Destructive Power of Irish Poets (Robinson, 1912)

1.152-53, 419. Fred Norris Robinson, ‘Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature’ in David Gordon Lyon and George Foot Moore, eds., Studies in the History of Religions: Presented to Crawford Howell Toy by Pupils Colleagues and Friends, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912), pp. 95, 98, 127. BL 4503.k.5

Extracts from Fred Norris Robinson, ‘Satirists and Enchanters in Early Irish Literature’ (1912), on the power of Irish poets to work destruction.

According to the first passage (with which Robinson opens his essay), Elizabethan English writers were aware of the notion that Irish poets were capable of visiting destruction through the power of their verses. In the second, he also refers to the closeness of poets and ‘medicine-men’. In the third passage, he briefly suggests that the belief in the poet’s  power is  still  current.

It would appear from various references in Elizabethan writers that the feature of Irish literature which most impressed Englishmen of the time was the supposed power of Irish poets to work destruction with their verse. Sidney, at the end of his Defense of Poesy, in his parting curse upon the disdainer of the art, will not wish him “the ass’s ears of Midas, nor to be driven by a Poet’s verses, as Bubonax was, to hang himself, nor to be rhymed to death, as is said to be done in Ireland.” Again, in Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft, it is said that Irishmen, speaking of their witches, “will not stick to affirm that they can rhyme either man or beast to death.” And a number of writers refer to the destruction of rats by means of such potent verses. In the Epilogue to Ben Jonson’s Poetaster, the author declares that he will

Rhyme them to death, as they do Irish rats,
In drumming tunes;

And Rosalind, in As You Like It, humorously compares Orlando’s rhymes to those which had released her soul from a lower existence and helped it to achieve its transmigration. “I was never so betrayed,” she declares, “since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.”

In short, it seems impossible in old Celtic literature to draw a line between what is strictly satire and what is not; and one ends by realizing that, for the ancient Celts themselves, the distinction did not exist. Just as their poets were not clearly separable from druids and medicine-men, but often combined in one person the functions of all three, so they freely mingled natural and supernatural processes in the practice of their arts.

. . . it is beyond the compass of the present study to trace the history of satire through Irish literature of the modern period. Suffice it to say, of this later development, that although real satire, as opposed to incantational verse, increases as time goes on, the old conception of the destructive satirist, the poet with superior power, whom it is dangerous to displease, has never disappeared among the Gaels of either Ireland or Scotland.