From Church & State: Summer 2006

A Plague On Non-Sectarianism

The working class interest in Irish politics today is just what it has been for generations—the development of national politics. In the North the social and cultural aspect of that interest is anti-sectarianism in every form and forum, on the cusp of each moment, at the drop of a hat.

Anti-sectarianism is the attack on each bigoted dividing line and on every sectional call to greater division. At no point is it neutral as between all that tends to unity and all that tends to fracture and fragmentation. It is not non-sectarian.

Non-sectarianism is the plague on both your houses that, indiscriminately to be sure, would blight every house in the North. Non-sectarianism is the spineless absurdity that slithers on a twilight demonstration with grey placards demanding parity of esteem between oppressor and oppressed. Such parity be damned! The only demand anti-sectarianism esteems is damn all oppression!

Non-sectarianism is careful in its condemnation of each side, camp, tradition, extreme to esteem each equally. So careful in its even-handedness that it leaves everything it condemns and would have us esteem (in equal measure) in place. Its plague on both your houses slaps a preservation order on the diseased slums. Its mission is to condemn and esteem in measures equal to the weight of sectarian millstones set in concrete around the neck of the Irish working class.

Non-sectarianism is sectarian and just so. It is a pattern of social and cultural behaviour set foul to cripple the anti-sectarian purposes of constructive political engagement. It replaces a combative spirit with politeness and in so doing disables thought.

It even disables poetry.

Louis MacNeice was a great poet who with respect to most of the subjects and themes he wrote about performed with great aplomb the arts and parts of poetry. Which is to say, he compressed all his observation of all his experience into imagery and word play that being charged with great wit and delicacy and a profound joy in living carried over to readers some heightened understanding and sympathy with, or at least a curiosity about, the resonant detail of some others' worlds.

MacNeice could make poetry out of and about England, Iceland and Spain. In each of those and other cases MacNeice's imagery imposed a cultural order upon rampaging social facts and the looming bulk of national landscapes. But in respect of Ireland where he was born and spent most of his childhood (in Belfast and Carrickfergus where his West of Ireland professional Church of Ireland father was rector at St. Clements and St. Nicholas) all his experience and observation results in images that are intellectually empty, fatally bland and always even-handedly confused.

MacNeice's Autumn Journal is a longish poem of 24 cantos written between August 1938 and January 1939. Like any poem of similar scope and ambition it is uneven, but here thematically, even strategically, so. It has sublime moments and moments when MacNeice counts coup on both sides of a balance sheet that is all he can draw out of Ireland.

Just by the way, this is MacNeice being sublime at the end of Canto XIII:

Good-bye now, Plato and Hegel,
The shop is closing down;
They don't want any philosopher-kings in England,
There ain't no universals in this man's town.

And this is MacNeice being non-sectarian in Canto XVI:

And I remember when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district;
And the voodoo of the Orange bands
Drawing an iron net through darkest Ulster,
Flailing the limbo lands—
The linen mills, the long wet grass, the ragged hawthorn.
And one read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man's damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save—as you prefer—the King or Ireland…

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an under-water belfry.
Why do we like being Irish? Partly because
It gives us a hold on the sentimental English
As members of a world that never was,
Baptised with fairy water…

The bombs in the turnip sack, the sniper from the roof,
Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
In a world of bursting mortar!
Let the school-children fumble their sums
In a half-dead language;
Let the censor be busy on the books; pull down the Georgian slums;
Let the games be played in Gaelic…

The smoking chimneys hint
At prosperity round the corner
But they make their Ulster linen from foreign lint
And the money that comes in goes out to make more money.
A city built upon mud;
A culture built upon profit;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty.
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?
The blots on the page are so black
That they cannot be covered with shamrock.
I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone else cares
Who is king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children's sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

And so on and so on, above and below and in between. Aren't we awful. Isn't it dreadful. Poor old England that has to suffer us and our endless senseless quarrels: Ireland's children—

Who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
And a faggot of useless memories.

Why can't we just forget it all, all the useless rotten horror of it?

Well, anyway, Louis MacNeice couldn't forget it all. He couldn't resolve it as image and failing replayed it again and again, the strophic stroke and counter-stroke of his self-righteous plague on both your, or rather our, houses. That last couplet (which is the canto's final fling) is an image of himself, for all it is deflected onto the rest of us. And the rest of us in those days were stay-at-homes trying to live and make lives for families; though wilting as we must have been in the glare of MacNeice's detached disapproval. And it was MacNeice who slouched around the world. The useless memories were his.

His Odi atque amo is instructive. He was a classics scholar and such don't throw Latin tags around without if not malice then certainly aforethought. The only other occurrence of that precise phrase of which I am aware is in Robert Graves' The White Goddess where he translates it as—'to be in love with' is also to hate. But Graves didn't start writing The White Goddess until five or so years after MacNeice had written Autumn Journal (and in a postscript to the 1960 edition testified that the ideas of the book, which accumulate around his discussion of the Latin phrase, were new to that period in his life and so, I think, unlikely to have come up in conversation with MacNeice who he will certainly have known).

So I take MacNeice to have been referencing the Roman poet Catullus (mentioned on the same page of the Faber edition of Graves' book); specifically Carmen 85 of the one surviving Catullan manuscript. This is a very short, therefore eminently quotable, piece:

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

Roughly, not so much translated as semblanced, that goes:

I hate you and I love you.
Why that is I don't know.
Just that it is so,
And it burns me through.

Catullus' poem is one of the "Lesbia" series that he wrote in the throes of a frenzied, anguished and ultimately ridiculous passion to Clodia, daughter of the Sullan consular Appius Claudius Pulcher, sister of the notorious demagogue Publius Clodius. MacNeice probably meant only to reference Clodia as a more suitable muse for a don of refinement than the usual old shawlie, "Kathaleen ni Houlihan", who he had ridiculed as such earlier in the poem. And to point up the ambivalence of his relationship with that Irish muse.

But he may have had the political circumstances of Catullus's passion in at least the back of his mind.

Catullus was an apolitical boulevardier writing, in the middle of an intensely violent political revolution (in the last days of the Roman Republic), poems addressed to a very political lady who was by way both of her immediate family and personal connections up to her henna and kohl in all that intensity and every violent swing of its revolving. In which case MacNeice may have been adverting to the impotent absurdity of an apolitical poet's manifesto of his distaste for the down and dirty when objectionable slogans have become even more objectional bricks and bullets and the objectionable people who take it all seriously are lying in pools of blood in their ugly squalid streets.

And that may indeed have been it, for the self righteousness of non-sectarianism has to be wallowed in and made to seem existential. It is not a quiet satisfaction that can be held to a private consummation. No! No! No! Non-sectarianism has to be trumpeted to rub its victims' noses in their supposed responsibility for it all. It has to be blared out to raise the better sort above the squalor while ensuring nothing changes in the conditions that produce the circumstances it deplores. All in all a typically loud and inappropriate, very very bourgeois lack of decorum and discretion.

And so enough of that.

That Irish poets should learn their trade to sing whatever is well made is not in dispute. I'm just making the point that the elitist sentiments and anglicised agendas of non-sectarianism are incapable of being well made in any fully realised poem. The raw material is inherently lumpen. So Yeats' clumsy lines in September 1913 about fumbling in a greasy till, adding the halfpence to the pence, are worked up by MacNeice to produce an even clumsier image of schoolchildren fumbling their sums in a half-dead language.

And I'm not suggesting that bad politics need necessarily make for bad poetry. The reverse is frequently the case. Yeats' caricature of the Countess' glorious later years in In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth And Con Markiewicz is bad politics and bad taste but wonderful, beautiful poetry. A five-minute IRB man he projected his puerile notion of romantic Ireland onto the great John O'Leary, but September 1913 is still a fine poem. And "Did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?" I mean really Yeats, catch yourself on! This list could go on and on…

Just finally then; Yeats came politically to a bad end, writing atrocious marching songs for O'Duffy's Blueshirts; like this (quoted in Richard Ellmann's, Yeats—The Man And The Masks, p281):

What's equality ?—Muck in the yard :
Historic Nations grow
From above to below.

Goodbye to all this.

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