Saint Ite's Song
stays with me day out, day in;
no loutish priest-spawned lodger he
but my own dear Jesukin.
I did not get this wounded heart
from fostering just anyone;
Jesu and his heavenly gang
curl up with me when day is done.
Jesukin gives me every good
and he gets a just return;
you try praying to any other
and in eternity you'll burn.
No Partholán, Aedh or corner boy
is nurtured in my secret shade
but Jesu, bright angel-headed
son of the Judaean maid.
Sons of puffed-up priests and chiefs
plead for my sweet fostering
but how can I have time for them
when all my care is Jesukin?
You owe your most tuneful praise,
you girls with tender voices,
to Him who reigns in heaven's height
– and under my pierced breast rejoices.
attributed to Saint Ite, translation/adaptation by Patrick Crotty
In honor of St Patrick's Day this Thursday, here is an ancient Irish poem attributed to St Ite (or Ita), who was born about one hundred years after Patrick was. Born in what is now County Waterford and baptized Deirdre, her name was later changed to Ita(e), which means thirst for holiness. Like many early female saints, she had to battle against her parents in order to avoid being married off. She became the leader of a community of similar women and was renowned for her austere way of life as well as her generous devotion to education and the spiritual guidance of others (hence one of the affectionate nicknames attached to her: foster mother of the saints of Erin). The usual miracles were attached to her legend as time went on; one of them, referenced in this poem, is that the infant Jesus came to her and allowed her to nurse him. She is fulfilling a traditional female role, but in a way that marks her off from others: exempt from the usual round of marriage and childbirth, she is granted a spiritual equivalent (perhaps an indication that the normal pleasures and ecstasies of life are not alien to the saints, but that grace encompasses all of life).
In his introduction to The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, Crotty specifically mentions this poem as one in which he has tried to recreate the original effect of an ancient work, rather than offer a more literal and necessarily antiquarian-sounding version, so this may be more of a re-creation than a faithful reproduction. I like the affectionate diminutive Jesukin, and Crotty intertwines her affection for her Jesukin with a rather scornful rejection of more ordinary suitors (Partholán and Aedh are Gaelic male names, possibly aristocratic, and a corner boy is, reasonably enough, a raffish lad who spends his time lounging on street corners – personifications of the regular romances she has renounced in favor of following her own road). She rejects these sons of puffed-up priests and chiefs and at the end calls on her community of women to join in hymning the praise of Jesus, while also reminding them of her special relationship with him: the child who under my pierced breast rejoices. I'm not really sure about the references here to Ita's wounded heart and pierced breast – I don't know if these are symbolic references to a heart pierced by suffering and abnegation, or if we're supposed to take them literally, as replications of Jesus's wounds on the cross. But in my research on St Ita I haven't come across any references to such wounds being attributed to her, though plenty of other miracles and manifestations of divine favor are, and as far as I know the first saint to receive the stigmata was Francis of Assisi, centuries later.
Below is another version of Ita's chant. This one was translated by Chester Kallman, who is probably best remembered these days for his co-authorship, with W H Auden, of the libretto to Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. This lyric was done for a different composer, Samuel Barber, as part of his wonderful song cycle Hermit Songs. You can see similar bones underlying this version and the one given above. Unlike Crotty, who tries to present the old poem as if new-born, Kallman deliberately uses archaic language to give a sense of a poem coming from a different time and place: for instance, churl (a variant of the archaic carl), which here means a person of low degree or a peasant, rather than a rude or mean-spirited man, which is the word's current meaning. This transformation occurred by the same process that turned clown from a rustic to a comic entertainer: language, which often evolves fastest and gets written down in urban and literary centers, does not grant dignity to the country classes (recognizing actual shepherds, rather than idealized Arcadians, as fit subjects for poetry was one of the great revolutions wrought by Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets).
Saint Ita's Vision
"I will take nothing from my Lord," said she,
"unless he gives me His Son from Heaven
In the form of a Baby that I may nurse Him."
So that Christ came down to her in the form
of a Baby – and then she said:
"Infant Jesus at my breast
Nothing in this world is true
Save O tiny nursling, You.
Infant Jesus at my breast
By my heart ev'ry night
You I nurse are not
A churl but were begot
On Mary the Jewess by Heaven's Light.
Infant Jesus at my breast
what King is there but You who could
Give everlasting Good?
wherefore I give my food.
Sing to Him, maidens, Sing your best
There is none that has such right
to your song as Heaven's King
who ev'ry night
Is Infant Jesus at my breast,"
attributed to Saint Ita, translated by Chester Kallman
As mentioned earlier, my source for the first version of the poem is The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, edited by Patrick Crotty; it looks as if there is a paperback version now, which I assume is the same as the hardback I have. The text for the Kallman translation is from the booklet for the Bridge Records CD Leontyne Price & Samuel Barber in Concert, an invaluable release which contains (among other things) a recording of the world premiere performance of Barber's Hermit Songs, given at the Library of Congress in 1953, with Price as the soloist and Barber on piano.