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.'
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. NOTES: Mavrone: (Mo'vrone): Irish Mo bhrn; 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! Vikram