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This article is taken from PN Review 223, Volume 41 Number 5, May - June 2015.

The Evolution of Irish Poetry John McAuliffe
I. A Century of Silence?

Books about Irish poetry are rarer than you might think. Thomas Kinsella’s defining essay, The Dual Tradition, described the subject as ‘gapped and discontinuous’, an argument he put even more strongly when he wrote: ‘The inheritance [of Gaelic poetry] is certainly mine but only at two enormous removes – across a century’s silence and through an exchange of worlds.’ Slowly, the silence of Kinsella’s imagined nineteenth century has begun to give way. Out of the echo chamber of university departments, a different and noisier literature is emerging, as is a new way of thinking about the continuities in Irish poetry across the centuries.

The central figure in those arguments is W.B. Yeats, and one of the most interesting developments has been the way in which his ‘Anglo-Irish’ work has been folded back into a single, more broadly conceived Irish tradition. This manoeuvre re-opens many of the seemingly settled arguments about the Irish literary canon which dominated the post-revolutionary decades and, more recently, the anthology controversies of the 1980s. This changing landscape of Irish poetry is clear in Matthew Campbell’s revelatory new book, Irish Poetry Under the Union, 1801–1824, which contends that Yeats’s theories and arguments about poetry pre-date Yeats’s articulation of them.

Celebrated and pigeonholed for his use of the ‘Celtic note’ (or ‘Irish mode’, as his contemporary Thomas MacDonagh defined it), Yeats’s twilit and melancholy work has dominated critical discussion of those terms. Campbell’s book changes that and asks another, larger question: can we ...

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