Tristan and Iseult

Christian, death, medieval, Poetry

A review by John O’Donoghue of Hand In Hand, Patricia McCarthy, Agenda Editions/London Magazine Editions £10 €12 $14, 96pp.

The legend of Tristan and Iseult has long fascinated poets, writers, artists, and composers. From Wagner to Messiaen, from Daphne du Maurier to Rosemary Sutcliff, from Hollywood – Tony and Ridley Scott – to Bollywood – Subhash Ghai – the doomed lovers continue to inspire retellings and reworkings of the ancient story. The narrative has a simplicity and inevitability to it common to all great legends. For those of us who might be a little hazy on the details, in essence the story is as follows:

The young prince Tristan travels to Ireland after defeating the Irish knight Morholt. He will bring back Iseult for his uncle, King Marc of Cornwall, to marry. They take a love potion along the way, which causes the pair to fall in love. Iseult marries King Marc, but the pair continue their adulterous affair.

Marc eventually discovers his betrayal and seeks to trap the lovers. He obtains proof of their guilt –Tristan is to be hanged and Iseult burnt at the stake. But Tristan escapes on the way to his execution, and rescues Iseult. The lovers escape into the forest of Morrois and take shelter there until they are later discovered by the King. They make peace with him when Tristan agrees to return Iseult and leave the country. Tristan travels to Brittany, where he marries Iseult of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel of Brittany and sister of Kahedin.

Tristan is later wounded by a lance when he gets into a fight with six knights. Tristan sends Kahedin to find Iseult of Ireland, the only person who can heal him. Tristan tells Kahedin to sail back with white sails if Iseult is on board and black sails if she is not. Iseult agrees to sail with Kahedin, but Tristan’s wife, Iseult of the White Hands, lies to Tristan about the colour of the sails. Tristan dies of grief, thinking Iseult has betrayed him, and Iseult dies over his corpse.

There are variations to this basic telling of the tale, but this is if you like the core narrative.

Patricia McCarthy, Editor of Agenda magazine, author to date of seven well-received collections, and winner of the National Poetry Competition 2012, revisits the legend in her new book, Hand In Hand. This handsome volume brandishes its Modernist credentials from its cover image – a painting entitled ‘Trystan Ac Essyllt’ by David Jones –  to its final lines:

Fresh blows the wind

O Irish girl

desolate is the sea –

from swerve of shore

to bend of bay

how far you are away.

Fresh blows the wind

O Irish girl

desolate is the sea –

as a rose and a vine

entwined in Fowey

inseparable you stay.


This is inspired by Eliot’s lines from The Waste Land,  ‘Frish weht der Wind…’, themselves taken from Wagner’s opera. And of course, ‘from swerve of shore/to bend of bay’ is from the opening of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. But the lines above are really McCarthy’s own, an example of the lyricism and intertextuality at play throughout the sequence.

In her Prologue to the book McCarthy writes, ‘This collection… was begun more than four decades ago.’ She goes on to say that she left the manuscript in a desk drawer and hardly glanced at it. A house move and clear-out brought it to her attention again and she worked in new poems, from the perspective of her maturity: King Marc’s role in the story; the predicament of Isolde of the White Hands whom Tristan married when exiled to Brittany, but whom he never made love to; the triangular affair and its dynamics between Tristan and the two Iseults/Isoldes; the bereavement of both when Tristan dies.

Hand In Hand is unusual not only in terms of its protracted creative process, but its Celtic word-world, reminiscent of early Irish poetry – see for instance Heaney’s Sweeney Astray –infused with a contemporary sensibility. Take for example these lines:

... I am discarding

my bogus wedding ring, donating to you

the inner rings of oaks, the outer rings

 of Saturn...

(Isolde of the White Hands Blessing)

The obsessive love of the two principals is conveyed by an early poem in the sequence, ‘Voyage from Wexford to Cornwall’: ‘Mast-bound, I stare at the hold. I have found/in Tristan’s eyes, atolls to explore, coral-bound.’ We see here not just the doomed lovers at the beginning of their affair, but get a glimpse of their end with an echo of Ariel’s Song from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made…

Tristan is ‘coral-bound’ because like Alonso, Ferdinand’s father in Shakespeare’s play he too will suffer a ‘sea-change’ at the end of the sequence, as the switched sails signal Tristan’s doom. This palindromic reversibility is also there at the end of ‘Voyage from Wexford to Cornwall’:

I need turbulence to stay escorted by argosies

of his concern – lost and at home

while I keep faith in the sail patched with foam.

As they said: what cannot be will remain only

to the percussion of gales. Iseult Tristan

Tristan Iseult, man to woman, woman to man.

This is taken from the first section of the sequence, ‘From Swerve of Shore’. There are three further sections, ‘In Unheard-of Keys’,‘Skins of Longings’, ‘Your Top of His Voice’, and the short Epilogue, quoted above. This five-act structure suggests that this can be read as a kind of Shakespearean tragedy, with its echoes of Romeo and Juliet and Anthony and Cleopatra. And I think there’s also something of Lear in this unconventionally rhymed sonnet, voiced for Marc:

Or I could give my wrinkles

to grey wastes of a disturbed sea,

strip an ash’s aged-spotted bark

to the white of her virginal skin;

then, like a grand old uncle,

who, in way would rather not see,

store her beloved soul in the dark.

Strung like a double bass, Tristan

I know gives her harmonies

in his arms and eyes, while my heart

I crumble, then throw it

to the birds. In unheard-of keys,

they might compose, in different parts,

a lyric-less song from it.

(from ‘Marc’s Blindness’)

Here the sonnet’s soliloquy-like tones convey the brooding character of the old king after the young couple’s betrayal has been exposed. Contrast this with the lyricism of Tristan:

Come away, my love.

Speak not a word.

Let us go to a plucking shed,

hidden by the feathers

of ganders and turtle doves.

I will heal you as you

healed me when we sleep

in each other’s arms

down-soft, down-soft,

to the hum of cicadas.  

(Iseult’s Rescue by Tristan)

Note here the confusion of tenses: ‘I will heal you as you/healed me when we sleep/in each other’s arms/down-soft, down-soft.’ Normally, the construction would be ‘when we slept/in each other’s arms’ not ‘when we sleep’, a subtle foregrounding of the eternal present the lovers experience in their intimacy.

But it is perhaps in her characterisation of Isolde of the White Hands that we get something singular, strange, sui generis:

At my weight the bed opens its legs

To woodworm, and down escapes from

Pillows to struggle with moths against

Walls writhing into shapes of impotency.

Here even the silence is a eunuch

whose falsetto voice catches between

my sheets and the darkness falling

untouchable with stains of menstruation.


We might be familiar with love-struck troubabours singing of their chaste and courtly love but here is the other side of the song, a woman in love condemned to a sexless marriage.

It is in the interweaving of voices and approaches that McCarthy shows her subtle abilities as poet and dramatist. For this would make a very fine ‘play for voices’, either staged or broadcast. McCarthy inhabits each character, traces the tragic arc they are doomed to follow, and evokes that early Celtic world superbly.

Hand In Hand, with its publication date of 2022, might look back to 1922 and to Eliot and Joyce, and then further back still to Shakespeare and the early Irish poets and the legend of Tristan and Iseult, but the book stands on its own, not overshadowed by these illustrious forebears, but lit by them, and in turn casts its own ethereal light. It is a haunting and beautiful collection.