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In this anthology, scholars of romanticism have a superb resource, the kind that might have been expected to emerge from Irish Studies in the thirty years since the founding of the Field Day Company in 1980, the grit in the oyster of a revisionist historicism skeptical of academic decolonization. Together these scholarly movements have encouraged scholars in North America and Great Britain, no less than in Ireland, to reconceive the long 19th-century of Irish literature. The publication of Irish Literature 1750-1900 helpfully brings together into a manageable, easily handled (i.e. portable) but also comprehensive form the literary texts that have stabilized through those debates into a canon, even as this anthology modestly provokes its readers to continue to rethink the revivalist premises that continue to haunt the field.
Wright, in reminding us through her selections that “some of the best Irish literature is either not obviously, or not at all, about Ireland” risks disappointing readers who are looking for local color; the inclusion of less familiar authors may disappoint scholars for whom the international stature of a field’s corpus sustains disciplinary (much as it sustains national) pride. What those readers gain, however, is something more compelling than mediocrity, more lasting than the occasional, and more engaging than the one-note of Irish nationalism or its denunciation. For example, to read LeFanu’s “A Chapter in the History of a Tyrone Family,” published in 1839, is to glimpse the Gothic dimension of the quotidian in Anglo-Ireland, and also to be reminded that the autobiographical dimension of narrative is no less important for an alleged Catholic realist—William Carleton—than it is for a contemporary Irish symbolist, James Clarence Mangan. Moore’s “Lalla Rookh” becomes a more complicated example of orientalism (perhaps closer to what Joep Leerssen has helpfully called the Irish writer’s tendency to engage in “auto-exoticism”) for being situated a few pages after his “Intercepted Letters; Or, the Two-Penny Post-Bag,” published just four years earlier. And both Moore and his clear-sighted contemporary, Maria Edgeworth, might be reconsidered in this age of sense and sensibility in Ireland when read beside Mary Leadbetter and Mary Tighe, who remind us that in Ireland, as in England, this is also the age of Protestant fervor, a dimension of the Enlightenment which promoted causes of interest to women, but which also produced a body of literary achievement that influenced (as in Tighe’s case) Moore and Keats.
The field of Irish romanticism, an “ism” whose cultural aims were belatedly realized in the constitution of the Irish Free State in the early 20th century, has been troubled since the 1970s, for scholars as for most contemporary Irish poets, by the conservative politics of a nationalism “racy with the soil.” The field was able to be put back under active, less apologetic tillage with the emergence of postcolonial studies, and simultaneously its ablest critic Longley, at the center of Irish Studies in the 1980s. Its dominant voice was Field Day, but Declan Kiberd’s now-famous Yeats Summer School in 1987 (attended by Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Terry Eagleton) certainly shared the megaphone, lending welcome legitimacy, and indeed universality, to the study of Irish literature through the enlarged contexts postcolonial theory offered. Yet not even the efforts in the ‘80s of such by now well-known scholars of Irish Romanticism as Deane, Kiberd, David Lloyd, and Joep Leerssen, not even the path breaking scholarship in Irish 19th century cultural studies published by Margaret Kelleher, Claire Connolly, Luke Gibbons, and Siobhan Kilfeather, indeed not even—last but by no means least—the confident critique of republican historiography mounted by the revisionists Edna Longley (who memorably called the Field Day Anthology “old whines in new bottles”), Roy Foster, and John Wilson Foster, could ensure that there would be future yields from all of this fieldwork. What was needed was a collection of common texts whose editor was less concerned with the field’s fences, borders, and garrisons, with their trespass or their defense, and more concerned with packaging and distributing its long overdue harvest.
This anthology’s immediate antecedents were helpful (and much broader in scope) compendia of Irish literature since the filidh. They included Irish Literature: A Reader by Maureen Murphy and James MacKillop (the latter a celebrated Romanticist in his own right) and anthologies of the several centuries of Irish poetry that crested the waves of invaders who provoked political crisis but also cultural revival. All of these collections included translations from the Irish, from John Montague’s The Faber Book of Irish Verse to Thomas Kinsella’s Oxford and Dolmen poetry anthologies to the now five-volume Field DayAnthology. The absence of Irish-language texts in Wright's anthology is not, however, a diminution: it allows a different picture to emerge of Irish traditions, and their revisions, in the long nineteenth century. If this “Ireland” is less racy, if the tone of its rendering is lowered from that of the crisis narratives engendered by the sheer urgency of cultural preservation and recovery at earlier phases of Irish intellectual history right through the 1980s as the Troubles reached their fiercest moment, this body of work produces quieter pleasures, and provokes less contentious contemplation.
Irish Literature 1750-1900 is inviting for the sheer variety of forms, personalities, and interconnections (within families and across confessional communities) within print culture in the English language; that diversity delineates a composite, satisfying portrait of the evolving private and public spheres of modern Ireland as its literature in English represents them. With the benefit of the scholarly collectivity to which Wright refers in her introduction, well represented in this anthology’s notes and other appendices, she has chosen works by nineteenth-century authors who were, in fact, while “minor” from the perspective of British literature as most of us were taught it, nevertheless highly regarded contemporaries in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world. It is especially important that this Irish collection fulfills its editor’s promise to demonstrate “that some of the best Irish literature is either not obviously, or not at all, about Ireland,” that it need not “posit some essential Irishness that unites Irish literature” in order to have been, if not “major,” then certainly not “minor” either. This anthology fortuitously appears at a moment when contemporary readers are, perhaps, less restrictive in the range of what we are able to “hear” as poetry or prose that is worth preserving and transmitting, and Irish Literature 1750-1900 gives scholars of British literature who have opened their syllabi to more writers who are (to use a term as unfortunate as “minor”) marginal— whether by virtue of gender, race, ethnic, and/or sexual preference—reason to widen further the aperture.
Just as important, it gives us pause to wonder whether it might be time to reassess the value of thinking about canonical inclusion or exclusion according to centers and margins. This would require us to re-examine the value of that binary that has perhaps become too pivotal an axis of postcolonial studies in English Departments: “British” and “Irish” literature, insofar as the latter can come to serve, ironically, as the “major” voice of a “minor” field, that is, Anglophone literature. The historical details that soften the too-obvious contours of those mutually defining entities (“British” and “Irish”) that succeeded to an all-absorptive field (“British Literature”) give this anthology its ballast, and its discernment. The editor reminds us, by her own example, that, in her words, “Irish literature participates in pan-English developments in literary form and convention” in the years 1750-1900, in that Anglophone world’s “larger geographical circulation of print.” That participation in cultural imperialism cannot be separated from “necessarily international discussions of empire, slavery, and migration,” as the texts represented remind us, “in addition to related domestic debates about national identity, politics, and the diasporic experience” (xxi). To read this anthology from cover to cover, learning from its various, valuable apparatuses (for example, while the table of contents is organized chronologically, there is also a helpful alternative, a selected table of contents organized by theme and content) is to see the most rewarding kind of historical scholarship put into practice, and to envision it being put to excellent use in the classroom.
Ironically this confidently conceived, painstakingly grounded, and elegantly produced addition to Blackwell’s line of anthologies might lead us to imagine a future moment when it may be less indispensable. Those who have for years benefited from Julia Wright’s willingness to straddle two fields—fields whose approaches and presumptions often have not coincided—know that Wright has been a leader among scholars in North America seeking to develop for nineteenth-century Irish Studies something of a collective identity. This anthology’s excellent but also manageable number of references represents the editor’s own transcontinental breadth, evidenced in the brief but incisively chosen bibliographies at the end of each chapter. A project such as this one, which might have become a patchwork of versions of “Irishness,” instead is bound by a more satisfying commonality: the editor’s confidence that two to three generations of readers and writers, between 1750 and 1900, from an island that was not yet a nation still somehow cohere sufficiently to form an identifiable body of work for serious scholarly study. It coheres not because of but in spite of the revival on which the anthology closes, a “Celtic revival” that believed its adherents would, at long last, be united as an identifiable ethnic, and for that reason national, entity in the millennial 1890s. Perhaps it was to avoid that trajectory that Wright offers no poetry by Yeats. (That limitation is the only one with which I have a serious quarrel; the selections offered from the oeuvre of Dora Sigerson fail to compensate for the absence of, say, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”) Wright nonetheless for the most part succeeds in lifting a restrictive burden from the canon that such an anthology inevitably produces: an explicit or implied adversarial support for alterity in opposition to whatever canon might be claimed to have been dominant. As the introduction sensibly, and succinctly, states, “British literature does not always represent Britain, and Irish literature does not always represent Ireland” (xxi).
What, we might ask, is at stake in identifying the field of nineteenth-century Irish Studies more than a decade after the Good Friday agreement, and three years since the financial collapse of the Celtic Tiger that seemed to have made irrelevant such terms as “alterity,” “liminality,” and in general all references to the legacies of the Boundary Commission that has characterized politically engaged (and particularly postcolonial) readings of twentieth-century Irish literature until that century turned? As Wright observes in the introduction, there has been a “price in accepting” as given that Irish literary history will be asked what “is not asked of other significant national literatures in English, such as American or British.” If British claims for the ostensible universality of British literature, its “capacity. . . to transcend particulars such as nationality,” as Wright puts it, has made it less visibly “national” but also thereby “cultural[ly] superior,” it has at the same time reduced “Irish literature” to “an implicit pattern of identification:” “good Irish literature is Irish when it is about Ireland and British when it is not” (xxi). If in a previous moment of Irish Studies the effort to establish the field’s legitimacy required practitioners to wrest from the British canon those writers who were established as central to survey courses (to offer a particularly egregious title from my own English Department’s past, a course that typically included Yeats and Joyce was titled “Chief English Writers”), it certainly is time, as this anthology demonstrates, to see how a simple addition of a course to the curriculum (“Chief Irish Writers”) cannot in itself exalt many of the figures Wright presents here, who suggest the generic, gender, and ethnic diversity in the long nineteenth-century of Irish letters but who are also very much worth reading without this excuse. That includes their contributions to literary journals; this anthology reminds us of the importance of such “collaborative publications” in the long century, including Paddy’s Resource, The Nation, The Northern Star, and Dublin University Magazine. That literary generation in Ireland may well share with British romantic writers a concern with the vicissitudes of modern subjectivity, but that by no means entails that they sought to eschew community as a working principle and as a goal.
Where the notion of “liminality” does arise in this anthology is in the prominence of translation within an English-speaking Irish literary nineteenth century, even if (as earlier stated) the anthology includes only authors who are principally English-language writers. Wright is correct when she states in the introduction that readers will gain a sense less of an “‘English’ literary tradition” among these writers who wrote within a cultural economy that crossed readily the Irish sea (or, as in Mangan’s case, the English Channel) than of “a polyglot erosion of English dominance and even of the idea of a monolingual nation” (xxiii). In this sense, Wright offers not simply to scholars of nineteenth-century Irish literature but also to those of the twenty first a bracing insight: what Thomas Kinsella called the “gapped and polyglot tradition” of Irish literature is more polyglot than gapped in a century that has been obscured, in the typical British literature curriculum, for being sandwiched between the dying Gael who survives the Flight of the Earls and the birth of a modernism that flies by the nets of Ireland. With this anthology a window from the past opens, releasing a breeze that chases out a few cobwebs—I’m thinking in particular of the now ubiquitous term in Irish literature, the “exilic.” From that version of the past we might see more clearly the multilingual, macaronic, transnational poetry of Eileán Ní Chuilleanáin and John Montague, of Paul Muldoon and Peter Sirr, even as that window also opens to an interior in which we may glimpse earlier centuries in Ireland that shaped the nineteenth in ways less predictable than we might have believed. The international literacy of the Irish nineteenth century reminds us that what has always made, and will no doubt continue to make, Irish claims for cultural superiority so enduring has been the Irish writer’s insistence that Ireland’s own missionaries, long before the Romantic Enlightenment, illuminated the dark centuries of Europe. By making lesser claims for "Irish literature" than previous Irish anthologies, Irish Literature, 1750-1900 brings to the fore what remains just as necessary as cultural decolonization: fieldwork, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, that does not need to redraw the map in order to open ground.
Guinn Batten, Associate Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, is writing a book on contemporary Irish poetry and the Romantic Enlightenment.