Some Poems of Roger Casement (1918)

[ Source: Some Poems of Roger Casement [Talbot Press Booklets] (Dublin: Talbot Press; London: T. Fisher Unwin 1918), [x]-xviii, 27pp.; available at Gutenberg Project - online; accessed 03-08-2020.]


In giving these few poems of Roger Casement to the Irish people I do not claim for them any special value as Irish literature. Roger Casement was not a poet, he would have been the last to lay claim to any such title, but, like the greater part of his fellow-countrymen, he felt from time to time the impulse to express some particular thought in verse, and he used to jot down, sometimes in a letter to a friend, sometimes on an odd half sheet of paper, the thought clothed in a poetic form just as it came into his mind.

His was a nature of peculiar delicacy and refinement and of singular simplicity; he had but one passion, Ireland, but one deep sympathy—compassion for the helpless and oppressed.

Even as a little boy he turned with horror and revulsion from cruelty of every description: he would tenderly nurse a wounded bird to life, and stop to pity an overloaded horse. This gentleness and tender-heartedness [x] was one of his most marked characteristics; it led him to champion the cause of the Congo native and the Putumayo Indian, and to spend his slender means in later life in trying to relieve the wretched fever-stricken inhabitants in Connemara when typhus was raging among them, or to provide a mid-day meal for children in the Gaeltacht, who after walking perhaps for miles to school, through storm and rain, would have gone hungry all day if his kindly heart had not pitied them. When he was stricken with misfortune, it was these same children whose touching letters to him and whose words of consolation, with their prayers, brought tears to his eyes.

The act which brought him to his death was the result of long years of brooding over Ireland and her destiny; it was not a sudden and new impulse as some have endeavoured to prove. To say that his interest in Ireland began with his retirement from the service of the British Foreign Office is to misrepresent the facts entirely. Roger Casement from his earliest days was before everything else a lover of Ireland. In his school [xi] days he begged from the aunt, with whom he spent his holidays, for possession of an attic room which he turned into a little study, and the writer remembers the walls papered with cartoons cut out of the Weekly Freeman, showing the various Irish Nationalists who had suffered imprisonment at English hands for the sake of their belief in Ireland a Nation. Many years later, when he himself was a prisoner in an English gaol he wrote: “I have felt this destiny on me since I was a little boy; it was inevitable; everything in my life has led up to it.” He seemed in a curious way to have a foreboding of his fate. Once, years before his retirement, he was joking with a friend about some wonderful plan that was conceived in a mood of playfulness, and the carrying out of which would have involved considerable danger. The friend pointed out that the disadvantage of it all lay in the fact that they might accidentally kill someone, and “then,” she added, “we’d be hanged.” Roger Casement was silent for a moment, his deepset eyes fixed on an invisible goal, and then he said very quietly, “I think I shall be hanged for Ireland.” A friend tells me [xii] that later he made a similar observation to a man who spoke of old rebellions and the fate of their leaders, “I shall be hanged, too, for leading an attack on Dublin Castle.”

An incident is told of his life in South Africa, about the time of the Boer War. He was one day, with two companions on the verandah of a hotel, when a lady who had been observing them from a distance for some time approached them. She excused herself for addressing strangers and explained that she had felt compelled to do so as they had interested her profoundly. Explaining that she had the gift of second-sight, she asked permission to tell their fortunes, to which they consented, looking upon the matter as a joke. Having told the fortunes of the lady and of the second companion, she turned at last to Roger Casement, and stated that his was the most interesting fate. She described his adventurous life in broad outline, and then said, “You must take care: at the age of 52 you will come to a violent end.” Roger Casement was within a month of his fifty-second birthday when he died. [xiii]

There was a curious remoteness about him at times. He used to sit for long periods silent in a reverie, and would awaken from it with a sudden start. In his habits he was always simple and frugal; he rose very early in the morning and was always at work before breakfast; he cared nothing for society in the worldly sense, but he loved his friends and was always and invariably happy in the company of children of all ages and classes. Once the writer was walking with him through the streets of an old country town when a tired woman after a shopping expedition was vainly urging an equally tired, and, I am bound to say, naughty little boy to “come on.” When at last in exasperation she called out, “Very well, I’ll go home without you,” the culprit set up an ear-piercing yell and flung himself down on the ground. Roger turned round at once, to hasten back. “Ah! poor soul,” he said, “his heart is broken, God help him; I’ll pick him up.”

Small children always adored him. The tiny three-year-old child of a charwoman working in the house where he was staying used to creep in from the kitchen, [xiv] and try to catch his eye as he sat writing. He always had a smile and caress for her, and one day her mother found her trying with both hands to turn the handle of the study door and scolded her. She hung her head and said, “I wanted to see the gentleman with the kind eyes.”

Many a little beggar child in Dublin knew the smile in those kind eyes, and they used to greet him with smiles in return and always get their copper or two. We used to tease him, and say he walked through the streets of Dublin “buying smiles at a penny each.” I do not think any Irish man, woman, or child ever appealed to him for sympathy and help that he did not give.

On a motor tour through Donegal with some friends he met an old woman whose son and his wife had died and left to her care a family of small children. They looked poor and hungry, and the old woman found it hard to make her little farm support them all. “Wouldn’t they be better for some milk?” asked Roger, seeing them make a scanty meal, with water to drink. “Indeed [xv] they would if I could be getting it for them,” said the grandmother. Roger made no answer, but at the next market town he bought a cow and had it sent out to the old lady.

It was in Ireland he always felt at home; he hated big cities, noise, music-halls, and restaurants. He wrote from London on one visit, “I feel more and more of a foreigner here”; but in the Irish country, with the simple country folk, he was always content. One of the happiest experiences of his life in later years was a short visit he paid to Tory Island in 1912, when he organised a Ceilidh, to which everyone on the island was invited. He sat in the crowded schoolroom, watching the boys and girls dancing their reels and jigs, and listening to the Gaelic songs till far on into the night, when the Ceilidh broke up. He loved the Tory people and used to plan many times to go back and visit them. Tory has a sort of fascination about it, it looks so remote and unreal, “like an opal jewel in a pale blue sea,” he described it once in a letter.

During all the time of his varied experiences abroad [xvi] in Africa and South America, his mind turned always with longing and affection to Ireland. He looked upon himself as an Irishman before all things. He eagerly watched for the rare arrival of mails bringing word of Ireland and her doings. “Send me news of Ireland,” he wrote from South America, “and also what the papers say about the Congo, but chiefly Ireland; Ireland first, last, and for ever.”

Although not a rich man (he had no private means) he contributed generously to all Irish schemes for furthering the National life. He helped several of the Gaelic Colleges, gave prizes in schools for the study of Irish, and did his best to help along many of those newspapers and periodicals which were founded by young and hopeful Irishmen to expound their views and which alas! so often came to an untimely end.

With his singularly generous nature money mattered nothing at all to him save for the use he could make of it to help the work he had at heart. He spent little upon himself, in fact he denied himself all luxuries, and even comforts, that he might have to give to Irish causes [xvii] or to the Irish poor. Those who said of him that he sold himself for money knew nothing of the man they were slandering. He was wholly indifferent to money for its own sake. His scrupulous integrity as to public funds was illustrated by the following:—When he was called to give evidence before a certain commission, as he was waiting his turn with others who had to travel to London for the same purpose, one of the secretaries remarked to a witness, “Do you see that man?” (pointing to Roger Casement), “Well, all the rest have charged first-class railway fares, but he has put down third.”

He wrote much on the Irish question. Letters from his pen appeared in many Irish newspapers, and not a few English ones, and his essays, which will, it is hoped, be published later, show not only a deep insight but much literary skill. His speech from the dock was described by a leading English literary man as an effort “worthy of the finest examples of antiquity.”

At the age of 52 he came to a violent end.... So have many others who died for Ireland; he stands among his peers, the Irish martyrs. He would not have [xviii] chosen to die otherwise, the love of his life was Kathleen ni Houlihan; when he thought he heard her voice calling from her four green fields he had no choice but to obey, though he knew it led to death; but death which comes in such a form to the body leaves the spirit but freer to carry on its purpose.

The men of 1916 are not dead in any real sense, for

“They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.”

Some Poems of Roger Casement
The Heart’s Verdict

Oh! hearts that meet, and hearts that part!
The world is full of sorrow:
Men love and die—th’ almighty mart
Puts up new hearts to-morrow.

Was this Creation’s scheme at start?
Oh! then I little wonder
That Lucifer’s proud human heart
Preferred to God His thunder.

[page 2]
Mio Salvatore

“Were I a king, my crown of gold
I should not for a moment hold,
Did not thy brow its glory share,
Were thou not ever next my chair.

“Were I a God, my heaven would be
One long, lone, vast sterility,
Eternal only in its woe
Did thou not all its purpose know.

“Were I a saint, my midnight cell
Would be the portico of hell,
Did not my scourging heart attest
Thy love dwells in a stricken breast.”

[page 3]
Love’s Horizon

Love is the salt sea’s savour,
Love is the palm-tree’s sheen,
Love is the sky of evening.
That softly sets between.

Love is the ocean’s purple,
Love is the mountain’s crest,
Love is the golden Eagle
That hither builds his nest.

The wind that lists at morning.
The first song of the bird,
The leaves that stir so lightly
Before a limb has stirred:

These are my love’s harbingers
By gathering music drawn.
Oh! wake my love and own them,
Thou life voice of the Dawn.

[page 4]
Love’s Cares

Oh! what cares Love for a sunburnt skin?
Love laughs and sighs for it all the same;
Love seeks a blush that is far within
From the glow of his asking eyes that came—

Oh! what cares Love for untidy hair?
He sleeps where never a comb has passed,
And holds his breath in the tiny snare
Of a curl his kiss shall undo at last—

Oh! what cares Love for a tender heart?
His eyes are filled to their glorious brim;
On tears, on tears from a shining start
Love bears it gently away with him.

Oh! what cares Love for a wounded breast?
Love shows his own with a broader scar:
’Tis only those who have loved the best
Can say where the wounds of loving are.

[page 5]
The Peak of the Cameroons

The Heavens rest upon thee that the eye
Of man may not, for when thou sittest hid
In thunderstorm of lofty pyramid
Of thwarting sea-cloud whitening up the sky,
Then are the clouds set on thee to forbid
That man should share the mystery of Sinai; [n.]
Then are thy ashen cones again bestrid
By living fire—impenetrably nigh.

For thus, by the Dualla, art thou seen,
Home of a God they know, yet would not know;
But I, who far above their doubts have been
Upon thy forehead hazardous, may grow
To fuller knowledge, rooted sure and slow
Where lava slid—like pines Enceladine.

Note: To this line there is a note:— “This line is inadmissible in a sonnet.”

[page 6]

And I have seen thee in the West’s red setting
Stand like some Monarch in a crimson field,
With fleeing clouds empurpling as they yield.
And sunset still the glorious sham abetting.
While high above thy purple forest’s fretting
Thy mighty chest in tranquil gold concealed,
And on thy brows of the dead days begetting
A light that comes from higher things revealed.

So shows there in a passing soul’s transgression
A light of hope beyond these prison bars
Divinely rendered, that, when doubting mars
Our day’s decline, we still may find progression
Of light to light, as day with silent cession
Makes o’er to night—articulate with stars.

[page 7]
Hamilcar Barca

Thou that didst mark from Heircte’s spacious hill
The Roman spears, like mist, uprise each morn,
Yet held, with Hesper’s shining point of scorn,
Thy sword unsheathed above Panormus still;
Thou that were leagued with nought but thine own will,
Eurythmic vastness to that stronghold torn
From foes above, below, where, though forlorn,
Thou still hadst claws to cling, and beak to kill—
Eagle of Eryx!—When the Ægation shoal
Rolled westward all the hopes that Hanno wrecked
With mighty wing, unwearying, didst thou
Seek far beyond the wolf’s grim protocol,
Within the Iberian sunset faintly specked
A rock where Punic faith should bide its vow.

[page 8]

(Sent from the Congo Free State in response to Mr. Harrison’s appeal for the Restoration of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.)

Give back the Elgin marbles; let them lie
Unsullied, pure beneath an Attic sky.
The smoky fingers of our northern clime
More ruin work than all the ancient time.
How oft the roar of the Piraen sea
Through column’d hall and dusky temple stealing
Hath struck these marble ears, that now must flee
The whirling hum of London, noonward reeling.

Ah! let them hear again the sounds that float
Around Athene’s shrine on morning’s breeze,—
The lowing ox, the bell of climbing goat
And drowsy drone of far Hymettus’ bees.
Give back the marbles; let them vigil keep
Where art still lies, o’er Pheidias’ tomb, asleep.

Lukunga Valley,
       Cataract Region of the Lower Congo.

[page 9]
Lost Youth

(Written on receiving a letter from a friend, T. H., who had spent the best years of his life as a missionary in Central Africa, in which he speaks of “the glorious superfluity of strength and spirits one remembers as a lad, but alas! only remembers. “)

Weep not that you no longer feel the tide
High breasting sun and storm, that bore along
Your youth on currents of perpetual song:
For in these mid-stream waters, still and wide,
A sleepless purpose the great deep doth hide;
Here spring the mighty fountains pure and strong,
That bear sweet change of breath to city throng,
Who, had the sea no breeze, would soon have died.
So though the sun shines not in such a blue,
Nor have the stars the meaning youth deviced,
The heavens are nigher, and a light shines through
The brightness that nor sun nor stars sufficed;
And on this lonely waste we find it true
Lost youth and love, not lost, are hid with Christ.

[page 10]
The Streets of Catania

(The streets of Catania are paved with blocks of the lava of Aetna.)

All that was beautiful and just,
    All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
    The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
    One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
    Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little streets and men,
    Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
    Turn whence it came.

[page 11]

Aetna, all wonderful, whose heart
    Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
    Ends in pure snows.

[page 12]
The Irish Language

It is gone from the hill and the glen—
   The strong speech of our sires;
It is sunk in the mire and the fen
   Of our nameless desires:

We have bartered the speech of the Gael
   For a tongue that would pay,
And we stand with the lips of us pale
   And all bloodless to-day;

We have bartered the birthright of men
   That our sons should be liars.
It is gone from the hill and the glen,
   The strong speech of our sires.

Like the flicker of gold on the whin
   That the Spring breath unites,
It is deep in our hearts, and shall win
   Into flame where it smites:

[page 13]

It is there with the blood in our veins,
   With the stream in the glen,
With the hill and the heath and the weans
   They shall think it again;

It shall surge to their lips and shall win
   The high road to our rights—
Like the flicker of gold on the whin
   That the sun-burst unites

[page 14]

(October 6th, 1891.)

Hush—let no whisper of the cruel strife,
Wherein he fell so bravely fighting, fall
Nigh these dead ears; fain would our hearts recall
Nought but proud memories of a noble life—
Of unmatched skill to lead by pathways rife
With danger and dark doubt, where slander’s knife
Gleamed ever bare to wound, yet over all
He pressed triumphant on—lo, thus to fall.
Through and beyond the breach he living made
Shall Erin pass to freedom and to will,
And shape her fate: there where his limbs are laid
No harsh reproach dare penetrate the shade;
Death’s angel guards the door, and o’er the sill
A mightier voice than Death’s speaks “Peace, be still!”

[page 15]

Since treason triumphed when O’Neill was forced to foreign flight,
The ancient people felt the heel of Scotch usurper’s might;
The barren hills of Ulster held a race proscribed and banned
Who from their lofty refuge viewed their own so fertile land.
Their churches in the sunny vales; the homes that once were theirs,
Torn from them and their Faith to feed some canting minion’s prayers:
Oh Lord! from many a cloudy hill then streamed our prayers to Thee,
And like the dawn on summer hills, that only watchers see,
Thy glorious hope shone on us long before the sleeping foe
Knew that their doom had broken on the sword of Owen Roe.

[page 16]

’Twas dawn of fair June morning, while Blackwater still drew grey,
His valley’d mists about him that we saw at Killylea,
The Scottish colours waving as they headed to the ford
Where never foemen waded yet, but paid it with the sword;
And fair it was to see them in the golden morning light,
Climb up the hill by Caledon and turn them to the right;
As they neared Yellow Ford, where Bagnall met O’Neill,
Joy gathered in our throats and broke above their cannons’ peal,
And oh! a thrill went through our ranks, as straining towards the foe,
Like hounds in leash we panted for the word of Owen Roe.

[page 17]

Not yet—altho’ O’Ferrall’s horse come riding in amain;
Not yet—altho’ fierce Cunningham pursues with slackened rein;
Not yet—altho’ in skirmish and in many a scattered fight
We hold them—still with waiting eye, O’Neill smiles in despite;
Till slanting on our backs the sun full on their faces fell.
Then blinding axe and battle spear rose with a sudden swell
“For God, and Church, and Country now—upon them every man;
But hold your strength until ye see them scarce a pike-length’s span;
The Red Hand, ever uppermost, strike home your strongest blow”
And with a yell our feet outsped the words of Owen Roe.

[page 18]

Like heaving lift of yellow wave that drags the sandy shore
On with it to its foaming fall, our rushing pikemen bore
Horse, foot, and gun, and falling flags, like streamers of red wrack,
Torn from their dripping hold, in one broad swell of carnage back;
Stout Blayney’s gallant horse withstood that seething tide in vain;
It bore them down, and redder raced with life-blood of the slain;
One regiment only fought its way from out that ghastly fight,
And Conway slew two horses on the Newry road that night;
While Monroe fled so fast he left both hat and wig to show
How full the breeze that lifted up the flag of Owen Roe.]

[page 19]

Ho! Ironsides of Cromwell, ye’ve got grimmer work to do,
Than when on Naseby’s ruddy morn your ready swords ye drew—
Than when your headlong charges routed Rupert’s tried and best,
Ere yet the glare of battle fainted in the loyal West.
Those swords must break a stouter foe ere ye break Erin’s weal
Or stamp your bloody title-deeds with Cromwell’s bloodier seal;
The dead men of Elizabeth’s red reign for comrades call,
The Scots we sent to-day have need of ye to bear their pall;
There’s room for undertakers still, and none will say ye no
To such fair holdings—measured by the sword of Owen Roe.

[page 20]

Ho! ring your bells, Kilkenny town; ho! Dublin burghers pass
In open day, with open brow, to celebrate the Mass.
The Sword of State that Tudor hate laid sore on Church of God,
Hath fallen here with shattered hilt and vain point in the sod.
Ho! holy Rinnuncini, and ye high lords of the Pale
Lay by your sheets of parchment, and put on your sheeted mail,
For God hath spoke in battle, and His face the foe is toward,
And ye must hold by valour what He hath freed by sword.
Yea, God in fight hath spoken, and thro’ cloud hath bent His brow
In wrath upon the routed—but in hope o’er Owen Roe.

[page 21]
Oliver Cromwell (1650-1659)

(Addressed to the Liberal Members who “went back” on their previous vote and rejected the grant for his statue.)

“Tear out the page his hand hath writ in blood.”
Aye! tho’ a decade filled with mighty deeds
That page records; what though in it the seeds
Of greater freedom sprung, than ever stood
On any shore, to shadow freedom’s brood.
The lordly oak from which a fleet proceeds
May fall unhonoured; can mere party needs
Fill your hands too, with this consenting mud?
We Irishmen found only shade to die
Within the shadow of that mighty tree;
But you base Englishmen it bore on high,
And girt your commerce safe on many a sea:
O! may the people Cromwell taught, deny
Your right within these walls, and turn the key!

[page 22]
The Triumph of Hugh O’Neill

Beal an Altra Buidhe (The Fight of the Yellow Ford, 1598.)

Speed the joyful news of victory from Dungannon to Gweedore,
Let the shout of triumph echo ’mid the cliffs of dark Benmore,
Let the flame that gleams on Sperrin light a flame on every strand,
Till one mighty blaze shall tell it to all men throughout the land.
The haughty Saxon boasted he would ravage broad Tyrone,
And lay our fields in ashes, and make our flocks his own,
Nor hold his hand ’till humbled each Irish kerne should kneel
To England’s monarch only, and not to Hugh O’Neill.

[page 23]

But vain was all his boasting, and vain was all he swore,
For, like the storms of winter when from the hills they pour,
With clouds of long-haired spearmen, and ranks of flashing steel,
O’er the broken host of Saxons swept the children of O’Neill.
Arquebus and gun were fired, yet were fired all in vain,
For their owners’ heads were cloven by the lightening sweeping skean,
But the sturdy English yeomen, who had ne’er been known to reel,
Like the withered leaves of autumn, fell before the fierce O’Neill.

[page 24]

Blackwater’s tide ran darker than e’er it ran before,
The “Yellow Ford “ was crimsoned, the fields were drenched with gore.
The Saxon host had vanished; and Armagh rang out a peal
Of triumph o’er the vanquished, and of welcome to O’Neill.
No more the feet of foemen shall taint our Northern soil,
No more the waving cornfields shall be the Saxon’s spoil.
Our flag no longer drooping, each fold shall now reveal,
And wave for God and Erin and our darling Hugh O’Neill.

[page 25]
Translation from Victor Hugo’s “Feuilles d’Automne”

“I hate oppression with a hate profound,
And wheresoever in the wide world round,
Beneath a traitor king, a cruel sky,
I hear appeal a strangled people’s cry—
Where mother Greece, by Christian kings betrayed
To butcher Turks, hangs disembowelled, flayed.
Where Ireland, bleeding on her Cross expires,
And German truth in vain fronts royal liars.
“Oh then, upon their heads my curse I launch,
These kings whose steeds pace bloody to the paunch:
I feel the poet speaks their judgment, and
The indignant Muse, with unrelenting hand,

[page 26]

Shall bind them pilloried to their thrones of shame,
And press their dastard crowns to shape a name
That on their brows the poet’s hand shall trace—
So Man may read their calling in their face.”

[ close ]

[ top ]