Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Ireland has given the world more than its fair share of great poets. Below, we introduce ten classic poems by some of the greatest Irish poets who have ever lived. Some of these are poems about Ireland and Irish history, while others focus on more universal themes and subjects.
Thomas Moore, ‘The Last Rose of Summer’.
’Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone;
No flower of her kindred,
No rosebud is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
To give sigh for sigh …
Before Yeats and Heaney, there was Thomas Moore (1779-1852), who was born in Dublin and was well-known as a singer and entertainer during his lifetime (sometimes under the name ‘Anacreon Moore’). He was also one of the people responsible for burning Byron’s memoirs after his fellow poet died in 1824. ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ was written in 1805, while Moore was staying at Jenkinstown Park in County Kilkenny, Ireland. He’s thought to have been inspired by a specimen of Rosa ‘Old Blush’ in particular. The poem is often sung, set to a traditional tune called ‘Aislean an Oigfear’ (or ‘The Young Man’s Dream’).
William Allingham, ‘The Fairies’. Allingham (1824-89) was born in Ballyshannon in County Donegal and became known as much for his associations with Tennyson and other nineteenth-century literary figures (mentioned in his Diary) as for his own poetry. ‘The Fairies’ is his best-known poem, capturing the supernatural world of fairies and ‘little men’ which is so associated with the Celtic Revival in Ireland:
Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men …
Oscar Wilde, ‘Requiescat’.
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew …
Its title taken from the Latin for ‘(may he or she) rest in peace’, this short poem is one of Wilde’s most understated and touching, about a dead loved one who is now buried underground. The poem was inspired by the death of someone Wilde was very close to: his own sister. Isola Wilde died, aged just nine, in 1867; Wilde wrote this moving elegy for Isola in 1881. ‘All my life’s buried here, / Heap earth upon it’ is one of Wilde’s most moving poetic lines (or couple of lines) because they are simple yet heartfelt, and remind us that before he moved to London and became an international celebrity, Wilde was shaped by his Irish roots and upbringing.
Katharine Tynan, ‘A Hero’. Tynan (1859-1931) was born in County Dublin and was an important figure in literary Ireland during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century: she was friends with both Gerard Manley Hopkins (who lived in Ireland in the 1880s) and W. B. Yeats, among others. Ireland has its fair share of heroes, and in this poem, Tynan pays tribute to one:
He was so foolish, the poor lad,
He made superior people smile
Who knew not of the wings he had
Budding and growing all the while;
Nor that the laurel wreath was made
Already for his curly head.
Click on the link above to read the full poem.
W. B. Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born …
Yeats (1865-1939) has to feature on any list of the greatest Irish poets, and he often wrote about Irish history and politics throughout his long literary career. Yeats wrote ‘Easter 1916’ about the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, and the poem reflects his mixed feelings about the violent uprising that had taken place in order to try to force Britain to give Ireland its independence. As Yeats’s famous final line has it, ‘A terrible beauty is born.’
Thomas MacGreevy, ‘Homage To Hieronymus Bosch’. MacGreevy (1893-1967) was an important figure in Irish literary modernism. Born in County Kerry, he served in the First World War at both Ypres and the Somme, and went on to study at Trinity College, Dublin. The crucial influence on his development as a modernist poet came from meeting both James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. He published Poems in 1934, but he remains a less well-known figure in Irish modernism – even though he was arguably more ‘modernist’ than Yeats. ‘Homage to Hieronymus Bosch’ is a fine example of his avant-garde style.
Patrick Kavanagh, ‘On an Apple-Ripe September Morning’. Of all the Irish poets who wrote before Seamus Heaney, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67) is the one who most clearly prefigures – and perhaps the one who most strongly influenced – Heaney’s direct, intimate style. Here, Kavanagh recalls walking through the fields on a September morning, with a pitchfork, ready to go and help with the threshing at the mill. Few poets have so consummately captured rural Ireland as Kavanagh, and this poem shows his masterly skill at evoking a landscape and a mood.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’. No list of classic Irish poets would be complete without something from one of the best-known and best-loved Irish poets of the last hundred years: Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). ‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet, is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. Heaney resolves to use his pen as his digging implement, and to perform a different kind of excavation from that practised by his forefathers.
Paul Muldoon, ‘The Old Country’. Probably the most celebrated of the Ulster poets to be born in the second half of the twentieth century, Paul Muldoon was still in his early twenties when his first collection of poems was published in 1973. ‘The Old Country’ is a series of short meditations on Ulster, indirectly touching upon how the ongoing Troubles have affected that part of the country, its mentality and its values.
Eavan Boland, ‘Heroic’. As we remarked above when introducing the Katharine Tynan poem, Ireland has had its fair share of heroes in history and myth, and in this contemporary poem, the female Irish poet Eavan Boland muses upon how she fits in with Ireland’s heroic past. Although, as Boland has said in an interview, no statue such as she describes in the poem actually exists, it neatly expresses the aspects of the hero which Boland associates with Irish culture and history. The poem is a sonnet – but note how each line ends with the same consonant, the ‘n’ sound.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.