rev. of The Dual Tradition by Thomas Kinsella

Issue #70
Fall 1996

The Dual Tradition
  An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, by Thomas Kinsella. Carcanet Press, $17.95 paper. Reviewed by M. L. Rosenthal.

Irish poetry has had a long, trauma-beset journey. In his book
The Dual Tradition: An Essay on Poetry and Politics in Ireland, Thomas Kinsella leads us through its successive periods of “most radical adjustment and change.” He plunges into the matter more intimately than anyone since Yeats, and in far more precise detail than Yeats ever did. But he wears his sophistication lightly. His style is direct and vivid, with pointedly apt quotations.

Kinsella’s own poetic career his subtle yet piercing original verse, together with his translations from the Irish in
An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600-1900, in his anthology
The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, and most notably in his version of the Cuchulain saga
Táin Bó Cuailnge prepared him ideally for the task his new book shoulders.

His essential theme is hinted in his early poem “Nightwalker”: “A dying language echoes / Across a century’s silence. / It is time, / Lost soul, I turned for home.” It is spelled out explicitly in his introduction to the Oxford anthology, which stresses the central force, in Irish speech and poetry, of two dual traditions. The first was created by the overlay of Christianity on an originally “pagan” culture. The second, now dominant, comes from the subordination of a Gaelic-speaking people by the military power and the language of the English invader.

All this is in a broad sense common knowledge. But Kinsella, speaking out of close attention to the slow unfolding of Irish poetry in both languages, breaks down familiar generalizations into important, unfamiliar particulars. He offers a politically sensitized historic overview that nevertheless reflects a
poet’s primary concerns. He has pondered Yeats’s complaint that Ireland is “a community bound together by imaginative possessions” hard to communicate because so very few writers, or people generally, are “born to” the Gaelic any longer.
The Dual Tradition accepts Yeats’s premise and acknowledges the problem, but goes on to describe the warring phases of poetic development as an irreversible reality Irish writers must (and do) cope with as best they can.

In so doing especially in tandem with the Oxford anthology the book becomes an invaluable guide. The two volumes form the basis for enlightening study, whether on one’s own or in a classroom. But Kinsella’s main critical purpose is to clarify, through empathy with the psychological pressures underlying individual poems, the accumulated components revealed in Ireland’s poetry. He is fascinated by key points of crisis: e.g., when native Irish poets felt the encroachments of Christian priesthood on the “pagan” world they had taken for granted; when the bards lost status because of the dispossession of their aristocratic patrons; and when British repression of the old Irish culture and speech completed their impoverishment and also transformed the people into colonials.

In this last context, Kinsella’s discussion of the inevitable need for publication and recognition
outside Ireland by Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and later poets is masterful. And he is repeatedly eloquent on the whole existential tangle: “the dual state of things: the sullen Irish, dispossessed but refusing to disappear” while their “high and dry” conquerors long to feel “really at home.”
The Dual Tradition is vitally revealing in the way it shows the real, violent way in which cultural and religious power-struggles have shaped the language and spirit of Irish poetry. It is also enormously suggestive without saying a word on the subject when one thinks about comparable issues in the poetic history of other countries. Cultural “unity” has been forged out of bloody conquest and repression almost everywhere, and the United States is hardly an exception.

M. L. Rosenthal’s most recent book of poetry is As for Love: Poems and Translations
(Oxford Univ. Press). His most recent critical book is Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art