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This review is taken from PN Review 109, Volume 22 Number 5, May - June 1996.

RESPONSIBLE MYTH JOHN MONTAGUE: Collected Poems (Gallery) £13.95

In his introduction to the Faber Book of Irish Verse (1974) John Montague described Yeats's 'The Second Coming' as 'our best example for the future: balanced between the pastoral and the atomic age'. Under the shadow of Yeats Montague, like so many Irish poets, laboured to rejuvenate the pastoral in contemporary poetry. And only after a long and painful process did he discover it was redundant. Consequently, this collection reads like a wake for the Irish pastoral rather than the intended celebration of it. But even as late as 1974, he was still refusing to surrender his myth-tinted glasses, referring to the last quarter of this century as 'storm-driven, demon-tossed'. Again and again he returns to this dying perspective and only towards the end of this book does he reluctantly turn off its life-support machine.

Montague's most anthologised poem, 'All Legendary Obstacles', is a microcosm of his gradual escape from his mytho-pastoral heritage. The obstacles which lie between him and his lover are supposed cultural boundaries as well as the physical ones: the long imaginary plain, San Jouquin, Sacramento. He shifts nervously under the self-imposed burdens of history and landscape. But to his delighted surprise he has over-estimated them. The modern reality of the train overcomes them with ease, allowing his lover and the reader to enjoy an unguarded intimacy.

To some extent, Montague is a victim of his time. Coming before Heaney, his mistake was to try to stretch the decreasing scope of Irish ...


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