Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Power of a Poem 14

Once I remember attending a wonderful lecture in UCD by Professor Seán Ó Tuama, who was then Professor of Modern Irish in UCC. (That was in the early 1980s if I remember correctly, though I am not 100% sure.) At that time there was a yearly lecture in the Department of Modern Irish in UCD called "Léacht Uí Chaidhin" and an invited academic would give an address on some subject in modern Irish literature in Gaelic. I can only presume that this annual lecture continues. I don't remember the exact title of his learned disquisition, but it contained the phrase "ómós áite," that is the centrality of place in the history of Gaelic literature.

In Gaelic we also speak of one's "áit dhúchais" or "native place" and how important that landscape and all it contains influences not alone one's poetry and literature, but one's very identity. In this tradition the poet is the official spokesman (or spokeswoman, though practically all poets were men with a few honourable exceptions) of the spirit and soul of the people.  In this tradition, the late great John O'Donohue (1956 - 2008) (whose web page can be viewed at this link: JOD) was the quintessential scholar of the centrality of place in the spirit and identity of the Gaelic nation that is modern Ireland. I have written about this in my Irish blog Aisling here: Centrality of Place in Gaelic Literature . 

With these few thoughts as an introduction, I now wish to recall for my readers poems inspired by a sense of place in Irish poetry written in English.  There is no better place to start than with the wonderful W.B. Yeats (1865 - 1939) our most famous and, without doubt, greatest English poet.

One of the first poems I remember learning by heart was The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee;
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Another poem, rooted in the centrality of place, also by W.B. Yeats that I learnt off by heart once again was The Wild Swans at Coole:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones 
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight, 
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away? 

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