Essay / 15 May 2022

St Columba and the Poetic Imagination

Author of the Week: Ireland

Poetry and Spirituality

St Columcille, or Columba as his fellow monks called him (Columba is the Latin for ‘Dove’), is most famous as the founder of the monastery of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, a spiritual powerhouse that contributed to the evangelisation of Scotland and northern England. During his lifetime (521-597) he gained a reputation as a charismatic holy man, a healer, a political leader, but also as a poet; and in later tradition he became in Ireland’s historical memory the archetype of the exile and the pilgrim. His importance down the ages, and now more than ever, is that he and his reported deeds, and the world he lived in, represent a poetic or mythic imagination that is in danger of being attenuated or even extinguished by the scientific rationalism prevalent in the West. To lose touch with the poetic imagination is to risk losing touch with a vital part of our humanity – the part that connects us to all the arts, for instance, and to what traditionally has been called the soul.

St Columba’s world on sixth-century Iona could be best described by the literary term, ‘magic realism’. It was one in which everything – human beings, animals, and nature – had its place and was subject to divine laws. There was contact with the divine sphere through prayer, prophecy and clairvoyance, visions and dreams, spiritual healing and synchronistic encounters. Angels and demons were real presences who were occasionally glimpsed. It is said Columba himself exorcised a pail of milk in which a demon was residing; he blessed an apple tree, conferring sweetness on the hitherto bitter fruit; he saw clairvoyantly a monk falling from a roof he was thatching and being caught at the last moment by an angel; he was able to conjure water from a rock and thus baptise a pagan Pictish girl; he blessed a stone that was then able to heal people and float in water ‘like an apple’.

Nowadays it is hard to believe that demons lurk in buckets or that spirits inhabit rivers and trees, and the wind is sent by God. Science has demythologised the workings of nature and in doing so has helped to change the general perception of the poetic imagination and its shaping of myths, legends, folklore and poetry – from its status as the bearer of spiritual or symbolic truths to being nothing more than the purveyor of picturesque or whimsical fables.

WB Yeats and the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, however, to name but two voices, believed the diminishing of the poetic or mythic imagination was a cause for concern. For Yeats it showed that we had a lost a capacity for awe; he lamented the fact that people no longer ‘saw in the rainbow the still bent bow of a god thrown down in his negligence …’ Jung went further. He felt that advances in science had ‘dehumanised our world’. and made us feel us isolated in the cosmos and emotionally distant from natural events, which used to have symbolic meaning: ‘Thunder is no longer the voice of a god, nor is lightning his avenging missile … Neither do things speak to [us] nor can [we] speak to things, like stones, springs, plants and animals …’ Deprived of the company of nature, alone in the universe, we can understand Blaise Pascal’s voice, looking at the night sky and exclaiming: ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces [the heavens] terrifies me.’

The life of Columba on Iona, as written by a later Ionan abbot, Adomnán, is a reminder of the spiritual and symbolically resonant world that Yeats and Jung claim we have lost, but which, with the right imagination, is still there, waiting for us to return. Columba himself kindled the fire of this tradition by gaining for himself a name as a poet. Two poems in particular, written in Latin, have been reliably ascribed to him; and it might have been these very same poems that he was said to have taken to heaven when he left this earth. Indeed, such was his reputation as a poet, later anonymous Irish medieval poets ascribed their poems to him. One of the significant themes of these poems is that of exile, a subject that has continued to haunt the Irish poetic tradition to this day.

One of the better known ‘Columban’ poems is this brief, haiku-like quatrain (in the original Old Irish), which gains its force from utter simplicity. It purports to depict Columba facing up to his new reality on Iona:

Fil súil nglais

fégbas Érinn dar a hais;

noco n-aceba íarmo-thá

firu Érenn nách a mná.

This ash-grey

Eye

That sends its gaze

To Ireland

Will never linger

Upon her men

Or women

Again.

(My version)

Another poem describes Columba on Iona reflecting on his homeland and conjuring up its topography, like the landscape of the soul. The attention to nature – swans, elms, blackbird, stags, cuckoos – suggest what is missing from his exile’s life:

Nostos

Robad mellach, a meic mo Dé,

(dingnaib réimenn)

ascnam tar tuinn topur ndílenn

dochum nÉirenn.

Go Mag nÉolairg, sech Beinn Foibne,

tar Loch Febail,

airm i cluinfinn cuibdius cubaid

ac na elaib …

Fúaim na gaíthe frisin leman

ardon-peite,

golgaire in luin léith co n-aite

iar mbéim eite;

Éistecht co moch i rRos Grencha

frisin damraid,

coicetal na cúach don fidbaid

ar brúach śamraid.

Lord, in dream I cross

The vast grey ocean

Rolling through waves and troughs

To sweetest Ireland …

Gliding on Lough Foyle

With swans to serenade me

At last I find my soul

On Mount Binevenagh.

By the abbey of Durrow

The elms are whispering …

And in the startle of a flurry

A blackbird sings.

At dawn in Ross Grencha

I hear the stags; and cuckoos

At the tremble of summer

Blow echoes through the woods.

(My version)

Through his medieval interpreters, Columba became the first example of the ‘exile’ that looms large in Irish poetry and culture. Thomas Moore (1779–1852), for example, who knew from his travels in Bermuda and North America what it was like to be homesick, wrote poems such as ‘The Exile’ and ‘The Dream of Home’ that add lush Romantic lyricism to the sentiment found in the Columba poems:

from ‘The Dream of Home’

Who has not felt how sadly sweet

The dream of home, the dream of home,

Steals o’er the heart, too soon to fleet,

When far o’er sea or land we roam?

Sunlight more soft may o’er us fall,

To greener shores our bark may come;

But far more bright, more dear than all,

That dream of home, that dream of home.

A similar poetic nostalgia was evoked by the 19th-century Kilkenny patriot John Locke, who emigrated to New York, never to return to Ireland. In his well-known poem ‘The Exile’s Return’ he captures the feelings of an Irishman sailing over the Atlantic and finally glimpsing the coastline of Kerry. It includes the lines:

The surges are grandly beating,

And Kerry is pushing her headlands out

To give us the kindly greeting!

Into the shore the sea-birds fly

On pinions that know no drooping,

And out from the cliffs, with welcomes charged,

A million of waves come trooping.

Here the sea-birds, the cliffs and the surge have a direct connection to the setting of Iona and the Columban poems. The year before Locke’s poem was published in 1889, WB Yeats received the inspiration for ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ during his ‘exile’ in London. He said the poem arrived when he was walking down Fleet Street and heard a ‘little tinkle of water’ coming from a shop window. He saw a miniature fountain balancing a little ball on its jet of water and this reminded him of lake water and his home in Sligo. But his poem is more than just a memory of home or pang of nostalgia: the ending of the poem is an assertion that the imagination, once mobilised, is an ever-present reality and consolation:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Yeats’s little shop fountain that stirred such powerful feelings of home can be directly traced back to the great font of the medieval Columban poems and the saint’s reputation as the Irish exile.

As a coda, I’d like to emphasise the importance of Columba, and the poetic vision he embodied, for today’s natural world. We live in a precarious ecological state, with habitats, animal species and indeed the entire planet under threat. The ‘solution’, if there is to be one, lies in our vision and attitude towards our environment. If we see the world around us simply as a vast natural supermarket to be raided as efficiently as possible, then human existence will run its natural course sooner rather than later. To see the earth as merely a commodity is the vision of the rank materialist, or the person who has what William Blake called ‘Single Vision’, that is someone who values a thing by its outward aspect and measurements only and lacks empathy with its inner nature and imaginative possibilities.

St Columba’s vision was the opposite of Single Vision. The earth was not a shopping mall of mineral resources, rain forests and oil wells, but something sacred; nature was numinous, rich in mystery and symbolism. People were not considered to be agglomerations of atoms, blundering around and making the best of chance encounters; but individuals with souls, guided by God. In addition, St Columba’s carbon footprint was probably next to nothing; he travelled on foot or by boat, using wind or muscle power; he ate very little; the qualities he valued were humility and loving kindness. It’s said that the modern Western obsession with consumption, with absorbing more and more stuff, either in the form of material goods or incessant social media, is because we have a void inside us which we try to fill, in vain. St Columba didn’t have that void because his heart was full of gracious love.

It’s hard for us as atheists or agnostics or nominal theists of all denominations to think or feel our way into Columba and his world, even though we may see that his vision of life would help us to extend human existence on earth and more importantly, deepen its quality. Yet it’s not impossible. It is all down to the quality of vision we have. Philip Dixon Hardy (1794–1875), for example, who was an Irish writer and publisher, and a non-Conformist Protestant, embodies one type of vision. In one of his books he rails against certain ‘degrading’ practices prevalent in Ireland, which he claimed were the sources of the ‘irreligion, immorality and vice’ found throughout the land, which are ‘a disgrace to any civilised or Christian people’.

These terrible practices turn out to be nothing more than frequenting holy wells for cures, performing rituals, such as tying rags in token of gratitude on the branches of trees, of participating in patterns and stations, and going on pilgrimage to places like Lough Derg. The sorts of things that St Columba would have practised himself and approved of. Dixon, who describes himself forthrightly in his book as a ‘rational being’, could see a rag tied to a tree only as a dirty piece of cloth. The visible world had nothing to say to him about the invisible one. In contrast to Dixon is Columba and also William Blake, who famously said that ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.’

Blake insisted that our perception is conditioned by our character: ‘As a man is, so he sees … To the eyes of a miser, a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun.’ And our vision affects our actions. The holistic vision of Columba in which everything is sacred and interconnected, from human beings to rocks, trees and rivers, does not lead, to use Dixon’s words, to ‘irreligion, immorality and vice’; nor is it a ‘disgrace to any civilised people’; such a vision – the poetic imagination – on the contrary makes people civilised and opens the heart and mind, thereby making possible the salvation of our fragile world.