Fearghal Duffy: The Scribe in the Woods


There is a beautiful little two-quatrain poem which is found in the margin of a folio in the St. Gall manuscript that in English is often called ‘The Scribe in the Woods’. In this poem we have a scribe who finds or imagines himself to be out-of-doors writing poetry in a forest.

This translation is taken from Gerard Murphy’s collection of medieval Irish poetry, Early Irish Lyrics.

  1. A Hedge of trees overlooks me;

A blackbird’s lay sings to me (an announcement which I shall not conceal);

Above my lined book

the birds’ chanting sings to me.


  1. A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me (goodly utterance)

In a grey cloak from bush fortresses.

The Lord is indeed good to me:

Well do I write beneath a forest of woodland.


When we look at this poem in translation it seems to present a nice simple picture of a scribe sitting out in a forest listening to birds singing and he says that he writes well in his sylvan surroundings. On the surface that seems like a fair interpretation of this poem. I don’t see any other way it can be understood when reading this poem in English. Its meaning seems quite obvious.


But there are always problems when attempting translation from one language into another. Poetry is particularly difficult because a poem can depend on various technical features for producing not only its aural effect but also its meaning.  Quite often the structure of the poem is fundamental to the message in the poem.


Here is the poem in Old Irish:

  1. Do-m:ḟarcai fidbaide fál

          fo-m:chain loíd luin, lúad nad cél.

          huas mo lebrán, ind línech

          Fo-m:chain trírech inna n-én.


  1. Fo-mm:chain coí menn, medair mass,

          hi mbrot glass de dindgaib doss.

          Débrath! no-m:Choimmdiu -coíma,

          Caín:scríbaimm fo roída ross.    


A close reading of this poem, focusing on its technical and metrical features, reveals there to be a lot more going on than we get in the translation. One scholar has noted how this poem has an “almost obsessive concentration on linkages amongst the lines” (Melia 1990: 189).


Stanza 1 Linkages:

1)         Line 1a is linked to line 1b by consonance, with fál and cél.

2)         Line 1a is also linked to line 1d by consonance with fál and én.

3)         Therefore lines 1a and 1b and 1d are all linked by consonance too, fál, cél and én.

4)         Line 1b is linked with line 1d by full rhyme with cél and én.

5)         Line 1b is linked by 1c by shared alliteration, but not continuous alliteration, by the letter l. You have loíd luin, lúad in line 1b and lebrán and línech in line 1c.

6)         Line 1c is linked to line 1d by aicill rhyme, with línech and trírech.

7)         Line 1b is linked to 1d by anaphora there with fo-m:chain.

8)         And even the stanzas are linked together by anaphora, by this repetition of fo-m:chain.


Stanza 2 Linkages:

1)         Line 2a is linked to line 2b by consonance with mass and doss.

2)         Line 2a is linked to line 2d by consonance with mass and ross.

3)         Therefore lines 2a, 2b and 2d are all linked by consonance with mass, doss and ross.

4)         Line 2a is also linked to lines 1b and 1d by anaphora with fo-m:chain.

5)         Line 2b is linked to line 2d by full rhyme, with doss and ross.

6)         Line 2a is linked to line 2b by aicill rhyme, mass and glass.

7)         Line 2c is linked to line 2d by aicill rhyme too, coíma and roída.

You can clearly get a sense of how every line is connected to one another in various ways. And the stanzas are linked too. These features are found in most poetry of this period but this poem goes well beyond the minimum requirement. One might wonder if these poetical features are just ornament for its own sake or if they are just mere accessories to show off the poet’s abilities. In his discussion of this poem Dan Melia thinks there is more to this intricate weaving than mere ornamentation and that its linkages are the key to its interpretation. We’ve seen that the poem has a lot of linkages through its technical features. But there are additional linkages and weaving in the verbal expressions.


The verb which is used as an anaphora in this poem is fo-cain. The Dictionary of Irish Language defines fo-cain as ‘sings under, chants; accompanies, bears a burden (in song or music)’.  Here we have fo-m:chaim. That –m there is an infixed pronoun which indicates that it is the 1sg, the ‘I’ of the poem who is the receiver of this verbal action. The ‘I’ is the person being affected by the singing. Fo-m:chain has just been translated as ‘sings’ in most editions of this poem rather than ‘sings under’. The pre-verbal element fo– is a preposition meaning ‘under, beneath’ so the literal meaning is indeed ‘sings under’. This does not necessarily mean ‘under’ in a physical sense but it can also have the meaning of being at a lower register in the way that the bass is low and thus lies underneath the melody.

The first phrase in the poem is Do-m:ḟarcai.  Again that –m there is a 1sg infixed pronoun.  Do:farcai means ‘looks down on, fences around’ which implies a sense of being ‘above’. In the first two lines of this poem we have meanings of ‘above’ and ‘below’ or ‘over’ and ‘under’. And in the third line we have an independent preposition huas (úas) which means ‘over’ and again in the fourth line we have the verb fo-m:chain – ‘sings under me’. So you have ‘over, under, over, under’ in the first stanza. The ‘thing’ that is over the poet is the hedge or wall of trees, and this of course implies that the scribe is situated ‘under’ them. And obviously the blackbird is in the trees ‘above’ him BUT the blackbird sings ‘under’ him—fo-m:chain lóid luin. So again, we have this weaving sense of ‘over and under’. We are to imagine that the poet is writing this poem under these circumstances. He is involved in the act of composition but he is also a participant in some kind of choir of nature. He is also writing in his book. Again it is ‘over’ his book which his composition is being written into. And in the last line of the fist stanza he says fo-m:chain trírech inna n-én which Melia translates as ‘under-me-sings the trilling of the birds’.  Another comparison which is interesting here is that the blackbird sings a ‘lay’ and the other birds sing a ‘trilling’. There are layers of different melodies going on here with different types of songs intertwining with each other.

Based on these observations Melia offers a more literal translation:

  1. Over-me-looks of-trees hedge

Under-me-sings lay of blackbird, speaking I shall not hide

Above my booklet, the lined-one

Under-me-sings trilling of the birds.


  1. Under-me-sings cuckoo clear, discourse fine

In cloak grey from hill-forts of bushes

God’s doom! X-me-Lord cherishes

Well-I-write under of woods woodland.

Melia’s translation is not exactly poetical but the main thing he wants to get across is the use of these verbs which have a sense of over-and-under, and that there are these high places from which the birds are singing above and over the poet and that he is situated under them. As well as the metrical linkages, and as well as the verbal sense of under and over, you also have locative notions. All the participants in this poem are located in over and under places.  You even have the interweaving of the 1sg –m infixed pronoun in the middle of the compound verb fo:cainfo-m:chain. This is very interesting in itself because it places the poet in the middle of the verbal action of singing.  He is bound up within this harmony.


We know that ‘Celtic art’ is quite often decorated to a very high degree. The art of the early medieval period is characterised by very intricate interlacing patterns that we find on famous artefacts such as the Ardagh chalice and the Tara Brooch,as well as on high crosses and in illuminated manuscripts. But this style of artwork is not just to be found on physical objects. There was also a type of poem called a trebraide which means ‘woven’ and Gerard Murphy has described trebraide as a poem in which “all lines of a stanza are inextricably linked to one another in a pattern of rime or assonance” (Murphy 1961: 35). Based on all these linkages in the poem, these verses are in effect verbal versions of the interlacing Celtic knot-work and artwork we find on the chalices, high crosses and illuminated manuscripts. This poem is like a prayer, which seeks to demonstrate in its structure the divine workings in nature; that the divine is manifest in all creation; that the divine is what they all have in common; that the divine is the thread that binds them all together. And this poem, in its structure, is an imitation of this divine principle. These poems are about more than their content. Their form and structure is an imitation and demonstration of the nature of creation.

chi_rho_cats f49a2cb2d8419079d567b715ebbafea4 kells2sm monasterboiceceltichighcross Tara Brooch

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