Friday, April 13, 2012


A Catalogue of Irish Trees

In an anonymous medieval Irish poem, Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney), there is a catalogue of trees (lines 972-1015 = part 40, stanzas 3-13). The catalogue starts with the verse "A dhair dhosach dhuilledhach..."

Seamus Heaney translated the entire poem as Sweeney Astray (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984, c1983), which is unavailable to me. However, I find an excerpt, containing the catalogue of trees, in Heaney's Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), pp. 187-188:
The bushy leafy oak tree
is highest in the wood,
the forking shoots of hazel
hide sweet hazel-nuts.

The alder is my darling,
all thornless in the gap,
some milk of human kindness
coursing in its sap.

The blackthorn is a jaggy creel
stippled with dark sloes;
green watercress in black on wells
where the drinking blackbird goes.

Sweetest of the leafy stalks,
the vetches strew the pathway;
the oyster-grass is my delight,
and the wild strawberry.

Low-set clumps of apple trees
drum down fruit when shaken;
scarlet berries clot like blood
on mountain rowan.

Briars curl in sideways,
arch a stickle back,
draw blood and curl up innocent
to sneak the next attack.

The yew tree in each churchyard
wraps night in its dark hood.
Ivy is a shadowy
genius of the wood.

Holly rears its windbreak,
a door in winter's face;
life-blood on a spear shaft
darkens the grain of ash.

Birch tree, smooth and blessed,
delicious to the breeze,
high twigs plait and crown it
the queen of trees.

The aspen pales
and whispers, hesitates:
a thousand frightened scuts
race in its leaves.

But what disturbs me most
in the leafy wood
is the to and fro and to and fro
of an oak rod.
There is another translation in James G. O'Keeffe, Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Suibhne). Being the Adventures of Suibhne Geilt. A Middle-Irish Romance. Edited, with Translation, Introduction, Notes and Glossary (London: D. Nutt, 1913) = Irish Texts Society Publications, XII, also unavailable in Google Books. I copy O'Keefe's translation of the catalogue of trees from here:
Thou oak, bushy, leafy,
thou art high beyond trees;
O hazlet, little branching one,
O fragrance of hazel-nuts.

O alder, thou art not hostile,
delightful is thy hue,
thou art not rending and prickling
in the gap wherein thou art.

O little blackthorn, little thorny one;
O little black sloe-tree;
O watercress, little green-topped one,
from the brink of the ousel(?) spring.

O minen of the pathway,
thou art sweet beyond herbs,
O little green one, very green one,
O herb on which grows the strawberry.

O apple-tree, little apple-tree,
much art thou shaken;
O quicken, little berried one,
delightful is thy bloom.

O briar, little arched one,
thou grantest no fair terms,
thou ceasest not to tear me,
till thou hast thy fill of blood.

O yew-tree, little yew-tree,
in churchyards thou art conspicuous;
o ivy, little ivy,
thou art familiar in the dusky wood.

O holly, little sheltering one,
thou door against the wind;
o ash-tree, thou baleful one,
hand-weapon of a warrior.

O birch, smooth and blessed,
thou melodious, proud one,
delightful each entwining branch
in the top of thy crown.

The aspen a-trembling;
by turns I hear
its leaves a-racing—
meseems 'tis the foray!

My aversion in woods—
I conceal it not from anyone—
is the leafy stirk of an oak
swaying evermore.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines stirk as "A young bullock or heifer, usually between one and two years old," which doesn't make sense in the penultimate line of O'Keefe's translation. Perhaps stirk here is a misprint for stick. I'm also puzzled by minen ("minen of the pathway").

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