In his etymological, as well as exegetical examination of the word “gleeman,” Stephen Kuusisto provides a fascinating account of the legendary Irish blind poet, Michael Moran, whom W.B. Yeats praised as “Ireland” itself. “How is a blind man Ireland?” Kuusisto asks and then answers with this laudatory but accurate explanation: “Freed of nuance or scruple, Moran is almost Shakespeare for whom it may also be said that every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying as was the playwright’s wont.” Kuusisto then quotes Yeats, who imagines Moran’s parents’ ironic envy toward their blind son in this profound surmise: They may well have wished that their quiver were full of such as he, for, free from the interruption of sight, his mind became a perfect echoing chamber, where every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying. By the time he had grown to manhood he was the admitted rector of all the ballad-mongers of the Liberties. The irrefutable implication Kuusisto leaves his reader with, namely the indelible legacy of poetry’s “musical” oral tradition, reminds present-day readers that, despite all the light in well-lit rooms and on computer screens, timeless “echoing chambers” exist “in the dark.”
Conjuring the Last Gleeman
There’s a curious essay by Yeats called “The Last Gleeman” wherein he details the life of a Dublin street poet named Michael Moran. Curious because it shows how one can believe too much in words as remedy where dignity is in short supply and curious because Yeats allows Moran’s blindness to stand for Ireland herself which is a mistake–certainly a poet’s error.
In any event, as a blind poet myself, “The Last Gleeman” has pestered me for years and like all pests I’ve found it’s not without clever inducements.
“Gleemen” is a a medieval neologism for a new brand of itinerant musical beggar. After the Crusades when blind men filled the streets of Paris the performance of disability became a factotum of sufferance. They were thought to glow while singing, hence “glow man” which meant also “joy” man. Many played fiddles. I don’t know if the fiddles glowed. I think the etymology of glee is intriguing:
“Old English gliu, gliw, gleow “entertainment, mirth (usually implying music); jest, play, sport,” also “music” and “mockery,” presumably from a Proto-Germanic *gleujam but absent in other Germanic languages except for the rare Old Norse gly “joy;” probably related to the group of Germanic words in gl- with senses of “shining; smooth; radiant; joyful” (compare glad), from PIE root *ghel- (2) “to shine.” A poetry word in Old English and Middle English, obsolete c. 1500-c. 1700, it somehow found its way back to currency late 18c. In Old English, an entertainer was a gleoman (female gleo-mægden). Glee club (1814) is from the secondary sense of “musical composition for three or more solo voices, unaccompanied, in contrasting movement” (1650s), a form of musical entertainment that flourished 1760-1830.”
See “Online Etymology Dictionary” https://www.etymonline.com/word/glee
It’s intriguing how jest, play and sport enter the picture. Blind street performers–indeed all crippled singers–were irreverent, saucy, flippant, facetious and wholly disrespectful. “Good on them” as we say. They worked on sufferance which in the monarchial world meant that where free speech was impossible they “had it” as we say. Now sufferance is also a fascinating word since it means the absence of disapproval but not true acceptance and in a Latinate sense it has a transferral quality: the beggar does you a service for he becomes your sorrow or rage or joy while performing.
For Yeats Michael Moran was Ireland. (For Yeats there were many Irelands. Moran was transferral Dublin and not the Celtic Twilight.) How is a blind man Ireland?
Yeats tells us how Moran’s parents put him to work shortly after he went blind:
“Michael Moran was born about 1794 off Black Pitts, in the Liberties of Dublin, in Faddle Alley. A fortnight after birth he went stone blind from illness, and became thereby a blessing to his parents, who were soon able to send him to rhyme and beg at street corners and at the bridges over the Liffey. They may well have wished that their quiver were full of such as he, for, free from the interruption of sight, his mind became a perfect echoing chamber, where every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying. By the time he had grown to manhood he was the admitted rector of all the ballad-mongers of the Liberties.”
The “Liberties” is a famed tenement district of Dublin (home to the Guinness brewery) named for its ancient charter–by decree neither city or town–a no man’s land which in metaphor heavy Ireland says everything. Michael Moran stands for free speech on downtrodden free soil.
In Yeats’s telling Moran is “a perfect echoing chamber” who’s a cash cow–can one say an “echoing cash cow?” I suppose. Certainly we can say Moran is charming for Yeats and his readers because he’s not quite a poet. He’s more a vessel into which mad Ireland’s nonce scraps and titillations fall only to emerge as glee. “No rules, just right” says the American TV commercial. Freed of nuance or scruple Moran is almost Shakespeare for whom it may also be said that every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying as was the playwright’s wont.
Let me repeat the phrase “in Yeats’s telling–for in it Moran as blind child is presumptive, conjectural and unproven. When precisely did Moran’s parents wish they’d more blind children? When did they find he’d felicities of expression? How did they point a blind child into unfamiliar and dangerous streets? Did they escort him to the river? Did they retrieve him after dark? Were they rhyme loving story telling people who taught him by example at the fireside before abandoning him without orientation and mobility help? Did he have a mongrel dog who accompanied him? Did the ragamuffins of the Liffey “take him in” as they say? Moran’s blindness is in Yeats’s telling yes, in his telling, pure figuration and he reduces the child and then the man through metonymy–a small cripple standing for something larger. One can only accomplish this by leaving out the particulars of his early life.
Yeats might say that he’s giving the man his due showing us how Moran transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into lurid expression and ribaldry. He writes:
“His humorous rhymes were, however, more often quips and cranks at the expense of his contemporaries. It was his delight, for instance, to remind a certain shoemaker, noted alike for display of wealth and for personal uncleanness, of his inconsiderable origin in a song of which but the first stanza has come down to us:
“At the dirty end of Dirty Lane,
Liv’d a dirty cobbler, Dick Maclane;
His wife was in the old king’s reign
A stout brave orange-woman.
On Essex Bridge she strained her throat,
And six-a-penny was her note.
But Dikey wore a bran-new coat,
He got among the yeomen.
He was a bigot, like his clan,
And in the streets he wildly sang,
O Roly, toly, toly raid, with his old jade.”
Let’s be candid: this is a filthy verse to be sure. Dirty Dick’s wife is a jade–a whore, worn out, no better than a disagreeable horse (for a jade is also a horse). When versifying Moran is wretched Dublin’s gramophone, an occasional creedal blasphemer, famed for telling off-color religious stories, quick on his feet, a satirist of hecklers. Who’s to know however that Moran was born only ten years after the first school for the blind was opened in Paris–that there was no such school in Ireland or anywhere else in the world, that the blind were popularly believed to be illiterate, that Braille had yet to be introduced to Dublin or London or New York?
The Gleeman is inspired as the illiterate voice of poverty, therefore he’s one of Yeats’s Irish dramatis personae and yet knowing little to nothing about his Dublin cripples Yeats must in the end sentimentalize them. Moran died in his filthy rags surrounded by singing urchins and here’s how Yeats ends the matter:
“Moran must have felt strange and out of place in that other kingdom he was entering, perhaps while his friends were drinking in his honour. Let us hope that some kindly middle region was found for him, where he can call dishevelled angels about him…”
Moran, you deserved better on every front. Yeats invented the Ireland he needed at every moment, one that was agreeable to his mood. Amusing cripple! With your bamboo cane strapped to your wrist which you’d thrust and parry in earnest or jest. Hot, expulsive! You, who despite it all loved the Virgin Mary. Who could spit further than the sighted. Yeats kept you out of his ideal community, even in the afterlife. Christ! Some kindly middle region was found for him, with disheveled angels? Moran, you were made to endure the worst of Yeats.
In the streets Moran was called “Zosimas” because he often recited a popular poem by Anthony Coyle, Bishop of Raphoe, about St. Mary of Egypt. Stick with me for a moment. A half revenant blind man tells the story of a wandering harlot who wanders alone in Egypt after, so the legend goes, having seduced most of Palestine. Zosimas hears her confession in the wilds. Mircea Eliade: “Light does not come from light, but from darkness.” “Zosimas of Dublin” told a story two times of darkness. One must credit his listeners who surely understood it. The past could be said to be emotionally present in Moran’s recitations. Eliade again: “Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that … reveals the essence of things.”
Moran was not a shaman but he was closer to the wellsprings of a solitary wandering language than Yeats was. This is disability as epistemology. He shared a fugitive authenticity and joy that Yeats admired but could not fully apprehend. There is no evidence that Yeats ever gave the man a gift. A sentimental elegy doesn’t count. Alas for Yeats and echoing Thoreau, a man sees only what concerns him.