In the preface to this book it states that “This is the most comprehensive and confident anthology of Irish poetry yet” it goes on to say that “The comprehensiveness is due to the inclusion of a much greater selection of work from the earlier periods, the confidence to the sureness about the artistic quality and significance of that work and of the writing done later, in the decades since the death of W.B. Yeats”. This is a collection of writing that ably demonstrates that as a literary nation Ireland punches well above it’s weight, especially when you take in the fact that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share a land mass that is only 84,421 sq km (32,595.1 sq mi), making it the third largest island in Europe, or about the size of South Carolina (82,931. sq km) and with a combined population only slightly larger, and yet it has produced amongst it’s writers four Nobel Laureates. The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, features the writing of three of the Laureates - W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney (the fourth - George Bernard Shaw) as well as the poetry of Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Thomas Moore, Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Eavan Boland and James Joyce to name just a few.
Poetry in Ireland is a genuinely ancient cultural practice, how ancient is hard to determine, although there is evidence to the existence of writing predating the arrival of Christianity early in the fifth century. This is the starting point of the book as over its one thousand or so pages it charts Ireland’s literary culture through Christian and pre-Christian attitudes, to Gaels and Vikings, Nationalism and Unionism, Catholicism and Protestantism, the Irish and English languages, also managing to encompass Latin, Old Norse and Old French right up to the vibrant poetry of modern Ireland, celebrating around 1,500 years of this nations poetry and verse.
What makes this book really magnificent is that many of the verse translations were specially commissioned, with 250 new English translations by the greatest poets currently working, including Seamus Heaney (also wrote the preface), Michael Longley, Bernard O ’Donoghue and Ciarán Carson. Not counting Anonymous, this collection features over one hundred and eighty poets, and although you could quite easily play spot the missing poet, I think that is missing the point; yes there are several poets working today I would love to see in this collection, but then who do you leave out, my choice may not be yours and with this Anthology already at over a thousand pages, how much larger would it need to be to embrace all our favourites.
The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, ably demonstrates Ireland’s status as a literary superpower, whether through those poems/verses that have only survived due to some monks recording of them or whether it is the poetry that still flows like molten lava from those poets writing today. This anthology offers a wonderful insight into a nation that somehow has managed to not only write as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, said of poetry “The best words in the best order”, but have in the process influenced the rest of the world.
Aoibhinn, a leabhrain, do thriall
(To the Lady with a Book) ~ Anonymous.
Delightful book, your trip
to her of the ringlet head,
a pity it’s not you
that’s pining, I that sped.
To go, book, where she is
delightful trip in sooth!
the bright mouth red as blood
you’ll see, and the white tooth.
You’ll see that eye that’s grey
the docile palm as well,
with all that beauty you
(not I, alas) will dwell.
You’ll see the eyebrow fine
the perfect throat’s smooth gleam
and the sparkling cheek I saw
latterly in a dream.
The lithe good snow-white waist
that won mad love from me -
the handwhite swift neat foot -
these in their grace you’ll see.
The soft enchanting voice
that made me each day pine
you’ll hear, and well for you -
would that your lot were mine.
Translation; Flann O’Brien