Labysheedy (The Silken Bed)

by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

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Themes and Meanings

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In an essay “Why I Choose to Write in Irish, the Corpse that Sits up and Talks Back,” Ní Dhomhnaill mentions that “the attitude to the body enshrined in Irish remains extremely open and uncoy.” It is accepted as an nádúir, or “in nature,” and “becomes a source of repartee and laughter, rather then anything to be ashamed of.” To illustrate this approach and to carry the ancient Irish tradition of regular speech as akin to song—a continuing heritage of a culture that has always admired verbal virtuosity—into the present, Ní Dhomhnaill in “Labysheedy” uses a motif common to classic folk ballads from the British Isles. To prove the truth of one’s love, a person must carry out a particular series of tasks, and in “Labysheedy” these tasks are described as a means of making the body comfortable in a natural setting. The thematic thrust of the poem as the tasks are described is toward a recognition of affinities between human and natural phenomena.

The poem’s other essential theme, the idea of a cultural community persisting through centuries of pressure to conform to distant (in this case, English) national standards and styles of literary expression, emerges through the depiction of the psychological mood of the poet. Against the quasi-gentile conception of proper diction for describing (or submerging) erotic impulses, the “open and uncoy” tenor of the poet’s speech is offered as an appealing alternative. The calm confidence of the syntax, as the poet shifts from resolution (“I’d make”) and prophecy (“your skin/ would be”) to a narration in an ongoing present (“your hair is”; “we walking/ by the riverside”), then back to a projection into the future (“I would pick”), and finally to bold conjecture (“and what a pleasure it would be”) is indicative of the will and volition underlying the poetic invitation.

The absence of fear, the avoidance of qualification or caution, suggests not only the self-confidence of the poet but also, by implication, a shared assumption that this type of discourse is familiar and welcome. The theme of the natural world as the true home for humanity—an understandable position in a country as beautiful as Ireland—is supported and complemented by the theme of an unfettered expression of emotion in vivid language as its most natural form of communication.

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