Irish Poetry and Prosody

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VIII....concluded

5. Irish Poetry and Prosody.

As a large part of Irish literature has been handed down to us in the form of verse, it will be proper to say something here about Irish Poetry and its laws.

In very early times, not only poetry proper, but histories, biographies, laws, genealogies, and such like, were often written in verse as an aid to the memory. Among all peoples there were—as there are still—certain laws or rules, commonly known as Prosody, which poets had to observe in the construction of their verse: of which the main object was harmony of numbers. The classification and the laws of Irish versification were probably the most complicated that were ever invented: indicating on the part of the ancient Irish people, both learned and unlearned, a delicate appreciation of harmonious combinations of sounds.

That the old writers of verse were able to comply with their numerous difficult prosodial rules we have positive proof in our manuscripts; and the result is marvellous. No poetry of any European language, ancient or modern, could compare with that of Irish for richness of melody. Well might Dr. Atkinson exclaim (in his Lecture on "Irish Metric"):—"I believe Irish verse to have been about the most perfectly harmonious combination of sounds that the world has ever known. I know of nothing in the world's literature like it."

Of each principal kind or measure of verse there were many divisions and subdivisions, comprising altogether several hundred different metrical varieties, all instantly distinguishable by the trained ears of poet and audience.

Some of the greatest Celtic scholars that ever lived—among them Zeuss and Nigra—maintain that rhyme, now so common in all European languages, originated with the old Irish poets, and that from the Irish language it was adopted into Latin, from which it gradually penetrated to other languages, till it finally spread over all Europe. One thing is quite certain, that rhyme—as we have already said—was brought to far greater perfection in Irish than in any other language.

The great majority of the ancient Irish poetical pieces—poetry in the true sense of the word—are still hidden away in manuscripts scattered through the libraries of all Europe. The few that have been brought to light show that many of the ancient Irish poets were inspired with true poetical genius: but sufficient materials are not yet available to enable us to pass a general judgment on the character of early Irish poetry. Most of these pieces are characterised by one prevailing note—a close observation and an intense love of nature in all its aspects. This characteristic of the Irish people will be treated of in a section of chapter xxvi. Among the remains of later times—from the fifteenth century down—we have many pieces of great beauty—odes, ballads, elegies, songs, &c.

In modern Irish poetry the old prosodial rules are almost wholly disregarded. The rhymes are assonantal, and very frequent: they occur not only at the ends of the lines but within them—sometimes once, sometimes twice; and not unfrequently the same rhyme runs through several stanzas. In other respects modern Irish poetry generally follows the metrical construction of English verse.


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