The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 2. Gaelic Poetry

Gaelic poetry resolves itself roughly into fairy poetry or pagan supernatural poetry, early and later religious poetry, nature poetry, war poetry, love poetry and what may be termed official poetry, i.e. that of the bards as court poets, and as poets attached to the great chieftains whose exploits and nuptials they celebrated and whose dirges they sang; while, here and there, specimens of Irish satirical poetry are to be met throughout the three periods of ancient, middle and later Irish, into which leading scholars are agreed in dividing the works left to us in Irish Gaelic.

The early war poetry does not call for special comment beyond this; as was to have been expected, it largely consists of laudations of chieftains of a fiercely barbaric kind, and abounds with picturesque descriptive phraseology. Thus, in Deirdre’s Lament over the Sons of Usnagh, they are variously described as “three lions from the Hill of the Cave,” “three dragons of Dun Monidh” and “three props of the battle-host of Coolney.” But, running through the savage and demonic incidents that characterise the early Irish epics, there is a vein of generosity of one heroic combatant towards another, the desire to fight fair and even to succour a failing enemy, strangely anticipatory of the spirit of medieval chivalry.

Of official poetry, it may be said that its technique is extremely elaborate and, since it was necessary to put as much thought as possible into each self-contained quatrain, its condensations often make very hard sayings of these early ranns. A love of, or tendency towards, the supernatural permeates early and middle Irish poetry, as, indeed, it also pervades The History of Ireland by Geoffrey Keating, the Irish Herodotus, who wrote as late as 1634; and much of the fascination of Gaelic verse is due to the intrusion of the glamour of “the other world” into its pages.

Love poetry, among the earliest of its kind in Europe, not only finds poignant expression in such an early Irish poem as What is Love?—an expression as definite in its description of the sufferings of a lover as can be found even in Shakespeare’s Sonnets—but the love lyrics interspersed among Irish prose romances are generally uttered by famous women whose adventures are there described with a passionate purity and tender, delicate feeling rarely met with in the heroines of the Arthurian cycles.

One other characteristic distinguishes old Gaelic poetry from that of contemporary European writers—that love of nature described by Matthew Arnold as natural magic and, according to him, specially characteristic of early and medieval Irish and Welsh poetry. This feature of Gaelic poetry is not only to be noticed in the open air Fenian Sagas, but, even in an early hymn to the Virgin, we find her described as:

  • Branch of Jesse’s Tree, whose blossoms
  • Scent the heavenly hazel wood!
  • and
  • Star of knowledge, rare and noble,
  • Tree of many blossoming sprays!
  • Indeed, the love of nature suffuses all Irish Gaelic poetry.