In my A-Z Bookish Survey, I mentioned my current project of reading through Kathleen Hoagland’s anthology 1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present (Devin-Adair, 1947). Recently, I read through the book’s selection of Thomas Moore’s poetry, and though I had not heard the name, I discovered I was familiar with some his work. In popular culture, Moore’s most familiar piece is probably “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms,” whose tune appears at the beginning of “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners and is part of a running gag used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts.
However, I found myself more drawn to a different Moore poem, “The Minstrel Boy,” a ballad recounting a young musician’s death in battle. Let’s take a close look at it, shall we?
“The Minstrel Boy”
The minstrel boy to the war is gone,
In the ranks of death you’ll find him,
His father’s sword he has girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him.
“Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Though all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell!—but the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he loved ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said, “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and bravery!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”
First, some context. Born in 1779, Thomas Moore came of age during a period of turmoil in Irish history. He was nineteen-years-old when the Irish Rebellion of 1798 broke out, and was friends with several prominent members of the Society of United Irishmen, such as Robert Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. Moore himself did not take part in the rebellion, instead focusing on his schooling and his literary pursuits.
However, as Kathleen Hoagland notes in the introduction to 1000 Years of Irish Poetry, “It has been the history of literature throughout the ages that in times of social, political, and national upheaval, of war and stress, new creative forces emerge” (p. xliii). Moore was no exception to this supposed trend, and in 1807—in the aftermath of the failed rebellion and the Acts of Union 1800, which brought Ireland into the United Kingdom—he began publishing his Irish Melodies, which, “in one respect at least, lifted the curtain of scorn by which all things native to Ireland were covered” (p. xliv).
“The Minstrel Boy” is one of those Irish Melodies, and it’s difficult not to see the lyrics as a response to the failed rebellion. The title figure calls his country “Land of Song,” which fits rather well with the conceit of Irish Melodies, and his primary instrument is a harp, which had long been a symbol of Ireland and was used in the United Irishmen’s iconography. That the minstrel boy destroys his harp before it falls into enemy hands is tragic, as it signifies a knowing surrender of Irish freedom, yet his final words to it are uplifting: that beautiful music so identified with his country “shall never sound in slavery.” Its return, the poem’s logic seems to imply, will signal the return of Irish liberty.
Granted, there is a metatextual irony here. The success of Moore’s lyrics meant that the music of Ireland, the sort the minstrel boy must mourn the loss of, gained its then-largest audience only after its homeland officially ceased to exist as an independent country. Perhaps we are better off seeing “The Minstrel Boy” as the voice of a subjugated people, rather than the clarion call of a nation. Or perhaps those final lines are not a statement of fact, but of intent—the people will make freedom theirs, and the harp shall be restored.
Beyond its stirring nationalist sentiment, I think “The Minstrel Boys” offers the reader some surprises in terms of form. Specifically, as the poem transitions from the first stanza to the second, it deviates from the established pattern of the ballad in some productive ways.
Now, in everyday usage, “ballad” generally refers to a melodic, slow-tempo song, usually about romantic love. (Back when I was an undergraduate instructor, this was the definition all my students immediately jumped to when I said the word.) However, in the context of literary history, a ballad is a narrative poem set to music, and often uses the structure of common meter: four-line stanzas (quatrains) that rhyme ABXB or ABAB and whose lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. For a concrete example, consider the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s “[Because I could not stop for Death – ]”:
Because | I could | not stop | for Death –
He kind | ly stopped | for me –
The Car | riage held | but just | Ourselves –
And Im | mortal | ity.
In practice, ballads often stray from a strictly iambic rhythm, inserting extra unstressed syllables to give the piece a more galloping beat. However, the number of stresses in each line generally remains constant, which is why “common meter” is often called 4343. The first four lines of “The Minstrel Boy” demonstrate this nicely:
The min | strel boy | to the war | is gone,
In the ranks | of death | you’ll find | him,
His fath | er’s sword | he has gird | ed on,
And his wild | harp slung | behind | him.
Here we see that while Moore includes some anapests and weak endings, the total number of stresses follows that 4343 pattern. The one possible wobble is in line 4, as we would normally want to stress “harp,” but “wild” is easy enough to elide into one syllable, and so “harp” would be demoted to an unstressed syllable between “wild” and “slung.”
But in the second half of that first stanza, the meter gets trickier. Lines 5-6 scan normally, but lines 7-8 get complicated because of the typography. Without the italics, we’d scan those lines like so:
“One sword, | at least, | thy rights | shall guard,
One faith | ful harp | shall praise | thee!”
Indeed, Moore or his editors could have presented the lines with no annotations, and they’d be among the most regular lines in the poem. But the italics used for One at the start of each line require the reader to stress that word, which would bump the stress totals to 5 and 4, respectively. It might be possible, though unnatural, to demote “sword” to unstressed for purposes of scansion, but the polysyllabic “faithful” needs a stressed syllable, so line 8 is definitely overloaded.
I’ve written about this strategic over-stressing of lines before, when I analyzed Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex,” but I think Moore’s poem offers an even more striking example of how it can be used effectively. Right as the speaker pledges his undying support for the cause, the line can no longer contain the emotion, and is instead overwhelmed with feeling.
And then—the come-down. The next stanza leaps, like all good ballads do, to the minstrel’s boys demise, and here the poem deviates from the established pattern in a different way. “The Minstrel fell” gets doubly punctuated, not only with an exclamation point, as might be expected, but also with a dash, which all but severs the line in two. It is the poem’s most dramatic pause, which only highlights the lack of a pause at the end of the line. Line 9 is the only instance of enjambment in “The Minstrel Boy,” the only place where the poem’s syntax overruns its lineation. As it happens, the image right before the line break is “the foeman’s chain,” which “Could not bring his proud soul under.” Forget about the minstrel’s soul—the oppressors can’t even hold down the verse!
What are your thoughts on Moore’s poem? Do you have any suggestions for other classic poems to tinker with? Let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this analysis of “The Minstrel Boy,” you may be interested in some of my other close readings. There’s the Charlotte Smith poem I linked above, or, for a slightly more recent post, a look at Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”