J.M. Synge, Thomas Hardy, and the Archipelago

J.M. Synge, Thomas Hardy, and the Archipelago

This week, PhD student Seán Hewitt (Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool) shows how a comparative approach to 19th century English and Irish literature can draw out the cultural connections between the four nations.

‘There is one aspect of Mr Hardy’s devotion to Wessex, upon which I must again touch: its example, in an English writer, of that spirit, which animates the félibrige of Provence, the Celtic gatherings of Brittany, the Eisteddfod of Wales.’ – Lionel Johnson, The Art of Thomas Hardy (1894)[i]

Scholarly work connecting one of Ireland’s foremost dramatists, J.M. Synge, and one of England’s most celebrated writers, Thomas Hardy, has been scant. Their many common interests, however, make them an obvious choice for a comparison which extends beyond national traditions towards a more transnational approach. Both focused on specific, rural regions on the brink of modernisation, both crafted representations of peasant dialect; paganism is seen by both as pervasive in custom and landscape, and both give prominence to folk traditions in their works. Likewise, both draw on the tradition of English Romanticism, though in various ways.

In 1899, J.M. Synge noted reading Lionel Johnson’s The Art of Thomas Hardy (quoted above). In 1907, he sent out copies of Hardy’s works to Molly Allgood (later his fiancée), noting that Tess of the d’Urbervilles was ‘particularly interesting.’[ii] Anecdotal accounts also suggest that Synge requested a copy of Tess on his deathbed. The affection, however, might not have been mutual: Hardy attended a performance of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1909 and “seemed rather puzzled by it.”[iii]

The Art of Thomas Hardy was read by both Irish revivalists and English folk-revivalists, and Johnson himself was a member of W.B. Yeats’s Rhymer’s Club, which met at the ‘Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese’ pub in Fleet Street to discuss literature and art. Other members of the club included Arthur Symons, John Todhunter, Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. The Rhymer’s Club, based in London, had members from across the four nations.

It is clear from The Art of Thomas Hardy that Johnson saw Hardy as part of a continuous and transnational movement in literature, connecting Wales, England, Ireland, Brittany and Provence; and that this movement was revivalist in tendency, focused on the region, on the Celtic languages but also on the ‘fringes’ of industrial capitalism. As John Brannigan has noted, Hardy’s and Synge’s interests both lay in the places where ‘the conflict between the residual persistence of old forms of cultural practice and the incursions of the new’ was keenly felt.[iv] Both of their works opposed dogmatic religion, normative morality and the rapid spread of industrial capitalism, and both were rooted in regional traditions and concerned with ideas of palimpsest and temporality.

Irina Ruppo has suggested that the canonization of Synge and Hardy as representative of two different national traditions has led to a critical failure to see past the Irish Revival and connect the work of Synge to the work of other authors with similar concerns in other parts of the archipelago.[v] In fact, since modernisation in Ireland was often seen as co-terminous with Anglicization, scholars in Irish Studies often miss the fact that many English writers were also concerned with the effects of modernisation on isolated rural communities. The common concern, therefore, is not Anglicization but capitalism, though Irish writers also had the added weight of colonial imperialism to deal with, and the two were far from being distinct issues.

The common concerns of these two writers, and the ways in which a comparative study could enrich our understanding of both English and Irish literature during the period, have been largely overlooked because of later critical and political developments. In his biography of Synge, W.J. McCormack, noting the links between Hardy and Synge, writes that:

If Hardy is easier to relate to Eurocentric universalism than Synge, the reason may lie in the translation of Synge’s region into an insurgent nation with all the claims of uniqueness, unparalleled distinction and so forth which power the separatist cause. It was not always so. Only after a riot or two did Irish cultural nationalism take Synge into its bosom. By then he was safely dead.[vi]

With the rise in interest in archipelagic studies in literature, and with renewed focus on a ‘four nations’ approach in history, it is surely time to revisit connections which might have been downplayed by separatist agendas in Ireland and England, as elsewhere. Hardy and Synge are just one example of a much wider cultural interaction between the four nations, and display how productive comparative studies might prove in the future. So, which other writers might benefit from a ‘four nations’ approach? How can we improve our understanding of national and regional movements in the archipelago by revisiting connections which might have been covered over by subsequent political and cultural agendas? These are vital questions to ask, and will take literary studies into new and revealing places in the future.

Suggested reading:

John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics, 1603-1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Neal Alexander and James Moran, eds., Regional Modernisms (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

John Brannigan, Archipelagic Modernism: Literature in the Irish and British Isles, 1890-1970 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

[i] Lionel Johnson, The Art of Thomas Hardy (London: Elkin Matthews and John Lane, 1894), p. 129, quoted in John Brannigan, Archipelagic Modernism: Literature in the Irish and British Isles, 1890-1970 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015), p. 51.

[ii] J.M. Synge to Molly Allgood, 14 May 1907, in The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, vol. I, 1871-1907, ed. Ann Saddlemyer (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1983), p. 345.

[iii] Paige Reynolds, Modernism, Drama, and the Audience for Irish Spectacle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 13.

[iv]Archipelagic Modernism, p. 53.

[v] Irina Ruppo, ‘Wessex to Geesala: Hardy and Synge’, in Patrick Lonergan and Riana O’Dwyer, eds., Echoes Down the Corridor: Irish Theatre – Past, Present and Future (Dublin: Carysfort Press, 2007), 59-68, p. 66.

[vi] W.J. McCormack, Fool of the Family: A Life of J.M. Synge (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000), p. 24.

Seán Hewitt is a PhD student at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. His research focuses on modernisation and the works of J.M. Synge. You can follow him on Twitter @seanehewitt


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