I’m close to finishing my 1942 Pulitzer winner, but alas, my stock of poems published in 1942 is low. So, I take this opportunity to observe the confluence of many holidays tonight and tomorrow—Bill Murray fans will of course think of tomorrow as Groundhog Day (and thus of today as Groundhog Eve….or so I have always called it). But February 2nd is also the feast day of Candlemas—a holiday not much observed at this point, but once a day of more note (fans of the Nunc dimittis were more plentiful back in medieval times, I guess).
And today, February 1st, is St. Brighid‘s Day/Imbolc, one of the four great Gaelic seasonal festivals that morphed into a feast of the Celtic church: it’s the festival that marks the beginning of spring, the season where lambs are born and the fields start to fill with life again. It is celebrated with singing and bannocks, hearthfires and weather divination, or at least it has been for centuries and the holiday survives still in little Gaelic outposts around the British Isles.
So it seemed like a good day for some Gaelic poetry—in translation, of course (my Manx is a bit rusty)—and fortunately I have a loaner copy of Alexander Carmichael‘s Carmina Gadelica, a century-old anthology of Gaelic invocations, hymns, charms, curses, and other miscellaneous verse, just sitting on my shelf. (“Of course you do,” a few of you mutter under your breath.) Gaelic poetry is bizarre, especially this kind of ancient folk-verse, and well worth reading: I nearly shared a charm to be said while milking (in which the speaker blesses each teat by name), and there was a poem called “The Cats are come on us” that simply repeated the line “The Cats are come, Cats are come” again and again while weaving in images of fear and violence (clearly some old Irish seer foretold the rising of the Internet). But enough of my merriment—I don’t mean to make light of them, really, since I think it’s fascinating to think of how central poetry was to their life, and how broadly little rhymes and songs cover every little detail of their days. Get a copy of the Carmina some day and peruse it: you’ll see what I mean.
Given how different these poems are from my usual Poetry Friday fare, my analysis will be a bit briefer than usual, and will grapple with the poem a bit differently than I normally do. I finally selected one of the invocations spoken by someone who wants justice—here’s poem number 410, “Prayer against ill report”, from the Carmina Gadelica:
“I will close my fist,
Fitly I hold the staff;
‘Tis to efface evil speaking
That I have come within.
The three sons of King Cluainnidh,
And Manann son of King Lear,
And the young son of the King of the Green Vesture,
‘Tis they shall set me free this night.
Fionn the Prince of the Fiann
Shall deliver me from the lie,
And valiant Cumhall of the keen blades
And Goll of the blows shall shield me.
Briain the melodious shall sain me,
And Briais of virtue shall aid me,
And Columba, the Cleric,
And Alexander, against venom.
The seven hosts of the Fiann
With their keen blades shall shield me,
And the young son of the King of Greece
shall take the black lies from off me.
I shall go down with Fite,
Brigit shall raise up my head;
‘Tis to efface ill report
That I have come thither.”
The beauty of this poem begins in its confidence—the speaker never wavers in the sure knowledge that justice will be done. The simple images used—the fist closing firmly around the staff, the upraised head—suggest to me a sort of John Proctor (at the end of The Crucible), someone who knows the truth and is unbreakable because of it. And yet, unlike poor Goodman Proctor, it seems that no court can threaten the poet, because of this sea of supernatural allies that surround on all sides.
I say “supernatural” but that’s really a modern construct, isn’t it? A division between what’s “real” and what isn’t, what’s “here” and what’s elsewhere? There’s no sense in the poem of any ethereal quality adhering to any of these named mythic figures—to the contrary, their blades fairly sing as they slip out of their scabbards, Goll’s shield braces around the poet like a stone wall. There’s something really appealing in the size of this posse also. Some poets would have been fine with just one or two of King Cluainnidh’s sons, and frankly once you have Cumhall’s keen blade, the seven hosts of the Fiann do seem a bit redundant. But that’s the glory of it, the sense that righteousness is so fully in the poet’s cause that there’s not a character in the whole mythos of the Isles who wants to be left aside. We get clerics and singers, even Brigit (whose night this is) makes a cameo as a sort of last line of defense. In gaining all that we have gained with modernity (and I’m not sneezing at it—there are a lot of wonderful things about the new ways in which we see the world and each other), we have mostly lost that kind of richness, and the connection to a mighty past of heroes who remain with us in the dark days we live through.
The poet, after all, cannot be all that confident. Despite that soaring rhetoric I referred to, and there’s no doubting it’s there in the poem, there’s an insecurity, of course. In part that’s inherent to the art form—this is an invocation, basically, and it implies that invoking is needed to resolve the situation—but the long list of warriors also suggests a fear that maybe none of them will prove fully equal to whatever dark champion steps from the lists on the other side. “Ill report”—it’s such a brief phrase, isn’t it? And yet “ill report” has laid low many, including some of the best and brightest the world has seen. The story of a court of wise elders who unjustly condemn a good soul is a tale told in more than one age, and about more than one hero. The poet may arrive with confidence, but there’s no denying the poet is also in chains—there may be princes coming to “set him free” and to “deliver [him] from the lie”, but that promised deliverance makes clear the dire straits that occasion the poem.
We live in a different world, and yet not so different, then—we are still bundles of contradictions, confident in the midst of our panic, sure of our freedom while we rattle our chains. We may not be looking for valiant Cumhall’s aid, but there are names in our memory of people we look to for comfort and protection, and we may even murmur their names on dark nights like this one to stave off the gloom a bit. We are as silly a people as any village that ever made up a poem about a cow’s teats (those who doubt me should just spend a little time on Buzzfeed), and as solemn, too, as a culture that could preserve a call for justice like this one for a thousand years. I don’t know, in the end, whether humanity is moving forward or standing still—whether the alarm clock tomorrow will wake us to the repetition of another day in Punxsutawney, or set us free to a future full of change and uncertainty. But it all gives me food for thinking on, this Imbolc night, and I hope it gives you something to mull over, as well—any comments will be gratefully received.