Tuesday 20 March 2018

Poetry: Yeats' favourite inspired by rhythms of Celtic verse

FR Higgins
FR Higgins

Ulick O'Connor

This year is the 120th anniversary of the birth of the Irish poet Frederick Robert Higgins. He was an easy-going, unpretentious man who liked his friends to call him "FR".

Yeats was a huge admirer of his poetry and allotted six pages of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse to Higgins. This was considerably more than the contribution of recognised poets such as WH Auden, TS Eliot, and AE Housman, while Wilfred Owen was excluded altogether.

There were ructions among certain members of the poetic fraternity.

Yeats stuck to his guns, however, and maintained (a little pompously perhaps) that Higgins was special in that his rhythms derived from ancient Celtic verse, and were nowhere else to be found in modern poetry.

Here is a poem by Higgins, 'Father and Son', which I believe bears out much of WB's view of him. It ­provides a wonderful picture of the Irish Protestant psyche and is appropriately written against a background of Higgins's father's life as a farmer.

The landscape of the poem could be painted by Lavery. You can almost hear the wing beat in these marvellous lines

"- only the shadowed

Leaden flight of a heron up the lean air"

Don't you think Yeats was right? Our Fred does have what it takes.

Father and Son

Only last week, walking the hushed fields

Of our most lovely Meath, now thinned by November,

I came to where the road from Laracor leads

To the Boyne river - that seems more lake than river,

Stretched in uneasy light and stript of reeds.

And walking longside an old weir

Of my people's, where nothing stirs - only the shadowed

Leaden flight of a heron up the lean air -

I went unmanly with grief, knowing how my father,

Happy though captive in years, walked last with me there.

Yes, happy in Meath with me for a day

He walked, taking stock of herds hid in their own breathing;

And naming colts, gusty as wind, once steered by his hand,

Lightnings winked in the eyes that were half shy in greeting

Old friends - the wild blades, when he gallivanted the land.

For that proud, wayward man now my heart breaks -

Breaks for that man whose mind was a secret eyrie,

Whose kind hand was sole signet of his race,

Who curbed me, scorned my green ways, yet ­increasingly loved me

Till Death drew its grey blind down his face.

FR Higgins, 1896-1941

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