The Works of "Fiona Macleod, Volume V, Anima Celtica


(From the Gaelic)

One of the most beautiful of old Gaelic poems is an Ecstasy of Spring composed no one knows how many generations before the lyric voices of Elizabeth's day. The name of the poet a thousand years ago went away like a blossom on that swift river which fills the pools of oblivion. Perhaps even then it was hardly remembered, for the singer is often but the fleeting shadow who sang of a star, while the star remains. This Ecstasy of Spring is known as the May Day Song, and it is recorded in an old Gaelic MS. of the later part of the ninth or beginning of the tenth century, though how much older it is than this MS. none knows. The MS. is called "Macgnímartha Finn," and recounts the Boyish Exploits of Finn, the great warrior king of the Gael, the Gaelic Nimrod. This narrative in Middle-Irish has been translated by Dr. Keneo Meyer in "Eriu," vol. i. Pt. 2, who gives there also a portion of the May Song. It is to be found intact in the "Four Songs" translated by this indefatigable Celtic student, who brings the light of poetry into his most severely difficult work . . . and how difficult old Gaelic is to translate few can realise. If any present reader knows modern Gaelic, with its confusing complexity, its puzzling spelling, its singular inversions and habitual pleonasms, let him see what he could make of ancient Gaelic so crudely concise as

"Tanic sam(h) slan soer,
  dia mbi clen caill cIar,
  lingid ag sing sneid
  dia mbi reid ran rian."

He will almost certainly find it incomprehensible. The other day I read slowly to a Gaelic islesman the following two quatrains (from another old-Irish poem):

"Maidid glass for cach lus,
  bilech doss daire glaiss:
  tanic sam(h), rofaith gaim
  gonit coin ciulinn caiss

"Canaid lon dron dord
  dia mbi forbb caill cerb,
  suanaid ler lonn liac(h)
  foling iach brec bede."

On a second and slower reading, dwelling on each word, he got nothing more from the first quatrain than what he had already got--" there will be something about a flower (lus) and a dog (coin) and maybe holly (cuilinn)." In the second, lon was easily recognisable as a blackbird: but he did not even guess at any more except to make a mistake in brec, first thinking it the familiar Gaelic name for a trout (breac) and then thinking it might be the old word for a wolf (also breac, for one of the meanings of the word is "brindled"), whereas here it is the adjective "speckled" qualifying "salmon" (iach), a name which naturally he did not know. And what this islesman, a Gael with very little English, and in a sense learned, for he could read Gaelic well and even that with old-fashioned spelling and obsolete words, could not do, I do not think even a specialist in modern Gaelic could do. But the crude jerky quatrains are full of poetic feeling, as word by word unfolded for us out of the past by Dr. Keneo Meyer:

"Green bursts out on every herb,
The top of the green oakwood is bushy,
Summer has come, wiinter has gone,
Twisted hollies wound the hound.

"The blackbird sings a loud strain,
To him the live wood is a heritage;
The sad excited sea sleeps,
The speckled salmon leaps."

Literally, and Dr. Meyer might as well have so rendered his translation: "Breaks greenness on every herb . . . arrived is summer, gone is winter" . . . "Sings the black-bird a strain loudly". . . "sleeps the sea, sad, heaving "--for liac may mean that rather that "excited," which does not go with suanaid, "sleeps.")

In this old poetry the observation is always very close, and what we should call unconventional, as "Forbrit, brain, taunic, sam(h)" . . . "Ravens flourish, summer has come"--which is every whit as true, and in the northlands of the Gael even more true, than the identification of May-tide with the often refraining cuckoo,--the often tardy swallow. But of the cuckoo, also, the old poetry can speak revealingly; for if, as seems likely, the word mbind tan be rendered "drowsy" (or "softly tender"), the line "canaid cui ceol mbind mblaith," "singeth the cuckoo a drowsy sweet music," is full of the heat of the summer days that come in May.

In giving my version, as concisely and in as brief a metre as practicable, of this old-world Song of May, after the redaction of Keneo Meyer, I am aware of how much is missed even though I have tried to retain the most distinctive phrases, as that lovely phrase in the seventh quatrain "where the talk of the rushes is come." I cannot improve upon Dr. Meyer's version, but mine is an effort to translate into rhymed quatrains the old Gaelic song in a metre as succinct as that of the original, to keep to the sense always, and to the actual words where practicable. When I have changed these, it has been to the loss of the old poet; eg, his dust-coloured cuckoo does not personify summer, and call her a queen. It says: " Welcome, splendid summer," but in the main I have tried to keep to the original.

"May, clad in cloth of gold,
Cometh this way:
The fluting of blackbirds
Heralds the day.

"The dust-coloured cuckoo
Cries'WeIcome, O Queen!'
For winter has vanished,
The thickets are green.

"Soon the trampling of cattle
Where the river runs low!
The long hair of the heather,
The canna like snow!

"Wild waters are sleeping,
Foam of blossom is here:
Peace, save the panic
In the heart of the deer.

"The wild-bee is busy,
The ant honey spills,
The wandering kine
Are abroad on the hills.

"The harp of the forest
Sounds low, sounds sweet;
Soft bloom on the heights;
On the loch, haze of heat.

"The waterfall dreams:
Snipe, corncrakes, drum
By the pool where the talk
Of the rushes is come.

"The swallow is swooping;
Song swings from each brae:
Rich harvest of mast falls;
The swamp shimmers gay.

"Happy the heart of man,
Eager each maid:
Lovely the forest,
The wild plane, the green glade.

"Truly winter is gone,
Come the time of delight,
The summer-truce joyous,
May, blossom-white.

"In the heart of the meadows
The lapwings are quiet:
A winding stream
Makes drowsy riot.

"Race horses, sail run,
Rejoice and be bold1
See, the shaft of the sun
Makes the water-flag gold.

"Loud, clear, the blackcap;
The lark trills his voice
Hail, May of delicate colours!
'Tis May-Day--Rejoice!"

The other old Gaelic May-poem is not ancient, but is certainly over a hundred and thirty, and may be about two hundred years old. I came upon it the other day through the courtesy of an unknown correspondent in America. This gentleman caught sight of a little leather-bound volume in a secondhand book shop in New York, and was puzzled at the language in which the poems it contained appeared. Well he might be at first, he not having the Gaelic, for the title runs "Comh-Chruinneachidh Orannaigh Gaidhealach," and how was he to know thiat the imprint at the bottom of the page "Duneidiunn M.DCC.LXXVI.," is merely Edinburgh? He was good enough to ascertain an address to which he could forward the book to me, and in his letter said that he thought it only right that this forlorn exile should return to its own land. And right glad was I to have it so. This little volume of Gaelic minstrelsy is "Le Raonuill Macdomhnuill, ann 'N Eilean Eigg," i.e., by Ronald Macdonald of the Isle of Eigg, that beautiful precipitous island of the Inner Hebrides which so many years ago Hugh Miller made famous in his geological "Cruise of the Betsy." Or, rather, it was compiled by him; for the poets of the songs and poems in this volume are for the most part as nameless, as well as tameless and rude and wild, as the makers of the border-ballads. The contents are diversified too: now one comes on a Iorram, or boat-chant, now on a Mairbhrann or threnody, now on a love-song such as the "Oran gaoil le Mac Cailein d'inghein Mhic Dhonuill Ilea," or a feudal song so well known as the "Oran le Inghin Alastair ruaigh do Mac Léoid" ("Song by the Daughter of Alexander the Red--i.e., the famous Mary Macleod--to the Macleod"). The book is a delight if only for its quaint wild-swanlike primitive refrains or chorus effects, e.g.:

"Holibh o iriag o ilil o,
     Holibh o iriag o ro thi,
Holibh o iriag o ilil o,
     Smeorach le clann
Raonuil mi,"

which may well have been caught from the smeorach (thrush) itself: or this other luinneag:

"Hi  il  u  il agus o,
     Hi  il  o ho ri nan,
Hi  il  u  il agus o
      * * *     *
Fa  lil o  hu lil o
    Ho ri ghealladh hi il an."

But to the Maytide poem! It is nameless, as to author; and is entitled simply "Oran an "t Samhraidh." It is, however, too long, and in its metrical skill too involved and continuously alliterate to be rendered into English here. So I do no more than give the drift of it, for in the opening stanzas is to be found the essential part of the whole poem. I may add that in the first stanza here "son o' the wind" is a poetic simile for the bagpipes (or here, perhaps, the feadan, the whistle or flute of the pipes): and that, in the third, May is, Gaelic fashion, personified as a youth.

"At break of day when all the woods are wet,
      When every bush is shining white,
  When in a silver maze the grass is set,
        And the sun's golden light
        Floods the green vale,
  Lift, lift along the dewy grassy trail
       The cheerful music of the son o' the wind,
    Till, in the forest, floating voices sail,
  And vanishing echoes haunt the old rocks stern and blind.

"Let the fresh windy birch her odours breathe,
       Her shimmering leaves ablaze:
  Let the wide branchy beech with sunbeams seethe
          While clustered cattle gaze,
          The sunshine on them too:
  Let yonder thrush that flew
       Carry the tidings of the golden day
     Till not a glen or copse heart-turning to the blue
  But thrills with the green rapturous loveliness of May.

"When evening falls, what bell is't rings so clear? . . .
      The cuckoo tolling down day's ebbing tide.
  And what is that glad call, so near? . . .
         The Mavis with his rain
         Of song thrown far and wide.
  And what these blooms May gathers to his side,
     And with his sweet warm breath doth redly stain? . . .
  Roses, red roses, culled from hill and plain,
  Roses, white roses dipt in dew, for May's awaiting bride."

Return to Volume V, Contents