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Poetry Guide: Aisling

The aisling (Irish aislinn), pronounced ashling, or vision poem is a poetic genre that developed during the late 17th and 18th centuries in Irish language poetry. In an aisling, the island of Ireland appears to the poet in a vision in the form of a woman, sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. This female figure is generally referred to in the poems as An Spéirbhean (the sky-woman). She laments the current state of the Irish people and predicts an immanent revival of their fortunes, usually linked to the return of a Stuart pretender to the English throne.

The form developed out of an earlier, non-political genre which was essentially an Irish form of the French reverdie , in which the poet meets a beautiful, supernatural woman who symbolises the spring season, the bounty of nature, and love.

The first and greatest of the aisling poets was Aogán Ó Rathaille. In his hands, the aisling is a powerful mode of political writing. In the 18th century, the form became something of an empty formula and was deprived of much of its force. Towards the end of the century, Brian Merriman used the aisling form in his great comic poem Cúirt An Mheán Óiche.

Aisling is also a girl's first name in Ireland.

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