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A note on classical literary Gaelic/Early Modern Irish
Davidson Tartan (ancient)

In last Monday night's Irish class we talked about Classical Gaelic Poetry from the early modern (1200-1650 AD) period. I mentioned that I had run across a description of some of the rules. I found it in Gàir Nan Clàrsach - The Harps' Cry: Anthology of 17th Century Gaelic Poetry. The book is about Scottish Gaelic, but this form of poetry, and the language was common to both Gaelic Scotland and Ireland in the period. The poets who produced these works had been trained in the genre for years. Their work was aimed at the Gaelic elite, and traditionally they were supported as court poets by the clan chiefs and great lords. Here is a verse from Niall Mòr Mac Muireadhigh's Do Ruaidhri Mòr, Mac Leòid ("To Ruaidhri Mòr"), followed by the analysis in the introduction to the book.

Fiche meisge linn gach laoi -
nochar leisge linn ná lé;
fiú i neart ar mbeathaidh do bhí
ceathair, a trí, a seacht le sé.

The rules here require seven syllables per line, and there are rules for elision so that when two vowels occur together (in certain circumstances) one of them is elided and therefore only one syllable is counted: here we elide the word i in line 3 and the word a following trí in line 4. The final words of lines 2 and 4 must rhyme together (as in all rhymes, the vowels must be identical); and the final vowels of all four lines must agree in 'quantity'(i.e., long or short), as they do here: laoi has a single long vowel. Internal rhyme (which in Gaelic means rhyme within the couplet) occurs twice in each couplet, giving us the rhymes meisge: leisge and linn: linn in the first couplet; in the second couplet the rhymes mbeathaidh: ceathair and neart: seacht are also perfect, because of complex Gaelic rules of consonant grouping whereby, in rhyme, -dh- and -r- belong the same group, and the consonant 'clusters' -rt and -cht (by even more complicated rules) rhyme together. (Anything as simple as the popular English rhyming system, where bill rhymes with fill but not with fin, would probably have been regarded by these poets as childish.) The metre of this poem, rannaigheacht mhór, also demands aicill, a rhyme between the final of line 3 and a non-final word in line 4, here provided in the rhyme bhí: trí Every line must contain at least one alliteration, as between linn and laoi in line 1 (the unstressed word gach, like all unstressed words, is ignored for the purpose of alliteration), and there is a double alliteration in line 2; in line 3 the alliteration between mbeathaidh and bhí demonstrates the very literate familiarity of the poets with the Gaelic conventions of mutation, mb- and bh- both being mutated forms of b-. For line 4 of all quatrains a further rule states that the alliteration must occur between the last two stressed words (seacht and ).

All these rules leave the poet with very little room for manoeuvre in the matter of conveying meaning (not to mention feeling); apart from unstressed words which must be taken into the syllable-count) the above quatrain contains only two words, Fiche and fiú, which are not firmly bound to other words by some form of rhyme and alliteration.

You may be wondering what the poet is trying to say with all this machinery:

Twenty times were we drunk each day --
neither we nor he from it did shrink;
a worthwhile fortifying of our lives,
four, three, seven, six.

The sentiments of the rest of the poem are similar.


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