SCRIBES IN THE WOODS
Early Irish Monastic Poetry
by Tim Dwyer
Irish poetry has been considered the earliest vernacular poetry written in Europe – that is, poetry written in a native language. A number of these poems have been compared by Meyer (1913/1994) with haiku, having an unforced immediacy, and blending of the spirit of nature and humanity. As in haiku and early Chinese poetry, this is conveyed through essential, brief impressions, centered on words and phrases more than sentences. More than a thousand years ago, these scribes discovered a key to great poetry- essential words to reflect experience difficult to convey through language. If one elaborates with unnecessary and distracting words to try to pin down experience, then the experience is lost. As Emily Dickinson noted, poetry conveys Life at a slant.
Although not all early Irish poems are brief, many of them are ten lines or less. It has been suggested that the rhymed quatrain, the 4-line stanza that became a standard in poetry, was first crafted by these early scribes. Sometimes these quatrains stand alone, sometimes in a series. In the strongest poems, either in ancient Ireland or in the 21st century, each quatrain or stanza is a poem within a poem.
The skilled use of the brief line while maintaining a flow is another accomplishment in these poems, for with the brief line there is the risk of a fragmented, disjointed piece that becomes more of a shopping list than a song.
Circumstances affect the length of a poem. William Carlos Williams was a physician, and it is said that he scribbled his poetry drafts on prescription pads between patients. For our monastic poets, their circumstances were copying or reading manuscripts. Vellum is not easy to produce, and it was used for copying parts of the Bible, hymns, and other religious documents; rarely was there any for personal use. Scribing could be a monotonous process, as could be memorizing biblical passages or learning Latin. Perhaps as a creative outlet, some would write short poems in the narrow margins, what is straightforwardly called “marginalia”. At other times something in the manuscript might have inspired a poem. Some of these poems were likely original and others were poems that had been memorized and passed down.
It has been suggested that the Irish scribes were the first to include spaces between the words. They adopted and expanded the use of rhyme, and this includes internal rhymes. They were adept at alliteration, often in a chain from line to line that gives the poem in the original a rich sense of unity. They made skillful use of assonance and consonance. So even in translations by our best poets and scholars, it is difficult to match the sonic quality of the originals.
The early Irish poems written in Latin often used such standard classical metre as dactyl hexameter. The poems written in Irish made use of syllable count, often 3, 5 and especially 7 syllable lines.
Although the common trope of early Irish poetry is a solitary monk in spiritual communion with nature, I hope the poems presented will give a sense of the richness and diversity of poetic themes. There are poems that express the cruelty and severity of nature. Poems of loneliness and longing. Poems of satire, sarcasm, humour, and irony. Poems of love and friendship. And of course, poems of prayer and seeking a deeper spiritual life.
I will focus upon poems that convey a poet’s personal voice that reaches to the reader across the centuries. This kind of personal voice, without becoming overly the focus of the poem, is an instructive example for current poetry.
POEMS FROM BANGOR OR NENDRUM
I live in Bangor, Northern Ireland, and we are very fortunate that three of these early poems appear to have been written in Bangor Abbey or the monastery of Nendrum. They are among the most engaging of the monastic poems, and a number of scholars and poets have translated them. They convey rich human and spiritual experience in a few lines. In a recent zoom conference I attended, one of the hosts referred to these poems as “simple”. Although on one level that is accurate, they are far from simplistic, but touch upon the profound.
SCRIBE IN THE WOODS
A wall of forest looms above
xxxxand sweetly the blackbird sings;
all the birds make melody
xxxxover me and my books and things.
There sings to me the cuckoo
xxxxfrom bush-citadels in grey hood.
God’s Doom! May the Lord protect me
xxxxwriting well, under the great wood.
Dom-ḟarcai fidbaide fál
fom-chain loíd luin, lúad nād cél;
hūas mo lebrán, ind línech
fom-chain trírech inna n-én.
Fomm-chain coí men, medair mass,
hi mbrot glass de dingnaib doss.
caín-scríbaimm fo roída ross.
This poem is circa early 9th century, translation by Irish Studies scholar James Carney, and it appears in Medieval Irish Lyrics (1967). It is from the St. Gall Priscian manuscript, a Latin grammar text that was an essential tool for young monks learning Latin. The original can be seen on the bottom margin in the following link:
Scribe in the Woods, p. 203/204, bottom:
The original is a 7-syllable line, with alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal and end rhyme. With simple descriptions, present tense, and spatial phrases such as ‘above’, and ‘over’, we readers are brought into the woods alongside the monk. There is a personification of the cuckoo as a fellow monk in a ‘grey hood’ sharing song with the scribe. There was a belief, perhaps on the border of figurative and literal, that birds sang to praise God and that they moved between heaven and earth. Spirit and nature seamlessly blend in this poem. The monk prays for protection from God while being protectively held by birdsong and the woods.
Here is one of my poems inspired by this 9th century poem. To become an anchorite or hermit had to be earned by demonstrating a consistent and exemplary monastic practice:
ONCE IN BANGOR SCRIPTORIUM
The young monk weary
of Latin grammar in dim light,
ploughs through Priscian’s tedium
of proper pronoun use.
His eyes wander
to the bottom of the page,
writes a few lines
on the narrow margin, daydreams
the abbot will see his growth
in humility and prayer.
A blessing and consent to live
as a hermit in the woods.
BLACKBIRD OF BELFAST LOUGH
Here is the translation by Tom Paulin:
The wee blackbird settles
in a whin bush
on the slope of a hill
its yolk yellow bill
-now its fresh
song rises up and fills
the sky over Belfast Lough
Int én bec
ro léic feit
do rind guip
os Loch Laíg
lon do craíb
Gerard Murphy noted this poem appeared in an 11th century manuscript on poetic metre as an example of the 3-syllable metre, snám súad. He estimated the poem was from the 9th century. The poem is rich in alliteration, assonance, and consonance. With 24 syllables and its impressionistic tone, it is one of the poems that Kuno Mayer has compared to Haiku. There are a number of fine translations of this poem, including by James Carney, Ciaran Carson, and Seamus Heaney, but I am especially impressed by Paulin’s translation. The translation remains consistent with the more literal translation of Gerard Murphy (1956), but brings vividness, immediacy and intimacy to the contemporary eye and ear. Paulin conveys warmth and connection from the first line, with the simple word ‘wee’ that is still prevalent in Bangor speech. The imagery and sound are engaging throughout, and ‘yolk yellow bill’ is skillful synesthesia that brings us close to the blackbird for the moment of the song. And this close up is followed by a flowing escalation, the song rising and filling the lough.
There are a number of early Irish poems that include the blackbird, and allusions to the blackbird as a fellow monk or a ‘lad’. Behind this is the lore, perhaps pre-Christian, of birds and bees as beings that move between this world and the other world.
I have included my own translation of this poem as a first stanza to one of my own poems, inspired while walking along the Bangor shore, where the monks once walked. This poem is included in the anthology by Dedalus Press, entitled Local Wonders. Loch Laíg is the old name for Belfast Lough and means ‘inlet of the calf’ :
WHISTLE ACROSS TIME
Over Loch Laíg waves
yellow-billed song of blackbird
cast from whin blossoms
With cancer and pandemic comes urgency to find
where on our shore a forgotten monk
wrote this 9th century verse.
I haven’t heard a blackbird whistle over Loch Laíg,
but today, a robin peeks out among whin blossoms,
lands near my feet and begins to sing.
Again and again he flies from bush to strand.
Flutter of belief— he’s greeting me, showing me
it was here.
This next poem was likely composed near Bangor 1200 years ago, perhaps in winter:
Bitter and wild the wind tonight
tossing the tresses of the sea to white.
On such a night as this I feel at ease:
fierce Northmen only course the quiet seas.
Is acher in gáith in-nocht,
fu-fúasna a fairrgae findfolt:
ní ágor mora minn
dond láechrad lain úa Lothlind.
This translation is by James Carney (1967). From the St. Gall Priscian, Here is the facsimile page where it appears:
Viking Terror, p. 112, upper margin: https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/de/csg/0904/112
This is another poem written in the margins. It was likely composed around the time of the Viking invasions of Bangor Abbey and Nendrum in the 820s. It illustrates the potential power of a quatrain and an example for a contemporary poetry workshop of the practice of ‘less is more’. It may be the first use of irony in Irish poetry. This 9th century poet crafts with immediacy an image of a beautiful yet dangerous sea, and effortlessly shifts to a sense of safety from attack. In an understated manner, the fear and tragedy of that era are conveyed. One can imagine the monks wrapping manuscripts containing these poems in a leather satchel and crossing that same sea to carry them to safety of inland Europe, to one of the Columbanus monasteries, eventually reaching the Library of Saint Gall in present day Switzerland.
The Viking Terror has been a favourite poem of mine for 40 years in its various translations, and it was a thrill after moving to Bangor a few years ago when I realized I was at the home of its origin. I often look out toward the Irish Sea and imagine what the monks felt when they saw the first Viking long boat sailing toward the bay.
During a necessary afternoon train ride from Belfast to Bangor during our Covid crisis, a summer day when the trains were packed with teenagers on the way to the beach, the Viking terror poem came to mind and inspired this quatrain:
Bitter wind and rain today
battering the Bangor train.
On this day I feel at ease:
no unmasked teens for Helen’s Bay.
Along with irony, my little poem mirrors the use of sardonic humor, alliteration, and assonance, common features in this poetry.
A few years ago, I came across an article by Alexander O’Hara Ph.D., an expert on Columbanus, a 6th century monk from Bangor Abbey who founded monasteries throughout Western Europe. Columbanus has been referred to as the first European and as the patron saint of Europe. O’Hara and Ian Wood have published a new translation of the Life Of Columbanus by Jonas of Bobbio. O’Hara noted that in the preface of that hagiography, there is a poem that has been largely overlooked by other researchers. He believes it was written by an Irish follower of Columbanus in the 7th century and it may be the first time that Ireland is referred to as a whole. My poetic translation is based on the excellent literal translation of O’Hara and Wood. This may be the first poetic translation of this piece into English. The name Columban, Latinized as Columbanus, means white dove.
LAND’S FINAL CURVE xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx7th Century Irish Monk
Ireland, where Columbanus,
the white dove was born,
sits at ocean’s edge, waits for the setting sun,
the world is turning, light falling
into the sea, into the western shadows.
The waves are huge mountains, colours wild,
their tresses slap against the many caves.
Blue crests wrap the shore in foam
at land’s final curve.
They almost prevent
this coast we know so well
from freeing our little currach
for the journey over
sea’s salty swell.
Above us, yellow strands of Titan Sun
descend, dim, reach Arcturus,
guardian star of night.
Following the North wind,
the Sun will find the way, once again,
to rise in the East.
Revived, it will bring welcomed light,
bright fire far and wide
to the shivering world.
Through all the turning points
of night and day, completing the course,
the Sun returns brilliance to the lands,
a hearth giving the world, fresh with dew,
warmth and goodness once again.
Translated by Tim Dwyer & Alexander O’Hara
Adapted from the translation in Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood, Jonas of Bobbio Life of Columbanus, Life of John of Reome, and Life of Vedast (Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 95-96.
Here is the original Latin:
Columbanus etenim qui et Columba,
Ortus Hibernia insula, extremo Oceana sita,
Expectatque Titanis occasum, dum vertitur orbis,
Lux et occiduas pontum descendit in umbras:
Undarum inmanes moles quo truces latebras
Colore et nimio passim crine crispanti
Peplo kana, raptim quem dant cerula terga,
Aequoris spumea cedunt et litora, sinus
Ultimus terrarum, nec mitem sinunt carinam
Tremulo petentm salo dare nota litora nobis.
Flavus super haec Titan descendit opago
Lumine Arcturi petitque partes girando:
Aquilonem sequens, orientis petit ad ortum,
Ut mundo redivivus lumen reddat amoenum
Sese mundo late tremulo ostendat et igne.
Sicque metas omnes diei noctisque peractu
Cursu et inpletas, suo lustrat candor terras
Amoenum reddens orbem calore madentem
Insula situs, ut ferunt, amoenus ac adversantium
Exterorum carens bella nationum.
From Ionae Vita Sanctorum Columbani, Vedastis, Iohannis
edited by Bruno Krusch, Hannoverae ET Lipsiae, Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1905.
This poem was composed in Hiberno-Latin in dactyl hexameter. One of the strengths of this poem is that it has both a majestic, visionary quality often found in the poetry of the Iona monastery, yet the voice of this poem remains personal with a vivid connection to the natural world. This may be the first Irish poem to have classical allusions such as Titan and Arcturus.
With the prominence of waves in this poem, one can imagine the old belief in Mannanan, Celtic god of the sea, who shows up in other poems of this period. And the image of the waves nearly preventing the journey, perhaps never to return to ‘the coast we know so well’, conveys the loss and mixed feelings of these monks, leaving their homeland, likely never to return. Leaving all you love is white martyrdom. This may be the first poem in that long Irish tradition of emigration. The sun returning in the east may be a metaphor for the dawn of the second coming of Christ.
O’Hara has noted that monks of that time believed Doomsday might be immanent, given that Christianity had reached the ends of their known world- Ireland. This promoted the sense of mission to carry back their core of Christianity to Post-Roman Europe, especially to the overlooked rural places and despite the challenging waves against them, hope for the time when the ‘Sun returns brilliance to the lands’.
A special thank you to Tom Paulin, for permission to reproduce his translation of ‘Blackbird Of Belfast Lough’ and to Rosalind Carney, Ph.D. for permission to reproduce the translations by James Carney.
Project Gutenberg includes translations of early Irish poetry by Kuno Meyer:
The poems, ‘Scribe In The Woods’ and ‘Blackbird Of Belfast Lough’ can be heard read in the original Irish by Myles Dillon at the following YouTube link:
Carney, James, 1967/1985. Medieval Irish Lyrics. Portlaoise: Dolmen Press.
Meyer, Kuno, 1913/1994. Ancient Irish Poetry. London: Constable.
Murphy, Gerard, 1956. Early Irish Lyrics: Eighth To Twelfth Centuries. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Riordan, Maurice, ed., 2014. The Finest Music: An Anthology Of Early Irish Lyrics. London: Faber & Faber.
Tim Dwyer’s poetry appears regularly in Irish and UK journals, including previously in The High Window. His poems were recently included in the anthology, Local Wonders (Dedalus Press). His chapbook is Smithy Of Our Longings (Lapwing). He was first inspired by early Irish poetry over forty years ago and has an interest in early Irish Christianity. Raised in Brooklyn by parents from Galway, he now makes his home in Bangor, Northern Ireland.