Aisling: A Vision of Ireland’s Poetry

As I’ve mentioned before, an Aisling is not just the Irish word for ‘dream’, but also a definitive approach to poetry in Ireland, that first surfaced in the late 17th century.


For the history of how it came to be, and how it flourished within Irish culture over the years you can find its story in this month’s gazette, where we examine the conflict, redemption and determination that so define this particular branch of poetry.  


For now, we are simply going to appreciate how the Aisling has acted as a mouthpiece for Ireland’s writers over the years; as each sculpted their words to fit her form – pouring their own dreams into the traditional structure, to create a new vision for the future.


Gile na gile/Brightness of Brightness - Aodhgan Ó Rathaille


We’ll start with one of the most well-known poems from 18th century Ireland, and a renowned example of Aisling poetry from the original master of the form – Aodhgan O'Rathaille.


While thick with the political undertones of Ireland being subjected to the English Penal laws, the passionate vision of O’Rathaille’s verse is worth being examined for its beauty alone. In Seamus Heaney’s gorgeous translation of the original Irish (which he has titled “The Glamoured”, the Aisling’s captivating beauty is admired from the outset:


“Brightening brightness, alone on the road, she appears,

Crystalline crystal and sparkle of blue in green eyes,

Sweetness of sweetness in her unembittered young voice

And a high colour dawning behind the pearl of her face.”


Our eyes are said to be the window into our souls, making the description of a sparkle of blue amongst green a very fitting for the Aisling’s – as a metaphor for the land and sea of the emerald isle herself.


Aisling – Seamus Heaney


As well as revering the work of the Aislingí before him, Seamus Heaney was also known to dabble with the form himself – each time moulding the traditional Irish style into a new form to carry his creative vision.


His poem, simply entitled ‘Aisling’ is a brief yet powerful warning against unwelcome prying into Ireland’s matters; while the inspiration of form dates back to the 17th century, his content stretches even further into antiquity – as he calls upon the stories of the Greek gods.


He courted her
With a decadent sweet art
Like the wind’s vowel
Blowing through the hazels:

‘Are you Diana…?’
And was he Actaeon,
His high lament
The stag’s exhausted belling?"


The mortal hunter Actaeon was said to have peered at Artemis (or Diana) while bathing, and in her fury at his disrespect, the mighty goddess turned her unwelcome spectator into a stag. Her spell transformed the hunter into the hunted, resulting in his eventual demise at the jaws of his own dogs.


I think the message here is clear… despite her beautiful and gentle nature – Ireland is not to be messed with.




Ceo Draiochta / Magic Mist - Eoghán Rua Ó Suilleabháin


Eoghán Rua Ó Suilleabháin was a true connoisseur of the Aisling, with his collected works featuring no fewer than 19 examples of the genre. By far his most celebrated is that of “Ceo Draiochta” or “Magic Mist”, which stunningly exemplifies the loneliness that is so reminiscent of the Aisling style:


“Through the deep night a magic mist led me
like a simpleton roaming the land,
no friends of my bosom beside me,
an outcast in places unknown.”


This state of solitude is often the moment in which the Aisling reveals herself to the narrator, in this instance it appears almost as though he was guided to their meeting by enchantments – bringing a layer of mythology to the piece. I always find this loneliness at the beginning so striking; it gives the poet a chance to reflect on the beauty that surrounds him, and contemplate his inner mind. Dreams don’t come to us when we are surrounded by people, but instead we are most susceptible to Aislingí when we are alone with our thoughts. The loneliness ceases to have sad connotations, as it manifests as an opportunity for an extraordinarily spiritual experience.



Cúirt An Mheán Oíche 


Undercurrents of Irish mythology and the presence of the Tuatha de Danán was a pretty regular occurrence in the original Aislingí, so much so that Brian Merriman has absolutely no trouble twisting it to suit his own comic needs within his satirical “Cúirt An Mheán Oíche” or “Midnight Court”.


The 1000-line masterpiece has been hailed as Ireland’s funniest verse, as a whimsical dreamscape unfolds across the pages – involving a giantess who drags our narrator to a faerie court of law, to discuss matters of the gravest importance. We then have a description of great feminie beauty – not from the poet as he swoons over the majestic aisling, but rather a perturbed young woman, lamenting the Irish men who won’t settle down to marriage: “What is the reason that no one loves me/ And I so lissome, so svelt and so lovely?/ My lips so red are made to be kissed/My face so bright it cannot be missed.”


The poem jests at the expense of Ireland, poetic form, and current affairs – but even the most obvious satire can’t completely dissolve the wonderful imagery in which it resides – “My heart would brighten Loch Graney to spy,/And the country around it, to the edge of the sky./The serried mountains were a delight to the beholder/ Thrusting their heads over each other’s shoulder.


The Song of the Wandering Aengus – W.B Yeats


Of course, we wouldn’t get very far in a collection of poems without mentioning the great William Butler Yeats. You might already have come across “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”, but did you know that it too draws its inspiration from Aisling poetry?


“It had become a glimmering girl

With apple blossom in her hair

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air.”


In this recounting of an adventure in an old man’s past, the aisling is but a brief glimpse – before disappearing before the poets eyes, yet he holds on to the thought of her, pursuing he through the rest of his life. This perhaps is semi-autobiographical in Yeats’ well documented unrequited love for Maude Gonne – an Irish nationalist who he held up on a pedestal above all other women. This notion of the aisling representing Maud Gonne is reversed in his play Cathleen ni Houlihan – his one act play which was based the poetic form, in which Maud Gonne physically played the role of the Aisling.


The poem itself is an exquisite exploration of the beauties of nature, with Yeats’ words pouring the promise of folklore into every crack of Ireland’s breath-taking scenery, a task which is crowned by the inclusion of Aengus – a character of Irish mythology – within his title.


Which of the above examples of Aisling poetry resonates with you the most? Why not delve deeper into this dreamy pool of verse for yourself, and see if you can uncover more visions of Ireland concealed within the stanzas of our writers?