From An Macaomh, Christmas 1909

“The Dublin Book of Irish Verse: 1728-1909,” edited by Mr. John Cooke, and published this month by Messrs. Hodges, Figgis and Co., suggests thoughts on the new poetry in Ireland and on some of its characteristics. One of these is the frequent fine use and the frequent misuse of the dramatic lyric form. The form is almost as old in Ireland as poetry itself, but only modernly, I think, has it had the intense human thrill of individual subtle character. Early Irish poems of this sort are more
direct; they often begin with the simple announcement of the speaker’s name, and then tell in those vivid nervous lines of the dan direach, clear and simple thoughts of passion or emotion— poems that translate so literally into all languages that in translation they appear almost too simple. The monologue of Eve published in “Erin” by Dr. Meyer is a good example of its kind:

Mé Eba ben Adaimh uill,
mé rosháirigh Iosa thall,
mé (ro)thall nemh ar mo chloinn,
cóir is mé dochóidh ‘sa crand.

Roba lem rightheg dom réir,
olc in míthoga romthár,
olc in cosc cinad romchrin,
forír! ní hiodan mo lámh.

Ní biadh eighredh in gach dú,
ní biadh geimreadh gaothmar glé,
ní biadh iffern, ní biadh brón,
ní biadh omun, minbadh mé.

mé. *


  • These are the first, second and fourth stanzas; in the following translation, I have kept almost word for word with the original.

I am Eve, great Adam’s wife,
I that wrought my children’s loss,
I that wronged Jesus of life,
By right ’tis I had borne the cross.

I a kingly house forsook,
Ill my choice and my disgrace
Ill the counsel that I took,
Withering me and all my race.

I that brought the winter in
And the windy glistening sky,
I that brought terror and sin,
Hell and pain and sorrow, I.

There is no poem in this anthology of English-Irish verse of just that same dramatic nature, in the first part of the book none at all resembling it; the dramatic lyric has had to evolve again in Ireland in this new poetry of the foreign tongue ; something of it has come with the language in which it is now written, something from the Irish through translations and transmission.

The opening poem of the “Dublin Book” is Oliver Goldsmith’s “When lovely woman stoops to folly.” In his book on Browning Mr. G. K. Chesterton says: ”In Palgrave’s Golden Treasury two poems, each of them extremely well known, are placed side by side, and. their juxtaposition represents one vast revolution in the poetical manner of looking at things. The first is Goldsmith’s almost too well known “When lovely woman stoops to folly.” Immediately afterwards comes, with a sudden and thrilling change of note, the voice of Burns — “Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon.” They are two poems on exactly the same subject, and the whole difference is this fundamental difference that Goldsmith’s words are spoken about a certain situation and Burns’ words are spoken in that situation.” Such too in general is the contrast between the poems in the beginning of this anthology and those at the end. The younger poets are personal and human; their poems are not merely poetical songs; they sing out of the heart of the situation. And it is with this very merit that the fault comes, the abuse of the personal, something which misses the justification of exuberant fancy at its extreme, something which is too literally expressed to be other than literal, and which, if literal, is untrue. I prefer to go outside the book for an example of my meaning and to take a well-known English poem, that most frequently quoted of W. E. Henley’s:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud,
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate;
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I an the master of my fate,
The captain of my soul.

This to many readers seems the cry of a strong man “in the fell clutch of circumstance;” and when they know of the poet’s sufferings and refer this to his actual life they admire it the more. I have talked to some who knew Henley and know that they regarded him as a strong man with a great personality. But the poem, full of fine phrase and all as it is, is wrong and unworthy of a great personality,— the poem thus personal, thus auto-biographical in form, thus boastful. The poem, whither directly personal or dramatic, rings false. The strong man is strong in character and conduct, not braggart in words. If he claim for himself such courage and self-reliance, it is by way of protest and denial to one who has doubted these things in him. But a protest addressed to the unseen, unheard God— to “whatever gods may be” — is vain, not meant to be heard by ears divine, but to be overheard by human. It becomes the boast of a vain man, useless so made. The poem I believe to be the work of a weak, conventional, self-flattering mood of the poet’s. And it might have been so good a poem in another form, a tribute so splendid if written of another man, so fine an honour then to the poet himself as man and poet!

In the fell clutch of circumstance
He had not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
His head was bloody, but unbow’d.

It mattered not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
He was the master of his fate,
He was the captain of his soul.

So in some of the dramatic lyrics in the “Dublin Book” the statement as of personal experience and of personal feeling spoils the sincerity or at least spoils our pleasure. I would not be taken as denying in any way the claim of the dramatic lyric and the dramatic monologue to the justification of imaginative rightness. The poetical is, as George Brandes says, rarely identical with the personal ego, and good poetry, while it must always be founded on real life, is rarely or never an exact copy of it. I think that intuition can give more to a poem than the record of actual experience; the potential lover, if he may be called so, or the potential vagabond, being a poet, will write as fine love poems or as fine vagabond poems as the actual lover or the actual vagabond. If that actual lover or vagabond do write fine poems wrung out of life, still the imagination is more at the expense of them than anything else,— the imagination and the interpretative faculty. For after all poetry is an interpretation and not a narrative. It recalls, it suggests, it brings a light, it brings a key. Born of joy it happily and spontaneously communicates gladness. Born of sorrow it unburthens sorrow through sympathy, in exultation. Poetry interprets by philosophy— wisdom in great words— by knowledge through experience so selected; by knowledge through life, dramatic; by knowledge through intuition always, the plenary vision; by a flash of expression that a word gives, that a rime brings, suggested by a whim of the mind, by a dream of the night, by a colour in the sky, by an air of music, by a mute animal, by a chance word, by a word half heard, by a word misread, by a mistranslation— suggested by such, but suggested to the poet who is the vates, the seer, the interpreter, and then the maker— the poet who is the voice of his time.

Those of our writers who bring us this interpretation in sincere words, narrative or dramatic, will be the voice of this time; those who assume tones of actual record and then outrage our credence will be no such thing.

THOMAS MACDONAGH