Julia Crawford: Irish Woman Poet

Julia, also Louisa Matilda Jane, Crawford was born sometime around 1790 to 1800 in Cavan and may have died in 1855. The facts of her life are difficult to establish, but she was a prolific poet and composer and her father was a soldier and naturalist. Her more than 100 poems and songs include Kathleen Mavourneen and Dermot Astore.

 

We Parted In Silence
 
We parted in silence, we parKathleen Mavourneented by night,
On the banks of that lonely river;
Where the fragrant limes their boughs unite,
We met–and we parted forever!
The night-bird sung, and the stars above
Told many a touching story,
Of friends long passed to the kingdom of love,
Where the soul wears its mantle of glory.
 
We parted in silence,–our cheeks were wet
With the tears that were past controlling;
We vowed we would never, no, never forget,
And those vows at the time were consoling;
But those lips that echoed the sounds of mine
Are as cold as that lonely river;
And that eye, that beautiful spirit’s shrine,
Has shrouded its fires forever.
 
And now on the midnight sky I look,
And my heart grows full of weeping;
Each star is to me a sealèd book,
Some tale of that loved one keeping.
We parted in silence,–we parted in tears,
On the banks of that lonely river:
But the odor and bloom of those bygone years
Shall hang o’er its waters forever.

 

Kathleen Mavourneen
 
Kathleen Mavourneen! the grey dawn is breaking,
The horn of the hunter is heard on the hill.
The lark from her light wing the bright dew is shaking–
Kathleen Mavourneen! what, slumb’ring still?
 
Oh, hast thou forgotten how soon we must sever?
Oh, hast thou forgotten this day we must part?
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Oh, why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?
 
Kathleen Mavourneen! awake from thy slumbers,
The blue mountains glow in the sun’s golden light;
Ah, where is the spell that once hung on my numbers,
Arise in thy beauty, thou star of my night!
 
Mavourneen, Mavourneen, my sad tears are falling
To think that from Erin and thee I must part.
It may be for years, and it may be forever,
Then why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?

Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics: A Review

Coleridge’s Experimental Poetics, J. C. C. Mays, ISBN 9781137300713,

Publication 0429_MaysDate March 2013, Palgrave Macmillan.

It can, at times, appear that the sole function of literary criticism, especially of the academic variety, is to further the career of the critic. Indeed, this perception has tended to bring the craft of criticism into disrepute, particularly among the community of what might loosely be termed creative writers, an unfortunate circumstance that may lead many poets to ignore this book by default, to their great loss.

J.C.C. Mays is Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature at University College Dublin, Ireland. Amongst many other things, he is also the editor of the Poetical Works volumes in the Bollingen series The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This means he is almost certainly the greatest living expert on Coleridge’s verse. If you combine this expertise with his wider ability as a sensitive and intelligent reader of poetry, you might expect this book to be something a bit special, and you wouldn’t be disappointed.

To the general reader, Coleridge the poet is a character in an attractively simple narrative; early success, as exemplified in the ‘famous three’ (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan and Christabel) followed by a decline into drug abuse, depression, marital discord, dull philosophising and desertion of and by the Muse. Mays sets out to examine this convenient myth in the light of the full body of Coleridge’s poetic output and to bring to his readers a new understanding of his true ambitions and achievements as a poet.

As the book’s title suggests, Mays’ analysis focuses largely on the ‘how’ of Coleridge’s poetry rather than the autobiographical ‘what’, and this ‘how’ is mapped along two primary axes. On the one hand, he explores the poet’s commitment to finding a balance between metre and rhythm, between quantitative feet and accentual stress as means of patterning his verses. On the other, he foregrounds what he calls Coleridge’s ‘poetry of ever-renewed beginnings’, a poetry in which completeness is neither achieved nor sought. Coleridge does not look for what we have come to term ‘closure’ in his poems, as Mays explains. Rather, he constantly reworks a single plot, a structure of theme, counter-theme and a resolution that resolves nothing, citing as a foundational example, The Eolian Harp.

ColeridgeMays traces the development of this ‘two-part epiphany’ structure in parallel with Coleridge’s experimentation with metre and rhythm, particularly his use of the ballad line of three- or four-stressed lines, with variable numbers of unaccented syllables around the stresses. These experiments came to a head most obviously in the Rime, with its five-line stanzas, multiple viewpoints, marginal glosses and footnotes, and the first part of Christable, but also in Kubla Khan:

Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

To simplify Mays’ argument hugely, the ‘famous three’ saw Coleridge working out his formal theories on broad canvases, but this does not mean that they represent the pinnacle of his achievement; rather they are the point at which the technical equipment he needed for the kind of poetry he had it in him to write became fully available to him, and the poetry he wrote from then on builds on this foundation. The key point here, Mays argues, is that the kind of poetry Coleridge had it in him to write was not the poetry of public statement, the grand Wordsworthian epic sweep. His was the poetry of the endless question, of that most modern of conditions, indeterminacy. Once he had learned how to do what he wanted to do, Mays says, Coleridge wrote primarily for himself to discover how he felt about things, and as his self-knowledge grew, the need to write diminished. Nevertheless, he continued to write poems almost up to his death

The 'Lakes' notebook
The ‘Lakes’ notebook

The question is, was this late poetry of a sufficient quality to sustain Mays’ claims for it? There is no question that Coledidge, like many of the most interesting poets, was a very uneven writer, and even the Rime is marred by lines like these:

The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he!
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.

And the late poetry also has its moments of bathos. Nevertheless, on balance I think Mays is right. Indeed, many of the late lyrics seem, in my opinion, to stand with any poems of their kind written in English. Rather than try to explain why, I’d like to present a couple of examples of what I mean. The first is the inverted sonnet Work Without Hope, a poem that starts from a point of poetic dejection, and by its very existence undermines that position:

Work without Hope

 

Lines Composed 21st February 1825

 

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!
And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,
Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

 

Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live.

The second is a song from the 1815 play ZapolyaI, which, I’m tempted to say, could stand beside Shakespeare’s songs and hold its own:

Glycine’s Song

 

A SUNNY shaft did I behold,
From sky to earth it slanted:
And poised therein a bird so bold—
Sweet bird, thou wert enchanted!

 

He sank, he rose, he twinkled, he troll’d
Within that shaft of sunny mist;
His eyes of fire, his beak of gold,
All else of amethyst!

 

And thus he sang: ‘Adieu! adieu!
Love’s dreams prove seldom true.
The blossoms, they make no delay:
The sparking dew-drops will not stay.
Sweet month of May,
We must away;
Far, far away!
To-day! to-day!’

Mays concludes his book by tracing Coleridge’s relationship to succeeding generations of experimental poets, through the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne and the poets of the English 1890s, to Olson’s Projective Verse and British and Irish experimental poetry since the 1960s [in the name of full disclosure, I get a passing mention here]. As might be expected, this influence is less to do with imitation than with example. As Mays writes ’Coleridge the poet will not be understood unless the older understanding is recovered in which “the New School” meant a new verse – that is, for him, first and foremost a new metric – although, as one must expect in Coleridge’s case, all is old as well as new.’

This understanding precisely chimes with Pound’s Imagist manifesto ‘A Few Don’ts’ and Olson’s ‘to insist upon a part that breath plays in verse which has not (due, I think, to the smothering of the power of the line by too set a concept of foot) has not been sufficiently observed or practiced’. By demanding that our understanding of the Romantic revolution be seen as having less to do with Wordsworth’s retrospective emphasis on diction and more on the ‘how’, on Coleridge’s experiments in metre, Mays places his subject firmly in the direct line of constant renewal and rediscovery that characterises all experimental poetry since.

It is the mark of all great literary criticism that it sends you back to the work it discusses with new eyes and ears, that it is a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. This is exactly what this book achieves. I cannot imagine that anyone would not have their understanding of Coleridge’s achievements as a poet both broadened and deepened by reading it. You might quibble with some of the details of what Mays has to say, you might even continue to prefer the ‘famous three’ to any of Coleridge’s other poems, but this book will provide the interested reader with a whole new insight into the range of his achievement as a poet over a full and long career. You can’t ask for more than that from a critic.

Brian Coffey: Contents List for a Hypothetical Collected Poems

The poems are listed in approximate chronological order of publication, but I have departed from this rule on a few occasions. The poems Liminal and Answering Mindful were published as Fidelities in Poetry Ireland in 1962, Eleison I and II were first published in the Lace Curtain in 1970, but the first time all four appear as the Fidelities ‘set’ was in Chanterelles, so I’ve placed them there.

More complex is the set of poems published in the Selected Poems in 1971 under the heading Observations Poems Experiments 1931-1971. Any attempt at dating would be purely conjectural (there may, of course, be archival material that would clarify); my own best guess would be that the first two poems in the group date from the 1930s, that Syllables for Accents is an outgrowth from the writing of Missouri Sequence (from both the style and the memory of George Reavey), and that the rest date from the mid 1950s to 1971. I am informed by the poet’s son John Coffey that Su Tungpo was someone Brian read about while writing Missouri Sequence.

The publishing history of How Far from Daybreak is also fairly complex. 24 From Daybreak appeared in The Lace Curtain 3, Summer 1970 and four further poems from Daybreak, numbered 35, 44, 45 and 46, were included in Versheet 1. Poems 28, 33 and 43 were published in The Lace Curtain 4, in 1971. All eight appear in the Selected Poems text, which consists of twelve unnumbered sections, which indicates that the original plan may have been for a much longer poem. Poem 46 is the same as the final section of the final sequence, with the addition of four excised final lines:

Yes you advance like dawn

Night withdraws where you come

Gladly I tear myself from night

to greet that light yours

On the other hand, later poems, especially Advent and Death of Hektor had significant afterlives post their initial publication dates, especially via the trade editions from Menard Press in 1986 and 1982 respectively. Both poems, along with a considerable body of Brian’s work, appeared in Poems and Versions. The footnotes elucidate.

The bigger issue of chronology is the supposed gap of over two decades in Coffey’s output. I have argued elsewhere that this is not quite the case. Although he published no poetry between 1938 and 1960, it is clear from reading Missouri Sequence that he was working on it while still in St Louis, probably after he resigned his post there in 1952. The period 1938-52 was taken up much with earning a living, starting a family, emigrating and publishing philosophical papers. From 1952 on, poetry became his primary concern again and he returned to the ambition to produce larger-scale work that is evident in the very early student poems. Jim Mays once wrote, in his introduction to the 1974 Irish University Review Special Issue, that Coffey’s exile from Ireland was ‘accidental and non-deliberate’. The same could be said, I think, of his decade-and-a-half long exile from poetry.

While Coffey’s reputation rests on Third Person and the later longer poems, the work published in magazines should not be entirely overlooked. They see him absorbing his influences, French of course, but Eliot and Pound in large measure, but many of them are very fine poems of their kind.

The following is as complete a list of Coffey’s poems and satires as I have been able to construct. Any suggestions for overlooked work would be most welcome. I would like to thank John Coffey and Jim Mays for their help and encouragement; all errors are mine, not theirs.books

This hypothetical Collected Coffey would be a substantial book, which would ideally be accompanied by a Collected Translations and Collected Prose, but those are projects for another day. The translations, in particular, are an extension of both Brian’s poetic and critical works and are necessary reading.

Contents

Poems published in The National Student and, in the case of the last four, collected in Poems (with Denis Devlin) originally under the name Cœuvre (or Couevre) (Late 1920s-1930)

  • Sada
  • The Eternal Thoughttumblr_n1bldcrMCn1rmfjg7o1_500
  • Wednesday Night
  • 11th September, 1930
  • …To A Romantic…
  • Prologue to “Morven”
  • The Love Song from “Morven”

Yuki-Hira (A folded card headed “TO WISH YOU A BLESSING ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1933″)[i]

Three Poems (1933)[ii]00002387

  • Exile
  • Dead Season for Denis Devlin[iii]
  • Quay

Poems from Ireland Today and the Criterion (1936-38)

  • Image as a Young Lady
  • Odalisque
  • The Navigator
  • Kallikles
  • North Wind
  • “Antiochus Got an Ague…”
  • Morning Offering
  • Plain Speech for Two

Third Person (1938)[iv]

  • Dedication
  • White
  • Amaranth
  • I Cannot See With My Eyes
  • All We Have
  • Content
  • A Drop of Fire
  • Spurred
  • Thirst
  • The Enemy
  • Patience No Memory
  • Gentle
  • Third Person
  • One Way

Nine A Musing (University Review, 1960)[v]

Missouri Sequence (University Review, 1962)[vi]

Four Poems (University Review, 1964)[vii]

  • Ones
  • The Inside Story
  • Recourse to Fiction
  • The Monument

Mindful of You (University Review, 1965)[viii]

Monster (Advent Books 1966)

The Time The Place (Advent Press, 1969 Advent Poem 4)[ix]

From Versheet 1 (New Writers Press, 1971)

  • Though Promise None

from Selected Poems (New Writers Press, 1971)

  • How Far from Daybreak[x]
  • Observations Poems Experiments 1931-1971:
  • Davy Byrne’s of a Saturday Night
  • On The Rooftops
  • Of Su Tungpo
  • Bridie
  • Syllables for Accents
  • The Friendly Silence
  • You
  • Latin Lover
  • Dreams What Returns
  • “The Nicest Phantasies Are Shared”
  • Whose Who
  • Headrock

Brigid Ann (Advent Press, 1972)[xi]

Advent (Irish University Review Coffey Special Issue, 1974)[xii]

Leo (Irish University Review Coffey Special Issue1974)

In Sight of All (Lace Curtain 5, 1974)

Glendalough (Lace Curtain 5, 1974)[xiii]

All Out (Lace Curtain 5, 1974)

With My Love (Lace Curtain 5, 1974)

Connexus (Lace Curtain 5, 1974)

Abcedarian (Advent Press, 1974)[xiv]

The Big Laugh (Sugar Loaf, 1976)

From The Time The Place (Advent, 1976 – Advent III)[xv]

  • Call the Darkness Home
  • Leader
  • Cold
  • No Fault
  • The Guageless State
  • A Word with a Homing Book
  • “It Was Fun It Was

Poem (‘To sleep sometimes I dream’) (Granta Irish Issue December 1976)[xvi]

For What For Whom Unwanted (The Niagara Magazine, 1977)

Topos (The Lace Curtain 6, 1978)[xvii]

Xenia (Irish University Review, 1978)

Moicel Et Soim (Cyphers, 1978)[xviii]

Death of Hektor (1979)[xix]

From Topos and Other Poems (Mammon Press, 1981)[xx]

  • Two Old Poets
  • Toolin Replies
  • Scrub
  • Hidden
  • Dream West
  • Window in the Sky
  • Painterly
  • Short Circuit
  • Cave

From Chanterelles (The Melmoth Press, 1985)[xxi]

  • Poem (‘I am where I have been’)
  • Poem (‘What might be said’)
  • Poem (‘He dreams her when sun rising’)
  • So
  • Fidelities[xxii]
    • Liminal
    • Answering Mindful
    • Eleison I
    • Eleison II
  • The Prayers (An Extract)

formCard no. 2 (Harry Gilonis, 1993)

A four-line poem on a postcard as a response to the publisher’s poem on formCard no. 1:

form and existence

gave also

punished penalty

ask Lucifer

NOTES

[i] With thanks to Jim Mays for the additional text on the card. Reprinted in the anthology Choice, ed. Desmond Egan and Michael Hartnett (The Goldsmith Press, 1973 and collected in POEMS and VERSIONS 1929-1990 (Dedalus Press, 1992) henceforth P&V.

[ii] Reprinted in P&V.

[iii] Reprinted in The Lace Curtain 4, 1971.

[iv] Included in P&V. White was included in Versesheet 1 (henceforth V1), and it, Gentle, Third Person and One Way in Selected Poems, henceforth SP.

[v] Section V, under the title What Is All Grace, was included in V1. The coda, A musing was collected in SP and P&V. Perhaps the most interesting of the uncollected longer poems.

[vi] Collected in SP and P&V.

[vii] The Monument collected in SP and P&V.

[viii] Collected in Topos, SP and P&V.

[ix] Included in the 1976 booklet of the same name and in Chanterelles (henceforth Chant).

[x] The publishing prehistory is discussed in the headnote. Reprinted in P&V.

[xi] Included in P&V.

[xii] First book edition was the 1986 Menard Press printing. Also collected in P&V.

[xiii] Reprinted with my review/essay Behind All Archetypes (Form Books, 1995) and Etruscan Reader VII (Etruscan Books, 1997).

[xiv] Reprinted in Chant and P&V.

[xv] Reprinted in Chant and P&V.

[xvi] Collected in Chant.

[xvii] Collected in Topos and reprinted in Etruscan Reader VII.

[xviii] Collected in P&V.

[xix] Circle Press limited (and expensive) edition with illustrations by S.W. Hayter. First trade edition Menard Press, 1982. Reprinted in P&V.

[xx] All the new poems reprinted in Chant and P&V.

[xxi] The complete contents reprinted in P&V.

[xxii] For publishing prehistory of this set of poems, see headnote.

 

30Wikipedia: Year 30 was a common year starting on Sunday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Vinicius and Longinus. The denomination 30 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.

Nancy Campbell: Irish Woman Poet

Nancy Campbell (1886 – ?) was born Nancy Maude. She married the poet Joseph Campbell against her family’s wishes in 1910 and became permanently estranged from them The couple were separated in 1924. Her work was included in Alfred Percival Graves’ The Book of Irish Poetry and she published regularly in Harriet Munroe’s Poetry magazine. The Magi comes form the latter. Her books include The Little People (London: Arthur T. Humphreys 1910) and Agnus Dei (Dublin: Maunsel & Co. 1913).

The Magi

 

OUT of what far-off ancient cities
Did the wise kings see the star,
Leaning from their towers of magic—
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar?

 

In what strange marts did they barter,
In what ivory chests make stir,
Gathering for their eastern journey
Gold and frankincense and myrrh?

Behind All Archetypes: Brian Coffey

POEMS and VERSIONS 1929-1990 by Brian Coffey, Dedalus Press 24
The Heath, Cypress Downs, Dublin 6W, Ireland, price £8.95Paper (IS
booksBN 1 873790 02 3) and £21.00 Bound (ISBN 1 873790 03 1). [Out of Print, and not their address any more.]

This essay/review was written in 1992, but remained unpublished at that time. It was published as a pamphlet by Harry Gilonis’ Form Books as a memorial to Coffey, who sadly died on Good Friday, 1995. On re-reading, I find that whatever worth it has resides mainly in the footnotes.

The poetry of Brian Coffey has, by virtue of its relative neglect, acquired a monumental status in the landscape of 20th, century Irish literature. Words   like   “French”, “modernist”,   “obscure”, “Thomist”, “exile”, “marginal”, “symbolist”, and so on cluster around most discussions of his work, generally as a substitute for any real focus on the work itself.[i] Once one gets used to the absence of conventional punctuation marks (not exactly a revolutionary idea, and one which dates at least as far back as Mallarme)[ii] and a certain idiosyncrasy of syntax, and begins to devote to the poems “an attention similar to that one gives to a conversation with a new friend” [iii] Coffey turns out to be a relatively straightforward writer, and an intellectually passionate one.

He is also quintessentially Irish, but his Irishness is not of the old bog road variety one has come to expect. Coffey’s Ireland is placed firmly in the mainstream of European intellectual and artistic life, as was the Ireland of Wilde, Yeats, Joyce and Beckett, not on its fringes, and he draws on certain common European traditions in the construction of his poems. But it is an Irish mind, an Irish sensibility that does the constructing[iv].

Coffey’s project has long been to write poetry out of the given, and if a knowledge of French literature and Thomist philosophy happen to form a part of that given, they are as valid matter for his work as the play of his children is (see Missouri Sequence}. His learning is not irritating ornament, but an integral element of his work, which can be understood and enjoyed without the reader sharing the author’s interests, just as Beckett’s can by readers with no knowledge of Dante or Dublin. In both cases, readers who happen to recognise a translation or a reference may find that another level of meaning opens up to them, but such recognition will not illuminate any supposed obscurity in the work. Coffey’s poetry is not some kind of ‘superior entertainment’, an intellectual Trivial Pursuits. It is complex, like all art worth the making, because it grows out of a complex world.

This book represents the most comprehensive selection of his poetry to have been published so far, and, as such, its appearance is an important event. Unfortunately, it is not the book it could have been. It is, in essence, an extended version of the 1971 Selected Poems[v] with some welcome additions, some not so welcome, and a number of rather disappointing omissions.

To begin with, the title is somewhat misleading. The earliest poem in this book was actually published in 1933[vi], not 1929 as one might be led to believe, and the most recent work represented dates from 1985. It would have been interesting to have included at least one example of Coffey’ s earlier work, if only to show how far he had to travel to arrive at his mature voice[vii]. It would also be useful to have more of his distinctly Eliotic work of the mid 30s represented in this first section of this book, so that the reader could see more clearly one important part of how he went about making that journey[viii]. It is, on the other hand, nice to have all of the Three Poems reprinted, and to have Yuki Hira collected in a book for the first time.

But however interesting the earlier work may be to the student of Coffey’s development, it is Third Person, also reprinted in its entirety for the first time here[ix], that represents his initial discovery of the mode of writing, the voice, that that constitutes his particular contribution to the assault on the tyranny of the sentence:

For whom on whom then

again and after

whose eyes desired must turn

(Dedication)

Do what you will and

pure loss now is

dawn charged with wet roses

red as anger

white as pain

you need us too

(Patience No Memory)

The control of a more open syntax and the involvement of the reader in the creation of meaning in these poems show that Coffey had assimilated his reading of the French and American modernists, but there is, at the same time, an unmistakeable Irishness to these poems, as, for instance, in the following lines:

If memory which does not err

holds a garden farthest back

where the flowers cast no shadow

what is that to you or me

The way up is the way down

when blood has soured in the breast

(A Drop Of Fire)

Here we can see a distinctly Irish mode of writing that owes nothing to the Twilighters, and has nothing of the Kiltartan brogue to it[x]. The publication of the book should have been a turning point both in Coffey’s development and in the course of 20th century Irish poetry, but circumstances were to decree otherwise.

When the book came out, Coffey was in Paris, working on his doctoral thesis, “De 1’idee ‘ordre d’apres saint Thomas d’Aquin”. He married that year, and was still in France in the early summer of 1939, when his old friend Sam Beckett visited. He and his wife went to Dublin for a holiday later that summer, and were unable to return to France due to the outbreak of war. Coffey found himself in England working as a teacher throughout the war, while his wife and child remained in Ireland [xi]. In 1947, he was, at last, able to return to Paris to present his thesis, which was accepted. That same year he was appointed to a teaching post in St. Louis University, Missouri, to begin work the following year. As might be expected from one who was trying to build an academic career, the four years he spent in this post saw the publication of a number of essays and reviews on philosophical subjects in The Modern Schoolman, including an extremely interesting summary, in English, of the introductory part of his, unfortunately unpublished, thesis[xii]. These writings display Coffey’s mind at its most rigorous, and they certainly display no signs of any sort of intellectual crisis, but it is hardly surprising, given the pressures of his personal and professional situation, that he wrote no poetry during this period.

One can only speculate as to the full nature of the professional pressures that might have been encountered by a foreign academic with easily discoverable personal links with French communists who was living and working in McCarthy’ s America, or how he might have reacted to them. What is known is that, in 1952, Coffey resigned his post ‘on a matter of academic principle’[xiii].

The resultant release from the pressures of work would seem to have freed Coffey for poetry again. Missouri Sequence, the long poem he wrote, or at least started[xiv], at this time deals with his, and his family’s, situation:

…. Yet we must leave America,

bitter necessity no monopoly

of Irish soil.

It was pain once to come,

it is pain now to go. . . .

…. To greet unwisdomed change of season

is to fail the unexpected

test, ruin completed…,

…. Celtic anger ruined me. . .

The poem is also a meditation on Ireland:

…. yet I am charmed

by the hills behind Dublin,

those white stone cottages,

grass green as no other green is green,

my mother’s people, their ways. . . .

.,.. there is a love of Ireland

withering for Irishmen. . . .

and on poetry:

. … No servant the muse

abides in truth.. . .

…. The habit of withholding love

unfits us for poetry.. . .

and is, due at least partly to its relatively conventional syntax and punctuation, the most widely read of Coffey’s works (.in as much as any of his work can be said to be widely read). It is also one of the least satisfactory of the long poems he was to write during the following 30 extraordinary years. The first or these, at least in terms of publication date, was the delightful Nine a Musing[xv], represented here, as in Selected Poems, only by A Musing, in which Coffey as to return to the style, and the theme(s) he had discovered in Third Person:

When as in flight and white

those birds in line define

all I have failed

pale by their light

I see whom troth sustained

to have held each other so

each shaped what the other wrought

to the style each had gained

You   and how say it   care

itself so long you smile

to hear the beating wing

and   I shall say it   I bear

all well since smiling you sent

seawards all those birds flying[xvi]

Next came the rather less interesting Four Poems[xvii], represented here, again as in the Selected Poems, by The Monument, for no better apparent reason than that it prefigures, in its subject matter, some of the concerns of Coffey’s later work.

With the next works in the present volume, the sequences Mindful Of You and How Far From Daybreak[xviii], we find ourselves in the presence of the mature Coffey. Taken together, these two poems form the most comprehensive exploration of love in modern Irish poetry, and are central to any understanding of Coffey’s achievement.

A number of readers have stressed the role of pain and separation in Coffey’s love poetry, but seem to have failed to understand this in the light of the poet’s Roman Catholic background. For Coffey, as for all who share his position, earthly love may stand as a symbol of the soul’s yearning for its maker; a relationship defined in Mindful Of You by the soul’s pain at its separation from the goal of its desire;

With in such absence

hope held fast

I turn from all

that is not you

and the union of lovers foreshadows that union the soul strives towards:

To have been made over

to light and song

birds a garden rose

her peace calm

gracious immeasure

(remembering Dante?).

But this is not to diminish the importance of the actual love here-and-now.

As Stan Smith has pointed out ‘the mutuality of selves is a sustaining fiction of all his work[xix] and it is this mutuality, more than anything else, that Coffey’s work of this period could be said to be ‘about’. Physical love, for Coffey, not only points towards an escape from this vale of tears, it also serves to make life in the vale bearable:

Nothing can change

that she did fill

an empty state

with such rose weather

made a desert delight

In How Far From Daybreak, the desert is the form adopted by the individual’s isolation in time and space, a place where ‘ the sand moves moving the sand’, and:

This is the solitude

Some pines white sand in hills

shells dry from a vanished sea

There he is Space all ways

but, as always with Coffey:

there will be no surrender

let hopelessness darken every sun

the small things help us best

the whispering of a Sara’s name

on the ranging wind

something like that

recovers us for desire

and aim and honesty

so that, finally:

a presence yours entering the emptied soul

like water fingers stretching on sand

like wind filling a silent tree

It is unfortunate that room could not have been found in this volume for the magnificent Monster, a long concrete poem dating from 1965[xx], the inclusion of which would have given the reader a better idea of the full range of Coffey’s work in the 60s. Indeed, it is a pity that none of Coffey’s humorous work at all is collected here. One would have liked to have had either The Big Laugh[xxi] or Leo, which was published in IURBC, along with Advent[xxii], the first of the two long poems published in the 1970s which constitute the full maturity of Coffey’s art,

Advent has been compared, with some justification, to Basil Bunting’s Brigflatts, but a more valid comparison might be drawn with Pound’s Drafts And Fragments, to which reference would seem to be made on the first page of Coffey’s work:

Unquiet house it is   darkness solid

like what wake-light once showed   shadows pressing

From tumbled citadel one stared at air

shaped by walls   rigid like speech frozen

(as the father of a large family, one might expect Coffey’s house to have been rather more ‘unquiet’ than Pound’s). The word wake, as both noun and verb is a central one in the poem[xxiii].

Of the structure of Advent, Coffey has said that it was ‘based on the eight hours of the church…then I began to realize that you can’ t in fact use another artistic property just in that way… But ultimately there seemed to be eight worlds separated, advent parts, and that was that[xxiv].

Equally, perhaps, you can’t entirely discard that kind of underlying structural outline, and it is still possible to discern the echoes of Coffey’s original plan in the finished work. The following notes are intended as nothing more than a guideline for the interested reader[xxv].

  1. Matins: The world of the isolated individual. (inc. Venite& Te Deum)
  2. Lauds: The world of beauty & its abuse. (inc. Laudete& Benedictus)
  3. Prime: The world of (the abuse of) history (followed by a reading from the Martyrology)
  4. Terce: Idolatry, esp. the worship of technology, and UFO-ology (prefigured in The Monument).
  5. Sext: The Earth as home/mother.
  6. None: Mothers and children.
  7. Vespers: Death (specifically the death of a son). (inc. the Magnificat)
  8. Compline: Prayer/acceptance. (inc. theNunc Dimittis)

The application of Coffey’s technique to the broader canvas afforded by the scale of Advent is matched by the greater range of matter engaged in the poem. In addition to a wide range of reference to classical and modern literature, Coffey encompasses history:

It starts       House of Atreus black hole in light

incest race murder obscenity

knotted vipers poison like damp on walls

a reek of malice

Watchman to warn of victory’s deceiving fire

(section 3)

his view of politics as explored in Leo and The Big Laugh.

Observe power-seeker court his frog people

treacly-tempting voice promise to fetch them in

words to soothe he gives them words like gold

silver comfort ease verb sap for the would-be-wise[xxvi]

(section 1)

personal experience:

“My son my son” the Blakean figure mourns and affirms

“You did not see your grievings etched already in me

not hero nor arrant coward human only everyday”

(section 7)

a contemporary sounding concern with the environment:

Pryers rod may wreck balance in rock pool

yet trigger no crab to feel for God

(section 4)

Oh come all ye with Skinner Apollo come rub noses

on seared stone dine on oust in the vacant place

you hasten towards who respect not maternal earth

(section 2)

reflections on the creative act:

never foresee the final fatal step of failed mastery

blind to the speech or signs

(section 5)

Not that way with us not that way with human kind

we modify what we and our markings yield no snore

(section 1)

all suffused with his neo-platonic concern for that which lies behind the world of the senses:

Do memories suffuse flesh from that far back

the behind all archetypes        that silent world

Thence did height and length and breadth and depth

pre-stress primal slime           Do our dreams roam

that ever-recurring sea that pathless plain fading into pale sky

what absent heart might there have soared to the stars

(section 1)

It is, given his background, entirely unsurprising that Coffey’s conclusion is to be found in the consolation of religion, and it is one that many who do not share his position (the present reviewer included) may find it hard to sympathise with. Such reservations should not, however, be allowed to detract from the intellectual honesty and rigour of the work, nor from its sheer musical power. Advent is, quite simply, the most significant long poem in English by an Irish poet this century.

If one had to choose a challenger for that distinction, Death Of Hektor[xxvii] would almost certainly come into consideration. Many of the themes explored in the earlier long works recur here, but the central concern of this poem is stated in the opening lines:

Of what we are to Hektor   Nothing to say

Of Hector to us

This focus on the figure of Hector, the underdog loser, doomed to lose. But transformed in defeat to a potent symbol, could be taken to be part of the distinctively ‘Celtic’ nature of Coffey’s work[xxviii]:

And we are forced to see godlike Achilles with aiding gods

induce Hektor to the test he is forced to fail

(section 10)

…..     Achilles spher’d round with battle glory

luminous like Cuchullain figure of War Itself

belly-ripper bead-splitter neck-lopper

(section 7)

Coffey also uses the figure of Homer to offer an alternative vision of the author/poet to that which had come to dominate ‘Irish Modernism’, such as it, is/was:

He pared no fingernails not indifferent   not masked

Light we suppose once had entered eves to brand memory

(section 6)

The most succinct commentary on the poem is to be round in section 36 of Concerning Making (see note VII), which was published a year before the first edition of Hektor, in which he says of Homer (I quote only a part of the section) “It. is as it he contrives to express the unawakened spirit of people imprisoned in narrowness but the spirit is not dead. It is unawakened”’, to which we might add (from 1982) ‘But there still remains “to be created” (sic) what Joyce called “the conscience of his race”, if we can understand, in Joyce’s parting rhetorical flourish for Stephen off to exile, a deepening and widening of adulthood impelling the limited and narrowing Ireland of the “isms” towards an Ireland taking its place among the ultimate community of peoples.’ (Joyce! “What Now?” see note XIV).

Coffey’s other work of the 1970s, and 80s is collected here under the collective title Chanterelles Short poems 1971-1983, the title of the volume in which they were previously published, which in turn drew on previous publications[xxix], although the dating is again somewhat misleading[xxx]. As the title indicates, these shorter pieces can be considered as little songs, or as mushroom growths from the longer works that precede them; indeed one of these pieces was first published as a section from How Far From Daybreak[xxxi]. This is not to say that there are no good poems here (see, for instance, The Time The Place), but the shorter pieces at least do nothing to alter ones view of Coffey’s range and achievement.

There are, however, at least two pieces of more substantial interest: Abecedarian and The Prayers. The first of these is a delightful alphabet of animals for children of all ages, but unfortunately lacks the drawings that accompanied the text in the first edition. The second, which on first publication was described as an extract[xxxii], would new seem to be considered by Coffey as a completed work, and has some claim to be the last panel of a triptych with Advent and Hektor. It is its nature as an abandoned rather than a finished work which makes   The Prayers ‘paradigmatic’, as Dr. Mays states in his preface to this volume, for the lesson of Coffey’s career, if there is one, is that the writing of poems is the exploration of the state of existence through the medium of language rather than the manufacture of perfect polished artefacts.

On the surface, at least, we would seem to be returned to the point at which Advent concluded (i.e. the state of prayer) but the sense of willing acceptance which one finds in the former work (“so be it”) is missing here; we are back in the world of the isolated individual, the world of How Far From Daybreak, except that here the prospect of redemption through love is withheld. This is a work suffused with a sense of failure, a “seamless garment of pain':

triumph or failure no goal here

snatched from mundane scene

to entry only on night-shade naught

Screw them is screw self

stone patch clod lump scum

theirs lump limp lump theirs

Indeed, The Prayers is not concerned with prayer in the sense that the end of Advent is. Here prayer, in the sense of attention, is “the method, not the content”[xxxiii]. The content would seem to point, towards at least a partial collapse of Coffey’s life-long faith, and it is difficult to see how even a much younger man might have reconciled these difficulties and completed the work.

Coffey has said that; “Translation keeps a poet working with words between the times when poems come”[xxxiv], and he himself has practised the art of translation, or, rather, of making “versions” throughout his career[xxxv]. For the most part he has confined himself to French originals, unsurprisingly enough for one who wrote his doctoral thesis in that language. It is, therefore, unfortunate that this aspect of his work should be represented here by a relatively uninteresting version of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and The Unhoping Song[xxxvi]. Coffey has often been at pains to point out that his versions are not translations in the conventional sense (for instance, in a note appended to his versions of Eluard in The Beau: “Needless to say, the versions of Eluard’s poems provided above are not intended as translations proper, but only as a help to other Irish poets on their difficult paths.”), and they should not be read either as attempts at faithful rendition or as ‘contemporary poems’ which in some way are supposed to be ‘equivalent’ to the original. More often than not he contrives. In Dr. Mays’ memorable phrase to make “English read as If it had been originally written in French”[xxxvii]. I would like to give here as example, Coffey’s version of Mallarme’s Salut from the hardPressed Poetry pamphlet:

Nothing   this foam   virgin verse

to point out naught but the cup

thus far off drowns a troup

of sirens and many inverse

We sail   O my divers

friends I already on the poop

you the proud prow which cuts

the main of lightnings and winters

A fine ebriety pledges me

fearless of the rolling

upright to bear this greeting

solitude   reef   star

to whatever it was was worth

our sail’s white care

Even allowing for the reservations expressed in the course of this review (and some others: one can’t help, for instance, feeling that the space devoted to Brigid Ann might have been better used), and for the unfortunately large number of misprints (what exactly are the Advert and Advert III referred to in the acknowledgements?), this is, as I have already indicated, an important book, and one which I hope will help find a larger readership for Coffey’s work. What is now needed is a three-volume Collected Poems, Versions and Prose[xxxviii]. In the meanwhile Dedalus are to be congratulated on the commitment they have shown in reviving interest in the poets of the Irish 30s, here and in their publication of Collected Poems of Denis Devlin and Charles Donnelly. What is to be hoped now is that they, or some other Irish publisher, will show an equal commitment to the publication of those younger Irish poets (I am thinking in particular of Catherine Walsh, Maurice Scully, Randolph Healy and David Lloyd) who stand in the same relation to the mainstream Irish verse of our time that Coffey and the others did to that of theirs.

Notes

[i] By far the most interesting discussions of Coffey’s work that I have seen are: The Poetry of Brian Coffey: On Other Grounds by Stan Smith in. The Lace Curtain, 5 (Spring 1974), and three essays by James Mays; the Introductory Essay to the Irish University Review Brian Coffey Special Issue (Vol 5, No 1 Spring 1975) (henceforth: IURBC), Passivity and Openness in Two Long Poems by Brian Coffey in Irish University Review Vol.13 No. 1 (Spring 1983) and Brian Coffey’s Work in Progress (published in Krino sometime in the late 80s; unfortunately I don’t have a copy to hand).

[ii] ‘”Denis Devlin’s punctuation is often eccentric.” Tate and Warren remark. Whose isn’t, if he’s writing thinking?’ (Brian Coffey: About the poetry of Denis Devlin, Poetry Ireland, Vol II No. 2 Spring 1963).

[iii] See Coffey’s introductory note to Yuki Hira in Choices ed. Desmond Egan and Michael Hartnet (The Goldsmith Press, The Curragh, Ireland, 1973),

[iv] In an interview with Michael Smith (published in The Lace Curtain No, 4, Summer 1971), Mervyn Wall says of the group of young Dublin writers of the early 30s, which included Coffey: ‘As for not being Irish enough, it was natural for these people to turn to Europe where the culture was, just as the writer of provincial origin now turns to America where the money is.’ Coffey himself has said ‘But since I haven’t been able to end up in Ireland, the other thing I did was simply connect any work I did with Ireland, because that was nearer to the kind of things I felt instinctively. ‘(Brain Coffey, an Interview, by Parkman Howe. Eire/Ireland Vol.13. 1978, henceforth E/I). Harry Gilonis has suggested to me that Coffey’s work could not have been written by an English poet, because to be English and Roman Catholic is to be odd. David Jones seems a good case in point here. His writing suffered because of his need to constantly explain the Roman part of the European tradition to a suspicious, uninterested, and sometimes hostile readership. Coffey, as an Irish writer, could reasonably have assumed that much of this matter was part of the mindset of an Irish readership. One does not have to share the religious beliefs involved to see what an advantage this common cultural matrix could be.

[v] Published by Michael Smith and Trevor Joyce’s New Writers Press (Dublin 1971),

[vi] Yuki Hira first published (Dublin 1933) as a Christmas card (IURBC, page 3),

[vii] I have found 3 poems that were published in The National Student in the late 20s under the pen-name Coeuvre (Sada, Wednesday Night, A Piece from “Morven”, and The Eternal Thought. The last named was reprinted in Poems, a co-publication with his friend Denis Devlin (Dublin 1930; privately printed at the poets’ expense), along with 11th September, 1930, … To a Romantic…, Prologue to “Morven” and The Love Song From “Morven”. Devlin’s contributions are reprinted in the excellent Collected Poems ed. Dr. J.C.C, Mays, also published by Dedalus in 1989). IURBC (page 9) speaks of earlier, now lost, published work, The following lines from 11th September, 1930 can serve as a sample;

I found my love last night. She was beautiful

And she came to me in mossy-soft white robes,

Smiling and gazing frankly with deep eyes.

We spoke, and though she laughed with me,

Hope vas belied for she went from me.

And who to blame her?

[viii] ‘They read and examined Eliot and Pound,’ (Mervyn Wall; op. cit. page 32 — see also the essay The Thirties by Austin Clarke in the same source; pages 37/92), The Irish writers seem to have learned more from this study than did their wore ‘audenary’ British contemporaries, Some of Coffey’s Eliot-inspired work has found its way into this collection, in the section Observations Poems Experiments 1931-1971. Interested readers will find More in the pages of   Ireland Today (Dec. 1936, Jan./Aug./Sept./Nov. 1937) and The Criterion (Plain Speech For Two in I938, Coffey also reviewed books for Eliot’s magazine),

Coffey has always to read widely, as illustrated by his translations, and by his publishing of

Poetry USA 1975, a review of Oppen’s Collected Poems Zukofsky’s “A” 22 & 23, Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and A.R. Ammon’s Diversifications by Parkman Howe in Advent V (Advent Books, 1976). Few of the younger Dublin-based poets of today that I have met have gotten round to reading Pound yet, never mind Zukofsky or Oppen.

[ix] Third Person London; Europa Press 1938.

[x] “Lacking traditions, one must make then; having traditions, one must break through them.” (Concerning Making, in The Lace Curtain, No. 6, Autumn 1973). Interested readers can find some of Coffey’s ambiguous attitudes to Yeats expressed in A Note on Rat Island (University Review III, 1966).

[xi] IURBC page 10, Deirdre Bair: Samuel Beckett (London 1973, page 299); Brian and Bridget Coffey in conversation, Aug. 1983. Coffey has written about his relationship with Beckett in the 30s in Memory Murphy’s Maker (Threshold XVII 1962; Reprinted in Eonta No 1. 1991).

[xii] Coffey’s essays and reviews of this period, which will undoubtedly exercise the minds of the thesis writers in some not too distant future, are to be found in the pages of The Modern Schoolman between November 1948 and March 1952.

[xiii] IURBC page 10.

[xiv] Although first published (in University Review) in 1962, the date assigned to it in the volume under review, the poem would appear, from internal evidence, to have been at least partly written in America. Parkman Howe, reviewing Topos and Other Poems| (Bath, 1981) wrote ‘Coffey has acquired a fixed reputation for a handful of longer poems as well as translations, most written since 1953. (Irish University Review Spring 1932. This was the Joyce Centenary issue, to which Coffey contributed a short essay: Joyce! “What Now?”).

[xv] (University Review, 1961).

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] (University Review III, 1963).

[xviii] How Far From Daybreak, undated in the present volume, was first published in this form in Selected Poems, A longer version is rumoured to exist.

[xix] Smith. Op. cit. page 19.

[xx] London; Advent Press 1966.

[xxi] Dublin; Sugar Loaf Press 1976.

[xxii] Advent was first published in IURBC in 1975, and reprinted in book form by the Menard Press in 1986, However The Lace Curtain No. 5, Spring 1974 announced that; Leo and Advent will be published this year by New Writers Press (funds permitting,), to be followed in 1975 by his Collected Poems.

[xxiii] “Can you go back to tranquil sleep once you have opened your eyes?” (Concerning Making). And

Thy quiet house

The crozier’s curve runs in the wall

The harl, feather-white, as a dolphin on sea-brink

I am all for Verkehr without tyranny

—wake exultant

in caracole

Hast’ou seen wake on sea-wall

how crests it?

(Pound Canto CX)

recalling the last line of the previous Canto;

You in the dinghy (piccioletta) astern there!

recalling Dante again and:

“O little ship ahoy” hopeless hand from ocean hails

(Advent 3)

and; ‘Making we do what we will; dreaming we will what we do,’ (Concerning Making)

In some respects. Advent can be read as a counter-argument to the late Pound.

[xxiv] E/I., page 115.

[xxv] See also Mays IURBC pp. 19-21,

[xxvi] “The political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems.” (Concerning Making)

[xxvii] Circle Press 1980 (with engravings by Stanley William Hayter). First trade edition London Menard Press 1982.

[xxviii] “Achilles was never a hero to David, His heart was with Hector in the dust.” writes Harman Grisewood in his introduction to The Dying Gaul and Other Writings by David Jones; London Faber and Faber 1973.

[xxix] Chanterelles Cork Melmoth Press 1985, which included work first published in Topos and Other Poems (see note XIV), The Time the Place, London, Advent Books 1969, Abecedarian Southampton, Advent Books 1974 (with drawings by Sandra Hill, Hick Marsh, Derek Norman, John Parsons and Diane Radford), and Advent III: The Time the Place and Other Poems Southampton, Advent Books 1976.

[xxx] See, for instance, The Time the Place in note XXIX. Limnal and Answering Mindful were first published in, Autumn 1962; Elision I & II in The Lace Curtain 3, Summer 1970. Some uncollected short pieces of this period can be found in Versheet I (Dublin: New Writers Press 1971), The Lace Curtain 5, Spring 1974 and in Topos and Other Poems.

[xxxi] Leader (in The Lace Curtain 4, Summer 1971).

[xxxii] Chanterelles, page 56.

[xxxiii] Mays, Work in Progress (see note I).

[xxxiv] Concerning Making

[xxxv] IURBC lists a version of a poem by Eluard published in 1933.

[xxxvi] A good cross section of Coffey’s work in this field can be found in the following sources; Dice

Thrown Will Never Annul Chance (Dolmen 1965). IURBC, The Beau I (Dublin 1981), Salut (hardPressed

Poetry, 1988), The Poet’s Voice (Vol 3 No 3; Bath ndg), Poems of Mallarme (New Writers’ Press/The

Menard Press 1990), 40 Poemes d’Amour / 40 Poems of Love (Atelier 17 1983).

[xxxvii] Work in Progress

[xxxviii] It this review has any value it is that it may help the interested reader in the process of creating these ideal volumes for him/herself. It way also serve is some kind of counterweight to the kind of ignorance shown by the statement in Books Ireland (No. 156 Feb. I992) that “Most of this (the exception is Third Person of 1938) has not previously appeared in book form”, and the general impression that, Coffey has not written or published much.