Chords of Mystery: 10 Selections from Irish Poets

Image from a 19th century postcard of the Cliffs of Moher, via Wikimedia commons

Editor's Note:

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The Cranberries singer and songwriter Dolores O’Riordan, who passed away earlier this year, became part of an age-old tradition involving Irish poets: when they speak, the world turns its head to listen. In fact, the band’s 1994 album No Need to Argue even included a shout-out to W.B. Yeats, quoting his poem “No Second Troy” in their song “Yeats’ Grave”:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?

This time of year is when we celebrate everything Irish that’s made its way westward (plus a few distinctly American traditions involving food coloring and beer). Along with the historic struggles of Ireland’s people and the beauty of its countryside, give a momentary care to the timeless vision of its poets, who speak to us in the handful of selections below.

James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 1939
“They lived and laughed and loved and left.”

Moya Cannon, from “Crannog,” The Wake Forest Series of Irish Poetry, Volume Two, 2010
“We don’t know what beads or blades
are held in the bog lake’s wet amber
but much of us longs to live in water
and we recognise this surfacing
of old homes of love and hurt.

A troubled bit of us is kin
to people who drew a circle in water,
loaded boats with stone,
and raised a dry island and a fort
with a whole lake for a moat.”

Frances Browne, from “A Parting Voice,” 1847
“I go as one that comes no more, yet go without regret;
The summers other memories store ’twere summer to forget;
I go without one parting word, one grasp of parting hand,
As to the wide air goes the bird—yet fare thee well, my land!”

Lady Jane Wilde, from “Destiny,” 1864
“There was a star that lit my life
It hath set to rise no more,
For Heaven, in mercy, withdrew the light
I fain would have knelt before.”

Oscar Wilde, from “Apologia,” 1881
“Ay! though the gorgèd asp of passion feed
On my boy’s heart, yet have I burst the bars,
Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
The Love which moves the Sun and all the stars!”

W.B. Yeats, from “Earth, Fire and Water,” 1893
“We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.”

Henrietta O’Neill, from “Ode to the Poppy,” 1792
“Hail, lovely blossom! — thou can’st ease,
The wretched victims of disease;
Can’st close those weary eyes, in a gentle sleep.
Which never open but to weep;
For, oh! thy potent charm,
Can agonizing pain disarm;
Expel imperious memory from her seat,
And bid the throbbing heart forget to beat.”

John Todhunter, from “The Banshee,” 1839
“And sometimes, when the moon
Brings tempest upon the deep,
And rous’d Atlantic thunders from his caverns in the west,
The wolfhound at her feet
Springs up with a mighty bay,
And chords of mystery sound from the wild harp at her side,
Strung from the heart of poets;
And she flies on the wings of tempest
Around her shuddering isle,
With gray hair streaming:
A meteor of evil omen,
The spectre of hope forlorn,
Keening, keening!”

Eileen Shanahan, from “The Three Children,” 1927
“The tigers of the world will spring,
The merchants of the world will buy.
And one will sell her eyes for gold,
And one will barter them for bread,
And one will watch their glory fade
Beside the looking-glass, unwed.”

John W. Sexton, Bog Asphodel, 2013
“Bog is the roof of the underworld,
where upside down the dead
walk with their feet shadowing the soles
of the living. Each step you take
you take onto the step of your dead self.”