Friday, January 22, 2010


The Scholar's Life

Anonymous (17th century Ireland), The Scholar's Life, tr. Thomas Kinsella in The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 156:
Sweet is the scholar's life,
busy about his studies,
the sweetest lot in Ireland
as all of you know well.

No king or prince to rule him
nor lord however mighty,
no rent to the chapterhouse,
no drudging, no dawn-rising.

Dawn-rising or shepherding
never required of him,
no need to take his turn
as watchman in the night.

He spends a while at chess,
and a while with the pleasant harp
and a further while wooing
and winning lovely women.

His horse-team hale and hearty
at the first coming of Spring;
the harrow for his team
is a fistful of pens.
The same, translated by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson in A Celtic Miscellany: Translations from the Celtic Literatures (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 219:
The student's life is pleasant, carrying on his studies; it is plain to you, my friends, his is the most pleasant in Ireland.

No king or great prince nor landlord, however strong, coerces him; no taxes to the Chapter, no fines, no early-rising.

Early rising or sheep-herding, he never undertakes them, nor yet does he pay heed to the watchman in the night.

He spends a while at backgammon, and at the tuneful harp, or again another while at wooing, and at courting a fair woman.

He gets good profit from his plough-team when early spring comes round - the frame of his plough is a handful of pens!
I don't know a word of Gaelic, but I always like to see the original, and so here it is:
Aoibhinn beatha an sgoláire
bhíos ag déanamh a léighinn;
is follas díbh, a dhaoine,
gurab dó is aoibhne i nÉirinn.

Gan smacht ríogh ná rófhlatha
ná tighearna dá threise;
gan chuid cíosa ag caibidil,
gan moicheirgne, gan meirse.

Moichéirghe ná aodhaireacht
ní thabhair uadha choidhche,
's ní mó do-bheir dá aire
fear ná faire san oidhche.

Do-bheir sé greas ar tháiplis,
is ar chláirsigh go mbinne,
nó fós greas eile ar shuirghe
is ar chumann mná finne.

Maith biseach a sheisrighe
ag teacht tosaigh an earraigh;
is é is crannghail dá sheisrigh
lán a ghlaice do pheannaibh.
The image of the harrow as a fistful of pens reminds me of Seamus Heaney's poem Digging:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.

Under my window a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade,
Just like his old man.

My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner's bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.
Cf. also the style of Greek penmanship known as boustrophedon, ox-turning.

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