Padraic Colum, ed., Anthology of Irish Verse (1922): Introduction

[ Source: Bartleby Great Books Online [link]. ]

I should like to call this an Anthology of the Poetry of Ireland rather than an Anthology of Irish Verse. It is a distinction that has some little difference. It implies, I think, that my effort has been to take the poetry of the people in the mass, and then to make a selection that would be representative of the people rather than representative of individual poets. The usual, and perhaps the better, way to make an anthology is to select poems and group them according to chronological order, or according to an order that has a correspondence in the emotional life of the reader. The first is the method of the Oxford Book of English Verse, and the second is the method of the Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. In this collection - the last section - there is an anthology of personal poems that is in chronological order; and there is an anthology of anonymous poems - the second section - that is arranged according to an order that is in the editor’s own mind. But the other sections of the anthology are not chronological and are not according to any mental order - they represent a grouping according to dominant national themes.

This method of presentation has been forced upon me by the necessity of arranging the material in the least prosaic way. It would not do, I considered, to arrange the poetry of Ireland according to chronological order. Irish poetry in English is too recent to permit of a number of initial excellencies. Then the racial distinction of Irish poetry in English - in Anglo-Irish poetry - was not an immediate achievement, and so the poetry that would be arranged chronologically would begin without the note of racial distinctiveness. And because so much of Irish poetry comes out of historical situation, because so much of it is based on national themes, the order that has a correspondence in personal emotion, would not be proper to it. The note that I would have it begin on, and the note that I would have recur through the anthology is the note of racial distinctiveness.

Ireland is a country that has two literatures - one a literature in Irish - Gaelic literature - that has been cultivated continuously since the eighth century, and the other a literature in English - Anglo-Irish literature - that took its rise in the eighteenth century.

Anglo-Irish literature begins, as an English critic has observed, with Goldsmith and Sheridan humming some urban song as they stroll down an English laneway. That is, it begins chronologically in that way. At the time when Goldsmith and Sheridan might be supposed to be strolling down English laneways, Ireland, for all but a fraction of the people, was a Gaelic-speaking country with a poetry that had many centuries of cultivation. Afterwards English speech began to make its way through the country, and an English-speaking audience became important for Ireland. And then, at the end of the eighteenth century came Thomas Moore, a singer who knew little of the depth or intensity of the Gaelic consciousness, but who, through a fortunate association, was able to get into his songs a racial distinctiveness.

He was born in Dublin, the English-speaking capital, at a time when the Gaelic-speaking South of Ireland had still bards with academic training and tradition - the poets of Munster who were to write the last chapter of the unbroken literary history of Ireland. From the poets with the tradition, from the scholars bred in the native schools, Moore was not able to receive anything. But from those who conserved another part of the national heritage, he was able to receive a great deal.

At the end of the eighteenth century the harpers who had been wandering through the country, playing the beautiful traditional music, were gathered together in Belfast. The music that they were the custodians of was noted down and published by Bunting and by Power. With such collections before them the Irish who had been educated in English ways and English thought were made to realise that they had a national heritage.

Thomas Moore, a born song-writer, began to write English words to this music. Again and again the distinctive rhythms of the music forced a distinctive rhythm upon his verse. Through using the mould of the music, Moore, without being conscious of what he was doing, reproduced again and again the rhythm, and sometimes the structure of Gaelic verse. When Edgar Allen Poe read that lyric of Moore’s that begins “At the mid-hour of night”, he perceived a distinctive metrical achievement. The poem was written to an ancient Irish air, and its rhythm, like the rhythm of the song that begins “Through grief and through danger”, wavering and unemphatic, is distinctively Irish. And Moore not only reproduced the rhythm of Gaelic poetry, but sometimes he reproduced even its metrical structure.

Silent, O Moyle, be the roar of thy water;
Break not, ye breezes, your chain of repose,
While murmuring mournfully, Lir’s lonely daughter
Tells to the night star her tale of woes.

Here is the Gaelic structure with the correspondences all on a single vowel - in this case the vowel “o” - ”Moyle”, “roar”, “repose”, “lonely”, “woes”, with the alliterations “break”, “breezes”, “tells”, “tale”, “murmuring”, “mournfully.” And so, through the association that he made with music, Thomas Moore attained to distinctiveness in certain of his poems [1]. Back in 1760 MacPherson’s “Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland” was published. That medley, unreadable by us to-day, affected the literatures of England, France, Germany and Italy. In the British Islands eager search was made for the Gaelic originals. There were no originals. MacPherson’s compositions which he attributed to the Gaelic bard Ossian were, in every sense of the word, original. And yet, as the historian of Scottish Gaelic literature, Dr. Magnus MacLean, has said, the arrival of James MacPherson marked a great moment in the history of all Celtic literatures. “It would seem as if he sounded the trumpet, and the graves of ancient manuscripts were opened, the books were read, and the dead were judged out of the things that were written in them.” Those who knew anything of Gaelic literary tradition could not fail to respond to the universal curiosity aroused by the publication of MacPherson’s compositions. In Ireland there was a response in the publication of a fragment of the ancient poetry and romance. “The words of this song were suggested by a very ancient Irish story called ‘Deirdri, or the lamentable fate of the Sons of Usneach’ which has been translated literally from the Gaelic by Mr. O’Flanagan, and upon which it appears that the ‘Darthula’ of MacPherson is founded”, Thomas Moore wrote in a note to the song “Avenging and Bright.” Slowly fragments of this ancient literature were revealed and were taken as material for the new Irish poetry. [2]

After Moore there came another poet who reached a distinctive metrical achievement through his study of the music that Bunting had published. This poet was Samuel Ferguson. He took the trouble to learn Gaelic, and when he translated the words of Irish folk-songs to the music that they were sung to, he created, in half a dozen instances, poems that have a racial distinctiveness. Ferguson had what Moore had not - the ability to convey the Gaelic spirit. Take his “Cashel of Munster”:

I’d wed you without herds, without money or rich array,
And I’d wed you on a dewy morn at day-dawn grey;
My bitter word it is, love, that we are not far away
In Cashel town, though the bare deal board were our
  marriage bed this day.

Here is the wavering rhythm, the unemphatic word-arrangement, that is characteristic of Irish song and some racial character besides. Callanan, too, gets the same effects in his translation of “The Outlaw of Loch Lene”:

O many’s the day I made good ale in the glen,
That came not from stream nor from malt like the brewing
  of men;
My bed was the ground, my roof the green wood above,
And all the wealth that I sought, one fair kind glance from
  my love.

Ferguson’s translation of “Cean Dubh Dilis”, “Dear Dark Head”, makes one of the most beautiful of Irish love songs; it is a poem that carries into English the Gaelic music and the Gaelic feeling; the translation, moreover, is more of a poem than is the original.

Sir Samuel Ferguson was the first Irish poet to attempt a re-telling of any of the ancient sagas. He aimed at doing for “The Tain Bo Cuiligne”, the Irish epic cycle, what Tennyson at the time was doing for the Arthurian cycle, presenting it, not as a continuous narrative, but as a series of poetic studies. The figures of the heroic cycle, however, were too primitive, too elemental, too full of their own sort of humour for Ferguson to take them on their own terms. He made them conform a good deal to Victorian rectitudes. And yet, it has to be said that he blazed a trail in the trackless region of Celtic romance; the prelude to his studies, “The Tain Quest”, written in a heady ballad metre, is quite a stirring poem, and his “Conairy” manages to convey a sense of vast and mysterious action. It was to Ferguson that W. B. Yeats turned when he began his deliberate task of creating a national literature for Ireland.

With Sir Samuel Ferguson there is associated a poet whom he long outlived, James Clarence Mangan. Mangan was a great rhapsodist if not a great poet. He was an original metrical artist, and it is possible that Edgar Allen Poe learnt some metrical devices from him. [3]

The themes that this poet seized on were not from Irish romance, but were from the history of the Irish overthrow. And what moved him to his greatest expression were the themes that has a terrible desolation or an unbounded exultation - Brian’s palace overthrown and his dynasty cut off; the Princes of the line of Conn dying unnoted in exile; the heroic chief of the Clann Maguire fleeing unfriended through the storm; or else it is Dark Rosaleen with her “holy, delicate white hands” to whom all is offered in a rapture of dedication. Mangan incarnated in Anglo-Irish poetry the bardic spirit of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the sigh that Egan O’Rahilly breathed, “A mo Thir, A mo Gradh”, “O my Land, O my Love”, is breathed through all his memorable poetry. He had the privilege of creating the most lovely of all feminine representations of Ireland, and in “Dark Rosaleen” he has made the greatest, because the most spiritual, patriotic poem in the world’s literature. One has to describe the best of Mangan’s poems as translations, but in doing so, one is conscious that one has to extend unduly the meaning of the word. And yet, the impulse and the theme has come to him through the work of another, and this not only in the case of poetry he took from Irish sources, but in the poetry that he drew from German and Arabic sources.

Mangan’s poems were published in the forties. There was then a conscious literary movement in Ireland. It went with the European democratic movement, with the coming to consciousness of many European nationalities. At the time the Finns were collecting their Magic Songs that were to be woven into the enchanting epic of the Kalavala, and the Bohemians were making their first, efforts to revive their distinctive culture. And the Irish, with their ancient literary cultivation and their varied literary production, might be thought to be in a position to create a literature at once national and modern, intellectual and heroic. Under the leadership of Thomas Davis a movement of criticism and scholarship was inaugurated - a movement that might be looked to to have fruit in a generation.

Then came the terrible disaster of the famine - of the double famine, for the famine of ’47 followed the famine of ’46. The effect of this national disaster (until the war no European people had suffered such a calamity in two hundred years) was the making of a great rent in the social life. How it affected everything that belonged to the imagination may be guessed at from a sentence written by George Petrie. He made the great collection of Irish music, but in the preface to his collection he laments that he entered the field too late. What impressed him most about the Ireland after the famine was, as he says, “the sudden silence of the fields.” Before, no one could have walked a roadway without hearing music and song; now there was cessation, and this meant a break in the whole tradition.

And what Petrie noted with regard to music was true for song and saga. The song perished with the tune. The older generation who were the custodians of the national tradition were the first to go down to the famine graves. And in the years that followed the people had little heart for the remembering of “old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.” The history of Ireland since is a record of recovery and relapse after an attack that almost meant the death of the race.

That Ireland stirs so powerfully to-day means that a recovery has been made. There is a national resurgence. And as part of the national resurgence there has come that literary movement, beginning in the eighties, which is generally termed the Irish Literary Rennaissance.

There are three writers who have each contributed a distinctive idea to this literary movement - W. B. Yeats, George W. Russell, and Dr. Douglas Hyde. The idea that Mr. Yeats has contributed is that of a culture that would be personal and aristocratic. Irish poetry, when he began his work, was in close alliance with political journalism. The Irish political movement had become parliamentary and argumentative, and this spirit had influenced the work of the poets. Irish poetry tended to the hackneyed in form and the impersonal in mood. Mr. Yeats, by devoting his artistic energy to the creation of subtle and beautiful forms, brought a creative idea to the younger writers. He preached to them continuously about discipline, form, personal emotion. In his early volume, “The Wanderings of Oisin”, he opened up a fresh world for the poets of the new time - a world where there is nothing but enchantment. And soon he was able to convince the younger poets that they were most racial, that they were most Gaelic, when they were disciplining themselves for the creation of exact forms: Gaelic poetry, it was easy to show, had ever for its ideal the creation of highly-wrought forms.

He insisted that personality was the root of poetry, and that the expression of opinion and of collective feeling was for the journalists and the political orators. Mr. Yeats is regarded as a mystical poet: he is not mystical, however, but intellectual, and the poems in “The Wind Amongst the Reeds” that has given him the name of being a mystic are esoteric rather than mystical; they belong to the movement that produced the French symbolists. The Irish mind is intellectual rather than mystical, but it is very prone to take an interest in (the words have been used to describe a tendency of the Irish mediaeval philosophers) “what is remote, esoteric, and cryptic.” Mr. Yeats, in Irish letters, has stood for the intellectual attitude.

But the poet who has been his comrade in the Art School in Dublin was really a mystic. This was George W. Russell, who was to publish his poem under the initials “A.E.” Like all mystics “A.E.” is content to express a single idea, and when one has entered into the mood of one of his poems one can understand the whole of his poetry and the whole of his philosophy. In his three books of verse, and in his two books of imaginations and reveries, in his book on economics, “A.E.” has stated his single, all-sufficing thought. Men are the strayed Heaven-Dwellers. They are involved in matter now, but in matter they are creating a new impire for the spirit. This doctrine which might form the basis for a universal religion has been put into an Irish frame by the poet. “A.E.”, too, has been drawn to the study of the remains of Celtic civilization. He sees in Celtic mythology a fragment of the cosmology once held by the Indians, the Egyptians, the Greeks. And he alludes to the Celtic divinities as if Lugh, Angus, Mananaum, Dagda, Dana, were as well-known as Apollo, Eros, Oceanus, Zeus, Hera.

“A.E.”’s vision is not for all the Irish writers who have come under his influence. But he has taught every one of them to look to the spiritual significance of the fact or the event he writes about. As he is one of the leaders of the Agricultural Co-oprative Movement and as he edits a co-oprative journal his influence goes far beyond the literary circles.

Dr. Douglas Hyde has written in Gaelic and in English; he has written poems, plays and essays, but it is by his collection of folk-poetry that he has most influenced contemporary Irish literature. He came into contact with the Gaelic tradition, not through books but by living with the farmers and fishers of the West of Ireland.

The Gaelic-speaking population of Ireland had now shrunk to some-out-of-the-way districts along the Western, Southern, and Northwestern coasts. But in the Western districts - in Connacht - this poet-scholar was able to make considerable gleanings. He has published “The Love Songs of Connacht” and “The Religious Songs of Connacht”, two sections of a great collection of the folk-poetry of Connacht, and the publication of these songs has been one of the greatest influences on the new Irish literature. [4]

Dr. Hyde, in translating these Gaelic folk-songs into English, reproduced in several instances the distinctive metrical effects of Gaelic poetry, and showed how various interesting forms might be adopted into English. But the influence of the songs themselves was to transcend any effects of language or verse-structure. The young Irish poets who had been brought up in a culture remote from their racial inheritance were to find in them, not only an intensity and a moving simplicity; they were to find in them, too, a racial spirit, a special character, a country’s features. The actuality that is in many of the Connacht Love Songs has been brought into Irish poetry in English.

The Gaelic League which Dr. Hyde was for long president of has had a large and impersonal influence on Irish literature. In 1899 Dr. Hyde ended his account of Gaelic literature with these words: “The question whether the national language is to become wholly extinct like the Cornish, is one which must be decided within the next ten years. There are probably a hundred and fifty households in Ireland at this moment where the parents speak Irish amongst themselves, and the children answer them in English. If a current of popular feeling can be aroused amongst these, the great cause - for great it appears even now to foreigners, and greater it will appear to the future generations of the Irish themselves - of the preservation of the oldest and most cultivated vernacular in Europe, except Greek alone, is assured of success, and Irish literature, the production of which though long dribbling in a narrow channel - has never actually ceased, may again, as it is even now promising to do, burst forth into life and vigor, and once more give the expression which in English seems impossible, to the best thoughts and aspirations of the Gaelic race.” Less than two decades after this was written Padraic Pearse was writing his poetry in Gaelic, and creating a new tradition of poetry in that language, and Thomas MacDonagh was declaring in his lectures to the students of the new National University, “The Gaelic revival has given to some of us a new arrogance. I am a Gael and I know no cause but of pride in that. Gaedhal me agus no h-eol dom gur nair dom é. My race has survived the wiles of the foreigner here. It has refused to yield even to defeat, and emerges strong to-day, full of hope and of love, with new strength in its arms to work its new destiny, with a new song on its lips and the word of the new language, which is the ancient language, still calling from age to age.”

In the second section of this Anthology there is a collection of songs mainly anonymous - the songs of the street and the countryside. These songs are a distinctive national possession, and, in many cases, they have been a medium through which Gaelic influences have passed into English.

Certain traditional songs of the countryside have been passing over from Gaelic into English ever since English began to be used familiarly here and there in the countryside. Not so many, however; very few of the famous Gaelic songs have been changed from Gaelic into English by the country people themselves. But as English became a little more familiar, or Gaelic a little less familiar, translations were made, or rather, transferences took place with the music remaining to keep the mould. Thus a technique that was more Gaelic than English grew up in the country places; and even before scholarship made any revelation of Gaelic literature to the cultivated, an interpenetration of the two literatures was taking place.

These anonymous songs are of two distinct types - the song that has in it some personal emotion or imagining; that comes out of a reverie.

My love is like the sun,
That in the firmament does run,
And always is constant and true;
But his is like the moon,
That wanders up and down,
And every month it is new.

and the song that has in it the sentiment of the crowd:

The French are on the say,
Says the Shan Van Vocht,
The French are on the say,
They’ll be here without delay,
And the Orange will decay,
Says the Shan Van Vocht.

The first is the song of the countryside as it is found all the world over, the second is that very characteristic Irish product, the street-song or ballad.

It is the business of the singer of the street-song and of the man who makes the verses for him to hold the casual crowd that happens to be at the fair or the market. The maker of the street-song cannot prepare the mind of his audience for his story, and so he has to deal with an event the significance of which has been already felt - a political happening, a murder, an execution. The maker of the street-song has to make himself the chorus in the drama of daily happenings. He has always to be dramatic:

I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand,
And he said, “How is poor Ireland, and how does she stand?


O then tell me, Shaun O’Farrell, why do you hurry so?

More than any other Anglo-Irish verse product, these street-songs show the influences of Gaelic music and the technique of Gaelic poetry. One finds stanzas the rhythm of which reproduces the distinctive rhythm of the music:

On the blood-crimsoned plains the Irish Brigade nobly stood,
They fought at Orleans till the streams they ran with their
Far away from their land, in the arms of death they repose,
For they fought for poor France, and they fell by the hands
  of her foes.

A stanza of Moore’s has been already quoted to show a Gaelic verse-structure, with all the correspondences based on a single vowel. In the street-songs, and the more personal songs of the country-side, made as they have been, by men more familiar with the Gaelic than with the English way of making verse, one often finds the same elaborate and distinctive structure. Take, for instance, the song in the second section called “The Boys of Mullaghbaun”, in which all the correspondences are on the broad “a”:

On a Monday morning early, as my wandering steps did lade
Down by a farmer’s station, and the meadows and free
I heard great lamentation the small birds they were making,
Saying, “We’ll have no more engagements with the Boys of

Thus music and the memory of Gaelic verse has left in the Irish country places a technique that is as much Gaelic as English. In not all of them, however; in parts of Ulster, Scots song has had influence and currency.

One of the characteristics of Irish poetry according to Thomas MacDonagh is a certain naiveté. “An Irish poet”, he says, “if he be individual, if he be original, if he be national, speaks, almost stammers, in one of the two fresh languages of this country; in Irish (modern Irish, newly schooled by Europe), or in Anglo-Irish, English as we speak it in Ireland. ... Such an Irish poet can still express himself in the simplest terms of life and of the common furniture of life.” [5]

Thomas MacDonagh is speaking here of the poetry that is being written to-day, of the poetry that comes out of a community that is still mainly agricultural, that is still close to the soil, that has but few possessions. And yet, with this naiveté there must go a great deal of subtility. “Like the Japanese”, says Kuno Meyer, “the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace; the half-said thing to them is dearest.” [6] This is said of the poetry written in Ireland many centuries ago, but the subtility that the critic credits the Celts with is still a racial heritage.

Irish poetry begins with a dedication - a dedication of the race to the land. The myth of the invasion tells that the first act of the invaders was the invoking of the land of Ireland - its hills, its rivers, its forests, its cataracts. Amergin, the first poet, pronounced the invocation from one of their ships, thereby dedicating the Milesian race to the mysterious land. That dedication is in many poems made since Amergin’s time - the dedication of the poet to the land, of the race to the land.

When the Milesian Celts drew in their ships they found, peopling the island, not a folk to be destroyed or mingled with, but a remote and ever-living race, the Tuatha De Danaan, the Golden Race of Hesiod. Between the Milesians and the Tuatha De Danaan a truce was made with a partitioning of the country. To the Milesians went the upper surface and the accessible places, and to the De Danaans went the subterranean and the inaccessible places of the land. Thus, in Ireland, the Golden Race did not go down before the men of the Iron Race. They stayed to give glimpses of more lovely countries, more beautiful lovers, more passionate and adventurous lives to princes and peasants for more than a thousand years. And so an enchantment has stayed in this furthest of European lands - an enchantment that still lives through the Fairy Faith of the people, and that left in the old literature an allurement that, through the Lays of Marie de France, through the memorable incidents in the Tristan and Iseult story, through the quests which culminated outside of Ireland in the marvellous legend of the Grail, has passed into European literature.

Whether it has or has not to do with the prosaic issue of self-determination, it is certain that Irish poetry in these latter days is becoming more, and not less national. But it is no longer national in the deliberate way that Thomas Davis thought it should be national, as “condensed and gem-like history”, [7] or, as his example in ballad-making tended to make it national, by an insistence upon collective political feeling.

Strongbow’s force, and Henry’s wile,
Tudor’s wrath and Stuart’s guile,
And iron Strafford’s tiger jaws,
And brutal Brunswick’s penal laws;
Not forgetting Saxon faith,
Not forgetting Norman scath,
Not forgetting William’s word,
Not forgetting Cromwell’s sword.

No, Irish poetry is no longer national in the deliberate or the claimant way. But it is becoming national as the Irish landscape is national, as the tone and gesture of the Irish peasant is national. It is national in “A.E.’s” poetry - if not in those mystical reveries that transcend race and nationality, then in those impassioned statements in which he celebrates or rebukes the actions of some group or some individual; it is national in W. B. Yeats’s poetry, in his range from invective to the poetry of abstract love; it is national in the landscape that Joseph Campbell evokes; in the bardic exuberance of language that James Stephens turns into poetry; in the delicate rhythms of Seumas O’Sullivan’s lyrics and in their remoteness; in the hedgerows and the little fields that Francis Ledwidge’s verse images; in the dedication that is in Joseph Plunkett’s poetry, and in the high and happy adventurousness that is in the poetry of Thomas MacDonagh.

Note 1. Robert Burns also re-created an Irish form by writing to Irish music in “Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle”. The soldier’s song in “The Jolly Beggars” reproduces an Irish form also; the air that Burns wrote this song to may have been an Irish air originally.
Note 2: The Ossian of MacPherson (in Ireland Oisin, pronounced Usheen) was supposed to be the poet who had celebrated the lives and actions of the heroic companionship known as the Fianna. The Irish term for this class of poetry is “Fianaidheacht”, and an example of it is given in this anthology in “Grainne’s sleep-song over Dermuid.” At the time when “Ossian” was making appeal to Goethe and Napoleon the great mass of the poetry that was the canon of MacPherson’s apochrypha was lying unnoted in the University of Louvain, brought over there by Irish students and scholars. Recently this poetry has been published by the Irish Texts Society (Dunaire Finn, the Poem Book of Finn, edited and translated by Eoin MacNeill).
Note 3. Mangan published in the Dublin University Magazine, a publication which Poe had opportunities of seeing. Compare with Poe’s Mangan’s use of repetitions and internal rhymes.
Note 4. The influence has been exerted not only on poetry, but on the dialogue in the new Irish drama as well. In making literal prose renderings of some of the songs he used the idiom and rhythm used by the Irish peasant in speaking English. Lady Gregory was influenced by Dr. Hyde’s discovery in making her versions of the old romances. Mr. Yeats commended the idiom to John M. Synge. Synge’s rhythmic and colored idiom is very close to Dr. Hyde’s prose versions of the Connacht songs. Here is a verse from one of them - “if you were to see the Star of Knowledge and she coming in the mouth of the road, you would say that it was a jewel at a distance from you, who would disperse fog and enchantment; her countenance red like the roses, and her eye like the dew of the harvest; her thin little mouth very pretty, and her neck of the color of lime.”
Note 5. Literature in Ireland.
Note 6. Ancient Irish Poetry.
Note 7. “National poetry… binds us to the land by its condensed and gem-like history. It… fires us in action, prompts our invention, sheds a grace beyond the power of luxury round our homes, it is the recognised envoy of our minds among all mankind, and to all time.”

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