Percy Shelley’s Irish Poetry

Some poetic inspiration from a sympathetic Irish patriot, Percy Shelley, who said “although an Englishman, I feel for Ireland.” Shelley celebrated St Patrick’s Day in Dublin in 1812, when he travelled there to meet Daniel O’Connell and organize the veterans of the United Irishmen, and wrote most of these poems in that year, excepting the first.

The Irishman’s Song (1809)

The stars may dissolve, and the fountain of light
May sink into ne’er ending chaos and night,
Our mansions must fall, and earth vanish away,
But thy courage O Erin! may never decay.

See! the wide wasting ruin extends all around,
Our ancestors’ dwellings lie sunk on the ground,
Our foes ride in triumph throughout our domains,
And our mightiest heroes lie stretched on the plains.

Ah! dead is the harp which was wont to give pleasure,
Ah! sunk is our sweet country’s rapturous measure,
But the war note is waked, and the clangour of spears,
The dread yell of “Sloghan!” yet sounds in our ears.

Ah! where are the heroes! triumphant in death,
Convulsed they recline on the blood sprinkled heath,
Or the yelling ghosts ride on the blast that sweeps by,
And ‘my countrymen! vengence!” incessantly cry.


On Robert Emmet’s Tomb (1812)

May the tempests of Winter that sweep o’er thy tomb
Disturb not a slumber as sacred as thine;
May the breezes of summer that breathe of perfume
Waft their balmiest dews to so hallowed a shrine.

May the foot of the tyrant, the coward, the slave,
Be palsied with dread where thine ashes repose,
Where that undying shamrock still blooms on thy grave
Which sprung when the dawnlight of Erin arose.

There oft have I marked the grey gravestones among,
Where thy relics distinguished in lowliness lay,
The peasant boy pensively lingering long
And silently weep as he passed away.

And how could he not pause if the blood of his sires
Ever wakened one generous throb in his heart?
How could he inherit a spark of their fires
If tearless and frigid he dared to depart?

Not the scrolls of a court could emblazon thy fame
Like the silence that reigns in the palace of thee,
Like the whispers that pass of thy dearly loved name,
Like the tears of the good, like the groans of the free.

No trump tells thy virtues—the grave where they rest
With thy dust shall remain unpolluted by fame,
Till thy foes, by the world and by fortune caresst
Shall pass like a mist from the light of thy name.

When the storm cloud that lowers o’er the daybeam is gone,
Unchanged, unextinguished its lifespring will shine—
When Erin has ceased with their memory to groan
She will smile thro’ the tears of revival on thine.


The Tombs (1812)
– upon the graves of the executed United Irishmen, St Michan’s Church, Dublin

These are the tombs, O cold and silent Death,
Thy Kingdom and thy subjects here I see.
The record of thy victories
Is graven on every speaking stone
That marks what once was man.

These are the tombs. Am I, who sadly gaze
On the corruption and the skulls around,
To sum the mass of loathsomeness,
And to a mound of mouldering flesh
Say—’though wert human life!’

In thee once throbbed the Patriot’s beating heart,
In thee once lived the Poet’s soaring soul—
The pulse of love, the calm of thought,
Courage and charity and truth
And high devotedness—

All that could sanctify the meanest deeds,
All that might give a manner and a form
To matter’s speechless elements,
To every brute and morbid shape
Of this phantasmal world:

That the high sense which from the stern rebuke
Of Erin’s victim-patriot’s death-soul shone,
When blood and chains defiled the land,
Lives in the torn uprooted heart
His savage murderers burn.

Ah, no! else while these tombs before me stand
My soul would hate the coming of its hour,
Nor would the hopes of life and love
Be mingled with those fears of death
That chill the warmest heart.


Bear Witness, Erin (1812)

Bear witness, Erin! when thine injured isle
Sees summer on its verdant pastures smile,
Its cornfields waving in the winds that sweep
The billowy surface of thy circling deep –
Thou tree whose shadow o’er the Atlantic gave
Peace, wealth and beauty, to its friendly wave
–  its blossoms fade,
And blighted are the leaves that cast its shade,
Whilst the cold hand gathers its scanty fruit
Whose chilliness struck a canker to its root.


The Ocean Rolls Between Us (1812)

O thou Ocean, whose multitudinous billows ever lash Erin’s green isle,
On whose shores this venturous arm would plant the flag of liberty,
Roll on! and with each wave whose echoings die amid thy melancholy silentness
Shall die a moment too – one of those moments which part my friend and me.

I could stand upon thy shores, O Erin, and could count the billows
That, in their unceasing swell dash on thy beach,
And every wave might seem an instrument in Time
The giant’s grasp to burst the barriers of eternity.

Proceed, thou giant, conquering and to conquer,
March on thy lonely way;
The Nations fall beneath thy noiseless footstep –
Pyramids that for milleniums have defied the blast
And laughed at lightnings, thou dost crush to nought.

Yon monarch in his solitary pomp
Is but the fungus of a winter day
That thy light footstep presses into dust.

Though art the conquerer, Time! All things give way before thee,
But the ‘fixed and virtuous will’, the sacred sympathy of soul
Which was when thou wert not, which shall be when thou perishest.


[From, Address to the Irish People (1812)]

…Oh! Ireland, thou emerald of the ocean, whose sons are generous and brave, whose daughters are honorable, and frank, and fair; thou art the isle on whose green shores I have desired to see the standard of liberty erected, a flag of fire, a beacon at which the world shall light the torch of Freedom!

… There is no doubt but the world is going wrong, or rather that it is very capable of being much improved. What I mean by this improvement is, the inducement of a more equal and general diffusion of happiness and liberty. Many people are very rich and many are very poor. Which do you think are happiest? I can tell you that neither are happy, should such a thing as a poor man or a rich one. Being put in an unnatural situation, they can neither of them be happy, so far as their situation is concerned. The poor man is born to obey the rich man, though they both come into the world equally helpless, and equally naked. But the poor man does the rich no service by obeying him — the rich man does the does the poor no good by commanding him. It would be much better if they could be prevailed upon to live equally, like brothers — they would ultimately both be happier.

… Can you conceive, O Irishmen! a happy state of society — conceive men of every way of thinking, living together like brothers. The descendant of the greatest Prince would there, be entitled to no more respect than the son of a peasant. There would be no pomp and no parade, but that which the rich now keep to themselves, would then be distributed among the people. None would be in magnificence, but the superfluities then taken from the rich would be sufficient when spread abroad, to make everyone comfortable. No lover would then be false to his mistress, no mistress would desert her lover. No friend would play false, no rents, no debts, no taxes, no frauds of any kind would disturb the general happiness: good as they would be, wise as they would be, they would be daily getting better and wiser. No beggars would exist, nor any of these wretched women, who are now reduced to a state of the most horrible misery and vice, by men whose wealth makes them villainous and hardened. No thieves or murderers, because poverty would never drive men to take away comforts from another, when he had enough for himself. Vice and misery, pomp and poverty, power and obedience, would then be banished altogether.

… I have said that the rich command, and the poor obey, and that money is only a kind of sign, which shews, that according to government the rich man has a right to command the poor man, or rather that the poor man being urged by having no money to get bread, is forced to work for the rich man, which amounts to the same thing. I have said that I think all this very wrong, and that I wish the whole business was altered. This then, shall be my work; let this be yours, Irishmen. Never shall that glory fail, which I am anxious that you shall deserve. The glory of teaching to a world the first lessons of virtue and wisdom.

… Are you slaves, or are you men? If slaves, then crouch to the rod, and lick the feet of your oppresors, glory in your shame, it will become you if brutes to act according to your nature. But you are men; a real man is free, so far as circumstances will permit him. Then firmly, yet quietly resist. When one cheek is struck, turn the other to the insulting coward. You will be truly brave; you will resist and conquer. The discussion of any subject is a right, that you have brought into the world with your heart and tongue. Resign your heart’s blood, before you part with this inestimable privilege of man. For it is fit that the governed should enquire into the proceedings of Government, which is of no use the moment it is conducted on any other principle but that of safety. You have much to think of. Is war necessary to your happiness and safety? The interests of the poor gain nothing from the wealth or extension of a nation’s boundaries, they gain nothing from glory, a word that has often served as a cloak to the ambition or avarice of statesmen. The barren victories of Spain, gained in behalf of a bigoted and tyrannical Government, are nothing to them. The conquests in India, by which England has gained indeed, but a glory which is not more honorable than that of Buonaparte, are nothing to them. The poor purchase this glory and this wealth, at the expense of their blood, and labor, and happiness, and virtue. They die in battle for this infernal cause. Their labor supplies money and food for carrying it into effect, their happiness is destroyed by the oppression they undergo… The advocates for the happiness and liberty of the great mass of the people, who pay for war with their lives and labor, ought never to cease writing and speaking until nations see as they must feel, the folly of fighting and killing each other in uniform for nothing at all.

… It is horrible that the lower classes must waste their lives and liberty to furnish means for their oppressors to oppress them yet more terribly. It is horrible that the poor must give in taxes what would save them and their families from hunger and cold; it is still more horrible that they should do this to furnish further means of their own abjectness and misery; but what words can express the enormity of the abuse that prevents them from choosing representatives with authority to inquire into the manner in whcih their lives and labor, their happiness and innocense, is expended, and what advantages result from their expenditure which may counterbalance so horrible and monstrous an evil. There is an outcry raised against the amendment; it is called innovation and condemned by many unthinking people who have a good fire and plenty to eat and drink; hard-hearted or thoughtless beings, how many are famishing whilst you deliberate, how many perish to contribute to your pleasures. I hope that there are none such as these native Irishmen, indeed I scarcely believe that there are.

… Adieu, my friends! May every Sun that shines on your green Island see the annihilation of an abuse, and the birth of an Embryon of melioration! … I conclude, with the words of Lafayette, a name endeared by its peerless bearer to every lover of the human race. ‘For a nation to love Liberty, it is sufficient that she knows it; to be free, it is sufficient that she wills it.’

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