Meritocracy is the cry amongst much of the anti-politically correct right, but here is another instance where I find myself unable to join in. It's not that I think we don't need meritocracy-- of course we do. If someone is going to open me up and perform surgery on me, I want him (or her, I hasten to add) to have got the job on merit. Or at least, to be qualified to do it.
But meritocracy is like freedom. I think we can have enough of it without making a fetish out of it. And by "meritocracy", I mean here not only the allocation of jobs and positions in society, but the quest for excellence in general.
In a post some months ago, I defended the Special Olympics on the grounds that the athletes who perform in it are unlikely to get many opportunities to perform in such a setting.
I'm not sold on artistic or literary meritocracy, either. Matthew Arnold once described literature as "the best that has been thought and said in the world." I don't like this definition.
Again, I'm not arguing that it has no relevance. Many great works do have a surpassing literary and artistic merit which transcends all boundaries-- A Christmas Carol, for instance.
But I think extra-aesthetic and extra-meritocratic considerations can and do influence our appreciation of culture. When you think about it, this is obvious. Is it wrong for someone to enjoy Three Men and a Boat because they like boats? Or to enjoy Conan the Barbarian because they like the sword and sorcery genre? Of course, not.
I'm partial to the idea of "national culture" and "national literature", and I think national cultures rest as much on second-rate and third-rate and fourth-rate talents as they do on first-rate talents. The same point applies to regional literature and regional culture. W.B. Yeats belongs to world culture as well as to Irish culture. But there are other writers who have a readership or reputation in their homeland, but not abroad. I think this is all to the good, and I worry that globalization might endanger it.
(When I went to Hull, I was very upset that a local bookshop had more Yeats books than Larkin books on the shelf. I felt Hull was Larkin's city and he should be the favourite son there. That was in 2005.)
James Clarence Mangan is a poet who is fairly well known in Ireland but virtually unknown outside it. (Although Chesterton wrote a highly knowledgeable review of his works.) He died in 1849. He was a rather Byronic figure who suffered from depression and addictions. He was also a cultural nationalist.
W.B. Yeats took him as a predecessor, although (if my memory serves me) he admitted later in life that he had rather overpraised him. His poems have a tendency towards the melodramatic and orotund-- although that's not the worst thing in the world.
My favourite of his poems is probably "And Then No More", a poem which greatly appealed to me when puberty fired through my veins. (But that's not the only reason I liked it. I've always liked poems with a very restricted rhyme scheme.) I still like it, although not quite as much. Anyway, my non-Irish readers might be especially interested in a poet they're unlikely to have heard of.