Cuchulain of Muirthemne

Note by W.B. Yeats

   This conversation, so full of strange mythological information, is an example of the poet speech of ancient Ireland. One comes upon this speech here and there in other stories and poems. One finds it in the poem attributed to Ailbhe, daughter of Cormac Mac Art, and quoted by O'Curry in "MS. Materials," of which one verse is an allusion to a story given in Lady Gregory's book:

"The apple tree of high Aillinn,
The yew of Baile of little land,
Though they are put into lays,
Rough people do not understand them."
   One finds it too in the poems which Brian, Son of Tuireann, chanted when he did not wish to be wholly understood. "That is a good poem, but I do not understand a word of its meaning," said the kings before whom he chanted; but his obscurity was more in a roundabout way of speaking than in mythological allusions. There is a description of a banquet, quoted by Professor Kuno Meyer, where hens' eggs are spoken of as "gravel of Glenn Ai," and leek, as "a tear of a fair woman," and some eatable seaweed, dulse, perhaps, as a "net of the plains of Rein"--that is to say, of the sea--and so on. He quotes also a poem that calls the sallow, "the strength of bees," and the hawthorn "the barking hounds," and the gooseberry bush "the sweetest of trees," and the yew, "the oldest of trees."
   This poet speech somewhat resembles the Icelandic court poetry, as it is called, which certainly required alike for the writing and understanding of it a great traditional culture. Its descriptions of shields and tapestry, and its praises of Kings, that were first written, it seems, about the tenth century, depended for their effects on just this heaping up of mythological allusions, and the "Eddas" were written to be a granary for the makers of such poems. But by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they have come to be as irritating to the new Christian poets and writers who stood outside their tradition, as are the more esoteric kinds of modern verse to unlettered readers. They were called "obscure," and "speaking in riddles," and the like.
   It has sometimes been thought that the Irish poet speech was indeed but a copy of this court poetry, but Professor York Powell contradicts this, and thinks it is not unlikely that the Irish poems influenced the Icelandic, and made them more mythological and obscure.
   I am not scholar enough to judge the Scandinavian verse, but the Irish poet speech seems to me at worst an over-abundance of the esoterism which is an essential element in all admirable literature, and I think it a folly to make light of it, as a recent writer has done. Even now, verse no less full of symbol and myth seems to me as legitimate as, let us say, a religious picture full of symbolic detail, or the symbolic ornament of a Cathedral.
   Nash's--
"Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen's eye"--
must seem as empty as a Scald's song, or the talk of Cuchulain and Emer, to one who has never heard of Helen, or even to one who did not fall in love with her when he was a young man. And if we were not accustomed to be stirred by Greek myth, even without remembering it very fully, "Berenice's ever burning hair" would not stir the blood, and especially if it were put in some foreign tongue, losing those resounding "b's" on the way.
   The mythological events Cuchulain speaks of give mystery to the scenery of the tales, and when they are connected with the battle of Magh Tuireadh, the most tremendous of mythological battles, or anything else we know much about, they are full of poetic meaning or historical interest. The hills that had the shape of a sow's back at the coming of the Children of Miled, remind one of Borlase's conviction that the pig was the symbol of the mythological ancestry of the Firbolg, which the Children of Miled were to bring into subjection, and of his suggestion that the magical pigs that Maeve numbered were some Firbolg tribe that Maeve put down in war. And everywhere that esoteric speech brings the odour of the wild woods into our nostrils.
   The earlier we get, the more copious does this traditional and symbolical element in literature become. Till Greece and Rome created a new culture, a sense of the importance of man, all that we understand by humanism, nobody wrote history, nobody described anything as we understand description. One called up the image of a thing by comparing it with something else, and partly because one was less interested in man, who did not seem to be important, than in divine revelations, in changes among the heavens and the gods, which can hardly be expressed at all, and only by myth, by symbol, by enigma. One was always losing oneself in the unknown and rushing to the limits of the world. Imagination was all in all. Is not poetry, when all is said, but a little of this habit of mind caught as in the beryl stone of a Wizard?


Cuchulain by John Duncan
Cuchulain by John Duncan