Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Medieval Irish Love Poem

My love is no short year’s sentence.
It is a grief lodged under the skin,
Strength pushed beyond its bounds;
The four quarters of the world,
The highest point of heaven.
It is
A heart breaking or
Battle with a ghost,
Striving under water,
Outrunning the sky or
Courting an echo.
So is my love, my passion
and my devotion
To him to whom I give them.
**********
We are so used to fluffy poems about love that this one may seem to be about something else. But I find it quite realistic, a nice contrast and obviously long lasting, since it was written around the Ninth Century and translated from Gaelic.
As I mentioned in my review of the Sister Fidelma mysteries, Ancient Irish culture was more egalitarian than most, and women were considered equals of men, so there were women Bards as well as men, and this poem is from a female bard. There was a tradition of writing poems of loves lost and warriors that have died and these were often put to music.
Full of metaphors which adds resonance, the poem is divided into two parts, the first is more uplifting and positive. Love is enduring, everywhere(four quarters) and the ultimate happiness(heaven). The second part is downcast, with more negative imagery. Love is agony(heartbreak), drowning(under water), impossible to escape(sky) and intangible(ghost).
It’s possible that the person has actually died, or perhaps just the relationship, with so many words associated with death: grief and ghosts. The writer is haunted by the love and almost overwhelmed by it(strength beyond bounds). My mother thought it was a lament for a relationship that wasn’t as good as it appeared, focusing on the meaning of echo, that one’s words come back. It could be read that way.
The last few lines are the most intriguing. Are they a blessing or a curse? Because the author is giving everything over to the lover; not only the happiness and devotion, but also the painful longing and frustration of fighting something that cannot be defeated. This mystery and duality may be the reason the poem is still read and still relevant these many centuries later.

Poem found in The Book of Irish Verse selected by John Montague Macmillan Publishing 1974

Jackie has reviewed another poem from this time period, one about a monk’s cat, Pangur Ban.

6 comments on “Medieval Irish Love Poem

  1. fauquet
    May 20, 2013

    A desperate song of love with a time of growth and bliss followed by a kind of agony . It is an old gaelic.poem . We understand better the genius of the christianity speaking of the eternal love of God ..

  2. Kate
    May 20, 2013

    It’s a great poem, reminds me of the Wife’s Lament, or Wulf and Eadwacer, the only Anglo-Saxon poems I know of with a woman’s voice, which are about love and loss rather than battle and loss. Hard and stoic and matter of fact, not remotely fluffy!

  3. sshaver
    May 21, 2013

    Ireland had female bards?

    I’d like to see that poem in the original Gaelic….

    Love as battle with a ghost. That’s not bad.

  4. John
    May 24, 2013

    Ireland will never stop impressing us. Which will give us a reason to a complete reconsideration of women poetry during that particularly gaelic one. A great sad love poem. Sometimes a poignant song to pure love and sometimes a terrifing historical report of a woman grief’s.

  5. Hilary
    May 26, 2013

    Thank you for finding this for us, Jackie – it’s so beautiful!

  6. Pingback: Praise Sunday: Super Deluxe Family Edition | I am a heathen.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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