The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 25. Synge

Descended, it is understood, from a court musician dubbed “Synge” for his vocal talents by Henry VIII, John M. Synge spent his early manhood in Paris amid art and literary influences which attracted him to the elemental aspect of the Irish peasant mind when he returned to his native Wicklow. He did not find himself or rather he was not found by W. B. Yeats for the Irish Literary theatre till he was approaching forty years of age and he died almost as soon as he had become famous. By that time he had written six remarkable plays, including the brilliant and much criticised Playboy of the Western World, which, indeed, became a storm centre of political and literary antagonism between those who regarded it as an outrage on Irish character and those who defended it as a justifiable treatment of certain phases of Irish fundamental passions. Synge’s medium of dramatic expression is an artistic modification of the dialect used by those of the Irish peasantry who carry Gaelic turns of thought and expression into their current English speech.

This he uses with convincing skill not only in The Playboy, the beautiful tragedy entitled The Riders to the Sea, the broad, bitter, whimsical, wistful Well of the Saints and the brutally humorous Tinker’s Wedding, but, above all, in his single verse drama, his lovely, fatalistic Deidre of the Sorrows, written when he knew he was dying of an incurable disease. “Before verse can be human again, it must learn to be brutal,” he wrote in the preface to his slim volume of poems and translations. He tries to prove this in such passages as the following from his lines In Kerry:

  • And this I asked beneath a lovely cloud
  • Of strange delight with one lark singing loud:
  • “What change you’ve wrought in graveyard, rock and sea,
  • This wild new Paradise to wake for me …”
  • Yet knew no more than knew these merry sins
  • Had built this stack of thigh-bones, jaws and shins!
  • These short poems, his own disjecta membra, are, indeed, much of the nature of the grotesque relics of humanity, described by him above. Not so his two volumes of descriptive prose The Aran Islands and In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara. Here, his sympathy with wild nature and curious interest in and brotherly feeling for wild human kind make us realise the artist and the man alike.

    Finally, we agree with T. W. Rolleston that the plays of Synge stand apart from the pessimistic pictures of “disillusionment, frustration and ignobility” characterising many of the plays of the new Irish drama.

    In his characters, in spite of all the outward barbarism and cynicism, I at least feel conscious of a certain lift, an undulating force, like the swell from an invisible ocean of life, which marks these people out as the destined conquerors, not the victims of circumstances.

    They may shock us, they have shocked a great many worthy people, but they can never discourage or depress.