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Edward Said, Ireland and the Everyday

 

by Declan Kiberd

War, civil war and the extreme situations of modern life create a challenge for a writer; how to remain an artist in the midst of such bitterness? Too often this challenge has been explained as one rooted in the need to avoid all semblance of propaganda; but it actually arises more from the felt need of artists to hold onto everyday values in the face of the abnormality all around them. The artist is in fact the ultimate citizen, who can evoke the ways in which a deeper, truer life somehow continues beneath the extreme surface of things.

Given that colonialism works not only by violence against the community whose land it occupies, but also by seeking to erase the traces of a native culture, the reassertion of the primacy of everyday values takes on a defiant cast. It was because of Yeats’s ability to combine anti-colonial activity (as in founding an avowedly national theatre), along with the celebration of the quotidian realities of rural Irish life, that Edward Said could proclaim him one of the first modern poets of decolonisation, an inspiration to successors like Mahmoud Darwish and Pablo Neruda, who also knew about the struggle to remain poets in the face of dire provocation. Said understood that the English in Ireland wished not just to anglicise culture, but to transform the very landscape through which people moved into a simulacrum of the Home Counties. Yeats’s early poems, which spiritualise that landscape with codes drawn from Celtic lore, thus take on a revolutionary aspect, as an attempt to clear the counter-space in which a restored daily life can be imagined, one that is serenely national rather than anxiously nationalist.

© Declan Kiberd

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