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The Ballad of Father Gilligan -- William Butler Yeats

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #237) The Ballad of Father Gilligan
  The old priest Peter Gilligan
  Was weary night and day
  For half his flock were in their beds
  Or under green sods lay.

  Once, while he nodded in a chair
  At the moth-hour of the eve
  Another poor man sent for him,
  And he began to grieve.

  'I have no rest, nor joy, nor peace,
  For people die and die;
  And after cried he, 'God forgive!
  My body spake not I!'

  He knelt, and leaning on the chair
  He prayed and fell asleep;
  And the moth-hour went from the fields,
  And stars began to peep.

  They slowly into millions grew,
  And leaves shook in the wind
  And God covered the world with shade
  And whispered to mankind.

  Upon the time of sparrow chirp
  When the moths came once more,
  The old priest Peter Gilligan
  Stood upright on the floor.

  'Mavrone, mavrone! The man has died
  While I slept in the chair.'
  He roused his horse out of its sleep
  And rode with little care.

  He rode now as he never rode,
  By rocky lane and fen;
  The sick man's wife opened the door,
  'Father! you come again!'

  'And is the poor man dead?' he cried
  'He died an hour ago.'
  The old priest Peter Gilligan
  In grief swayed to and fro.

  'When you were gone, he turned and died,
  As merry as a bird.'
  The old priest Peter Gilligan
  He knelt him at that word.

  'He Who hath made the night of stars
  For souls who tire and bleed,
  Sent one of this great angels down,
  To help me in my need.

  'He Who is wrapped in purple robes,
  With planets in His care
  Had pity on the least of things
  Asleep upon a chair.'
-- William Butler Yeats
I'm sending this poem as a tribute to my father - and to the ability of
poetry to touch the most unexpected people. My father is a hard headed
Gujrati businessman, understands money, stocks and share, are rarely reads
anything other than The Economic Times. He's not really much interested in
art and literature, and would never think of reading poetry normally. And
yet in school, years and years ago, he learned some poems which he has never
forgotten and which he recalls to this day - not just because they've been
imprinted in his memory, but because in some indefinable way they have
really touched him. The Ballad Of Father Gilligan is one of them, which he
had recited to me ever since I was a child, and with real pleasure in the
words and images. I can remember him saying the lines about the nightfall:
'They slowly into millions grew/And leaves shook in the wind/And God covered
the world with shade/And whispered to mankind.' and saying, "isn't that
wonderful, how he describes stars coming out." (Though he was always vaguely
troubled that in the same stanza, 'wind' doesn't rhyme exactly with
'mankind.') Or from the last stanza, saying, 'He Who is wrapped in purple
robes/With planets in His care,' and repeating the line with reverence:
"With planets in His care" as if  he could almost see this cosmic image.
Whenever anyone tells me that poetry is an elitist taste only, I think of my
father reciting The Ballad Of Father Gilligan.

PS: What I find particularly interesting, is that it was a Gujrati medium
school. It was a really exceptional one, New Era in Bombay, which was
founded and run on very idealistic Gandhian lines at that time. Today of
course, one would be surprised to find the average _English_ medium school
bothering to teach poetry properly, let alone a vernacular medium school.
And the commercial demands of today have made New Era put most of its ideals
aside, and I think its largely English medium today.


Mavrone: (Mo'vrone): Irish Mo bhr•n; my sorrow, alas

I don't think I need say anything major about Yeats since the main details
about him are reasonably well known - romantic, Celtic revival, mysticism,
etc, etc. And I've never felt much attracted to all of it, the mysticism in
particular putting me off. If I thought of Yeats at all, it was more for
Auden's wonderful poem in memoriam. But when I picked up a volume of his
collected verse, I was surprised to find how much of it I seemed to have
absorbed anyway. From the dreamy romanticism of He Spreads Out The Cloths Of
Heaven and When You Are Old And Grey, to the pastoral paradise of Innisfree,
to the contemplativeness of A Prayer For My Daughter, to the calm fatalism
of An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, to the glittering mysticism of
Sailing To Byzantium, a lot of his poetry seemed to have stuck in my mind.
Which makes me wonder whether its worth going back to Yeats to discover
what's there.

One more rather pedantic note: have you ever had the experience of reading
something you have only ever heard before and surprised to find that it
differs a bit? That happened to me when I read this - there are some small
differences in what my father recites and this poem. Perhaps there's another
version he learned, perhaps the differences have crept in over the years. It
doesn't really matter, except one of these changes is interesting because it
shows how even something as small as a space can change meanings. The last
'Asleep upon a chair.' I always heard as 'A sleep upon a chair.' Maybe my
father inserted the pause while reciting it, maybe I did while hearing it,
but it changes the meaning: I always thought 'the least of things' was the
Father's sleep on the chair, which sounds fair enough. But he means
something much more humble - that he was 'the least of things'. Childishly
maybe, I think _my_ father's version is better!


61 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Theresa47474 said...

I love this, I learned it in 4th grade - it was written about the famine,
when many people were dying and the priest was so tired.....

Tom Mc Mullan said...

I love this poem I learned it when I was eleven or twelve years of age. I never knew it was one of Yeats.For years I have been searching for the words.
thank you.

John Bugbee said...

Good stuff. That "this" in line 43 (five up from the end) should be "His,"

nadir said...

I learnt this poem in 5th Grade. I loved it. W.B Yeats is Fantastic.

Mary O'Reilly said...

I can hardly believe it! The Ballad of Fr. Gilligan has always been one of my favourite poems which I learned as a little girl of nine or ten - some fifty or so years ago. Recently, I was trying to recall it for a priest friend of mine. One verse escaped me. How do I find it? I decided on the million to one chance of the Internet - and there it was! Thank you. The biggest surprise: I had no idea it was written by the famous Irish poet W.B. Yeats. John Bugbee is correct: The second to last line of Verse 11 should read 'His' rather than 'this'. Regarding the word 'wind': Poetic license is taken here and the word is said to rhyme with 'mankind'.

Mary O'Reilly..

Marie Fritz said...

I have fond memories of my Dad reciting this beautiful poem to us kids, when I grew up in Ireland sitting around a warm fire on a winters night.
I always loved it, as it was one of my favorite poems, but when I left Ireland I misplaced all those poems. I am so pleased to find the words again.
Go raibh maith agat. (Thank you)

randsconnolly said...

thanks for sharing this wonderful yeats poem with us

frank said...

I learnt this poem in 4th class and have beenlooking for the words for a verylong time.Surprisingly I have asked some priest that I know and they didnt recall ever hearing it. I found it by chance just now. Ilove this poem/ballad


Gilligan James M said...

How could I not relate to this poem? My name is Gilligan, I'm a priest
and missionary, and I'm old; more than 50 years in Maryknoll's mission
in South Korea. God's gentle hand cares for us all especially in
difficult times.

Fr. Jim Gilligan, M.M.

Asif said...

it's a good poem

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Anonymous said...

Its Dumb

Anonymous said...

i wrote dis poem :P

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it's is fantastis and simple poem which tell us simple story....

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