Padraic Colum

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Padraic Colum Poetry: British Analysis

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In nineteenth century British and American plays, a common character type was the “stage Irishman.” This artificial Irish character was not very bright or sensitive. He tended to be a buffoon whose major interest in life was drinking. These plays revealed no understanding of the harsh reality of colonial rule and economic exploitation in rural Ireland. Until the very end of the nineteenth century, Catholics could not own land in Ireland, and farmers were forced to pay rent to absentee landlords. A desire for stability and a profound love of the land were deeply felt by Irish peasants. Padraic Colum expressed their feelings in a poetic voice that was authentic.

“An Old Woman of the Roads”

Colum’s 1907 book Wild Earth includes some of his most admired poems. The very title suggests that generations of Irish peasants had resisted British efforts to suppress their culture and their Catholic faith. One of Colum’s most famous early poems is “An Old Woman of the Roads.” Its title refers to so-called tinkers, itinerant peddlers who traveled the roads of Ireland in their wagons and sold their goods. Because of their trade, tinkers did not develop roots in a specific village. In this twenty-four-line poem, which is composed of six four-line stanzas, the old woman speaks in the first person. She is a humble but proud woman with simple desires. She dreams of having a house with a hearth, heated by sod, in which she could have a bed and a dresser. She imagines that this house would also be her store, in which she could display her goods to eager customers. She is tired of endless traveling in her wagon, and she dreams of stability, which she associates with peace. Like almost all Irish peasants, she is deeply committed to the Catholic faith that gives her the strength to endure suffering with quiet dignity. In the final stanza, the old woman realizes that she may never have a house in this life, but she still dreams of paradise, where she will be “out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.” As she travels the roads of Ireland, she prays to God “night and day.”

As for other Irish peasants, God’s presence in their daily lives and the resurrection are realities that she does not question. She is tired of the constant struggle to survive in abject poverty, but she never forgets that God loves her, and she believes that she will eventually return to her true “house” in heaven. With many different uses of the word house, Colum enables his readers to appreciate the quiet dignity and profound spirituality of ordinary Irish people. It is not at all surprising that “An Old Woman of the Roads” remains a poem beloved by generations of Irish readers and readers of Irish descent.

“A Cradle Song”

Another 1907 poem that has remained popular is the sixteen-line poem “A Cradle Song.” As in “An Old Woman of the Roads,” each stanza contains four lines of free verse. The scene evoked in this poem is universal. Parents around the world sing to their babies to calm them and to help them sleep. Just as in “An Old Woman of the Roads,” Colum includes a clear religious reference because the mother of whom he speaks in “A Cradle Song” is the Virgin Mary.

Colum transfers the infancy of Christ to an Irish country setting, and he refers to Mary by the Irish term of endearment “Mavourneen,” which means “darling.” The Gospel according to Saint Matthew tells how three wise men, or magi, came to adore the infant Jesus...

(This entire section contains 1162 words.)

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just after Mary had given birth. In “A Cradle Song,” Colum transforms these wise men into “men from the fields” whom a new mother has invited to come see her infant son, whom she has protected with “her mantle of blue.” The great respect due Christ and all babies and mothers requires that the “men from the fields” enter the house “gently” and “softly,” lest they disturb the mother or child. Colum evokes the poverty of these surroundings by pointing out that the floor in this house is cold, and farm animals are “peering” at the mother and baby “across the half door.” Despite the lack of material comfort, the mother is incredibly happy because she is experiencing the miracle of a new life. In this poem, Colum expresses very eloquently to his readers the incredible joy that new life brings.

“Roger Casement”

Colum wrote several elegies in praise of distinguished Irish people who had died. His most famous elegy was for the Irish patriot Roger David Casement (1864-1916), whom the British hanged on a charge of treason. Colum and others who favored Irish independence from Great Britain never believed the accusations against Casement, whom they considered to be a martyr. This elegy contains two eight-line stanzas. Four of the sixteen lines contain the Gaelic words for mourning, “ochone, och, ochone, ochone!” One could translate the word ochone as “alas,” but these are words people say at an Irish country burial. Casement was hanged in a British jail, but Colum imagines that Irish peasants have reserved for him the honors owed to a worthy person who has left this earth to spend eternity in heaven. Colum states that those who respect Roger Casement’s memory are not respectable English people named Smith, Murray, or Cecil, who approved of the execution of an Irish hero, but rather “outcast peoples . . . who laboured fearfully.” These social outcasts, whom the British disdain and with whom Colum identifies, will “lift” Casement “for the eyes of God to see.”

Although Casement was executed for treason, Colum reminds his readers that although a colonial power can reduce individuals to silence by killing them, it can never destroy in the minds of ordinary people the martyr’s dignity. Casement’s heroism in the face of death serves only to remind Irish people of his “noble stature . . . courtesy and kindliness” that Colum evokes in this very powerful elegy.

“After Speaking of One Who Died a Long Time Before”

Although Colum wrote poems of very high quality for seventy years, just three years before his death, he completed an extraordinary collection of twenty poems, titled Images of Departure. These exquisite poems express the joy of life felt by an eighty-eight-year-old poet who had survived his wife and almost all his friends. Perhaps the finest poem in this collection is the twenty-four-line poem “After Speaking of One Who Died a Long Time Before.” This short poem is composed of an eleven-line stanza and a thirteen-line stanza. He links his personal loss of his beloved wife and best friend, Mary, with the “tenderness and grief” simultaneously felt by people when they think of dead loved ones who profoundly touched their lives. Near the very end of his long life, Colum still demonstrated his masterful ability to use ordinary words and images to help his readers appreciate the rich complexity of human emotions.


Padraic Colum Drama Analysis