Stephen Spender on J. M. Synge (1945)

Details: Stephen Spender [on J. M. Synge], ‘Books and the War - VII’, in The Penguin New Writing, ed. John Lehmann (London: 1945), pp.120-34.

The life story of Synge is very simple, but it is as is as significant in the history of the literature of this century as, in a different way, is the life of Rilke, or James Joyce, or Garcia Lorca. All of these were dedicated to art, and the silence of Rilke during the war of 1914-18, the voluntary exile of Joyce from Ireland, the assassination of Lorca in the Spanish war, have a significance which transcend personal problems and tell us much about the task that confronts the writer in our time.

A brief biographical note opposite the title page the recently published Everyman edition of Synge’s works gives us all the facts. Born in 1871 near Dublin, John Millington Synge was educated privately, and at Trinity College, Dublin. At the age of twenty-two he, left Ireland and travelled on the Continent, spending much time in Paris. In 1902 he returned to Ireland, where wrote all his works in the next seven years, until his death in 1909, at the early age of thirty-eight.

Thus Synge’s life reflects two opposing tendencies which tugged at the Irish writers of his time, which one finds also in the lives of George Moore, W. B. Yeats, A.E., and other writers of the Irish Movement. One tendency was to leave Ireland, which they felt to be provincial and behind the times, and to plunge into the main stream of the European and modern tradition. The opposing tendency took the the form of a desire to return to their cultural roots and create a nationalist Irish Literature.

It was W. B. Yeats who, finding Synge reading Racine in a Paris bedroom, advised him, to return home and look for inspiration in Ireland. Synge followed this advice, and [120] instead of reading Racine in Paris rooms, listened from Irish bedrooms to the conversations that were going on downstairs. He says in the Preface to The Playboy of the Western World: ‘When I, was I writing The Shadow of the Glen some years ago, I got more aid than any learning would have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear where was being said by the servant-girls in the kitchen.’

The sentences preceding, and following this the same paragraph are very interesting. Synge, says, ‘All art is a collaboration; and there is little doubt that in the happy ages of literature, striking and beautiful phrases were as ready to the playwright’s or the story-teller’s hand, as the rich cloaks of his time. It is probable that when the Elizabethan dramatist took his ink-horn and sat down to his work, he used many phrases that he had just heard, as he sat at dinner, from his mother and children.’ After this sentence about the chink in the floor he then goes on to say: ‘This matter; I think, is of importance, for in countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all, poetry, in a comprensensive and natural form. In the modern literature of towns however, richness is found only in sonnets, or prose poems, or in one or two elaborate books that are far away from the profound and common interests of life. One has, only on one side, Mallarmé and Huysmans producing this literature; and, on the other, Ibsen and Zola dealing with the reality of life in joyless and pallid works. On the stage one must, have reality and one must have joy and, that is why the intellectual. modern drama has failed.’

I have quoted, thus, fully because the points Synge raises are indeed of much importance. For what, his argument implies is this: since all art springs from a collaboration between the poet and his audience, then the poet is only an [121] intelligence fitting together into coherent pictures jigs-pieces of poetic phrases springing spontaneously from the lives of ordinary people. So-called modern civilisation does not produce this poetic material out, of which the poet can select the pieces of his pattern. The poets and playwrights in towns to-day are therefore isolated, working on abstractions or elaborations of past poetic ideas, or on joyless intellectualized ideologies. Therefore if, the writer wants - as Synge himself wants - to be playwright and realist, with his work deeply rooted in what is ordinary and also profound in the life of the people round him, he must live among pPeople who are industrially backward. Synge, chose the Irish because, they were his own people. But what he says would be equally true of the Spanish to-day, whose poets and, playwrights still produce a literature very close to Synge’s heart.

Now Synge was not theorizing in his preface to The Playboy of the Western World. He was a craftsman speaking, directly from his own working experience about his job. He had gone to Paris to search for inspiration, by studying the French classics and. coming into contact with the most advanced aesthetic ideas. He had failed to find an inspiration. Then he had, found a clue by going to the places in his own country which were furthest from classical influences and advanced ideas, but where the most ordinary people spoke the language of rich poetry.

This was Synge’s own experience. More than this, his observations are correct. Industrial towns have produced no plays or poetry in which the common life and speech of the townspeople flows over into the speech of the highest literature on the stage and in poetry, in the same way as the tough, passionate, Elizabethan language flows over Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, and, even more notably, some of. the minor Elizabethans such as Dekker and Middleton. The subject matter of Zola and the early lbsen and Shaw is the ideas that sway political meetings, expressed in a language [122] of ideas which is, not that of everyday life but of political pamphlets, outlining abstract theories. We can recognize the justice of Synge’s picture of his contemporaries, since it is stil itrue of our own. On the one hand there are the surrealists, the abstractionists, the apocryphal writers, corresponding to Mallarmé and Huysmans, on the other hand there are the social realists, the political and sociological theists, outlining. their theories or photographically describing the joyless reality of modern life. We can accept Synge’s picture as true even if we feel that these writers are justified in refusing to turn their backs on the problem of writing about modern life. Still more: we can sympathize with Synge’s declaration in the Preface to his own own poems: ‘It may almost be said that before verse can be human again it must be brutal.’

Brutalize verse, said Synge, he did not say mechanize it. He went back to the lives of the people who live nearest to animals, he did not go to the people who tend machines. In reacting from Zola and Ibsen, Mallarmé and Huysmans, he did, not offer any better solution of their problem. He simply turned his back on that civilization, much as D. H. Lawrence did twenty years later, implying that this could not be written about, because where there is no literature (by which he also meant no joy) in the language of everyday speech, there can be no literature in poems or on the stage, which should be rooted in the language of ordinary life.

Young as he died; Synge succeeded in his aim of writing plays which were at once poetic, dramatic and realistic. Doubtless he owed as much to the books which he speaks so slightingly of as he did to the talk of Irish villagers. Riders to the Sea, The Playboy of the Western World, and Deirdre of the Sorrows are no more reportage; They are finely constructed plays, and show a greater sense of the theatre than do any of the later poetic dramatists.

Here is a passage from Riders to the Sea in which Bartley, [123] the surviving son of the old mother Maurya who has lost each of her sons in turn by drowning on the dangerous coast, goes out into the storm:

BARTLEY (getting his purse and tobacco). I’ll have half an hour to go down, and you’ll see me coming again in two days, or in three days, or maybe in four days if the wind is bad.
MAURYA (turning round to the fire, and putting her shawl over her head). Isn’t it a hard and cruel man won’t hear a word from an old woman, and she holding him from the sea?
CATHLEEN. It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?
BARTLEY (taking the halter). I must go now quickly. I’ll ride down on the red mare, and the gray pony’ll run behind me. ... The blessing of God on you. (He goes out.)
MAURYA ( crying out as he is in the door ). He’s gone now, God spare us, and we’ll not see him again. He’s gone now, and when the black night is falling I’ll have no son left me in the world.
CATHLEEN. why wouldn’t you give him your blessing and he looking round in the door? Isn’t it sorrow enough is on every one in this house without your sending him out with an unlucky word behind him, and a hard word in his ear? [ Maurya takes up the tongs and begins raking the fire aimlessly without looking round.]

This language with strongly marked biblical rhythms, its precise concrete visual imagery and its rapid transitions form the particular to the vast generalized implications of death and love, is obviously poetic, and yet, even to the reader, who is astonished to believe that Irish peasants still talk in this way, it has about it the ring of reality which no purely literary use of language can ever have.

Synge’s plays move always in a world of poetry which is the poetry of the earth. When they rise to poetic heights [124] they are poetic as nature is on a starry summer night, or in a day of storm; they have the quality of religious ritual deeply rooted in the habit and experience of men for many generations. Christy in The Playboy of the Western World can talk a poetry which is certainly a part of his playboy character, but which does not leave earth, for one instant:

CHRISTY. If I wasn’t a good Christian, it’s on my naked knees I’d be saying my prayers and paters to every jackstraw you have roofing your head, and every stony pebble is paving the laneway to your door.
PEGEEN. If that’s the truth I’ll be burning candles from this out to the miracles of God that hve brought you from the South today, and I with my gowns bought ready, the way I can wed you, and not wait at all.
CHRISTY. It’s miracles, and that’s the truth. Me there toiling a long while, and walking a long while, not knowing at all I was drawing, all times nearer to holy day.
PEGEEN. And myself, a girl, was tempted, often to go sailing the seas till I’d marry a Jew-man, with ten kegs of gold, and I not knowing at all, that there was the like of you drawing nearer, like the stars of God.

Now compare with a passage from Eliot’s play The Family Reunion. The comparison is, instructive because in this play Eliot makes a great effort to keep as close as possible to the ordinary speech of the intelligent upper middle-class English family, allowing the poetry to rise from the poetic nature of a situation which brings his characters face to face with their own destiny, with their demands on life, with their family history which is working itself out through their lives, with their search for salvation, individually. In order to key his characters up to this poetic level, and, to raise them from the level of their ordinary club-room, golf-club; dinner-party, J.C.R. and S.C.R. talk, Eliot has to invent a highly dramatic situation amongst characters [125] who are in any case predisposed to have what Matthew Arnold would have called an attitude of ‘high seriousness’ towards life. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Eliot’s play , written in metrical verse, sounds prosaic on the stage, whereas Synge’s prose sounds always like poetry, rising at times to lyrical heights.

In the following passage ,Aunt Agatha, the head of an Oxford Women’s College, is revealing to her nephew Harry, who has just returned from a cruse on which he pushed his wife overboard, thathis mother murdered his father. Harry is the Orestes of this family fate, and his story is one of expiation and pursuit by the Furies. Agatha, besides being an Oxford don, is an Anglo-Catholic, and Harry is, I shoulld think, very near to being one: This, gives Eliot a considerable reservoir of European culture and myth on which to draw, when his characters are hard pressed by a dynamic situation.

What do you wnat to know about your father?
If I knew, then I should not have to ask.
You know what I want to know, and that is enough:
Warburton told me that, though he did not mean to.
What I want to know is something I need to know,
And only you can tell me. I know that much.
I Had to fight for years to win my dispossession,
And many years to keep it. What peope know me as,
The efficient principal of a woman’s college -
That is the surface. There is a deeper
Organization, which your question disturbs.
When I know, I know that in some way I shall find
That I have always known it. And that will be better. [126]
I will try to tell you. I hope you have the strength.
I have thought of you as the completely strong,
The liberated from the human wheel.
So I looked to you for strength. Now I think it is
A common persuit of liberation.
Your father might have lived - or so I see him -
An exceptionally cultivated country squire,
Reading, sketching, playing on the flute,
Something of an oddity to his country neighbours,
But not neglecting public duties.
He hid his strength beneath unusual weakness,
The diffidence of a solitary man:
Where he was weak he recognized your mother’s power
And yielded to it.
HARRY. There was no ecstasy.
Tell me now, who were my parents?
Your father and you mother.
You tell me nothing.
The dead an whom you have assumed to be your father,
And my sister whom you acknowledge as your mother:
There is no mystery here.

There, is a deliberate flatness and lack of poetry here, where there is joy and richness in Synge. The life which Synge is portraying is already rich in poetry and the art of [127] the dramatist consists in putting this material into artistic shape according to the great examples. With Eliot, the life which he is dramatizing is essentially lacking in poetry and this very fact itself is exploited in order to suggest that the clue to a meaningless existence is the missing poetry, occasionally emerging from the depths of a flat despair. What to the people in Synge’s plays is the earth, love-making, death in the storm, the everydamy commonplace facts of their experience, is to Eliot’s characters a remote and fleeting vision that perhaps life does not consist only of competitions, possessions, institutions, games, society and achievement. The remark of Harry, ‘There was no ecstasy’, put, characteristically enough, in a negative form, is the poetry missing from his parents’ life which he is discussing. It is a remark that could not possibly be made of the characters in a play of Synge.

The real difference between Eliot and Synge here is different approach to different subject matter. If one forgets, though, for a moment the difference of subject matter, and reflects that after all, what both of them are trying to dramatize is life, and that it is simply the search for a life which they can describe which ultimately fix their subject matter: then the difference between them is the different level at which they approach life. With Synge life is a flood, an ocean which surrounds him, pouring in through all the doors and windows of his stage and only needing to be controlled so that the spectator is not drowned in it. With Eliot hunt for life is going on.

Here is no water but only rock; ...
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing,
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip, drop drop drop drop
But there is no water.

The whole of Eliot’s task as a poet is contained in these lines from The Waste Land. In The Family Reunion he is still listening for ‘the sound of water only. And the level at which he finds it is that of an artesian well, bored into the ground with great trouble, and at the expense of agony of soul.

Synge did not think that this hunt the poetically significant in the midst of ‘Economic Man’ was worth while. He returned to the primitive level where peasants have a generalized view of life which is, not abstract or sententious because it springs directly from their experience. Nor was Synge just an isolated eccentric in so doing. Gauguin, Van Gogh, D. H. Laurence, represent the same tendency, but they are rather less fortunate than Synge because they, in their travels, escaped from their origin, whereas he returned to his roots. The modern literature which has most in common with Synge is Spanish. For in Spain, the speech of the peasants and workers ‘collaborates’ with the writer much as it did with Synge in Ireland, and in England, with the Elizabethans. A play like Lorca’s Bodas de Sangré is written in a highly poetic language verging on Surrealism which seems very modernist to French and English crities outside Spain. Nevertheless, it is so close to the speech of ordinary Spanish people that Lorca’s plays were performed in village squares all over Spain and Spanish America. I have heard the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti declaim a long speech written in poetry to a large gathering of peasants, workers and middle class people in Barcelona; they listened with far greater attention to him than to any other speaker, and they showed no sign of surprise or embarrassment.

In our industrialized, ‘modern’ civilization the ordinary language of the people is not significant in a poetic sense. It does not flow over on to the stage or into poetry. The meaning of life does not lie on the surface of our language, because our interests are specialized, existing in watertight [129] compartments without reference to the whole of life. Is it right then, like Synge, to turn one’s back on the modern life of towns, and return to the poetry of the village pump, the boy and girl meeting at dusk in the country lane, the graveyard, the loaf, of bread, the wine, the philosophy of the old peasant woman and the village priest, all of them symbols closely interrelated? If the civilization of the machine and of specialized abstract ideas had succeeded in exiling the more primitive pleasures and fears from life, replacing them by cold efficiency and economic improvements, then one might indeed suggest, as some critics have done, that the phase of imaginative literature belongs to the childhood of society, and that the image-making faculty no longer exists in an age of rationalization.

But of course this is, not so. The angels and the demons of an earlier time, have simply been suppressed in our consciousness, that is all. Being suppressed, the demonic forces are at the moment occupied in pointing out to us in a very violent way the consequences of man’s failure either to incorporate poetic values in his way of life, or to become completely rational. The, life of the people in Eliot’s play is a negation of the poetic, revealing through the tension of the situation the pressure of suppressed poetry underneath the smooth surface of upper-middle class life.

By a negation of poetry, I mean that the people in the level of society which Eliot describes are superficially occupied in their behaviour in trying to forget the universal aspects of life.

To the dweller in the industrial town a loaf of bread is simply a loaf of bread with possible points of reference to advertisements suggesting, if it cotains roughage, that it may prevent constipation. Possibly it may, in its suppressed form, be also, a sexual symbol. This simply means that the symbolism which is obvious to the people whom Synge is describing, has become morbid and private and even obsessive for the member of an industrialized society. To [130] the primitive, bread means the wage of toil which is sacred, and it has further mythical references to what is holy, simple and devout.

No one living in a town, even amongst the simplest working people, could transfer the specialized language of everyday speech around him to the stage or the poem with the directness of Synge listening through the crack in the floor, with his notebook in front of him. Therefore the first question the writer in a modern country has to decide is at what level he shall tap the supressed and unspoken poetry in the life around him. Eliot’s play, The Family Reunion, and the plays of Auden and Isherwood attempts to answer this question.

The country house where the family meet in Eliot’s play, the clubs to which the sons belong, their whole way of life is an endeavour in the name of common sense to shut all the doors and windows on that kind of reality which blows like a gale across The Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World. Yet we are conscious of an uneasiness underneath the attempt. Their situation is summed up in the choruses:

We all of us make the pretension
To be the uncommon exception
To the universal bondage.
We like to appear in the newspapers,
So long as we are in the right column.
We know about the railway accident
We know about the sudden thrombosis
And the slowly hardening artery.
We like to be thought well of by others
So that we, may think well of ourselves.
And any explanation will satisfy:
We only ask to be reassured
About the noises in the cellar
And the window that should not have been open.
Why do we all behave as if the door might suddenly open, the curtains be drawn,
The cellar make some dreadful disclosure, the roof disappear,
And we should cease to be sure of what is real or unreal?
Hold tight, hold tight, we must insist that the world is
 what we have always taken it to be.

Thus where Synge is purely descriptive and interpretive of the life around him, Eliot is analytic. The modern poet and playwright and novelist - 1f he is any good - is a surgeon of the mind, a psychoaniayst, a sociologist, the pathologist who analyses the corpse of a society which seems to have become as dead as the machine it would like to become. In The Family Reunion, Eliot is a kind of Sir Bernard Saintsbury holding up the jar with the remains and saying that the patient died of strangulation by hidden fears and moral and pottic blindness. Strangulation of what? The answer of course is strangulation of life as has always been understood in the past. The violence, of modern civilization is the deathbed scene of a pation who is really dying of the desperate remedies applied to relieve him of an existence which is mechanical and boring.

In the hunt for the suppressed poetic level, the writer makes use of every external aid to help him to analyse so vast a subject matter as modern towns. This explains the influence on artists of such sweeping analyses as Freud’s or Jung’s theories. Psychoanalysis suggested a way of attaching significance to symbols which seemed to have lost all meaning. If the. loaf of bread, the mechanic’s spanner, the tourist’s suitcase, the explorer’s mountain are all sexual, that is something at least. We are not so far away from the plough and the soil after all. Man still uses his environment as a symbolic language to eXpress his natural and spiritual inner life, which remains constant, only the vocabulary has become enlarged and obscured, until the world of objects in a modem city is a tower of babel. The people working in the factory, the people living in the suburb, the tourists at the hotel, have no common [132] language of objects on which their eyes rest and which their hands use. We say, metaphroically, but quite accurately: they speak a different language. And they do. The immense task of the artist is to relate these separate symbols to each other,and to the inner experiende of the whole of humanity, so that the race will not become mentally lost amongst the crowd of mere phenomena which have been invented.

Synge was right when he said that this approach, in in Ibsen, Zola, Mallarmé, Huysmans,, and later was bound to be abstract and intellectual. It is. But the price of refusing to analyse and abstract is to ignore the whole trend of modern life.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of creative artist. These two types correspond to what is called the objective and the subjective. To achieve art each type has to achieve a syntthesis of both attitudes; the completely objective attitude would be a mere mass of unrelated reportage, just as the completely subjective would be insane. Nevertheless in most artists one of attitudes predominates. 0bjective art springs from passionate and often violent contact with life, drinking, love-making, fighting, advenfure. The subjective springs from isolation and the working out inart in art of a philosophy of life, which is probably a gradual working out in life around him of the solution to the writer’s own problem.

Most of the minor Elizabethans, especially the earlier ones, were of the objective type, which is most close to, Synge. But one cannot generalize about Shakespeare himself in this way. The subjective and objective are fully unified in his poetry. Even if he had never mingled with the Elizabethan crowd and court, one cannot imagine that in another age he would have been a less great poet and playwright. If Dekker, Middleton, Marlowe even, were living to-day, they would have suffered as Synge suffered from the lack of poetry in the language of everyday life. Yet, the Court of Denmark was a place where the [133] poetic in life was rigorously repressed in the interests of a false system of values, and the furies and ecstasies of Hamlet’s soul are acted out against a flat background, except where Hamlet pries them out of Ophelia and the King and the Queen and even Pplonius, as with a knife.

Synge was an artist with a very objective impulse, and his criticism of modern life is simply that it failed to provide him with the stimulus which he required. The world is the more fortunate that he at last found that experience. But one cannot generalize from his original failure and ultimate success, as he himself generalized in his prefaces. Since he does criticize his fellow poets, novelists and playwrights, they might well reply that if the artist is certain in his own mind that his feeling for art is the feeling life, then there is always a level in human society at which that life - with all that it implies - can be tapped. Life never becomes entirely mechanical, entirely, external, entirely to be judged by the values of scientific progress and money-making. If it did, the human race would be an automaton - and perhaps happier. Since it doesn’t, it is essential that there should be artists who constantly warn the men of their own time, that they are alive and that they have human needs and fears. For if they are unwarned, there is the danger of which we are very aware at this moment, that the need for ecstasy amidst surroundings of boredom may take the demonic form of violence and catastrophe and destruction for their own sake

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