« PreviousContinue »
AMID such splendid wealth as is contained in the treasure-house of Irish
poetry, it is a difficult task to make selections which shall do justice at once to the richness and variety of material. Each new exactment made upon it only brightens the sense of pride and joy which the children of the land have ever felt in contemplating its riches; and the day is yet far distant which shall exhaust its resources. Development only makes more apparent the range of its possibilities. But where so much is valuable, individual taste and preference must in the end become the standard of choice, and individual taste may sometimes clash with popular preference. In the present collection, decision has been reached only after careful study, and much thought has been given to details. The book, as a whole, will be found to contain as judicious a selection, and to cover a wider field than any that has so far been presented to the public, while in the important points of letterpress and finish it is plainly beyond criticism.
The short biographical notice which appears as an introduction to the work of each Author has been restricted to the smallest limit, and made to contain only the most important facts connected with the life and labors of the subject. In most cases the writers are too well known to need any more formal presentation to their countrymen; but even under different conditions, limitations of space would necessitate similar treatment.
Not the least attractive part of the volume will be found in the portraits with which it is enriched. The likenesses of the earlier poets and writers. are taken from the most authentic pictures which could be found; and those of the later ones are reproduced from photographs. With this brief summary of the scope and intention of his work, the Publisher commends it now to the good-will and kind judgment of the public.
THE Poetry of Nations, fragile and delicate as it seems to be in conception and finish, outlives, as it antedates, their graver records of History and Philosophy. It is a suggestive fact that, whereas the brilliant narrative of Thucydides and the exquisite speculations of Plato are known only to a few careful students, the Epics of Homer are in the hearts and on the lips of mankind the civilized world over. Norse Sagas and German Volkslieder sing their tales of the battlefield and the fireside into ears which would perforce be deaf to the more exact chronicles which never reached them. The ringing ballads and war-songs of Scotland have done more in times of trial to keep alive the sentiment of patriotism, to kindle the fires of revolt, and to sustain the long struggle of revolution, than all the other machinery of diplomacy and power. Among primitive races Poetry was the only chronicle. The place of the Bard was above that of Warrior and Sage, because his songs formed inspiration of action for the one, and illustration of wisdom for the other. His reach was as universal as tradition could make it: his influence as strong as the untutored passions of the men to whom he appealed. to whom he appealed. After language crystallized into graven form, and the power of communication by written characters was added to that of speech, his power became even greater, since it was removed beyond the narrow boundaries of clan or creed to a wider recognition among larger bodies of men.
The genius of the Irish Muse is so wedded to the aspirations and inner life of the people to whom it belongs, that the two can never be separated. From the earliest days down to our own, its voice has been the echo of the hopes and fears of the race whose experiences it records. In times of victory and strength, it rolls from the lips and harps of the ancient minstrels in fiery, impassioned strains, or long, sonorous periods full of the majesty of power, and glowing with the impulse of great deeds. Its interpreters were allowed to share the royal privileges
and to be clothed in the outward semblance of regal authority. Under shadow of defeat, it burns still with the dauntless spirit of the brave race who maintained the ardor of hopefulness under every pressure of misfortune. Even in chains of slavery, amid the crushing blows and insults of adverse fortune, the sense of suffering, joined to the quenchless love of liberty, has exhaled in songs of sorrow, more pathetic and more beautiful than those of any other nation. Under a hundred disguises, the indomitable aspiration toward freedom and the boundless love for their stricken country, has been sung into the very ears of their captors; and the story of their wrongs and griefs, hidden beneath the veil of allegory, has been sent abroad among strange and pitying lands, in eloquent appeals for help and sympathy.
One of the compensations of Fate has left to the race which it has harassed with such unceasing hostility, a power of impersonal enjoyment and a delight in exercise of the imagination to which many more favored nations have never approximated. Because of this, the true mission of poetry to uplift and inspire,
to withdraw soul and sense from the pressure of present circumstance into the comparative happiness of contemplation — has fulfilled its benign work among the Irish people more accurately than among any other. In this eminently practical and prosaic age, it is something to be proud of that sentiment can still take such firm hold of a nation's heart, and that the smile of awakened sensibility can chase away the tear of positive misery. Those who decry the lavish emotional strength of the Celtic nature as a weakness, would do well to remember this; and to be glad that the sad fortunes of the sorrowful land had this vein of brighter and happier sentiment woven through it. The medium of song, both in words and melody, has been a great safety-valve for the suppressed emotion which a constant sense of oppression and desire of revolt had worked in the Irish soul. Through this channel of poetry has surged the dark current of a nation's blighted hopes, as well as the brighter stream of her longings and desires. Its banks have been by turns gloomy with naked rock and frowning precipice, or brilliant with bloom and foliage. The loftiest minds have not disdained to use it as a medium for the warning which should restrain, or the battle-cry which should rally for future movement, and the hearts of the people have always answered to the appeal. If the nation has been fortunate in its poets, the poets have been equally happy in their audience.
Among the different races of men, there is none more apt and sympathetic than the Irish. Their swift intuitions, which catch a meaning almost before it is