RICHARD MURPHY: IN GOOD FORM BY MAURICE HARMON
(Poetry Ireland News, September/October 2007)
ON the occasion of his 80th birthday Richard Murphy has returned to Ireland from South Africa. He gave a reading at UCD, opened the Yeats International Summer School, gave a reading in Sligo and will read in Clifden and in Cork. Born into an Ascendancy, Anglo-Irish, Protestant family of landowners where the chosen professions were the church, the army or the diplomatic service, his career has been quite different from what his family expected and quite different from what we find in the lives of his contemporaries Pearse Hutchinson, John Montague and Thomas Kinsella.
In his earlier poetry he explored the historical and familial legacy – with poems about members of his family, ‘Woman of the House’ about his grandmother and ‘The God Who Eats Corn’ about his father. His family sent him to school in England – to King’s School, Canterbury where he was a chorister, to Wellington, a military college, and he went thereafter to Magdalene College, Oxford, where CS Lewis was his tutor.
The result was that the effects of an English education and how that related to Irish life and culture became an issue in his work. He tried to reach across the division in his life between Big House and peasant culture, between a rationalist English upbringing, a respect for intelligence, urbanity and tact, and the more emotional, more liberated nature of Irish life. He has defined a place for himself between the restrictive life of the rectory in County Mayo where he was born and the freedoms of the western landscape outside its walls.
At the same time within this recovered space he has dealt with traditional issues, been deeply attached to specific places and been drawn to historical subjects. He has focused on itinerant life not in the warm romantic manner of some writers but with a compassionate realism, and has been critical of the moral effects of greed and the pursuit of wealth. The point he made about his friend Tony White defines his attitude: ‘Possessing nothing he was not possessed.’ For this son of an Anglo-Irish family who has lived in and out of Ireland all his life, confusion and uncertainty about personal identity may result. He says in one poem:'home is a foreign country’. He has also been frank about his ambivalent sexuality.
The publication of Sailing to an Island (1963) marked the arrival of a new poet on the Irish scene. The poems about seafarers defined a distinctive world that he had made his own, those who manned the boats: ‘The Cleggan Disaster’, ‘The Last Galway Hooker’, ‘Pat Cloherty’s Version of The Maisie’, and ‘Sailingto an Island’, in which he and his brother set sail for the island of Gráinne Mhaol, the legendary pirate queen, but are driven back into the harbour of Inishboffin where he meets men in the real world and exchanges romance for reality. He had reveled in novels about the sea, now he had direct experience of its attractions and hazards. The collection is also memorable for its portraits of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the poet Theodore Roethke.
The Battle of Aughrim (1968), a historical narrative of definition and clarification, continued the investigation of his family’s past. His ancestors fought on both sides in the battle and were rewarded with 70,000 acres of Irish land, a fact that stuck in Murphy’s mind when he saw itinerants sleeping in ditches in wattle tents. In this long poem his aim was ‘to get clear a division in my mind between England and Ireland – between an almost entirely English education, an English mind and Irish feeling. I tried to reconcile these two by focusing on the battle… putting in different points of view… and drawing up an evaluation of what the religious conflict meant, what it meant in the past and how the past is still influencing us.’
In High Island (1974) he wrote more personal poems about everyday life in the west of Ireland in a seascape and landscape – seals mating, storm collection that celebrated petrels, the corncrake, itinerant life, memories of Ceylon. It is also a work of compression in which violent deeds and subjects are reduced to dynamic expression. At the same time he remembered his boyhood years in Ceylon, his sense of cultural strangeness and exclusion there comparable to that of the itinerant boy whom he tries to teach to read. It is a rich book – serious, playful, colourful, sensual, acutely observant and with great linguistic variety and flair.
The sensuality which is a recurrent feature of his work received further release in the address to the fabulous golden women figures in Sri Lanka in The Mirror Wall (1989), where an exotic culture is absorbed and commemorated. The metaphor of fine buildings and fine craftsmanship has always been present. He has enjoyed building houses in Cleggan, Omey Island, Dublin and South Africa, making use of the best materials and employing fine craftsmen. He has always admired skilled workmanship, the art of the carpenter, the stonemason, the shipwright, seeing in their careful work images for the activity of the poet, maker of well-constructed work in which restraint, urbanity, tact, and civility are the defining characteristics.
This is the solid worth of The Price of Stone (1985), seen at its best in its 50 sonnets, the most carefully constructed of poetic forms in which structure and internal organisation are primary. There is in addition another freeing of the voice in the conceit that buildings speak. Places he has known, schools, houses, cottages, public buildings, piers address him so that the poems are in effect auto-biographical, each the result of much research and note-taking. They prepare for the detailed autobiographical The Kick in 2002.
Richard Murphy, whose Collected Poems was published by Gallery Press in 2000, has always been a poet in good form, exemplary in his commitment to the discipline of his chosen career.