Although remembered now as a caricature in James Joyce’s Ulysses, during the early 20th century “John Eglinton” (the pseudonym for William Kirkpatrick Magee) was one of the most influential critics in Irish literature and one of the leading theorists of the Irish Literary Renaissance. The early members of this movement, now associated primarily with Joyce and William Butler Yeats, sought to establish an independent, Irish publishing industry as an element of a distinct national literary culture, and the essay was accordingly central to the movement’s development. As an essayist, Eglinton helped formulate the defining issues of Irish cultural independence, centering on whether Ireland’s literary aspirations lay more in a cosmopolitan, English-speaking, European future or in a concentration on a Celtic, Gaelic-speaking, legendary past. Eglinton’s stance on these issues was consistently Anglo-Irish, cosmopolitan, and European; but, however little the modern Irish political map conforms to his ideals, the Modernism of the novels of Joyce and the late poetry of Yeats demonstrates the literary importance of Eglinton’s influence.
Eglinton’s essays appeared predominantly in the Irish literary magazines and newspapers that sprung up in Dublin around the turn of the century, most of which proved short-lived. Among the more influential to which he contributed were the Shanachie, the Irish Review, the Dublin Daily Express, and Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought, which he edited (1904–05). He broadened his audience beyond ephemeral publications by collecting many of his essays in books: Two Essays on the Remnant (1894), Pebbles from a Brook (1901), Bards and Saints (1906), and Anglo-Irish Essays (1917). Additionally, Yeats published Some Essays and Passages by John Eglinton (1905). Eglinton also edited an influential series of letters that he, Yeats, and other members of the Irish Renaissance had written to the Daily Express and published them as Literary Ideals in Ireland (1899). Because it helped to frame the issues of the Renaissance, Literary Ideals is one of the most important Irish books of the 1890s. After 1921, responding to the establishment of a Republican government in Ireland, Eglinton lived in voluntary exile in England. There he wrote several reminiscences of key figures in the Irish Renaissance—Yeats, George Russell (Æ), Edward Dowden, George Moore, and James Joyce—published as Irish Literary Portraits (1935).
As an essayist, Eglinton saw himself as a “philosopherpriest,” following an essentially scientific, materialist mysticism developed from early exposure to theosophy. His essays can seem esoteric and abstract, but the abstraction masks a concrete reality, creating parables of the material world, almost always with a counterpart in the practical debates surrounding Irish nationalism. Always concerned with the relation between art and society, Eglinton saw more clearly than most the trajectory that led from old legends of a heroic Ireland to the Irish Revolution and Civil War. Even in his early Two Essays on the Remnant Eglinton warns of what Yeats realized only after the fact: the power of art to unloose the “blood-dimmed tide” of war.
Eglinton’s essays fall into three stylistic periods. The tone of Two Essays on the Remnant is prophetic and oracular, drawing heavily on images from the Bible and comparing Ireland with Old Testament Israel (a common trope of the Irish Renaissance).
Pebbles from a Brook marks Eglinton’s second stylistic period, in which he discontinues the oracular style and develops the detached, ironic tone usually associated with him, and the one parodied in Ulysses. Allusive and dryly witty, he clearly writes for fellow intellectuals, including a wide range of reference to classical literature, oriental religions, and German Romantic philosophy, as well as the English literary tradition. His tone is conversational, but it is the conversation of the literary salon, often as condescending as it is recondite. The third stylistic phase of his Irish Literary Portraits occurs after his voluntary exile in England. These essays are personal reminiscences—often as much memoir as portrait. The erudition remains but is less ostentatiously presented.
Although Eglinton’s style changed over his career, the themes of his essays reflected a remarkably consistent world view, based on the idea that old cultures die and are superseded in a process combining aspects of a natural life cycle with a Hegelian historic synthesis. Claiming Anglo-Irish culture as a new synthesis of decadent Celtic and Anglo- Saxon cultures, Eglinton uses this view to argue for an Anglo-Irish rather than a Celtic Ireland. Although no longer plausible as a theory of history, it did lead him to some trenchant criticism of the romantic nostalgia at the heart of Yeats’ “Celtic Twilight”
movement. Arguing for a “natural” succession of national cultures, he warned that arousing nationalist feelings for purely aesthetic purposes, as Yeats was doing, would lead only to chaos and unrest. His warnings came true in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Revolution.
Although Eglinton’s early essays retain an historical interest, their late Victorian style limits their interest for modern readers. They are important to an understanding of the Irish Renaissance Movement, and in many ways Eglinton was a perceptive and farsighted critic of the divorce of aesthetics from social and political concerns. But for all their attempts to generalize and make universal, Eglinton’s philosophical essays are, ironically, the most strictly local and time-constrained essays he wrote.
The later Irish Literary Portraits is Eglinton’s best work, not merely because it has lost the Victorian hypotaxis of his earlier style but because it is his most human, more concerned with people than ideas. He also has the advantages not only of fascinating subjects, but of an intimate acquaintance with them. The portraits of Yeats and Joyce are particularly worth-while. He writes of Yeats with a mixture of admiration and near bitterness: admiration for Yeats’ accomplishments in poetry, bitterness for Yeats’ role in dividing Ireland from the Union. There is a poignancy in his description of his literary pretensions being eclipsed by James Joyce, the callow literary poseur to whom Eglinton once could condescend, but who has since become his unquestioned literary master.
Joyce’s brother Stanislaus accused Eglinton of envious sniping, but his portrait of Eglinton seems more petty than Eglinton’s of his brother; and Eglinton, for all his obvious jealousy, is much more willing to give James Joyce his due. Eglinton’s humanity—manifest in his pettiness as well as his generosity—gives these essays an interest that his earlier essays lack. They are important because of the portraits they give of writers far more significant than Eglinton himself; but they are also rewarding in their own right as the record of an intelligent, idiosyncratic writer coming to grips with a literary tradition that has passed him by.
Born William Kirkpatrick Magee, 1868 in Dublin. Studied at the High School, Dublin, where he met William Butler Yeats; Trinity College, Dublin: won the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize four times. Worked at the National Library, Dublin, 1895–1921. Member of the theosophical movement in Dublin, associating with Æ, Stephen McKenna, and George Moore; secretary to Moore for a time. Cofounder, Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought, 1904–05; contributor to various other Irish journals. Married M.L. O’Leary, 1920. Moved to England after the formation of the Free State, 1921. Died in Bournemouth, 9 May 1961.
Essays and Related Prose
Two Essays on the Remnant, 1894
Pebbles from a Brook, 1901
Some Essays and Passages by John Eglinton, edited by W.B.Yeats, 1905
Bards and Saints, 1906
Anglo-Irish Essays, 1917
Irish Literary Portraits, 1935
Other writings: poems (including Confidential; or, Take It or Leave It, 1951), and a memoir of Æ (1937). Also edited and contributed to Literary Ideals in Ireland (1899); edited the Letters of Edward Dowden (1914); translated letters written by George Moore to Édouard Dujardin (1929).
Boyd, Ernest A., Ireland’s Literary Renaissance, Dublin: Figgis, 1968 (original edition, 1916)
Boyd, Ernest A., Appreciations and Depredations: Irish Literary Studies, Dublin: Talbot Press, and London: Fisher Unwin, 1917; New York: Lane, 1918
Hall, Wayne E., Shadowy Heroes: Irish Literature of the 1890s, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1980
Joyce, Stanislaus, My Brother’s Keeper: James Joyce’s Early Years, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber, and New York: Viking, 1958
Morris, Lloyd R., The Celtic Dawn: A Survey of the Renascence in Ireland, 1889–1916, New York: Cooper Square, 1970 (original edition, 1917)
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