The Relationship Between Memory and Reality in the Works of Sebastian Barry and W.B Yeats
Sabastian Barry and W.B Yeats both explore the relationship between memory and reality with techniques that result in ambivalence. They both investigate characters’ microcosms and individual histories to discover how perspectives impact memories and reality. Barry does this interestingly through the use of dual narration. Dr Grenes’ ‘Common Place book’ gives the reader a taste of reality through his work log which then evolves into a personal diary that evokes memories. Roseanne’s ‘testimony’ largely includes retrospect accounts and memories. In contrast Yeats’ projects his own biased viewpoints through his poetry and sometimes he writes from other perspectives that don’t always reflect ‘real’ memories such as ‘The Fisherman’. Both authors aim to preserve strong representations or interpretations of twentieth century Ireland, capturing the turmoil and political unrest.
Yeats explores memory in ‘The Fisherman’ through creating an idealised character with fictional recollections, as a reader we therefore question the reliability of this. Yeats replaces reality with a faultless romantic Irishman. He does this as a way to not only preserve the memory of an individual’s way of life in twentieth century Ireland but also more personally, preserving the life of his friend, John Millington Synge, “The dead man that I loved”. As argued by ‘Safia’ during this poem Yeats’ “lyrical voice makes a strong criticism of Irish men and portrays Yeats’ vision at the time”, showing that he felt there were no men good enough to symbolise a positive twentieth century Ireland. ‘The Fisherman’ a man of Yeats’ imagination transports the reader to a different perspective. The portrayal of the character draws us in through the vividness of the language:
“The freckled man who goes
To a gray place on a hill
In gray Connemara clothes”, this is then shattered by Yeats’ genuine perspective reaching out to the reader saying,
“A man who does not exist
A man who is but a dream”.
Similarly, in ‘The Secret Scripture’ Barry also tries to keep memories flawlessly preserved and in an ideal light but not necessarily real. Barry’s choice of using dual narration has been commented on from critics such Lisa Jewell that some “had not enjoyed the voice of Dr Grene and had found the structural device of two separate voices frustrating” however, I believe it allows memories to be presented in a very interesting way. It allows us to see Roseanne and Dr Grenes’ lives from their personal perspectives, whilst also seeing overlapping thoughts on each other. This gives us a deeper insight to whether the memory matches reality. Without this the memory of a character, can seem undeniably accurate and truthful, until it clashes with the ‘truth’ of another character. An example of this is the differences between characters’ accounts of Roseanne’s father’s death and how he was seen by other people, “No, not much missed, such a man. // Except by Roseanne.” In an interview with John Mullan, Barry says that he uses Dr Grene to demonstrate that “Roseanne’s writing is factually attackable” but also to show Dr Grene “prefers this untruth and takes it as a sign of radiation of mental health” showing that an interpretation of a memory doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. Comparably to ‘The Fisherman’ Yeats allows us to instinctively believe the first captivating story we hear, taking them as reality without question, ‘a fabulous arrangement of surmises’.
Beyond exploring memories that don’t meet with reality both Yeats and Barry also address selective memory, and whether people chose to remember only elements of their history. This is illustrated in Yeats’ poem ‘Broken Dreams’, “your beauty can but leave among us vague memories, nothing but memories” it suggests that people remember the strikingly beautiful and not much else. Yeats also describes beauty in this poem as “burdensome beauty” which perhaps appears oxymoronic but reflects how beauty was seen in twentieth century Ireland. Yeats’ poetry often circulates around beauty showing that he clearly feels it is one of the strongest lasting memories someone choses to have or want. His fascination with Maud’s beauty is depicted in ‘Broken Dreams’, “you are more beautiful than anyone, and yet your body had a flaw”. This is similar to the sort of description used by Barry in ‘The Secret Scripture’, “please darkening, obscuring the beauty of the work. Because her lovely green eyes were dying … but still her general outline any artist would have been content with”. The same beauty expectations in both Yeats and Barry’s works demonstrate the standards expected of a beautiful woman in twentieth century Ireland. ‘Broken Dreams’ perhaps illustrates how Yeats selectively preserves elements of Maud’s memory avoiding the ‘withering truth’.
Fr Gaunt speaks of Roseanne’s beauty in a very aggressive tone, similar to Yeats’ description of “burdensome beauty” in ‘Broken Dreams’. Roseanne recalls him describing her beauty as “a mournful temptation, not only to the boys in Sligo but also, the men”, this of course was a typical view in twentieth century Ireland. The Catholic Church at the time is captured by Barry as a snapshot of the destructive power that came to the priests after ironically gaining a catholic president. They gained so much control that it resulted in the Priests having the ability to prosecute and objectify people of other religions such as Presbyterians like Roseanne, “as priests felt in those times that they owned the new country, I suppose father gaunt felt he owned the iron hut too”. Roseanne also speaks of herself and own beauty in a similar way, presenting her a victim of the time. A way in which Barry shows this is through the negative names Roseanne describes herself with including bird imagery “a song less robin”. ANDDDD She objectifies herself thinking that the only memories of her will be that of her beauty “a memory so clear, so wonderful … all that remains of me now is the rumour of beauty”, here Barry aims to preserve the way an Irish individual has been affected by their historical context.
In ‘The Secret Scripture’, Roseanne recalls incredibly vivid memories of her mother’s beauty despite the lack of many other recollections “I am looking for my mother in these memories, and I cannot find her”. Barry continues the bird imagery with Roseanne passing the bird-like attributes to her mother, calling her “my little wren of a mother”. She is selectively choosing to remember her mother’s beauty and in some examples such as “I do believe my mother suffered strangely under her halo of beauty” suggests that she knows more that she writes. Barry also presents
Roseanne’s memories, in a scattered, fragmented way with no chronological order. He uses long sentences as a way of presenting a stream of thought that manipulates the reader’s perception on memories and feelings towards the characters. Although, it does also make us more intrigued and drawn in because as a reader we are left to piece things together ‘surmises and guesses’. Barry writes a poetic and lyrical introduction, “if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods”. This is a direct comparison to Yeats’ style of poetry; he also draws us in with lyrical language and extended sentences to portray memory seen particularly in his poems like ‘An Irish Airman foresees his death’. This ambiguous tone intrigues us whilst we are kept guessing, for instance through the first 12 lines we are unsure of the location until the line “That is Sligo town I mean.”. This manipulates the way the reader views memory in relation to reality.
Yeats’ also creates a strong sense that he uses his poetry to preserve memories, particularly of major historical events. In Yeats’ poem ‘Easter 1916’, he presents a clear sense of before and after in Ireland and in himself. Yeats found that suddenly Irish independence had a whole new lease of life, he appears more allied in this poem with the cynics that he previously criticised in poems like ‘September 1913’. Yeats felt it was ‘the age of tragedy’ in which elements resonated with him such as sacrifice and heroism. However, the rebels had taken this idea too far, turning it into forms of fanaticism an idea Yeats strongly opposed, “changed, changed utterly”.
During ‘Easter 1916’, he distanced himself from the nationalists who he is not in sympathy with, using third person and phrases such as “them” and “their vivid faces”. Yeats even aimed to commemorate using the poem’s structure, the date of the rising being 24/4/1916 and his poem reflects this through 4 stanzas 16 lines then 24, 16 then 24. Yeats was not in Ireland at the time the event took place and therefore didn’t know what to say about it in the poem, he felt that he couldn’t publish it until five years later. This was partly down, to his love interest ‘Maud Gonne’ who he still hoped to capture the heart of. She rejected his original draft of the poem, with a famous letter that read “No, I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you and above all it isn’t worthy of your subject”. Due to the delay between the time he wrote it and the event the memories all have an element of retrospect despite the fact he was writing in the period. Perhaps both him and Ireland had time to change their perspectives on the reality of the event. Yeats’ thought process is reflected in his choice of movement between direct rhyme and assonance:
“Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
This powerful vocabulary and rhyme echoes the national importance “green” Yeats feels in preserving the ‘memories and reality’ of 20th century Ireland’s political events.
Both Barry and Yeats strove to preserve Irish culture and the individuals’ stories in their literature. Originally Yeats’ poem ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ went by the name of ‘A reason for keeping silent’. The later name has a much stronger sense of acceptance of the memory, “I shall see my fate”. ‘The Irish Airman foresees his Death’ is written like a Eulogy, which again links to a particular way of preserving memories. This sense of fate is also seen as a theme in ‘The Secret Scripture’ where people accepted their fates, making them individual victims of Ireland’s circumstances (RELGION CONTEXT?). In the poem the words “those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love”, are aimed at both the British and the Germans, leaving ambiguous, emotionally neutral and passive tones to these memories. Throughout the novel, Roseanne says things with very similar ambiguity due to the passive tone also seen in her memories that appear traumatising “arms of girls beating at the window like moths do in day time… fatally thinking spring has come”. This is possibly due to the unavoidable nature of the events that she had no control over. Roseanne has clearly learnt to accept that she was another victim of the time by the end of the novel. Comparably, Roseanne’s testimony is also the final opportunity to record her life, whether it is read or not she feels the need to preserve her history. Thus, indicating how both Yeats and Barry use the onset of death as a way of bringing otherwise lost memories to the fore.
Yeats explores the difficulty and dangers in catching the reality of memory in the permanency of a poem. The structure of ‘On being asked for a War Poem’ emphasises this problem through Yeats’ use of six short lines and a rhyme scheme of ABC, ABC. The first three lines refer to Yeats’ stance on writing about war; the next three lines about the self-imposed limits a single perspective can have on trying to write about war. A phrase within the poem is “I think it better…a poet’s mouth be silent” this is a contradiction, as it is a war poem that refuses to speak about war. “The poets mouth” could be seen as a metonym for his poetry, suggesting that poetry isn’t the place to store traumatic memories. Yeats ensures we understand that writing on war would almost ‘interfere’ with the history, for instance within the poem he says, “we have no gift to set a statesman right”. This suggests that Yeats has not the “gift” to tell a political leader how to make decisions and therefore shouldn’t comment on them in his poetry. This “meddling”, reveals Yeats’ belief that often those who try and write political poems are interferers and that poetry should tackle everyday teachings and life ‘exploring the relationship between memory and reality’.
Barry also reveals the difficulties of recording traumatic events whilst maintaining a hold on reality. When Roseanne is unable to write or speak of her experiences with the nuns, “and now I must report I must leave them to the darks of history”, she is clearly withholding memories that are incredibly vivid. This leaves the reader questioning whether writing can accurately portray incomprehensible emotions without interfering with the reality of events in twentieth century Ireland. Delia Falconer observes that in ‘The Secret Scripture’ “one of the main themes is that of history – can be a single version of it, or is it merely like a collective memory and thus prone to human frailties such as imagined and misremembered events, motivations, and emotions” this perfectly illustrates the difficulty of capturing historic memories in a way that portrays ‘reality’. This is what both Barry and Yeats tried to incorporate within their works. However, personal interpretations of memories can change the reality of the event drastically causing the reader to draw their own conclusions from ‘a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses’, altering the ‘withering truth’.
Barry displays how an individual’s angle on traumatic events can make it unreliable, however ‘truthful’ they believe it to be. This is evident through his use of angel imagery seen throughout the novel. The reader only begins to doubt Dr Grenes’ memories and whether we can be trusted when he ‘sees’ angels. During his final night with Bet there is a sense of uncertainty and adaptation of truth. Barry’s use of angelic description makes the encounter dreamlike and ambiguous as to how much is reality, “There was moonlight on her, and she was smiling. I think she was. Some enormous lightness got a hold of me”. This allows us to question whether Bet was already dead, and this memory had been manipulated to provide comfort and closure from his wife’s death and perhaps to ease any guilt he had left. It is also seen at the end of the novel when Dr Grene says, “behind it was an angel, a great man of fire the height of the asylum, with the wings spread from east to west … the looked at me as if I was mad … it was of course grief that saw the angel”. Both Yeats and Barry highlight that the written word has a perspective that will not be everyone’s reality and therefore powerful memories of war and death are too difficult to record with accuracy. Having compared and contrasted the ways in which Yeats and Barry explore the relationship between memory and reality; it is evident that both writers successfully reveal the similarities, differences and difficulties, in distinguishing between the individual perspectives and the truth. Through vivid and lyrical language and the use of retrospect both authors engage the reader causing ‘surmises’, ‘guesses’ and therefore the manipulation of reality. These otherwise ‘forgotten’ moments in history capture the lives of individual, crucial to the preservation of memories and reality in 20th century Ireland.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below