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A NATION WITHOUT A VIBRANT MODERN LITERATURE IS THREATENED

February 25, 2016

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William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was an Irish poet, who was central to the Irish literary revival, which acquired the name ‘Celtic Twilight’ after he wrote his The Celtic Twilight in 1893. Yeats is known to have said: “There is no great literature without nationality, and no great nationality without literature.”[1] This is absolutely right, and Coptic nationalists have to take notice.

There is no great nation without literature, by which he must have meant not an old literature, that is limited in scope, and almost fossilised in the past, for the Irish, like the Copts, had a wealth of old literature. What Yeats undoubtedly meant is a new type of literature that is produced by living members of the nation, and expressed in various forms. It is this that drove him, with others, to lead the Irish, great literary renaissance of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. To those who doubted the attempts to revive the Irish language – he referred to them as ‘Dr. Hyde’ – he had these words:

Can we not build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit for being English in Language? Can we not keep the continuity of the nation’s life not be doing what Dr. Hyde has practically pronounced impossible [i.e., reviving the Irish language] but by translating or re-telling in English, which shall have an indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style, all that is best of the ancient literature.[2]

Irish literature would be better written in Irish language, but development of an Irish literature cannot wait until the Irish language is revived – the life and health of the nation depended on the existence of lively Irish literature. Let it be in English, but let it be Irish in spirit, and let it have indefinable Irish quality of rhythm and style. To this, he adds: “Whenever an Irish writer has strayed away from Irish themes and Irish feelings, in almost all cases he has done no more than make alms for oblivion.”[3]

The Copts of today are in the same situation the Irish were in in the nineteenth century. The Irish were a proud nation with great old literature, but since the English language was introduced to Ireland in the thirteenth century it gradually replaced the Irish language, and literature in Irish nearly died. This moved the Irish nationalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to work to develop a modern literature based on Irish and English, but all the times expressing Irish themes. This is the Celtic Twilight. English literature was great at that time but the need to revive Irish literary literature was not based on the poverty of English language but on the need to have a literature that carried the soul of the people and expressed the inner feelings and aspirations of the unique Irish nation. If English literature was great, Arabic literature isn’t that great:[4] the Copts are faced with a situation in which they are almost besieged by a foreign culture, and have no way other than to feed on its literature that neither expresses their values nor reflects their lives, feelings and thoughts.

The bitter truth is that the Copts do not possess a vibrant modern literature; and in the absence of that, Arab literature dominates: national minorities cannot live in a cultural vacuum – if they don’t thrive on their own literature, the literature of the majority – some of its strongest cultural arsenal – squeezes itself down their throat in one way or the other. That is how national minorities lose their identities and become assimilated to those who dominate them. The connection between nationality and literature, as Yeats has described, is instantly apparent. The lack of literature can destroy a nation, while a great literature protects it.

The Copts must have their own literature not just to ward off Arab and Islamic culture that poses an existential threat to them, but also to discover their inner soul and reflect it in a literary form – in poetry, novels and plays. There must be a flowering of Coptic literary talent for a Coptic literary renaissance. For that to happen, the national consciousness must be strengthened; and here comes the role of the Coptic nationalists.

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[1] Remarks from ‘Browning’ [a review], in Boston Pilot, 22 Feb. 1890; rep. in Letters to the New Island, NY 1934, pp.103-04.

[2] Letter to United Ireland, 17 Dec. 1892; rep. in John P. Frayne, Uncollected Prose, Vol. I, 1970, p.57; in answer to Douglas Hyde’s call for the ‘de-anglicisation of Ireland’ – i.e., the full revival of the Irish language.

[3] Remarks from ‘Browning’.

[4] The writer does not deny that Arab literature possess some beautiful literature but would not put it on the same level as that of the English, French, German or Russian, for instance.

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