Elizabeth Ryves: Irish Woman Poet

Elizabeth Ryves (1750-1797) was the daughter of an army officer and when he died she was done out of her inheritance. She moved to London in 1775 to try to recover her fortune and to make her living as a writer. She published plays, novels and journalism as well as poetry and was one of the first English translators of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. ‘Two Elegies’ come from her 1777 book Poems on Several Occasions.


In the two following Elegies, Christina Queen of Sweden is represented bewailing the tyranny of Custom, and the restraint she was under with respect to Marriage; and at length determining to sacrifice her interest to love, by abdicating a crown which she was not permitted to share with her lover.


Thou tyrant Custom! whose relentless laws
Nature and Justice still oppose in vain;
Will no kind angel plead my injur’d cause?
Will no avenging arm destroy thy chain?
Must Love (that gentle Pow’r, whose soft’ning smiles
The savage fierceness of Revenge can tame,
Or soothe Ambition with persuasive wiles,
And lure him back from the pursuits of fame);
Must he, low bending to thy stern command,
The rosy garland and the bow resign;
In courts a mean neglected captive stand,
And by thy laws his juster sway confine?
No, abject shade! let thy imagin’d hand
O’er coward minds the iron sceptre wield;
A soul superior spurns thy base command,
And bids thy rules to Reason’s dictates yield.
From regal pomp and regal cares retir’d,
I’ll lose the sov’reign in a softer name;
By fools condemn’d, but by the brave admir’d,
And crown’d at once with happiness and fame.


Not great Gustavus his exalted throne,
His fair dominions, or his wealth, I prize;
To bear the toils of royalty alone,
Or see some monarch by my favour rise.
Tho’ Fortune smiles on my auspicious reign,
Since Fate forbids that thou should’st share the dow’r,
For thee the pomp of empire I’ll disdain,
And all the high-plum’d pageantry of pow’r.
A soul like mine cou’d well such trappings spare:
But say, wilt thou renounce Ambition’s aim
For me? the withering breath of Censure dare,
And spurn the civic wreath, the hero’s proud acclaim?
Wilt thou, like me, for some sequester’d shade,
Some village cot, these stately domes resign,
Where Wealth, where Fame, where Pride must ne’er invade,
But all be sacrific’d at Friendship’s shrine?
Love shuns the troubled haunts of pomp and noise;
Close in a myrtle grove his temple stands;
There he diffuses all his purest joys,
And binds uniting hearts in flow’ry bands.
But Cupid scorns to hold divided sway,
Nor with Ambition deigns to share a throne;
Who owns his sceptre must his will obey,
And bend to him, despotic Pow’r! alone.
If then Alexis loves, he’ll lead the way
Thro’ Russian deserts or th’ Atlantic wave,
Rather than here ’midst tasteless splendor stay,
The dupe of Folly, and vain Fortune’s slave.

Several Dances by Maurice Scully: A Review

ScullySeveral Dances, by Maurice Scully, Shearsman 2014, ISBN 
978-1-84861-336-2, £9.95

Several Dances is the second full-length book that Maurice Scully has published since the completion of the major Things That Happen sequence. It is also the most recent instalment in the long, slowly evolving continuous poem that, after a bit of a false start with his first book, Love Poems and Others, constitutes his life’s work as a poet. This ‘poem in progress’ rotates around a number of central themes: a poet sits at a desk, making marks on a page; an artist makes other marks on canvas; a narrator contemplates questions of money and its absence; a particular mind moves through the world of everyday particulars and through the language it uses to map this world; texts are formed from the interweave of science and the poet’s observing ear; and behind everything, ordinary love. Through it all runs a fine-tuned sense of what it is to be alive in the world:

Touch a wet surface in just

the right place & you might

find the reward to be a shiver

of what you thought was well

a sweet appreciation of the next


Scully has made these subjects his own, they are the warp of his work, but interesting themes alone do not transmute language to poetry. What makes these books, this book, more worth reading than most of the contemporary versifying you’ll come across is the music Scully has invented to sing these themes to.

I have written before about Scully’s ability to evoke ‘the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them’. This sense of respect for the world as separate, autonomous, real, combined with a recognition that the filters linguistic mapping places between the writer/reader and that sphere of reality, remains central to the value of his writing.

This a poetry that is both highly literate and interestingly oral, a duality that Scully neatly illustrates in a key passage from ‘To Balance’, on page 87, in a commentary on an Old Irish lyric:

                                cride é

                                         daire cnó

                                ócán é

                                         pócán dó

is oral, and letterist—every word rhyming, every syllable

rhyming, every letter finding its repetition (except the kiss,

a plosive), a sort of spasm of self-conscious design

The passage ends ‘Now, do the same in English.’ And he does, albeit with a broader palette, for instance in this passage from 30 pages further on, where the sudden irruption of the ‘f’ ensures that the word does flash at the reader, sound enacting sense in tensile harmony:

This is a day.

This is a moment

in a day. This

is the point of
intersection of

a moment in a day.

This is its noise.

This is a series
of flashes.

This dynamically tense intersection between written and spoken language, letter and phoneme, is one aspect of Scully’s verbal music; the other is an interplay between meter and rhythm that is both supremely flexible and instantly recognisable. His verse requires you to listen, a favourite Scully word, with ears open to the possibilities of verse. His long lines are characterised by a high proportion of initial stressed feet (trochees and dactyls for the most part), monosyllabic feet, feet that are broken by line endings, and caesurae that are frequently, though not always, masculine. The result is a rhythm that is at once deft and questioningly hesitant, where the progression of thought is more spiral than linear, turning back on itself in reflexive tones:

Drop a pebble in a pool: listen to it. Its

blue glistens. Black-gold-black. To glint,

tremble, stop. I turn off the radiator,

turn on the desk lamp, sit, start. Here we

are. Soft pulses of light threading a small

hollow to contain the main phase in a fibrous

nest & the next move, the next move, one true

shimmering altercation.

His shorter lines can be read most fruitfully as if the stanza were the unit of composition:


of paper


in a
bent staple





on a

that make


take your




into it

The subtle, fragile strength of this verbal music is a factor, perhaps the crucial factor, in Scully’s ability to write poetry in which, as J.C.C. Mays says, ‘he is, always, just (just!) a person making … We find ourselves watching what’s happening, as it happens, with little concern for personal achievement’. There is no question of which comes first, form or content; they are coeval, inseparable, a complex singularity.


There is a sure-footedness to these dances through the ‘linguistic theatre of/delight’ that brings to mind both the Early Irish lyric and Louis Zukofsky, just as the longer-lined pieces can recall the talk poems of David Antin. Which is not to say that Scully’s work is derivative of these other writers; like any poet who takes the art seriously, he has read widely and learned deeply and then turned what he has learned to his own ends.

One of the strands running through Several Dancers is a series of parody-homages to William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is just to say’. These pieces exemplify how a poet who is confident of their own voice can mine the work of another writer to find ways of expressing some new thing, building on but not copying, emulating but not imitating, an act of serious poetic play.

I’ve left the wooden

tray on the table

set for when

you waken

Williams, in these pages, is both a presence to be respected and a resource to be used. Scully’s use of the poem opens up a conversation with the older poet’s view of human love, offering different, wider, more reciprocal perspectives in a way that mere prose criticism could never achieve.


Maurice Scully is one of a handful of living Irish poets whose work can be read in the company of the very best of his British and American contemporaries. It is both formally adventurous and profoundly approachable, and achieves this without ever patronising the reader. Scully writes poetry as it should be written, with a concern for the art and not the artist, an emphasis on the pleasure that setting language loose in the world can bring. On the evidence of Several Dances, he continues to delight. If you’ve never read his work, then this is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then you won’t need my persuading.

Jane Barlow: Irish Woman Poet

220px-Jane_BarlowJane Barlow (1857 – 17 April 1917) was born in Dublin and lived most of her life in Bray. A novelist and poet, many of her poems are in a synthetic Wicklow dialect. ‘The Roses’ Wisdom’ is taken from her 1908 collection, The Mockers and Other Verses.


Dreaming, he saw her garden desolate
All lit with glory of roses: “Lo, the flowers
She loved,” he thought, “have wiser hearts than ours,
That mourn her reft away by changeless Fate;
For these now of their bravery nought abate,
As wist they well how yet her blossomed bowers
Shall greet her, yielded back by gracious powers
Some happy soon, whereon in joy they wait.”
Then long he tarried, lest a step might stir
Soft on the listening paths, but hushed they lay
Till every rose was fled through petal-showers;
And when the last were strewn, he sighed to say:
“Ah, wise are ye, who knew the empty hours
Must lonely bide, save if ye follow Her.”

Advent by Brian Coffey: A Review

Advent, by Brian Coffey, Etruscan Books, 2014, ISBN: 9781901538878, $25.00       Advent
Advent is the most ambitious in the series of long poems and sequences published between 1961 and 1985 that mark Brian Coffey’s late flowering and that, along with Third Person (1938), are the works on which his reputation rests. I have already written at some length about this poem in my review of his Poems and Versions 1929-1990, and so the bulk of this review will consist of additional and second thoughts that have accumulated over the intervening quarter century or so of living with Advent and with Coffey’s work in general.
The first thing to be said is that Advent is a fundamentally religious, and profoundly Roman Catholic poem. The occasion of its writing was the death of a son, its basic premise is that all consolations other than simple Christian faith are insubstantial, and its resolution is acceptance of the inevitable outcome of its own logic, a resolution that is enacted by the poem through Coffey’s mastery of technique. My earlier criticisms of this ending were, I now realise, based on extra-literary grounds, my inability to share Coffey’s theological position. I still can’t, but to reject what he wrote for this reason is akin to rejecting Donne’s later works or Bach’s Matthew Passion. Given what goes before it, the final section of Advent simply couldn’t be anything other than it is.
To understand how Advent works, it is necessary to examine the technical means Coffey deployed in the making of the poem. As J.C.C. Mays points out in his invaluable introduction to the Irish University Review Brian Coffey special issue in which it first became widely available, the fundamental unit of composition is the line, and the basic line used is a long, six stress one, which is both tightly controlled and relatively free. The control stems from the way Coffey manages to keep the line from breaking up under its own weight across relatively long passages; the freedom from flexibility in the number and placement of the unstressed syllables in each line. Iambs, dactyls, anapaests and spondees are all deployed to considerable effect:

what have they done to Klio what have they done to our Muse
of History Muse Klio of Memory daughter and set
out of place and time on a plinth to reign of silence queen
As if in opened bunker one faced numberless supplicant bones
and awed by that silent thunder wanted words
What would we call on you for Klio if your style
were finger on lip to crawl through cunning corridors
fumbling behind the arras for what was not there

In addition, a non-standard syntax and elision that Coffey developed through translating French verse are woven through these long lines, along with a high incidence of hyphenated compound terms. The tone achieved is meditative, contemplative, philosophical. Coffey deploys this long line to explore the ‘false Advent idols’ of the first four sections of the poem. These are, in turn: the isolated individual human (drawing on both Beckett and the late Pound) which results in selfish solipsistic unfulfilment; the worship of nature which ends in its exploitation and therefore innately corrupt; political activism (the abuse of history for narrow ends); and the longing for aliens to come and relieve us of our responsibilities, a variant of the longing for ‘strong leadership’. This last draws on Coffey’s interest in science fiction and was probably more widespread at the time he was writing the poem than it is now.
There are extended passages in the first half of the poem where the dominant line gives way to a shorter, variable two to four stress one. The first is in section III when Coffey relates the story of the fall of the House of Atreus in a fractured narrative and links it to modern Irish history and politics. At the core of this is the phrase ‘Wisdom is won through woe’, one possible ‘lesson of history’, which in this context is something of a philosophy of despair.
This short ‘narrative’ line then reappears in the imagined story of the ‘unkin others’ and their journey to earth in section VI. At the moment that this fantasy is discarded as apostasy, the poem reverts instantly to the six-stressed line:

Sterile the seed that drops in sand dry as mummy queen
Habit’s world unbid to witness blind in daylight
when stomping boot tramples on blameless face

After this final negation, the poem moves towards affirmation. Section V returns to the world as is, the ground of our experience and, in Coffey’s view, the divinely created theatre in which we must work out our redemption. With this return to the poems’ foreground of the meditative voice, the long line becomes the norm again. Section VI examines our ‘natural’ end, death after a life well and fully lived. The figures of the dying mother and absent son call to mind Joyce’s Portrait, but Coffey discounts questions of guilt or anger; the mother understands that her children have their own ways to make in the world and is content enough that she ‘bore them reared them sent them out to live’.
With section VII, we come to the emotional core of the poem, an exposition of an ‘unnatural’ end, the death of a young son and the difficulties it raises for the faith of the surviving parents. In part, the section is an attempt to understand the macho biker culture that was responsible for the son’s death, another false idol of sorts. The roles of mother and son are reversed from the previous section.

What they had done had been done again by him
until youth’s grand display induced forgiveness
while on ahead it still surged supposing admiring crowd
joy to share with H for Hero outdated classic style
Mothers know of us all from memorable point of growth
One such will say of her early-dead “He was strange
from start went in his dream leading not led
choosing and doing outside of rules in deathwards race”

The text of this section is punctuated at beginning, middle and end by an unfolding and folding word butterfly, consisting in the most part of what might be thought of, in Dylan Thomas terms, as ‘process words’: willow, water, glass, white, fir, bee, shell, hazel and so on. The imagery is both obvious and complex.
The final section of the poem, the final, true Advent awakening, is written almost entirely in short lines, and the syntax approaches something more like conventional English. It is as if the intellectual seeking for understanding that is embodied in the long line has become one last false idol to be set aside and replaced with faith, a simple acceptance of the divine will. At this stage, ‘wisdom is won through woe’ is recast and rejected in favour of love and acceptance:

in poverty wealth
sickness health
on the better tack
or the worser
between womb and grave
face to polar cold
right in storm of fire
for us surely
where friend gives greatest gift
so be it

I may disagree with Coffey’s position here, but there can be no doubting the technical skill with which he brings the poem home to what is, given all that has gone before and the theological position that informs it, the only possible conclusion.
Advent is a poem full of other writers, but it would be inaccurate to think of them as influences in the conventional sense. Rather these engagements with his peers are, as Harry Gilonis pointed out in his Mapping Half of Advent, Widerrufen, refutations of the positions the other writers represent. Both the defiant individualism of Pound and the more long-suffering variety documented by Beckett are referenced and rejected in section I. In III and VI, Yeats’ political position is rejected, his ‘all changed changed utterly’ linked to the alien invasion in the latter section and recalling references to famine and civil war in the former. This conjunction recalls Coffey’s assertion in ‘Concerning Making’ that the ‘political use of words kills the capacity to use words to make poems’.
Mallarme is a constant presence, as has already been noted, through the lessons Coffey learned about creative ambiguity of syntax and punctuation through translating his late works, but also as another Widerruf; Coffey is at pains to examine and reject notions of chance and a dice-playing divinity. Other poets to appear include Shakespeare, Lucretius, Aeschylus, Blake, Rilke and Eliot; in each case, Coffey uses what comes to hand from his reading to advance his own position in contrast to his fellow writers.
This is the fifth appearance of Advent to appear. The first was a foolscap edition of 25 copies published by Coffey’s own Advent Press in 1975 and not for sale. The second was in the Irish University Review Coffey special issue that same year. It’s a clean text, easy to read and with the benefit of line numbering and only one long line is wrapped to fit on the page. Next was the Menard Press trade paperback edition in 1986; similar to the IUR edition, with the same wrapped line, it suffers somewhat from somewhat smaller typeface and page sizes and slightly less careful editing. Most recently, the poem was included in the Dedalus Press Poems and Versions 1929–1990 in 1991. This book suffered from an unfortunate choice of typeface which is hard to read and results in large numbers of wrapped lines and a mangling of relative spacing, despite a page size almost exactly the same as the IUR printing.
This new edition is printed on a very large 240 by 335 mm page size. In a note to the reader, the publisher points out that ‘in this generous format, there is room to lay out the poem so that no verse runs over the end of a page. Some of the clusters of verses separated by larger spaces coincide with the end of a page. In such cases the beginning of a new cluster has been indicated by lowering the top line by 3 spaces.’
As all the previous ‘for sale’ printings are bedevilled by widows and orphans, this is a very welcome development. However, much of the good is undone by the choice of the Clarendon typeface (incidentally once popular for Wild West wanted posters), which lacks crispness and is too big. As a consequence, despite the large size, there is relatively less white space around the text than there is in the IUR and Menard printings, and the relative spacing of the ‘butterfly’ is thrown completely off. Also, the triple line spacing between the clusters is extremely variable in size, which is more than unfortunate as these are a key element in the scoring of the poem.
Despite these reservations, it’s important that Coffey’s work is being made available to a new generation of readers thanks to the efforts of Etruscan Books’ editor Nicholas Johnson. A selected poems is forthcoming; done well, it could be a major step towards finally establishing Coffey’s proper place in the history of 20th century Irish verse.