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W.B.Yeats' poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" is a literary ballad based on an incident either true or fictional belonging to the poor illiterate Irish folk.
A ballad is usually a short narrative poem telling an interesting story. Since Yeats' poem "The Ballad of Father Gilligan" tells the story of how God himself took pity on the weary Gilligan and sent an angel instead of him to minister the last communion to a dying parishioner and thus ensuring that his soul went to heaven, the title of the poem is indeed very apt.
Since Yeats' ballad is a literary ballad he has deliberately worked into his poem some of the characteristics of the traditional ballad which belonged to the oral tradition and was never written down.
He has employed the ballad quatrain throughout his poem,comprising eight syllables in the first and the third lines which do not rhyme and six syllables in the second and fourth lines which rhyme.
Another important feature of the traditional ballad which Yeats has incorporated in his poem is repetition. For instance he has repeated "moth-hour" twice to poetically describe dusk and dawn.
Yeats very poetically refers to the approaching twilight as,
At the moth-hour of the eve
in order to emphasize the rural background of his ballad. The traditional ballads belonged to the illiterate rural folk and were passed on from one generation to the next by word of mouth. The poor illiterate villagers never possessed a clock or a watch and they always told time by the changes which took place from time to time in Nature.
In the Irish countryside, both at dusk and at dawn the countryside would swarm with moths. The villagers would ascertain that it was either dusk or dawn by the presence of the moths.
Just as Father Gilligan had dozed he was disturbed from his sleep by the urgent call of another dying parishioner. Wearily, Father Gilligan began to grumble and murmur about his lack of rest:
'I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
For people die and die;
But the very next instant he checks himself seeks God's forgiveness and kneels down by the side of his chair and begins to pray. However, shortly Father Gilligan is completely overwhelmed by sleep. Soon, it is night and once the stars appear in the sky the moths disappear,
And the moth-hour went from the fields.
The tired Father Gilligan slept the entire night kneeling down by the side of his chair. Early in the morning, at dawn he woke up to the cheerful sound of the chirping sparrows and once again the moths which appeared in the twilight reappeared at dawn:
Upon the time of sparrow chirp
When the moths came once more,
Poor Father Gilligan realized his mistake and rushed off to the house of the dying parishioner, only to be greeted by the dead man's widow with the news that he had actually come earlier on and had ministered the last communion to the dying man and by doing so had ensured the salvation of his soul:
The sick man's wife opened the door,
'Father! you come again!'
It is then that he realizes that God the Creator had taken pity on him who had worn himself out completely in His service, had sent an angel to minister the last communion to the dying man:
'He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
With planets in His care
Had pity on the least of things
Asleep upon a chair.'
This makes sense because a ballad is a piece of poetry that is written as a narrative and is often sung. This poem is clearly a narrative. It is telling, in an orderly manner, what has happened in a given incident.
It makes sense to call it the ballad of Father Gilligan because he is the main character. He is almost the only person who is seen in the whole poem and it centers around things that happen to him.
Since the poem is a narrative and it is about things that happen to and around Father Gilligan, this title makes sense.
A traditional folk ballad is usually told in a direct or dramatic manner with a specific form:
- quatrains (four-line stanzas)
- the lines alternate between four stresses and three stresses
- the second and fourth lines usually rhyme
- the rhythm is heavily iambic
Here's the first stanza of "The Ballad of Father Gilligan":
The old priest Peter Gilligan
Was weary night and day;
For half his flock were in their beds,
Or under green sods lay.
The stanza is a quatrain, the first and third lines have four stresses while the second and fourth lines have three, the second and fourth lines rhyme, and the rhythm is iambic.
To explain briefly:
- The old priest Peter Gilligan
The emboldened syllables are stresses. Four are present in this first line, and the stresses create iambic metrical feet. The line is scanned as follows: - / - / -/ - /. The hyphens mark unstressed syllables, and the slashes mark stressed syllables. An iamb is a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, scanned like so: - /. The line contains four iambs. The line following this one contains only three stresses: wear-, night, and day.
Day and lay of the second and fourth lines rhyme, while the concluding words of the first and third lines do not.
The number of stresses and the length of the lines create the effect of the even numbered lines completing the thoughts of the odd numbered lines. Thus, "Was weary night and day" completes the thought introduced by "The old priest Father Gilligan."
This poem is clearly a ballad. And since it tells of an incident in the life of Father Gilligan, it would seem that the title is justified.
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