University College Dublin
Attention to the relationship between literature and the law is growing in importance within literary studies. This scholarship enables us to think in new ways about how textual meaning is constituted, but also highlights the subtle ways in which poetic practice is shaped by political and legal concerns. Adam Hanna is at the forefront of this work in Ireland, both as the author of the monograph under review here and as co-editor – with Eugene McNulty – of a collection of essays, Law and Literature: The Irish Case, also reviewed in this issue of Estudios Irlandeses. Fictions of legal entanglement and court procedure are only one part of the story – to these can be added an array of texts from different genres and historical periods that handle legislative issues obliquely. In particular, the rise of documentary poetry in Ireland has created new ways of reading the relationship between legislative and poetic texts and yielded a keener appreciation of the formal implications of this process.
Poetry, Politics and the Law in Modern Ireland is at once ambitious in scope and economical in scale. It addresses a wide range of poets (eleven in detail) from W. B. Yeats to Julie Morrissy, tracing the significant intersection between poetic and legal processes from the foundation of the state to the present day. Hanna opens with reference to a manuscript poem by Seamus Heaney, and his skill in drawing out significant, and often occluded, detail as a prelude to a broader conceptual discussion is vital to the success of this study, which retains the evident pleasure of close reading without losing sight of the larger debates. The importance of women’s experience is acknowledged at the outset of the book, and the author situates the recent campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment as an important instance of artistic intervention in legislative space, and one that provides an apt starting point for consideration of the place of the poet in Ireland’s public life. We are encouraged to see the relationship between law and literature not in simple linear fashion, but as a complex interweaving of representational forms and political contexts. Early on, the fundamental question of what literary language can offer legislators is addressed: the notion that judicious use of words can transform thought itself advocates attention to the nuances of language as the means to create a more just society.
This suggestion is immediately counterbalanced by an acknowledgment of the complexity of Ireland’s legal history. A deeper consideration of the contested relationship between law and justice in colonial contexts would have been interesting here, especially in foregrounding the idea that poetry functions not as an analogue for the operation of law but as its alternative. These dynamics highlight the succinct character of this book, and the author’s decision to juxtapose different contexts and considerations, rather than to privilege the smooth presentation of extended arguments. While these transitions may be at first disconcerting, they signal Hanna’s capacity to move deftly between insights and also function to keep a variety of factors constantly in play, which is especially useful in unifying diverse and multi-layered chapters. The book begins with Yeats’s role as senator, placing his speeches alongside the poetry he composed during this period and drawing attention to the stimulus that underpinned both expressive processes. The extent to which Yeats wished to unify artistic, religious, and political concerns in his work is explored from a number of perspectives here. Especially interesting is the treatment of the monumental, combining Yeats’s commitment to the preservation of Ireland’s material history and his complex engagement with the idea of the monument in his poetry. It is when Hanna is moving between conceptual argument and close textual analysis that this work really shines: his reading of “Sailing to Byzantium” with its “combination of a time-honored form and wandering, wavering rhythms [creating] a whole in which qualities of grandeur and haphazard fleetness are mixed” (31) shows the rich potential of this approach.
In turning to the poetry of Austin Clarke, Hanna productively explores a very different poetic sensibility, one that is both acutely sensitive to Ireland’s ecclesiastical heritage, yet deeply alienated by the role of the Catholic Church in his own time. Clarke’s representation of the lives of women is especially significant in framing the later biopolitical exploration with which this study concludes. The poet’s attention to Ireland’s monastic heritage and to the role of the scriptorium in capturing and recording the medieval past is at the core of this chapter and reveals the ways in which legal considerations can incorporate diverse themes within their scope. Clarke’s struggle to evolve poetic forms adequate to his deeply felt religious dilemmas finds a secular counterpart in the treatment of Thomas Kinsella here. Kinsella’s career as a civil servant gave expression to the ordered continuity of the Free State years. Whether independent Ireland took on – in the words of poet Theo Dorgan – “the burden of the Common Law as it had evolved in Britain, with all its precedents and preconceptions, never once asking if this was an appropriate tradition for our people” (88) is a question that shadows much of this book.
Between Clarke and Kinsella, both formally innovative in their approach to thought and image, comes Rhoda Coghill – a woman whose work sits somewhat uneasily within the larger argument of this book. Coghill here represents a generation of mid-century women poets who struggled to secure their place within the larger cultural narrative of their time. Hanna writes sensitively about Coghill’s understated work, paying particular attention to her poetic soundscapes and her alertness to details from the natural world, both of which contribute to her subtle engagement with questions of personal freedom. The extent to which she occupies a dissenting position (in all senses of the word) in an Ireland still governed by Catholic doctrine is important here, though it is hard to see why her work – rather than that of another of her mid-century peers – has been chosen. With Heaney Hanna is on surer ground, and the chapter on his work broaches the important act of bearing witness to difficult truths, reflecting on the dilemma Heaney faced in deciding when to speak and when to remain silent. It also addresses the process of writing – as much as the production of a finished poem – as a vital aspect of political engagement.
The book concludes with a welcome examination of the place of the contemporary woman poet in the struggle for legislative change. In reflecting on the work of four women in this chapter, Hanna acknowledges the collective power of these interventions, as well as briefly exploring the varied aesthetic choices of these poets. The material is covered with some haste, inevitable when addressing poetry and social conditions of such weight and complexity in a single chapter. This is offset, however, by the exploration of Paula Meehan and Paul Durcan that immediately precedes it. In opening that chapter with reference to “The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks,” Hanna reaffirms the affective power of this poem and the importance of Meehan’s uncompromising art both for her own generation and those that followed her. It is a reminder too that legislative change – and its accompanying artistic interventions – is not the work of a moment, but often the result of impassioned engagement over generations. The poems analyzed in the final chapter implicitly reveal these legacies, but there is more to be said about the connections between generations in this book, and the subtle ways in which legal and literary histories are re-examined to powerful effect. Julie Morrissy’s poetry is a case in point: her experimental work explicitly recasts legal texts, breaking their assured surfaces to reveal lasting human pain, a striking achievement that would benefit from extended engagement here. There are other instances where slower progress through the poetry would afford the reader time to reflect and make connections. Yet it is a tribute to the rich insights to be found in this book, and the astute – and often moving – treatment of its poems that we can only wish for more.