They Kissed the Blarney Stone: The Wise Bards of Ireland
With the advent of Christianity and monasteries in Ireland came the commencement of a new age of literacy and alphabet in the nation; then, naturally, a tradition of highly structured syllabic and lyrical poetry followed, a tradition in the two languages of Gaelic first and then English. And while the secular poets glorified and commemorated the heroes of the land, as was the universal theme of most of the ancient world, the religious poets, however, venerated both the love of nature and religion in verse, with solitude being a real ideal in their poetry. And in this an excerpt of from such poetry quoting a character named Marbin the Hermit they wrote:
Sound of wind in a branching wood grey cloud,
river falls-beautiful music.
This verse is almost Japanese in it’s complex profound simplicity with its imagery of the pristine scenes of nature including the senses of sight and sound.
These styles and themes persisted down through time, but with the turn of the 20th century and fast approaching shift in culture to city life brought on by the Industrial Revolution came the Northern Irish school of modernist poetry and the celtic Revival which produced two Nobel Prize winning poets during the course of the century, William Butler Yeats, who was on June 13, 1865 and died on January 28, 1939 and Seamus Heaney who was born in Northern Ireland on April 13, 1939. Thus the Irish virtually dominated the world of fine literature in the 20th century.
Yeats was born into the Protestant tradition, but he rejected this form of Christianity because of it’s focus on material prosperity and embraced his own interpretation of the pagan beliefs and mysticism of his ancient Gaelic ancestors, and he was considered a master of the traditional forms of Irish poetry and French symbolism. Yeats would use just one word or a group of words to symbolize an abstract
thought or idea, and in the following words he used a simple ladder to symbolize both the vigor and the loss of his youth as he aged.
Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down here
where all ladders start
in the rag and bone shop of the heart.
The “rag and bones shop” here refers to a vendor of secondhand stuff, or junk if you will, or second hand emotions. He also aptly wrote about the changes and loss of the comfort of love in his poem When You Are Old.
When You Are Old
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Then Yeats, aging Yates, being a non-religious pagan himself, also believed in “Spiritus Mundi” which is the collective memory of the universe that fuels and inspires all poets.
Now while Yeats was born Protestant, Heaney on the other hand was born in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family and being in the minority religion of the region, he felt a bit marginalized by society and was well acquainted with the political turmoil known as The Troubles which served as the backdrop of all his writings, both poetry and prose.. But instead of embracing the mysticism of Yeats, he chose to write about more concrete things such as the quickly passing away of the rural life in Ireland and the death of nature in his first book appropriately entitled The Death of a Naturalist in which he lamented the death of the innocence and natural world of traditional farm life he so enjoyed as a boy.
Death of a Naturalist
BY SEAMUS HEANEY
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Here he expertly captures both the innocent curiosity of a boy growing tadpoles in a jar and with the coming of his age of his metaphoric adult bull frog to the coming of age his full blown anger over the loss of a beloved way of life.
Yeats swon the Nobel Prize in 1923, “…For his always inspired poetry, which in high artistic highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation,” and Yeats was not just a supremely accomplished poet, but he was also a vitally important playwright and a giant figure in the theater arts.
And Heaney won the same Nobel prize at the latter end of the century in 1995 “…for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exult everyday miracles and the living past…” He was also a teacher and a tenured professor at Harvard University. He died on August 30, 2013 of a stroke.
When it comes to poetry of the 20th century, the Irish poets rule.