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Home Uncategorized The Return to Helicon

The Return to Helicon

Aidan O’Malley

Classical Presences in Irish Poetry after 1960: The Answering Voice, by Florence Impens, Palgrave Macmillan, 219 pp, €106.99, ISBN: 978-3319682303

When he was asked to provide a version of Antigone for the Abbey Theatre’s centenary celebrations in 2004, Seamus Heaney was initially hesitant to accept the commission. One of his concerns was the fact that five other Antigones had been produced in Ireland in the previous twenty years. As Florence Impens notes, while there has been “a long literary tradition of classical rewritings in Ireland”, there was a significant surge in the number of these from 1970 to the early twenty-first century, the period in which the four writers at the heart of her study ‑ Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Eavan Boland ‑ reached their poetic maturity. They, Impens emphasises, were of the last generation to have undergone compulsory Classics at school level, and this furnished them with an imaginative landscape in which to reconceive their political and social contexts. To differing degrees, these were being forged, distorted and shattered by the pressures exerted by the seemingly implacable degeneration of the Troubles, and Impens contends that classical literature charted a route that allowed these poets to evade direct engagement with “an ideological conflict” that threatened to “distort[…] what they saw as the relationship of art with the world”; in short, the classics helped them “retain their creative independence” in the face of the deadly onslaught of the Troubles. In this telling, Heaney and Longley, for instance, employed Sophocles and Homer to “invite […] their Northern Irish, Irish, and wider audiences to reflect on ways to overcome the antagonisms dividing their societies”.

Longley was the only one of these writers to take a Classics degree at university level, and he is praised for “the precision with which he handles the source text[s]”. Impens’s suggestion that such meticulousness has fallen away somewhat in his later reworkings of Homer is not offered as a significant criticism, as these poems “testify to the in-depth and enduring influence that Homer has had on his imagination”. This speaks to the emphases of this study, which is focused on the wide-ranging creative roles the classics have played in the oeuvres of the four poets. While there are some brief analyses of the translational strategies they employed, Impens most often uses the umbrella term “rewriting” to describe the relationships established by these Irish poets with their source texts. If this approach could have done with some theoretical explication and scaffolding to signal where and how it overlaps with concepts such as translation, appropriation and adaptation, it nonetheless denotes a felicitously inclusive way of exploring the diverse presences of the classical world in Irish poetry over the last half-century.

This survey begins with Heaney unearthing a Mount Helicon in Mossbawn in his 1966 Death of a Naturalist, and traces how other figures from classical mythology, such as Antaeus, feature in his subsequent collections. From the mid- to late 1980s Heaney’s work began to display a more intense and sustained encounter with the Classics. If this interest was informed by his stints at Harvard, where he re-immersed himself in these texts, it was also stimulated by a need to formulate some sort of response to the Troubles. And so, when, under the Field Day banner, he first entered the public arena of drama in 1990, he did so with a version of Sophocles’s PhiloctetesThe Cure at Troy, which articulated the utopian aspiration of rhyming hope and history that virtually became the motto of the peace process.

All four poets at the heart of this study have provided renderings of Ovid, and Impens skilfully highlights the very different Ovids they have produced. Picking up on echoes across ages, languages, and cultures, Heaney brought the story of Orpheus’s dismemberment by the Maenads into dialogue with the trial of the protagonist at the heart of Brian Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán-Oíche, in The Midnight Verdict (1993). However, the parallels between these two male figures being tortured by women are rather superficial, as Impens convincingly argues, with the result that The Midnight Verdict is ultimately a problematically disjunctive text. Virgil, though, was the classical author who dominated Heaney’s later and posthumous work, and this book provides a reliable guide to the resources he uncovered in the Latin poet for the articulation of public and private experiences, and how these found expression in works such as the “Route 110” sequence in Human Chain (2010) and his translation of Book VI of the Aeneid (2016).

The chapter on Longley similarly offers a rigorous overview of how the classics moulded his poetic career. His early work, such as No Continuing City (1969), was marked by a disabling tension between the impulses towards convention that emanated from his years as a Classics undergraduate and his evolving interest in contemporary Anglophone poetry. Later, in the 1980s, Longley experienced a sustained period of writer’s block, and his re-emergence from this crisis, Gorse Fires (1991), featured poems that rewrite episodes of The Odyssey, relating in particular to Odysseus’s return home and complicated filial relationships. As we learn here, Longley initially preferred the elegy to what he called in “Altera Cithera” (1973) “the dreary / Epics of the muscle-bound”. However, focusing on the more private, intimate, moments of the heroes allowed him to enlist epics that “sing of arms” as hypotexts in the context of the Troubles; the most famous example of this style of rewriting being his rendering of the meeting of Priam and Achilles in “Ceasefire” (The Ghost Orchid, 1995). If The Iliad has remained a constant source of inspiration in his work, Longley’s subsequent mining of the classics has brought forth other treasures, such as a set of poems in Snow Water (2004) based on “writers forgotten in the main tradition”. Impens picks up on Longley’s description of himself as a “lapsed classicist” for the title of this chapter, and then illustrates just how long and fruitful this process of lapsing has been for him.

Compared with the cases of Heaney and Longley, Greek and Latin literature plays a more reduced role in the poetry of Mahon and Boland, and they are grouped together in a chapter that explores how they have employed the classics to articulate their different senses of marginality. Ovid is perhaps the key reference point for both poets. “Ovid in Tomis” (1982), for instance, is a dramatic monologue in which Mahon ventriloquises the exiled Latin poet’s thoughts in a manner that provides a way of reflecting upon his own feelings about displacement and the idea of home. In “Daphne with her thighs in bark” (2005), Boland turns to Ovid’s Metamorphoses to offer a reimagining of Daphne’s plight that grants her more agency while, at the same time, gesturing to the restricted roles into which male writers such as Ezra Pound have cast her. Impens further offers a perspicacious reading of how the two poets’ recourse to the classics has reflected their changing senses of marginality. The nods to Yeats, Synge and Beckett that Mahon incorporated into his 2005 Oedipus, a condensed reworking of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus, are neatly understood as an expression of a more relaxed re-engagement with an Ireland that is inexpugnably linked to a broader poetic world. While the section on Boland valuably charts how through the 1990s she returned to the myth of Ceres and Proserpina to express the joys and losses involved in the evolution of her relationship with her daughter.

Boland was also well aware that rewriting the Classics was primarily a male preserve in Ireland, and this gender imbalance is offered as one of the possible reasons why relatively fewer reinterpretations of the Classics feature in Irish poetry of the twenty-first century. There are exceptions, of course, and while the final chapter registers the decline in interest in the Classics, it also briskly surveys classical traces in the works of Peter Fallon, Theo Dorgan and Peter McDonald. The notion of generation is key to this study, and the gradual waning of the Classics’ appeal is broadly framed in generational terms: not only did most poets writing now not study Classics in school, but they are also writing in, and of, a post-Troubles Ireland ‑ a place in which the dynamics of Sophoclean tragedies are seen to have less purchase.

This book concludes by positing that the “classical revival” it has chronicled “has symbolically accompanied a transition in Irish literature, from a postcolonial to a European and increasingly global outlook”. Echoes of this argument emerge regularly throughout this study, but are unfortunately never properly fleshed out. It is very unclear what “postcolonial”, for instance, refers to: at times it seems to indicate simply Ireland’s historical relationship with Britain, while in other places it appears to signal postcolonial theory and its influence on Irish writing. In both cases though, it is always framed as a limited perspective that stands in opposition, and anterior, to the “intercultural and international exchanges and concerns with global issues” that are seen to have emerged with the rewriting by these poets of classical literature. This is unconvincing; postcolonial perspectives, for one thing, are by no means necessarily parochial. In fact, it was the most strident anti-postcolonial critics of the 1980s and ’90s, such as Edna Longley, who denigrated any attempts to bring Irish experience and literature into dialogue with postcolonial contexts from beyond the archipelago: “Derry and Derrida”, in this view, had nothing useful to say to each other. In contrast to postcolonialism’s inherently politicised understanding of cross-border transactions, the transnationalism that this study sees these poets working towards is frequently cast as being intrinsically “European”, and this floating signifier ‑ much used in Irish cultural discourse ‑ would here appear to betoken a cosmopolitan space that largely transcends historical and political specificity.

Since Palgrave Macmillan was taken over by Springer Nature in 2015, authors writing for it have been encouraged to think about their monographs in terms of a set of discrete chapters that essentially stand alone, so that these individual chapters can be sold separately online. In some respects, this study might be thought to reflect the exigencies of this style of organising a book: while the political and cultural contextualisation of its overarching argument is at times problematic, this, surprisingly, does not unduly mar the enlightening maps drawn in each chapter of the individual poets’ excursions into Greek and Latin literatures. These will surely function as fundamental guides for future explorations into Irish poetry’s late twentieth century “classical revival”.


Aidan O’Malley teaches at the University of Rijeka in Croatia.



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