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The Pictorialist Poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and the Aesthetics of Waste

Les poèmes pictorialistes de MacGreevy et l’esthétique du déchet
Karen Elizabeth Brown
p. 27-42


Poète, critique d’art et critique littéraire irlandais, Thomas MacGreevy (1893-1967) travailla dans la section Renseignements de l’Admiralty durant l’Easter Rising, en 1916, à Dublin, et participa à la première guerre mondiale, en tant qu’aspirant, au sein de la Royal Field Artillery engagée dans la Somme. Beaucoup de ses poèmes se penchent sur les ruines que la guerre provoque en France et en Irlande, en utilisant une distance poétique caractéristique du modernisme. Dans un de ses comptes rendus de MacGreevy’s Poems (1934), Samuel Beckett relève un paradoxe central dans l’esthétique du déchet mise en œuvre par MacGreedy : « Toute poésie, définie par les divers paradigmes de la prosodie, est une prière » Beckett cite des extraits de « Gloria de Carlos V », « Seventh Gift of the Holy Ghost », « Crón Tráth na nDéithe », and « Nocturne of Self-Evident Presence », contenant tous des images fragmentées de la guerre et des ruines, et atteignant tous à des moments d’éclat ou d’illumination qu’il nomme « élucidations giorgionesques ».
Se fondant sur des recherches consacrées à la critique d’art de MacGreevy et sur une lecture précise de ses poèmes, cet article explore les manières dont MacGreevy formule ces « élucidations » au cœur de la tragédie en faisant spécifiquement référence aux arts visuels (notamment Bosch, Picasso, Giorgione, le Titien, and Jack Yeats) et aux ruines de la vile de Dublin à la suite des événements de 1916. Dans ses poèmes, MacGreedy crée un vide, référence à la désillusion entraînée par le conflit pour le remplir d’images lumineuses, glorieuses et pleines de couleurs. Sa référence aux œuvres sombres et fragmentées crée un mécanisme voué à mettre en avant un moment d’illumination ou de prière, reflétant son incapacité à conjuguer christologie et expérience de la guerre. Les ruines donnent forme aux poèmes de MacGreevy, aux niveaux syntaxique et sémantique.

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  • 1 For biographical information about MacGreevy, see Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy, ed. Susan Sc (...)
  • 2 Dublin city center was occupied on 24 April 1916 by approximately seven hundred members of the Iris (...)

1Thomas MacGreevy (1893–1967), Irish poet and art and literary critic, is emerging as a key figure in discussions of modernism in an Irish context. Best remembered for his friendships and correspondence with Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and the painter Jack B. Yeats, MacGreevy was also Reader in English at the École normale supérieure in Paris between February 1927 and June 1930. He published a collection of his own poetry, entitled Poems, in Paris and New York in 1934, and he worked as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland between 1950 and 1963.1 His poetry, written mostly in the 1920s and 30s, responds to the theme of ‘ruins’ in an intensely personal and visual way. He communicates both the horrors he experienced as a serving British Officer in the Great War, and his response to the horrible consequences of the Easter Rising of 1916 in his homeland.2 His poems are all the more poignant when one considers that MacGreevy was a devout Roman Catholic desperately trying to reconcile this ‘ruins’ with his faith, and that this despair was also interfering with his role as an art critic.

  • 3 See also Coughlan and Davis 1995, Davis 1996, and Garratt.

2MacGreevy’s poetry has been classified alongside the works of Irish poets Brian Coffey and Denis Devlin, both of whom also lived in voluntary exile in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, like Beckett and Joyce. Their literary experimentations set them apart from followers of early W. B. Yeats who were producing Celtic Irish Revival literature, but to date they have drawn the attention of only a small number of critics, including Terence Brown and Alan Gillis who have considered the ‘socio-cultural construction of [Irish] modernism’, focusing in particular on Coffey and Devlin (Brown in Coughlan, 35; Gillis).3 Brown remarked:

Their literary work . . . has received little critical attention in Ireland as elsewhere. Its intellectual, often theological, concerns, its unselfconsciously urban preoccupations, its modernist experiment, its assured familiarity with European civilization, set their work apart from what most Irish men and women had come to expect from their contemporary writers. For these writers Ireland could be most herself not through self-absorbed antiquarianism but through acceptance of her position as a European nation with links to the intellectual and artistic concerns of the Continent.
(Brown 156)

3In 1991 Susan Schreibman raised awareness of MacGreevy’s work again by publishing an annotated edition of his poems (Schreibman, Collected Poems). By building on this foundation one might investigate the relationship between MacGreevy’s modernism and his Irish nationalism and Catholicism, however I have chosen to focus on MacGreevy’s response to war and ruination in the context of his vision for a fusion des arts in Ireland. He wrote: ‘Modern Irish writing—an extraordinary thing in a mainly Catholic country—is almost entirely devoid of a visual sense. And yet the greatest writing has always owed a great deal to painting, as the greatest painting owes a great deal to literature’ (MacGreevy 1927, 57). To date, literary critics have overlooked the visual aspects of MacGreevy’s œuvre, although Schreibman has located potential pictorial sources for poems, and dated some of his visits to museums. My view is that certain of MacGreevy’s poems are rooted in a tradition of ekphrasis and literary pictorialism that grew out of French Romanticism, and that they are fully born of the ‘museum age’ of the twentieth century (Bazin) owing to his museophilia. To take some key examples, MacGreevy wrote ‘Gioconda’ after the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris, ‘Arrangement in Gray and Black’ after Whistler and in response to the death of his own mother, and two poetic ‘Homages’ to the painters Jack B. Yeats and Heironymus Bosch, whose work he admired in the Prado Museum in Madrid. The extent to which these poems may be defined as ekphrases per se however, is debatable. In what follows I will therefore firstly define degrees of ‘pictorialist poetics’ in MacGreevy’s work, and will then consider MacGreevy’s relationship with war through fresh archival evidence, before turning to poems written in response to the acute period of the Troubles in Ireland, 1916–1922: ‘Autumn, 1922’, ‘Homage to Heironymus Bosh’ and ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’. Ultimately my aim is to assess the ambiguous relationship between MacGreevy’s pictorialist poetics and the aesthetics of waste.

4In ancient times ekphrasis was a technical term used to describe a rhetorical description in which a vivid account was intended to bring a subject before the mind’s eye of the audience (Webb). Since then, it has been adopted into English language usage to mean a ‘rhetorical description of a work of art’ (Oxford English Dictionary), and more recently ‘a verbal representation of a visual representation’ (Heffernan 3), which is broad enough to include art history and criticism. Recently, Liliane Louvel has differentiated between ekphrasis and literary pictorialism as a matter of degree graded along a scale of ‘tableaux vivants’, ‘aesthetic arrangements’, ‘pictorial description’, and, finally, ‘ekphrasisper se‘le plus haut degré de picturalisation du texte’ (‘the highest degree of pictorialisation within a text’) (Louvel 42–43). MacGreevy’s relationship with the visual arts must be understood along this scale, for his poems are not fully ekphrastic in the tradition of Homer’s ‘Shield of Achilles’ (ca. eighth century BC) or Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ (1938), but rather can be categorised as ‘pictorialist’ when they refer to a painter or painting and make a deliberate attempt to transpose pictorial in to a poetic form. In the words of David Scott:

The study of ‘pictorialist poetics’ [focuses] on the way in which certain kinds of literature manage to maximize the pictorialist potential of language while still retaining a fully textual dimension. It will be a question, then, of poetry striving to adapt, through inventing or reinventing its forms (prose, free verse or sonnet), the aesthetic and spatial potential of the visual image. . . . In other words, in pictorialist poetry, the poem asserts itself not only as a text to be read as in conventional discourse, but also, like the painting, as an artistic arrangement of signifiers. (Scott 2)

5In contrast to the Romantic poets discussed by Scott, MacGreevy does not adopt the sonnet as the form par excellence for his pictorialism. Rather, his poems assume a soi-dissant modernist style in which dissonance prevails. Dissonance in MacGreevy’s poetry is linked to his experiences of the Great War and civil war in Ireland, and to his urban preoccupations and modernist experimentation developed when living in London (1925–26) and Paris (1926–33). MacGreevy’s ‘ruins’ are therefore at once physical, ideological and aesthetic, for the poet responds to the ruination of war by experimenting with broken textual fragments, and attempts to build what I will call an ‘aesthetics of waste’ in the way comparable to T. S. Eliot. He also experiments with the shaping of modern poetry through the trope of the visual in the tradition of the French poets Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and others, whose work he read. When considered alongside his peers Coffey and Devlin, MacGreevy’s contribution to Irish poetry is therefore exceptional.

  • 4 See MacGreevy’s conscription letter to the war effort, TCD MS 8139/1.

6MacGreevy was enlisted shortly after Britain declared war on Germany on 14 August 1914. He was out walking in the countryside near Tarbert in County Kerry with his sister and her friend when he was handed a telegram from the Secretary of the Civil Service Commission. It instructed him to report as Second Division Clerk to the Secretary of Defence Office, Whitehall, as soon as possible. After announcing the news to his family he left forthwith, recording, ‘At least one member of the family would in time have a substantial salary. We did not think about the war. It was not likely to concern us’ (MacGreevy Memoirs, 20). On 7 November 1917, MacGreevy was then commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery, travelling to Ypres not long afterwards.4 His record is a poignant reminder of the anomalous position of an Irish soldier fighting for Britain:

I rather trusted those who preached the worthiness of the war . . . And I accepted the idea of the individual’s obligation not only to sacrifice his life, but to go against all the impulses of his nature at society’s command. It was November, however, before even the conception of the idea that I could ever be a soldier entered my consciousness. . . . I came out of a side street on the Charing Cross side of the War Office, and I felt a little frightened as I looked towards Big Ben. The people and the vehicles going up and down Whitehall were less vivid and present to me than usual—and they were dearer. They had never been dear before. I had been independent of them, sure of them, and also hostile. Now I was a soldier—or at least I had stood in front of a captain and a sergeant [who] had muttered and I had been given half a crown and three pennies—and now was looking at a familiar scene with the knowledge (though indeed without consciousness) that I was going to leave it. I felt bitter and lonely. (MacGreevy Memoirs, 25–26)

7MacGreevy was injured by shell fire on the front line in October 1918, removed to hospital in Manchester, and from there on to the British artillery depot in Athlone in Ireland. He resigned his commission on 22 January 1919, at which point he entered Trinity College Dublin on a scholarship for ex-officers, reading Political Science and History.

8One of a suite of poems responding to MacGreevy’s experiences in the Great War, ‘Nocturne’ was first published in the Irish Statesman in 1926. It is also printed as the opening poem in Poems together with a dedication to his friend Geoffrey Taylor who was killed at the Somme:

I labour alone in a barren place,
Afraid, aware, blundering, lonely thing;
Far away, stars wheeling on through space,
About my feet, earth voices whispering.

9In his pivotal essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ of 1934, Samuel Beckett quoted ‘Nocturne’ and described MacGreevy as ‘an independent . . . an existentialist in verse, the Titchener of the modern lyric . . . and probably the most important contribution to post-war Irish poetry’ (Beckett 70). Recognising the theme of the existential isolation of the individual, Beckett linked the soldier’s loneliness to the solitude of the writer, and singled MacGreevy out from his literary peers from Ireland: the ‘antiquarians’ who were following the Celticism of early W. B. Yeats, and ‘others’ (Coffey and Devlin). Aligning MacGreevy’s poetry with Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ and the paintings of Jack B. Yeats to support his argument, Beckett then discussed ‘the old thing that has happened again, namely the breakdown of the object, whether current, historical, mythical or spook’:

The artist who is aware of this may state the space that intervenes between him and the world of objects; he may state it as no-man’s-land, Hellespont or vacuum, according as he happens to be feeling resentful, nostalgic or merely depressed. A picture by Jack Yeats, Mr Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’, are notable statements of this kind. (Beckett 70)

  • 5 Eliot was a referee for MacGreevy’s appointment at the École normale supérieure.

10As is well known, MacGreevy was a close friend of Jack B. Yeats and published one of the first appreciations of his paintings (MacGreevy 1945). MacGreevy also published Thomas Stearns Eliot: A Study in 1931, and corresponded with Eliot as a friend.5 For Beckett, MacGreevy’s poetry, like that of Eliot, showed an awareness of waste (no-man’s land) and also the void (vacuum)—a concept stemming from late nineteenth-century French literature, and the poetry of Mallarmé in particular. In Eliot’s poetry, the void is indicative of the rupture in communication and order engendered by war as the poet struggles to find appropriate words. In his ‘The Waste Land’ (1922), for example, the poet deploys words as ‘fragments . . . shored against my ruins’ (V What the Thunder said, line 430 [Eliot 79]), and in his Four Quartets he finds himself in the twenty-year period l’entre deux guerres, ‘Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure’. (East Coker V, lines 1–4 [Eliot 202]). In Beckett’s own work, the space between ‘the artist’ and ‘the world’ can also be interpreted as silence, transposed metaphorically to represent a metaphysical void—a point to which I will return in the conclusion of thi essay.

11In will now focus on two of MacGreevy’s poems which articulate architectural waste and human suffering in Dublin city during the acute period of the Troubles in Ireland, 1916–22: ‘Autumn, 1922’, and ‘Homage to Heironymus Bosch’. For when MacGreevy was demobilised and entered Trinity College, he returned not to peace, but to civil unrest and urban ruination. Following the Declaration of the Irish Republic by Patrick Pearce held at the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Ireland experienced the Easter Rising of 1916, the destruction of buildings in the city centre, guerilla warfare against the British throughout the island, and ultimately civil war following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Brown 13–101). In the wake of Independence from Britain, Ireland also experienced cultural and economic poverty, and there was a new urgency for art to express national identity. The West of Ireland took on a particular significance at this time as representing a way of life removed from the influences of Anglicisation and industrialisation (Bhreathnach-Lynch [in Steward 40–51]), and the social cohesion and cultural unity associated with it had a particular resonance for MacGreevy who had spent his childhood in the South West.

12The three-line, unpublished poem ‘Autumn, 1922’, written between 1924 and 1926, encapsulates the poet’s response to political and cultural ‘ruins’ in a post-Independence Ireland ‘withering’ under political strife:

The sun burns out,
The world withers
And time grows afraid of the triumph of time.

  • 6 Pieter Breugel the Elder (1551–69), Triumph of Death, c. 1566. Oil on panel, 46 ½ 63 ¾ in. Museo d (...)

13The poem responds to physical devastation in 1922, including the destruction of over half of the buildings on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, and the explosion in the Four Courts (Murphy 74). It also demonstrates the significant role of the visual arts in the poet’s œuvre, for ‘the triumph of time’ may refer to any number of Baroque or Renaissance paintings representing Petrarch’s The Triumphs (begun 1338), or may be a response to viewing Pieter Breugel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1566) in the Prado Museum in Madrid during a visit in 1924 (Schreibman 103–04).6 Breugel’s picture shows an horrific scene of devastation in a desolate landscape as Death reaps mortal lives. At the top of the canvas a threatening orange and burnt umber sky is the backdrop for pyres smouldering on a scorched earth below. In the foreground a large skeletal infantry representing Death marches across the earth, destroying everything in its path. Though Breugel’s work is generally less grotesque and fantastical than that of Bosch, The Triumph of Death has been compared to his work as a ‘secular apocalypse’, because the painting is a warning about sinfulness and clinging to corporeal life (Silver 390–91; Gibson 53–86). People of all classes therein suffer the same fate—from the king in the left-hand foreground to whom a skeleton holds up an hourglass while another gathers up his money, to the domestic woman being attacked by her throat in centre, to the courtly couple on the lower right-hand side being serenaded by a Fool.

14In this instance, bringing ‘Autumn, 1922’ and The Triumph of Death together illustrates less the poet’s desire to bring this specific Breugel painting to the mind’s eye of the reader (thus going back to an ancient definition of ekphrasis), than allowing the aesthetic and spatial potential of the pictorial image to shape poetic form in an immanent manner: The sun ‘burning out’ at the top of Breugel’s canvas may correspond to line 1; the ‘withering’ world represented in the middle ground of the picture to line 2, and time triumphing in the foreground to line 3. MacGreevy has thereby experimented with free verse to, in the words of Scott, ‘maximize the pictorialist potential of language while still retaining a fully textual dimension’, without acknowledging Breugel in either the title or the body of the poem.

  • 7 Heironymus Bosch, Haywain, Heironymus Bosch, Adoration of the Kings, and Titian, La Gloria.

15When MacGreevy visited the Prado in Madrid in 1924, he also saw Heironymus Bosch’s Haywain and Adoration of the Kings, and Titian’s La Gloria (Schreibman 105, 136).7 Read collectively, his poems responding to these pictorial works—‘Autumn, 1922’, ‘Homage to Heironymus Bosch’, and ‘Gloria de Carlos V’—exemplify the often heuristic nature of musing in the museum, but especially in this case for a war veteran. By meditating on these paintings of earthly and spiritual ruination by Bosch and Breugel in particular, he finds himself in a trance, thus experiencing flashbacks to his first-hand experiences of the Hell of the Somme, and the apocalyptic state of his own country. For MacGreevy, as for Proust, ‘Style is more a question of vision than technique’ (Beckett quoted in Pilling 119).

16‘Autumn, 1922’ remains in typescript form in MacGreevy’s archive along with three other versions of the poem entitled ‘Ireland Autumn, 1922’, ‘Civil War’, and ‘A Short History of Our Time’, all of which provide more historical specificity than the first title, by locating them in Ireland. When ‘Homage to Heironymus Bosch’ was first published in Eugene Jolas’s modernist Paris journal transition 21 (March 1932), it was entitled ‘Treason of Saint Laurence O’Toole’, providing a clue of the Irish context for the poem. Saint Laurence O’Toole was archbishop of Dublin from 1162 to 1180, and established All Hallows Priory, now the site of Trinity College Dublin. His brother-in-law King Diarmuid of Leinster brought the Normans to invade Ireland, and O’Toole tried unsuccessfully to negotiate peace with the invaders during the siege of Dublin, 1171 (Schreibman 105). In a letter to M. E. Barber, MacGreevy explained the background to the poem, equating this failed negotiation of peace with a poignant incident during his time as a student in Trinity College:

  • 8 Copy of a letter from MacGreevy to M. E. Barber, 16 April 1947. TCD MS 8097/59.

You will see that the Homage to Bosch title was chiefly a warning to the reader to expect images that were not exactly Parnassian. When I was a student a number of us, 17 I think, who were ex-British officers asked the Provost of Trinity College to send an appeal on our behalf for the reprieve of a student of the National University who was captured in an ambush and condemned to be hanged. . . . But the Provost refused to have anything to do with the appeal and Kevin Barry was hanged.8

17Kevin Barry had been involved in a raid on a lorry in which six British soldiers had been killed, but it had not been proven that he fired the fatal shots, and his hanging caused an uproar and strengthening of republican sentiment. Many young men joined the Irish Republican Army as a result (Schreibman 170). In the poem, this cultural specificity is not stated. It is, rather, the sinister atmosphere and relationships of power noted in Bosh’s Haywain that are highlighted in a poem. It begins:

A woman with no face walked into the light;
A boy, in a brown-tree Norfolk suit,
Holding on
Without hands
To her seeming skirt.
She stopped,
And he stopped,
And I, in terror, stopped, staring.
Then I saw a group of shadowy figures behind her.
It was a wild wet morning
But the little world was spinning on.

18Through the blanching of recognisable bodily features such as the boy with no hands, the woman with ‘no face’ speaking ‘liplessly’, or the protagonist’s teeth that ‘chattered’ out words, MacGreevy’s poem could also be described as Surrealist, and this fact confirms his allegiance with mainstream European modernist poetry, as distinct from the ‘antiquarianism’ of much Irish poetry after Yeats which was denounced by Beckett. In this context it should be noted that MacGreevy was a signatory to the ‘Poetry is Vertical’ manifesto published by transition, along with Beckett and Hans Arp.

19Returning to the Haywain, apart from the gallows painted on the outside of the triptych, or the small figure being hanged in the top of the right-hand panel depicting Hell, a search for a direct reference to Bosch’s picture in MacGreevy’s poem is largely in vain. In once sense this makes the poem less pictorialist than ‘Autumn, 1922’, and yet the poem’s ability to conjure a notional Bosch image is powerful through references to disorder, shadowy figures, rats, and a tomb. The sixth stanza reads:

I might have tittered
But my teeth chattered
And I saw that the words, as they fell,
Lay, wriggling, on the ground.

20Meanwhile the Provost John Bernard, personified in the poem as a nursery governor, does not take the action requested of his students, and his communication with them is portrayed as a surreal event as his: ‘words went pingg! Like bullets, / Upwards past his spectacles / Say nothing, I say, say nothing, say nothing!’ Eliot’s experimentation with fragments of words is present in the form of metaphor because words are freed from their syntactical role to be runes capable of falling, wriggling, and shooting into space. And as in Eliot’s work, a contradiction lies in the fact that these disorderly words are brought together into the purposeful act of poetic composition.

21The metaphysical silence or void noted in the context of Beckett and Eliot is therefore present in this poem, but ‘Homage to Heironymous Bosch’ does not remain bleak throughout. Emotional, spiritual and intellectual vitality, it is suggested, can perhaps be regained in the aftermath of war and in among spiritual sterility in the West. For MacGreevy, his Roman Catholic faith and existential despair are irreconcilable. The ninth stanza stands out like a moment of epiphany, and it is one made possible by the call of the West:

High above the Bank of Ireland
Unearthly music sounded,
Passing Westwards.

22When MacGreevy was a student, the Bank of Ireland was located, as it is today, on College Green, to the west of the College. Years later, MacGreevy quoted the above three lines from his poem to illustrate the change in Irish poetry since the Irish Cultural Revival when poets ‘were the expression of the resurgence of the spirit of the nation in the new and better times that were beginning to prevail’, and gave the following context for his poem, citing Thomas Davis’s well-known patriotic song ‘The West’s Awake’:

The west, meaning all Ireland of which Dublin in the east is but the capital expression—was going to sleep again. But every student of Irish history knows that the spirit operates as surely, however differently, when the west is asleep as when it is awake.(MacGreevy 1948, 3–4)

23Stanza nine therefore represents hope for an Irish wasteland in the form of cultural nationalism and religion. Ultimately, words have not entirely failed the poet, for there is a change in tempo as an ‘unearthly music’ is heard up high above the buildings, offering a secondary, spiritual source of unity, as the poet attempts to reconcile his experiences of the Great War and Irish civil war with his Christology through the medium of poetry. Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, this technique of juxtaposition is one he has learnt from musing upon so many paintings. In 1945 he wrote:

An artist like Pablo Picasso who often represents nightmare forms will sometimes turn away from them to paint figures of more or less orthodox classical perfection as, in the disintegrating medieval world of the fifteenth century, Hieronymus Bosch would occasionally turn from his usual forms of terror to paint such relatively orthodox and sympathetic figures as those in The Adoration of the Shepherds at Brussels—not to speak of the natural loveliness of the landscape and atmosphere against which, by way of contrast, he always depicted the forms of horror that haunted his imagination. (MacGreevy 1945, 7–8)

24In ‘Homage to Hieronymus Bosch’, the poet in Dublin city centre experiences a feeling of elation in the midst of tragedy, a flashback to his childhood experiences in Tarbert and the metaphor of the West. This moment of clarity is of the type Beckett referred to when he reviewed MacGreevy’s Poems in 1934. He entitled his review ‘Humanistic Quietism’ and it begins, ‘All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer’. He continues: ‘It is from this nucleus of endopsychic clarity, uttering itself in the prayer that is a spasm of awareness, and from no more casual source, that Mr McGreevy evolves his poems.’ He quotes moments from MacGreevy’s poems ‘Gloria de Carlos V’, ‘Seventh Gift of the Holy Ghost’, ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’, and ‘Nocturne of Self-Evident Presence’, all of which, at some point, reach a level of radiance characterised as ‘Giorgionesque elucidations’. In reference to ‘Crón Tráth na nDéithe’, Beckett commented:

Even the long Cab Poem, the darkest, as I believe it to be the least characteristic, in this small volume of shining and intensely personal verse, climbs to its Valhalla, in this blaze of prayer creating its object:

Brightness of brightness,
Towering in the sky
Over Dublin . . .

obliterating the squalid elements of civil war.
(‘Humanistic Quietism’, Beckett 68–69)

  • 9 Stevens to MacGreevy, 6 May 1948, TCD MS 8123.

25The poet’s tropism towards light (symbolising redemption), experienced while looking up over Dublin buildings, stems from his faith, and this was a theme picked up on by the American poet Wallace Stevens who astutely commented in a letter to MacGreevy, ‘You were . . . a young man eager to be at the heart of his time’, but that he was also one who had been affected by ‘the nostalgie du divin’ [the nostalgia of the divine].9

26This ‘nostalgie du divin’ can be noted not only in MacGreevy’s poetry, but also in his criticism. In his critique of the ‘Waste Land’ for example he draws particular attention to the Sanskrit word Shantih—translated roughly as ‘The Peace that passeth understanding’—, and goes on to discuss the role of faith in the works of both Eliot and Joyce. For MacGreevy, both writers were ‘preoccupied with the death and resurrection of the spirit’ (MacGreevy 1931, 34). In a letter responding to Thomas Stearns Eliot: A Study, however, Eliot was less sympathetic. In 1928 he had publically pronounced his support of High Anglicanism, royalism in politics and classicism in literature (Bergonzi 11), and he wrote to MacGreevy in 1931 of his ‘racial, national and religious preoccupations which interfere with your otherwise admirable critical acumen’, and continued:

  • 10 Eliot to MacGreevy, 14 February 1931, TCD MS 8113/51.

I feel impelled to say that you have produced I think an excellent piece of criticism. It is only disfigured (1) by your remarks about the Church of England, a subject of which you know nothing (2) a gross libel on page 20 of which I hope that as a gentleman you will make a public retraction. I am not an Irishman, and can prove it. . . . I have a very considerable proportion of Huguenot ancestry; so make what you will of that.10

27MacGreevy’s poetry written after the formation of the new Irish Free State therefore evinces at once a cultural nationalism as well as influences from both Paris (modern French poetry) and London (Eliot). And it was for this reason that Beckett, in his essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, singled him out from the ‘antiquarians’ and ‘others’. Beckett’s more controversial statement of 1934—that MacGreevy’s poems were ‘the most important contribution to post-war Irish poetry’—continues to be debated, but perhaps his most salient observation concerns the anomalous mix of MacGreevy’s existentialism and Roman Catholicism, as mediated by the trope of pictorialist poetics. ‘Ruins’ witnessed by MacGreevy take the form of physical, ideological and aesthetic fragmentation associated with European modernism. But in each poem, MacGreevy creates a void, signifying post-conflict disillusionment, only to fill it with bright, glorious and colourful images representing the hope in the face of despair offered by Jesus, ‘the light of the world’. MacGreevy himself addressed this potential contradiction when he wrote that ‘modern Irish writing’ was ‘an extraordinary thing in a mainly Catholic country’ (MacGreevy 1927, 57). As well as his modern aesthetics of waste, MacGreevy’s nationalism, visual sensibility, and theology are therefore key to understanding his work, and now that his work is beginning to be reappraised, the constructiveness or ‘different kind of failure’ of his project can be determined.

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Bazin, Germain, The Museum Age, translated from the French by Jane van Nuis Cahill, Desoer: Literary Services and Production, 1968.

Beckett, Samuel, ‘Humanistic Quietism’, Dublin Magazine (July–September 1934): 79–80, repr. in Beckett, Disjecta 68–69.

Beckett, ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, first published under the pseudonym Andrew Belis in The Bookman LXXXVI (August 1934): 235–36, repr. in Beckett, Disjecta 70–76.

Beckett, Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (1983), London: John Calder, 2001.

Bergonzi, Bernard, ed., T. S. Eliot. Four Quartets. A Casebook (1979), London: Macmillan, 1979.

Bhreathnach-Lynch, Síghle, ‘Framing Ireland’s History: Art, Politics and Representation 1914–1929’, ed. James Christian Steward, When Time Began to Rant and Rage, London: Merrell Holberton, 1999, 40–51.

Brown, Terence, Ireland. A Social and Cultural History 1922–1970, London: Fontana Paperbacks, 1971.

Brown, ‘Ireland, Modernism and the 1930s’, eds. Patricia Coughlan and Alex Davis, Modernism and Ireland: The Poetry of the 1930s, Cork: Cork UP, 1995, 24–41.

Davis, Alex, ‘Irish Poetic Modernisms: A Reappraisal’, Critical Survey (1996): 186–97.

Garratt, Robert F., Modern Irish Poetry: Tradition and Continuity from Yeats to Heaney, Berkley, LA and London: U of California P, 1986.

Gillis, Alan, Irish Poetry of the 1930s, Oxford: OUP, 2005.

MacGreevy, Thomas, Memoirs, unpublished manuscript, Trinity College, Dublin, MS 8054.

MacGreevy, ‘Apropos of the National Gallery’, Ireland To-Day (December 1927): 52–57.

MacGreevy, ‘Nocturne, Saint Eloi, 1929’, The Irish Statesman 2.4, 28 September 1929: 69.

MacGreevy, ‘Gloria de Carlos V’, first published transition 18 (November 1929): 119.

MacGreevy, Thomas Stearns Eliot: A Study, London: Chatto & Windus, 1931.

MacGreevy, Poems, London: William Heinemann, 1934.

MacGreevy, Jack B. Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation (1937), Dublin: Three Candles Press, 1945.

MacGreevy, ‘How Does She Stand?’, The Father Mathew Record, Dublin, September 1949: 3–4.

MacGreevy, Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy. An Annotated Edition, ed. Susan Schreibman, Dublin: Anna Livia Press, Washington DC: The Catholic U of America P, 1991.

Pilling, John, Beckett Before Godot, Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

Scott, David, Pictorialist Poetics: Poetry and the Visual Arts in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

Webb, Ruth, ‘Ekphrasis ancient and modern: the invention of a genre’, Word & Image 15.1 (1999): 7–18.


Thomas MacGreevy archive, last accessed 1 April 2012.

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1 For biographical information about MacGreevy, see Collected Poems of Thomas MacGreevy, ed. Susan Schreibman, Dublin: Anna Livia Press, 1991; Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991, p. xv-xviii. (hereafter Collected Poems). Schreibman has also developed the on-line archive, and is currently editing a book of essays entitled Thomas MacGreevy: A Reappraisal, for Continuum Press, including my contribution ‘Thomas MacGreevy and Jack B. Yeats’.

2 Dublin city center was occupied on 24 April 1916 by approximately seven hundred members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, led by Patrick Pearce, and members of the Citizen Army, led by James Connolly. Between 3 and 12 may 1916, fifteen of their leaders were sentenced to execution.

3 See also Coughlan and Davis 1995, Davis 1996, and Garratt.

4 See MacGreevy’s conscription letter to the war effort, TCD MS 8139/1.

5 Eliot was a referee for MacGreevy’s appointment at the École normale supérieure.

6 Pieter Breugel the Elder (1551–69), Triumph of Death, c. 1566. Oil on panel, 46 ½ 63 ¾ in. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

7 Heironymus Bosch, Haywain, Heironymus Bosch, Adoration of the Kings, and Titian, La Gloria.

8 Copy of a letter from MacGreevy to M. E. Barber, 16 April 1947. TCD MS 8097/59.

9 Stevens to MacGreevy, 6 May 1948, TCD MS 8123.

10 Eliot to MacGreevy, 14 February 1931, TCD MS 8113/51.

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Karen Elizabeth Brown, « The Pictorialist Poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and the Aesthetics of Waste »Études britanniques contemporaines, 43 | 2012, 27-42.

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Karen Elizabeth Brown, « The Pictorialist Poetry of Thomas MacGreevy and the Aesthetics of Waste »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2014, consulté le 23 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Karen Elizabeth Brown

Trinity College, Dublin.
Dr Karen Elizabeth Brown is IRCHSS CARA Mobility Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Trinity College, Dublin/University of Cambridge). She was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Universités de Paris VII and X, and Queen’s University Belfast, where she was also appointed Curator of Art. Her current research project involves writing a book on the poetics of ekphrasis in Irish poetry since Yeats, and lecturing the Display of Art in Dublin and Cambridge. She is author of The Yeats Circle: Verbal and Visual Relations in Ireland, 1880–1939 (Ashgate, 2010), and editor of Women’s Contributions to Visual Culture, 1918–1939 (Ashgate, 2008).

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