A mind can be changed by literature – so, too, can a university. The make-up of Trinity’s campus monumentalises much of its literary heritage. At Front Gate, two bronze statues emerge from the wildflowers. One of these depicts a man whose body lies in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. Along the cobbled stones of Front Square, the Graduates Memorial Building (GMB) leans into your periphery. The society this houses takes its name from the prolific Bram Stoker. Passing the terracotta eaves of the Rubrics and Library Square, there lies a theatre, the eponym of which is Samuel Beckett. If you stray as far as the Hamilton, you’re met with Wilde’s name printed in black and white on the ground floor.
Trinity’s literary heritage exists in bronze, limestone, oak and plastic but also, fundamentally, in paper. The magna opera of writers associated with the College were, for the most part, written sometime after they were students at Trinity. But those writers were writing while they were students – just as students today are. So, where did that work go? In those nascent pieces lies a snapshot, not of what alumni went on to create but of what they were creating within the fences of the grounds. As Robert Yelverton Tyrrell considered it, that work exists as a “record of the mind of Trinity College Dublin”.
Tyrrell understood that, in the anglophone world, literary journals are often the first step a writer takes in their long ascent towards a career in print. Journals provide a smaller stage, a platform for promotion and experimentation. They are an opportunity to rub shoulders with established writers by sharing the same papered spine. Tyrrell himself set up one of Trinity’s most important creative writing journals, Kottabos.
Named after the Greek game which involves flinging splashes of wine at certain targets, Kottabos was formed in 1869 as a journal for translations of Greek and Latin verse as well as select pieces of poetry and prose in English. Between the year of its establishment and 1895, it produced fifty volumes before being discontinued. The magazine is said to have awoken the world to the intellectual potential of the ‘silent sister’ college – the condescending epithet gifted by the other ancient universities to Trinity for its lack of output. The work that appeared in Kottabos, although at times concerned more with style than ideas, was not solely devoted to the classical. With contributors such as Oscar Wilde, Edward Dowden, Arthur Perceval Graves, Standish O’Grady and T. W. Rolleston, the magazine demonstrates the reaches of those early talents with a variety of satirical, tragic and comic pieces. Kottabos, with its innovative scope, went much further than Trinity. On Valentine’s Day 1882, Rolleston wrote in a letter to Walt Whitman: “I sent you a Kottabos yesterday with ‘Calvin Harlowe’ in it”. With his magazine, Tyrrell left a legacy of a Dublin literary society that nurtured writers – values that are now unquestionable cornerstones of College.
Kottabos was not, however, the first of its kind on campus. In 1833, a group of Trinity men established the Dublin University Magazine. Despite opening its first issue with a pledge to promote Tory principles, the magazine went on to pioneer various political voices and was one of the first periodicals of its kind to print pieces in Irish. The magazine was not officially or financially associated with College but had, in its beginnings, its focal point within Trinity walls. To celebrate its establishment and to officially launch the magazine, the editors had the idea of inviting the “most distinguished literary characters in the United Kingdom” to Trinity for a College breakfast on July 1st, 1833. They viewed the breakfast as the “most eligible mode of marking the festal nature of the day”. With typical Trinity ambition, they wrote not to minor figures but instead to the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge – both of whom accepted the invitations. Coleridge went so far as to write that he was “bound as a convinced intelligence, to be present at your Grand College Breakfast”. It was in this magazine that Sheridan Le Fanu published his first story (he later went on to become editor and owner), which may have been where seventeen-year-old Bram Stoker first encountered the work that later inspired his most famous novel, Dracula.
Despite their successful careers, both magazines were eventually discontinued, as is common amongst smaller university publications. Icarus, however, succeeds them both. Since its inception in 1950, Icarus has run longer than either Kottabos or the Dublin University Magazine and boasts contributors and editors of equal consequence. These include Seamus Heaney and Frank O’Connor. As it enters its 74th year, I sat down with the editors, Charlotte Moore and Eloise Rodger, to reflect on the importance of the journal.
The reason for its longevity, Rodger said, could be attributed to the “feeling of universality” it possesses, which “allows it to rise beyond various years, beyond various social groups”. Agreeing, Moore added: “There are no confines. Icarus is not only looking for the modern and the now but instead for what people around Icarus are making regardless of any other draw or pull.”
Notwithstanding its name, Icarus has largely departed from the classical roots from which many Trinity publications germinated. “We’re in such an era of free verse,” Rodger says. Forms and ideas may have been freed from the strictness of the past but the same value is placed on skill and precision as in any other epoch. Both Moore and Rodger are interested “in quietudes, in subtlety,” in work that “feels very intentional, slowly created, created with thought and patience and new ideas”. Icarus accepts poems, short stories, essays, drama, visual art and work that blurs the boundaries between these categories: “It’s art – it includes any kind of creative surge.”
We spoke about the impact social media has on literature. In the age of technology, when everyone has the power to publish their work online without restraint, we agreed that part of the beauty of the printed word is its tangibility, as opposed to unrestrained digital echo chambers. To be published in Icarus is no easy feat, unlike clicking ‘post’ on Instagram. The journal maintains the same standard of excellence as its ancestors and, as such, wants to provide the same opportunities granted to those who came before. Events will be an integral part of this co-editorship: “We want it to be that if you get into Icarus it means that you meet people – be it publishers, writers or other students on campus who have similar interests.” If ever a pairing was fated, you can trust it was Moore and Rodger. Their complementary visions coupled with their love of the written word make it clear that Icarus has fallen into the right hands.
The past has cemented Trinity’s pillar in the pantheon of literature. Icarus offers students an opportunity to add another. Moore was right in saying that “you don’t know who you could be publishing and what they could go on to do”. The editors of Kottabos and the Dublin University Magazine couldn’t have known what their contributors would go on to do, either.