The Spirit of Poetry

From Ireland there is the following in Cormac’s Glossary.The Glossary is ascribed to Cormac, King and Bishop of Cashel who was killed in battle in 908 though the linguistic evidence suggests a later date for the manuscripts that have survived. Some of the glossarial definitions contain apparently gratuitous stories linked with the words defined, and one such is a story about a Chief Bard of Ireland in the seventh century called Senchán. He is embarking from Ireland to the Isle of Man with a retinue of bards when “a foul-faced lad (gillie) called to them from the shore as if he were mad: ‘let me go with you’.” No-one much likes the look of him. He is described as having pus running out of his ears if anyone presses his forehead; as having a ‘congrus craiche’ (translation uncertain) over the crown of his head as if “the layers of his brain had broken through his skull. Rounder than a blackbird’s egg were his two eyes; blacker than death his face; swifter than a fox his glance; yellower than gold the points of his teeth; greener than holly their base; two shins bare, slender; two heels spiky, black-speckled under him. If the rag that was round him were stripped off it would not be hard for it to go on alone unless a stone were put on it, because of the abundance of its lice.” In spite of his appearance Senchán allowed him on board along the steering oar after he asserted that he would be of more use to him than all the other bards in the boat. They make room for him by all moving to the other side nearly causing the boat to capsize and tell Senchán that he has allowed a monster on board, which, it is said, explains why he was named Senchán Torpeist – ‘Senchán to whom a monster (peist) has come’.

When they reach the Isle of Man they are accosted by an old woman poet whose whereabouts have been unknown for some time. She challenges Senchán to a rhyme matching competition but he is unable to match her rhyme so the lad does so instead. She tries again, and again the lad matches her rhyme. They take her back to Ireland with them and then see that the lad is no longer the bedraggled ‘monster’ that he was but “a young hero with golden-yellow hair curlier than the cross-trees of small harps: royal raiment he wore, and his form was the noblest that hath been seen on a human being.” At this point the Irish text changes to Latin for the following two sentences: “He went right-hand-wise round Senchán and his people and then disappeared. It is not, therefore, doubtful that he was the Spirit of Poetry.”
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On the radiance of true poets, it should be noted that the word ‘gillie’, although applied to a young servant, usually in a hunting or similar context, literally means ‘radiant of skin’. Compare this to Taliesin (tal -iesin – radiant brow). There is a discussion of the interaction between dumbness and ugliness on the one hand and fluent speech and great beauty on the other in the following article :

Patrick  Ford
‘The Blind, The Dumb and The Ugly’ :
Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 19  pp 27-40

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