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Poem of the week: A Bird from the West by Dora Sigerson Shorter


In celebration of St Patrick's Day, here is an emotive ballad from one of Ireland's foremost nationalist poets in which an expat longs for her homeland

Born in Dublin in 1866, Dora Sigerson Shorter was a journalist, novelist, sculptor and prolific poet. Like her father, George Sigerson, she was active in the Irish literary revival, and a passionate campaigner for home rule. The emotive lyrics of praise and pity for Kathleen Ni Houlihan, contained in the posthumously published collection The Tricolour: Poems of the Irish Revolution, are thought to have influenced WB Yeats. Sigerson's best-known sculpture is the memorial in Glasnevin Cemetery to the executed leaders of the Easter Rebellion.

This week's poem, A Bird from the West, comes from her 1898 collection The Fairy Changeling and Other Poems. By this time, Sigerson was already an expatriate, living in London with her English husband, the journalist and editor, Clement King Shorter. The narrower political positioning of her later period may channel the nostalgia of the more personal early poems such as A Bird from the West.

Characteristically ballad-like, the poem wraps a blend of realism and fantasy in an incantatory melody rich in alliteration. Sigerson's style is fluid, unforced and graceful. She also has some claims as a nature poet, and there are many glimpses of that ability here. The first stanza presents the observation that sparked the poem, the bird's casually vivid presence, swinging on a high, almost leafless branch, and the mimetic "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" of its song. Sigerson doesn't mention the species of bird, but I fancy it could be the emblematic "Irish Blackbird", which she imagines to have journeyed out of the west to London, as she did.

That "Ireland" bird-call is echoed by the repetitions in the last line of the second verse: "And home and home and home he ever sings". Now mythically transformed, the bird spreads its "pinions" and carries the poet's "soul" home to Ireland. Close-packed internal rhymes ("cried", "ride", "wide") underline the intensity of the yearning.

As in a fairytale quest, the narrative proceeds by repetition. The bird visits each place in turn, never settling but hovering high in the air. Of the four provinces, Ulster, "stern and wild", comes first, followed by Connaught and Munster. The bird then turns north-east to Sigerson's home province, Leinster, where the last, most emotional "Hail and Farewell" is uttered.

On the ground, people the speaker once knew interpret her voice as various natural phenomena: the sounds of waves and trees, intense rainfall, the wind itself. These shifts to different, impersonal points-of-view and voices add depth and pathos to the narrative. The focus being no longer on the poet's personal feelings, the reader gains a fuller sense of the places and people, and of their sad inaccessibility. The exiled "soul" cannot return, or, returning, cannot be recognised.

A grey, autumnal English dawn frames the poem. Again recalling fairytales, the speaker at the end supposes her voyage was a dream. The same bird is swinging on his bough and singing his song of homeland. But the exile's imagination has been reawakened, and the longed-for "island home" is more sharply present to her, and far more spring-like, than her actual surroundings: "Oh! The fair breaking day in Ireland now!"

Sigerson died in early middle age. The claim that the cause of her death was despair following the execution of the rebels is, perhaps, romantic spin. She doesn't need it. Her work is sufficient witness to her love of country and her political engagement. It also merits reading for its broad variety of sympathies and concerns, its technical dexterity, and, not least, its music.

A Bird from the West

At the grey dawn, amongst the falling leaves,
   A little bird outside my window swung,
High on a topmost branch he trilled his song,
   And "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" ever sung.

Take me, I cried, back to my island home;
   Sweet bird, my soul shall ride between thy wings;
For my lone spirit wide his pinions spread,
   And home and home and home he ever sings.

We lingered over Ulster stern and wild.
   I called: "Arise! doth none remember me?"
One turnèd in the darkness murmuring,
   "How loud upon the breakers sobs the sea!"

We rested over Connaught – whispering said:
   "Awake, awake, and welcome! I am here."
One woke and shivered at the morning grey;
   "The trees, I never heard them sigh so drear."

We flew low over Munster. Long I wept:
   "You used to love me, love me once again!"
They spoke from out the shadows wondering;
   "You'd think of tears, so bitter falls the rain."

Long over Leinster lingered we. "Good-bye!
   My best beloved, good-bye for evermore."
Sleepless they tossed and whispered to the dawn;
   "So sad a wind was never heard before."

Was it a dream I dreamt? For yet there swings
   In the grey morn a bird upon the bough,
And "Ireland! Ireland! Ireland!" ever sings.
   Oh! fair the breaking day in Ireland now.

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