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Short poem

Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916)

The Yellow Bittern

              1The yellow bittern that never broke out
              2    In a drinking bout, might as well have drunk;
              3His bones are thrown on a naked stone
              4    Where he lived alone like a hermit monk.
              5O yellow bittern! I pity your lot,
              6    Though they say that a sot like myself is curst --
              7I was sober a while, but I'll drink and be wise
              8For I fear I should die in the end of thirst.
              9It's not for the common birds that I'd mourn,
            10    The black-bird, the corn-crake, or the crane,
            11But for the bittern that's shy and apart
            12    And drinks in the marsh from the lone bog-drain.
            13Oh! if I had known you were near your death,
            14    While my breath held out I'd have run to you,
            15Till a splash from the Lake of the Son of the Bird
            16    Your soul would have stirred and waked anew.

            17My darling told me to drink no more
            18    Or my life would be o'er in a little short while;
            19But I told her 'tis drink gives me health and strength
            20    And will lengthen my road by many a mile.
            21You see how the bird of the long smooth neck
            22    Could get his death from the thirst at last --
            23Come, son of my soul, and drain your cup,
            24    You'll get no sup when your life is past.
            25In a wintering island by Constantine's halls
            26    A bittern calls from a wineless place,
            27And tells me that hither he cannot come
            28    Till the summer is here and the sunny days.
            29When he crosses the stream there and wings o'er the sea
            30    Then a fear comes to me he may fail in his flight --
            31Well, the milk and the ale are drunk every drop,
            32    And a dram won't stop our thirst this night.


1] A translation of the 18th-century poem "An Bunán Buí" by Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. MacDonagh writes: "All my translations are very close to the originals. In my version of this poem I have changed nothing for the purpose of elucidation. I have even translated the name of Loch Mhic an Ein, a lake in the North-west of Ireland. Some of the references must be obscure to all but students of Irish literature; I think, however, that the poem does not suffer too much from the difficulty of these." bittern: heron-like marsh bird with a booming cry.
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (A.D. 306-37)

Online text copyright © 2005, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: The Poetical Works of Thomas MacDonagh (Dublin: Talbot, 1916): 65-67. 23697.12.20 Widener Library, Harvard University
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: 2005
Recent editing: 1:2005/2/26

Rhyme: abcbdefeghihjklk

Other poems by Thomas MacDonagh