Every marking period (usually six months), Creative Writing students have to turn in a series of things we’ve been working on: submissions, responses to readings we’ve been to, a response to a movie we’ve seen, and a literary critique. These are called “Department Requirements.” Although they’re stressful, time consuming, and kind of a lot of work, literary critiques are fun. It’s an unpopular opinion over here in the Creative Writing classroom, where every “Lit Critique Day” is met with a loud wall of moans, but if you get into them, they’re really quite enjoyable. Now, I have to say, I think a large reason they are cool is because THEY DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO BE A CRITIQUE ON SOMETHING LITERARY. Two times out of the six total times we do them a year, a lit critique can be on a song or a movie or anything else, which really, really, really makes the whole thing better. Below is an example on a critique of a favorite song of mine…
On “The Sickbed of Cuchulain”
Written by Shane MacGowan
“The Sickbed of Cuchulainn” marks a point of highest success in Shane MacGowan and the Pogues’ careers, kicking off their second album, “Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash.” (1985.) A song about famed playwright Brendan Behan, who MacGowan compares to Ulster Cycles hero Cuchulainn, it talks of art and creativity in terms of influences and muses. The song differs from other tributes to fellow artists by painting a much darker and bleaker scene to the life of the muse, pounding through a message of hopelessness for the art world and its future. By using grand allusions and a keen sense of rhythm, Shane MacGowan writes the strongest homage to an artist I’ve ever seen.
Being the center and nucleus to the song, I should talk first about the muse: Brendan Francis Aidan Behan. “Sickbed of Culchulainn” is an allusion to many things, but primarily an allusion to the life of Behan and his travels to Germany and around the world. The song reads as a textbook, not in the way that it bores you to death, but in the way that it serves as a historical document about a legend who’s famous downfall into alcoholism left him virtually buried and obscured from the public as an artist, and instead idolized as a drunken, half-witty, Irishman. By using a chronological, document-based-question format, Shane MacGowan lifts Behan from his common state of mockery to his proper seat as one of Ireland’s most profound and influential artists. This specific format rings most clearly in lines such as “When you pissed yourself in Frankfurt and got syph down in Cologne” or “Now you’ll sing a song of liberty for blacks and paks and jocks”, where MacGowan references specific events in chronological order. This format not only pairs with the song’s content in that way, but also matches with the fact that Brendan Behan’s public image was depressing to MacGowan, who in turn wrote this song from the perspective of an Irish artist who’s work had been greatly influenced by Behan. In his autobiography, A Drink With Shane MacGowan, Shane says of Behan, “I was really into Brendan Behan…I think I identified with him because I had a massive drinking problem and because I liked his writing and because he was Irish…he was a writer who really lived, he was in the IRA, he’d been in jail. It appealed to me that he had really been there, that he wasn’t making it up.” Shane’s and therefore the song’s love for the muse is what creates this very unique, historical format.
“Sickbed of Cuchulainn” is really one large conceit, comparing the life and death of Brendan Behan to Cuchulainn, a famous Celtic war hero. Cuchulainn first gained fame as a warrior when he slayed a large and frightening guard hound who guarded a blacksmith named Culann’s house. Later in his teenage years, Cuchulainn fought off Queen Maeve single handedly when she attacked Ulster in the Cattle raid of Cooley (The Hero Deeds of Cuchulainn). The theme of fighting and violence is not only abundant in Brendan Behan’s works but also Shane MacGowan’s, “The Sickebed of Cuchulainn” specifically. Cuchulainn’s most famous quote, “Here am I—no easy task—Holding Ireland’s men at bay. My foot never turned in flight From a single man or ranks of foe.”, captures exactly what Shane MacGowan is painting Behan as: a muse and a cultural rebel. By writing a historical biography as mentioned in paragraph one, and comparing this same biography to the biography of the most famous warrior in Celtic mythology, Shane MacGowan not only paints Brendan Behan as an influential Irish author but also as one of the world’s most profound writers in all of history.
As well as allusions, the song displays many types of rhythms, weaving out of slow, bleak refrains and into fast, violent choruses. The song’s biggest themes are drinking and violence. By writing a chaotic song that at one point hurls a loud tin whistle solo at you, Shane MacGowan captures Behan’s drunken behavior. The song opens on the deathbed of Brendan Behan (compared to the deathbed of Cuchulainn), who’s lying on the bed drunkenly surrounded by devils “with bottles in their hands.” The use of a minor, almost scary melody to recreate this scene works well, especially on lines that mirror the unfriendly, unfamiliar tune of the first refrain, for example, “One more drop of poison and you’ll dream of foreign lands.” Then we see the song suddenly explode into a crash of speeding mandolins and drums and flutes and MacGowan tells us of all the drunken, stupid things Behan has done: “And in the Euston Tavern you screamed it was your shout, but they wouldn’t give you service so you kicked the windows out, they took you out into the street and kicked you in the brains so you walked back in through a bolted door and did it all again.” Using different rhythms, MacGowan recreates Behan’s life of drunken violence.
“The Sickbed of Cuchulainn”, written by Shane MacGowan, uses a historical format, cultural allusions, and differing rhythms to tell the life of MacGowan’s greatest influence: Brendan Behan. By comparing the playwright to the greatest Celtic war hero of all time, Cuchulainn, the song successfully plays homage to one of Ireland’s greatest authors.
Liam Miyar-Mullan, class of 2018