Here’s what the séadna poem type is:
The séadna is a type of Irish verse written in quatrains.
The lines have alternating lengths and there are various rules regarding the rhymes and syllable counts of the poem.
Techniques common in Gaelic poetry, such as dunadh (a special type of refrain) and cywddydd (harmony of sound), are typically used.
If you want to learn all about séadna poems, then you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s get right to it!
What Is the Séadna?
The séadna is a type of Irish quatrain with an extensive list of rules regarding syllable counts, rhyme scheme, structure, and technique.
The word Séadna actually just means “passage,” though the simple name doesn’t really fit the complex verse form.
There are also two variants, called Séadna Mor and Séadna Mheadhanach.
Each features some minor tweaks to the original quatrain, but they’re too similar to be considered separate forms.
What Are the Basic Properties of the Séadna?
Rhyme StructureStrictMeterNoneOriginIrelandPopularityRarely used in EnglishThemeVaries
How Is the Séadna Structured?
Each verse of a poem written in Séadna is a quatrain and the poem can comprise any number of quatrains.
This affords the poem more flexibility than the fixed-length poems common in other cultures.
Séadna features alternating syllable counts with an 8-7-8-7 pattern in each verse.
The longer lines end in disyllabic words, while the shorter lines end in monosyllabic words.
Lines two and four have end rhymes.
Rhyme is also used in the middle of lines, a common feature of Gaelic poetry.
It will be easier to show this in a simple diagram, due to the complexity:
Note that “b” in the diagram, specifically, should be a true rhyme. Slant rhymes based on alliteration are acceptable for the rest.
Alliteration is used extensively, in keeping with the traditional “harmony of sound” that Gaelic forms strive for.
Alliteration is expected on every line.
Additionally, the final syllable of line one is expected to alliterate with the first stressed word of line two and the final word of line four is expected to alliterate with the preceding stressed word.
Additionally, the poem usually employs dunadh, a special type of refrain.
In practice, this boils down to starting and ending the poem with the same word.
Note that I say the poem starts and ends with the same word, not the verse.
If the poem is five quatrains, then the initial word doesn’t need to be repeated until the end of the final verse.
This also means that the final quatrain’s end sound for lines two and four will be decided by the first word of the poem, so be careful to choose one that works in rhyme.
A dunadh can be longer than one word, but the requirements of this particular form make it difficult to use a phrase.
If this sounds needlessly complicated, it’s only because it is.
There’s a reason that Gaelic forms are rarely explored in English.
Many of them are equally complicated, putting modern complaints about sonnets being too restrictive to shame.
And we still need to discuss the variants.
Séadna Mheadnach and Séadna Mor
Thankfully the differences aren’t too extreme, compared to the original standards.
Both feature longer end-words.
Instead of one and two-syllable words, these poems utilize two and three-syllable words.
Séadna Mheadnach is literally just a Séadna in which each end-word is one syllable longer.
So there will be two-syllable words wrapping up the even-numbered lines and three-syllable words on the odd lines.
Séadna Mor can roughly be thought of as Séadna Mheadnach, but with the placements of the end lengths flipped.
So now the disyllabic words are odd and the trisyllabic words are even.
Note that the syllable counts of the lines themselves (8-7-8-7) never switch across any of these forms and that the rhyme schemes are still ultimately the same.
Only the lengths of the final words of each line are altered.
What Is an Example of a Séadna?
Sight out a bucket of yellow.
Swallow the soft sleep of night.
Inflate the great sky ‘til mellow.
Dismiss sorrow’s cloudy sight.
I’ll be the first to admit that the above example may be missing an instance or two of alliteration since the structure is so hard to keep track of, but you’ll find that to be rather common in English adaptations of Séadna.
The line between alliteration and rhyme in old Gaelic poetry is also a bit hazier than our modern interpretations of the terms.
Regardless, the example should give you an idea of how the rhythm of the poem will work out.
Gaelic poems make up for their difficulty by producing poems that have a strong musical quality to them, and the Séadna is one of the most impressive examples of that quality.
What Are Tips for Writing a Séadna?
First, make sure you understand that Gaelic poetry as a whole has a high bar for entry.
Ireland has a lengthy and impressive history when it comes to poems, dating back to before the advent of written language.
While this is true of many cultures, this region in particular is notorious for how strict its old forms are.
Also, the forms were originally designed for (no prizes for guessing) Gaelic.
These poem forms were not made with the conventions of the English language in mind, nor with any thought to how these elements might work in another language.
So while the techniques mostly translate well, there is a gap between original Gaelic Séadna and English adaptations of Séadna.
Not that there are many English adaptations, mind you.
This is a form that appears almost exclusively within manuals, archives, and occasional self-imposed challenges.
A form’s popularity is often tied to its ease of access, and this particular form only invites scholars to the table, which has greatly diminished its potential in some ways.
If you accept the challenge, knowing all this, then go in with an understanding that most writers will overlook one or two missed instances of alliteration as long as the poem is clearly making an effort to achieve the desired form.
As for which variant to choose, it would be best to stick with the basic Séadna unless you have a personal obsession with long words.
If your poetry routinely uses advanced vocabulary, then it’s conceivable that you would find one of its variants more comfortable, but for most people, the original will work best.
Even after reading seven different articles describing the form, I’m only mostly confident that I’ve described it correctly.
Calling Séadna “advanced” would be an understatement.
In terms of raw technique, these unassuming little quatrains may very well stand near the top of the poetry world.
It’s just a shame that this difficulty comes at the cost of accessibility.
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