When the prospect of this evening’s honours was first mooted I was aware that T.S. Eliot had praised W.B. Yeats for not allowing himself to become a mere coathanger upon which the world draped its honours, but could assuage myself by thinking that Eliot had never witnessed the Merton Professor of English perform his capework as resourcefully and generously as he has just done.
Nobody is in any doubt, of course, that he can perform swordwork of a devastating sort as well. It is not so long ago, indeed, that I experienced a sharp regret that John Carey’s unstinted praise of work that I had done had also provided the occasion for his fierce underestimation of work by a friend and countryman of mine.
Still, it is inevitable that this kind of complication enter into the relations between poets and critics. I mention it as an awkward truth in order to mitigate the otherwise too perfect collusion we might promote between our two offices, since John Carey’s good opinion has, in fact, corroborated me in my work from the very beginning. In 1965, he praised in forthright terms a pamphlet of mine, published in Belfast as part of a series that included Seamus Deane, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker, James Simmons, and several other Northern Irish poets whose voices were beginning to raise themselves in the mid-Sixties. To hear John Carey now, almost a quarter of a century later, go farther still along that road of praise is consequently all the more gratifying and fortifying.
Yet this spectacle of mutual admiration is not one that should be allowed to persist beyond a moment or two of genial acknowledgment. To fall in love with oneself may, as Oscar Wilde observed, be the beginning of a lifelong romance, but to fall in love with the lengthened shadow of one’s writerly possibilities as projected by the mellow light of kindly critical attention – that is the beginning of folly. The act of writing, after all, is an act of detachment and differentiation. It compensates you with the feeling of having transcended the given life, where your possibilities seemed to be no more than the sum of your predicaments. Robert Frost called it ‘a momentary stay against confusion’ and also ‘a clarification’, and it is in this experience of the poem as a personal way of knowledge as well as a psychosomatic process that every poet’s reward must ultimately reside.
Nevertheless, while it is salutary to recollect the general truth of these considerations, there remain other considerations which I believe it is proper to address with this audience, at this particular moment. For our moment includes not only this evening’s courteous and honorific exchange between an Irish writer and a British newspaper, but a far wider, less courteous and potentially demeaning exchange between Irish reality in general and the whole British media machine. It would perhaps be adept to evade facing this issue, but, as the American poet Robert Lowell wrote on another occasion, ‘every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments.’ When I accepted the invitation to join in these celebratory rites, I was not unmindful of the ongoing operation of the Anglo-Irish agreement, that supple, subtle, symbolic knot tied by civil servants from Westminster and Dublin in an attempt to provide a new, more responsive and self-justifying mechanism for concession or complaint or suasion on either side. What was called ‘the spirit of the agreement’ seemed to require and sponsor a candid coming and going between the domains of Britishness and Irishness. It seemed to allow everyone to follow the generous inclination, to allow somebody like myself to make what Lowell called the subtle public commitment of appearing in such a citadel of the British consensus as a Sunday Times banquet without seeming to occupy the token role of the poetic Irishman.
What the agreement implied, among other things, was an eye-level equilibrium between the British Government and the Irish Government, an abdication by both sides of the moral high ground, a recognition by Britain that the haughty fiction that the internal affairs of Northern Ireland were a matter of domestic British concern only was indeed a fiction, a recognition that the pretence that Ulster was an internal domestic UK matter was simply that – all this made this evening’s public manifestation of Hiberno-British amiability appear more than symbolically worth while.
In the meantime, however, it seems to me that the British Government and sections of the British media have re-occupied their old positions on the high ground. I noticed in yesterday’s newspapers an inclination to view the British Army presence in Ulster once again as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, an inclination to view them as hygienic, rubber-gloved, impersonally-motivated technicians operating in polluted ghettoes where indigenous hatreds are cultured in self-induced and self-wounding conditions. I noticed an inclination to think of military funerals as a tribal and undesirable form of solidarity when enacted on the Falls Road, but as somehow immunised against tribal significance when the victims were British soldiers, the mourners were British soldiers, the mourners were British parents, and the martial music was relayed with deeply emotive effect by the news channels of British television. The so-called ‘spirit of the agreement’ is not against the solemnisation in public of national sorrows, but it is surely against the gradual obliteration from public British awareness of a realisation that policies which Downing Street presumably regards as a hard line against terrorism can feel like a high-handed disregard for the self-respect of the Irish people in general; and it should be against any downplaying of the fact that local Belfast paranoia – generated by a recent graveyard bombing and shooting – played some part in the shamefully automatic cruelty and horror of the two British soldiers’ deaths which followed.
At this outraged moment there is a danger, for the British Government and for elements in the British media, that they might confuse detachment, which is a fine, well-earned and constantly renewed condition, with indifference, which, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, can look like detachment but which resembles it only as death resembles life. Detachment is something which Irish writers have all had to develop not only over the last twenty but over the last hundred years. It is a habit of mind which inclines to self-accusation and to a cautious scrutiny both of big gestures and of what Stephen Dedalus called the big words that make us all unhappy. Detachment has kept many poets from engaging in direct political poetry or even from political journalism, since they fear that at best they would only be exploiting an internationally chic, politically sexy platform, and at worst would be giving consolation and corroboration to terrorist factions, especially if they happened to voice complaints against conditions upon which those factions peremptorily base their right to act.
Yet the caution rightly induced by detachment has its limits. Yeats’s challenge to the writer was to hold in a single thought reality and justice, and the same challenge is in effect in Westminster and Fleet Street. The danger is that in the interests of expediency or quietism, an appeal to pseudo-justice of the old Lord Widgery sort or the newer Lord Denning sort could lead to an averted gaze, by government or the generators of public opinion, from the abiding reality.
My plea, therefore, is for a renewed self-consciousness in the expression of just national concerns by the British media, an avoidance of the high ground, and an ongoing example of the free, self-regulating debate which has typically distinguished the British democratic process. My plea to the British political leaders can perhaps best be expressed in the words of an eighth-century Irish King. We tend to think that Mediterranean culture is the great source of the golden mean as a rule of behaviour, but on the evidence of these eighth-century verses, the middle way ran through Tara and Armagh as well. What I am going to end with are lines extracted from a translation by Kuno Meyer of a piece of early Irish wisdom literature. I read it in the spirit of exasperation that the poet Tom Paulin expressed recently when he wrote:
What I have to say’s dead obvious
we’ve had x years of blood and shit
and some of us have written poems
or issued too many credos through the press.
In the piece, the structure is that of question and answer, in which the boyish Carbery seeks for instruction from the sagacious King Cormac and is told:
Be not too wise nor too foolish.
Be not too conceited nor too humble.
Be not too talkative nor too silent.
Be not too hard nor too feeble.
If you be too wise, they will expect too much of you.
If you be too foolish, you will be deceived.
If you be too conceited, you will be thought vexatious.
If you be too humble, you will be without honour.
If you be too talkative, you will not be heeded.
If you be too silent, you will not be regarded.
If you be hard, you will be broken.
If you be too feeble, you will be crushed.