This wonderful poem attributed to Finn was
translated by Lady Augusta Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (John Murray, 1904), and is part of the medieval tradition of poetry in praise of spring and summer (in comparison to the harshness of winter). As to the age of the poem, the Fenian Cycle which
relates the deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill dates in written form to the 8th
century. The poem follows a brief account of how Finn received his poetic powers (by accident).
The prophetic, wisdom-giving water of the well of the moon, guarded by three women of the
supernatural Tuatha de Danaan, reminds me of the well or spring of the dwarf Mimir
in Norse mythology, from which Odin drank to obtain wisdom and understanding, giving one of his eyes for the privilege; also to the spring of Urđr (fate), guarded
by the Norns, three maidens whose daily task was to water Yggdrasil the
World-Tree with its pure waters. The accidental splash that gets into young
Finn’s mouth comes in addition to a previous adventure when, roasting the
Salmon of Knowledge for the poet Finegas, he burns his thumb while ‘putting
down a blister that rose on the skin’, and sucks the burn to cool it: ‘from
that time Finn had the knowledge that came from the nuts of the nine hazels of
wisdom that grow beside the well that is below the sea.’ A similar story is
told in the Mabinogion about the Welsh
Whoever wrote the poem clearly knew and loved landscape and nature. We’re there with him (or her), hearing the rustling of the rushes and the song of the cuckoo, the murmur of ‘the sad restless sea’: a paean of joy to ‘May without fault, of beautiful colours.’
There was a well of the
moon belonging to Beag, son of Buan, of the Tuatha de Danaan, and whoever would
drink out of it would get wisdom, and after a second drink he would get the
gift of foretelling. And the three daughters of Beag, son of Buan, had charge
of the well, and they would not part with a vessel of it for anything less than
red gold. And one day Finn chanced to be hunting in the rushes near the well,
and the three women ran to hinder him from coming to it, and one of them, that
had a vessel of the water in her hand, threw it at him to stop him, and a share
of the water went into his mouth. And from that out he had all the knowledge
that the water of that well could give.
And he learned the three ways of poetry; and this is the
poem he made to show he had got his learning well:–
“It is the month of May
is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song,
the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there
is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.
“Summer is lessening the rivers, the swift horses are
looking for the pool; the heath spreads out its long hair, the weak white
bog-down grows. A wildness comes on the heart of the deer; the sad restless sea
“Bees with their little strength carry a load reaped from
the flowers; the cattle go up muddy to the mountains; the ant has a good full
“The harp of the woods is playing music; there is colour on
the hills and a haze on the full lakes, and entire peace upon every sail.
“The corncrake is speaking, a loud-voiced poet; the high
lonely waterfall is singing a welcome to the warm pool, the talking of the
rushes has begun.
“The light swallows are darting; the loudness of music is
around the hill; the fat soft mast is budding; there is grass on the trembling
“The bog is as dark as the feathers of the raven; the cuckoo makes a loud welcome; the speckled salmon is leaping; as strong is the leaping of the swift fighting man.
“The man is gaining; the girl is in her comely growing
power; every wood is without fault from the top to the ground, and every wide
“A flock of birds pitches in the meadow; there are sounds
in the green fields, there is in them a clear rushing stream.
“There is a hot desire on you for the racing of horses;
twisted holly makes a leash for the hound; a bright spear has been shot into
the earth, and flag-flower is golden under it.
“A weak little lasting bird is singing at the top of his voice; the lark is singing clear tidings; May without fault, of beautiful colours.
“I have another story
for you; the ox is lowing, the winter is creeping in, the summer is gone. High
and cold the wind, low the sun, cries are about it; the sea is quarrelling.
“The ferns are reddened and their shape is hidden; the cry of
the wild goose is heard; the cold has caught the wings of the birds; it is the
time of ice-frost, hard, unhappy.”
Horseman: detail from the Book of Kells, circa 800 AD: Trinity College Library MS A. I 58. (Wikimedia Commons)