A poem’s rollicking joy is found in translation

Times Staff Writer

CIARAN CARSON is one of the most accomplished among the astonishing number of formidable poets who have issued from Ulster over the last three generations.

In his elegy on the death of Yeats, Auden mused that “mad Ireland stung him into poetry.” Northern Ireland, where that madness has lingered longest, more recently has prodded artists like Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Frank Ormsby and Carson into stunning poems and wonderfully readable translations. Heaney -- the Nobel laureate who has translated from Irish (“Sweeney Astray”) and Old English (“Beowulf”) -- often has spoken of how his own development was influenced by reading English-language versions of Eastern European and Russian poets.

In a conversation not long ago, Carson -- who has rendered Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarme in meticulous 12-syllable alexandrine lines along with Dante’s “Inferno” in engagingly propulsive rhyme -- also spoke of the effect W.S. Merwin’s renderings of Osip Mandelstam had on him as an undergraduate poet. This new translation more than returns the favor.


Carson’s translation of “The Midnight Court” is that rarest of things: a small and utterly enjoyable masterpiece. It brings to a wider audience than ever before a great and neglected piece of 18th century literature and, to an American readership, something equally important. In this country, poetry now is more frequently written than read, and the pleasures of the long poem are all but lost. By and large, our poets lack ambition and their meager audiences the patience. What Carson offers the willing in these 60 pages of poetry with a brief introduction is a rollicking evening of instruction in the pleasures of a long and entertaining poem.

The late scholar of Irish literature, Sean O Tuama, once wrote that “The Midnight Court” is “undoubtedly one of the greatest comic works of literature and certainly the greatest comic poem ever written in Ireland.”

It’s also the sole surviving major work by its author, Brian Merriman. Little is known about him, though tradition has it that he was born about 1749, the bastard son of a Clare squire or a village priest. (There’s evidence to support both versions in the poem.)

It’s also known that he prosperously farmed 20 acres near Feakle in County Clare, taught school, fathered two daughters and died in Limerick in 1805. A brief obituary in the local paper referred to him as “a teacher of mathematics.”

His great poem always has been an object of admiration for the genius of its language, which fuses the vigor of vernacular speech with the rhymes and assonances of extremely formal 18th century Irish language poetry. It also has been a continuing source of scandal because of its sexual frankness. A 19th century collection of Munster verse praised Merriman’s linguistic elegance but quietly labeled his masterpiece “a bit licentious.” Frank O’Connor’s Tennysonian translation was actually banned by the Irish censors. Partial translators, like Heaney, O Tuama and Thomas Kinsella, have more or less skirted the racier parts.

To everyone’s benefit, Carson has no such reticence. Merriman’s poem is what’s called an Aisling (pronounced Ash-ling), which means a dream or vision. It’s an ancient form, which by the 18th century had hardened into extreme formality: A poet wandering the countryside invariably falls asleep beside a stream or meadow. He dreams of a beautiful but unattainable speirbhean, or “sky woman,” with whom he falls in love. She recites a catalog of Ireland’s current political ills; there are two or three formal speeches; she delivers a redemptive prophecy, usually involving the return of the Stuart kings; the poet awakens to realize it was all a dream.


Merriman has his poet fall asleep, but the sky woman who approaches is a hideous and terrifying giant who is the bailiff sent to summon him before a court presided over by the queen of the fairies. There, he is made to stand trial for the offenses of all Irish men against Irish women -- a bill of particulars that includes an indictment of clerical celibacy. An old man, who testifies before the court concerning his unhappy marriage to an unfaithful wife, nonetheless offers a spirited defense of illegitimate children and decries discrimination against them.

It’s a wonderfully subversive and ribald affair, which Carson renders so engagingly because he’s not only a formidable poet but also a fine traditional musician.

As he says in the introduction, as he worked, Carson had in mind both the traditional jigs of County Clare and a tradition that Merriman was a fiddler. Given that Carson’s own poetry, though rich in sophisticated allusion, is deeply rooted in the common speech of his native Belfast, the translator and the poem are perfectly married in this instance and the result is something you can’t help but read aloud -- even if you’re alone.

Here, for example, is one of the complaining women, who addresses the fair queen concerning men who marry late and then choose older, wealthier partners:

O Your Grace! Please consider our feminine case,

That the women of Ireland find men a disgrace....

When they make up their minds to combine with a wife,

You’ll find that they’re useless at their time of life,

When no girl in her senses would lie with such fools,

For they’ll fumble the job, with no edge on their tools!

And even if Richard or Ricky or Dick,

Some fine strapping youngster with plenty of kick,

Ties up with a woman, she won’t be a lass

Full of vigor and wit, or a lady with class,

Or a beauty endowed with an hourglass physique,

Or a budding young scribe of poetic mystique,

But a mangey old bag or a hatchet-faced bitch

Who’ll go to her grave undeservedly rich.

In this sequence, the court is asked to consider the opposite case, a healthy young woman deceived into marrying a disinterested older man:

What jewel alive could endure such a fate,

Without going as grey as her doddering mate,

Who rarely, if ever, was struck by the wish

To determine her sex, whether boy, flesh or fish?

As flaccid and bony beside her he lay --

Huffy and surly, with no urge to play.

And oh! How she longed for her conjugal right,

A jolly good tumble at least once a night.

There’s much, much more, which -- happily -- cannot be reproduced in this family newspaper.

In his introduction, Carson writes of how intimidating he found translating Merriman. “I knew that my own grasp of Irish was not up to his manifold command,” he explains.

“I hesitate to call myself a native speaker; true, Irish is, or was, my first language, but I learned it from parents for whom it was a second language; and it has been a long time since it was the first language in which I think or express myself, though I sometimes dream in it.”

It’s a becoming modesty for any prudent translator, but Ciaran Carson clearly is one of those who -- as the late Michael Hartnett had it -- “think in English, but feel in Irish.” We all have the joyful evidence of that in this masterful translation.