July 29th, 2010

nationality, language, history and literary tradition in Ireland

Seamus Heaney on discovering a sort of birthright to the language of the Old English epic Beowulf:

Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language that I should by rights have been speaking but I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary, and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, therefore, the little word was – to borrow a simile from Joyce – like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language. I tended to conceive of English and Irish as adversarial tongues, as either/or conditions rather than both/and, and this was an attitude that for a long time hampered the development of a more confident and creative way of dealing with the whole vexed question – the question, that is, of the relationship between nationality, language, history and literary tradition in Ireland.

Luckily, I glimpsed that possibility of release from this kind of cultural determination early on, in my first arts year at Queen’s University, Belfast, when we were lectured on the history of the English Language by Professor John Braidwood. Braidwood could not help informing us, for example, that the word ‘whiskey’ is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, and that the River Usk in Britain is therefore to some extent the River Uisce (or Whiskey); and so in my mind the stream was suddenly turned into a kind of linguistic river of rivers issuing from a pristine Celto-British Land of Cockaigne, a riverrun of Finnegans Wakespeak pouring out of the cleft rock of some prepolitical, prelapsarian, urphilological Big Rock Candy Mountain – and all of this had a wonderfully sweetening effect upon me. The Irish/English duality, the Celtic/Saxon antithesis were momentarily collapsed and in the resulting etymological eddy a gleam of recognition flashed through the synapses and I glimpsed an elsewhere of potential that seemed at the time to be a somewhere being remembered. The place on the language map where the Usk and the uisce and the whiskey coincided was definitely a place where the spirit might find a loophole, an escape route from what John Montague has called ‘the partitioned intellect’, away into some unpartitioned linguistic country, a region where one’s language would not be simply a badge of ethnicity or a matter of cultural preference or an official imposition, but an entry into further language. And I eventually came upon one of these loopholes in Beowulf itself.

What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning ‘to suffer’, the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. ‘They’ll just have to learn to thole,’ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered through an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was ‘thole’ in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across unto Ulster with the planters, and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish, and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line, ‘Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole’, my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. The far-flungness of the word, the phenomenological pleasure of finding it variously transformed by Ransom’s modernity and Beowulf’s venerability made me feel vaguely something for which again I only found the words years later. What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multi-cultural odyssey was the feeling that Osip Madelstam once defined as a ‘nostalgia for world culture’. And this was a nostalgia I didn’t even know I suffered until I experienced its fulfillment in this little epiphany. It was as if, on the analogy of baptism by desire, I had undergone something like illumination by philology. And even though I did not know it at the time, I had by then reached the point where I was ready to translate Beowulf. þolian had opened my right of way.

From the introduction to his translation of Beowulf. The rest of the introductory text is online at the publisher’s website.


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