The 1916 Poets: Some Thoughts

Shortly after noon on Monday 24th April 1916, Easter Monday, Padraig Pearse stood outside the General Post Office in Dublin and formally proclaimed an Irish Republic. Pearse and his colleagues were engaging in a doomed if dramatic gesture of defiance against the British Empire, a few hundred armed irregulars with no great plan and even less hope of victory.

For many non-Irish poetry lovers, the Easter Rising is perhaps best known as the subject of WB Yeats’ great poem ‘Easter 1916‘. Appropriately, as in many ways this was a poets’ rebellion. Three of the signatories of the proclamation, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Pearse, were poets, as were a number of other combatants and close supporters of the rising.

Plunkett was something of a poète maudit. Thin, pale and consumptive, he was already dying when he entered the GPO that Monday. His verse is, in the main, sentimentally religious and laden with images of blood and death. He is now best remembered for the poem ‘I See his blood upon the rose’ which was learned by heart by generations of Irish Catholic schoolchildren.

 I see His Blood upon the Rose

 

I SEE his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

 

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words.

 

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree.

McDonagh, who commanded the forces that occupied Jacob’s Mill on a southern approach to the city centre, was a more substantial and prolific poet than Plunkett, and his writing was more closely aligned to the mainstream of the Irish Literary Revival. He wrote poems on themes from Irish myth and legend as well as translations from older Irish verse (and also from Catullus). His ‘On a Patriot Poet’ might serve as his epitaph.

On a Poet Patriot

 

HIS songs were a little phrase

Of eternal song,

Drowned in the harping of lays

More loud and long.

 

His deed was a single word,

Called out alone

In a night when no echo stirred

To laughter or moan.

 

But his songs new souls shall thrill,

The loud harps dumb,

And his deed the echoes fill

When the dawn is come.

Pearse, had he lived, might well have been the most interesting poet of the three. He was the first Irish poet to take Whitman seriously and, almost uniquely among his compatriots, frequently used unrhymed free verse, albeit that he swapped the American’s barbaric yap for an Irish Catholic sense of piety. Like Plunkett, he was much taken with ideas of blood and sacrifice. On the night before his execution, he wrote a letter and poem to his mother; the poem has undertones of the crucifixion in its play on the mother’s simultaneous suffering and glorying in the death of a son.

The Mother

 

I do not grudge them: Lord, I do not grudge

My two strong sons that I have seen go out

To break their strength and die, they and a few,

In bloody protest for a glorious thing,

They shall be spoken of among their people,

The generations shall remember them,

And call them blessed;

But I will speak their names to my own heart

In the long nights;

The little names that were familiar once

Round my dead hearth.

Lord, thou art hard on mothers:

We suffer in their coming and their going;

And tho’ I grudge them not, I weary, weary

Of the long sorrow – And yet I have my joy:

My sons were faithful, and they fought.

The GPO Quartermaster was Desmond Fitzgerald, one of the English Imagists who met in the Tour Eiffel café in Soho, as near to an avant garde as English poetry had in the years before WWI. In late 1917, while Fitzgerald was in prison for his part in the Rising, his poems started to appear in AR Orage’s journal The New Age, alongside work by Ezra Pound and others. These were love poems, were not ‘Celtic’ and make no reference to Nationalist politics. Although he wrote prolifically, Fitzgerald’s claim to fame is his political career as a Minister in the first independent Irish government. Indeed, it was as a politician that he found his place among those remembered in the Pisan Cantos decades later.

Spring

 

I knew you and knew your beauty, bat only thought

Of that other beauty that artists, long-since dead, had wrought

On canvas and marble and painted glass:

And so we let the days and the weeks pass

Unnoticed as a bird that flies

Above the house, until one day, walking in friendly wise,

We heard a far-off blackbird sing

And suddenly remembered it was Spring.

And then I remembered your dark eyes and your fragrant lips and your cool

Hands that had touched mine, and that you were beautiful:

And our eyes met, and our hands: and glad and elate

We sought the woods and the fields and the Springtime beyond the City gate.

A number of women, members of Cumann na mBan, participated directly in the Rising.  Among these women was the Theosophist, folklorist and Revival poet Ella Young. A born eccentric, Young survived and went on to teach at Berkeley and to have her work set to music by experimental composer Harry Partch

These poems show something of the influence of Hilda Doolittle.

The Rose

 

The rose that blooms in Paradise

Burns with an ecstasy too sweet

For mortal eyes

But sometimes down the jasper walls

A petal falls

Toward earth and night

To lose it is to lose delight beyond compare

To have it is to have despair

As can be seen, the 1916 poets were a mixed bag; many were tied to the romantic cultural Nationalism of the Revival, looking back to an idealised Ireland that never was but without the imaginative power of a Yeats. Others were interested in new movements and ideas and radical approaches to writing verse. In this, the poetry of the Rising reflects its politics. Easter 1916 was a coming together of dreamers and realists, nationalists and socialists, radicals and conservatives united more by a cause than an ideology, a cause they were willing to die for. And die many of them did.

The story of Francis Ledwidge is equally reflective of the politics and confusion of the time. His poem ‘Lament for the Poets: 1916’ reflects his friendship with those poets, especially McDonagh. Ledwidge was active in the Irish Volunteers but played no part in the rising, largely because he was serving in the British Army at the time. He died in 1917 in Passchendaele. Had he lived, he might have found the new Ireland an inhospitable place for a retired British soldier.

Lament for the Poets: 1916

 

I HEARD the Poor Old Woman say:

“At break of day the fowler came,

And took my blackbirds from their songs

Who loved me well thro’ shame and blame.

 

No more from lovely distances

Their songs shall bless me mile by mile,

Nor to white Ashbourne call me down

To wear my crown another while.

 

With bended flowers the angels mark

For the skylark the places they lie,

From there its little family

Shall dip their wings first in the sky.

 

And when the first surprise of flight

Sweet songs excite, from the far dawn

Shall there come blackbirds loud with love,

Sweet echoes of the singers gone.

 

But in the lonely hush of eve

Weeping I grieve the silent bills.”

I heard the Poor Old Woman say

In Derry of the little hills.

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