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Irish Rennaissance Essay, Research Paper

In the heart of every Irishman hides a poet, burning with nationalistic passion for his beloved Emerald Isle. It is this same passion which for centuries Great Britain has attempted to snuff out of the Catholics of Ireland with tyrannical policies and the domination of the Protestant religion. Irish Catholics were treated like second-class citizens in their native home. Centuries of oppression churned in the hearts of the Irish and came to a boil in the writings and literature of the sons and daughters of Ireland: the Irish Literary Renaissance.

The Irish Literary Renaissance, also known as the Irish Revival, Gaelic Revival, and the Celtic Twilight, refers to a period, spanning the years of 1885-1940, during which Irish writers drew upon Irish heroes, folklore, and the peasant culture of Ireland to develop a national literature distinct from that of England. Many well-known authors are identified as contributors to the movement, but perhaps the most widely-known and appreciated Irish Renaissance writers were William Butler Yeats and James Augustine Aloysius Joyce. While Yeats and Joyce both wrote on subject matter central to the Irish Revival, they wrote with different purposes in mind: Yeats wrote to influence; Joyce wrote solely for the sake of art.

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865. Son of artist Jack Yeats, William Butler Yeats was constantly exposed to his father s strong opinions about art and its purposes. “My father believed that art was a powerful vessel for enlightenment, not of convince. Meaning that it[art] was not to lay hoisters [opinions] on others, but to set an atmosphere for [them], in which they would bring it on themselves.” This became the embodiment of Yeats philosophy of literature. He did not write to directly change the political orientation of Ireland, but instead, wrote to bring a unified national identity to divided Ireland. He believed that if Ireland had a legitimate cause for national pride, the people would not tolerate outside political control and would unite in the single goal of gaining their freedom.

While always an exceptionally smart boy, Yeats was eleven years old before he received a formal education. From the beginning, he did not care much for schooling. “Because I found it difficult to attend to anything less interesting than my thoughts, I was difficult to teach” (DLB 19, 403). Later at Erasmus Smith High School, he was a disappointing student, described as “erratic in his studies, prone to much daydreaming, shy, and poor at sport.” In 1884, Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where his belief systems were drastically altered.

At the Metropolitan School of Art, Yeats met fellow poet George Russell, who exposed Yeats to the occult. The two poets believed that “whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion and that their mythology and their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth.” In 1885, Russell and Yeats founded the Dublin Hermetic Society. This was the beginning of Yeats lifelong interest in occult studies. In addition to founding the Hermetic Society, Yeats joined the Theosophic Society, the Rosicrucians, and the Order of the Golden Dawn.

Yeats found occult research a rich source of imagery for his poetry. He also discovered that much of Irish folklore was rooted in the occult. Traces of the Irish supernatural tradition appear frequently in his poems. “The Rose upon the Rood of Time,” for example, takes its central symbol from Irish Rosicrucianism, and “All Souls Night” describes a traditional scrying ceremony. Through his reexamination of native Irish mythology, he validated these age-old themes as literary subjects and made Irish folklore a central theme in Irish Renaissance literature.

Later in 1885, Yeats met the extremist Irish nationalist and Fenian leader, John O Leary, who would change Yeats outlook on the politics of Ireland forever. O Leary had been a Young Irelander and fought in the insurrection of 1849. He took Yeats under his wing and introduced him to the world of Fenians and Fenianism. His influence on Yeats writing is undeniable. Yeats began to write “in the way of [Sir Samuel] Ferguson and [James Clarence] Mangan” and develop his nationalism and anti-English sentiment (O Connor, 165). Yeats, like Ferguson, saw “literature in Irish as an essential part of the education of any Irishman and tried to make it so” (O Connor, 150). He toured Ireland and established the National Literary Society. He loved Ireland and the rich Irish tradition and fervently desired to see them unite under a national Irish banner.

Yeats greatest ambition was to unite Catholic Ireland and Protestant Ireland through a body of national literature. A united Ireland was his constant driving force, his overwhelming inspiration and goal. Likewise, he believed that the only way the objective of Irish unity could be accomplished was by inspiring the people through his writing and that of his contemporaries. Yeats believed firmly in the power of the pen. Although he was a staunch political activist, his aim was to effect change through cultural and literary channels rather than through violent rebellion. Years later, he wondered if, perhaps, his pen had been too powerful.

“At the end of his life he was still wondering if his early writing had helped to seed

the rising, to send out / Certain men the English shot (”The Man and the Echo, lines 1112″)” (DLB 19, 420). He further to questioned whether his poems may have caused the destruction of homes and families, “Could my spoken words have checked / There whereby a house lay wrecked?” (The Man and the Echo, line 15-16). While Yeats never proposed violence as a means to an end, he, nonetheless, considered himself responsible for the death of his friends and others families. He was distraught that the power of his words could have caused such bloodshed.

The bloodshed to which Yeats referred, occurred during the Easter Rising of 1916. On April 24, 1916, a group of Irishmen who called themselves the Irish Republican Brotherhood, posted the Declaration of the Republic on the door of the General Post Office in Dublin and declared Ireland a free country. Unfortunately, the British Troops quickly suppressed the rebellion and while the rebels “fought with typical Irish gallantry,” they were swiftly executed as an example to the Irish. In addition to the rebels execution, Dublin was badly damaged and over three hundred other people died (Coogan, 14-15). But to the Irish cause, they had served their purpose. The rebels inspired the heart and soul of the Irish population by sacrificing their lives for the independence of Ireland and cast themselves into martyrdom forever.

Following the Easter Rising, Yeats became possessed with the Irish spirit. He pledged that he would never allow the memories of those who sacrificed their lives to fade. In remembrance of the rising, Yeats composed “Easter 1916,” which predicted the “problem” to persist for years to come in his refrain, “A terrible beauty is born” (Yeats, 53). Yeats galvanized the heroism of Ireland s martyrs and implored the Irish to do the same. He did not want the death of valiant men to be in vain. In an uncommon display of extremist nationalism, Yeats was recorded as saying: “These are your heroes and your inspiration for a New Ireland. If you do not heed the message that they wrote in blood, the future of Ireland is little more than that of the broken bodies of your martyrs.”

Yeats writing with its emphasis on Irish nationalism and plea for Irish sovereignty, firmly established him as a leader of the Irish Renaissance. In contrast, the writings of James Joyce seemed to convey a political indifference and apathy, and positioned him at the other end of the Irish Renaissance spectrum. One school of thought has it that James Joyce should not even be grouped in the Gaelic Revival with Irish nationalists, due to his lack of commitment to a unified Ireland.

However, it is not the ideology of an author, but the subject of his works that determines to what genre he belongs. Nearly all of Joyce s works encompass the elements and themes of works classified as Gaelic Revival: Irish heroes, culture, and a focus on Irish peasantry. The fact that Joyce was detached from Ireland and its problems does not negate the fact that his experiences and perspective were uniquely Irish and served to position him as a major contributor to the Irish Renaissance.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was born on February 2, 1882, in Rathgar, a suburb near Dublin. In September 1888, Joyce was enrolled in Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit school located about 20 miles west of Dublin. At Clongowes Joyce felt creatively stifled, “Every day we would get up, go to the mess, listen to our masters for hours, and go on to bed. Stephen s Clongowes Wood was inaccurate as it gave pupils far more freedom than the Clongowes of my childhood reality. For the limited freedom in his world, we only could have dreamed.” In June 1891, Joyce was withdrawn from Clongowes after his father, John Joyce, lost his position as tax collector in Dublin. The following years found the Joyce family constantly moving from one city to another, due to financial troubles. Constantly living in poverty gave Joyce unique insight into the travails of Dublin s peasantry.

In 1892, Joyce moved to Blackrock where he attended the Christian Brothers School. Later that year he switched schools, enrolling in The Jesuit Belvedere College. That spring, Joyce accompanied his father to Cork to sell the last of the family s possessions, a result of the debts John Joyce had quickly run up. In 1912, Joyce left Ireland for good, never to return. All of these events in Joyce s life were recorded in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with Stephen Dedalus as an autobiographical portrayal of James Joyce.

Although Joyce was appalled at being a part of any movement, “In actuality, I truly move to do nothing,” he is considered a significant part of the Irish Renaissance movement, due to the subject matter of his works. One of the most significant elements of Irish Revival literature is the inclusion of Irish heroes, a not uncommon feature of Joycean literature. Even political heroes are commonplace in many of Joyce s books. He wrote frequently about even the most controversial Irish politician of the time, Charles Parnell. Parnell, an Anglo-Irish Protestant landlord, emerged as the leading figure in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Under the leadership of Parnell, the majority of the nationalist groups were united and he used his position to force Parliament to take into account the possibility of Home Rule in Ireland. Joyce, while politically inactive, was not unwilling to write about the Irish political scene, he merely made no judgment about politics. For a self-labeled “realist” it would have been impossible to neglect a topic that was on the tongues of people all over Ireland. “If Joyce did not mention him [Parnell], he would not paint a realistic portrait of Ireland.”

In Joyce s short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” we are introduced to a cast of characters who have been out shaking hands and kissing babies. They sit around and slowly warm themselves back to life by the small fire and sipping on stout. They discuss politics and life, each other, and the anniversary of the tragic loss of Charles Stewart Parnell. The story ends with the reading of a poem written in memory of Parnell, which declares him the “Uncrowned King,” and concludes, “The day that brings us Freedom s reign. / And on that day may Erin well / Pledge in the cup she lifts to Joy / One grief the memory of Parnell” (Joyce, 116). Frank O Connor considers this to be “the real voice of the Irish middle class” (O Connor, 161). While this is Joyce s poem, he makes it clear that the poem does not express his opinion, but rather that of the Irish working class.

James Joyce was always resentful of the poverty and the slums of Dublin into which he was thrown. Peasant life was a theme that surfaced in all of his works, and was particularly prominent in The Dubliners. Yet although Joyce included the peasant theme in his works, he made no moral judgment about the peasant condition. He did not damn those who forced him into poverty, nor bless the kindness of those who helped him out.

This style of non-opinionated writing brought Joyce under fire from critics among the Irish Literary Theater, who called his method mere “social apathy.” They said that he had forsaken his heritage by not using his great talents to write patriotically of his homeland of Ireland. “It is not common that there is such an educated and articulate person of this time who has experienced the life of the Irish underclass. The rarity of the situation makes it that much more tragic that it took place in a person so disaffected from his country and so disinterested in giving a nationalistic account of his life. But hoping for such a work is no more realistic that hoping for immediate Irish sovereignty, for he is the apathetic Joyce and they are the oppressive British.” This kind of criticism of Joyce s work was very common. However, these critics failed to realize that Joyce was not displaying apathy, but instead the will of a conscientious objector to the political battle of Irish independence. “This race and this country and this life produced me,” declares Stephen Dedalus. “Portrait is the story of how Stephen was produced, how he rejected that which produced him, and how he discovered that his destiny was to become a lonely one of artistic creation.”

As an artist, Joyce was a realist who did not exalt or idealize Irish life in his writing. His goal was not to change society or create a national Irish state, but rather to achieve the highest level of artistry possible through his writing. He portrayed life as he perceived it, without assuming a moral or political agenda.

It is clear that both Joyce and Yeats contributed to the Irish Revival. Why then, do almost all critics consider them at opposite ends of the spectrum? The answer is that while they wrote on similar subject matter, they wrote for completely different purposes. Yeats wrote to influence, while Joyce wrote solely for the sake of art.

Yeats was a political activist and because of this, he believed in the instructive power of art: “It is our responsibility to use the gift of intellect and the privilege of education that we have been given to relieve those less fortunate of their heavy burden of ignorance.” Yeats believed, as his father had told him, that art was a way to bring enlightenment to the masses. He believed that art was a language that everyone understood and through which, everyone could be reached. “We cannot move the peasants and the educated classes in Ireland by writing about politics or about Gaelic, but we may move them by becoming men of letters and expressing primary truths in ways appropriate to this country.”

Due to this conviction, Yeats wrote toward a political end in hopes that he could unite the Irish. James Joyce, while an excellent writer and a staunch realist, did not hold an instructive agenda in his works. Joyce wanted nothing to do with societal problems when he wrote, he never tried to impress his will or his slightest opinionated ideals on his readers. James Joyce was not a politician, he was an artist.

Unlike Yeats, Joyce believed that as an artist, he should create beauty and not morality. In Joyce s essay “Drama and Life,” delivered in front of University College s Literary and Historical Society, he was adamant that art should be something completely separate from explicit instructional themes. After he finished delivering his essay, Joyce criticized the College for having the literary society as a part of the historical society. “This is the embodiment of our problem. If we must have our works of beauty serve as an instructional guide to the conduct of politics, we have lost sight of our literature; sculpting the minds of others, rather than the beauty of our pieces.” The italicized “and” in the title of the essay, is significant as it represents the idea that drama and life should be two separate entities, one not “interfering” with the other.

Many critics have labeled Joyce “apathetic,” for writing about Ireland during a period of such political turmoil and not taking a more active political role. This lack of commitment, however, was not apathy; but instead, the deliberate withdrawal of personal

involvement in order to maintain artistic objectivity.. He was the photographer on the battle field. While everyone around him was fighting, his goal was to draft an accurate portrayal of the battle taking place.

The title of Joyce s first published novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, provides significant insight into the subject of Joyce s writing style. The most symbolic aspect of the title s significance is the word “portrait.” The purpose of a portrait is to scrupulously capture the essence of the subject. When a painter creates a portrait, he is not making judgments on the character and actions of the subject being painted. “In Windsor Castle, there is a portrait of King William. In it, His Majesty is fox hunting. If the painting of the King does not make rulings of the humanity of fox hunting, the scene in which the portrait is constructed, then why should a portrait of Stephen Dedalus explicitly critique the political environment in which the novel is set.”

William Butler Yeats and James Joyce had dramatically different artistic and political agendas. They also had different ideas of the role literature played in a country s culture. While Joyce admired Yeats artistic achievement, Joyce was opposed to Yeats nationalist poetry and use of art to promote political causes. Joyce, on the other hand, was criticized for not using his artistic talents to promote Irish nationalism and for displaying political apathy. Although their artistic and political philosophies differed greatly, both William Butler Yeats and James Joyce made significant contributions to the Irish Literary Revival and stand as two of the most celebrated Irish writers of this period.


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