This week's poem comes from the Tales of the Elders of Ireland (Acallam na Senorach), an anonymous Irish text (recently translated for Oxford World's Classics by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe), probably compiled around the late twelfth century, though it draws on earlier sources. It's a strange book: St Patrick meets some of the great warriors of the pre-Christian days; at his repeated request as they wander the countryside, they tell him the tales associated with different sites. Some of these involve the pre-Christian supernatural realm of fairies and shape-shifters, as well as the legendary heroes. St Patrick rather improbably approves of all this and causes his scribes to write down the stories. lest they be lost. Poems of praise and lamentation erupt throughout the text. Even in the late twelfth century there was clearly a sense of the pre-Christian world slipping into oblivion, and this book is an attempt to preserve it and reconcile it with the Christian present. The Ireland that emerges is an island very much on the outskirts of what was considered the civilized world, an isolated area still verdant with vast uninhabited areas and still very close to the uncanny. It's a world that is fragile, perilous, and beautiful. The ancient warrior clans seem in some ways very close to and connected with the wild animal world around them, yet also threatened by it. In this excerpt, in which a young wife mourns her drowned warrior husband, the birds and beasts mourn alongside her, and the waves that indifferently killed the young man also sound in eternal sadness. Lamentation is one of the earliest wellsprings of poetry.
The italicized words (which are thus in the Oxford World's Classics edition) are place names. I haven't been able to reproduce the accents used in the Celtic names.
On the last day of the battle a tragedy occurred; [the warrior] Cael was drowned, chasing his opponent into the sea. Other poor wild creatures of the same age as Cael died grieving for him. After he had drowned he was washed ashore. His wife and the nobles of the Fian found him and carried him to the southern shore. . . .[His wife] Crede came and lay down beside him with great mourning and lamentation. "Why should I not die here," she said, "mourning my husband, when wild creatures recklessly die in sorrow?" She then recited the following poem:
"A roar rises from the great flood of Reenvere.
The youth from Two Hound Lake has drowned, the waves along the shore lament.
"The crane's clear song from the marsh of Druimm nDa Thren,
She who cannot save her young from the jaws of the two-coloured fox.
"Sad as well is the cry of the thrush on Druimm Cain,
And no less sad the strains of the blackbird of Leitter Laeig.
"Sorrowful the sound of the stag on Druimm nDa Leis,
A mighty lament for the death of the doe of Druimm Silenn.
"I grieve for the warrior's death, for the one who lay with me,
The son of the woman of Daire Da Doss. A cross above his head.
"I grieve for the death of Cael, now lifeless by my side.
The tide flows over his pale side, its beauty still affects me.
"Sad is the cry of the wave, striking against the shore.
I weep that the noble youth ever encountered the sea.
"Sad is the sound of the wave against the northern shore,
Encircling the glistening rocks, lamenting the death of Cael.
"Sad is the crash of the wave against the southern coast,
And I, whose time has come, am now destroyed by grief.
"Swelling is the song of the wave of Druimm nDa Leis.
My treasure is no more since I heard its roaring boast.
"Since the son of Crimthann died, no love remains for me.
Many a chieftain he killed. His shield in battle screamed."
Crede then lay down beside Cael and died of sorrow. They were buried together in a single grave. . . .
Anonymous, Tales of the Elders of Ireland (Acallam na Senorach), translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe