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Ireland and its intellectuals should embrace symbolism and poetry, even in politics

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the “enumeration of qualities already known”; whereas “imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole… Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance”.

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident, yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and often frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B, failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland in particular stands accused.

Scientific reasoning, for all its astounding capacity, is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. So it was that Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course. The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the mediaeval.

In his autobiography, Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by CG Jung “that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit”.

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. But there will be obstacles and dead-ends. For example, I believe as a start we must move beyond the wisdom of the likes of Ireland’s leading public intellectual, Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The genius of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he “must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own”.

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls “moral imagination”; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J Erbile writes: “Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’”.

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who, “not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future)”.

He claims that “all the great historians were poets” and that “poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man”.

Seen in this light, poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland where he wrote a pamphlet in 1812, ‘An Address to the Irish People’, urging non-violent resistance to colonialism:

“In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other”.

He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs. But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark uses. Audiences were mesmerised by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid if crass metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless, the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This generates practical and immediate imperatives, considering the weight of Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this, the Anthropocene, age. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as address hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

That Irish people assume our country is of little relevance to the wider world is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of disciplines from the monks who animated the Book of Kells, to the satire of Swift to the iconoclasm of Joyce and the asceticism of Beckett that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising, for all its flaws, was among other things the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: “Is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilisation with new discoveries and institutions?”.

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for “no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland”. Instead: “Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech”.

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to ‘Ulysses’ in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from, by saying: “Ireland … I was born here, Ireland”.

That “Ireland of the imagination” awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas, after independence its animating spirit WB Yeats retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion. But before then Joyce anticipated that: “The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop”. And he was sure that: “No selfrespecting person wants to stay in Ireland”.

Éireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence, leaving in Joyce’s words:

“The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites”.

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: “I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul”.

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into the Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair, in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power continues to attract suspicion. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century. He bemoaned the apocryphal “gift of Constantine” which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!”.

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his ‘Dreamtime’:

“In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect”.

Since independence, most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review:

Dante and Beatrice meet twelve wise men in the Sphere of the Sun Miniature by Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1482)

“For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fáil’.


But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to predict that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book ‘Ship of Fools’: “skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro”.

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place, predicting “a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’`’; that “reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff”.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s wider limitations: “In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbocharged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict”.

The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fáil methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Féin waits in the wings alongside a raft of parishpump Independents. His own flirtation with electoral politics as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the consumerist and mediocre Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, perhaps, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present”. Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books.

O'Toole: doesn't envisage the future in the present
O’Toole: doesn’t envisage the future in the present

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet WB Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic, politically unattractive views. Essentially he honours Yeats for work that is “magical, strange and transcendent”, “with vestiges of the marvellous”.

The “timeless”, “transcendent” and the “remarkable” that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’ poetry are glimpsed at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

However, he misses the point that much of Yeats’ work is symbolist.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare and Miiton through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests it is a two-way process: “Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment that “a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance”, but the historical accuracy of that statement for Europe is difficult to counter. In ‘Defending Ancient Springs’ she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially through Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drink from these waters.

Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) “has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators…he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths”.

We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly, some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, the muse for the Greeks, faeries for the Irish; but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty. The poet-philosopher John Moriarty craved this impulse. He imagined: “another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland”.

That, surely now-female, Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practise yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this elusive lady would carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that “God and the imagination are one”.