Penguin Classics, £40, 1032pp. £36 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry, Edited by Patrick Crotty

This is a magnificent anthology. Its size alone (over 1000 pages) would make it outstanding, but more to the point is its scope and adventurousness. It achieves what might seem nearly impossible, a balanced view of Irish poetry from the earliest times to the present. It does a great job of sorting out the unsurpassable from the merely passable. It's undaunted by the magnitude of the undertaking. Of course, like all editors of anthologies, Patrick Crotty isn't without a quirk or two, or an idee fixe of his own. These are most apparent, perhaps, when it comes to contemporary poetry and the vexed question of who's in and who isn't. As Crotty acknowledges in his sterling introduction, it's inevitable that "eyebrows will be raised" over this or that choice. I would have dropped some and added others; but every reader, naturally, will have his or her own opinion.

So what do we have? All the formidable poetic virtues, elegance, precision, intricacy, integrity, find an outlet here, from the sixth-century "Lament for Colum Cille" to Derek Mahon's "Courtyards in Delft". We have passages from William Allingham's "Laurence Bloomfield in Ireland" ("The Hamlet clustering on its hill is seen, A score of petty homesteads, dark and mean"), and many gems of the present, including Seamus Heaney's "A Sofa in the Forties".

Some Ulster Scots poems get in - "Donegore Hill", for example, by James Orr - along with those in Irish (translated) and standard English. The Nun of Beare, poems of the Fianna, O Bruadair, Jonathan Swift, O Rathaille, Peadar O Doirnin, Goldsmith, Yeats, Joyce, Louis MacNeice, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, Michael Hartnett, Paul Muldoon...

Although the national story, the historical narrative, is adumbrated through complementary or contradictory verses, and all the plights and obsessions peculiar to the Irish get a showing, the book avoids an unduly nationalist, or any other kind of, bias. It simply keeps in mind the fact that Irish poets have always had something to react to, or inveigh against, whether new ways taking over from the old, an imposed asceticism in the place of abundance, or the terrible consequences of misgovernment.

You should read this book as an extension of, and not a riposte to, good poetry anthologies of the recent past. Crotty pays tribute to a few of these, Thomas Kinsella's and John Montague's among them. He doesn't mention the Penguin Book's most obvious predecessor, Kathleen Hoagland's 1000 Years of Irish Poetry (1947), with which there is, unavoidably, quite a bit of overlap.

Both rely quite heavily on translation, since a good deal of their chosen material was written in Irish. Like Hoagland, Crotty has included all the great 19th- and early 20th-century translators: Samuel Ferguson, James Clarence Mangan, Kuno Meyer, Whitley Stokes. He has a tremendous advantage, in that new versions of old poems have recently become available in all their amazing variety.

It was (for example) an inspired choice on the part of the present editor to have four translations of Brian Merriman's "The Midnight Court" (c.1780) running in tandem: Ciaran Carson's, Seamus Heaney's, Thomas Kinsella's and Frank O'Connor's, all, in their different ways, as vivid and invigorating as the original ("How dare this old dirt-bird discuss womankind,/When a proof of his manhood no woman can find!").

As well as the more formal poetry that exemplifies the trends of successive eras - the high-mindedly Hibernian, austerely Augustan, rumbustiously rural, or whatever - there are sections devoted to songs and ballads of the type that used to be popular in the street or fair. Some have named authors such as WB Yeats, Thomas Davis or Patrick Kavanagh, but most are anonymous ("The Cow Ate the Piper"; "Johnny, I Hardly Knew You").

I am pleased Crotty found space for that epitome of Belfast aplomb, "The Ballad of William Bloat" ("In a mean abode on the Shankill Road,/ Lived a man named William Bloat"). However, I have to point out that this particular contribution is not anonymous (though it reads as if it ought to be). Raymond Calvert wrote it in the early part of the 20th century. Moreover, his words don't entirely correspond to those transcribed by Crotty.

Some other small errors or peculiarities have crept in here and there. For example, Crotty oddly gives the impression he thinks Padraig Colum's "The Poor Girl's Meditation" is an original poem, when it's a word-for-word translation of the Irish, "Ta me 'mo shuidhe o d'eirigh an ghealach areir". Francis Ledwidge's "Lament for Thomas MacDonagh" horrendously changes "But" to "And" in the final quatrain, thereby undermining the whole point of the poem.

One could go on with this kind of nit-picking. But, viewed as a whole, The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry is so rich in its inclusions, so superbly organised, showing such breadth of scholarship and (in general) felicity of judgement that complaint soon dies away, and applause for a great achievement prevails.

Patricia Craig's memoir, 'Asking for Trouble', is published by Blackstaff

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us