The importance of symbolism to contemporary writers, poets and playwrights, and the symbolic dimensions to my own writing

Melbourne Lanes street art 2012 by Katerina Hanzl

Melbourne Lanes street art 2011 by Katerina Hanzl

A symbol is a visible sign – an object or action – that points to a world of meaning beyond itself… A symbol is a thing that points to the abstraction… symbols are usually objects, but actions can also works as symbols – hence the term “symbolic gesture”… Symbols are powerful figures, capable of bearing the weight of a hundred lesser metaphors…. A symbol means more than itself, but first of all it means itself. (McClanahan 1999).

Contemporary society resonates with symbols, many existing as numerals, graphics and moving images. Symbols come in all forms: ancient, religious, political, mathematical, language, architectural, colour and advertising and are universal, cultural and more personal. Many cultures have complex universal and/or cultural symbolic systems which assign certain attributes to specific things, such as the planets, animals, plants and trees, the elements and the weather, while personal symbols can be representative of the events, emotions or experiences in an individual’s life.

A symbol is a representation of an idea, concept, object, or abstraction, a sign for some ‘thing’ or some meaning which is concealed, rather than obvious. They are a way for us to express what is really felt or believed, and are given meaning beyond the literal existence of the object or word by those who are aware of them.

Symbolism refers to the use of symbols in order to represent or allude to something, and can be best understood as ‘the gateways to non-material soul states’ (Irvine, 2010); they are experiential rather than intellectual. We may not know why we are moved by certain symbols – but we are, and it is due to this response that we give meaning to them.

In their most literal sense, words themselves are symbols, and language itself, symbolic of an idea, thing, concept, or quality. We only need to consider Chinese or Japanese pictorial languages to understand how this is so. ‘Symbolism is language. It is a way of conveying meaning through the use of imagery, ideas, sound or metaphor by way of association.’ (Marcus, 2008)

Kenneth Burke (1966) has described man as

…the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal, inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative), separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection

by which he means that humankind is different from other creatures due to its use of symbols to communicate, its understanding of negation, its separation from nature by its own techniques, its existence in differing social structures, and its goal to become better than it presently is (Anon, Wikipedia 2010).

Our ability to manipulate symbols allows us to explore the relationships between ideas, concepts, objects and abstractions. For a writer, symbols allow for a subtlety of meaning and can communicate a great deal. They can be simple, understated but also complex. While the reader may not intellectually experience or even fully comprehend the importance of a symbol, a well-placed and loaded symbol can say so much more than any amount of “telling, not showing” text could do.

Like a developing image in a photographer’s tray, a symbol reveals itself slowly. It’s been there all along, waiting to emerge from the story, the poem, the essay – and from the writer herself. McClanahan (1999).

Symbols work on both the conscious and unconscious level of the mind and the emotions; the goal for the writer is to stir the reader’s emotions. The symbols regularly employed by writers and creative people are often associated with moments of ‘epiphany’ (the dictionary definition being “a sudden intuitive leap of understanding, especially through an ordinary but striking occurrence”).

In Carl Jung’s view, ‘a sign stands for something known, as a word stands for its referent. He contrasted this with symbol, which he used to stand for something that is unknown and that cannot be made clear or precise…’  (Anon, Wikipedia 2010).

According to Jung, symbols can activate “complexes” – the repressed id, the unconscious part of the psyche and the source of primitive, instinctive impulses and drives that people don’t want to acknowledge. One of the roles of the symbol is to tap into, activate, and even heal the unconscious; symbols can be used to access the unconscious and trigger complexes in a way rationality cannot, when people are forced to feel and use their intuition.

Jung divided the unconscious into two parts – an individual (or personal) unconscious and something he called the collective unconscious, containing universal symbols Jung called archetypes.

Peter O’Connor (2003) has said that

…we don’t come into life …  a blank sheet; we come in with a history.  Just as we come in with a history of our physical being, we come into it with a history of our psychological being, and the collective unconscious refers to our experience as a race, not as a particular individual, whereas the personal unconscious refers to our individual history. …In times of major transitions …such as loss, birth and death, the psyche tends to dip back into history, into collective history, to find ways of dealing with them and hence we produce archetypal symbols. One of the wonderful parts of mythology is that it does actually help us to understand these archetypal symbols in the collective unconscious …such as story of Demeter and Persephone.

Persephone, 2006 by Amy Erickson

Persephone, 2006 by Amy Erickson

Jung emphasised the importance of symbols to humanity’s psychic life; how they are powerful manifestations of the human consciousness and can be used to heal the human psyche. Consequently, writers, poets and artists are important to the health of a culture; they are “healers and truth-tellers” (Ian). Jung influenced many theorists, educationalists, writers and artists with his emphasis on the role of the non-logical, emotional, mystical aspects of the human experience.

Many past and contemporary writers (in fact most or all fiction authors), poets and creators use symbolism as a rhetorical device central to the meaning of their works.

For example, the French Symbolist poetic movement, which emerged in the mid-1880s (critics suggest in reaction to the negative criticism of the Decadent movement), became a major influence on the development of the Modernist movement, and was itself strongly influenced by the dark, meditative romanticism of the writer-poets William Blake and Edgar Allan Poe. The principle Symbolist poets were Stephane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, with Charles Baudelaire, writing in the 1850s, often seen as its leading pioneer.

The Symbolists held the belief in a reality beyond normal perception and the material, and for the need to attempt to capture “absolute truths” and “ideals”. They believed the most effective way to do this was to use symbolism and metaphor to explore and express their personal, subjective world and to immerse themselves in synesthetic experiences.  Holcombe (2007) writes of how ‘the open-ended symbols created by Charles Baudelaire… brought the invisible into being through the visible, and linked the invisible through other sensory perceptions, notably smell and sound.’

As they explored and expressed this “expanded consciousness”, Symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and Verlaine developed a more fluid, musical way of writing, enabling them to express their highly interior way of looking on the world, and as a consequence, became part of the movement towards free verse. Their symbols did not so much allude to, but rather induced a particular awareness or mindset – in fact, the Symbolists advocated the entire ego should be collapsed.

As an example, in The Drunken Boat, Rimbaud writes of: ‘…blue cities’ and ‘…bitter russets of love’ and of a ‘kiss, rising through the sea’s eyes’. This strange subjectivity, this expanded consciousness was an essential element of symbolist poetry. Symbolist poets wanted to suggest, rather than to explain, to show, and not to tell; symbolic imagery was used to indicate the poet’s soul. They wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.

The use of symbols can be challenging for many writers, but it is important to learn how to effectively employ them, as they can represent the change, growth and transformation of characters and situations. Symbols themselves can consequently undergo transformation themselves over time.

While folk tales, legends and myths tended to make greater use of universal symbols, in more contemporary literature (and in contemporary life generally), personal symbols have also become increasingly important, used to reflect the interior, psychological state of the character or subject.

Almost any story can have a combination of universal/group symbols and personal symbols, each of these having meaning and emotions attached to them which represent our lives, and there are often symbols which cross over from one to the other.

Personal symbols tell people about us (or the character we are creating) without the need for us to give overt or extensive explanation.

As writers, we are interested in the way symbols become charged with meaning. The writer/creator needs to load, or show, what a personal symbol is and what it means to the individual, for it to have any meaning to the reader.

Loading is the process of showing how the symbol is connected to relationships, events, emotions or experiences in a character’s life. You can therefore load any object or phenomena this way.

Universal and cultural symbols can convey their meaning without having to be loaded; they appear to be part of the “collective conscious” and “collective unconscious” (or as Ian Irvine puts it (2010), our “psychic DNA”) of many cultures of people, even humankind as a whole.

Universal symbols - religions

Universal symbols – religions

Symbols such as the planets (sun, moon and stars), the elements (fire, water etc), the seasons, the weather (rain, thunder and lightning and sunlight), the landscape (mountains, open plains, the shoreline) the times of day and night, and of plants, trees, animals, birds and sea life are universal. It is also possible to transform symbols from negative to positive meaning (often this is an expression of healing) – and back again.

I am aware that many of the themes and symbols predominantly employed in my own writing are universal and cultural and consequently, not unique to me. I recognise the influences of writer-poets such as Walt Whitman, Hermann Hesse, Dylan Thomas, Manley Hopkins, Yeats and Auden to name a few. Yet there are a number of symbols which take on my own, personal relevance, symbols which become transformed by, and in turn, transform my Self.

I use the colour red to symbolise the (and my) life force: passion, courage, vitality, impulsiveness, creativity, warmth and even hope. I have previously written: ‘Red is the colour of life itself, and the pulse of my own living heart, held within the greater, encompassing heart of creation. It defines my own journey through life, as Julia, and as a writer-poet.’

I also use the symbols of the elements: particularly water, earth and air in all their elemental guises and related weather conditions.

Consequently, I write of water in the form of oceans, rivers, streams and ripples and waves, and of rain and mist to symbolise emotions, journeying, life and of changes to relationships (personal, social and cultural), e.g.:

‘I wash in the words of the seanchaidhe, /seeking absolution, /perhaps identity, or at least/a name for what I bear’, and ‘Choked with drifting river weeds, Ophelia am I, water deep, and not waving at all, but drowning in sainted rains’ and ‘flooded plains/and the flow of the river through the heart of our actions.’

I use the earth symbols of rock, stone, earth and soil, of hills, mountains and caves in order to denote stability/instability, endurance, timelessness, the inner journey towards self-understanding, of travail, and of the search for attainment, e.g.:

‘I will keep this to myself, and you/will walk across the moors of me, pointing out land features/ and remarking on the elements/ which move across the landscape’ and ‘Quartz of the miner’s grief, /and mine, / underfoot and beneath my ribcage…’

I also employ the air element (in the form of wind, breeze, even a whisper) to symbolise the life-breath, the “weird” – the otherworldliness, the other voice or life-force, e.g.:

‘Let a cool wind stir the embers/ Of a fire that still burns, bright’ and “Undulating grass and breath,/and a flickering, enclosing silence… the ghost of past voices, singing/on the suck and pull/of the wind flowing through the valley.’

Trees (along with branches and leaves) are another significant symbol in my writing, representing personally, and universally, life itself; the underworld (by way of the roots), this realm (being the trunk and branches), and the upper canopy (being heaven or the spiritual part of my own self, and of humanity). Trees also represent the cycle of the seasons: loss, growth and renewal, and the wax and wane, the breathing in and out of existence, e.g.:

‘Beith, luis, nuin, / so I begin, /lay out the branches on the ground / to build my ancestral home’ and: ‘From my bed in my old faraway home, over seven years of summers, autumns, winters and springs I watched the plum tree in my neighbour’s garden rise and fall, discard all semblance of its summer self and strip itself back to its main components – its skeleton of belief and existence, revealing its structure and beauty. So I, in my bed, become myself’ (A Bridge into the Unknown).

Linked to the symbols of earth and tree is the universal symbol, archetype and metaphor of The Green Man. Charles Causley’s poem “The Green Man” had a profound effect on me as a young person and I am aware how this personification of, this symbol of, the ever-present life force has had a significant influence on me as a writer:

The Green Man - Norwich Cathedral, 2013 by Katerina Hanzl

The Green Man – Norwich Cathedral, 2013 by Katerina Hanzl

Green man in the garden

Staring from the tree,

Why do you look so long and hard

Through the pane at me?

Your eyes are dark as holly

Of sycamore your thorns,

Your bones are made of elder branch,

Your teeth are made of thorns.

Your hat is made of ivy-leaf

Of bark your dancing shoes,

And evergreen and green and green

Your jacket and shirt and trews.

Leave your house and leave your land and throw away the key,

And never look behind, he creaked

And come and live with me.

I bolted up the window, I bolted up the door,

I drew the blind that I should find the green man never more.

But when I softly turned the stair

As I went up to bed,

I saw the green man standing there.

‘Sleep well, my friend,’ he said.

As John Matthews (2001) has said:

From ancient folklore and timeless tradition, the archetype of the Green Man is re-emerging as an image of force and power.  Endlessly changing shapes, the Green Man appears in many guises and cultures throughout history… As Wildman of the Woods, he guards the sacred trees and forest. As Lord of the Beasts, he watches over the woodland creatures. As the sacrificial Corn King, he is cut down but grows anew, a natural symbol for all dying and resurrecting gods – such as Christ, Odin, or Adonis – who meet death on a tree but rise again. We know the Green Man in tradition and Merlin, Robin Hood, Herne the Hunter, The Green Knight, Enkidu, and Cerunnos…

Eyes: I employ this symbol often, such as: ‘coats of green brown buttons held by winking eyes’ and ‘eyes of amber water’. Eyes are all-seeing and penetrating; they are a symbol of the Seer, the bodily eye, the Third Eye (Shivra), and the eye of the heart, and also of intellectual perception.

Light/day, night/shade, shadows: In my writing, the symbols of darkness, night and shadow all denote the hidden, inner world, and mystery, even unease, e.g.:

‘Emerging from the darkness into darkness,/the still of the night inside daylight…’ or ‘… but the fragile impulse is fading,/I retreat, to the shadows I have cast,/watch the light/play on the walls,/watch the night/close another day…’

In Jungian terms, I recognise the challenge presented by the Shadow, standing as it does at the gateway of my journey towards the Self, and how I am working through this by way of the active imagination. The personal consciousness waits to be released (individualisation), and the Self to emerge, helped along by the use of symbols.

Linked to this concept is my use of the symbols of dwellings, buildings or simple structures to represent both my material home and my actual self (body and soul). My house has many mansions, as it were… Rooms within dwellings are important symbols for me, representing as they do the parts of my own psyche, and my various experiences and relationships. Consequently, doors are also very important, relevant and symbolic, e.g.:

‘I have rooms, /where no-one, including myself/now visit. /I hear the ghosts of voices /and taste the scent of passion/on my tongue for a moment. /And then the door closes…’

The domestic symbol of the bed, within the home is perhaps another universal symbol, but also my own. We go out into the word from our bed-space, as my story A bridge into the unknown describes:

The bed is a tangible, physical representation of the dream, a place where I, the ego, I, the body and I, the conscious mind go forward to meet the unconscious, wherein lies the mystery and the wisdom of myself. The bed, and the dream, are bridges over which I cross into the unknown. I cross my bridge; I pass, trembling, over fast-moving waters.

As a writer attempting to understand and articulate my own poetic, part of what I am can be interpreted as the accumulation, and the consequence, of my cultural history; its religions and spirituality, philosophy and creativity, its systems of government and of social control.

My writing is influenced by collective memory, complex images, symbols and even generational grief (familial and societal); I am a collation, a creation, of past, present and future.

Ultimately, I am aware that many of the themes and symbols I use are not unique to me, but are universal, and yet I place them in ways particular to my own writing, e.g.: ‘in the fire of darkness; ‘eyes of amber water’; ‘blue as sky-bright’, and ‘proud-arch black brows’.

I make use of universal, cultural and my own personal symbols in my writing to connect my own humanity with others, and as a way of illuminating the dark corners, embracing the shadows, and ultimately, connecting with the eternal.

– Julia Birch 2010


Burke, Kenneth (1966), Definition of Man: Language as Symbolic Action, Berkeley, University of California Press pp 3-24, School of Liberal Arts and Department of English, Purdue University, viewed 27 October 2010, <>

Holcombe C.J. (2007), “Symbolist Poets”, Litlangs Ltd, 2007, viewed 6 May 2009 and 26 October, 2010, <>

Irvine I (2010) Class discussion, Myths and Symbols, Diploma course, BRIT, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia.

Marcus (2008) “What is symbolism?”, “Symbolism in history” and “Interpreting symbolism”, Thoughts of Emergence (2008), viewed 22 October 2010, <>, <>, <>

McClanahan R (1999), “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively”, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio, USA (2000), viewed 27 October, 2010,

Nair T (2010), “Symbolism examples”, Buzzlecom, 2010, viewed 22 October, 2010, <>

O’Connor P (2003), “The Magic of Myth: Storytelling and The Psyche”, All in the Mind: Radio National, ABC (2007), viewed 27 October, 2010,

Par Web Solutions (2005), “Symbolism”, Encyclopaedia4u .com, 2005, viewed 19 June 2009 and 27 October 2010, <>, and <>, <>

Wikipedia (2010), ‘Symbol’, online article, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, viewed 28 October 2010, <>, accessed 30 October 2010

Young J (2010), “The Centre for story and symbol”, viewed 28 October 2010, Design Passions, <>

Contemporary Japanese Manga


Japanese manga, ‘the unique east-meets-west fusion of art, drama, humour, action and dynamic storytelling’ (Aoki 2009, n.p.) and described variously as graphic novels, whimsical pictures, picture books, caricatures, comics and print cartoons, are, in reality, a complex medium, encompassing every theme imaginable from the everyday to the supernatural, including action-adventure, history, horror, sexuality, sport, science fiction and fantasy. Even technical manuals (like cook books), text books and legal case histories have been created in manga format, indicating what a major role manga literature has in the Japanese publishing industry, and how pervasive it is in Japanese life, concurrently reflecting both Japan’s contemporary culture and its Western influences.

Cover page of The Manga Guide to Physics by Hideo Nitta, 2009

Cover page of The Manga Guide to Physics by Hideo Nitta, 2009

Manga initially entered the wider Western consciousness in association with anime (animation) and thereafter steadily on its own merits. There is a significant cross-over between manga, anime, electronic games and ‘light novels’, each inspiring and reflecting the narrative and imagery of the other; for example:  .//hack, originally a series of games about the influences of a virtual gaming world on the real world, is now a manga; the manga Kingdom Hearts, evolved from the Final Fantasy games, which in their turn produced an anime, and Oh My Goddess, from manga to light novel.

Although the majority of manga are produced in Japan (Weekly Shōnen Jump has been in publication there since 1959), in the past 20-30 years they have become increasingly popular around the world, with companies like Viz Media and TOKYOPOP publishing manga in North America. Titles are translated into numerous foreign languages, and magazines like Weekly Shōnen Jump are also distributed in many countries where the magazine itself is not published, such as Canada, Mexico, Spain, Australia and South Korea. One third of France’s comic sales are manga, with a similar market in Germany, and are the fastest growing sector of literature in the UK (Youngman 2008, n.p.). Japanese manga are produced in large, phone book-sized anthology editions and are usually printed in black and white, and traditionally read from the back to the front of the book, and from top to bottom and right to left. As a concession to non-Japanese readers, some publishers will “flip” the pages horizontally from left to right, however this can cause problems with objects or layout.

The pathway to modern manga has evolved over a number of centuries, effectively as a progression of Japanese scroll paintings and other, more textual influences. ‘The tradition of narrative art or telling stories with a series of sequential images has been a part of Japanese culture long before Superman ever put on a cape.’ (Aoki 2009, n.p.) Toba Sojo, an 11th-century painter-priest whose animal scroll paintings or ‘choju giga’ humorously satirized life in the Buddhist priesthood, is commonly credited with producing the earliest examples of pre-manga artwork. In addition, over time, Japanese Illustrated ‘companion’ novels evolved into akahon (adaptations of children’s stories and folk tales), which in their turn evolved into  kurohon (more complicated retellings of kabuki and puppet plays), which then developed into kibyōshi, illustrated picture books or graphical narratives. (Adam Kern (2008, n.p.) suggests that ‘the existence of kibyoshi nonetheless points to a Japanese willingness to mix words and pictures in a popular story-telling medium’.

Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, author Cathy Hirano, illustrator Yuko Shimizu, 2009

Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, author Cathy Hirano, illustrator Yuko Shimizu, 2009

Katsushika Hokusai was the first artist to use the term “manga” or “playful sketches” to describe his humorous images. Despite his first book of manga or “floating world pictures”, Hokusai Manga (1814) being perceived in terms of individual works of art, as opposed to the more connected form of pictorial storytelling, it nevertheless had an important influence on the modern form.   Rakuten Kitazawa (1876-1955) was also one of the first to use the term “manga” in its modern form and is considered one of the founding fathers of modern manga, creating Tokyo Puck (1905), as is Osamu Tezuka, known in Japan as the “god of manga”, who produced Mighty Atom, or Astro Boy; another early pioneer was Ippei Okamoto, creator of Hito no Issho (A Life of a Man). At the start of the twentieth century, manga as literature reflected the rapid changes in Japanese society (once isolated from the rest of the world) as well as the influence of Western culture; Matt Thorn (2005, n.p.) has gone as far as to say that

The ancestor of the modern manga, believe it or not, is the European/American-style political cartoon of the latter 19th Century, and the multi-panel comic strips that flowered in American newspapers in the last years of the 19th Century and the first years of the 20th Century.

Aoki (2009) suggests that:

Kitazawa, Okamoto and many other artists of this late Meiji – early Showa period tapped into the excitement and anxiety felt by many Japanese people as their nation left their feudal days behind to become a modern industrial society. But this was only the beginning of even greater changes for Japan, because the Land of the Rising Sun would soon go to war.

There are two broad perspectives on which particular modern cultural and historical events and influences have had the greater influence on shaping contemporary manga, the first being the literature and art of the pre-Meiji, and the Meiji era (1868-1912) as outlined above, the second being  the historical and cultural events of, and following, the Second World War. Contemporary manga was heavily influenced by American culture during the second Sino-Japanese War, the US Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) and the Post-Occupation era (1952-early 1960s), a culture which included magazines, comics, images and stories from US film and television, including cartoons.

In addition, the globalisation of youth culture after the War (cartoons, television, music and other popular arts) created an ideal environment in which modern manga could develop, a cross-fertilization now come to full realization in contemporary world culture, e.g.: the American Star Wars movie made into Japanese manga, the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell and Oh! My Goddess translated in to English, and even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and Macbeth converted into manga form.

Manga Shakespeare titles

Manga Shakespeare titles

Other deep-rooted historical Japanese cultural and aesthetic traditions which have had a significant influence on the characters and narratives in manga include: Japanese mythology and folklore, embracing Shinto, Taoist and Buddhist traditions; Bushido, the “Way of the Warrior”, a code of conduct of the samurai life with particular emphasis on martial arts mastery, honour until death, fidelity and self-denial, it’s violence moderated by Confucianism and Buddhism; and the notion of the ‘shame society’ where the collective ‘good’ is expected to supersede the perceived selfishness of personal desire and individuality. Considerable personal tension is created by acceptance of this social order/control; the potential conflicts between “giri” (duty and obligation) and “ninjo” (emotion), between collective duty (interdependence) and individuality, have been consistent themes in Japanese literature and have lead many to retreat into the escapism of popular culture of manga and anime.

Within the convention are numerous types of manga (sub-genres): Shojo  and Josei, for women, created predominantly by female artists; Shonen, for boys under 18 and Seinen, for young men, with various themes including the supernatural, action-adventure, sport and humour; Gekiga, a type of gritty, realistic manga commonly aimed at adults, involving anti-hero characters; Yaoi – or “boy love”, male to male romance, such as Gravitation and Junjou Romantica and commonly found in dojinshi; and Dojinshi , which describes the vast field of fan fiction or other self-published works.

While manga story lines across the numerous sub-genres investigate culturally significant subjects such as war/warriors, duty/sacrifice, and honour to family and community, and to the self, plot lines involve self-mastery and the mastery of martial arts, particularly in manga such as Naruto and Bleach, and also explore the dimensions of male friendship and the fine line between good and evil. Manga have been created to both reflect, but, contrastingly, also to confront the ideals of masculine military skills, maturity, obedience and self-discipline and the archetypal roles played by women.


Consequently, the literature of manga can also be used to question and subvert traditional socio-cultural traditions and restraints such as gender roles, sexuality (i.e. Yaoi) and social consciousness and can also be used to make political commentary. Shojo manga are an example of literature for social change; strong, independent female characters have been created by female writer-artists (which in itself was an innovation in the late 1960s), who significantly depart from, and question, traditional gender roles and ideology. Manga therefore can be confronting but liberating for female writer-artists and their audience, as they investigate these more deeply-rooted traditions of the Japanese psyche.

Ultimately, manga as a literary form is not only a reflection of Japan’s socio-cultural history, but also of its Western influences, and serves to push the boundaries of the “known” in both cultural spheres.

Whereas nearly every region around the world enjoys its own domestic brand of visual storytelling, there are three contemporary traditions that can be set apart as either the source of or secondary influence on all the others–namely, bande dessinee (Franco-Belgian), comics (English), and manga (Japanese)… all three traditions followed a parallel contour of development from being a medium associated with disposable novelty at the dawn of the twentieth century to one already commanding the stage as a vibrant and literary form…  (Vollmar 2007, n.p.)

The Seanchaidhe: Irish storytellers past and present

The continuity of Irish storytelling creates narrative bridges from the past through the present to the future…The legacy of the Irish storytelling tradition is inextricably linked to the Irish language. The gradual loss of that language and the subsequent loss of its native language storytellers have changed the tradition forever. Nonetheless, the tradition of storytelling is still living, even as tellers, their tales, venues and audiences change. (Warren 2008, n.p.)

The Irish Seanchaidhe (singular, Sean-chai), “bearers of old lore” and custodians of an indigenous non-literary tradition, have had a distinctive and integral role in Irish socio-cultural history, and despite the assaults on and compromises to its linguistic and textual traditions, the Seanchaidhe still exist today.

Poet Eavan Boland reflects:

…you only have to read Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland (1925) to know that long after the bards were abandoned by history, they are remembered and quoted in Ireland. The drama of all that still backlights Irish poetry – the painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience. (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).

Bards were professionals, highly trained in their craft, their most distinctive ability being their eloquence of delivery and the compelling nature of the stories they told. The Irish Triads speak of: ‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity’ and of ‘Three things that constitute a poet: knowledge that illuminates, knowledge of incantations [and] improvisation.’ (Warren 2008, n.p.) The quality of the oral expression nurtured was extremely important to Irish culture, and the English language spoken in Ireland today has been shaped by this inheritance.

Oral literature (poetry, song, storytelling etc) was held as sacred, learned over a long period of time, or given by the gods (or animal messengers); the storyteller was the conduit between the sacred and its audience, between the Otherworld and humankind, their literature infused with magical meaning, and while revered, in as much as being closer to the gods than the ordinary person, the storyteller was never seen as more important than the gods from whom their inspiration and compositions came.

As officials of the court of the king or chieftain, bards were expected to have a highly-developed knowledge of the history of local places (an understanding of the origins of placenames and the traditions surrounding events, characters, and the places associated with them being essential for the study of Irish mythology), which they would then teach to the elite classes they served. The Metrical Dindshenchas, or Lore of Places is believed to be the foremost surviving example of Irish bardic verse. Bards were also chroniclers and satirists; it was their job to praise their king or chieftain and to research and record their lineage, and also to revile their employer’s enemies. (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.).  Boland remarks that ‘bards wrote poems to their patrons that ranged from christening odes to the darkest invective.’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.)

Role distinctions were made within the profession:

…there were professional storytellers, divided into well-defined ranks – ollaimh (professors), filí (poets) baird (bards), seanchaithe (historians, storytellers) – whose duty it was to know by heart the tales, poems and history proper to their rank, which were recited for the entertainment and praise of the chiefs and princes. (McKendry 2008, n.p.)

However, it would appear that these pre-Christian roles eventually merged, the bards assuming the functions of the fili, and the seanchaidhe eventually fulfilling the role of the bards. Regardless of their title, their function would remain in one form or another for centuries to come, until their status and the reverence in which their cultural role was held was challenged by Ireland’s English invaders.

Poets and storytellers, homespun, humble carriers of an ancient culture, preserved until a century ago an oral tradition…and an oral literature unrivalled in Western Europe. Kuno Meyer, in a memorable phrase, has called the written culture of medieval Ireland “the earliest voice from the dawn of Western civilisation. (J.H.Delargy The Gaelic Story-teller, Sir John Rhys Lecture 1945 in McKendry 2008, n.p.)

The earliest known literature in the Old Irish language, some religious, others secular, included lyric poems, epic prose, even riddles. Their themes were either religious or of the divine or of the natural world. The oldest surviving examples of Irish poetry are from the sixth century, and appear to have been written by scribes within the margins of the illuminated manuscripts they were copying, allowing us a highly evocative image of the layering of Irish cultural and textual history.

The Ossianic poetry (about the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool), was a move from epic prose stories to verse tales, while the Kildare poems of the early 14th century, written in Middle English and making reference to the wider Western European Christian tradition, represent the early stages of the ‘second tradition’ of Irish poetry (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.).

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, marked by The Battle of Kinsale (1601), had a profound and detrimental effect not only on the everyday life of the population, but particularly on the Irish language, and on the influence of the bards and the bardic system of education. The early 17th century saw a new kind of Gaelic poetry, written by marginalised Catholic clerics in what is now called Early Modern Irish: ‘A good deal of the poetry of this period deals with political and historic themes that reflect the poets’ sense of a world lost’ (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.) The Irish Rebellion of 1641 compounded the Irish language poets’ profound disaffection, as did the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53). However, some were pragmatic despite their nationalism, and wrote for their new English lords. The eighteenth century was effectively the end of the old Gaelic order of patronage and protection on which the bards had depended, yet, the poets and storytellers still wrote. In a recent email, beekeeper, forester and sometime poet Micheal MacGiollacoda (MacGillycuddy) refers to ‘the four great Irish poets’ of this era:

… Aodhgan O’Rathaille, Piaras Ferriteir, Eoghan aO’Sullivan and Seafrai O’Donoghue. I have learned off many of their poems, and frequently recite them when I am on my own. They spoke a lot about the sky woman who would appear to them in their dreams. She was really Ireland in the form of a fairy woman, who would beseech them for help to free her from bondage. (2009)

The 12th century Book of Leinster categorized 187 tales according to subject i.e.: battles, tragedies, cattle-raids, courtships, voyages, visions etc.  Writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival of the late 1800s, like W.B.Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M.Synge, attempted to create a new literature from this heritage, however, a common problem in the translation from Irish to English was a loss of imagery, vitality and ‘natural’ Irish speech.

Despite this, the ‘cross-fertilization’ of the two languages has produced textual narrative of many forms which are culturally and historically enlightening, and which function positively for Irish literary culture and identity.  ‘Paradoxically, perhaps …the English language is improved by its contact with the Irish, or, rather refreshed by sea wind and drifting clouds… ‘(Pierstorff 1990, 9-10). While the contemporary Seanchaidhe are particularly associated with the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland – the Gaeltachtai – storytellers are also found in English speaking districts.

Poetry was not the only Irish literature. The term “folktale” has been used to describe the narrative stories passed on orally from one person and from one generation to another, the principle forms being myths and legends, and fairy tales, folk stories and fables. While some tales were written down, many others were, and remain part of the oral tradition of the Seanchaidhe, and as such, have gathered their own particular elements, influenced by the individual storyteller and their region, while retaining the essence of the original tale.  Daithi O’ hOgain describes folklore as: ‘… the communal voice speaking through personal creativity’ (2008), while Eavan Boland refers to the ‘communal aspect to the identity of the Irish poet that has an effect on the contemporary lyric’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).

The domestic seanchas of today is the cell on which the living Irish culture is built, or the channel through which the past flows to inform the future. It may deal with deep things in the house of the scholar; in the cottage, it is satisfied with legendary tales (Aodh be Blacam, Gaelic Literature Surveyed 1929, 349, in McKendry 2008, n.p.)

The ordinary man, woman and child in contemporary Ireland are still connected to their heritage by way of the Seanchaidhe and through the learning of, or reconnection with, the Irish language. MacGiolla Coda (who is, incidentally, my great-uncle) writes:

…storytelling and poetry…is very much part of our Irish culture. We lost so much when we lost our language, as the ordinary people had a wonderful culture which involved poetry, music and song as well as the telling of the stories…handed down from father to son and mother to daughter by word of mouth. I have had the experience of listening to some of those old storytellers or Seanachai as they were called. Some of their stories could go on for hours as they were the epic tales of the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights…in later years I developed a great love for the Irish language and now speak it at every chance I get. I [also] listen to the Irish language station on the radio. (2009)

In other conversations he has talked of the central role of poetry, stories and folktales at wakes, weddings and other social occasions, giving a glimpse of the communal role that storytellers and storytelling continue to play in Irish life. Contemporary storytelling is still seen as unifying both the storyteller and their audience to their culture, allowing each to connect with past and present, and to discover the “magic” that encompasses all (Eddie Lenihan, 2002), a way of embracing those ‘communal shadows’ that fall across the writing and the telling (Schmidt 1997, n.p.). Irish storytellers carry within them the very message of life and Irish identity.

The roles of literature and the writer, of Irish stories and the Irish storyteller, remain pre-eminent ones, despite – or perhaps even because of – the influences of modern technology. Technology is part of the dissemination of culture: through public performances, YouTube and social networking sites and audio tape and DVD recording. This means that many Irish (and non-Irish) people can share in the continuum of this tradition, and in the creation of new writing and performance.

The developments occurring in contemporary Irish literature and poetry suggest that the voices of women, for instance, are being articulated and heard more clearly, enabling them to move away from the confines of the archetype of ‘Muse’ to being  the writers/creators of Irish cultural heritage. (Burke 2009, 85-94). Stories can motivate, persuade and inform, and can help people to make sense of their place, their personal story, and their role in community; they are the key to true engagement, inspiring emotional connection with each other (Storytelling in Business 2007, n.p.).

These are the foundation stones on which the Irish storyteller stands. Throughout, and despite, the seismic shifts occurring in Ireland’s cultural and linguistic history, from the introduction of Christianity and the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, and through the Gaelic revival and Modernism to contemporary Irish literature, storytelling and poetry, we witness the essential part played by the text, the writer and particularly the Seanchaidhe in disseminating and progressing Irish culture.

SHOUTING ACROSS THE DISTANCE: contemporary Irish female poets

Donagh MacDonagh, editor of The Oxford Book of Irish Verse, has described Irish women writers as part of ‘the submerged body of ballad makers’ (Kelly, 1987, 11). In addition, the editors of The Penguin Book of Women Poets (1978) observed that ‘… even today there is a tendency to neglect the work of women poets, and national anthologies include little of their work’ (Kelly, 1987, 12). Thomas Kinsella’s decision, as editor of The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, not to include work from any modern women poets is an example of this mindset (Kelly 1987, 13).

While some Irish female writers such as Speranza (Lady Wilde, formerly Jane Elgee, mother of Oscar Wilde) and Rose Kavanagh, Alice Milligan, Katharine Tynan and Mary Devenport O’Neill were published before the 1900s, there were many more who remained largely invisible, not only in poetry and literature, but in a far wider cultural sense.  As Kelly points out in her introduction to Pillars of the House: an anthology of verse by Irish women from 1690 to the present, for a long time ‘Women scribblers were tolerated [but]”Verse” was the only type of poetry that women, excluded from a classical education, were expected to write…’ (1987, 16).

Poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, commenting of the absence of female writers from the manuscripts for centuries, believes this socio-cultural and political history mirrors the amount of space currently available in the 21st century for women writers, referring to this as a ‘repression of the “deep feminine” in Irish minds, and Irish society – and poetry’ (Sewell, 2003). Similarly, the 1991 publication of The Field Day of Irish Writing, a collection covering more than a thousand years and described as a defining moment in late twentieth-century Irish literature, was ‘marked by the virtual absence of female writers’ (Stylus Publishing, 2008). ‘At the deepest level – you may say at the level of ontology underpinning (sic) – the Irish poetic tradition is sexist and masculinist (sic) to the core’ Ni Dhomhnaill remarked (Poetry Ireland, 1993, 109).

Poets such as Maire Mhac an tSaoi, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain and Eavan Boland have consistently explored, articulated and challenged the boundaries of this constraint, and as contemporary Irish female poets, have broken through the seemingly insurmountable barrier, from being the subjects of Irish poetry – the Muse – to becoming recognisably and authentically the authors of it.

That being said, Irish female poets are even now consistently writing within significant inherited literary constraints.

There was a widespread belief that if poetry, which was a hereditary gift …fell into the female line, then it was gone from that particular family for seven generations to come… A similar taboo existed against women telling Fenian tales; but that did not stop women being storytellers or filiúil (poetic).  (Ni Dhomhnaill, The Hidden Ireland: Women’s Inheritance 1996, 114)

Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland’s poetry is overlaid with Ireland’s bardic history, with its intensely oral and communal tradition and a musicality of language, colour and form, all of which create a powerful emotional and visceral affect. Yet this very mantle of oral and bardic tradition has until recently excluded these same (and other) Irish women from playing an active literary role in their cultural heritage, learning and future vision.

Boland admits that ‘For a long time, I’ve had a sort of dialogue going in my mind – maybe even a quarrel – between those elements of poetic experiment and bardic inheritance’ (Schmidt, 1997). While recognising the burden and constraints of their country’s bardic, oral history, these Irish women poets have, however, breathed new life into it, with such poetry as:

They are outsiders, always. These stars –

these iron inklings of an Irish January,

…they are, they have always been

outside history.

Out of myth into history I move to be

part of that ordeal,

whose darkness is only reaching me from those fields…

(Boland, ‘Outside History’, 1990).

The rhythm, melody and cadence of this poem and the one following carry within them both the voice of the past, and the understanding of the present poet:

In case you thought this was a gentle art

follow this man on a moonless night

to the wretched bed he will have to make:

The Gaelic world stretches out under a hawthorn tree

and burns in the rain.

(Boland, ‘My Country in Darkness’ Colony (1998)

As poets, Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland can be encompassed by Boland’s self-description that while she is a feminist, she is not a feminist poet. For Boland, feminism has great power as ethics, but not as an aesthetic, believing that, for her poetic needs and intentions, feminism is restrictive. Instead, ‘My poetry begins for me where certainty ends… the imagination is an ambiguous and untidy place… its frontiers are not accessible to the logic of feminism’ (Schmidt, 1997).

On the other hand, Ni Dhomhnaill is emphatically a politically active feminist writer. She has said: ‘The issue of the native language and its suppression has intrinsically a vast political dimension…. At surface level it offers parallels with the position of Ireland’s women.’ (‘Words for the Branwen’s theme’, The Water Horse, 1999).

Maire Mhac an tSaoi, the oldest of these women, exercises an extensive technical knowledge and a personal style reminiscent of classical Irish poetry, and is considered by many to be Ireland’s greatest living Irish language poet. An example of this style is at work in one of her most famous poems, ‘Oíche Nollag’:

Le coinnle na n-aingeal tá an spéir amuigh breactha,

Tá fiacail an tseaca sa ghaoith ón gcnoc,

Adaigh an tine is téir chun na leapan,

Luífidh Mac Dé ins an tigh seo anocht.

With the candles of the angels the sky outside is speckled,

The tooth of frost is in the wind from the hill,

Light the fire and go to bed,

The son of God will lie in this house tonight.

Born in 1922 and writing a generation before Ni Dhomhnaill and Boland, Mhac an tSaoi is considered one of a handful of major Irish poets who transformed poetry both during and after the Second World War, her work forecasting the emergence of women’s voices in both English and Irish in the 1970s and 1980s (Centre for Irish Studies, NUI, n.p., 2007).

Like future poets such as Eavan Boland, Mhac an tSaoi writes of, and from, the intimate female experience, at a time when (as Ni Dhomhnaill has put it) the ‘deep feminine’ in Irish culture was marginalised.  In her most famous poem, Ceathruinti Mhaire Ni Ogain, written in the 1940s, she challenges the morality of Ireland at this time: ‘I care little for people’s suspicions,/I care little for priest’s prohibitions,/For anything save to lie stretched/Between you and the wall-‘.

And yet, while Mhac an tSaoi’s poetic voice is informed by the poetry of bardic and traditional folk writing, her measured style actually allows her to be subversive. Though her voice is forthright, this poem also shows the conflict and ambivalence apparent in her writing and in a wider sense, of the Irish woman’s experience of sexuality, femininity and social morality. ‘That tension between individual desire and conventional values is central to Mhac an tSaoi’s poetic method.’ (de Paor 2006).

The social, cultural and economic realities for women even well into the second half of the twentieth century were stark, women experiencing considerable legal, social and educational discrimination. In her analysis of the periods of silence experienced by many writers, Tillie Olsen considered the complex issues of creativity verses interruption which are so often the lot of the female writer, and of which she said ‘Where the claims of creation cannot be primary, the results are atrophy; unfinished work; minor effort and accomplishment; silences’ (1980, 95).

Women writers in particular suffer from what Olsen calls this ‘cost of discontinuity’, often to a greater degree than men, mainly due to the major role they play in child bearing and rearing. And yet, writers such as Ni Chuilleanain still

…allow those who have been silenced by history to surface in art as surreal but living presences. Her poetry is one of half-secrets, half-revelations, scrupulously controlled but also continuously startling, using the language of history, religion, landscape, and myth to unlock those categories of experience for which poetry is the proper language (Holdridge 2007, n.p.).

Layered within and alongside this poetic arena has also been a growing movement to write in Irish; to use the Irish language as the primary means of poetic expression. Ni Dhomhnaill writes solely in Irish, which many believe is a deliberate act of political and cultural significance (Murray, 2009, n.p.).  In ‘The Language Issue’ (translated by Paul Muldoon) she writes: ‘I place my hope in the water/in this little boat/of the language… only to have it borne hither and thither, /not knowing where it might end up’ (Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1990).

The Irish Free State, founded in 1922 following the Gaelic Revival of the late nineteenth century, heralded a resurgence of interest in the Irish language and its folklore and mythology. It became official government policy to protect and promote the Irish language, which lead to a revival of Irish language literature and the official recognition of Gaeltachtai – Irish-speaking regions. In 1926, An Gum (The Project) became a significant outlet both for original literary works and for translations into Irish from poets such as Mhac an tSaoi, and in the second half of the century saw the emergence of female writers and poets such as Ni Dhomhnaill, Boland, and Ni Chuilleanain.

Contemporary Irish female poets, while writing in Irish and in English (or in translation) and expressing their own personal poetic, have both shared, and individually explored, a number of common themes. In particular, they share the potent subjects of women’s experiences of writing in a male-dominated literary landscape; the themes of exile; of change and the quest for identity so prevalent in Irish culture; the themes of love, femininity, feminism and sexuality,’…  sift[ing] through the domestic lives of [their] mother[s] and ancestors.’ (Parini, 2007); and in particular, examining female archetypes and the sacred, and acknowledging and exploring (and consequently, often subverting) ancient Irish folklore and mythology, traditions which many Irish female poets like Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Boland and Ni Chuilleanain see as an integral part of the Irish language and part of the structure and narrative of Irish culture. As Boland has said:  ‘Irish poetry has a bardic history… The Irish bards lay down in the darkness to compose.’ (Schmidt, 1997). Many Irish female writers (as well as women of other nationalities) might understandably reflect often on how they too in the past have, and still do, compose in the shade created by their socio-cultural history.

Mhac an tSaoi, Ni Dhomhnaill, Ni Chuilleanain and Boland, each one of them mothers and wives/partners, share as a consistent aspect of their writing the intimate and the domestic spaces. In First Communion Day, Ni Dhomhnaill writes of her daughter’s first communion and of her own conflicting emotions as a mother:  ‘… how could I tell her about the life ahead of her,/about the darkness through which she will have to walk/ alone, despite my very best efforts, and against my will?’. Boland talks of the ‘disorganisation of the beloved moment’ (Schmidt, 1997) when composing The Pomegranate (‘In a Time of Violence’, 1994), and of how the poem opens out to include the things she loves and wants to unite, such as her teenage daughter, asleep in her room strewn with magazines, coke cans and cut-up apple; in Nightfeeds (1982) she brings together poetry and motherhood, and the complexity of ordinary women’s experiences.

Ni Chuilleanain’s poetry is subtly powerful and provocative. It can be‘…oblique, but always concrete, reflecting the elemental realities of fire, air, water, and earth, giving utterance to what most challenges speech’ (Holdridge 2007, n.p.). As an example, in Ardnaturais, where she speaks of birth (in this instance, of the sacred), and where swimming becomes a meditation on death, she writes: ‘Alone in the sea: a shallow breath held stiffly/My shadow lies/Dark and hard like time/Across the rolling shining stones’ (in Kelly 1987, 136).

Holdridge comments:

While her numerous images of mythical figures, travellers, pilgrims, and women … remind us of our deepest inner sanctum, with its litany of spiritual truths, fears, and needs, these images also catalogue the importance of the ordinary and the domestic as new metaphors for human experiences and emotions (2007, n.p.).

These Irish female poets honour female strengths, each with their own unique poetic, while engaging with Irish language, culture, myth and imagery, where they constantly cross the boundaries of mythology and the everyday, and the of past, present and future.

Eavan Boland articulates it best when she writes:

I began writing in a country where the word ‘woman’ and the word ‘poet’ were almost magnetically opposed… I became used to the flawed space between them. In a certain sense, I found my poetic voice by shouting across that distance.

(Object Lessons: the life of the woman and the poet in our time 1995, xi).


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