Absent-mindedly stitching onto a little square of linen this afternoon, I found myself incanting one of my favourite poems, 'Donal Og'. A centuries old poem of Irish origin and uncertain date, I first heard it read by Seamus Heaney at a reading to celebrate the publication of The Rattle Bag. Sadly, it was shortly before Ted Hughes died, and he was too ill to attend. Heaney concluded the evening by reading this poem on behalf of Hughes, for whom it held a powerful, personal resonance.
I've read the poem so many times I know most of it by heart. But it's never my voice that I hear. Often it's the voice of a young, Irish girl; sometimes Heaney's gentle murmur. But mostly, I hear the deep, doleful crack of Hughes' voice, making the lines ring.
It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.
You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.
You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.
You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.
When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.
It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.
My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.
My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith's forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you put that darkness over my life.
You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!
Anon. from the 8th century Irish (trans. Lady Augusta Gregory) from
The Rattle Bag ed. Heaney & Hughes, (Faber & Faber 1982)