Renunciation

Last post we looked at a poem by the popular Irish poet Thomas Moore. The poem, like many of Moore’s poems, expressed his love for Ireland and Irish culture. Despite the sentiments of his poetry, and despite his strong advocacy (as a Catholic) for Catholic Emancipation, however, Moore was not an Irish Republican, did not support rebellion against the British Government and enjoyed cosy relations with the English ruling classes.

The poet of this week’s post is a very different figure. The son of a protestant Englishman, Padraic Pearse was a school teacher and poet, fluent in Irish Gaelic, a language which he worked hard to promulgate the use of, and in which he wrote his poetry. He is remembered in Ireland for his involvement in the Easter Uprising of 1916, an attempted coup against British rule. Violent and unsuccessful, the uprising nevertheless created the impetus that would – after a few bloody years – lead to Irish independence.

Pearse played a prominent role in the uprising. He is commemorated in street names and the names of many Irish streets, and institutions, both for his political actions, and for his role in helping to preserve and promote the Irish language.

‘Renunciation’, translated from Irish to English by the poet Thomas Kinsella, expresses Pearse’s determination to commit to his cause.

Naked I saw thee,

O beauty of beauty,

And I blinded my eyes

For fear I should fail.

 

I heard thy music,

O melody of melody,

And I closed my ears

For fear I should falter.

 

I tasted thy mouth,

O sweetness of sweetness,

And I hardened my heart

For fear of my slaying.

 

I blinded my eyes,

And I closed my ears,

I hardened my heart

And I smothered my desire.

 

I turned my back

On the vision I had shaped,

And to this road before me

I turned my face.

 

I have turned my face

To this road before me,

To the deed that I see

And the death I shall die.

 

Perhaps the poem isn’t quite what you expected: no invocations of the Gaelic warriors of ancient Ireland, nor to its great saints, nor to its seventeenth century rebels; no encomiums to red haired maidens, harp-players or fiddlers; no mention of Drogheda, or the Battle of the Boyne or 1798; nothing, in fact, about Ireland or the Irish.

It is not a poem mythologizing history and nationality, or even a poem about those things; it is a poem of them, the poem of a man about to enact history.

To modern ears, there is something unsettling in the poem, the unmistakeable tinge of fanaticism – albeit an extraordinary clear-minded fanaticism. Pearse understood that freedom cannot be had on a plate, that it can only be won with blood, and he rightly predicted his own sacrifice: after six days of fighting, the republican rebels surrendered, and Pearse, along with fifteen other leaders, was executed by firing squad.

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Literature, Poetry

2 responses to “Renunciation

  1. Very interesting, your juxtaposition of Thomas Moore’s poem with this one. As an Englishman, I would admit that I am more comfortable with the former, so your observation seems valid. You don’t mention this, but I presume that Padraic Pearse is the Pearse listed in WB Yeats’s roll-call in ‘Easter, 1916’. I’m distinctly uncomfortable with what Yeats called the “terrible beauty” of violence in a political cause. The lines above put it so frankly: “I blinded my eyes/ I closed my ears/ I hardened my heart/ and I smothered my desire.” All this could be said by others, today, making themselves serve current violent causes. Wilfred Owen’s poems are one sort of answer I suppose – and written at the same epoch. However, I welcome your discussion of Padraic Pearse’s poem – there is a lot to think about here. Keep up the good work with your posts!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, John. It’s certainly a thought-provoking poem, though an uncomfortable one.

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