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This review is taken from PN Review 58, Volume 14 Number 2, November - December 1987.

DUBLINERS ALL Richard Ellmann, Four Dubliners (Hamish Hamilton) £9.95

A rosary of Irish writers has long been established as an hermeneutic principle (Arland Ussher's Three Great Irishmen, 1952, for example, on Shaw, Yeats and Joyce), and Ellmann has brought his celebrated skills as biographer and critic to bear on a new version of an Irish apostolic succession: Wilde heard lecturing by Yeats in 1883; Joyce meeting Yeats in 1902; Beckett meeting Joyce in 1928, and so on. A banal mind might have treated such historical quirks as the mechanical handing on of a battered baton. Not so Ellmann. Here are four essays, versions of lectures given from 1982 to 1985 at the Library of Congress, making a short, elegant and scholarly-freighted book, with fresh insights into his four 'dislodgers and subverters of everything except truth'. With a density of scholarship, carried balsa-light, we are encouraged by the author to see them sharing resemblances, each being 'magnificent, plume-flaunting, sumptuous even in their recognition of aridities'.

Each of the essays is centred differently, each bringing out different qualities in both subject and critic. The first on Wilde at Oxford draws on first-hand, careful research and insights to emphasize the essential paradoxes of Wilde's psyche. We see Wilde attracted by the polar opposites of Ruskin and Pater, with 'not only two very different doctrines but two very different vocabularies':

Ruskin spoke of faith; Pater spoke of mysticism, as if for him religion became bearable only when it overflowed into excess. Ruskin appealed to conscience, Pater ...

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