The HyperTexts

English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme
Old English/Anglo-Saxon Poetry
Celtic Poetry
Gaelic Poetry
Scottish Poetry
Irish Poetry
Welsh Poetry
Alliterative Verse, Accentual Verse, Ballads, Rondels, Roundels, Sonnets and Villanelles

compiled by Michael R. Burch

The English language has a rich and varied history. Modern English is not a single monolithic language, but a loose confluence of languages that merged (and frequently diverged) over the course of time. On this page I hope to trace various "outside" influences on English poetry, beginning with some of the best Old English poems, then working forward toward the present. In the process we will consider the work of outstanding Scottish, Irish and Welsh poets such as Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, George Gordon (Lord Byron), William Butler Yeats and Dylan Thomas. We will also examine the work of lesser-known poets such as William Dunbar, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ethna Carbery, Louis MacNeice, Hugh MacDiarmid and Seamus Cassidy. While English was the first language of many of these poets, they were profoundly influenced by the language and lore of their homelands, so they were still, to some degree, "outlanders." As we consider their work, we will consider how they influenced modern English poetry.

I'll begin with one of my all-time favorites, "Wulf and Eadwacer," an anonymous Old English (i.e., Anglo-Saxon) poem that appeared in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. "Wulf and Eadwacer" was probably written at an earlier date, but much about the poem remains in doubt, including its meaning. For example, one translator believes the female speaker means "they will kill him" while another thinks she means "they will thank him." That's quite a difference! In my translation, I have adopted what I believe to be the most reasonable interpretation: that the woman speaking is surrounded and being held by men intent on keeping her apart from her dangerous lover, Wulf ...

Wulf and Eadwacer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon/Old English poem, circa 960-990 AD or earlier)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My people pursue him like crippled prey.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
There are bloodthirsty curs on this island.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds,
but whenever it rained, as I wept,
the boldest cur came and took me in his paws.
Good feelings to a point, but their end loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog! A wolf has borne
our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

This is one of the first truly great poems in the Old English [OE] language, and it accomplishes a number of important "firsts." It is "unique in OE literature for its passionate sex-intrigue" [Martin S. Day]. Also, there is no "Christian element" [Day], meaning the poem was not sanitized by Christian monks, as "Beowulf" was in places, and as the Arthurian legends were in many places. Therefore the poem gives us an uncensored glimpse into the hearts and minds of our ancestors: the speaker seems almost primal. Furthermore, this poem and "Deor's Lament" are the "only extant OE poems with stanza and refrain" [Day]. The stunning comparison of a loveless relationship to a song in which two voices never really harmonized is one the first great metaphors in English poetry. And perhaps most importantly, "Wulf and Eadwacer" illustrates how the "hairy words" of our ancestors can remain startlingly fresh and effective today. Poets like John Clare, who wrote centuries later, have written in a similar "earthy" style ...

Mouse's Nest
by John Clare

I found a ball of grass among the hay
& proged it as I passed & went away
& when I looked I fancied something stirred
& turned again & hoped to catch the bird
When out an old mouse bolted in the wheat
With all her young ones hanging at her teats
She looked so odd & so grotesque to me
I ran & wondered what the thing could be
& pushed the knapweed bunches where I stood
When the mouse hurried from the crawling brood
The young ones squeaked & when I went away
She found her nest again among the hay
The water o'er the pebbles scarce could run
& broad old cesspools glittered in the sun

The earliest English poem still extant today is probably "Cędmon's Hymn." "Caedmon's Hymn" was probably composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and appears to be the English language's oldest extant poem. That makes it older than Beowulf, as far as we know. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cędmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. Nevertheless, by Caedmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Anglo-Saxon poets, called "scops," were considered to be "makers" (as in William Dunbar's poem "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so Caedmon's poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God.

Cędmon's Hymn (circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Humbly now we honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the Measurer's might       and his mind-plans,
the goals of the Glory-Father.     First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established      earth's fearful foundations.
Then he, the First Scop,      hoisted heaven as a roof
for the sons of men:      Holy Creator,
mankind's great Maker!      Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master Almighty!

In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English. Cędmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the Angles were a Germanic tribe, as were the Saxons. Nevertheless, by Cędmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Lines from "Cędmon's Hymn" remind me of the much later work of Gerard Manley Hopkins. For instance, compare the first line above to certain lines from this poem by Hopkins ...

The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
   dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
   Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
   As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
   Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
   Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
   Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Of course the best-known Anglo-Saxon poem is "Beowulf," which is too long for my purposes here. But let these fine lines from a translation by Francis B. Gummere suffice for a quick "peek up the language's skirt" ...

Beowulf (anonymous Old English Epic Poem, circa 7th to 11th century AD)

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!

"Beowulf" may have been written around the time of "Cędmon's Hymn" or it may have been written much later; it has been dated as early as the 7th century AD and as late as the 11th century. It is interesting to note that, despite the seeming alienness of the poem, its opening line is comprised of words that relate directly to modern English:

Hweat we gar-Dena         in gear-dagum
What   we spear-Danes     in yore-days

"Gar" means "spear" in German (a gar is a "spear fish"). "Yore-days" are "days of yore." There are many translations of "Beowulf" available today, so readers interested in revisiting the great Anglo-German epic should be able to find versions to their individual likings. Now let's look at another poem found in the Exeter Book, meaning it was probably written no later than 990 AD. This is the other early English poem to employ a refrain:

Deor's Lament (Anglo Saxon Elegy/Lament, circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Weland knew the agony of exile.
That indomitable smith was wracked by grief.
He endured countless troubles:
sorrows were his only companions
in his frozen island dungeon
after Nithad had fettered him,
many strong-but-supple sinew-bonds
binding the better man.
   That passed away; this also may.

The full poem can be read here: Deor's Lament

Are these the oldest rhyming poems in the English language? Reginald of Durham recorded four verses of Saint Godric's: they are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
žat ic on žis erše ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie

In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenė,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

Saintė Mariė, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenė,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godės riche.

Saintė Mariė Cristes bur,
Maidenės clenhad, moderės flur;
Dilie min sinnė, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnė with the selfd God.

Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes druš
tymbre us faire scone hus
At ži burth at ži bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel žare

"The Rhyming Poem" also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem" is perhaps the oldest English rhyming poem. It was included in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to circa 960-990 AD. However the poem may be older than the collection in which it was discovered.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

The full poem can be read here: The Rhyming Poem

Here are two poems from the early 13th century that may predate Chaucer. Please note the introduction of end rhyme ...

How Long the Night (anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

Pity Mary (anonymous Old English Lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy face—fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

In the poem above, note how "wood" and "tree" invoke the cross, while "sun" and "son" seem to invoke each other. Sun-day is also Son-day, to Christians. The birthday of Jesus Christ was changed to the 25th day of December several hundred years after the fact, because the winter solstice marks the "resurrection" of the sun as the days begin to lengthen, heralding spring and crops to come. December 25th was celebrated as the birthday of Sol Invictus and Constantine, the first Roman emperor to adopt Christianity as one of the official state religions of Rome, was a worshiper of Sol Invictus. The anonymous poet who wrote the poem above may have been been punning the words "sun" and "son" with such things in mind. Now, moving quickly forward in time, here's an excerpt from "Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer ...

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

When April with her sweet showers
has pierced the drought of March to the root,
bathing the veins of virginal vines in such nectar
that even sweeter flowers are engendered,
and when Zephyr also with his immaculate breath
has inspired in every grove and glade
the tender crops; and when the young sun
has run half his course through Aries the Ram,
and when small birds make melodies
after sleeping all night with eyes wide open
because Nature pierces them through to their hearts―
then people long to go on pilgrimages ...

The two medieval English poems below may have been written around the time of Chaucer, or perhaps earlier ...

Fowles in the Frith (anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

The birds in the wood,
the fishes in the flood ...
and I must go mad:
much sorrow I walk with,
for beasts of bone and blood.

I am of Ireland (anonymous Medieval Irish Lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy land of Ireland.
Good sir, I pray thee:
for the sake of holy charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland.

The poem immediately above still smacks of German, as the first line reads: "Ich am of Irlaunde." But a German would have said "Ich bin" so a metamorphosis was in progress. English was becoming a language in its own right, and English poets had a number of non-Germanic influences, including the Celts, Greeks, Romans and Vikings. The ancient Celts seemed to favor myths and poems in which the earthly and otherworldly were juxtaposed. We can still see their influence in the dragons, witches and warlocks of the now heavily Christianized Arthurian legends. But our poetic forbears were by no means prudes, regardless of what Christian monks did when they "sanitized" their work (I accidentally typed "satanized" on my first attempt!). And the early English poets whose names we remember today were by no means one-track thinkers: they had numerous influences, including Greek, Roman/Italian, French and Norse poetry, in addition to the Bible. Thomas Wyatt (1503-1524) was one of the first great English poets; his primary influence was an Italian poet, Petrarch. Wyatt wrote wonderfully original English poems "under the influence" ...

They Flee from Me
by Thomas Wyatt

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And therewithal sweetly did me kiss,
And softly said, Dear heart, how like you this?

It was no dream, I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness
And she also to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served,
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Another early poet who still reads well today is the French poet Charles D'Orleans [1391-1465], who was imprisoned in England for almost 25 years. Here are two wonderful rondels (a French form with repeated refrains, like a song sung in rounds) by D'Orleans:

by Charles D'Orleans

Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid,
For jealousy, with all them of his part,
Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.
Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,
Too weak to make his cruel force depart,
Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid.
Nay, let not jealousy, for all his art
Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,
That still, ah, Love, thy gracious rule obeyed.
Advance, and give me succor of my part;
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.

Oft in My Thought
by Charles D'Orleans

Oft in my thought full busily have I sought
    Against the beginning of this fresh new year,
What pretty thing that I best given ought
    To her that was mine hearte's lady dear;                 [heartes is pronounced heart-ess]
    But all that thought bitane is fro me clear                 [bitane=taken; fro=from]
        Since death, alas, hath closed her under clay
    And hath this world fornaked with her here―         [fornaked=stripped]
         God have her soul, I can no better say.

But for to keep in custom, lo, my thought,
    And of my seely service the manere,                       [seely=simple; manere=manner]
In showing als that I forget her not                              [als=also]
    Unto each wight, I shall to my powere                    [wight=person]
    This dead her serve with masses and prayere;
        For all too foul a shame were me, mafay,            [mafay=by my faith]
    Her to forget this time that nigheth near               [nigheth near=draws near]
         God have her soul, I can no better say.

To her profit now nis there to be brought                    [nis=is not]
    None other thing all will I buy it dear;                      [all=although]
Wherefore, thou Lord that lordest all aloft,                  [lordest=rules]
    My deedes take, such as goodness steer,
    And crown her, Lord, within thine heavenly sphere
        As for most truest lady, may I say,
    Most good, most fair, and most benign of cheer   [cheer=countenance]
         God have her soul, I can no better say.

When I her praise, or praising of her hear,
Although it whilom were to me pleasere,                      [whilom=formerly, pleasere=pleasure]
    It fill enough it doth my heart today,
And doth me wish I clothed had my beir—                  [doth=makes]
    God have her soul, I can no better say.

Here is my attempt at a modern English translation of the poem:

Oft in My Thought
by Charles D'Orleans
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
    Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
    To give unto my lady dear;
    But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
        Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
    And robbed the world of all that's precious here―
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
    Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
    Her worth? It tests my power!
    I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
        For it would be a shame for me to stray
    Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
    and the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
    Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
    And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
        As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
    Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
    Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier
    God keep her soul, I can no better say.

This is one of the best-known early English poems ...

Western Wind (anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa 15th century AD)

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
     The small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
     And I in my bed again!

I should point out that there may be no absolutely authoritative text for such poems. I have seen other versions of the poem in major anthologies that substitute "will" for "wilt" in the first line, and "if" for "that" in the third line. But the same is true for some of Shakespeare's plays, which seem to have been "updated" by the players who performed them, leaving us with "similar but different" versions. Now here are two wonderful poems by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar ...

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but bitter rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such terrible pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mźlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in her tower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen Him pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me! ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”

As we examine the influence of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Celtic, Scottish and Irish poetry on English poetry, we will continually see "dark" and "otherworldly" aspects. For instance, here's a wonderful early anonymous ballad with supernatural overtones ...

Tom O' Bedlam's Song (anonymous Ballad, circa 1620 AD)

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye,
The spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons, defend ye.
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken,
Nor wander from your selves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon,
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Of thirty bare years have I
Twice twenty been enragčd,
And of forty been three times fifteen
In durance soundly cagčd.
On the lordly lofts of Bedlam
With stubble soft and dainty,
Brave bracelets strong, sweet whips, ding-dong,
With wholesome hunger plenty,
    And now I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With a thought I took for Maudlin,
And a cruse of cockle pottage,
With a thing thus tall, sky bless you all,
I befell into this dotage.
I slept not since the Conquest,
Till then I never wakčd,
Till the roguish boy of love where I lay
Me found and stript me nakčd.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

When I short have shorn my sow's face
And swigged my horny barrel,
In an oaken inn, I pound my skin
As a suit of gilt apparel;
The moon's my constant mistress,
And the lovely owl my marrow;
The flaming drake and the night crow make
Me music to my sorrow.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The palsy plagues my pulses
When I prig your pigs or pullen
Your culvers take, or matchless make
Your Chanticleer or Sullen.
When I want provant, with Humphry
I sup, and when benighted,
I repose in Paul's with waking souls,
Yet never am affrighted.
    But I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.
I know more than Apollo,
For oft when he lies sleeping
I see the stars at mortal wars
In the wounded welkin weeping.
The moon embrace her shepherd,
And the Queen of Love her warrior,
While the first doth horn the star of morn,
And the next the heavenly Farrier.
    While I do sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

The Gypsies, Snap and Pedro,
Are none of Tom's comradoes,
The punk I scorn, and the cutpurse sworn
And the roaring boy's bravadoes.
The meek, the white, the gentle,
Me handle not nor spare not;
But those that cross Tom Rynosseross
Do what the panther dare not.
    Although I sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

With an host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end:
Methinks it is no journey.
    Yet I will sing, Any food, any feeding,
    Feeding, drink or clothing;
    Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
    Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) has been called the national poet of Scotland. He wrote poems in standard English and in the Scots dialect. His best-known poems tend to be those with a Scottish flavor that are still accessible to English readers. He was also a popular songsmith, most famously penning "Auld Lang Syne" ...

A Red, Red Rose
by Robert Burns

Oh my luve is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
Oh my luve is like the melodie,
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile!

Afton Water
by Robert Burns

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.
Thou stock-dove, whose echo resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den,
Thou green-crested lapwing, thy screaming forbear,
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair.
How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses of clear winding rills;
There daily I wander as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye.
How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild Ev'ning sweeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides,
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave,
As gathering sweet flowrets she stems thy clear wave.
Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish poet, historian and novelist who was one of the first internationally acclaimed writers to work primarily in English. His best-known work today is the historical novel Ivanhoe ...

Proud Maisie
by Sir Walter Scott

Proud Maisie is in the wood
Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sits on the bush,
Singing so rarely.

'Tell me, thou bonny bird,
When shall I marry me?' —
'When six braw gentlemen
Kirkward shall carry ye.'

'Who makes the bridal bed,
Birdie, say truly?'
'The gray-headed sexton
That delves the grave duly.'

'The glowworm o'er grave and stone
Shall light thee steady,
The owl from the steeple sing,
'Welcome, proud lady.'

Although George Gordon (1788-1824, better known as Lord Byron) is generally considered an English poet, he was a descendent of King James I of Scotland and received his early formal education at Aberdeen Grammar School. His work often reflects the melancholy one tends to expect of Scottish poets ...

So We'll Go No More A-Roving
by George Gordon, Lord Byron

So we'll go no more a-roving
    So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
    And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
    And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
    And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
    And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a-roving
    By the light of the moon.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet, essayist and travel writer. His best-known poem, "Requiem" is reminiscent of the elegy the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote for himself ...

by Robert L. Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is generally considered the greatest of Irish poets, and deservedly so. His native language was English, but his influences were many and varied. For instance the poem below is a loose translation of a poem by the French poet Ronsard ...

When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats
after Ronsard

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

When reading Irish, Scottish and Welsh poets, one should keep in mind that subjected people are seldom fans of their conquerors. Yeats eloquently conveys the dilemma of an Irish pilot who ends up defending England from Germans during World War I ...

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) seems to have done for Welsh poets what Yeats did for Irish pilots, declaring independence to fly simply for the sake of flying, in this case for the sake of love and words ...

In My Craft Or Sullen Art
by Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

Ethna Carbery (1866-1911) was a wonderful Irish poet who is either under-appreciated or under-known today ...

The Love-Talker
by Ethan Carbery

I met the Love-Talker one eve in the glen,
He was handsomer than any of our handsome young men,
His eyes were blacker than the sloe, his voice sweeter far
Than the crooning of old Kevin’s pipes beyond in Coolnagar.

I was bound for the milking with a heart fair and free—
My grief! my grief! that bitter hour drained the life from me;
I thought him human lover, though his lips on mine were cold,
And the breath of death blew keen on me within his hold.

I know not what way he came, no shadow fell behind,
But all the sighing rushes swayed beneath a fairy wind;
The thrush ceased its singing, a mist crept about,
We two clung together—with the world shut out.

Beyond the ghostly mist I could hear my cattle low,
The little cow from Ballina, clean as driven snow,
The dun cow from Kerry, the roan from Inisheer,
Oh, pitiful their calling—and his whispers in my ear!

His eyes were a fire; his words were a snare;
I cried my mother’s name, but no help was there;
I made the blessed Sign: then he gave a dreary moan,
A wisp of cloud went floating by, and I stood alone.

Running ever thro’ my head is an old-time rune—
“Who meets the Love-Talker must weave her shroud soon.”
My mother’s face is furrowed with the salt tears that fall,
But the kind eyes of my father are the saddest sight of all.

I have spun the fleecy lint and now my wheel is still,
The linen length is woven for my shroud fine and chill,
I shall stretch me on the bed, where a happy maid I lay—
Pray for the soul of Mįire Og at dawning of the day!

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) was an Irish poet and playwright of considerable skill, as his best-known poem, "Bagpipe Music," superbly attests ...

Bagpipe Music
by Louis MacNeice

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with head of bison.

John MacDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey,
Kept its bones for dumbbells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-man, it's no go Blavatsky,
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie MacDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it's no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tire and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Carmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife "Take it away; I'm through with overproduction."

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the Ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide of an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish,
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Here's another loose translation of mine, this one of a poem written in Scots by Hugh MacDiarmid. A "watergaw" is a fragmentary rainbow ...

The Watergaw
by Hugh MacDiarmid
loose translation by Michael R. Burch

One wet forenight in the sheep-shearing season
I saw the uncanniest thing—
a watergaw with its wavering light
shining beyond the wild downpour of rain
and I thought of the last, wild look that you gave
when you knew you were destined for the grave.

There was no light in the skylark's nest
that night—no—nor any in mine;
but now often I've thought of that foolish light
and of these irrational hearts of men
and I think that, perhaps, at last I ken
what your look meant then.

Seamus Cassidy is a contemporary American poet of Irish extraction who often writes on Irish/Gaelic themes ...

Taste of that Salt Breath
by Seamus Cassidy

(Reflections on a verse by W. B. Yeats)

So, I'll take my watercolors
and go to where the rocks
reach out like Celtic hands
just in from the fields,
spread for the surging sea's cleansing.

There on promontories that jut out
to where the starving have all gone,
I sit and stare inhaling salt breath
your incoming tide exhales
upon these stones.

I want to taste the salt of seas
invading redhaired Vikings smelled,
remembering as they leaned back
to watch our green shores fade,
longed to return and learned to love our land,
then stayed to give birth
to all my wife and children's fierce red fire.

Now, upon my own head that bonfire
has retired to ash
where white-caps top me,
and I wave toward heaven
wondering when and why I've come today.

Oh, I'll sit and paint on this stillpoint;
let waves outside me crash
and send their white-churning
to bound against the boulders
that fill my breathing chest.

I am of Scottish ancestry, as my last name attests. The poem below has a Scottish flavor and is an elegy of sorts dedicated to Harold Bloom, a prominent American critic who has called poetry America's "elitist art" ...

Come Down
by Michael R. Burch

for Harold Bloom

Come down, O, come down
from your high mountain tower.
How coldly the wind blows,
how late this chill hour.
And I cannot wait
for a meteor shower
to show you the time
must be now, or not ever.

Come down, O, come down
from the high mountain heather
now brittle and brown—
dun corpse in white feather.
Come down, or your heart
will grow cold as the weather
when winter devours
and spring returns never.

In conclusion ... there is no conclusion. English is a global language, with billions of people speaking it as either a first or second language. The language and the art continue to evolve, together. Even post-modern free verse we can still hear echoes of earlier times and poems. The best poems of the past still remain viable, although sometimes we need skillful translators to make ancient poems like "Beowulf" accessible to our modern ears. A poem like "Wulf and Eadwacer" may change a bit with each retelling, but still enough of the original flavor remains to remind us of its deep roots in the English poetic tradition. In the end, what matters most is that readers continue to read, enjoy and learn from the best writers of every age. Hopefully, if nothing else, this page brought poems to your attention that gave you pleasure and perhaps opened your eyes and ears to the endlessly inviting poetry of the past, which continues to contribute to our constantly-evolving present and future. ― Mike Burch

Related Pages: Timeline of Rhyme, Rondels and Roundels, Kevin N. Roberts

The HyperTexts