Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Book review: A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200

A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200
Edited and with translations by David Greene and Frank O'Connor

Not too long ago I reviewed Kenneth Jackson's Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, which I really enjoyed. This book here would make a nice complement to that volume...

I'll start this review with the caveat that I'm not a poet. When it comes to poetry I both suck at it and have very little clue when it comes to the technical stuff beyond the fact that "poems don't always have to rhyme." I covered early Irish poetry as part of my studies at university, but since I both suck at it and have very little clue about it I can probably sound pretty convincing when it comes to pointing out alliteration and the kind of tricks that were used, like starting a poem and finishing it with the same word... And that's about it. Metres? Technical terms? No clue...

But this book starts off with a good introduction to the history of Irish poetry and covers some of the tricks and techniques that were used as they evolved throughout the ages, and even a person like me could understand it. It's not jargon heavy, so won't overwhelm, but at the same time it's perhaps rather superficial. In fairness to the authors, this book isn't intended to be scholarly -- aimed at an academic audience -- so that's hardly a surprise. It gives just enough to allow for some context and that's about it.

Greene and O'Connor mark out four distinct periods of Irish poetry, giving a basic idea of the different kinds of techniques, genres and phases the came into or fell out of fashion with each period. These kinds of things can help identify a timeframe for a particular poem, which is useful when looking at language alone might not be helpful; sometimes poems are written in a deliberately archaic fashion, so they might appear older than they actually are, etc.

After the introduction we move on to the poems themselves, each of which have a brief introduction to them and are then given in the original Irish and then the translation. This was one of the downsides of Jackson's book I noted, so here it's a definite plus. It's worth noting that the editors are selective with some of the poems -- the more difficult pieces, or the longer ones, aren't necessarily presented in their complete form, and any mention of truncation is usually just in the opening commentary rather than explicitly marked out. They don't necessarily go into the whys and wherefores of the editing choices they makes, so if you're looking for something that gives a rigid academic approach with copious notations and references, this is not the droid book you're looking for... *mystical handwave* But they are up front about this and they do give references so you can hunt up the full version if you want to (most of them are scattered about online).

As for the poems, some of them are pretty obvious choices that you kind of have to add to a book about early Irish poetry -- The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, The Deer's Cry... Yes, you'll find them in most volumes on early Irish poetry, but the translations/interpretations given here may be of interest, to see where Greene and O'Connor's efforts might differ to other translators, and in some cases there's some useful commentary given on what certain words mean, or how interpretation may be ambiguous, and so on.

Otherwise, there's a selection of early Christian poems, nature poems, excerpts of poetry from various myths, and some excerpts and fragments taken from marginalia in manuscripts, a selection of the triads, and so on. What you get is pretty diverse, which gives a good overview of Irish poetry in general, and amongst these there were a number of poems that I've not seen anywhere else. Some of them are of interest to me as a Gaelic Polytheist -- there's the poem by Blathmac where the famous line muir mas, nem nglas, talam cé (translated here as "the fair sea, the blue sky, the earth") comes from, which is often used as an example illustrating the concept of the three realms (I'd wondered about the context of this line -- for reference, it comes from a poem on The Crucifixion). There are a couple of casual references to deities that I wasn't familiar with, too -- a reference to Donn in the afterlife in a poem that's otherwise full of Christian references. Some of them are just interesting because they're beautiful, or because they illustrate the time and place they come from so perfectly. Or they're just amusing -- my son found this satirical quatrain to be hilarious:
A-tá ben as-tír,ní eprimm a hainm;maidid essi a deilmamal chloich a tailm. 
There's a woman in the country (I do not mention her name) who breaks wind like a stone from a sling.
To be fair, fart humour is a guaranteed winner with a ten-year-old (OK... and his mother...but if you're interested it's discussed in Robin Chapman Stacey's Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland), but I'll give this as an example of the formatting as well -- the translations aren't given in the same layout as the Irish, which is kind of annoying. I suppose on the one hand it doesn't matter because you won't get the same sense of rhythm as you would in the original, but I like to see how the sentences are split up if I'm looking at a poem in more depth, and it's not east to see like this.

I only have one more comment to make, and that's on the rather overly critical nature of the commentary by the editors at times. While on the one hand the editors show a genuine appreciation for the poetry, there were some bits that struck me as a kind of undercurrent attitude of "how quaint" that some of these poems, that are so beautifully written, may be the product of people who weren't professionals in such a field: "Their aim was instruction and edification, and the literary beauty which they so often achieved might almost be described as accidental. The author of the versified 'Apochryphal Gospel of St Thomas,' for example, was unaware of the stupidity of the text on which he was working, but he wrote with the freshness and charm we associate with the beginning of literature in any country." That kind of commentary, to me, does a great disservice to the authors of those poems, the movers and shakers of their day. It also seems a little simplistic to say that their achievements were "accidental," even with the qualifier of "almost" thrown in. But if you disagree with their assessment, as I do, then it's not a huge mark against the book over all.

If you're interested in Irish poetry and looking for inspiration then this is a book I'd definitely recommend. Although you can find almost everything in here online, you have to know where to look and the translations given -- if any -- may be out of date. Here, you'll certainly find them in a more convenient package. I'd say it's one for the bookshelf for sure.