Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Day 19: A Defense of Poetry

We move from Donatus, who was both priest and poet, to Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe and his poem in defense of poetry, written to a priest claiming to bring a message from Rome condemning the Irish bards. In the poem, Giolla first demands to see written proof of the condemnation, then points out that Ireland’s two greatest saints—Patrick and Colum Cille (Columba, founder of the famed monastic community on the isle of Iona)—did not ban poetry. He then notes that without poets and poetry, knowledge of and lessons from the past would be lost, resulting in loss of respect and leading to foolish acts. It is a long poem—32 stanzas—of which I’ve included only portions here.

From the New Oxford Book of Irish Poetry, edited and translated by Thomas Kinsella


Messenger from Rome,
laying down instructions,
show where it is written
—the script, not just the seal…

It was never found in book
fine verse should earn us nothing.
An ugly alien teaching
would banish Ireland’s poets…

Why did devoutest Patrick
not banish all the poets
when he came from the land of Rome
to the soft-grassed isle of Ireland?

Or what caused Colum Cille,
who uttered only truth,
each Thursday, rapt toward Heaven,
to leave out pay for a poem?

The poets of grassy Fódla
were driven out once before.
It was Colum, and at once,
who brought about their restoration…

To praise man is to praise
the One who created him,
and man’s earthly possessions
add to God’s mighty praise.

All metre and mystery
touch on the Lord at last.
The tide thunders ashore
in praise of the High King...

If poetry went, my people,
with its lore and ancient lays
man’s knowledge would reach back
no further than his father…

Noble people would not have
access to their past, or rights.
Let them have these put in a poem
or farewell to the ancient things!...

If the men of Ireland suffer
their poetry to be banished
the Gael will lose respect
and freemen turn to clowns.

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