Tuesday, July 26, 2005

198. Irish Poetry (and some comments on Seamus Heaney)

- Anon (7th C.)

The small bird
let a chirp
from its beak:
I heard
woodnotes, whin-
gold, sudden.

(Written by a student of the monastery of Carinthia
on a copy of St Paul's Epistles, in the 8th century)

I and Pangur Ban, my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

(trans. from the Gaelic by Robin Flower)


The sounds of Ireland,
that restless whispering
you never get away
from, seeping out of
low bushes and grass,
heatherbells and fern,
wrinkling bog pools,
scraping tree branches,
light hunting cloud,
sound hounding sight,
a hand ceaselessly
combing and stroking
the landscape, till
the valley gleams
like the pile upon
a mountain pony's coat.

-John Montague (1929 -



Our guttural muse
was bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial, forgotten
like the coccyx
or a Brigid's Cross
yellowing in some outhouse

while custom, that 'most
sovereign mistress',
beds us down into
the British Isles.


We are to be proud
of our Elizabethan English:
'varsity', for example
is grass-roots stuff with us;

we 'deem' or we 'allow'
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean.

Not to speak of the furled
consonants of lowlanders
shuttling obstinately
between bawn and mossland.


MacMorris, gallivanting
round the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us

as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares
as anatomies of death:
'What ish my nation?'

And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland,' said Bloom,
'I was born here. Ireland.'

-Seamus Heaney (1939-

Heaney's spareness is not to be confused with simplicity ... he writes dense, overlapping poetry with a minimum of words. In Heaney's TRADITIONS the meaning kicks in at different levels as so often happens in his poems. First, let’s take a look at the references and allusions in the text.

The opening section refers to the Old Language (Irish Gaelic) but even more specifically to the Gaelic poetic tradition which extended from about the 1st century BC to the 17th century AD when the last of the Gaelic kingdoms was overrun by the English. The earlier nature poetry is amazingly fresh and direct even by modern standards. Flann O Brien characterized early Irish verse-craft when he spoke about its 'steel-pen exactness' and Heaney in one of his essays (The God in the Tree, 1978) spoke of the tang and clarity of a pristine world full of woods and water and birdsong. Wordsworth's phrase 'surprised by joy', he wrote, comes near to catching the way these poems combine suddenness and richness, how the precise compact lines have 'the brightness and hardness of a raindrop winking on a thorn'. The early poetry was part of an oral tradition that was only committed to writing from around the 7th century onwards, two centuries after the advent of Christianity in Ireland (St Patrick is said to have arrived and/or died in 432 AD). Great monasteries had by then been established as centres of learning as well as piety, notably at Clonmacnoise, Clonfert, Kells and Armagh in Ireland, on the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne off the British coast, and as far away as southern Germany and St Gall in Switzerland. The monks in their scriptoriums copied not only the holy texts of the gospels but also transcribed the poetry and epic cycles of the Gaelic oral tradition.

In contrast to the earlier nature poetry, the Irish court poetry of the High Middle Ages became technically overburdened: metre, alliteration and internal rhyming schemes became increasingly complex. The result was a highly polished and skillful poetry conducted by a professional elite. Their patrons paid lavishly for praise poems for themselves and satires (greatly feared!) upon their enemies. The fili ('feely'), as this professional caste of poets were called, wielded enormous social power which the Elizabethan colonists and soldier-adventurers were hard pressed to comprehend when they poured into Ireland during the sixteenth century: they looked upon the fili as 'magicians". The fili died out with their patrons and it is this class to which Heaney alludes when he characterizes their art as vestigial, having outlived its function like the coccyx in the human skeleton or the perishable St Brigid’s crosses which are woven out of rushes and routinely replaced like the 'kadomatsu' one sees over doorways every New Year in Japan. The native kings and their poets were replaced, as was the native language, by the invaders from England.

In the second section Heaney characterizes the early contact with the English language, which still lives on in Ireland: the pronunciations and expressions found in Elizabethan English (the language of Shakespeare) linger on in the dialects of Irish-English to this day, notably that of Cork City and South Munster. Heaney throws in a few examples and refers also to the 17th century English of the Ulster settlers in the North who lived in Bandit Country among the displaced natives in fortified "bawns" (farmsteads) surrounded by "mosslands" (peat bogs).

In the final section he addresses Shakespeare directly, particularly the appearance of the character MacMorris in the play "Henry V'. At the siege of the French city of Harfleur the king's forces are captained by the Englishman Gower, the Welshman Fluellen, the Scotsman Jamy and the Irishman MacMorris. This can be seen as one of the first optimistic attempts to create a backdated unity of purpose among the turbulent and definitely unreconciled peoples of the Two Islands. MacMorris capers about the stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (now restored in Southwark) and speaks to ‘the courtiers and groundlings’ among the audience in an outlandish brogue. He is perhaps the first Stage Irishman. Heaney spears the lie by a caustic reference to the real nature of Irish-English relations at the time. In the aftermath of the recently concluded Desmond Rebellion in Munster the poet Spenser (author of ‘The Faerie Queen’, himself a settler and an eyewitness) had described the survivors: "They were brought to such wretchedness as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs would not bear them. They looked anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts crying out of their graves ....' The final reference is to Leopold Bloom, the alter ego and father figure to Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's "Ulysses'. Bloom represents the Wandering Jew, an outcast in Europe as in Ireland, a spectator but not a participant in the ethnic and sectarian quarrels between the native Irish (Catholic) and the settlers and rulers (Protestant). In the Cyclops episode of the book Bloom runs into The Citizen, a redneck Irish nationalist, who accuses him of not being Irish. I was born here, says Bloom with simple dignity. I was born in Ireland, I'm Irish.

What is Heaney saying? Quite a lot. On one level he is saying that Irish people have nothing to prove to themselves or others. Being born or just living in the place is all the identity one needs. On another level he is saying that the literature of Ireland has nothing to prove either. Irish writers writing in English need no longer pay lip service to the glories of the Gaelic past - which was the literary stock-in-trade of Yeats and Lady Gregory and all the other predominantly Anglo-Irish writers of the Irish Literary Renaissance between the years 1885-1914 - nor do they need to model their craft on the British literary canon. There is no further need to imitate, lean on or borrow from either tradition in order to find one’s identity as an Irish writer.

This poem was written about 25 years ago when Heaney was still (nominally) a British subject. He had been born and still lived in the area of Ireland that remained under the control of the British Crown but his politics and his writing (I urge you to read more of him!) are concerned with the physical attachment to place, not the ephemeral adherence to flags and emblems and the partisan rhetoric of a disputed sovereignty. He refers to the Troubles in his essays and touches on the fear they engender in his poems: he makes no bones about his Catholic Irish background but it is clear that the passion and violence of Ulster politics is an infringement on the life he wants to pursue and a source of exasperation tinged with sorrow... and occasional feelings of depression and guilt. He doesn’t have the arrogance and flamboyance of Yeats who set himself up as the Voice of the Unborn Nation. He’s a lot more intelligent than Yeats, in fact, which doesn’t mean he is the better poet. Perspicacity has little to do with it. He is a different kind of poet altogether. Heaney’s Ireland is tactile, visual, actual, the thing-in-itself: the way things look, the way they feel when you touch them, the thoughts they give rise to. He has a fascination with the living water-logged earth of Ireland and the things that are continually dug out of it ... centuries-old butter, wine-flagons and old coins, golden torcs and Celtic jewel-hoards, perfectly preserved human sacrifices ... how strange, how wonderful, how eerie: surely all these things speak to the present; there are connections; we are the inheritors of all this; we are obliged at least to try to understand ... this is Heaney’s world, along with his frighteningly comprehensive grasp of his literary forbears, Gaelic Irish as well as English. It’s a formidable combination of childhood experience, learning, vision, application and the development of the sweet inexplicable touch of the master ... in about that chronological order.

The Nobel Prizes may shortly go the way of the Oscars and the Emmies, a self-satisfied elite gathering in expensive costumes to select one of their own to praise. For the moment it still has a certain value and when all the necessary but rather puzzling awards to writers in other languages have been absorbed and taken into account, the awards to writers in English remain as a sort of benchmark to those of us who read and think in that language. Joyce, famously, never got one but neither did Graham Greene. Neither did a lot of people. Yeats was recognized and that was good, he deserved it. So did Shaw and Becket, both playwrights from Ireland. But when Heaney got the award not long ago (1995) it was a worldwide recognition that Irish poetry had come out from under the shadow of Yeats and reached a new level of confidence. The nervous and defensive post-colonial assertions of independence are long behind us: Ireland and the Irish, for better or worse, have come barrelling back into the world again with things to say and people to say them. In fact, we’ve got writers and poets and playwrights lining up in rows and pushing and shoving to say things ... God help us all. Who in this literary nation will drive the buses and collect the garbage? We’ll just have to import the English .....