/Recapturing Cultural Loss with Music in the English and Irish Literary Traditions – Pape Mawade SYLLA

Recapturing Cultural Loss with Music in the English and Irish Literary Traditions – Pape Mawade SYLLA

Pape Mawade SYLLA
PhD in English Literature, Faculty of Arts – Cheikh Anta Diop University – SENEGAL

Folk music is present in the cultural tradition of Britain. It appears in many forms of literature – in poetry, in drama, etc. – and in the cinema. The Irish writer, poet and lyricist Thomas Moore (1779-1852) composed his Irish Melodies (1807), a collection of 124 poems intended to be sung in Irish air, wholly romantic but at the same time nationalist. Folk music in poetry has many advantages in the sense that it emphasizes the synthetic and symbolic dimension of literature.

This article is an attempt to unveil the place of folk music in English and Irish poetry. Many writers and poets wanted to popularize the sense of cultural loss; to touch the people, they combined it with traditional ballads. The Anglo-Irish decline that writers and poets such as Thomas Moore, William B. Yeats, Percy Scholes, etc., wanted to recapture will be the main issue of this work. It was not only a way of recapturing the sense of cultural identity, but also of reimagining a new way of life.

Recapturing Cultural Loss with Music
Published in 1765, the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry is a collection of ballads and popular songs collected by Bishop Thomas Percy, it evokes the recapturing of a new ideal by bringing back stylish folk tradition. The late 18th century in Ireland coincide with the emergence of the Romantic Movement. In his Irish Melodies, the Romantic Irish writer Thomas Moore depicts an unspoilt dream world of monsters and landscapes. The rock and the bran (Irish harp) are two Irish nationalist symbols powerful in the Irish nationalist expression. The rock symbolizes resistance, and hardness, whereas the harp symbolizes sensuality. Moore wanted to popularize the sense of cultural loss in correlation with ballads to touch people’s nationalist sensitiveness.

Irish Melodies is Thomas Moore’s collections of 124 poems; set to traditional Irish tunes and published in ten volumes between 1808 and 1834. It is a reflection of Thomas Moore’s belief in the close connection between Irish music and national identity. For that reason, Moore considered his work in combining words in English to the “truly national” Irish melodies (143). His letter illustrates this fact by saying that the Irish Melodies:

Appears too plainly in the tone of sorrow
and depression which characterizes
most of our early songs […] The poet […]
must feel and understand that rapid fluctuation
of spirits, that unaccountable
mixture of gloom and levity, which composes
the character of my countrymen,
and has deeply tinged their music (143)1

Moore’s ‶The Meeting of the Watersʺ was first published in 1808, and by the end of the century it had become one of the best known of his Irish Melodies, along with ‶The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Hallsʺ, ‶The Minstrel Boyʺ, and especially ‶The Last Rose of Summerʺ. These poems raise mostly the issue of nationalism and sentimentalization. Irish history is defined by two key struggles: external struggle, the conflict between Ireland and the invader; and internal struggle, the conflict between the Irish themselves. The contradiction often rests upon such questions as who is “really” Irish, who should rule Ireland, and especially who belongs to the true, authentic Irish tradition. These questions are still very alive today. At the background of these two struggles, a number of heroes and key events have emerged, providing a kind of historical mythology that parallels and often overlaps with traditional Irish mythology.

There is clearly a certain sentimentalism in Thomas Moore’s famous Irish Melodies. These were enormously popular poems – at least as popular in England as in Ireland – that Moore set to music in the early 1800s. The poems, or songs, are marked by sentimental images of the Irish landscape and culture („The Harp“, „The Minstrel“, „The Bard“, „The Island of Sorrow“, „The Last Rose of Summer“), and seem on the surface to romanticize and embellish the realities of Irish life. Yet, beneath the surface, one can see many impulses of national dignity and pride, even rebellion, as in such songs as ‶Dear Harp of my Country ʺ! and ‶The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Hallsʺ (which Joyce puts to powerful use in his short story „Two Gallants“). In reading Moore, one must attend to the ways in which the surface meaning might rub against the hidden one, and the ways in which Moore employs apparently stock devices in unusual manners2.

In a footnote to the first printing of the songs, Moore wrote that ‶The Meeting of the Watersʺ forms a part of that beautiful scenery which lies between Rathdrum and Arklow, in the county of Wicklow, and these lines were suggested by a visit to that romantic spot, in the summer of the year 1807. The prayer for peace in the last line was probably also in the mind of James Power, Moore’s London publisher, when he declared that Irish Melodies ‘will do more … towards producing that brotherhood of sentiment which it is so much our interest to cherish, than could ever be effected by the arguments of wise, but uninteresting, politicians’3.

As many writers, George G. Byron (1788-1824) is among those who said of Thomas Moore: ‶he is the poet of all circle and an idol of his ownʺ (278), that is why ‶The Meeting of the Waters ʺ is played in a very sentimental manner: green valleys, pure crystal streams, friends departed. It reveals the sentimentalization of a powerful feeling of loss. Moore’s combination of poetry and music brought his work to a wider audience in Ireland than any previous English-language poet in Ireland had enjoyed. His ‶Melodiesʺ became “the secular hymn-book of Irish nationalism” (Sullivan 1960: 7) in the nineteenth century. As Thomas Kinsella (1986) has noted, Moore was regarded by many as ‶Ireland’s national poetʺ (xxvi) during his lifetime, and his Irish Melodies was: ‶possibly the most popular book ever produced in Irelandʺ (xxvi). Furthermore, Liam de Paor (1994) suggests that Moore was “one of the most significant figures of the transition at the point where Anglicization was beginning to be fully effected” (338)4. Moore represents the beginnings of the articulation of Irish identity and culture, on a national scale, in the English language.

William B Yeats is another eminent figure of poetry who harped on the strings of folk music in his poetry to recapture the Anglo-Irish decline. Yeats’ Celtic Twilight Movement is a movement characterized by anti- Wordsworthian feelings. Imagined countries where peasants live in an Ireland. He satirizes rationalism, as well as bourgeois philistines. He is anxious about Anglo-Irish decline. The Celtic mythology in decline, this is what he wanted to recapture. It needed, he thought, to be reworked into the present. So he does it with a dose of Celtic mysticism. ‶Down by the Sally Gardenʺ, published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) means the willows: in a footnote, Yeats says he reconstructs an old song as remembered by an old woman in the village of Ballisodare. He uses his artistic ability to rework it.‶Down by the Sally Gardenʺ, originally ‶Rambling Boys of Pleasureʺ, is a simple poem that describes a speaker’s past and how it failed.

The two stanzas of the poem are quite similar in form. Yeats repeats parts of the same lines twice in order to maintain the song-like qualities of the first three lines that he could remember. The speaker’s relationship failed in so far as, despite his love’s urgings, he did not take life or love easy. Perhaps he rushed into things too quickly or made decisions that she didn’t approve of. Either way, it ended in tears. In the first stanza the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. He describes how there was a place, in the “sally gardens,” where he used to meet his love. The language in this poem is quite simple and musical. This makes a great deal of sense since Yeats took the lines from his memory of a song sung by an old woman he used to pass.

James Joyce’s short stories, his only book of short stories, Dubliners (1914), provides snap-shots of turn-ofthe- century Ireland and epiphanies of youth and adulthood. Many of them number among the most admired works of short fiction: „Araby,“ „Clay,“ „A Little Cloud,“ and especially the concluding story, „The Dead.“ It is set in Christmas time; musical imagery is used to map out the underground part of the psyche. Musical imageries convey masks and psycho-drama: “bronchitis laughter”, a narrative sub-text which means laughing in musical echo. Death is used as a metaphor. Monks in a monastery, sleeping in their coffins to atone for their sins. The musicality in the poetry reflects a difference or contradiction existing between the West of Ireland and the West of Britain, Ireland’s dependence upon Britain, rather than upon itself; “Sinn Fein” evokes mental health matters.

In a nutshell folk music in the English literary tradition played an important role in literature particularly in poetry. Through sentimentalization, the poets had established or tried to reconstruct a New Ireland to touch the people.

Traditional folk music has had important overt influences on contemporary poets. It has also had significant covert influences. This includes poets’ choices of performance as a means of transmitting their poetry; their incorporation of elements from other poems into their work; the language they use in their poetry, which may not necessarily allude to music but is nonetheless influenced by the context in which traditional music is performed.

Finally, the issues of tradition and community are persistent concerns, which have also informed the historical relationship between music and literature in Ireland. This music may be a therapy and salvation for the younger generation and establish a new world order.

DOWDEN, Wilfred S. (ed.). 1964. The Letters of Thomas Moore, Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
FINNERAN, Richard J. (ed.), 1996, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Scribner Paperback Poetry Edition.
JOYCE, James. 1914. Dubliners. London: Grant Richards Ltd.
KINSELLA, Thomas. 1986. The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MOORE, Thomas. 1838. Irish Melodies. London: Longman. First pub. 1807.
O’SULLIVAN, Donald. 1960. Songs of the Irish. Dublin: Browne & Nolan Limited.
SCHOLES, Percey A. 1916. „The Purpose behind Shakespeare’s Use of Music“, Proceedings of the Musical Association, Taylor and Francis, Ltd., Cambridge University Press.
PUNTER, David. 1980. The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fiction from 1765 to the Present Day. London, New York: Longman.
YEATS, W. B. 1926. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan.
——————. 1967. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. London: Macmillan.

  1. Indeed, the major political figure in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell, found a great deal to praise in Moore’s work attributing “much of the present state of feeling, and the desire for liberty in Ireland to the works of that immortal man [Moore] – he has brought patriotism into the private circles of domestic life”. However, this development itself, particularly as it applied to the embrace by women of Moore’s music, was criticised by later commentators such as Charles Gavan Duffy, who described Moore as the “pet of petticoats” [Howard Mumford Jones, The Harp That Once-: A Chronicle of the Life of Thomas Moore (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1937), p. 292, Charles Gavan Duffy, “Thomas Moore”, The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. 1, ed. by Seamus Deane et al (Derry: Field Day Publications; London: Faber and Faber (distributors), 1991), p. 1251].
  2. See Irish Lecture: http://ireland.wlu.edu/lecture/ch3_6.htm, retrieved on 14/11/2020.
  3. See John Barrell ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n15/john-barrell/the-meeting-ofthe-waters, Vol. 39 No. 15 · 27 July 2017.
  4. Quoted in Michael Ó Suilleabháin, 1994, ‘All Our Central Fire’: Music, Mediation, and the Irish Psyche, Irish Journal of Psychology 15.2 and 3: 338.