Irish poets and poetry

I have a large anthology of poems in my head, not because I have set out to ‘learn’ them, but because when I was young and got attached to a poet’s work, and read it often, some of the poems would stick – and have remained there. When Allen Curnow and I lectured on W.B. Yeats at the University of Auckland, he to the M.A. class, I to stage 1, we used to talk about Yeats and between us could assemble any of the better known poems without opening a text. This was early in the 1960s, and I suggested he and I should write a book about Yeats by exchanging letters about the poems we were discussing. I was about to publish my first critical book, The New Poetic, which had a chapter on Yeats, and I was being urged by a publisher with connections to T.S. Eliot’s widow to write an Eliot biography; but I felt too swamped by the business of preparing new lectures to take on anything so large. An exchange with Allen about Yeats, on the other hand, seemed only an extension of our conversations, and not too daunting, especially because each reply would at once suggest a direction for the response.

I think it was a good idea and could have been an unusual and valuable contribution to Yeats studies, but Allen was not keen. His private life at the time was complicated; and I had the impression he was nervous of whether he would ‘measure up’ and which of us might shine brighter. I should simply have sent him the first letter as a prompt. A few years later we were indeed exchanging letters about poetry – our own (more his than mine of course) across Tohunga Crescent, where we were neighbours after he and his second wife, Jeny, moved to live there after their marriage in 1965 – and this kind of exchange was to continue for the rest of his life.

Over the years my view of Yeats became less reverent. I had begun by defending him in a Leavisite English Department (University of Bristol) where I had gone in the late 1950s on a scholarship from New Zealand to do a PhD, and where the view of the great Irishman had been less than wholehearted and unequivocal. Now, while still seeing him as one of the major twentieth century poets, and admiring his great skill in labouring ideas up from prose drafts into stanza forms (his usual working method), I sometimes felt one was made too aware of the labour: ‘hard work’ poems, they were. There was sometimes a clumsiness that did not destroy the poem but could make it fall just short of what it might have been. I thought of the Keats precept, ‘If poetry come not as naturally as the leaves to the tree, it might as well not come at all.’ This was altogether too absolute – ‘shoulds’ in poetry are seldom wise. But it was clear that whatever the many merits of Yeats’s later poems, they did not arrive like leaves in spring.

And it was more than a technical matter, a matter of verse-making. There was also his Irish posturing (‘That we in coming times may be / Still the indomitable Irishry’); his glorification of war and his contempt for the poets of World War I who had paraded their suffering; his romanticism about ‘peasants’ and ‘country gentlemen’: so much of it was at least ridiculous, and even politically dangerous. Did great verse have to be – could it be – intellectually jejune?

One of his poems that remains in my head is ‘Easter 1916’, his great (and yes, it probably is great) commemoration of the sixteen rebels shot by the British for their part in the rising of Easter 1916, a poem for which I had written what became pretty much the standard, often reprinted critical exposition. ‘Easter 1916’ is in a simple stanza form of four three-stress lines rhyming (and half-rhyming) a,b,a,b, the stanzas running continuously without gaps, and containing passages of rare beauty:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moorhens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live,
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Lovely lines – and the next bring us back to the reality of Easter 1916, and the thought that these brave rebels perhaps died needlessly; that certain qualities of flexibility and patience might have served them as well and saved their lives: ‘Was it needless death after all?’ The image of the stone in the stream is beautiful, but ‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.’

It’s when he tries to characterize some among the rebels who were known to him personally that the verse begins to look clumsy, unpolished, laboured:

This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other, his helper and friend,
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken vainglorious lout,
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song.

He wants to say that one of the rebels was a poet, but brings in that tired old trope about the winged horse (which he signals must be pronounced wingèd to get the full three stresses for the line); and then, for the rhyme with horse, says that the poet’s friend, another of the sixteen executed rebels, was ‘coming into his force’. Dear god! Meaning he was improving, I suppose, maturing, but what a lazy and cluttered utterance it is! And then one feels one knows what ‘daring’ thought means; but ‘so daring and sweet his thought’ to my ear is like singing la-la-la to fill an emptiness, as if for a moment he has forgotten what he meant to say next. After that he begins to lay into (without naming him) John MacBride, whose crime (the ‘bitter wrong’ he did) was that he married the great unrequited love of W.B’s life, Maud Gonne. But even MacBride is forgiven – ‘Yet I number him in the song’: all sixteen of them are forgiven their ‘ignorant good-will’, their shrill speech, their banality which he used to joke about ‘around the fire at the Club’, because everything has been ‘changed, changed utterly’ by the failed rebellion. Comedy has turned to tragedy: ‘A terrible beauty is born.’

The poem is retrieved and gathers to its great (again yes, I think so, even if the wearing of the green is slightly embarrassing) rhetorical climax:

I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

So my attitude to Yeats became more complicated over the years. I still admired him, respected his great feats of verse-engineering, and even more his capacity for lyrical delicacy as in ‘The wild swans at Coole’ – but at the same time I felt he sometimes allowed himself to be bullied by poetic form, and in old age became in effect a ridiculous right-wing reactionary. This made, I think, for a richer and more complex view of his work, and it was reflected in my second book on 20th century poetry, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement, which appeared in 1986 in the UK and the US, and which, since the year of its release, I have never re-read. (One day I will do that, and perhaps report here!)

1986 was the year I left the University of Auckland finally. I had been easing myself out during the previous five years, and was now departing permanently (though retaining the Professor Emeritus title, and a sense of loyalty and gratitude to the institution). I taught for two terms of that final year and then, in August, took off to lecture at the Yeats Summer School in Sligo, the happy place of Yeats’s not always happy childhood, where the clear waters of Lake Innesfree rush out into the estuary of Sligo Harbour.

I flew to Dublin and then needed to find my way onward by rail. At the airport I asked how I would get to the Dublin railway station. ‘Is it Connolly or Pearse you’ll be wanting?’ the young woman asked. So I learned that those executed rebels of Easter 1916 are remembered and honoured in the naming of public places.

The one among them ‘who rode our wingèd horse’ was Thomas MacDonagh, and many years before my Sligo visit I had found and bought a book of his poems, a first edition. Later, I wrote a poem about him:

Easter 1916

(For Seamus Heaney
to whom I gave the book)

Irish Thomas MacDonagh
thirty years ago
in that dusty Oxford bookshop
I found your poems
published by Hodges Figgis
Dublin, 1910.

Songs of myself you called them:
how lovingly
you must have turned
these long-ago pages
dreaming of fame
and your country free.

Alas, Thomas MacDonagh
shot by the British,
it's not your poems live on
in the mind of your country.
It's your dying,
your death.

I gave the little book to Seamus Heaney after hearing his first lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in I think 1989. I had gone to hear it with Craig Raine, who had been Heaney’s poetry editor at Faber, and a passing reference to MacDonagh gave me the thought that I should do that. I knew as a loyal Irish Catholic Heaney would value the book; but I gave it to him also because he had expressed gratitude to me for that early book, The New Poetic – not for my defence of Yeats and ‘Easter 1916’ (though I’m sure that was appreciated) but for what I had written about T.S. Eliot. As a young man, Heaney told me, he had been unable to read Eliot until he read my book. In the title essay of his book The Government of the Tongue, and again in a lecture called ‘Learning from Eliot’, he goes on about this at some length.

He had sent me a broadsheet of his poem ‘The Sounds of Rain’, no 9 of 15 copies, signed and inscribed ‘for Karl Stead with “the feeling of an immense debt”’ – a line from the poem itself, which was an ‘in memoriam’ for Richard Ellmann, critic-biographer of Yeats and of Wilde. So in this matter of acknowledgements, I felt my debt was as great as his, and I tried to balance the score with the gift of that rare MacDonagh book. I’m glad I gave it, and still wish I had it – which is as it should be. ‘The Sounds of Rain’ appeared in Heaney’s 1991 collection, Seeing Things.

At Sligo I had made some new friends, among them the brilliant Harvard critic Helen Vendler, the Yeats biographer Roy Foster, and the wonderfully sociable editor of the Yeats letters, John Kelly from Oxford and his clever and beautiful wife, Christine. The following May we all met again, this time as members of an invited group of ‘world experts on Yeats’, to discuss the theme of ‘Yeats the European’ at the Princess Grace Memorial Irish Library in Monte Carlo. We presented and listened to papers (mine slightly out of key with the unequivocally affirmative note of my colleagues), did a lot of good eating, drinking and talking, and were taken to see the shell of the soon-to-be demolished Hotel Idéal Séjour, where Yeats had died in 1939. His son Michael, an Irish Senator and Member of the European Parliament, and his daughter Anne, a painter – both the subject in childhood of now famous poems by their father – were among the delegates; and Michael reminisced about playing in the garden of the hotel during W.B’s final illness.

Next we were taken by bus to the Roquebrune cemetery where Yeats was first interred. The cemetery is limited in space and situated on a hillside, the graves mostly above ground, so the dead spend a given period in or under whatever tomb or monument is built for them, and are then removed to an ossuary to make room for the newly dead. The body of Yeats spent the years of World War II there and then was disinterred and taken on an Irish warship to be buried, as his poems had instructed, ‘under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliffe churchyard’ in the countryside outside Sligo. One hot day during the Sligo summer school I had walked to the grave, and read on it the famous inscription he had ‘commanded’:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death –
Horseman, pass by!

So I could say now that I had visited both of the Yeats graves! But could I claim that with confidence? A strange moment early in the Monte Carlo conference was an assurance the delegates received that any stories we may have heard suggesting that wrong bones had been sent to Ireland were mistaken. The French authorities wanted us to know that no mistake had been made, and that it was indeed the remains of the great poet that had been handed over to the Irish warship for transfer and re-interment. This reassurance only fuelled the rumour, which almost everyone had heard, and fired further speculation.

Disagreement on this matter continues, and it has been suggested at least once, and in the Irish Times, that French official papers indicate bones had been taken from the Roquebrune ossuary and ‘assembled’ by guesswork by officials who had no certainty about the choices they were making. There is even an English family who believe their loved one and not the poet was in the coffin handed over to the Irish ship. Could an Englishman be buried in the grave of the great Irish nationalist? Tiens!

One final irony: the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs who approved the transfer and accepted the bones as those of W.B. Yeats was Sean MacBride, son of W.B.’s great love, Maud Gonne and the ‘drunken vainglorious lout’ and Easter 1916 hero, John MacBride. I think I hear someone having the last laugh. The accent is Irish but I can’t be sure about whose voice it is.

– C.K. Stead

House and land

In a recent blog I ended with some thoughts about Mansfield the poet from which these further thoughts indirectly follow:


Before we had our own officially sponsored poet laureate it could be argued that we had an unofficial one in Allen Curnow. Allen died in 2001 before the New Zealand laureateship had been established; but if it had come earlier he would undoubtedly have been our first.

The time I have in mind, however, when Curnow was in his prime as, so to speak, our unofficial public poet was the decade of the 1940s. While World War II raged, and New Zealand played its part in the Middle East and then Italy and the Pacific, we celebrated the centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840-1940) and commemorated the 300th anniversary of Tasman’s voyage of discovery (1642-1942). This was the period when Curnow, who I assume could not be drafted into the military for medical (eye sight) reasons, was writing poems that chose, whether we were listening or not, to speak for us all. Resonant phrases from these poems entered one stratum of the national consciousness at that time and have remained there:

Always to islanders danger
Is what comes over the sea.

Or the sonnet about the skeleton of the moa that ends,

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Or ‘The Unhistoric Story’ with its refrain that New Zealand as it developed

...was something different, something
Nobody counted on

‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’ celebrated Tasman’s landing in New Zealand – a beautifully structured sequence which runs through the excitements of preparation for the voyage and anticipation of success (‘time / To go and to be gazed at going’), the exhilaration of discovery (‘There was the seascape / Crammed with coast’), the violence of the first encounter (‘in a flash, in a flat calm / a clash of boats in the bay’) , and the disappointment – followed by a reflection which asks how all this should be remembered and celebrated now that ‘there are no more islands to be found’. The conclusion is that what’s needed is something more truthful than self importance and self-congratulation.

Only by a more faithful memory, laying
On him the half-light of a diffident glory,
The sailor lives, and stands beside us, paying
            Out into our time’s wave
The stain of blood that writes an island story.

All of this, together with the lovely clarity with which Douglas Lilburn’s accompanying music catches the poem’s moods and transitions, put poetry for a moment right into the public arena. The time was right for this, and Curnow had seen the need of the moment and had seized it memorably.

Only a few years later he edited two anthologies of poetry which are generally acknowledged to mark a point in the development of a mature and independent New Zealand literature. Curnow in those days was a literary nationalist; but he was also a literary realist, in the sense that what he cared most about was that our poetry should be an honest record, not a ‘three cheers for us’ one; and this meant recognition of deficiencies, lacks, failures, uncertainties. As Wilfred Owen had said, ‘the true poets must be truthful’. Rather than national pride, Curnow would offer us, in that resonant phrase, ‘the half-light of a diffident glory’.

Possibly the subtlest and frankest of Curnow’s statement of his position in these matters occurs in the introduction to his A Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse when he discusses Katherine Mansfield’s poem ‘To Stanislaw Wyspianski’. He calls it a ‘half-poem’, but praises it because, he says, ‘it allows us to date as early as 1910 the emergence of New Zealand as a characterizing force in the work of a native poet.’ What he finds and admires in the poem is that Mansfield identifies herself as a New Zealander, and that her country, which she appears to have rejected, figures nonetheless as ‘a palpable “here”, a pressure from within, an antagonist’ and so ‘anticipates the conflict of spirit’ in the poets who followed.

Curnow was wanting to be rid of weak nationalist self-assertions, the ‘Kowhai Gold’ kind of thing, that offered the picturesque – tuis and bellbirds, ‘scenic’ bush, mountains and seas, and romantic ‘pioneering’– rather than the tormented inner conscience of the nation; and it was this he felt Mansfield caught in her Wyspianski poem, including

the New Zealand sadness (always there, however deeply buried in the mind) because life here seems makeshift and reality (still sadder illusion) lodged somewhere ‘overseas’.

So Mansfield’s cry from ‘a little land with no history’ seemed to Curnow truthful and to catch a sad reality.

The point about sad or harsh realities rather than scenery is made also in varying ways by that other literary nationalist of the time, Frank Sargeson. In one of his early stories, for example, ‘Chaucerian’, the narrator, who has escaped from a narrow upbringing in a churchy family, has discovered the truth about himself, and about life, in Freeman’s Bay, at that time a central Auckland slum. He writes

It’s a very interesting place. Any New Zealand poet who hasn’t dedicated herself to kauri trees and bell-birds couldn’t do better than go and live there.

My admiration for the Curnow of that time is undimmed. But what strikes me now is how deeply and indelibly negative his nationalism was (‘ the New Zealand sadness, always there...’) When I was young I accepted this because the poems were so good, so beautifully crafted, so eloquent. Perhaps I accepted it also because I felt that sadness in myself, as something out of the air, in the water, inherent in the sense of place and history. At this distance in time that doesn’t seem to me entirely implausible; but if it’s true, I was not conscious of it, and if it had been suggested to me I’m sure I would have rejected it – would have said that the ‘sadness’ was just part of being alive.

But looked back on, how pervasive the gloom in those poems now seems! It is a collective grief, a loss, a deprivation. One of his sonnets begins,

The oldest of us burst into tears and cried
Let me go home, but she stayed, watching
At her staircase window ship after ship ride
Like birds her grieving sunsets.

‘House and land’, a wonderfully managed and memorably lyrical poem, ends

The sensitive nor’-west afternoon
Collapsed, and the rain came;
The dog crept into his barrel,
Looking lost and lame.
But you can’t attribute to either
Awareness of what great gloom
Stands in a land of settlers
With never a soul at home.

We are characterized as an unhappy, in effect homeless, ‘land of settlers’. A 1942 verse letter to Denis Glover laments

O I could go down to harbours
And mourn with a hundred years
Of hunger, what slips away there.

These are lines that chime with Charles Brasch’s

Remindingly beside the quays the white
Ships lie smoking; and from their haunted bay
The godwits vanish towards another summer.
Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
Shadow of departure.

It’s hard to look at the work of that period from this distance and not see in it the ghostly face of the colonial child weeping for Mother England – something which, if it had been put to me in those terms at that time, would have appalled me and I would have rejected. My thought now is that there is no escaping from your actual condition (and I include myself in this). If yours is one of colonialism that will show, even in your struggle to reject and escape from it.

It would have distressed Curnow too, probably, if I had written in these terms during his lifetime. I realize that what I am saying here is not unlike William Blake’s assertion that ‘Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it’. It is like one of those always slightly irritating exercises in literary deconstruction, where the clever critic proves the writer set out with one intention and achieved precisely its opposite. Nonetheless it seems to me looking again at these poems I have known so long and know so well, that they do surrender to their opposites. The poet who aspired to speak for the nation, was telling us we were not a nation at all but a land of sad homeless settlers. And the poet who said others after him would ‘stand upright here’ as he could not, was writing poems which stood upright as none written before him had done, and only a few since.

Allen Curnow and C.K. Stead, March 2001, at the launch of Curnow’s last collection, The Bells of St Babel’s.


It was not until 1949, aged 37 or 38, that Curnow got out of New Zealand and to London where in November of that year he wrote his ‘Elegy on my father’, an untypically awkward poem, as if his current state of mind, and present preoccupations, had no room for, or means of coping with, such an important but distant death. Back in New Zealand the following year he wrote a poem, addressed it seems to someone left behind in London, and reflecting painfully on the loss:

I pray, pray for me on some spring-wet pavement
Where halts the heart-print of our salt bereavement,
         Pray over many times
Forgive him the seas, forgive him the spring leaf,
All bloom ungathered perishable as grief,
         For the hulk of the world’s between.

There is something very personal and private here, but it is made public. Perhaps for the last time Curnow is speaking for us all – of our far removal, of distance, of the great, almost unbridgeable gap between here and there. It is a last look at, or from, New Zealand before jet travel became affordable, and e-communication commonplace; before the ‘hulk’ of the world shrivelled to a manageable and almost frighteningly small nut, and national self-confidence became, if not actually at least plausibly, self-sufficient.

Meanwhile he had moved to Auckland in 1951 where he became, I think one can say, a regional rather than a national poet: less a public eminence, but no less a brilliant poet. His 1955 poems, marking the beginning of his relationship with Jeny Tole, were an enrichment in every way. The emotional range expanded together with the enlargement of scene and reference. Before too long Curnow, with his new wife, would become, like the rest of us, an international traveller; and though England, and London as a centre of Anglophone publishing, continued to be important, as it had to be for a son of Christchurch and the Anglican Church, Italy became the place he loved most to visit, an expansion of his poetry’s worldly vision. The sequence ‘Moro Assassinato’, on the murder of the Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, is a reflection of that expansion, and is one of his finest.

Of the Mansfield Wyspianski poem Curnow wrote, ‘Because she addresses a Pole – type-figure of suffering nationhood – she disengages herself from the invidious and belittling contest of England versus “the Colony”. Paradoxically, her lines thus dignify the country they reject.’ Perhaps Curnow felt his ‘Italy’ served the same purpose.

It is hardly surprising that some of the poets who came immediately after Curnow, the ones I think of as the 1922 generation, who were perhaps the children ‘born in a marvellous year’, in the 1960s rebelled against and rejected Curnow’s view of our poetry and of the state of the nation. I was involved in that argument, on Curnow’s side because he was the Master and, simply as poets, most of his detractors (with the exception of James K. Baxter) seemed amateurs by comparison. Now it has receded into literary history, and like all such stories, calls for retelling as distance alters the perspectives.

Permission to reproduce the work of Allen Curnow courtesy of the copyright owner Tim Curnow c/- Auckland University Press.

Everyone should be aware the BOOKSHOP DAY is coming on October 31st and bookshops throughout the country will be finding ways of making their presence felt. Good luck to them – we depend on them.

– C.K. Stead