The Song of Finn in Praise of May

When Finn Mac Cumhal was a young man, he studied with the bard Finegas, ate the Salmon of Wisdom, and learned the ancient art of poetry. Before he left Finegas, he composed this poem to prove his skill:

May Day! delightful day!
Bright colours play the vales along.  Now wakes at morning’s slender ray,
Wild and gay, the blackbird’s song.

Now comes the bird of dusty hue,
The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover;  Branching trees are thick with leaves;
The bitter, evil time is over.Swift horses gather nigh
Where half dry the river goes; Tufted heather crowns the height;
Weak and white the bogdown blows.

Corncrake sings from eve till morn,
Deep in corn, a strenuous bard! Sings the virgin waterfall,
White and tall, her one sweet word.Loaded bees of little power
Goodly flower-harvest win; Cattle roam with muddy flanks;
Busy ants go out and in.

Through, the wild harp of the wood
Making music roars the gale—Now it slumbers without motion,
On the ocean sleeps the sail.Men grow mighty in the May,
Proud and gay the maidens grow;  Fair is every wooded height;
Fair and bright the plain below.A bright shaft has smit the streams,
With gold gleams the water-flag;  Leaps the fish, and on the hills
Ardour thrills the flying stag.

Carols loud the lark on high,
Small and shy, his tireless lay, Singing in wildest, merriest mood
Of delicate-hued, delightful May.



9th Century Poem.

“The Boyhood of Finn Mac Cumhal” [chapter 9]. Rollston, T.W. The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland. 1910WEB. Public Domain through Project Gutenberg.

See also Dr Kuno Meyer’s prose translation in Ériu (the Journal of the School of Irish Learning), Vol. I. Part II.


February Harbinger

Walking to the bus stop after work last night, I saw my first Spring flower

and wrote a poem.


February Harbinger



A yellow crocus cannot lie.


After burrowing all winter,

(breathing beside bears)

she yawns and stretches.

She pokes her pert green nose

past the crumbling den of Hades’ habitation.

She whispers:


Spring is near





Evening Song of St. Patrick

To me, Winter is a time of rest and quiet reflection. The weather is cold (usually!) and we stay indoors. I joke that I am part bear.  In January, I hibernate; I refuse to leave the house if I don’t have to.

A sleep prayer is good for anytime of the year, but it seems all the more appropriate when the nights come early and last long.

Evening Song of St. Patrick from “Selections of Irish Poetry” translated by Kuno Meyer


May Thy holy angels, O Christ, son of living God,
Guard our sleep, our rest, our shining bed.

Let them reveal true visions to us in our sleep,
O high-prince of the universe, O great king of the mysteries!

May no demons, no ill, no calamity or terrifying dreams
Disturb our rest, our willing, prompt repose.

May our watch be holy, our work, our task,
Our sleep, our rest without let, without break.
 This poem is from Kuno Meyer’s Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry,  and the title he gives is “An Even Song” with the note: “Patrick sang this.” Just Patrick; Patrick is famous enough in all of Ireland to need no honorific.  Translater and editor Meyer notes that St. Patrick himself couldn’t have written this, not exactly, since this text dates from the 8th Century.  Literature has a long tradition of ascribing texts to more famous figures.

The first stanza begins by requesting the protection of the angels. The Celtic world was so mindful of the angels! Their poems and prayers are full of them.  And if my childhood home didn’t petition the angels per se, we still had a popular art print of a guardian angel guiding children beneath a shadowy, ominous, branchy tree. I’m reminded of an Orthodox prayer we say at various times, including night: “Encompass us with thy holy Angels, that guided and guarded by them, we may attain to the unity of the faith . . .”

As for the second stanza, I’ve a mind to never request true visions; certain gifts from God may be humbly accepted, but not importuned.  Still, I have a special fondness for Psalm 16:7: “I will bless the LORD who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.”  Perhaps God comes to us at night because it is then when the noise of the day has ceased and we are finally able to truly listen.

And if the Celtic worldview was mindful of angels; it was likewise mindful of demons.  Like “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a lorica prayer of protection which asks for shielding from many ills, including spells of wizards–one translation I have terms them ‘druids’!–this poem-prayer recognizes that demons also may visit our sleep.  I’ll tell you one thing: my bad dreams and nightmares decreased substantially–were practically eliminated–when I started saying prayers before bed, and even now when I awake from a bad dream, I think back to check if I had forgotten to pray before falling asleep.

“May our watch be holy.”  I think of the watchmen in Return of the King as popularized in the Peter Jackson movie. They watch, they wait. They light the signal fire to send a message, to request help, to warn of danger.
This Lord of the Rings segment in turn always reminds me of Bach’s Christmas cantata, 140, “Zion Hears the Watchmen Calling” [Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme].  Which is itself from the Matthew 25, the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. Indeed, the Midnight Office in the Orthodox Church includes hymns based on this gospel reading. We want to be wise and watchful, wide awake. Why? Because our watch and our work is holy.

I’m a bit prone to “the winter blues”–Seasonal Affective Disorder. As sleep refreshes us to continue our holy, watchful tasks, may the natural contemplation of the winter months rejuvenate us to continue our work when the sun returns to warm the earth. Meanwhile, keep taking your Vitamin D.

“The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” by Alexander Master,  ~1430, from the National Library of Netherlands. Public Domain

Fun Facts
For a discussion of the realism of Peter Jackson’s beacon-lighters, with quotations from the applicable text of Tolkien’s book, visit this Science Fiction and Fantasy Q & A page.

Wikipedia seems to give some pretty in-depth information about Bach’s Cantata 140.


The Storm Has Spread Over All


Cold, cold!

Cold to-night is broad Moylurg

Higher the snow than the mountain-range,

The deer cannot get at their food.


Cold till Doom!

The storm has spread over all:

A river is each furrow upon the slope,

Each ford a full pool.


A great tidal sea is each loch,

A full loch is each pool:

Horses cannot get over the ford of Ross,

No more can two feet get there.


The fish of Ireland are a-roaming,

There is no strand which the wave does not pound,

Not a town there is in the land,

Not a bell is heard, no crane talks.


The wolves of Cuan-wood get

Neither rest nor sleep in their lair,

The little wren cannot find

Shelter in her nest on the slope of Lon.


Keen wind and cold ice

Has burst upon the little company of birds,

The blackbird cannot get a lee to her liking,

Shelter for its side in Cuan-wood.


Cozy our pot on its hook,

Crazy the hut on the slope of Lon:

The snow has crushed the wood here,

Toilsome to climb up Ben-bo.


Glenn Rye’s ancient bird

From the bitter wind gets grief;

Great her misery and her pain,

The ice will get into her mouth.


From flock and from down to rise—

Take it to heart!—were folly for thee:

Ice in heaps on every ford—

That is why I say ‘cold’!


Source: Meyer, Kuno, trans. Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry. London, 1911. p. 57. In the Public Domain.


Cold Companions

Yep, our pipes froze. Interestingly enough: the hot water, not the cold. I guess flushing the toilet overnight was enough to keep the cold water flowing.

Mindful of my Russian friends celebrating Christmas today, I share this Russian folk tale about the cold:

Russian Churc.h Photo by A. Savin.

Abramtsevo museum-reserve in Moscow Oblast, Russia. Church of the Holy Mandilion. Jan. 2013. Photo by A. Savin via Creative Commons

A husband and newlywed wife are walking in the forest. He is hunting, and she is keeping  him company for part of the way. Suddenly, she starts crying. “Don’t cry, dear,” the peasant consoles. “I’ll be back soon.”

“That’s not why I’m crying,” the wife says. “I’m crying because my feet are cold.”

“It’ll be okay,” my fiancé told me about our pipes. One way or another, it will be. I’m still thankful for home and heat and a roof over my head. We joined a gym yesterday. At least we have a place to shower.


Paraphrased from Aleksandr Afanasev’s Russian Fairy Tales. NY: Pantheon, 1945, 1973, p. 282.

Shackleton & Eliot: You’re Never Alone

“Men Wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success. Ernest Shackleton.”  –Apocryphal announcement for the 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. [1]

Photo by Frank Hurley, a member of Shakleton's expedition, taken ~1914-1915, Public Domain, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales and Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Frank Hurley, a member of Shakleton’s expedition, taken ~1914-1915, Public Domain, courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales and Wikimedia Commons

2014: The Midwest and Northeast hunker down for blizzard and blizzard-like conditions, followed by frigid cold. In Antarctica, 52 passengers are rescued from a Russian research vessel trapped in ice; less well reported: the 22-member crew stays with the ship. The purpose of their Antarctic voyage: to recreate Australian explorer Douglas Mawson’s 1911 to 1913 exploratory voyage.

Nearly one hundred years ago, Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton watched his aptly-named Endurance become trapped in Antarctic pack ice for months before being crushed and swallowed by massive shifting ice floes.  Shackleton had no helicopters to radio for rescue in 1915. His resultant sixteen-month odyssey entailed making camp on ice floes, dragging sledges and life boats across glaciers, cooking seal and penguin meat over a blubber-fueled camp stove, and splitting-up and taking a last-ditch rescue party on a sea journey in a lifeboat followed by a thirty-six hour do-or-die hike across unexplored interior South Georgia island to finally reach the safe harbor of the ‘civilization’ at a remote whaling station.

In their loneliest moments of isolation, during their near-delirious deprivations across the unnamed mountains, glaciers, and crevasses, Shackleton and his men never felt truly alone. Shackleton kept to himself his impression that their three-man rescue party was joined by a fourth.  Captain Frank Worsley later admitted to the “curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.”[2] T. S. Eliot would capture these sentiments in his epic poem The Waste Land:

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you. . .” (lines 360-363).

In his own mind, Shackleton explained it. “When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us,” he wrote in South, his account of their odds-defying journey.[3]

I believe Providence walks beside us—some might say within us—on our own sometimes-perilous life journeys.  We do not have to be truly at the edge of the world and the literal end of our rope to be aware of God’s presence in our lives. (Human nature being what it is, our crises often seen to function in this fashion.)

I can starting with being thankful for a snow day off from work, and offer a prayer for the less fortunate, for the crew remaining on the contemporary Russian Antarctic vessel, for the essential employees plowing the roads, fighting fires in Minnesota temperatures so cold the water freezes immediately, and those working extra hospital shifts and fixing downed power lines. Right or wrong, I gave a subway token to a Septa station panhandler during yesterday’s evening commute: May everyone stay warm today.

"Within a few Seconds she heeled over until she had a List of Thirty Degrees to Port".  From Shackleton's 1919 book, South. Public Domain. via Wikimedia Commons.

“Within a few Seconds she heeled over until she had a List of Thirty Degrees to Port”. From Shackleton’s 1919 book, South. Public Domain. via Wikimedia Commons.

Bonus Info

Film and photographs of the Endurance expedition.

Well-done tribute site by Nova.

Shackleton narrates the loss of a pony, via the Australian Screen archives.

Shackleton museum.

Shackleton as expert witness on Titanic inquest.

Whisky recovered from Shackleton’s 1907-1909 voyage.

Photo by Frank Hurley, 1915. Public domain. Via the State Library of Queensland and Wikimedia Commons.

Photo by Frank Hurley, 1915. Public domain. Via the State Library of Queensland and Wikimedia Commons.


Heacox, Kim. Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society. 1999.

Hempleman-Adams, David, Sophie Gordon, Emma Stuart, and Alan Donnithorne. The Heart of the Great Unknown: Scott, Shackleton, and Antarctic Photography. NY: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Margot Morell and Stephanie Capparell. Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons From the Great Antarctic Explorer. N.Y.: Viking, 2001. Reviewed by the author of this blog at Library Worklife.

Worsley, F.A. Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure. NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1931, 1999.

[1] Heacox, Kim. Shackleton: The Antarctic Challenge, p. 34

[2] Ibid, p. 185.

[3] Ibid, p. 183.

The Cuckoo Song


Sumer is ycomen in,

Loude sing cuckou!

Groweth seed and bloweth meed,

And springth the wode now.

Sing cuckou!

Ewe bleteth after lamb,

Loweth after calve cow,

Bulloc sterteth, bucke verteth,

Merye sing cuckou!

Cuckou, cuckou,

Wel singest thou cuckou:

Ne swik thou never now!

–Middle English, anonymous

Summer has come in;

The cuckoo sings loudly!

Seeds grow and the meadow blossoms.

The wood springs new.

Sing cuckoo!


The ewe bleats after her lamb.

The cow lows after her calf.

The young bull leaps; the buck darts.

Merrily sings the cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo

Well do you sing,

Never stop singing.

Inexpertly translated by author from notes in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1


For Further Reading

An in-depth discussion on translation/meaning/interpretation (from people who have too much time on their hands, or far more interest and knowledge than I.)

Listen to the sound of a cuckoo.

Cuckoo facts.

Cuckooland Museum, a museum about cuckoo clocks.

Word meanings: Cukoo, cuckold, and kooky.

Note: the cuckoo is like the American red-breast robin, a token of Spring, arriving and singing in the British isles around April.  “Sumer” may as equally refer to Spring as well as Summer, just as in America, summer ‘starts’ on Memorial Day weekend before its official calendar and astronomical date.

Picture credit: From Creative Commons Europeana collection, from a manuscript in the National Library of Netherlands, circa 1350.