Yeats, Eliot and Synge, who had achieved a revival of the poetic drama in the 20th century, had been reacting against the contemporary Prose play of Ideas popularized by Ibsen. These dramatists felt that the prose play emphasized mainly on urban life and its contemporary problems. Realizing that urban life had become superficially sophisticated but devitalized, they attempted to highlight in their plays those forms of existence that were beyond the premises of modern society, still possessing spontaneity, emotion and imagination.
Synge has discovered this kind of life amongst the fishing community of the Aran Islands in the remote northwestern corner of Ireland. The perpetual battle of the islanders against the ruthless sea is a theme that could be full expressed only through the suggestive, symbolic and lyrical power of poetry. Though Synge’s medium is prose, he enlivens it with the rhythms and cadences of poetry and revives a poetic idiom that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had used for tragedy. Commenting on the power of verse in expressing human emotions, T. S.
Eliot had observed, “…the human soul, in intense emotion strives to express itself in verse…the tendency…of prose is to emphasize the ephemeral and the superficial”. According to Eliot, words are so much trivialized in their everyday prose-contexts of usage that they lose their suggestive power. In poetry, these same words are revitalized with special meaning and significance. It is for this reason that Synge had relied on poetic prose in his tragic one-act lay play. In Riders to the Sea, Synge depicts the passion and heroism that he finds among the Aran fishermen.
Their lives convey man’s universal struggle against adversity and destiny. These experiences could only be appropriately expressed through a medium of poetic prose. Maurya, Bartley, Nora and Cathleen are defined by emotion and not intellect. They respond to life with passion, imagination and intuition; not with reason. In their daily relationship with the sea, they come to understand its mystery and horror. In this context Synge has stated – “in countries where the imagination of the people and the language they use, are rich and living, it’s possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words.
” This is highly appropriate for Synge’s play in which the beauty of the poetic idiom can be identified with the emotional intensity of the characters. The evocative power of poetic prose can be fully felt in Maurya’s transformation from a baffled grief-stricken mother to a prophet-like mind, having achieved sublime wisdom out of suffering. Though she is initially overpowered by loss, she finally achieves a profound universal vision of life and death, a lofty sympathy for mankind and a deep faith in God.
Such a profound transcendence would only be recorded in poetic prose, as evident in the following words of Maurya – “may the Almighty God have mercy…everyone left living in the world” the poetic beauty and the elegiac power of these lines remind of Oedipus’s transcendence in Sophocles’s play and Samson’s sublimation of grief in Milton’s play. Synge’s use of symbolism in the play has also been facilitated by the use of poetic prose. As the play is prevailed over by a brooding sense of dark destiny, the reference to many superstitions and occult beliefs had become necessary for the dramatist.
The play reflects an almost pagan attitude to life in which the universe is believed to be controlled by dark and malicious powers. The paganism, the superstitions and the supernaturalism presented in the play would have become unconvincing and implausible in a prose context. The poetic prose evolves an appropriate atmosphere of premonition and ill omen fro the proper representation of these ideas. Many of these superstitious beliefs are alluded to through a menacing use of expressions like ‘black night’, ‘black cliff’, ‘black knot’, ‘dark word’, and ‘the pig with black feet’.
The repetition of ‘black’ and ‘dark’ in a poetic context creates a brooding atmosphere of apprehension. The resemblance between Synge’s poetic prose and the verse tragic drama of the classical playwrights is evident. Reminiscent of classical poetic tragedy, Synge’s play also includes the supernatural. In Maurya’s supernatural vision witnessed at the spring-well, the red mare that Bartley rides on symbolizes life and the gray pony on which Maurya sees Michael’s spectre is the very emblem of death. The vision foreshadows Bartley’s death that occurs in the course of the play.
The full significance of Maurya’s vision could never have been conveyed in a prose play. Poetic prose lends a special prophetic power to it. Synge derives the poetic idiom through the combination of English vocabulary and Gaelic grammar. While the diction is mainly English, the syntax, the rhythm and the cadences are Gaelic. The language seems to reverberate with the lyrical powers of the language of the Bible. The full effect of such an idiom can be understood in some of the most elegiac lines that are touched by tenderness, pathos and tragic beauty as in Nora’s lamentation over Michael’s death – “…isn’t is a
pitiful thing when there is nothing left of a man who was a great rower and fisher but a bit of an old shirt and a plain stocking? ” The rhythmic quality of the language is strengthened by the regular bit of the iambic metre this is complimented by the dramatic gestures and actions that would have appeared unnatural in a prose-play. This is evident in the ritual of keening for the dead that the Aran islanders perform to express their grief and mourning.
The choric keening would have lost its somber and solemn beauty, had Synge not used poetic prose, full of the accents, intonations and rhythms and Anglo-Gaelic. The poetic medium in Riders to the Sea has made it possible for Synge to overcome the limitations of the prose play. It enables Synge to attribute depth, beauty and universal significance to a play that may have otherwise been impaired by its brevity. The poetic prose has placed Synge’s play in the age-old tradition of poetic tragedy that had reached excellence in the hands of Sophocles and Shakespeare.