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World Poetry Project: The Old Woman of Beare

Updated on November 24, 2013

Some Useful Websites

Blue Roebuck:

Information on symbolic associations of the Lament of the Old Woman of Beare.

Hektoen International:

An interesting analysis of the poem and the figure of the Old Woman, with an explanation of gender-swapping in period Celtic poetry.

Death on the Coast

Talk of Death suits the coast: the liminal world where the ocean devours the land, the edge where the tide charges and retreats. There are human realities which no culture and no time period escape; these appear and reappear, bold or veiled, in the arts, capable of multiple solutions, and of none at all, as they outlast all solutions, awaiting a new man, a new woman, to encounter them anew and feel the full weight of their "discovery". Death, and all that mortality carries in its train--old age, infirmity, illness, loneliness--are among these eternal subjects of poetry, prose, sculpture, painting, and religious ritual. (For it is in the rituals that a religion becomes also an art).

It suits the coast, and so it is at the coast that "The Old Woman of Beare", a 9th century Irish Gaelic poem, begins. For this discussion, I am using the translation by Brendan Kenneally found in World Poetry (see the Text in Use section below).

"The sea crawls from the shore

Leaving there

The despicable weed,

A corpse's hair.

In me,

The desolate withdrawing sea."

At the shore, the Old Woman of Beare speaks, announcing that her beauty has passed, leaving her only the knowledge of how to die and the commitment to do so well.

Death is the unavoidable end of life. To some of us it is both an ending and a gateway, while to others it is simply the End. Before modern medicine, humans had no reason to believe that they could wrench additional time as Death approached, unless by supernatural means. Death was part of a natural cycle that could not be delayed or denied. Today, with the power of modern medicine, death itself strikes many of us as an unnatural occurrence, as a violation of our persons. This difference does not mean that people of the past feared death less than we do, or that they did not question the justice of their demise, but the context of their questioning and their fears were not the same as ours.

Hag's Head, Ireland

Ceann Calli, (Hag's Head), Ireland
Ceann Calli, (Hag's Head), Ireland | Source

The Good Old Days

The Old Woman of Beare compares her former beauty and character to her aged face and figure and to the behavior of the Beauties of today. She is no longer beautiful, but once she was and king's kissed her, were willing to lie to her to gain her flesh, and she does not blame them for these lies, this cunning in seeking the pleasure she could give them. She does, however, blame the women, who look upon her, perhaps for their pity has replaced their envy and now they look upon her as a thing outworn and ugly, denying her the respect even of their hatred. Her body is old, but she is still warm with a seed of life and love, and, unlike the women of today, she loved young men for their strength, courage, and beauty; today women love men only for their money, only for material gain. There is no grace in them, no moment of mutual worship, beauty given and received.

She is old, separated from her beauty and unable to rouse the desire of men, and, anyway, the men are gone, the good men and the great:

"A soldier cries

Pitifully about his plight;

A king fades

Into the shivering night."

All passes away: beauty, love, desire, strength. Bravery is no salvation, nor is cowardice. Love has its own mortality, just as the body has its mortality, and every season ends.

W. B. Yeats

The most famous of Irish poets before the rise of Seamus Heaney.
The most famous of Irish poets before the rise of Seamus Heaney.

For Anne Gregory by W. B. Yeats

'NEVER shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.'

For the full poem, see

And Not for Your Yellow Hair

The woman of Beare does not live in the world of her youth, but is radically separated from it. She is among nuns, in a bare place of prayer and celibacy.

"I drank my fill of wine with kings,

Their eyes fixed on my hair.

Now among the stinking hags

I chew the cud of prayer."

Yeats would also speak of a woman's hair as a focus of male desire and love in "For Anne Gregory".

At the end of her life, the sea brings the old woman the hair of corpses and images of the dead. When she was younger, it brought to her kings:

"Now I near the face of God

And the crab crawls through my blood."

The tide retreats, shrinking the sea. The land is dessicate as her aged flesh:

"Dry as my shrunken thighs,

As the tongue that presses my lips,

As the veins that break through my hands."

The tide comes in and goes out, and life comes and then flees. Life has its high tide, and the Old Woman of Beare remembers its height in her flesh, and recognizes its flight from her. She prays not from an overflow of faith, but from a loss of life, and her time among the nuns is for her a time of waning and loss.

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