Colum Cille Cecinit

In the first of three snippets from an 11th/12th century poem about the 6th-century scholar/saint Columcille Heaney renders the dignity and sacredness of daily toil and demonstrates his respect for scholarly labour. He indicated he had been loyal to the original Irish poem not reproduced here.

Colum: from Latin columba “dove”. 6th C. St. Colm Cille (Columba) “dove of the church” (variously Colum Cille) is one of the most important Irish saints. Born in Donegal to a branch of the royal Ui Neill clan, Colm Cille was banished to Scotland  where he founded the monastery on Iona and converted the pagan kings of Scotland to Christianity,

Cecinit: Heaney draws directly from Latin using (full title) the 3rd person singular of the Perfect indicative active tense of cano, canere (to sing), thus ’sang’.

i  Is Scith mo chrob on scribainn

Obliged to take a break from his task (my hand is cramped from penwork) the scribe examines what he writes with – derived from a wing feather (quill), sharpened (tapered point and fashioned into a nib (bird-mouth) – and the insect-based glossy ink that flows from it (blue-dark beetle-sparkle).

He holds the scholarly content in high regard (wisdom welling in streams) and his slender scrupulous copying (fine-drawn sallow hand) via a plentiful quill-flow (riverrun) of fluid made of natural dye (green-skinned holly).

For all his limited resource (my small, runny pen) the scribe’s task is inexorable (keeps going) with endless texts (through books), however big or small and whatever the physical strain on him (through thick and thin).

His urgent mission is to see the written word through the Dark Ages to come (enrich the scholars’ holdings) … repetitive stress disorders are inevitable: Penwork cramps my hand.

  • cramp: painful involuntary muscle contraction;
  • taper: become less thick towards one end;
  • quill: pen fashioned from tail feather of large bird;
  • bird-mouth: like a pointed beak;
  • beetle-sparkle: shiny texture associated with this particular insect; as a verb ‘beetle’ contains the idea of scurrying as of a fats moving quill;
  • well: rise to the surface;
  • sallow: pallid, unhealthy looking;
  • vellum: fine parchment from animal skin;
  • thick and thin: both nib widths and phrase denoting ‘meeting every obstacle’;
  • holding: stock, possessions, assets;
  • 3 four-line units of free verse; lines based around 8 syllables;
  • Alliterative effects created: frequent use of velar plosive [k] sounds: cramped/ penwork/ quill/ dark/ sparkle ink; Wisdom/ welling; musical close harmony of voiceless dental [th] sounds: through books, through thick and thin;
  • Heaney expresses repetitive strain so much more skilfully than the mundane ‘my hand is tired from writing’: My hand is cramped from penwork.

ii  Is aire charaim Doire

A single quatrain dedicated to a Derry landscape equally cherished by saint and poet. The settlement was held dear for its calmness, for its clarity; for its omnipresent spirituality visible to the devoted: Crowds of white angels on their rounds/ At every corner.

Research suggests a link between Colum Cille and an early Derry monastery church (the dúreigléas or ‘black church’) The original poem is printed here and Heaney’s quatrain is his version of it.

Is aire charaim Doire
Ar a réide, ar a gloine
Ar is lomlán aingel finn
Ón chinn co n-ice ar-oile

  • assonance: Derry I cherish ever; Crowd/ rounds;
  • alliteration: calm/ clear/ Crowds/ corner.

iii  Fil suil nglais

Banished from the country of his birth for allegedly copying a text without permission, St Columba, in exile, turns towards Ireland a grey eye. For all his deep yearning to return, his exile will be absolute: not … ever again will he have sight of the men of Ireland or her women.

The original poem was attributed to Colum Cille as he saiied into exile from Ireland; Heaney’s quatrain is his version of Colum Cille’s words; the only change is colour – ‘blue’ in the original Irish to ‘grey’ associated with mourning and repentance.

Fil súil nglais
fégbas Érinn dar a hais;
noco n-aicébá íarmothá
firu Érenn nách a mná.

  • assonances: Ireland/ eye; ever/ again/ men/ women;

The sequence:

  • This short sequence contains enormous lyric power, is profound and affecting. The “grey eye” here belongs to Colmcille writing about his own exile, but Heaney makes this also an exile from the man and woman who stand together at the start of memory, as at its end:  (“Colum Cille Cecinit”) The getting and the leaving are implicit in each other, like memory and oblivion, and Heaney’s “Ever again” seems to take the full weight of a grief that knows itself to be unavailing, but is untouched either by blame or self-regard. Like the rest of this profound and beautiful volume, it is in touch with a future beyond the reach of the memories which it prepares to relinquish, as Lethe flows with the Moyola into Lough NeaghPeter McDonaldSunday Times of Oct 13, 2010
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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