From Church & State: Spring 2007, No. 88
John Hewitt's Centenary:
I thought it would be a pity to let the anniversary of the birth of John Hewitt (28th October 1907) pass unmarked by Church & State. W.J. Auden, the other poetic centenarian, will have plenty of attention this year; and besides, Auden didn't have much to say about the Irish condition. "Ireland has her madness and weather still" won't take us far.
More than anybody else Hewitt has explored the emotional and psychological implications of what it was like to be a Protestant in Ulster in the last century. A Protestant, of course not in any theological sense, but in the sense of being an outsider, a dissenter, a crabbed, self-conscious and sardonic spectator, an actor in search of identity. "Once alien here my fathers built their house…" That was my first contact with Hewitt, but the irony is that Hewitt never seems to be satisfied that he has achieved naturalization as a citizen of the Irish demos, no matter how many generations of his forefathers are commemorated in Kilmore Old Churchyard in County Armagh. The questions that come up are familiar in philosophy, but sharpened by concrete circumstances: Who am I? Why am I here? Do I have a place in the world?
Another theme I want to consider is Hewitt's relationship with the Glens of Antrim. In 1984 Hewitt's 1969 collection The Day Of The Corncrake was reissued by the Glens of Antrim Historical Society in an attractive coffee table format incorporating reproductions of paintings (often featuring octogenarian-seeming farmers) by the distinctive local artist, Charles McAuley. But, if his Protestantism was a thing of attitude rather than belief, Hewitt had the same difficulty in re-inventing himself as a Catholic Glensman. No doubt the facts which led him to adopt the Glens as his own personal Wessex were many and varied. As with Hardy, however, the landscape is most meaningful where there aren't any people in it. The introduction of the human society of the Glens causes a kind of disturbance for the poet and his readers. This is a really important aspect of his work and I'll return to it.
To start off we'll look at Hewitt's family and personal history as described by him in Kites In Spring: A Belfast Boyhood. This collection of sonnets also neatly describes and dismisses the mission hall religion that sprang up in the wake of the 1859 Revival. Year Of Grace isn't meant to be understood in a good sense, and indeed serves Hewitt as an ironic reference point for Belfast in 1969, but here he's talking about the real thing.
"My mother's mother, Ellen Harrison,
farmer's young daughter from around Wolfhill,
fell prostrate with her family and rose
redeemed by mercy, all of them save one,
their cheerful father, unrepentant still,
who could not take the path these tremblers chose."
It's obvious where Hewitt's sympathies lie.
The Poet's Place, a 1991 collection of essays on Hewitt from The Institute of Irish Studies, doesn't actually find any place for discussion of Hewitt's religious outlook. Anthony Buckley comes closest, but not very close, in Uses Of History Among Ulster Protestants. Surely Hewitt's reaction against what he perceives as the imaginative straitjacket of fundamentalism informs almost all his writing?
These family poems can muster up a few striking phrases, but for the most part they have a humdrum, cramped quality, almost making a virtue of their dullness. For sheer clunkiness it would be hard to improve on these lines:
"I'm vague about my father's mother Jane.
I was too young. She died in nineteen ten,
the first month of that year, which might explain
why I recall so little of her then."
I've no doubt that any of my readers could do better than that. Or what about this, from a poem about the maternal Robinsons:
"…at times they'd light the fire
and have a party in the drawing room."
The style is consistent with the subject matter. Hewitt steadfastly resists the temptation to romanticize his forbears even when a bit of romanticizing would have been forgivable. One is left thinking What a horde of extremely boring people! How could they be connected with a man like John Hewitt? There was one uncle who made good, My Brooklyn Uncle, who started on his road to worldly success by marrying the boss's daughter, and "sent us stacks of photographs each year", including this one:
"After Depression, his Havana trip,
The sagging jowls subdued by surgeon's knife."
Now I don't necessarily think this was the most important thing about the uncle. Hewitt singles it out and he seems to do so purposefully, so we'll consider this. Part of the reason could be Hewitt's inbred 'northern' restraint. One must keep a necessary distance between oneself and one's subject matter. One way of achieving this is to deflate the subject matter. Emotion must not be cheapened by being too freely expressed. Around 1930 Hewitt had been engaged to a girl called Dorothy Roberts. In Hesitant Memorial he deals with her death:
"Some weeks ago I heard that you were dead—
I hadn't glimpsed your face these fifty years—
confused a little towards the end, they said.
I felt regret but no recourse to tears.
Yet we were sweethearts once when we were young,
linking and hugging; kissing, holding hands,
with tea in town, with screen's announcing gong,
nested in heather, lolling in Manx sands."
He ends with—
" a sense
of some vestigial curiosity
occluded by a vague indifference."
I don't want to labour my point here, but I think this is a very revealing poem. The feelings are expressed sotto voce, apologetically almost where one might have expected a searing sense of mortality and lost youth. Some of these emotions might have been 'false' in the Hewitt lexicon, but is there not something a bit repulsive in this fastidiousness? Is the danger not that one turns into the frigid being of long poetic habit?
But there is a more specific purposefulness I believe. Hewitt sees his family tree as a microcosm of Ulster Protestant petty bourgeois society and doesn't experience any real imaginative kinship with it. However honest and decent that society might be, he has really rejected it, as in his poem about the Masons:
"So, from then on, my path in life was clear;
unsworn, unbound for ever, I should go
a free man, freely, to the infinite."
"Rootedness" is a recurring theme of his writing, but it has more to do with a "Blut und Boden" mentality than with being representative of real people: it has to do with gravestones in Kilmore:
"This is my country. If my people came
from England here four centuries ago,
the only trace that's left is in my name.
Kilmore, Armagh, no other sod can show
the weathered stone of our first burying…"
In that same poem he goes on to dissociate himself from the nasty Protestants who have "fouled" his homeland, which nevertheless he bravely refuses to "disavow".
Another contemporary of Hewitt's, John Betjeman, another child of 1907, found himself similarly out of kilter with his stolid family background, but dealt with this in a more complex manner. An affectation of upper class scattiness, a bit like Boris Johnson, got him an entrée into that world, from which vantage point he was able to sustain an engaging poetic artifice. He somehow pretended to pretend to be what he really was all the time, middle class Outer London man, and it worked terribly well. He achieved his distance all right, but not at the expense of involvement. Simultaneous immanence and transcendence may ultimately be achieved only by the triune God, but it's the challenge facing every poet, to universalize the local. It's not easily done. Those who try hardest to convince us of their gritty local integrity can sound slightly fake, like that astonishingly incompetent farmer, Robert Frost. The Betjeman shift for Hewitt would have been to imagine himself in the shoes of a typical member of the Kilmore Purple Star Temperance Orange Lodge (I've made that one up), parading through his native townlands on his way to the Field. I doubt if he was ever tempted to check out the possibilities of that particular incarnation. There was some kind of attempt to become a citizen of the Glens, of which more later.
But first I have to deal with the flip side of the "rootedness", often cropping up in the same poems, which is the awareness of being part of a defensive, threatened community, here on sufferance. The title of John Dunlop's book on Irish Presbyterianism could almost have come from Hewitt: A Precarious Belonging. In fact I think it does, but I can't find the reference. Oftentimes the precarious insecure note is the dominant one. The talismanic Once Alien Here encapsulates these contrarities. We have the stockaded wilderness of Plantation times, the "sullen Irish limping to the hills", the "buried men in Ulster clay", the rich earth enhancing the blood, so that the poet can be "as native in my thought as any here".
I must say that I find the Planter/Gael model of Ulster history personally a bit alien. Of course it has some validity and I understand it imaginatively, but it hasn't really been a dominant motif in the parts where I was raised. Funnily enough, in my second year at Ballymena Academy, I was presented with the McCurtain and Tierney interpretation of Irish history in Conquest And Colonization. I found this fascinating, especially the woodcut depictions of characters like The Wilde Irish Woman, a character incidentally whom I've never met in real life! But really none of it connected with my real life up to the age of sixteen, and I would say this is because mid-Antrim wasn't Plantation country in any sense. We didn't have that mentality. That's not to say that communal feelings towards the Catholic community were all sweetness and light, but we didn't think of ourselves as camped on other people's land, and the feelings of superiority that we entertained were chiefly theologically, and not ethnically, based.
The Literary Editor at The Observer (and biographer of P.G. Wodehouse) Robert McCrum deals with this in his book My Year Out when he talks of his McCrum forebears as swarming over the rough green pastures of the North of Ireland. They were a wave, a bit like the Gaelic Catholic wave of McDonnell adherents who had come over to the Glens in the fifteenth century.
Without wishing to deny that a strong element of separateness has always been present in the Protestant self understanding, what one might call definition by contrast, I would argue that this becomes for Hewitt almost the only thing there is to say about his community. This simply doesn't make sense to me and I've been wondering what lies behind his refusal to celebrate the people who made him with the same intensity he celebrates the mystical soil that they tilled. How unlike the racial pride of Yeats who plants himself self-consciously in the dynastic Ascendancy succession. With Yeats it's a case of Let me tell you who I am. Hewitt is more anxious to tell us what he's not.
I think the explanation is that Hewitt didn't really believe in anything, not even in Madame Blavatsky! This Honest Ulsterman stance, that of the shrewd cautious being who sizes everything up and finds it all to be wanting, leads only to imaginative impoverishment. When Yeats tell the mystical Catholic theologian, Von Hugel, to be gone, "but with blessings on your head", or when Betjeman speculates about whether God did walk in Palestine "and lives today in bread and wine", one gets the sense of them groping after something which might just bring meaning to their lives. Contrast this with the unbelievably trite attitude of Hewitt in The Glens:
" fear their creed as we have always feared
the lifted hand against unfettered thought."
So everything about these Glens people is fine and admirable—except their religion, which is apparently "a vainer faith" than that of his people safely interred in Kilmore. It's as if he's an anthropologist and they're the aborigines, picturesque enough no doubt. And by what criteria is theirs a vainer faith? From Hewitt's perspective all faiths are equally vain. The first published version of this poem had "the lifted hand between the mind and truth", which the poet later rejected on the grounds that the words were "arrogant" and "gave offence to kindly and gentle Catholics" (those poor souls!). He doesn't appear to have thought about what he understood by truth; the vast difference between "truth" and "unfettered thought" is skated over; and as for "unfettered thought" itself, it's such a nonsensical concept, especially in the mouth of a poet, that I don't know what to say.
Surely thought is always fettered by something, by the structure of language, the demands of grammar, syntax, rhyme, metre, poetic form, and, beyond those things, by the whole gamut of our genetic, environmental and cultural limitations. In the act of saying anything at all we put fetters on ourselves. All art exists within limits, just as the skills of the footballer are exercised according to the rules of the game and the size of the pitch.
In my concluding part I'd like to spend some more time in the Glens of Antrim.
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