Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.

 

Dr Jane Maxwell

 

 

Samuel Beckett: the man and his afterlives

Actor Patrick Magee (1922-1982) in Krapp’s last tape.  (MS 11314) © BBC

Today’s post, by guest author and student of English literature Grace McLoughlin, is the sixth and final one in our series revealing undergraduate students’ reactions to working directly with the Library’s world renowned Samuel Beckett literary manuscripts. Again the Library thanks Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing, in the Department of English.

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Writing about writing in Beckett

Beckett observes a rehearsal of Godot. (MS 11409).

Imogen McGuckin is the fifth of our guest blog authors in the  ‘Beckett afterlives’ series. All are students in the Department of English and all have kindly provided feedback on their experience of working directly with the library’s collection of Beckett literary archives. Imogen writes:

For a student of English Literature, the notebook in which Beckett penned ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ offers an invaluable opportunity to investigate the authorial process behind the novel. At first glance, I struggled to see how anything emerged from a manuscript in which almost every paragraph has been crossed out. Even the front cover exhibits the original title – ‘FANCY DEAD DYING’ later eliminated by several lines of black marker and replaced by ‘IMAGINATION MORTE IMAGINEZ. However, a flick through the pages yielded many examples of the author’s prolific writing – and doodling, both in French and English.

For me, the value of this notebook lies not in what was written, but rather in what was retained and eliminated. Beckett’s imagery, rhythm and process of composition illuminate the meaning of the final text. Following consultation of both the manuscript and the first edition, I suggest that ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ explores and experiments with the authorial creative process.

Unlike the Ussher Library – my usual library of preference, the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library allows only for you and the text. All baggage – literal and metaphorical, is deposited in a locker outside. My initial scan of Beckett’s notebook revealed that, for the most part, the left-hand pages showed disconnected lines of text and doodles, while the right-hand pages contained paragraphs of prose. For example, on page six the author writes; ‘and for how long, and for what if any purpose’, in a less italicised hand than the paragraphs opposite and partnered by a doodle of a stick-man. For the most part, Beckett’s handwriting is forward slanting – thus, the upright and vertical handwriting on page six indicated a chronological difference between the writing of this phrase, and those opposite. The author’s frustrated and questioning tone, together with his doodle, suggested Beckett was struggling creatively when he wrote on page six.

Beckett doodling. (MS 11223 p.6 ).

Further investigation of Beckett’s doodles made me wonder if, like me, Beckett was left-handed. I noticed the positioning of his drawings matched those in my own jotter. When left-handed, it is more comfortable to write on left-hand pages as those on the right involve uncomfortably resting your palm on the binding of the notebook. I briefly felt I had insight to a human side of Beckett. Sadly, while there are many references to Beckett’s cricketing prowess as a left-handed batsman, (and sometimes bowler), he was in fact right-handed.

The author’s floating lines, doodles and eventual paragraphs remained in my thoughts when I read the first edition of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’. In the novel, Beckett’s syntax and punctuation manipulate the reader’s speed and flow. One example of this can be seen on:

‘It is possible too, experience shows, for rise and fall to stop short at any point and mark a pause, more or less long, before resuming, or reversing, the rise now fall, the fall rise’.

Here, the author’s rhythm and punctuation mirror the wording: after ‘mark a pause’ he inserts a comma, thus forcing his reader to pause. Furthermore, ‘the rise now fall, the fall rise’ causes the voice’s intonation to drop for the first half and rise on the second. The beginnings of this syllabic specificity are apparent on page eight of the manuscript, where he experiments with the words ‘… ne pas trop …’, by numbering them ‘9, 10, 11′ after their syllabic order. These then become ’11, 12, 13’ as Beckett inserts the word ‘tout’. The author’s study of syllables as seen in his notebook suggest he intended to manipulate his reader in the final version.

The central aspect of ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is the ‘plain rotunda, all white in the whiteness’. Through this image, Beckett explores a binary of light and dark which is continued by, ‘light and heat come back, all grows white and hot together, ground, wall, vault, bodies, say twenty seconds, all the greys, till the initial level is reached whence the fall began’. The rotunda through its whiteness suggests the untouched paper, while ‘the rise now fall, the fall rise’ describes the lifting and falling of the writer’s pen.

In a letter to Ethna McCarthy, Beckett described ‘the exercise-book that opens like a door and lets me far down into the now friendly dark’ (Fintan O’Toole, “Beckett in Love add link http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/04/02/beckett-in-love/). This concept of light and dark within the page forms much of Imagination’s imagery and is particularly pertinent when we consider how many lines of rejected material fill the author’s notebook. Phrases such as ‘Out of the door and down the road in the old hat & coat like after the war, no, not that again’, suggest an author struggling for new material. The refrain “not that again” appears repeatedly and indicates frustration in the author’s search for original thought. One phrase in support of this theory is “Out of the deathbed and drag it to a place to die in, that again”. The deathbed appearing in ‘Molloy’ and ‘Malone Dies’ is a frequent theme in Beckett’s prose and appears again on page thirty-three of the Imagination notebook. While Beckett’s imagery of light and dark within the rotunda mimics the rise and fall of the author’s pen, the punctuation and syllabic order manipulate his reader. As a result, my consultation of Beckett’s notebook illuminated how ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ is a text about authorial creation itself.

Imogen McGuckin

Reading Beckett on yellow paper

Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil (1900-1989) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Last week we kicked off our series of guest blog posts written by students of English who have had unique access to the Library’s Beckett manuscripts collection. Our second author is Rory O’Sullivan:

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Samuel Beckett, grandad and me

Drawing of Samuel Beckett by the author’s grandmother.

This is the first in our planned series of guests posts authored by students of Dr Julie Bates, Assistant Professor in Irish Writing, who took part in a pilot scheme which gave them unusual access to the Library’s internationally significant Beckett manuscripts. Leah Kenny kindly provided the following text which she dedicates to her ‘Nanny and Grandad, who have always inspired me to create and follow my dreams’:

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