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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.

Body Poetic: The Function of a Metaphor in Three Irish Poets Damian Grant


IN AN ARTICLE in The Honest Ulsterman a couple of years ago 1, Tom McLaughlin endorsed Patrick Kavanagh's attack on the sentimental personification of Ireland. Reacting against his own earlier poetry and the Irish Literary Movement in general, Kavanagh insisted that 'Ireland' as an entity did not exist, dismissed the poet-peasant (himself) with 'roots in the soil' as a facile convention, and ridiculed the traditional 'wild man' as a Celtic sinecure. He concluded that poets had only their own experience to rely upon: 'The material itself has no special value; it is what our imagination and our love does to it'. One of the most popular personifications of Ireland is Cathleen ni Houlihan, the beautiful young maiden raped by the Saxon, in love songs to whom Irish poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries necessarily disguised the expression of nationalistic feelings. ('Houlihan' was even traced back suppositiously to Hanrahan, thus linking this 'latest born and loveliest vision far' of Celtic mythology with the earlier authentic cycles). Tom McLaughlin himself obviously feels it is time Cathleen ni Houlihan went into retirement, along with the whole extended family of personified qualities and localities so dear to the Irish imagination. And the ideal Old Personifications' Home would seem to be the Aran Islands, whose reputation as a place of 'literary pilgrimage' McLaughlin is also inclined to suspect.

But Kavanagh's protest can only be understood in the context of his own poetic development, and the abstraction of slogans ...

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