Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Poem of magic

Go here to see a complete version of this translation and art
by Kathleen Mooney.

Douglas Hyde and Amargin

from Geoffrey Moorhouse
Sun Dancing:A Vision of Medieval Ireland
(Harcourt, Brace, 1997)

"The old [Irish] stories say that there was a poet, Amargin, who led* the Tuatha Dé Danann when they arrived in Ireland. To him is attributed some Druidic verse which no less an authority than Douglas Hyde--himself a poet, a literary scholar and the first President of Ireland (1938-45)--believed might be the oldest surviving lines in any European vernacular outside Greece. This was Dr Hyde's translation:

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rock,
I am the fairest of the plants,
I am the wild boar in valour,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of knowledge,
I am the point of the lance in battle,
I am the God who creates in the head, the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain? 
Who announces the age of the moon (if not I)?
Who reaches the place where the sun couches (if not I)?"

Amargin and Aengus

Versions of these lines exist in translations by Yeats's friend and patron, Lady Gregory, by Robert Graves, and others. I find that especially interesting because of the start of that marvelous Yeats lyric, "The Song of Wandering Aengus": "I went out to the hazel wood, / Because a fire was in my head."

Aengus was one of the Tuatha Dé Danann and a god of eternal youthfulness, but Yeats gives us a mortal Aengus who ages, though the passion for the little silver trout girl reflects the love of the mythic Aengus for Caer, who alternated between swan and young woman. Yeats's wonderful Aengus is no mythic god but a hero who keeps faith with his search for the beautiful and for completion.

The Magic Storm (and Clarke)

*Here is another version and summation of those mythic events, courtesy of Wikipedia, in which Amergin Glúingel is a leader of the Milesians (said to be Gaelic-speaking Celts) against the three kings of the Tuatha Dé Danann (each killed by one of the three surviving sons of Míl Espáine) and later names Ireland after their three queens. Amergin is both bard and judge and sets the rules of engagement, retreating beyond the ninth wave and its magical boundary before the assault begins. They will gain Ireland if they can reach land, and five of Amergin's brothers will die in the attempt.

Amergin sings the poem in order to dispel the magical storm sent by druids to prevent the Milesian forces from reaching Irish soil. (If you are a Susanna Clarke fan, a druidic, magical storm that attempts to halt the Milesians and keep them beyond a barrier of waves might just remind you of the sea blockade of magical rainwater ships in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

The Magic Words

So "The Song of Amergin" (or Amargin, or many other variants--Amairgin, Amorgen, Aimhirghin) is in fact both magic and poem. And who can doubt that a poem should, at its best, be magical and change how we see the world?"

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.