Richard Allen Cave, Afterword to The Lake [1905] (1980 Edn.)

Richard Allen Cave, “Afterword” to The Lake [1905] (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980), pp.181-239.

[.] The Untilled Field was one of the few works Moore undertook (at least initially) in the spirit of a commission. Moore had tried to persuade the Gaelic League to publish a work of fiction as a [196] textbook to foster students’ engagement with the language. While the idea had appealed, his recommendation of The Arabian Nights for the purpose had caused a scandal since not only was it not the work of an Irishman but, worse still, its author did not appear to hold chastity in particularly high esteem. Father Tom Finlay S.J., it prominent member of the League and founder of The New Ireland Review, urged Moore to write some stories himself which could be translated into Gaelic for publication in his magazine; as it Commissioner of National Primary Education he would then get the collection accepted for reissue as a textbook by the Interinediate Board of Education. The first six stories translated by Padraic O’Sullivan found their way into print in this manner, appearing in one volume in 1902 as An T-úr-Gort, Sgialta [sic].

In talking the project over with John Eglinton, Moore had decided to use Turgenev’s Tales of a Sportsman as a model. It was an inspired choice: Turgenev had exerted a powerful influence over the composition of one of Moore’s early novels, A Drama in Muslin (1886); it too was a tale of Irish life and one in which landscape description had featured extensively as a means of defining the heroine, Alice Barton’s slowly maturing conviction that she must resist her parents’ pressures to conform to their effetely cultured existence. Though in writing about Turgenev shortly after completing this novel Moore had stated that for him the Russian master’s great theme is "obey nature’s laws; be simple and obey; it is the best that you can do" [Moore, ’Turgueneff’, in Fortnightly Review, 1888, p.240], it was an injunction he himself chose to ignore for the next twelve years or more. With the notable exception of Esther Waters, the style of Moore’s fiction in the ’Nineties is anything but simple or natural, as it came under the influence of Huysmans’ ornate mannerisms and the theories of Symbolism. His inspiration seemed trapped in cloying Aestheticisms; purple seemed to be the only tone his prose could render and a certain repetitiveness and predictability set in with his narratives.

In the spring of 1901 Moore returned to his native Ireland, setting up house in Ely Place, Dublin - a change of scene motivated according to his autobiography, Hail and Farewell, by the overwhelming disgust with matters British that he experienced on seeing Londoners’reactions to the Boer War. But what in physical terms was an emigration was spiritually a release. [197] Assiduously he helped Yeats, Martyn and Lady Gregory with the affairs and repertoire of the newly formed Irish National Theatre Society and campaigned for the Gaelic Revival. Writing plays in collaboration with Yeats and Martyn meant thinking seriously about other authors’ creative principles; the new challenge of public debates and lectures for the Gaelic League revitalised Moore’s energy, enthusiasm and confidence; the slower pace of Dublin life released him from the need to be intense. Within weeks of his arrival in Ireland, as the final chapters of Sister Teresa (1901) that were composed there demonstrate, his writing had acquired a relaxed and mellow tone. Father Tom’’s, suggestion about the stories and John Eglinton’s gloss on it regarding Turgenev were ideally timed. Instinct had impelled Moore’s return to Dublin (in Hail and Farewell he describes this is a miraculous annunciation experienced in the Hospital Road, Chelsea: "I heard a voice speaking within me: no whispering thought it was but a resolute voice, saying, Go to Ireland") [Hail and Farewell, ed. Richard Cave, 1976 Edn. p.257] he had obeyed and recovered his old ebullient self; his inspiration broke out of its silted channel to flow with spontaneity and ease. He had now proved that Turgenev’s injunction was of worth and with The Lake Turgenev’s great theme became Moore’s great theme too.

As Moore worked at the stories for The Untilled Field his inspiration began to burst out of the confines of his commission. The early tales depict the pathos of the Irish peasants’ existence: the bleakness, the imaginative, emotional and cultural austerity that compelled many, often whole parishes, to emigrate to America leaving their homes in ruins on the hillsides; and the indefatigable resilience of the villagers who stayed and endured, cherishing the fragile consolations offered by their religion. Patience, reverence, resilience and a sense of duty are qualities he had earlier celebrated in the life of his heroine, Esther Waters ; the consolations of her life too are hard-won and fragile. In that novel Moore questions why this is so, exposing and criticising the society Esther lives in for depriving her of the opportunity to achieve the fullness of being her remarkable integrity deserves. As Moore composed the tales, engaging ever more deeply with the condition of the Irish peasantry, he again began to search for the reason why the prevailing mood had to be one of compassionate 198] pathos. The answer, he felt, lay in the peculiarly rigorous nature of Irish Catholicism, valuing zealous moral rectitude above sympathy and imagination and so fostering narrow-mindedness and bigotry among its priesthood. As the tales advanced priests ceased to be peripheral though powerful figures in the narratives and became the prime subject. With considerable invention Moore found ways of introducing increasingly barbed anti-clerical satire into the work without disturbing his predominantly dispassionate tone. It is the plight of the priest which becomes the occasion for the comedy. In "Patchwork", for example, Father Maguire’s moral authority is completely undermined by his parishioners’ want of ready cash: he refuses to wed a young couple who cannot pay the marriage dues, but they go and hold the wedding feast and celebrate the nuptial night without benefit of clerical blessing so that he is forced to marry them for nothing for the sake of propriety. Father MacTurnan after a lifetime’s work amongst a really destitute community in the West writes in halting Latin a letter to Rome, in the story of that title, making the modest proposal that the rule of celibacy be relaxed for the Irish clergy and they be encouraged to wed to improve the state of the nation:

Ireland can be saved by her priesthood! ... The priests live in the best houses, cat the best food, wear the best clothes; they are indeed the flower of the nation, and would produce magnificent sons and daughters. And who could bring up their children according to the teaching of our holy church as well as priests? ["A Letter to Rome".]

MacTurnan becomes an embarrassment or a laughing-stock to his fellow priests (though he remains quite unconscious of the fact) and the butt of countless bar-room jokes in Dublin when the story gets known through rumour. But Moore’s attitude here is complex; as with Swift, the ironies reverberate in every direction and one is left with a disturbing sense of the enormity of the social and psychological confusions intimated by the tale as an undercurrent to its humour. In the last tales this balance of sympathies is lost and the consequences of clerical insensitivity are tragic: Julia Cahill’s parents are compelled to ostracise her when she refuses to agree to the marriage the priest has arranged for her, being [199] incensed by the way her father, the prie4st and her intended husband barter for her in her presence with an exchange of livestock as if she were a mere chattle; in "The Wild Goose" clerical interference and religious differences between husband and wife slowly stifle their passion for each other and inexorably bring about the separation; and in "In the Clay" (later revised as "Fugitives") a masterpiece of sculpture is destroyed by a priest’s connivance because it was modelled from a nude.

Given the particular satirical turn the stories were taking, it is not surprising that only six were published in Father Tom Finlay’s magazine [ The Irish Review ]; given the events of Moore’s life at this time, it is remarkable that the anti-clerical and anti-Catholic impulse of The Untilled Field and The Lake was so scrupulously controlled. Involvement since 1899 with the literary theatre and the Gaelic revival had shown him how easily the aspirations for the political and cultural progress of Ireland shared by friends and associates like Sir Horace Plunkett, Yeats, AE [George Russell] and even the ardent Catholic, Edward Martyn, could be jeopardised by ill-founded accusations of blasphemy if priests on the relevant committees suspected that the consequences of any move towards progress might lessen their intimate emotional hold over their congregations. Moore learned too how readily his colleagues’ political opponents could take advantage of the situation to frustrate any project they took exception to by fermenting religious unrest. Even a man as culturally sophisticated as his cousin Edward Martyn could be swayed in the most perverse directions by threats of damnation; his delicate conscience, prompted by the Confessional, could render his imagination moribund. Few of his associates, as Moore shows in Hail and Farewell, were willing to question the prevailing national acquiescence in this loss of an independent spirit. It was not faith he wished to call into question but the status of the Church: as Gogarty argues, "when religion is represented as hard and austere, it is the fault of those who administer religion, and not of religion itself" (p.96). It was this discrimination which shaped many of the narratives and controlled the tone of The Untilled Field .

Irish reviews of the 1903 edition were generally appreciative; only one ventured to criticize the volume on sectarian grounds, expressing shock that it should be the work of one ’himself a Catholic’. Though Catholic by birth and education, Moore’s practice [200] had long since lapsed; the review sent him, he records, "into an uncontrollable rage" ( Hail and Farewell, 1976, Edn., p.457; text of letter given in appendix of Cave’s edition of The Untilled Field [ie., this volume]). On September 24th 1903, The Irish Times carried a long letter from Moore publicly avowing his Protestantism. It was an understandable reaction but an impetuous one and, in the particular form the letter took, silly, for he cited as the cause of his change of faith a recent incident in which Maynooth College had decorated the walls of a room where King Edward VII and his court were to be received with draperies in the king’s racing colours and with engravings of his most successful racehorses. Moore’s friends, AE and Oliver St. John Gogarty, advised against linking the seriously intended avowal of his beliefs with so petty a Nationalist issue. They foresaw that it would undermine his reputation and blunt the impact of his criticism of the Irish habit of mind; and it did.

But where Moore the man lost, Moore the artist gained. The three masterpieces which followed that public declaration, The Lake (1905 and 1921); Hail and Farewell (1911-1914) and The Brook Kerith (1916), were each in various ways motivated by the desire to recover the esteem he lost through his flippancy. The self-defeat of the letter to The Irish Times ensured that the writing of The Lake with its depiction of how a Catholic priest came to renounce his calling should admit of no similar lapses of taste, though the temptations must have been legion. Three months before his letter was published, Moore while writing to his friend Edouard Dujardin had asserted boisterously: "Life has no other goal but life and art has no other end but to make life possible, to help us to live" (Letter of 8 June, 1903; in J. M Hone, The Life of George Moore, 1936, p.245) Insofar as The Lake is shaped by Moore’s personal beliefs, the urge to didacticism (implicit in that remark to Dujardin) must have been strong; but in the published novel representation is all and dogma has no place. That Moore did have occasional difficulty in restraining the propagandist in him is evident from the latter half of Salve, where Moore explores the idea that no decent book has been written by a Catholic since the Reformation and the unrelieved, strident opinionating makes laborious reading. The recent failure of the letter to the Irish Times seems to [201] have sharpened Moore’s powers of invention and his capacity for self-criticism in composing The Lake . All comes back to the question of treatment and Moore did well to develop the delicacy of judgement, the carefully regulated sense of proportion and the sustained use of understatement and implication that he had experimented with in The Untilled Field .

The chief problem of style confronting Moore in the tales was how to deal with grey, quiet lives without seeming superior and patronising and without producing unintentional bathos by miscalculating the tone and the nature of the climaxes of the short narratives. It was not the first time that he had taken the Irish peasantry as his subject, but at least one earlier attempt had been a woeful abuse of literary decorum. Parnell and his Island (1887, first published in France as Terre d’Irlande) is a collection of rather flashy pieces of journalism expressing Moore’s reactions to Ireland on returning there from Paris, his disgust at the savagery as he then deemed it of the peasants and the effeteness and destitution of the gentry in decline. Everywhere Moore boasts his cosmopolitan experience, proudly displaying his cultivated sensibility at the expense of his subjects. Inevitably the tone redounds to his own discredit, exposing his "culture" as snobbish, superficial and insufferably cruel. It is characteristic of his want of real insight into his subject that he presents Ireland to his French and English readers through a series of character studies that are conventional stock-types of politician, priest, landlord, peasant. In none of the sketches does discrimination get the better of prejudice. The volume of essays is the more astonishing in that it followed Moore’s novel, A Drama in Muslin, where the heroine, Alice Barton’s growing understanding of the social and political situation in the country tempers her dispassionate judgements of both the landlord and the peasant classes with sympathy that ensures the characters are never lost sight of as individuals. Parnell and his Island proved something of a millstone in time: when Moore publicly offered his support for the Gaelic and theatrical revivals, he was often reminded forcibly of the essays in jibes questioning his sincerity. (Douglas Hyde, president of the Gaelic League, could not resist baiting Moore with the suggestion that he might serve the cause of the Gaelic revival best by reissuing the volume with the new subtitle: Ireland Without Her Language ).

Where Moore triumphs in The Untilled Field is in shaping the [202] various narratives around an undercurrent of powerful feeling which the events define by implication but which is rarely stated explicitly. The characters have little education and are incapable of subtlety of expression especially about their private emotions but the force of those emotions intimated behind their halting speech endows each of them with a vivid presence. Feeling enshrines identity; to respond to its prompting, however hesitantly, is for the characters of these tales to approach selfawareness. Consider the opening tale, "The Exile": James Phelan idolises Catherine and she James’s brother, Peter; Peter decides to train for the priesthood exiling himself from the village so that James’s courtship of Catherine may prosper, but Catherine withdraws to a convent; Peter realises he has no calling and returns home; Catherine finds she has no sincere vocation and returns too; James accepts the inevitable and emigrates to America, leaving the family farm for Peter to inherit. In this summary the tale has a symmetry and an inevitability that indicate perhaps a humorous rendering would be the most feasible; but that could easily rob the characters of dignity. Comedy is not Moore’s way with the story; it is the selflessness of the characters that he focusses our attention on, their respect for each other that prompts them to try to act without giving hurt. At the conclusion there is an emotional loss for one brother and an emotional gain for the other, but no sense of personal victory or defeat; there are no recriminations. Catherine arrives back in the village in time to bid James farewell:

The signal was still up, and the train had not gone yet; at the end of the platform she saw james and Peter. She let Pat Phelan drive the cart round; she could get to them quicker by running down the steps and crossing the line. The signal went down.
‘ Pether,’ she said, ‘we will have time to talk presently. I must speak to James now.’
And they walked up the platform, leaving Peter to talk to his father.
‘’Paddy Maguire is outside,’ Pat said; ’I asked him to stand at the mare’s head.’
’James,’ said Catherine, ’it’s bad news to hear you’re going. Maybe we’ll never see you again, and there is no time to be talking now, and me with so much to say.’
‘I am going away, Catherine, but maybe 1 will be coming back some day. I was going to say maybe you would be coming over after me; but the land is good land, and you’ll be able to make a living out of it.’ [203]
And then they spoke of Peter, James said he was too great a schola for a farmer, and it was a pity he could not find out what he was fit for - for surely he was fit for something great after all.
And Catherine said:
‘I shall be able to make something out of Pether.’
His emotion almost overcame him, and Catherine looked aside so that she should not see his tears.
‘’Tis no time for talking of Pether,’ she said. ‘’You are going away, James, but you will come back. You’ll find better women than me in America James. I don’t know what to say to you. The train will be here in a minute. 1 am distracted. But one day you will be coming back, and we’ll be proud of you when you do. I’ll build up the house, and then we’ll be happy. Oh! here’s the train. Good-bye; you have been very good to me. Oh, James! when will I be seeing you again?’ [ The Untilled Field, 1976 Edn., pp.29-30.]

How perfectly judged is the scruple that keeps Catherine talking and stressing her own unworthiness when she sees how close her confident assertion that she can make a man of Peter comes to unmanning James. She feels compelled to speak of her gratitude but prevaricates because she is aware how speaking of his worth intensifies James’s frustration that she cannot speak of requiting his passion, however noble she knows him to be. Even for her to talk of Peter hints at intimacies James will never experience. All her efforts to calm the emotional tension between them only aggravate their sense of the irrevocableness of their separation as so much more than a physical fact - an awareness that ruthlessly exposes as frail and sentimental Catherine’s hopes that with time the present experience will be simplified in their memories and its anguish numbed. Here are three quiet lives perhaps; yet here too three individuals have momentously shaped their whole future selves. With fine tact Moore keeps in balance our appraisal of his characters; his naturalism is exact yet the experience he defines is suffused with a moral beauty. The very method of the tale evinces Moore’s wholehearted respect for common life. Henry James’s praise of Turgenev’s artistry might with justice be applied to Moore’s here: "the element of poetry in him is constant and yet reality stares through it without the loss of a wrinkle". [’Turgenev and Tolstoy’, in House of Fiction, ed. Leon Edel, 1957, p.174.]

The strength of "The Exile" derives from the power of its [204] dialogue where the characters speak directly out of their feelings rather than about them; the reader engages with the experience and is left to infer the meaning. In several stories in the collection Moore began experimenting with other techniques of understatement, ways whereby the rendering of heightened experiences could imply more than the characters involved in them could be expected to comprehend, except perhaps intuitively. The technique which most closely anticipates the method of The Lake involves the flexible adapting of prose-rhythms in order to suggest through a narrative told seemingly in the thirdperson the fluctuations of feeling that the protagonists undergo. Subjective and omniscient perspectives are subtly conflated in the reader’s mind. (Moore was to develop the technique for very sophisticated effects in his autobiography, Hail and Farewell and his late masterpiece, The Brook Kerith .) A good example of this can be seen in "The Wedding Gown", the most perfectly crafted of the stories in the volume. An elderly woman, all but in her dotage, gives her wedding dress to her great-niece to wear at a ball. It is the one remaining treasure, profoundly cherished, from old Margaret’s past, which seems to be for her a kind of talisman that confirms her identity and keeps her within the bounds of sanity. At the dance young Molly feels a sudden compulsion to return home; the distorted shadows of parkland and woods in the moonlight urge her to run faster and faster; long before the image forms itself in her consciousness that she is somehow engaged in a race with Death, the prose has evoked the sensation. As she reaches the cottage, the tone changes to match the measured deliberateness with which she stirs the embers of the fire to flame and lights a candle:

... and holding it high she looked about the kitchen.
‘Auntie, are you asleep? Have the others gone to bed?’
She approached a few steps, and then a strange curiosity came over her, and though she had always feared death she now looked curiously upon death, and she thought that she saw the likeness which her aunt had often noticed.
‘Yes,’ she said, ’she is like me. 1 shall be like that some day if I live long enough.’
And then she knocked at the door of the room where her parents were sleeping. [The Untilled Field, 1976 Edn., pp.185-86.]

Dread has perversely forced Molly to race to confront what she fears, but the experience transcends her expectations: her recognition of a common likeness and a shared mortality brings a quiet assurance that is reflected in the simple diction and syntax and in the matter-of-fact tone of the prose. The gift of the gown and its consequences have taught Molly how to value generosity and how to care: the dress is now a talisman for her too. The way of Molly’s access to adulthood is commonplace enough but it is unique for each individual and Moore’s style intimates the wonder of the moment without recourse to a forced poeticism.

The later stories make increasingly challenging demands on Moore’s capacity for tact. "The Clerk’s Quest", being about an elderly, sober man’s infatuation with a woman he has never seen but whose perfume on her papers and cheques that pass through his hands at the bank inspires his devotion, throughout runs the risk of provoking the reader’s laughter. Like "The Exile", the subject could be the stuff of comedy; to work the anecdote for its pathos is to court a charge of pretentiousness. In this instance Moore sustains a measured evenness of tone that renders the entire story convincing even when the clerk’s obsession makes him the dupe of a variety of absurd fantasies. His visions are so totally absorbing that they render him completely immune to the ribald remarks of his fellow clerks, to his dismissal from the bank, even to being spurned by the lady who returns his presents of expensive jewellery. Deluded he may be, but the delusions foster in him a perfect equanimity and it is that which the style, so regular and unemotional, draws to our attention, suppressing in us any urge to ridicule. "The Clerk’s Quest" is closely allied to The Lake in its concern with sexual infatuation and hallucinatory fantasies of possession (the final pages of the tale have a marked resemblence to pages 115-56 of the novel) but Gogarty, unlike Dempsey, the clerk, has his waking moods when he can sit in judgment on the excesses of his imagination. What the tale developed in Moore was the ability to present vividly the aberrations of a mind, without resorting to sensationalism. Tales like "The Clerk’s Quest" reveal Moore working to find ways of conveying the reader beyond the surface emotionalism of the experiences being defined to engage with the processes of the mind which are their cause.

One story in The Untilled Field stands out as different in method [206] from the rest. "’Almsgiving" has an articulate narrator writing subjectively about his own behaviour. Irritated by a sudden downfall of rain he refrains from giving a customary penny to a blind beggar; the ache of conscience immediately activates his reason into attempting to justify his failure in charity. With cynical logic the mind quickly finds grounds to assure him that the beggar is the one at fault in persisting to live as an object of pity: ‘I asked myself why I helped him to live’. [ The Untilled Field, 1976 Edn., p.195] Shocked by the callous drift of his thoughts, he returns on impulse and gives the blindman sixpence. They talk and the blindman tells of his reliance on regular benefactors, the narrator being one; the old man’s humility provokes the narrator’s cynicism again: ‘It was only necessary for me to withhold my charity to give him case ... the world would be freed from a life that I could not feel to be of any value.’ [Ibid. pp. 196-97.] He now consciously refrains from visiting that part of town till again suddenly compelled there and compelled too to question the blindman earnestly about his condition. The man’s level tone intimates a complete acceptance of his lot; appreciating that fortitude and the man’s strange unity of being releases in the narrator’s consciousness a mood of pure joy. Like The Lake, this tale explores the relation Moore believes exists between conscience and instinct; private reverie alternates with impulsive actions that bring the narrator into conversation with the beggar; the donor through an access of imaginative sympathy is steadily transformed into the debtor. As the tale advances, charity and pity are redefined for the reader and purged of their self-centred motives. The blindman comes to be more responsibly known to the narrator’s imagination and giving becomes a pleasure not a means of appeasing the guilt the narrator feels on account of what he initially considers his superiority. Method and meaning are beautifully integrated; but if the tale fails to satisfy at the last, it is because of Moore’s handling of the conclusion. The narrator leaves the blindman and sits to contemplate the change of mood he has experienced:

I was sitting where sparrows were building their nests, and very soon 1 seemed to see farther into life than I had ever seen before. ‘We’re here,’I said, ‘for the purpose of learning what life is, and the blind beggar has taught me a great deal, something that I could not have learnt out of a book, a deeper truth than any book contains .’. And then I ceased to think, for thinking is a folly when a soft south wind is blowing and an instinct as soft and as gentle fills the heart. [Ibid., p.200.]

Delicacy of implication has been lost in statement and the vagueness of the generalisations runs the risk of trivialising the experience that is being commented on. The narrator could be judged as indulging in smug sentimentality. To have left the narrator aware of a new sensitivity of perception himself on his departing from the blindman, a heightening of the senses towards details in the atmosphere and townscape that indicate the approach of spring, would have been a more fitting conclusion sustaining the technique of implication to the last. The final paragraph is in fact redundant and confuses what it is designed to clarify. It is essentially a failure in literary decorum.

Much in the story anticipates Moore’s method with The Lake. What "Almsgiving" in particular highlights are the problems involved in developing an experience of a kind which in Joyce would he termed an epiphany towards some conscious formulation of its significance. The imaginative scope of the letters Moore devises for this purpose in The Lake can more readily be appreciated in contrast with "Almsgiving"; the technical virtuosity is the more remarkable for its apparent effortlessness. Each letter of Gogarty’s to Father O’Grady or to Nora Glynn is an assessment of past experiences that strives for a complete understanding but achieves only a partial expression of the truth. Their replies confirm and define the gap between his intention and achievement. Moore’s success comes from making his technical problem as narrator an exact analogy for his character’s psychological dilemma: how to find the language that conveys the causes why Gogarty’s castigating of Nora has unexpectedly achieved for him the status of epiphany, illuminating, if it can be but expressed rightly, his whole identity. Clarity of statement becomes for Gogarty a compelling necessity of every nerve, because it is the only proper expression of his ethical being left him by circumstance. Within the terms Moore establishes in the novel Gogarty’s moral quest is a search for an appropriate literary decorum. T. R. Henn has described Moore’s style in The Untilled Field as ‘lean and [208] muscular, the product ... of slow and scrupulous revision; erasing, as it were, all that does not tell.’ [The Untilled Field, 1976 Edn., p.xi.] Each tale works to create an illumination in the reader’s imagination as we have seen through carefully judged understatement. The Lake explores the processes of mind whereby judgement (in all its senses) can be exercised, paring experience to its absolute essentials. Gogarty’s admission of the truth to Nora which forms the letters opening Chapters XI and XII has a forthright simplicity but it requires the whole novel to enable us to read these letters with a complete understanding of the density of implication behind each statement. To turn to The Lake after reading The Untilled Field is to delight even more richly in its technical mastery. [End Sect.; .]

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