For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Monday, 30 June 2008

Heron Priest


The mention of herons in my poem yesterday set me thinking generally about herons in poetry. Immediately Dylan Thomas came to mind. Herons haunt several of his poems, but I suppose his most famous heron name check is in the heartstoppingly felicitous phrase mussel pooled and heron priested shore from one of his finest poems, Poem in October.

Next I thought of Denise Levertov and her 2 poems Heron (I) and Heron (II) from Evening Train. In one of these poems she describes the heron's legato arabesque of the neck. I know there are many other poems about herons or which reference herons in passing - and I'd love to hear from anyone who knows an especially beautiful heron poem. I myself once wrote a couple of yang and yin-type heron haiku, though I wouldn't single them out as of any particular literary merit:

heron priest
with pointed beak
penetrates fish hearts

but heron priestess
plumbs their souls
with piercing eyes

However what all this has been leading up to is a heron poem by the very fine Scottish lyrical-political-nature poet Sorley MacLean (1911-1996), who deserves to be much better known in England - and in the rest of the world. It's true that he wrote in Gaelic by choice, which could make him slightly inaccessible you might think - but I'm fairly sure that almost all his poems have been translated by himself very beautifully into English. Certainly his book of Collected Poems O Choille Gu Bearradh (From Wood To Ridge) - which I bought from a petrol station near Portree on the Isle of Skye a few years ago - has dual texts in both Gaelic and English side by side.
MacLean was born in 1911 off the coast of Skye on the small island of Raasay, where Gaelic was his first language. He went to the University of Edinburgh in 1929 and was wounded 3 times serving for the British Army in North Africa during WWII. Having rejected the teachings of Scottish Presbyterianism, he turned to the politics of the far left. One of the first poems he ever wrote was called A' Chorra-Ghridheach (The Heron). These are the last 3 stanzas:

What is my thought above the heron's?
The loveliness of the moon and the restless sea,
food and sleep and dream,
brain and flesh and temptation.

Her dream of rapture with one thrust
coming in its season without stint,
without sorrow, but with one delight,
the straight, unbending law of herons.

My dream exercised with sorrow,
broken, awry, with the glitter of temptation,
wounded, morose, with but one sparkle,
brain, heart and love troubled.

What a wonderful, absolutely on-the-nail contrast between the instinctive, unreflecting, untroubled animal world and the opposite human domain. And remember, this is a translation, so much of its original, poetic glory is lost...
In conclusion I'd like to end with some of my favourite Sorley MacLean lines, the final 2 verses of his magnificent poem Coilltean Ratharsai (The Woods Of Raasay):

There is no knowledge of the course
of the crooked veering of the heart,
and there is no knowledge of the damage
to which its aim unwittingly comes.

There is no knowledge, no knowledge,
of the final end of each pursuit,
nor of the subtlety of the bends
with which it loses its course.

Many thanks to Loren Webster for letting me use his superb heron photo.

5 comments:

Singing Bear said...

Thank you for reminding me about Sorley MacLean. I have come acrodd his poetry but had forgotten all about him. I must look him up again.

Herons have made quite a comeback in our area recently. I adore them -their grace when in flight and their amazing, zen-like, patience as they sit by the waters' edge.

Singing Bear said...

Acrodd! Ooops...you know what I mean. Must get a new keyboard.

The Solitary Walker said...

I think Sorley Maclean is quite wonderful - it's just so frustrating not being able to read him as he should be read, in the Gaelic.

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