Tuesday 24 April 2018

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Spinning a great ballad

Ulick O'Connor
Ulick O'Connor

Ulick O'Connor

Ninety five years ago, 'The Spinning Wheel', one of the most brilliant ballads in the language, appeared posthumously in The Anthology of Irish Verse. The poem was written by John Francis Waller, a registrar of the High Court, and based on an old Irish air.

It tells the story of a young woman working at her spinning wheel ­accompanied by her blind grandmother. 'The Spinning Wheel' is a perfect blend of words and music in which one seeks to create the other.

Take the first verse, for instance, "Mellow the moonlight" sets the scene. If you read it out loud, it's possible to catch the whir of a spinning wheel. Right through the verses, the word music starts at beginning of each line. To sustain onomatopoeia over a number of verses as Waller has done is some feat.

In fact, I feel that the author has not been well treated in Irish literary history. He left an enormous amount of critical literature behind him, working from Trinity College originally. He had been the first man to really assess Thomas Moore (whose statue, I'm glad to see, was reinstated in Dublin last week) after his death, and put him where he belonged among the champions.

Here are some verses from 'The Spinning Wheel', which show how brilliantly John Francis Waller had absorbed the singing language of the Gaelic poets.


Mellow the moonlight to shine is beginning

Close by the window young Eileen is spinning

Bent o'er the fire her blind grandmother sitting

Is crooning and moaning and drowsily knitting

Merrily, cheerily, noisily, whirring

Swings the wheel, spins the wheel while the foot's stirring

Sprightly and lightly and airily ringing

Sounds the sweet voice of the young maiden singing

There's a form at the casement, the form of her true love

And he whispers with face bent: "I'm waiting for you love"

"Get up on the stool, through the lattice step lightly

And we'll rove in the grove while the moon's shining brightly"

Lazily, easily, swings now the wheel round

Slowly and lowly is heard now the reel's sound

Noiseless and light to the lattice above her

The maid steps, then leaps to the arms of her lover

Slower, and slower, and slower the wheel swings

Lower, and lower, and lower the reel rings

Ere the reel and the wheel stop their spinning and moving

Through the grove the young lovers by moonlight are roving

John Francis Waller 1810-1894

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