Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Simms's Celtic Harp

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Simms's Celtic Harp

Article excerpt

William Gilmore Simms was very much aware of his Irish father's background, which included Simms family members in Belfast and Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, where they took a central role in the United Irishmen's attempt for freedom in the Rising of 1798. Both Robert and William Simms, proprietors of the Belfast Northern Star, a United Irish newspaper, were important, active members of the United Irishmen. Robert Simms was, in fact, a founder. The society's insignia was an Irish harp with the motto "It Is New Strung and Will Be Heard." As a result of the Irish freedom movement, Simms family members were seized, jailed, and exiled. The Northern Star offices were burned and the newspaper shut down. Several close Simms family friends, including Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, were executed.

Simms's poem "Song of the Irish Patriot," published in the Southern Literary Gazette of December 1828, commemorates the men who died in the Risings of 1798 and 1803. Here, he honors Robert Emmet, hanged and publicly decapitated in Dublin. It was Emmet's moving speech and poet Thomas Moore's tributes to him in song that were to keep the spirit of Irish freedom alive for future generations. And Simms was very well aware of the fact. The following year, in the Charleston Courier of 21 April 1829, Simms published "Address, Written for the Benefit of the 'Association of the Friends of Ireland in Charleston.'" The poem pays tribute to the Irish immigrants who followed liberty to America and "stood in the cause of man--and perished for the free." Its title reveals that a group of Charlestonians had vowed aid to Ireland.

The poem's first line images liberty's voice as an anthem from a "sacred Harp" to wake the slumbering freeman and break the tyrant's yoke. Simms's depiction of freedom's voice as a harp has special significance. This instrument of the Gaelic bards accompanied all their holy songs--poems that were a primary means of cultural transmission. As in all traditional societies, the Irish people's history and lore were passed orally from generation to generation through song and story. Simms understood that this process is necessary for a people's freedom because that transmission provides a strong sense of who the people are. As such, the harp became the emblem of Irish national identity, even, and most especially, when the English denied her political nationhood.

Understanding its power as emblem, Henry VIII appropriated the symbol of the harp when he made himself King of Ireland and head of the Church of Ireland--now officially Protestant and conforming to the Church of England. His daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, outlawed the harp and decreed that Irish ballads were to be banned and both harps and harpers burned. She clearly understood the power of song and the role the harp played in Irish national identity. The English officials in Ireland made a concerted effort to wipe out the poets as a means of getting at the culture itself.

Beginning with the Norman occupation of Ireland in the twelfth century, and particularly with the English ascendancy, the old and muchhonored Filidh and bards of the land lost their elevated roles as revered men of learning and priestly keepers of the culture, tribal memory, and the people's story. They became little more than wandering entertainers. When they existed at all, their status was little better than beggars'. They relied on the patronage of those who would feed and shelter them in payment for their song. By the 1600s, these patrons had become few and far between. In the words of poet Lord Longfored, their collective voice was "a long drawn out death song of an order, monstrous in its intensity, like a dog howling after its master" (qtd. in Montague 26).

The Gaelic poet Eoghan Rua O'Suillebhain (1745-84) wrote, "Loss of learning brought darkness, weakness, and woe on me and mine. Amid these unrighteous hoardes, oafs have entered the place of the poets and taken the light of the school from everyone" (qtd. …

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