a fragment of life.
Now we hold that it is time for our Irish writers to make a brave effort to express themselves, – to tell us what they think, or at any rate (if they do not yet think) what they feel. So far the most part they have not been doing so. They have simply been giving us photographic reproductions of everyday conversation in Irish-speaking districts. Their work in this direction has been most useful from certain points of view. It has been invaluable in introducing students to the idioms of the living Irish language. But it is no more literature than would be a verbatim report of the daily conversation which goes on, say, in the case-room of our printing office. And it is as impossible as the foundation of a national literature as a series of photographs of Irish physiognomies and scenery taken by Messrs. Lawrence would be as the foundation of a national art.
Confirmative of the contention that our writers have not commenced to put themselves into their books is the fact that so few distinctive ‘styles’ have been developed in Irish. Style is personality; and as we have only two or three unmistakeable ‘styles,’ it follows that only two or three personalities are being given expression to in modern Irish, – a thousand pities when one remembers that individualities are so varied and so rich amongst the writers and potential writers of the language. An tAthair Peadar has a style which is intensely personal, although he genially pretends that he writes only as ordinary folk talk in West Cork; and Conán Maol has a style which is perhaps the most strenuously individual note in all recent Irish literature; and two or three others have styles; but the vast majority of those who write Irish in books and in papers are mere photographers or imitators, without any characteristic outlook or bias or mode of expressing themselves. Almost any passage of Munster Irish that one comes across might have been written by almost any Munsterman; almost any passage of Connacht Irish by any Connachtman; there is no individual stamp on any of it; the personality, the man, the living soul of the writer speaking to you is to seek.
With this advice, then, that they should aim at making whatever they write in Irish a personal expression – their own view of something put in their own way – we commend the literary competitions at the forthcoming Oireachtas to Irish writers and would-be writers, native-speaking and otherwise. The competition to which we invite special attention is No. 5; ‘For the Best Short Story dealing with Modern Irish Life. Length from 4,000 to 7,000 words.’ We have theories of our own on the subject of the Short Story, as perhaps our readers are aware; and we foresee for this type of composition a mighty future in Irish and indeed in European literature. In the past great thinkers and reformers have thrown much of their criticism of life into the novelistic and dramatic forms. The drama will always be a power, but we believe that the era of the ponderous novel beloved of nineteenth-century Europe is past. The evangels of the future will go forth in the form of light, crisp, vivid, arresting short stories. Gorki rather than Dickens suggests the style.
Literary criticism in Irish has been attempted with some little success. But we want deeper searchings, wider stretches of view, more unconventional and individual expressions of opinion than we have yet got. Competition No. 2 (‘A Critical Essay on ‘the Place of the Lyric in Irish Poetry’) should draw forth good work, if students really competent come forward and if, coming forward, they let themselves ‘go.’ Writers whose bent is towards affairs rather than towards artistic and imaginative themes can discuss ‘The Influence of Irish Local Elective Bodies on the Development of the Nation’ (No. 1), or ‘What the Irish Press can do for the Language,’ – proposed (suggestively) by the Freeman’s Journal Co., Ltd. (No. 7). There are two competitions for Historical Essays, – No. 8 (‘Fiach Mac Aodha’ or ‘Domhnall Cam’ – we hope, by the way, that the mystery surrounding the identity hidden under this sinister-looking soubriquet has been satisfactorily cleared up), and No. 9 (‘Best Account of the Land Tenure in Ancient Ireland’). The substantial prize of £10 is offered for a Three-Act Historical Drama, and there is a further prize of £5 for a short Two-Act Play suitable for performance by children. We trust that there will be good and sincere work in both of these competitions, though we confess we do not expect the appearance of a masterpiece; great drama cannot grow up in a few years and without traditions.
We have now fulfilled our geasa to Séamus Ó Cathasaigh and to-night we shall lay us down to rest with the calm happiness of one who knows himself at peace with the world and with the Oireachtas Committee.