Ich Am From Irelande

Icham1)Ich am “I am” of Irlaunde
And of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, preye ich the2)preye ich the “I pray thee”,
For of saynte charite
Come ant daunce wyt me3)ant “and” wyt “with”
In Ireland.

This is one of those early poems that’s particularly dear to my heart; there»s an almost infectious joy in the invitation to “Come and dance.” This Middle English lyric is by one of my very favorite poets, Anonymous. She’s quite prolific, and exceedingly long-lived.4)In all seriousness, I have no real reason to assert that the speaker or the poet is female, other than wishful thinking. I note that assertions like this one “the famous lyric, whose speaker is clearly female” have nothing to support them, either. “Ich am of Ireland,” or “I am of Ireland” is from about 1400, so roughly contemporaneous with Chaucer. This short lyric is preserved in a single manuscript, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson D.913 f. 1v.

Here’s the lyric in Modern English:

I am of Ireland
And of the holy land
Of Ireland.
Good sir, I pray you,
For holy charity
Come and dance with me
In Ireland.

“Ich am of Ireland” is one of several rather hastily scrawled lyrics on a single fragment of parchment. It’s probably a carol, a ring-dance, where one dancer invites another to join him or her in the center of the ring, or “Ireland.” It is not outside the realm of possibility that this carol, or a version of it, is very old indeed.

Line 5, “For of saynte charite” or “for of holy charity” doesn’t mean what it looks like. Charity, perhaps more familiar in the Latin form, caritas, had a different meaning in the tenth through seventeenth centuries than it has today. In Middle English, charity doesn’t generally mean giving to others, rather, it means love; here, it means Christian love. Saynte means “holy” here.

Yeats adopted “Ich am of Irelaunde” for his poem “XX — I Am of Ireland” in his collection of poems Words for Music Perhaps, first published in 1933.

References   [ + ]

How to Talk About Poetry

Let’s be honest. Reading poetry, in the greater scheme of things, is just this side of engaging in an obscenity. Poetry is meant to be spoken or sung or chanted; it’s meant to be heard and shared, it’s not meant to be a sullen and solitary vice. Poems live when they are shared; they should be spoken and heard and passed on and celebrated. Fortunately, anyone can read and enjoy and comment appreciatively and intelligently about poetry. You don’t have to be some sort of creative writer, or a poet, or an artist, or sensitive, or anything, beyond a thoughtful reader.

I thought I hated poetry for much of my life; it wasn’t until I read this poem that I realized I liked some poems. I thought I hated poetry because of the way poetry was presented to me in school, where teachers spent hours trying to explain meter and scansion (it’s not that big a deal, and you can read and like poetry just fine without knowing anything about meter or rhyme schemes). If you like music with lyrics, if you like songs, then you like poetry.

Moreover, no matter what your English lit teacher told you—poetry has a multiplicity of possible readings. There are lots and lots of ways for people to read the same poem; they’re all valid, as long as readers can tie their response to the poem. Even “I don’t really like this poem because it brings up a really unpleasant memory” is a valid response for that person at that time to that poem. Moreover, lived experience can change the way we read a poem, or the ways it makes us feel. We aren’t static and unchanging; neither is poetry.

What then do you talk about with respect to a poem? To start, you can talk about what you notice about it. Is there a particular line or section that draws your attention? Is there something that reminds you of something in your life, or perhaps something else you’ve seen or read? Are there any patterns, or sounds, or words, or imagery, that you find interesting or that attract your notice? Is there something that you just simply like about the poem (or dislike)?

Poetry by its nature is compact. A poem is language is compressed, without excess words. That means it’s particularly fun to look for patterns that shine through the compact shape of a poem. Patterns of image, and metaphor, of sound, and rhythm—and perhaps even more interesting, to look for places where the poet sets up a pattern, and then changes, or departs, or alters that pattern.

If you want something a little more formal, here’s a getting started guide to writing about poetry in academic terms. Me, I’d rather just talk about why I love a particular poem, and how it works, including, how it works on me.

Western Wind

Western wind, when will thou blow?
The small rain down can rain.
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

Anonymous; British Library Royal Appendix 58 c. Early Sixteenth Century

“Western Wind” (or “Westron Wyde” as the ms. has it) is an anonymous lyric from the early 16th century (c. 1530). It’s extant in a single manuscript that appears to have been a commonplace book used by several English court musicians associated with the royal court and were collecting musical pieces for lute. As Julia Craig-McFeely notes  British Library Royal Appendix 58 (RA58) is actually

two music manuscripts that became bound together as the single source, Royal Appendix 58, one inserted inside the other some considerable time after their respective compilations—possibly at the time they became part of the Royal collection in the British Museum. The outer portions of RA58, the part of the MS containing the lute music, was written throughout by the same scribe, though it is difficult to see this as the tablature section has little text with which to compare the other music, and the manuscript is suffering badly from the effects of fading. This section of the MS isa collection of tenor voice parts, and the original parchment cover was marked ‘Tenor’ by its owner. The inserted book was a collection of medius and contratenor parts, indicated by its scribe writing ‘medius’ at the top of the first page.

The general consensus regarding the RA 58 is that it’s from about 1530; the language of the poem could easily be earlier, and I suspect (but can not prove) that it’s perhaps c. 1400. There is music presented in RA58 with the text, but interpreting what the notation means is a bit difficult. Musicians and composers have come up with different melodies.

“Western Wind” is one of the first poems that grabbed my attention in that This Is Important way when I was teenager reading my father’s old copy of the Quiller-Couch edition of The Oxford Book of English Poetry. The poem seemed so very simple, a tiny four-line love-lyric (a particularly English love-lyric, given its reference to rain). It captures the feeling of love-in-absence, the emotional state of the lover longing for the presence of the beloved, the comforts of home and a familiar and shared bed.

I like the way the poem uses repetition in the second line, drawing our attention to the phrase “The small rain down can rain” — notice the way the line catches our ear and eye with the repetition of “rain,” as both verb and noun, and the way the meter emphasizes the words as if they were themselves falling rain. “The small rain” is a particularly English phrase as well, referring both to the constant steady fall of micro drops that are almost more like mist than rain, and to “a little rain,” where “small” refers to quantity rather than the size of the drops.

The phrase “the small rain” is one with an ancient history. Here’s the entry from the OED for the phrase. You’ll notice that there’s an archaic letter, the eth (ð = th sound) no longer used in English.

Small rain III. 10. a. Composed of fine or minute particles, drops, etc. In later use chiefly of rain.

c897 K. AELFRED Gregory’s Past. C. lvii. 437 Swiðe lytle beoð ða dropan ðaes smalan renes, ac hi wyrceað ðeah swiðe micel flod. c1000 Sax. Leechd.

1649 WINTHROP New Eng. (1853) I. 209 The Rebecka,..two days before, was frozen twenty miles up the river; but a small rain falling set her free.

1676 WOOD Jrnl. in Acc. Sev. Late Voy. I. (1694) 177 Thick Fogs with small Rain. 1727 A. HAMILTON New Acc. E. Indies I. xxii. 262 A small Rain happened to fall that damped my Powder. 1823 SCOTT Quentin D. i, Heaven, who works by the tempest as well as by the soft small rain (OED small, a. and n.2 III.10.a).

The same phrase is used in the King James 1611 Bible, in Deuteronomy 32:2:

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass

The date of the King James translation is too late to have directly influenced “Western Wind,” but it does show the use of the phrase—and it’s not impossible that it was influenced by the lyric.

In English custom and poetry the western wind is the wind of spring; see for instance Robert Herrick’s short lyric, “To the Western Wind,” which also treats the west wind as a gentle wind that brings rain. John Masefield does something similar in his “The West Wind.” The spring opening of Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales summons the west wind by name, in his invocation of Zephyru, the Greek god associated with the west wind and spring. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” has a similar association between the western wind and rain—but in Shelley’s poem the wind is associated with autumn, and Italy.

In this very English poem, notice that the narrater—who could be a woman or a man, we don’t know—says, somewhat urgently, or perhaps plaintively, “when” will the small rain come? It reminds me very much of the moment when the barometric pressure changes, just before the rain comes, and it’s suggestive of the speaker’s own state of mind.

A melody with the same “Western Wind” title was used by a number of sixteenth century English composers (most notably Thomas Tallis, Richard Taverner and Christopher Tye) as the cantus firmus in the Mass, under the less than surprising title of the Western Wind Mass, but it isn’t clear that the tune used by the masses is the same one recorded in British Library Royal Appendix 58 c; in fact it seems rather unlikely. It’s also not clear that the tune used by the composers wasn’t simply another tune for our lyric.  Either way, the various masses are all quite lovely, whether or not directly related to the lyric.

Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. Western Wind Masses (Taverner—Tye—Shepard)
iTunes | Amazon

The Tallis Scholars & Peter Phillips. The Tallis Scholars Sing Tudor Church Music – Volume One
iTunes | Amazon

Donne’s A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day

Saint Lucy’s day is December 13. This was, in the Julian calendar, the Winter solstice and consequently the shortest day of the year (and thus the darkest). It is also the point at which, astrologically speaking, the Sun entered the sign of the Goat (in the modern calendar, Capricorn operates between December 22, the day after the modern Winter solstice, and January 19). Saint Lucy is, more specifically, Lucia of Syracuse or Saint Lucia, She was a Christian martyr who died during the Diocletian Persecution c. 304 C.E. after a spurned suitor denounced Lucy as a Christian. Lucy (via the Latin form of her name Lucia) is cognate with Latin lux, or  light. In terms of both her various legends, one of which includes her eye being gouged out in an effort to force her to renounce Christianity. Saint Lucy is iconographically  associated with light and vision (and often, with a cup or platter on which she displays her gouged-out eyes).

Donne’s  “A Nocturne upon St. Lucy’s Day” describes the darkest part of the darkest day, hence the poem deals with the absence of light. It is also about transformation, in the sense of an alchemist trying to create something out of nothing, or something noble out of chaos, though here the transformation is in the opposite direction; the transformation of light to darkness.

In this poem Donne speaks in the persona of a lover. This is both a convention of his era, and a frequent practice of Donne’s who is sometimes clearly referring to his spouse, Ann More Donne, and other times his subject is not specific—and may not have been even for Donne himself. Critics have argued that the Lucy referred to in the title is both the saint, and an homage to his patron, Lucy the Countess of Bedford, for him he named a daughter and to whom he dedicated several poems. Others are equally certain that the “she” referenced as his beloved is Donne’s wife. Neither are mutually exclusive, and it might well be that both women were in his thoughts. We do not know the year Donne wrote the poem, which further complicates efforts towards biographic criticism.

I freely confess that the last stanza in particular makes me think Donne was writing about Ann More, and using St. Lucy Day (and night) as a vehicle for his mourning. Ann died August 15, 1617, in childbirth, delivering what would have been their twelfth child had the baby lived. She was thirty-three, and was survived by her spouse and seven of their children.

There are several motifs present that are familiar from Donne’s other Songs and Sonnets, including Donne as the model lover, one who has been transformed by his passion for his beloved, and metaphors drawn from the study of alchemy, the attempt, at its highest level, to transform a base metal like lead to gold.

I have modernized the spelling.

In this YouTube video you can hear Sir Richard Burton, probably the best reader of Donne I’ve every hard, read A Nocturne Upon St. Lucy’s Day.

John Donne – A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day by poetictouch


John Donne A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day

1)The Catholic church’s traditional order of prayers in the early church included prayers at midnight called nocturnes or vigils, the night office, today is often called Matins
’Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,2)The Winter solstice is the midpoint of the year, the turning of the tide from the darkest night of the year towards the renewal of light with Spring. Donne is also writing at midnight.
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks,
The Sun is spent, and now his flasks3)The stars are flasks; they were thought to store energy and light from the Sun
Send forth light squibs,4)Squibs were both small firecrackers and malfunctioning firecrackers, whose explosive force was less than expected no constant rays;
The world’s whole sap is sunk:
The general balm th’ hydroptique earth hath drunk,5)Current medical theory postulated that all life contained and generated a “general balm,” a life-giving and preserving essence, which, in wintertime, like sap in a tree, sinks. Hydroptic here means excessively thirsty, as people with dropsy were thought to be.
Whither,6)Typical of Donne, whither is serving multiple purposes. It can be read as both whither meaning where, to what place, and wither, to shrink or dry up. The balm has retreated to the Earth as sap does in winter. as to the beds-feet, life is shrunk,7)With to the beds-feet, Donne shifts his metaphors from sap and balm to an image of a person in bed; the beds-feet is the foot of the bed; this may mean both that the person who is in a bed, presumably dying, has his or her world shrunk to their bed. It may also be a reference to the way a corpse shrinks and withers, given the subsequent explicit reference to death.  
Dead and enterr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar’d with me, who am their Epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;8)The Winter solstice marks the “death” of the world.
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,9)A quintessence is literally the “fifth essence, derived from Medieval Latin quīnta essentia. In terms of alchemy, the fifth essence is the highest element, more pure than earth, air, fire and water, the other four, and the essence of life itself and of the heavenly bodies. Yes Luke, it’s very like the Force in Star Wars.
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin’d me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.10)Donne is himself thus the quintessence even from nothingness referred to in line 6.

All others, from all things, draw all that’s good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love’s limbec,11)A limbec (a shortened form of alembic) is a type of still used by alchemists; it is essnetially two vessels joined by a tube. Love is the alchemist who transformed Donne am the grave
Of all that’s nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so12)With we two Donne shifts from examining himself to his relationship with is beloved.
Drown’d the whole world, us two; oft did we grow13)The reference to the two lovers having Drown’d the whole world sounds remarkably like ll. 14–20 of Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping: So doth each tear
Which thee doth wear,
A globe, yea world, by that impression grow,
Till thy tears mix’d with mine do overflow
This world; by waters sent from thee, my heaven dissolved so.
O more than moon,
Draw not up seas to drown me in thy sphere,

To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences14)Absences here also echoes Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping”
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death15)I read this as a reference to Ann Donne’s death. (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;16)Contemporary science of the day suggested that even rocks and plants experienced attraction and repulsion.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.17)I read this as my sun referring to Ann Donne, as well as a comment on Donne’s own dark emotional state.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run18)The lesser sun is the solar body; now entering the sign of Capricorn, the goat.
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,19)The she here is a problem for my reading, since it clearly refers to Lucy, and consequently both the saint, and Lucy Countess of Bedford.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.20)And Donne ends much as he began, cycling back as the does the Sun.


References   [ + ]