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"Half-read Wisdom": Classics, Modernism and the Celtic Fringe


The "half-read" knowledge of classical and Celtic languages exerted a major ideological impact on the development of political and linguistic nationalisms in twentieth-century Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This partial understanding of ancient language also exercised a dominant influence on major forms of modernist literary expression—forms which arose as part of a complex reaction to the impulses that motivated 'nation-building' on the British Isles. From the Irish Literary Revival of the 1890s onwards, classical precedent was often cited and invoked in diverse attempts to confront and attack English influence in the political, literary and religious life of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Conscripted into the ideologies of cultural nationalism, Greek and Roman civilization was set out as an authoritative model for emulation and imitation—a model which sometimes legitimized the social and linguistic purification of the emerging Celtic nations. With this as a primary historical setting, this dissertation examines how the multilingual impulse of modernism in Ireland, Scotland and Wales arose through a largely untutored and unschooled knowledge of both classical languages and Celtic civilization. At the end of the nineteenth century, the rise of English as a field of scholarly interest and academic study brought with it the decline of liberal education in the classics. But this "lack of direct access to classics" was no impediment to literary innovation on the British Isles. It was rather a central agitator of the stylistic experiments which developed in the high modernism of twentieth-century Ireland and Britain. Although W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, David Jones and Hugh MacDiarmid remained largely ignorant of both classical and Celtic languages, the "half-read" understanding of the ancient world which they did acquire acted as a powerful motivating force on their work—their ignorance and partial knowledge of antiquity provoking not imitation but a "positive incitement to engage" the past in new ways, ways which redefined contemporary notions of the foreign and the native, the universal and the local, the ancient, the modern, the Celtic and the classical.
Thesis (Ph.D. -- Brown University (2013)

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Baker, Gregory Edward, "'Half-read Wisdom': Classics, Modernism and the Celtic Fringe" (2013). Comparative Literature Theses and Dissertations. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.