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.
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.
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
We'll be back on Sunday 12 April with the details of our latest investigation, on alternative publishing: how to do it, who does it, how it works, and what it's really like. Till then, we invite you to read books about eggs, chocolates, the return of life to a hopeful world, and the wonder of seasons changing.