A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English
REVIEW BY PETER SIRR
In 1974 Michael Hartnett made the decision to take his leave of English and from then to write in Irish only. Or did he? Well, he wouldn’t necessarily stop writing in English – if a poem presented itself in that language it would have to be accommodated. But he wouldn’t publish any more English poems. Ciaran Carson’s reaction, reviewing the volume which announced the decision, A Farewell to English, was to suggest, in a review quoted in Pat Walsh’s book, that the volume might have been more usefully titled A Farewell to Published Poems Written in the English Language. A number of things are at play here: on the one hand a decision – complicated, emotional, theatrical – to effectively abandon not just a language, but his achievement and potential development as a poet in that language, and to attempt to recreate himself as a poet in Irish, a language he would have to study hard to master. To have announced an intention to become a bilingual poet would have fulfilled the need to pay due homage to the Gaelic tradition and the side of his own sensibility that was enmeshed in the Irish language, but the unequal relationship between the two languages and cultures don’t easily accommodate such to-ing and fro-ing. Walsh quotes Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s analysis of the predicament:
What is [the writer’s] tradition? The inescapable fact is that spiritually he belongs to both cultures. He suffers from a divided mind. If he writes in Irish he feels as if he has to close his mind and memory to many overtones and insights of the English incisiveness which the Irish language will not accommodate; if he writes in English he finds that medium which will not distil the earthy allusiveness and indefinable nuances of meaning which he has glimpsed in the Irish tradition. He experiences a cultural schizophrenia..
Ó Tuairisc, who wrote in English as Eugene Watters, ultimately made the quiet decision to stick to one side of the ‘psychic partition’ and dedicate himself to Irish. Others worked happily in both – Conleth Ellis comes to mind or Rita Kelly or Pearse Hutchinson or, more recently, Gréagóir Ó Dúill. And it can, though more rarely, work the other way: Micheal O Siadhail began as a poet in Irish but now writes solely in English. A great many of the leading Irish language poets came and continue to come to Irish from English, making a conscious decision to work as writers in that language. Yet even allowing for the tug of love or war that bilingualism can entail, the absolute nature of Hartnett’s decision, precisely because it seemed so hard to account for, was what puzzled his admirers and maybe undermined its seriousness. There was something willed and wilful about it, something quixotic, and something of the publicist’s wish to create the maximum effect. It was after all, as this book reminds us, announced from a stage, at a poetry reading in the Peacock Theatre.
To further consolidate the decision Hartnett made a strategic decision to withdraw from the city and returned not to his native Newcastle West but to the countryside beyond it, a monkish isolation in which to conduct his study of his adopted language. His language shift was therefore also a life shift, an escape from the urban, a refocusing, a re-creation, the various impulses all coalescing in the move. Walsh quotes various accounts of the farmhouse in Templeglantine in West Limerick, with the poet immersed in country life and lore, looking fondly at the pig that will sustain him through the winter. Interestingly, Hartnett did not remove himself to a Gaeltacht, like Seán Ó Riada, but to his own part of the world. He was going back to his roots, roots with strong Gaelic associations – with Croom’s Aindrias MacCraith and Seán Ó Tuama, filí na Máighe – but in the past. The absence of an Irish-speaking community meant that his cultivation of Irish was an affair of private study. In a way this suited him. His feeling for Irish had a good deal of the scholarly about it; it was a repossession of a tradition, a conversation with the past more than an engagement with the present; most of all it was a conversation with himself.
The first book to come out of his self-imposed exile was the book that announced his intent. There’s an irony in the fact that the leavetaking should have been articulated in a book that in its own achievement argued against its own positionA Farewell to English is, like all of Hartnett’s work, uneven, a mix of the real and the rhetorical, but it contains some of his finest work – ‘Struts’, ‘Death of a Irishwoman’, ‘A Visit to Croom, 1745’. The title poem is somewhat overblown, never escaping the kind of portentous self-importance that Hartnett was prone to:
What was I doing with the these foreign words?
I, the polisher of complex clause,
wizard of grasses and warlock of birds,
midnight-oiled in the metric laws?
It’s undermined by dubious arguments, a sentimental view of language and a kind of extremism that announced his withdrawal nor just from the writing of English poems but from reading Wyatt or Browning or Hopkins or poets in English translation like Lorca or Pasternak.
There is a social and political context for this, as Walsh shows. Hartnett wasn’t narrowly nationalistic but he was certainly influenced by events in Northern Ireland and he reacted strongly to what he felt was the official belittlement of the Irish language. None of this, though, really explains his decision to abandon English. Many of his contemporaries would have shared his political views as well as his interest in the Gaelic heritage but none found it necessary to stop writing in English. Walsh’s method doesn’t really allow for a sustained analysis of Hartnett’s motives. He relies mainly on newspapers articles and reviews sources to do the work and while these are interesting in themselves they leave the reader wanting a deeper consideration of the issues involved. This is a problem throughout the book; it’s full of useful and interesting information, but the material is presented disjointedly. In spite of the title the book is really an attempt to encompass the whole of the poet’s career, and the result is inevitably a book that raises more questions that it answers.
The real clue to Hartnett’s ‘rebel act’ lies in the fact that he needed a book to express it; he had a highly literary, self-conscious and self-aware sensibility, and the decision was an expression of his aesthetic, an extension of the imaginative homeland his poems constructed. That homeland was an angular place, full of extremes – on the one hand the lyric grace of the early work but also the powerful anger of ‘The Retreat of Ita Cagney’ and a rural Ireland defined by cultural decay and emotional barrenness, a small bare place:
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm,
How to do the neighbours harm
By magic, how to hate.
(‘A Small Farm’)
Hartnett country is partly a recognisable rural Ireland but mainly a private terrain of loss, a temporal zone somewhere between the 17th and 20th centuries, haunted by the ghost of Irish, by the sense of a culture drained of what had made it vital and meaningful. Hartnett patrols this terrain registering the loss with anger, as in ‘Visit to Croom, 1745’: ‘I had walked a long time…/now to hear a Gaelic court/talk broken English of an English king./It was a long way/to come for nothing.’ The road that would take him to abandoning English is already mapped out in the early poems, but like all aesthetic strategies it was provisional, equivocal. A Farewell to English ended with the now well-known lines
I have made my choice
and leave with little weeping:
I have come with meagre voice
to court the language of my people.
This is less a forthright declaration of purpose than an acknowledgement of the task that lay before the poet – the meagreness of a resource that might take years to master, the act of courting rather than possession and the emphasis on ‘my people’. One of the oddities of Hartnett’s publishing history is that in the Gallery Press Collected Poems the announcement of the decision to court the language of his people is immediately followed by his return to English in ‘Inchicore Haiku’, whose last three sections echo the more dramatic conclusion of ‘A Farewell to English’:
The empty pockets,
old bills pounding on the door.
Are these my people?
All divided up,
all taught to hate each other.
Are these my people?
My dead father shouts
from his eternal Labour:
‘These are your people!’
What of the work in Irish produced in the interval between those two poems? The ten year period he devoted to writing in Irish is dealt with all to briefly by Pat Walsh, but the real difficulty is that not a single word of Hartnett’s Irish is reproduced in the book, which relies wholly on translation. A true assessment of Adharca Broic, Foighne Chrainn or An Phurgóid would have strengthened the book greatly, but all we get here is the mixed reaction of reviewers. The truth is that Hartnett’s absolute commitment to Irish never really yielded the poetic achievement he wanted, and the long poem An Phurgóid is an agonised interrogation after long silence of the worth of poetry brought on by his own self-isolation.
Ní file go máistir focal, ní file go ceird
ní file go hoiliúint, ní file go bios dán –
gach dán atá ar domhan, a dhéanamah is a cheolsan,
act sea chain na bratacha is clog leabhair an eolais,
seachain bheith id shaoithín is id leabhar beo:<
ní file go bios data, dies deilbhe is ceoil. . . .
(No poet till the words be mastered,
no poet till the trade be learnt,
all world-verse, its make and music:
but beware the banners, and learning's leper-bell.
Beware the pedant, beware the living book –
no poet till colour till sculpture till song. . . .
The poem is a series of strictures, as if a poem might be made of out sheer self-goading, but ultimately concluding that force of will and purgatorial endurance might not be enough:
Bóthar an fhile gan chloch mhíle air,
bóthar gan star in óstán an ghrinn air,
bóthar le luibheanna gan airs air
ag bogadh go ciúin ó na claíocha áilne.
(There are no milestones on the poet's road,
no glad hotels on either edge,
just a track with worthless herbs
sprouting quietly from a lovely hedge.
Translations by Michael Hartnett)
You feel that the poet has become too much his own subject, too constrictedly self-aware; there’s none of the free-spiritedness of , say, the poets of the Innti generation. Hartnett eventually recognised that his attempt to divide himself in two was futile, and began writing and publishing in English again in the 1980s. Now that the complicating self-dramatisation has dimmed, we don’t need to see a psychically divided Hartnett, but a poet who wrote in both languages, and also one who worked both traditions fruitfully. Nowhere is this more evident that in the interpretations of the work of three cranky, forceful, angry Gaelic poets at the end of the old order, Ó Rathaille, Ó Bruadair and Haicéad. For all their hauteur and contempt for the uneducated commoners, these were kindred spirits for Hartnett, poets adrift in a world which had little time for them, who nonetheless clung to their own faith in poetry. Hartnett’s own imaginative terrain borders theirs. ‘He would not have liked our Ireland,’ Hartnett wrote of Ó Bruadair, and likewise Hartnett himself lodged his poetry, in all the forms it took, in not being quite at home in the world. Rebel Act whets the appetite but is too thin to satisfy. We still need a thorough-going consideration of his achievements.