The Mundane-Ecstatic: Reconsidering J M Synge’s Prose

by Liam Heneghan

Dedicated to the students who travel with Randall Honold and me to Wicklow, West Kerry, and Connemara, this summer, following in the footsteps of Synge.

SyngeAt that time in my life before I realized that such things are rare, I was paid, modestly it’s true, by Glenveagh National Park to travel on foot through parts of northern Donegal to collect and name insects. It is rare to have time on one’s hands, rare to love so fully what one does, and rare to have so little conception of what the future holds. I was, however, a little lonely. Each morning I walked transects across the lonely bog to net flies. In the evenings I had all to myself the park’s administration building which housed a research facility where I would gently boil the preserved flies in beakers of sodium hydroxide and mount their translucent parts in euparol, an aromatic embedding medium, on glass slides. At the other side of the building was the bunk room where I slept. I only rarely talked to another soul.

Seeking company was, therefore, one of my reasons for taking afternoon bicycle rides through the mountainy countryside surrounding the park and when I could I’d chat greedily with farmers standing at the edges of their fields. The occasional walker would also stop and turn on hearing my bicycle approach and would say a word or two to me about the weather. It was oftentimes quite warm on those summer afternoons though, not infrequently, an immeasurable bank of gauzy cloud would roll in from the north Atlantic and obscure the sun. At that time I conjectured that the fine-grained nature of the Irish countryside, the fact that one could see every speck at a distance, every flower popping out from among grassy bog, was because of the immense amount of moisture in the air. Everything in Ireland is viewed through a million wet lenses. I talked one late afternoon in July of 1987 with a farmer who had stopped from his labor to drink cold tea from a little glass bottle. More often than not though the little back roads in Donegal were deserted.

One afternoon I rode an ambitious route which brought me closer to the sea. Many years later I drove those roads with my father, and he and an aging fisherman from Bunbeg assessed my father’s Irish, the latter by glances of incomprehension, as they both looked out on the waves. As I rode my bicycle through one of those small villages back in 1987 a dog who took especial umbrage at me on my bicycle worried me quite persistently. I sped up as best I could with him nipping viciously at my heels. The dog knew the terrain better than I, of course, and as we passed by a house close to the edge of the village he ran up on an embankment at end of the garden. Within a moment or two he was running level with my head. I assumed he was about to take a flying leap at me but he left off the chase, the knowledge of his victory being, it would seem, enough to satisfy him.

Later that afternoon I puffed my way up an especially steep boreen. The afternoon was hot and the birds were quiet in the recesses of the hedges. The road eventually defeated me and I dismounted and pushed my bike up the hill. I walked by a little house at the garden gate of which a woman stood and looking out upon the road. I hello-ed her and she mutely greeted me. I continued on my way. As I made my way to the summit of the little hill I felt a thud on my shoulder and then heard a series of sharp clacks upon the tarmac road. Someone was throwing stones at me. Looking back I saw a small besuited man who had appeared at the door of the house. He bent down to pick up another handful of pebbles and loosed them in my direction. The woman-of-the-house maintained her stance, though now looked in my direction. After my first yelp, none of us uttered a thing. I worked my way up the hill, as one does in a nightmare where one laboriously runs to slow avail. Stones, close by, rained down. On gaining the top of the hill I jumped back on the bicycle and sped off downhill and away from my assailant. Later that day I made my way back to the park by another route and was unmolested by neither man nor dog.

That’s the story! That’s the story!

***

The story above, such as it is, takes its cue from the prose of John Millington Synge (1871 –1909), the playwright and essayist best known for his notorious play The Playboy of the Western World, set in the Irish west, about a young man who supposedly killed his father. The murderer received shelter from the “peelers” [police] and positive notoriety for the task in a county distant from his home. The play provoked riots at Dublin’s national theater, The Abbey, in 1907; indignant crowds wounded by the immorality of the play hissed, booed, and “vociferated in Gaelic”. Though The Playboy is heavily plotted, full of action and denouement, much of Synge’s writing, however, has a rather less dramatic character. The essence of this less histrionic style, which I here call the mundane-ecstatic, felicitously brings together ample environmental detail upon which rich tableau a small but startling event leaps out.

The elements of the mundane-ecstatic can be summarized as follows: Hero isolated; (natural) details; even more details; details become sinister/melancholy, minor plot swell; comment on larches (or other unusual natural feature); precipitation event, typically rain, drizzle or a mist, and at least on one memorable occasion, snow; startling plot element erupting (seemingly) out of nowhere; end.

The model for this style of writing is a short piece called Glencree in the posthumously published Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara (1911). Having grown up in Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, Synge, despite poor health, became a seasoned hill walker and cyclist in adjacent Co. Wicklow. Anticipating Beckett he fell in with tramps, and tinkers, and various ole fellas. In Glencree, he opens by commenting on the weather: the air, apparently, is clear. Synge, alone, is nestled in vegetation (“heather and bracken and rushes”). Remarks are made about the sickly nature of the moss and bog-cotton. He senses a loneliness “that has no equal”. He comments on the wrens. The landscape is rendered in prater-natural detail: “…the silence is so great and queer, even weazels run squealing past me on the side of the road.” He comments on the cottage he is staying at, adding the strange remark: “The woman of the house is ill and has got into bed beside her mother-in-law, who is over ninety, and is wandering in her mind.” Then come the larches which he reports are “in the haggard [and] dripping heavily with damp.” The mood of the place places in his memory another Sunday morning where he was also nestled down in the vegetation. The people of the district are at Mass. All is quiet save for the “buzzing of a few late bees and the autumn song of thrushes.” All of a sudden a tramp wanders to the bottom of the hill below him. Synge continues:

“I was hidden by the ferns, so he [the tramp] knelt down beside the water, where there was a pool among the stones, pulled his shirt over his head, and began washing in the spring. After a short time he seemed satisfied, and began wringing the water out of it; then he put it on, dripping as it was, buttoned his old coat over it, and wandered on towards the village, picking blackberries from the hedge.”

The end… That’s the story! That’s the story!

***

The roots of Synge’s more famous dramas can be traced to quite small incidents, written in the mundane-ecstatic style, recorded in travelogues and essays. For instance, Tim Robinson, the cartographer and writer, and, as we shall see, a latter-day exponent of the mundane-ecstatic style, finds the seed for The Playboy of the Western World in Synge’s account of the Aran Islands. W B Yeats had dispatched the young Synge, who was then traveling about Europe, to the Irish West, urging him to “go to the Aran Islands and express a life that has never found expression”. Synge’s summer visited to the Arans between 1888 and 1902 resulting in the book The Aran Islands (1907) illustrated by Jack B Yeats (W B Yeat’s brother).

The section of The Aran Islands relevant to the creation of the character of Christy Mahon, the Playboy, starts with the launching of the curraghs (traditional Irish boats; spelled “curagh” in Synge). These launches into frisky seas are a marvel of danger, and require “extraordinary personal dexterity” on the part of the boatmen. As a consequence, Synge remarked, “the waves have made it impossible for clumsy, foolhardy, or timid men to live on these islands.” After such a launch Synge found himself in the company of a few women and the older men. Details are given about one man’s skills as a bone setter. Another old man tells him of things that have happened on the island over the years. The old man “often tells [Synge] about a Connaught man who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in passion, and then fled to this island and threw himself on the mercy of some of the natives…” The natives kept him safe, down a hole, from the police. As Synge reported “the island was incorruptible”, the instinct being strong in the these western parts to protect the criminal. Why was this so? Synge claimed that it was the “primitive feeling of these people, who are never criminals [except, one supposes, when they cleave their fathers’ head with spades] yet always capable of crime.” Synge continues with the history of quarreling on the island and how the intervention of the police has exacerbated conflict rather than resolving it as traditional practices historically had.

And out of this account of mundane happenings, the coming and goings of the curraghs, the story-sharing on the island, the habits of islanders with respect to the law, erupts Synge’s recollection of a curragh trip to Inisheer (the easternmost of the island) taken the day before. The sea was in a great swell – the curragh lunged into a wave furrow allowing our writer to “look down on the heads of the rowers, as if we were sitting on a ladder…” Synge is tossed but exhilarated and remarked: “Even, I thought, if we were dropped into the blue chasm of the waves, this death, with the fresh sea saltness in one’s teeth, would be better that most deaths one is likely to meet.”

Note that the observation about the sheltering of the man who killed his father with a spade, which is transformed in The Playboy of the Western World to “I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack…” is reported among the welter of mundane details about the island. That was not the story! Rather the eruptive moment in the section was, of course, the curragh ride in which Synge almost perished. In fact, the way Synge’s narrative works in the Aran Islands and in his other travel writing shows that Glencree – the Ur-ecstatic moment — is exceptional in that that particular fragment isolates, in a single story, all the elements of the style, a style which is more typically deployed in waves throughout Synge’s longer pieces. The narrative plummets into the green trough of the quotidian but then explodes on the crest of a frothy wave, from which perch the author swoons over the small marvels of this world.

***

Now, it seems to me that J M Synge prose style, the mundane-ecstatic, and equivalents, are more prevalent in 20th Century Irish literature than has been previously inspected (by me, at the very least!). Synge is, of course, primarily a literary figure, one of the leading lights of the Irish Celtic Revival early in the last century. His reputation rests largely on the plays, five of them completed in his lifetime: In the Shadow of the Glen; Riders to the Sea; The Well of the Saints, The Playboy of the Western World, The Tinker’s Wedding, and the unfinished Deirdre of the Sorrows. They have been praised as giving expression in the English language the lyricism of Irish. T. S. Eliot was, however, cautious in his admiration of Synge’s dramatic style remarking that it was useful only for the type of plays that Synge wrote. The prose style, on the other hand, has not been always well received. Even W B Yeats, Synge’s patron and friend, wrote of the journalistic pieces, that they “seem dull if you read much at a time.” Decades later, Thomas Rice Henn, the Irish critic, announced in his 1971 reconsideration of Synge that it was “competent and interesting… But a good deal of the prose-writing is… 'drab'…” Indeed, even some contemporary reviewers on amazon.com have cavalierly declared Synge’s prose to be “boring.”

For all that, even Henn conceded that the prose occasionally shows “the patient, acute and often dramatic powers of observation that are apparent in the plays.” W B Yeats declared that Synge was a “drifting silent man full of hidden passion, and loved wild islands, because there, set out in the light of day, he saw what lay hidden in himself.” And how is it that Synge expressed that which was hidden in himself? He did so, Yeats wrote, in “passage after passage in which he dwells upon some moment of excitement.” What Yeats and Henn see as the dull or drab punctuated by the acute and dramatically observed event, or moments of excitement is precisely the mundane-ecstatic which I invite you to consider.

Once you see it, you see it everywhere. The mundane-ecstatic is there in Beckett and Joyce, but, just as interestingly, from my perspective, it is also there in the literature of Irish natural history. This latter claim may be the less usual one. It is an important one, for reasons that I will elaborate on in a moment. First a word or two about Beckett and Joyce.

Samuel Beckett acknowledged Synge’s influence on his dramatic work. The preoccupation with tramps in Beckett, is, of course, pure Synge; it’s hard not to suppose that Synge’s prose was highly suggestive for him. Tramps, vagabonds, and tinkers stravaguing the derelict roads of Ireland do crop up in the plays, but they are the mainstay of the essays. Those who have read Beckett’s trilogy of novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable will recognize in them Beckett’s daring use of the mundane. Indeed Beckett is often more brilliantly and sinistrally mundane than ecstatic. And supposing you do not have time to take out a year or two out of your reading lives to work through the novels, take a peep at some of the shorter plays.

The eruptive vision in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape employs all the rudiments of the mundane-ecstatic. The elder Krapp (alone) listens in on tapes of his younger self recording notes on the flotsam of his days. Krapp the elder eats a banana; listens to himself from earlier decades discussing the tribulations of banana eating. From the midst of such details a confession by the younger man flares in which he describes the allure for the darkness — surely the ecstatic centerpiece of the short play. Krapp Jr says: “Spiritually a year of profound gloom and indigence until that memorable night in March, at the end of the jetty, in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last. This fancy is what I have chiefly to record this evening, against the day when my work will be done and perhaps no place left in my memory, warm or cold, for the miracle that… [hesitates]… for the fire that set it alight. What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I had been going on all my life, namely- [Krapp switches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again] — great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and the wind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality — [Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again] — unshatterable association until my dissolution of storm and night with the light of the understanding and the fire- — [Krapp curses loader, switches off, winds tape forward, switches on again] — my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”

Beckett announced later, to his friend and biographer James Knowlson, what was personally at stake in this visionary moment, one that had changed the nature of his writing career. Beckett’s vision came at his ailing mother’s bedside, but for the purposes of drama he relocates this to Dun Laoighre Pier — the waves being the better companion for visions. In future, Knowlson wrote, Beckett’s work would “focus on poverty, failure, exile, and loss.” He would, in important ways, become the anti-Joyce.

Synge’s mundane-ecstatic is, I think, Joyce’s epiphanic. Though one can make a genetic argument of sorts for the continuity between Synge and Beckett, Synge’s relationship with James Joyce is complex. Joyce was working on epiphanies (”a revelation of the whatness of a thing”) in his fiction in the early years of the 20th Century, around the time that Synge began to publish some travel pieces. Though Joyce had acerbic things to say about the plays (finding them insufficiently Aristotelian, of all things), he nonetheless knew them well, having committed some of the Playboy to memory. However, I have not yet found comments by Joyce on the prose, though he may have been familiar with the earlier pieces. Even if the link between the two writers is not a diffusion of style from the senior (Synge) to the junior writer, there are structural similarities between Synge’s style of story-telling and the stories in Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). In The Dead, the concluding story of the collection, Gabriel Conroy, our hero, must muddle through the masses of social details of a somewhat hoity-toity Christmas party, before, while observing a snowy precipitation event imagined falling all across Ireland, he reaches a devastating conclusion about his own capacities as man and husband. Joyce concluded the story with these epiphanic lines: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

***

Let me conclude abruptly, ecstatically. T S Eliot was probably correct: Synge’s language and his themes narrowly suited Synge’s purposes alone. Beckett’s tramps are not marching through the parishes of Eire. But the style Synge invented has been absorbed, or reinvented, by many Irish writers since. Synge, in addition to be a dramatist, is a great naturalist besides. He was a member of the Dublin Naturalists Field Club (to which, quite incidentally, I also belonged as a youth) and the mundane details from which his ecstatic moments erupt are just that: the mundane, from Latin mundānus, belonging to the world. Synge is ecstasies are earthly; his work is grounded in this universe. The mundane-ecstatic is the style of Irish natural history, work that is seldom written about the birds and the bees alone. How could it be. Ireland’s nature almost since its ground was unveiled has been the co-product of nature and culture. It is hard, for example, to think of Robert Lloyd Praeger, Ireland’s more celebrated naturalist, writing only about the green stuff of the world.

No better example of Synge’s resonance for natural historians can be found than the work of Tim Robinson, Synge enthusiast as we have seen, and the indefatigable fractal writer of the Irish West. Buried in his massive 2-volume, 1000 page, account of the Aran Islands (Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995) are the most delightfully ecstatic lines every written by a sober natural historian – made more delightful, I would say, precisely because the erupt from mundane details. There Robinson wrote, in what he called “the secret heart” of his book, that he was “moved to a declaration: that making love with Mairéad [his wife] has been the sustaining joy of life. There’s a certainty!” Emerging from the rocks, the waves, the pleated landscape, the murmuring of people, the names of parishes, the grasses fidgeting in Atlantic storms, is the ecstasy of love.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.

A thank you to Angelia Giblin, who also loves the Glencree section of Synge's book, for a discussion on this topic.

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