Friday, December 30, 2011

A Book of Migrations

Rebecca Solnit's A Book of Migrations (1997) was reissued this year and classified as history/memoir rather than travel, though it is ostensibly about a month spent in Ireland.  The book circles round the themes of landscape and memory, place and identity, journey and exile, as Solnit ranges across the history and culture of Ireland from the flight of the cursed King Sweeney to the bitter experiences of Travellers in contemporary Ireland. The ways in which Ireland has been viewed through the prism of English cultural attitudes are illuminated by the frequent reminders of her own radically different experiences growing up in California, with its arid landscapes and long, straight roads, short historical memory and assumptions about the possibility of an unpeopled wilderness. At the Cliffs of Moher she looks out at the sea, 'a deeper blue than my own churning gray Pacific, blue as though different dreams had been dumped into it, blue as ink.  I imagined filling a fountain pen with it and wondered what one would write with that ocean.'
Cover photo by Dave Walsh who reviews the book on his website.

I'll try to convey here just one of the many interesting points she makes on landscape and culture, although I should stress that the elegance of her argument is difficult to convey out of context.  In describing the sixteenth century suppression of Ireland by English colonists and its deforestation for shipbuilding and metal smelting, she also talks about the concurrent campaign to suppress the Gaelic poets, whose rhymes in praise of military successes were seen as a kind of propaganda. But 'what is most peculiar about the war against the poets and trees in Tudor era Ireland is the close involvement of the two greatest English poets of the age, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.' Furthermore, there were the two writers who practically created the English tradition of pastoral poetry. You might think, she wryly observes, that 'a country of wandering poets and pastoralists should have enchanted the English rather than appalled them.'

Sir Philip Sidney's father was Lord Deputy of Ireland and urged the English to 'spoil' and take the goods of any 'rhymers' they caught.  Sidney himself would later go on diplomatic missions to Ireland for Queen Elizabeth. Spenser went over in 1580 as secretary to Sir Henry Sidney's successor Lord Grey and wrote a lengthy report A View on the Present State of Ireland, which recommends subduing the Irish by starving them.  He took over an estate in County Cork, formerly the seat of the Desmond family, and 'immediately became unpopular with the neighbours'. It was targeted by rebels in 1598 - Spenser was lucky to escape to England, where he died later that year.  Back in 1589, when Sir Walter Raleigh visited him, Spenser's home 'was surrounded with woods of "matchless height"; a few years later only bare fields surrounded the castle.'

The remains of Spenser's Kicolman Castle, County Cork

For Solnit the shadows of Spenser and Sidney's political lives in Ireland lie across their artistic merit.  'The exquisite poetry of Spenser's masterpiece The Faerie Queene is inextricably linked to his brutal prose A View on the Present State of Ireland ... Should the magical trees he celebrated in the poem be weighed against the trees he uprooted in County Cork?  Can one have the latter without the former, since Ireland's lack of a landscape tradition is rooted in its scarred landscape?  Can one understand the presence of English literature without the absences of Irish literature?  Are the presences in the former, at some level, bites taken out of the latter?  Is England gardenlike because Ireland was prisonlike?  Does the English pastoral, and the security and abundance it represents, depend on the impoverished land and people of other lands?'