And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 3. juni 2015

St. Kevin and the blackbird

Today is the feast of St. Kevin, who founded the monastery of Glendalough in County Wicklow, Ireland. He became the monstery's abbot, and he is traditionally believed to have died c.618, allegedly at the age of one hundred and twenty years old. As a founding figure, Abbot Kevin is mostly a mythical figure whose lives - written several centuries after his death - are aimed at strengthening the abbey's territorial claims and privileges. One of the many legends surrounding him tells of how he managed to sustain his monastic community with salmon brought to him by otters.

Another, and perhaps the most famous of the legends surrounding him is how, when he held his arms outstretched in prayer, a blackbird landed in his hands and laid an egg. Kevin remained in the same position until the egg was hatched, so as not to disturb the bird. This story is recorded in Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, and is one of many legends illustrating how the Irish saints control nature. I've written extensively on this in another blogpost.

Kevin and the blackbird
MS Royal 13 B VIII, Gerald of Wales' Topographia Hiberniae, England, c.1196-c.1223
Courtesy of British Library

The story of St Kevin have been rendered in tercets by Seamus Heaney, and for St Kevin's Day, here's the poem in full, courtesy of this website.

St Kevin and the Blackbird

(from The Spirit Level, 1996)
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

Information on St Kevin is taken from David Farmer's Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004.

For similar blogposts, see:

Seamus Heaney's poems for St Brigid

Gerald of Wales on the Irish saints

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