POETS/MEN OF LEARNING (Medieval Ireland)

Poets constitute the most important and prolific literary group of Medieval Ireland. Poets were highly trained professionals of high status and social eminence. An early Irish text lists the three broad types of poetry expected of a poet as white, black, and speckled. The text expounds the classification, white representing praise poetry, such as eulogies, black representing satire, and speckled representing poetry concerning legal issues. As shown by the surviving literature, however, Ireland’s medieval poets were not limited to these three types. Poetic compositions included elegies, legal formulae, ancestral tables, historical recitation, prophetic visions, grammatical tracts, religious verse, and so forth. A poet was much more than simply a composer of verse; he was among other things an historian, a man of letters, a public official, a legal expert, a satirist, and a genealogist. Poets composed in both Irish and Latin. Interestingly, many poems of the medieval period written in Latin, while resembling more closely Latin style and composition, contain manifold examples of idiomatic Irish. While names and dates of individual authors are relatively rare in the early medieval period, the poems of a few well-known poets survive, including Colman, Dallan, Ninine, and Senchan. More is known about the lives and reputations of the later poets, particularly Bardic poets, as authorship is usually given.

Attesting to their preeminent status, poets were the only professionals who retained personal rights and privileges of custom beyond the confines of their territory. Poets traveled freely between borders, even in times of conflict. The auspices for such travel usually included praise poetry for a distant king or lord, or to demand a cross-border claim. Poets were paid highly for their compositions. Compensation for poems usually consisted of a payment or tribute, comprised of various forms including cattle, horses, jewellery, weaponry, and the like. Payment was demanded by the poet himself, a fee determined by his grade or rank, the difficulty of composition, and in all likelihood, the relative wealth of the patron. The threat of satire upon non-payment for a poem seems to have guaranteed prompt payment in full. Satire was a heavy blow to the rank and status of its victim. Short satirical poems survive, sometimes including a patron’s name or family, publicizing paltry and ungenerous payments.

Early traditional accounts specify seven distinct grades of poet, modeled on the seven ecclesiastical grades within the church. The highest grade, that of the ollam or "master poet," was attainable only through bloodline, that is if the poet’s own father and grandfather were also poets. The remaining six grades were hierarchical, demanding longer study and knowledge of proportionately more verse compositions per grade. Poets studied and trained in schools down to the seventeenth century. Standard instruction for a poet lasted seven years, dominated by the study of countless compositional forms, each consisting of different metrical and rhyme schemes. Poetic composition was bound by strict rules of form and content.

The term bard has come to denote any Celtic poet. While the terms poet and bard are often synonymous in modern contexts, an exact and important medieval distinction existed between the two. Until the thirteenth century the poet was distinct from the bard through his professional status and technical training. The bard of this period and earlier was a low ranking poet of modest social rank and skill. Poetic schools of the early period are most closely associated with legal and monastic institutions. In later years such schools became primarily concerned with the study and preservation of Gaelic literature, grammar, and instruction.

Bardic poetry dominates Irish literature from the Anglo-Norman invasion until the late medieval period and is responsible for the vast majority of surviving poetic material. Bardic poetry differs considerably from earlier poetry, most remarkably in its greater length through a characteristically elaborate, embellished style. Interestingly, for nearly half a millennium the lexicon of Bardic poetry remained largely unchanged. Bardic poets composed their poems in a standard, fossilized literary dialect.

Bardic poetry, consisting predominantly of lengthy elegies and praise poems, recorded and immortalized the heroic exploits and largesse of its patrons. These poems were addressed almost exclusively to members of the ruling and educated classes. Bardic poets enjoyed special status within the household of their patrons, status that usually terminated upon the patron’s death. A poet in a favorable relationship with his patron would often write compositions in a role consistent with a lover or spouse. Freedom of travel and an itinerant profession allowed poets to advance from patron to patron. The fall of Gaelic society brought with it the demise of Bardic poetry as professional poets were no longer supported and maintained by their patrons.

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