Poetry Wire: Literary Review

Kanhaiya Kumar and the Easter Rebellion

A barricade of carts erected by the rebels in Dublin during the Easter Rising. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  

For the centenary of the Irish rebellion of 1916, the Embassy screened a fine documentary. The Easter Rebellion lasted a week. The brutal executions in the aftermath also got a look in. All seven signatories of the proclamation of independence, along with eight others, were shot dead between May 3 and May 11. Five hundred were killed in the rebellion, more than half civilians. Ninety were sentenced to death. The British didn’t allow any defence in the trial. No cross examination, no defence witnesses. Then the firing squad — we have photographs of an officer with sword raised, a pastor standing nearby, and the squad taking aim. One of the main leaders, Connolly, had a shattered ankle, so he was brought on a stretcher, bound to a chair, and shot.

In his poem ‘Easter 1916’, with its poignant refrain ‘A terrible beauty is born,’ W.B. Yeats pays tribute to three martyred leaders — MacDonagh, MacBride and Connolly:

enough/ To know they dreamed and are dead;/ And what if excess of love/ Bewildered them till they died?

Of the 16 shot in the first go, Yeats said in the poem ‘Sixteen Dead Men’:

O but we talked at large before

The sixteen men were shot,

But who can talk of give and take,

What should be and what not

While those dead men are loitering there

To stir the boiling pot.

Well, they did stir the pot and the conscience of the world, and eventually, Ireland got its freedom. In ‘The Leaders of the Crowd’, Yeats wrote:

How can they know/ Truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone,/ And there alone.

Those baiting Kanhaiya Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University may please take note. Here is Yeats dealing with the real, as Frank Kermode puts it, far from “his late political excesses — hints at fascism, rantings about eugenics and even Eliot, and his lifelong obsession with the occult.” (When Yeats won the Nobel Prize, his first question was “How much is it worth?”)

My father left me a book, Good-bye Twilight: Songs of the Struggle in Ireland (1933, hardcover, 2 shillings, 6 pence). It contains passionate poems, about poverty, bemoaning Ireland’s fate, and abusing Britain. Let’s start with the last one. Patrick Rowe writes: Brittannia/ You are a prostitute/ you sold your sons/ To the roaring guns.

Irish soldiers who fought against the Germans were despised. There are exceptions. In a poem ‘The Somme’, known for the great battle, soldiers, obviously Irish, die, While women kneel/ In some far Ulster home.

Their dislike for Belfast, the protestant bulwark of Northern Ireland is evident. Rowe writes in ‘To Belfast’: Thy streets are grimed with dirt, O dismal town,/ The belching smoke adulterates the air./ Foul poverty stalks along with gloomy frown…, and he calls Belfast “Poor little capital of a puppet state.” Incidentally, I was taken to Belfast in the 1980s to be shown how the U.K. dealt with the Irish Republican Army.

My favourite is a poem ‘Fragment from an Epic’ by Domhnall MacNaghten, part of which I know by heart.

We have no ships to bring the negroes Yeats,

We have no ships to come to outer races

To breed with them and Gaelicize their faces

To show Paul Henry in the no Paul Henry places;

The world has seen us beggars at the gates

With ‘Made in England’ on our very braces,

What are we but a dresserful of plates?

Some poems could be clever, yet sensitive. Liam MacGabhann, in his poem ‘Connolly’, cleverly makes a young Welsh “Tommy”, of the firing squad, speak in first person. (Notice the English cunning in making the Welsh shoot the Irish. What diablerie!)

The man was all shot through that came today/ Into the barrack square;/ A soldier I—I am not proud to say/ We killed him there;/ They brought him from the prison hospital./ To see him in that chair/ I thought his smile would far more quickly call/ A man to prayer.

In the end, there is greater drama, a poem about a firing squad can’t be anything but drama.

I swear his lips said ‘Fire!’ when all was still/ Before my rifle spat

That cursed lead—And I was picked to kill/ A man like that.

Good idea. Make a soldier (Gurkha) write how he felt shooting the guys in Jallianwala Bagh. Are any of my Hindi poet friends listening?

If you start with Yeats, you end with Edmund Spenser, the poet’s poet, as we were told in college. How the Irish hate him! I used to speak at seminars on terrorism and an Irish professor rattled off all the charges Spenser made against the Irish. Then he shouted, “Edmund Spenser, you were wrong!” And he refuted each charge. In 1580, Spenser was appointed Secretary to the Lord Deputy of Ireland and he dubbed the Irish as descended from the Scythians, and said that Ireland could never be totally pacified by the English until its indigenous language and customs had been destroyed. He suffered. His house was burnt and he lost an infant in the fire.

Escorted by friend Walter Raleigh, he went to the palace with Faerie Queene. But he had annoyed Baron Burghley, the principal secretary to the Queen. All he got was a small pension and when there was a proposal to give him 100 sterling for Faerie Queene, Burghley exclaimed, “What, all this for a song!”

Keki N. Daruwalla is a poet and short story writer.

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 12:09:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/Kanhaiya-Kumar-and-the-Easter-Rebellion/article14414626.ece

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